I'm an east coast girl through and through, having lived most of my life between the New York and Boston areas. That said, like many of my fellow northeast diehards, I've often toyed with the idea of spending time on the west coast, shedding my coats and snowboots and instead embracing flip flops and wetsuits. The only problem? Until recently, I'd never even been to California, and could hardly determine, from the comfort of my New York City apartment, whether it was the place for me.
So, I recently decided to pack my bags and head to San Diego for a long weekend. I took in tips from locals and transplants alike, on a mission to discover the can't-miss sights and experiences of Southern California. Plus, I did quite a bit of exploring myself in order to find hidden gems that you can't find in your run-of-the-mill travel book. Ahead, where to eat, drink, sleep, and explore in the San Diego area, from tourist destinations to shopping to luxurious day-long excursions.
Where to Stay
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San Diego boasts a number of hotels, many of which boast stunning views of the ocean and proximity to the city’s best restaurants, bars, and attractions. But, as a music lover, my favorite spot to stay is undoubtedly Humphreys Half Moon Inn. The expansive hotel boasts a pool, hot tubs, and an incredible restaurant on-site (which serves some of the best ahi tuna I’ve had)—but it’s also a renowned music venue. The venue, located right on the property, has hosted legends such as Lauryn Hill, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, and Stevie Wonder, along with comedians like Adam Sandler and Kathy Griffin. Staying at Humphreys is a great way to see a show and dance the night away– all within mere feet of your hotel room.
Where to Eat and Drink
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While in San Diego, it’s absolutely essential to indulge in seafood at least once, and my favorite place for it is Pescador Fish Market in La Jolla. The laid back spot offers creative daily specials along with staples like classic oysters, spicy ceviche, and flavorful poke. My personal favorites were the shrimp ceviche, lobster salad, and oyster shooters, but I dream of trying every item on the restaurant’s extensive menu.
Another great seafood experience, located right on the water with incomparable views of downtown San Diego, is Bali Hai on Shelter Island. The Polynesian themed eatery has become a San Diego staple since it opened in 1954, serving up an impressive range of fish and meat alike, all of which are thoroughly seasoned and matched with side dishes to die for, such as coconut rice, togarashi fried green beans, and spicy pickled cucumber.
If you’re celebrating a special occasion, I recommend The Remy, a steakhouse that boasts dishes made from 100 percent grass-fed American Wagyu beef. Their Wagyu New York strip is to die for, and their unique drink menu offers up creative cocktail options that made my decision near-impossible.
When it came to drinking in San Diego, my standards were high. Having worked in the alcohol industry, I’m very particular about indulging in premium, ideally locally produced products that enhance my meals above all. Without a doubt, the most impressive place to indulge in a drink (or two) is the Cutwater Tasting Room, which is offers a fun, fascinating tour of the Cutwater distillery, tastings of Cutwater’s most popular concoctions, and a dining room where you can pair your favorite Cutwater drink with anything from a burger to a salad to a plate of pasta. Cutwater not only offers the canned cocktails it’s famous for, but it also boasts an array of whiskeys (my favorite is the Devil’s Share) as well as a signature tequila, mezcal, gin, vodka, rum, and liqueur.
Just down the road is another local brand, Ballast Point Brewing, which serves up so many beers that there truly is something for everyone, from the IPA lover to the pilsner devotee.
For a Night Out
Finally, if you’re in the mood for a night on the town, consider visiting Hillcrest, a neighborhood known for its LGBTQ+ community, rife with bars and restaurants made to be safe spaces for everyone. My favorite place to start the night is Gossip Grill, a well-known patio bar and restaurant founded with women and the queer community in mind. After, I like making my way to Rich’s, a nightclub that hosts drag shows and DJ sets, and whose music is always on point.
What to Do
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Anyone who’s ever been to San Diego will immediately recommend a visit to the San Diego Zoo, which houses exotic animals like cheetahs, red pandas, koalas, monkeys, and more. Plus, the zoo offers an array of dining experiences, whether you’re in the mood for a sit-down meal, a convenient grab-and-go option, or a bar featuring local craft beer gems.
Another great tourist site is Old Town San Diego, which highlights both the Mexican heritage of San Diego and its Wild West-like past. The walkable, immersive historic experience offers restaurants, bars, and a ton of souvenir shopping.
Out of all San Diego tourist sites, my favorite is definitely La Jolla. I chose to spend my birthday at this gorgeous, cliff-lined beach area, which is beloved for its clear blue water and its extensive wildlife. The sea lions, in particular, are popular attractions on this beach—they often sit just feet away from admiring tourists!
If you have an extra day and are looking for a Southern California treat that’s off the beaten path, check out the Yamaava’ Resort & Casino in San Manuel. It’s fully owned by members of the Yuhaaviatam clan of the Maara’yam tribe, whose reservation is adjacent to the resort. The resort itself offers luxurious spa treatments (and accommodations, if you're looking to extend your stay) and features a concert venue that hosts tremendous acts like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Killers, Ed Sheeran, and more. Plus, the owners of the resort use their funds to actively uplift the reservation and local community, contributing sports fields to schools, supporting cultural and environmental conservation, and education.
As both an avid reader and a huge movie buff, I stopped my taxi on the spot when I saw the Loma Theater/Barnes and Noble on Rosecrans Place. The historic theater retains all of its cinematic trimmings, including a retro swirl carpet and neon lights, and book genres, new releases, and other signs are displayed in marquee-inspired fonts. I could have spent all day wandering this enormous bookstore, perusing its long shelves and admiring its San Diego-inspired murals.