San Diego is known for its seemingly endless sunshine and 70 miles of beaches, but there’s more to this vacation-ready locale than the coast. San Diego County spans from the Pacific Ocean through forests and mountains to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Urban centers, tucked-away villages and rural outposts dot the landscapes. Although the city of San Diego ranks as the eighth-largest metropolis in the U.S., it’s surprisingly compact. Stand on the waterfront, and you can see the airport and downtown skyscrapers arrayed around the sparkling blue bay.
In the heart of the city, the 1,200-acre Balboa Park is home to museums, performance venues and cottages that celebrate cultures from around the world. The park also encompasses the San Diego Zoo and its ark-like collection of 3,700 animals that includes rare and endangered pandas, elephants and penguins. These latter dapper denizens get a new home this summer as part of the largest expansion in the zoo’s 100-year history.
San Diego is homeport to the Pacific Fleet. Visitors can learn Naval history and get a glimpse of life on an aircraft carrier—flight deck and all—at the USS Midway Museum in San Diego Bay.
Where to Drink in the City
South-of-the-border flavors are presented with love and pageantry at Bracero Cocina in the Little Italy neighborhood. Traditional ingredients and spicy salsas add zest to stylish dishes that go far beyond tacos and enchiladas. For the best Italiano in Little Italy, head for buzzy Bencotto Italian Kitchen, known for hand-forged pasta and pillowy gnocchi. Several blocks north, two Top Chef alums engage in a perpetual “quick-fire” challenge at abutting eateries. Brian Malarkey’s Herb & Wood leads with refined rusticity—meaty proteins and garden-fresh produce cooked over open flames. In contrast, Richard Blais’s open-kitchen Juniper & Ivy serves high-concept plates like foie-gras cookies and ling-uni (pasta with sea urchin). After dinner, meander into Craft & Commerce and continue through a walk-in fridge to access the speakeasy-like False Idol, a tiki bar with a tropical motif and punchy rum drinks.
Where to Stay
A $13 million renovation, sophisticated service and one of the city’s best cocktail programs have positioned the century-old U.S. Grant Hotel to spend another 100 years at the top of downtown’s lodging list. A close second is the posh, ultra-contemporary Kimpton Solamar Hotel, which features lovely rooms, an open-air bar and pool “oasis.” Jsix, the house restaurant, reflects a Filipino influence. North of the city, Fairmont Grand Del Mar features a Tom Fazio-designed championship golf course, tennis courts and spa. Splurge with dinner at Addison Restaurant, where the wine list covers 3,500 selections, the most extensive roster in the county.
Out On the Coast
What to Do
Theme parks lead the family fun. Carlsbad’s Legoland offers rides, shows, an aquarium, a water park and awe-inspiring structures erected by “master model builders” that will click with fans of the iconic blocks. SeaWorld is revamping its killer-whale show and will transition to a new “Orca Experience” that celebrates the natural behaviors of Shamu and friends.
This educational upgrade is augmented by rides that include the Manta coaster and upcoming Ocean Explorer. A more old-school coaster experience awaits at Mission Beach’s Belmont Park, where you can a stroll down the boardwalk and try your luck at midway games. An annual stop on the PGA tour, Torrey Pines Golf Course flaunts cliff-top views of the Pacific.
Where to Drink on the Coast
With 140 breweries, San Diego County ranks among the world’s top regions for craft beer. “San Diego-style IPA” denotes light, dry beers with intense hop aromatics and flavors, but minus the bitterness. Pizza Port, which has won numerous awards at The Great American Beer Festival, has “portholes” in Ocean Beach, Solana Beach and Carlsbad. The reigning U.S. midsize brewpub champion, Karl Strauss Brewing Company boasts six local brewery-restaurants.
No visit to San Diego is complete without Mexican food. Go for the real deal at Las Cuatro Milpas in Barrio Logan. Enjoy fresh, vibrant fare at either of Puesto’s fast-casual spots, or try a gourmet take on a humble street staple at La Jolla’s Galaxy Taco. An early adopter to the farm-to-table movement, Market Restaurant + Bar in Del Mar delivers a true taste of the region with Asian-accented California cuisine and a sushi bar serving pristine sea fare.
Where to Stay, Beachside
Best bets for beachy boarders include the crimson-spired Hotel Del Coronado. Built in 1888, this iconic seaside resort offers a waterfront restaurant that serves California Coastal haute cuisine, and a wood-fired-pizza-and-wine bar dubbed Eno. In winter, there’s even an outdoor ice rink flanked by palm trees and the Pacific. For more contemporary style, check in at Tower23 Hotel in Pacific Beach. Take in views of bronzed sun-worshippers by day, then head downstairs to JRDN, a cutting-edge bar and grill. Farther north, La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club has spacious suites alongside a private stretch of surf and sand. During high tide, waves crash against the windows of its gourmet restaurant, The Marine Room.
What to Do When you Get Out of Town
Hiking and bike trails abound, with popular options like Mount Woodson, Mission Trails Regional Park and Cowles Mountain. You can also cover some ground at Escondido’s San Diego Zoo Safari Park, where you’ll feel like you’re on the African plains. Families can camp overnight among the wildlife on the park’s “Roar and Snore” package. Other places to pitch one’s tent include the Observatory Campground on Palomar Mountain, and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, where a short hike through cactus and brush leads to a waterfall complete with palm trees.
Where to Drink
The county’s most authentic array of Asian restaurants can be found on Convoy Street in Kearny Mesa. While there, visit Societe Brewing Company for beers that range from hoppy and obsidian to sour. Wide-ranging brew styles can also be found in San Marcos at The Lost Abbey, known for barrel-aged beers and San Diego IPAs. Stone Brewing in Escondido features a castle-like restaurant and sustainably designed, tiered gardens, plus 36 craft and specialty beers on tap. Still thirsty? San Diego’s top distilleries, Cutwater Spirits (from the founders of Ballast Point Spirits) and Malahat (rum in a rustic setting) reside blocks from each other in the Miramar community.
Where to Stay in Southern California
Harrah’s Southern California Resort packs in gaming, eateries, bars, an on-site brewery and an expansive pool area that hosts huge parties in warm weather. By contrast, Rancho Bernardo Inn exudes quiet luxury. It offers relaxing spa experiences and a primo golf course. Get away to the old mining town of Julian with a stay at the adorably old-fashioned Julian Gold Rush Hotel, a national historic landmark built in the 1890s. Also indulge in pies and ciders made from local apples, some of which are transformed at Julian CiderWorks. Perhaps pack away one more local pint, courtesy of Nickel Beer, which is located inside a former jailhouse.