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San Diego of course has the major tourist destinations of Sea World and the Zoo, but there are many other areas worth a visit.
Downtown San Diego consists of distict districts within the 92101 zip code that are within walking distance of each other: Little Italy, the Core District, the Marina District, the Horton Plaza/Gaslamp District, East Village, and Cortez Hill. Each district has it's own hotels and it's own identity. Although various publications give slightly differing boundaries for each area, highlights are listed for each below.
Little Italy is a colorful district in the northwestern downtown area, centered around India St.,which historically was settled by Italian families working in the tuna fishing industry. You often can hear Italian spoken on the streets. This is a thriving restaurant area, primarily with various styles of Italian food, but with other food styles as well. A number of the restaurants have won various awards over the years. It is well lit at night, and the northern section of Little Italy is an emerging art district with "Kettner Nights" on the second Friday night of alternating months with open galleries, wine and cheese, between 6 and 9 pm. A "do not miss" event is the weekly Little Italy Farmers Market every Saturday between 9:30 am and 1:30 pm, with live entertainment, food and flower vendors, and first-class people (and dog) watching. It takes place on Date St. for several blocks east & west of India St. On the harbor side of Little Italy you wil find a vibrant boardwalk along the bay with the in-water Maritime Museum with historic ships and submarines to visit. La Pensione is one of the hotels in this district.
The Core District is to the south and southeast of Little Italy. It includes San Diego's financial and judicial areas as well as city hall, and several important entertainment venues (Civic Theatre, Sprekles Theatre, House of Blues and Symphony Hall) along with several nice restaurants. One of the trolley lines runs in an east/west direction on C St which, along with Broadway St for cars, busses and pedestrians, are key transportation corridors downtown. Note that cruise ships dock at the west end of the Core District and the Santa Fe Depot train station, the County's rail transport hub, is only two blocks inland from there. In the Santa Fe Station you can also find the downtown branch of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art which also has another building across the street. The Core District is probably the most central of all the downtown districts. This district features several large hotels, including the historic U.S. Grant Hotel, as well as the Westgate, the W, and the Westin. Lower cost options include "500 West" in the old YMCA on Broadway.
The Marina District is south of the Western part of the Core District. It includes, along the harbor, the Midway Museum, which is a retired Navy aircraft carrier reconfigured as a spectacular and educational attraction. The Embassy Hotel is one that is close to the Midway. The surrounding area includes Seaport Village, restaurants, small harborside parks, the Tuna Harbor where small commercial fishing boats dock, as well as marinas for pleasurecraft. Not too far from the Fish Market Restaurant you can find a small bronze sculpture garden showing life size statues recreating a Bob Hope USO show. The San Diego Convention Center, on the border of the Marina and Gaslamp Districts, is currently the home for Comic-Con International as well as other large conventions. Adjacent to the Convention Center are popular hotels the Marriott Marquis and Manchester Grand Hyatt with spectacular views across the harbor. The bar at the top of the Hyatt has one of the most spectacular views in San Diego. Chidren are permitted there until a certain time (check ahead if you have little ones.) The Marina District is also the most "residential" of the downtown districts with a surprisingly quiet atmophere among low rise and high rise condominiums there. The New Childrens Museum and Martin Luther King Promenade are also attractions.
Horton Plaza/Gaslamp District is to the east of the Marina District. Horton Plaza includes the downtown's large, colorful, multi-level shopping plaza. There are often special events going on there, such as the holiday season outdoor skating rink. There is also a muliplex movie theatre as well as the historic Horton Park and Balboa Theatre. The Gaslamp District is the restaurant and night club area that is hopping at night with lots of people, trendy restaurants, and people watching. Most of San Diego's earliest buildings are here and many are well preserved. The Gaslamp is bounded by 4th St to the west and 6th St to the east, going all the way south to the harbor. Any type of restaurant you can think of, it's here. There are only a few hotels here (due to the noise from people partying into the night, many prefer to stay in hotels immediately adjacent to the Gaslamp) but if you are short on cash and don't mind the noise, there is a reasonably priced hostel right in the middle of it all. If you want to be close to the action, there are Marriott and Hilton Hotels in the middle of the Gaslamp. The Westin Gaslamp is really in the Horton Plaza area, but it's at least close by.
East Village's centerpiece is the Petco Park, the Padres' baseball stadium. This area is to the east of the Gaslamp District. There are plenty of restaurants in this area too as well as residential condominiums and large new hotels. The area closest to the harborfront has most of the hotels in this area, including the Hilton Bayside and the Omni. Areas within a few blocks of the harbor are considered more tourist friendly, with those further north (say, north of Market) are considered less tourist friendly.
Cortez Hill is the least likely to be thought of as a tourist destination. It is mostly residential and small businesses, and is on the northeastern border of downtown, with Highway 5 as it's norther border. Immediately north of Cortez Hill and Highway 5 is Balboa Park. Many like to live in Cortez Hill because it is close to downtown proper without being so subject to the noise and traffic of downtown. But parts of the area are under the flightpath to Lindberg Field. If you plan to stay here and walk to downtown attractions, be aware that the "Hill" part of Cortez Hill means you will be returning back in an uphill direction. The primary visual landmark associated with Cortez Hill is the El Cortez, which was downtown's premier hotel and rooftop restaurant "back in the day" with a famous glass walled elevator that was eventually removed. The building was sold to a televangalist, then fell into disrepair, and was saved and turned into a condominium.
Outside of downtown San Diego:
La Mesa is 9 miles east of downtown San Diego. Although wonderful views of the coast can be enjoyed due to La Mesa's higher elevation (some 500 feet), because it is further away from the ocean, it experiences higher inland temperatures. This east county community features a "Back-to-the-50's Car Show" along La Mesa Boulevard on Thursday evenings June through August and a Farmer's Market on Friday afternoons. La Mesa's Oktoberfest, a street fair held at the beginning of each October, is attended by some 200,000 people over 3 nights. Popular recreation areas include Lake Murray, frequented by boaters, cyclists, and skaters and Cowles Mountain for short day hikes and even better views of the coast.
La Jolla is a picturesque seaside area (referred to as the "village" by locals) north of Downtown. Here you will find interesting shops, restaurants, upscale art galleries, posh (as well as affordable) hotels, a world-class art museum and a renown aquarium. The stunning ocean views and shopping district make it a must see during a visit to San Diego. Walk along the path overlooking the ocean at "The Cove" and you will find a series of small cliff enclosed (cove) beaches. One has been taken over by a colony of harbor seals. You can watch them sunning on the shore and playing in the waves. Another cove is a designated underwater park for scuba and snorkeling. There is a grassy shaded park, too. While La Jolla residents tend to be affluent, the community offers many free activities for visitors. These include walking in Torrey Pines State Park (amazing views, short trails), watching hang gliders and paragliders at the Gliderport in La Jolla (more amazing views), and browsing around the Open-Aire (farmers') Market on Girard Avenue from 9am to 1pm every Sunday. Also, it's free to snorkel and swim at The Cove and boogie board, surf, or swim at La Jolla Shores Beach. During the summer, everyone is welcome at free concerts in the park near The Cove. These start at 2pm. BYO blanket or beach chair.
Pacific Beach is of course a beach, but also a neighborhood with restaurants and night spots. The beach is a wide sandy one where you can play volley ball, swim or surf. Take a walk out on the pier for a great view and to try your luck at fishing. Alongside the beach is a cement path where you can walk, jog, bike or skate.There is also an old fashioned wooden roller coaster and mini amusement park just south in Mission Beach. The night life along Garnet Ave. is popular with a younger crowd, mostly students and surfers. Funky shops and a relaxed beach ambience are what you will find in "PB".
Hillcrest is the heart of San Diego's gay community and includes several gay bars and clubs and the San Diego LGBT Community Center. But Hillcrest is not exclusive, everyone is welcome and the communities blend easily. It is an area of eclectic shops and restaurants. From fusion cuisine to the best of ethnic, you can find it in Hillcrest. This is the area to look for used book stores, vintage clothing shops and foreign films. The Landmark Theater on Fifth Ave shows the most current art house films and has a great snack bar. For restaurant diversity you can find everything from French, Italian, Japanese, Vietnamese, Afghani, Jewish deli, Mexican, New American, Thai, wine bars, barbeque, diners, gourmet burgers and fine dining.
Ocean Beach may be the last hold out of aging hippies and some "surfer dudes or dudettes'" but through sincere community activism they have fought hard to keep their local neighborhood atmosphere. It has another wide ,sandy beach with a looong pier to walk out on. Along Newport Ave. you will find great little local cafes, and antique shops. On Wednesday night the street is closed down for a farmer's market. Definitely off the beaten tourist track. Be sure to check out Hodad's, a surfer-themed burger joint.
Point Loma is just a hop, skip, and a jump from Ocean Beach. It features the Cabrillo National Monument and National Cemetary, with gorgeous views of the ocean and also the downtown/Coronado areas. Cabrillo National Monument also has a several mile easy hiking trail along the point with spectacular views.
Mission Bay Park is the largest man-made land/aquatic park in the United States with 26 miles of Shoreline, including 19 miles of Sandy Beaches and 6 miles of wide Boardwalk for jogging/biking/strolling. The Park is located North of Route 8, West of Route 5, within the Pacific Beach and Mission Beach areas. There are two large water areas separated by Crown Point: Sail Bay and Fiesta Bay. Sail Bay is designated for sail boats, wake boards, surf sailing, kayaking, rowing. Fiesta Bay is where the motorized action happens with yachts, boats, Jet Skiis, etc. Rental facilities for any water sport activity are located all around the park. For you Birders, the 40 acre Northern Wildlife Preserve in Fiesta Bay and the 200 acre wetland along the southern border of the Park, is world renowned for thousands of waterfowl, shorebirds and waders. Sea World is located in Mission Bay Park and during the summer has wonderful fireworks displays every night over the Bay. There is a designated Kite Flying area and a Model Boat Pond. Picnic areas, grassy knolls, life guarded beaches, barbecue pits, bathroom/shower facilities are located throughout the park and of course the popular Southern California fire rings (80 in number) are spread along the shoreline for your evening enjoyment. For the more adventuresome Surfers, the Pacific Ocean is one block over from Sail Bay and it has its own 6 mile Boardwalk along its sandy beaches.
Old Town is considered the birthplace of California. The State Park here offers many historical buildings, and a glimpse into the life of early California. The Presidio just up the hill from Old Town proper is a great place to watch Fourth of July fireworks, as many as six fireworks shows at a time. Sea World also has nightly fireworks which can be seen from here. This is a popular area for gift shops and family-oriented restaurants.
Adams Avenue District If you enjoy exploring used book stores, shopping for antique or enjoying a few San Diego craft brews than this is the place. Check out Lestat's for 24-hour coffee and comedy nights once a week (not for the kids).
Del Mar is another beach town north of La Jolla. It offers Del Mar Plaza for distinctive shopping, restaurants and epic ocean views www.delmarplaza.com. Epazotes A Baja Bar & Grill and En Fuego are a couple of 'hot spots'. There's a great beach park for little kids, a grass area and of course, the beach. It's a great beach for surfing too! Street parking is metered and a two hour maximum. There is a parking lot for a fee. Also check out the Torrey Pines beach for a little seaside hiking.
Solana Beach is north of Del Mar and has shops and restaurants too. The most noteworthy shopping is on Cedros- lots of unique furniture, decorative pieces, clothing, etc. There's also a great farmer's market here on Sundays.
Encinitas is north of Solana Beach and includes the communities of Leucadia to the north and Cardiff to the south. The famous Moonlight Beach has a great park for kids, fire pits, life guard stations, restrooms, volleyball nets, and in the summer, concerts and movies! Not too far from thiis beach is another amazing park called Cottonwood park. Moonlight Beach has a huge parking lot too! Downtown Encinitas, on Coast Highway, there are many great restaurants and bars, and a movie theatre that is over 70 years old but still showing movies. Encinitas is a great example of a traditional southern California beach community. There are other beaches in Encinitas that include some well known surf breaks (Swami's) and also the lovely (and free) coastal garden at the Self Realization Temple. Also worth visiting for art lovers is the Luz Center which hosts visiting professional artists (one at a time) who work daily on an art project, and you visit the artist as they create their art. The Encinitas Ranch Golf Course is worth a visit for golfers, with a challenging and beautiful course at reasonable rates.
Carlsbad is the north coastal community north of Encinitas with more beautiful beaches and a downtown tourist area where the emphasis is on the beach and restauants. The community features two well known golf resorts Aviara and La Costa, with beautiful spas, restaurants, and golf courses which have seen professional tournament play. Be aware they are pricy but top notch.
Oceanside. Located in San Diego's north coastal area, Oceanside is the gateway to the county. It is known for its wide, sandy beaches and consistent surf for local and professional surfers. It has undergone a revitalization in the downtown area; boasting local, award-winning restaurants, the California Surf Museum, the Oceanside Museum of Art, the longest wooden pier on the West Coast and the only harbor between Orange County and San Diego. Oceanside is also home to the Mission San Luise Rey, the largest of the California Missions. It's the best value for a San Diego family beach destination.
North Park, nestled between the 163 and 15 highways and north of Balboa Park (hence the name), has gone through a revitalization in the last decade and is now a hot spot for local dining and drinks. It's also home to the famous Controversial Bookstore which boasts everything from gay/lesbian literature to pagan tomes. The main drag is University Avenue where the new Lyric Opera in its new theatre sits across from the ever-popular Claire De Lune coffeeshop.
South Park is a tiny gem located east of Balboa Park but south of North Park. This neighborhood was considered a part of the Golden Hil or North Park area until recently. South Park is a quiet neighborhood with very neighborly appeal. The local bar, The Whistle Stop, has a game night and a knitting night. The main thoroughfare is considered 30th Street and Fern Street but you'll find several independent boutiques and restaurants along the side streets. You'll find The Grove (an eclectic yarn store), M-Theory Music (Indie Music Store) and South Bark Dog Wash (a wash-your-own dog business). Once every quarter, the local businesses stay open late during the South Park Walkabouts. The evening event provide pedestrians great opportunities to explore the great shops, enjoy lively entertainment for absolutely free.
Map showing some cool places to go in San Diego
San Diego Shortlist is a handy online map with some recommended places to go in San Diego. This curated map is not advertising or sponsor supported and the places were chosen by the map's author purely on merit.
You can also view this map as a presentation to get a quick tour of San Diego. As you view the presentation you can zoom and pan the map and click on things to find out what they are. Viewing the presentation requires Microsoft Silverlight and so won't work on iPhone or iPad. Click here to view the presentation.