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Our Favorite Places to Eat, Sleep, and Explore in San Diego

From fish tacos to long afternoons on the sand.

<p>f11photo / Getty Images</p>

f11photo / Getty Images

Sun, sand, and seafood—San Diego has the important categories covered. The expectations are high with a nickname like “America's Finest City,” but this Southern California beach destination lives up to its reputation. With more tacos to scarf down than time in the day, choosing where to eat and what to do is no easy feat. So, we’ve rounded up a guide to all the essentials for your San Diego stay.

But before we get into "Daygo," as the locals call it, let’s break down a little background. This SoCal city is known throughout the country for its pristine beaches, full days of vitamin D, and stellar fish tacos (thanks to a shared border with Mexico). Situated 120 miles south of Los Angeles, the city is comprised of dozens of neighborhoods—a few of its most popular include the Gaslamp Quarter, Little Italy, Mission Hills, Pacific Beach, and La Jolla.

As the eighth most populous in the U.S., there’s a never-ending list of things to do and places to go. We’re here to help you narrow it down with our list of San Diego favorites.

Where to stay

From boho-chic vibes to restoration hotels, San Diego has plenty of boutique and brand properties to choose from. Dating back to 1946, The Lafayette Hotel underwent a total overhaul in 2023 and a North Park neighborhood jewel emerged sparkling from underneath the scaffolding. The hotel’s 131 rooms and whimsical design are as striking as they are fun. A bonafide feast for the eyes, it has a rainbow of animal print patterns, brass light fixtures, and crystal chandeliers. And its restaurants make a strong case for a dinner “in”: The Lobby Bar, Beginner’s Diner, and The Gutter—a two-lane bowling alley—are all worth a reservation.

Another design heavy-hitter is Palihotel San Diego. A 2023 newcomer, its 122 rooms are New England preppy meets vintage cool—an ode to the building's 1912 history. Located in the Gaslamp District, there’s no better overnight locale if you’re looking to be in the thick of it all.

For something a bit beachier, Old Hollywood meets Southern Cali chic at La Valencia Hotel. “The Pink Lady,” named after its flamingo-hued exterior, has welcomed guests to La Jolla's shores since 1926. Beach colors and contemporary Mediterranean touches permeate its 114 rooms, suites, and villas. Make sure and visit The Whaling Bar during your stay—the legendary A-lister favorite will reopen in 2024 after an 11-year closure.

Where to eat

Fresh seafood and Mexican-inspired bites in San Diego are as plentiful as its coastline. First things first, let’s delve into the fish tacos. Ralph Rubio, affectionately known as the “Fish Taco King,” is credited with popularizing the dish and claiming to have sold more than 300 million of them at Rubio’s Coastal Grill since 1983. Locals also flock to Oscar’s Mexican Seafood for their super fresh and flavorful smoked fish tacos—and the $2 happy hour deal.

OB Surf Lodge has perfected the casual beachside pitstop. Famed for its brunch and breakfast burrito, the varied menu is made from scratch, using local ingredients, and served alongside ocean views. Another Ocean Beach go-to is La Doña. Combining Guadalajara and Baja California flavors, these Mexican recipes have been passed down through the generations, eventually reaching Chef Gabby Lopez.

Things get fancy at Ambrogio by Acquerello, where Italian and Pacific Asian flavors come together in an eight-course tasting menu with both vegetarian and vegan options. Wine pairings here specialize in biodynamic wines from around the world. If tasting menus aren’y your thing, head to the Michelin-recommended Mabel’s Gone Fishing, where oysters and G&Ts are the perfect pairing. Named after the owner’s dog, this North Park neighborhood favorite serves Spanish small plates using local California produce and Baja oysters by the boatful.

Things to do

Given the postcard-perfect weather, it’s no surprise that “Sun Diego’s” best activities involve the great outdoors. Beach time will always come first. With 70 miles of coastline, choosing which to visit is a tall order. Mission Beach is among the busiest—expect to dodge rollerbladers and joggers along the boardwalk. But its lively atmosphere and gorgeous sand make it a prime spot for stretching out. Once you’ve had enough sun, walk over to Belmont Park and buy a ticket for the historic Giant Dipper Roller Coaster.

For something more low-key, La Jolla Shores is one of the city’s most picturesque beaches. Watch the surfers ride in or grab some snorkel gear and explore the surrounding shallow reefs. For those who prefer a peek of the beach as opposed to an afternoon splashing around, Torrey Pines State Beach is more about the stunning cliff views than the 4.5-mile stretch of sand. A haven for adrenaline junkies, travelers can paraglide or hang glide from its rocky cliffs or walk the trails of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve Park.

Another must during your San Diego trip is a stop at the famous San Diego Zoo. It’s easy to spend a whole day wandering this 100-acre wildlife park inside Balboa Park—another place worth getting lost in. The city’s beloved zoo houses 12,000 animals, including the only platypuses outside of Australia.

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