San Diego Travel Guide
- Aug 31, 2017
- Category: Travel
I recently biked passed a home with a tree blooming vibrant, purple flowers. By a fluke, my dog Monkey jerked to a halt to do her business right in front. So while she did, I soaked in the quiet beauty I pass almost daily yet had never noticed. This moment reminded me I’m surrounded by greatness every day, everywhere in San Diego. It’s my home, and it’s easy to lose sight of how amazing your natural surroundings can be. Fortunately, since I’m a feign for sunshine and biking and surfing, I rarely forget and often pinch myself that this is my reality. Still, like any of us, it’s easy to sometimes overlook things. It’s easy to attach to the idea that we must travel to explore and experience newness. Not true! Sometimes all the inspiration you need is “in your backyard” as they say. And so, because my love for this city is big, I want to share my San Diego travel guide of must-sees if you’re visiting, if you just moved here, or even if you’re a local and want some fresh ideas!
- The San Diego International Airport is most likely into where you’ll fly. Take an Uber into town or rent a car. In certain parts of town, parking is easy, in others parking is expensive and a nightmare–so choose wisely!
- If you’re not flying but instead driving, pay attention to the traffic patterns. Really early or really late is the best time to drive in hopes you avoid backups.
- The Pacific Surfliner runs along the coast, if you’re traveling from Santa Barbara for instance. Great if you want to sit back and relax!
- On 5th Avenue, in the heart of the Gaslamp District in Downtown San Diego, Cafe 21 is everything you want a restaurant to be: upscale, approachable, delicious. You get the downtown vibe without the chaos. The interior design is of what dreams are made. The service is up there on my list of best. The owners, from Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea, have delivered worldly flavors to their guests’ tables for over a decade. A melting pot of sorts for international cuisines, those who work at their two locations—in Gaslamp and University Heights—have inspired many of the dishes on the menu. Committed to sourcing the best ingredients, Cafe 21 partners with Tom King Farms for organic produce and Hamilton Meats & Provisions for antibiotic-free and hormone-free meat. Europeans at heart, everything (of course!) is made in house, from scratch. We absolutely loved the food!
- Mixed Fries: Rice-flour battered eggplant, zucchini, and portobello mushrooms with avocado dip (pictured above)
- Vegetable Cabbage Rolls: Rice and veggies wrapped in cabbage—one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long time!
- Whole Grilled Sea Bass: Beautifully prepared, but note that it’s an entire fish, bones and all, so be ready to eat cautiously.
- Pulse Salad: A mix of veggies and beans in a vinaigrette. Simple yet perfect! This ties with the cabbage rolls. My friend and I were obsessed. One of the best salads I’ve ever eaten.
- No-Flour Chocolate Cake: You know it’s fresh when they take 15 minutes to bake it when ordered!
- Encinitas, a coastal town in North Country, seems to attract professionals and families on paths to self-betterment. This intention aligns with Eve, a vegan restaurant off Highway 101. It’s a safe space for people to gather and feel nourished, both with food and good vibes. In addition to the restaurant, they host over 70 events a month—speakers, conferences, bazaars. Their food—amazing! The tastes were sophisticated, leaving even a meat eater satisfied.
- Legendary Hero: A bowl of goodness! The brown rice and veggies doused in tahini dressing made my body so happy!
- Havana Affair: This bowl is all about the Cuban flavors, mixing mojo sauce and coconut-cilantro-lime brown rice, quinoa, yams, Cuban pickled slaw, and more. So delicious and dense.
- Strawberry Fields: A huge serving of greens, fennel, roasted brussels sprouts, and of course strawberries mixed in pumpkin mint dressing. So fresh!
- New to University Heights (as of Summer 2017), Hundred Proof is what you want a neighborhood bar to be: relaxed yet refined. The staff are friendly, the drink list is extensive, the food is rich and savory, the seats are comfy. It’s essentially a dive bar without the grim. We loved the space, airy and open enough to vibe with others yet dark enough to feel intimate if on a date. Note that their food menu is definitely catered to the meat and cheese lover, so if that’s your jam, this is the place for you!
- Shroom Pizza: Topped with wild mushrooms, garlic cloves, and ricotto, the pizza smelled delicious! I taste a mushroom and the garlic and my mouth exploded with happiness!
- Truffle Mushroom Mac ‘N’ Cheese: A creamy concoction of what your mom made but more gourmet with bone marrow in the middle.
- Hand-Cut Fries: Because I can never say no to fries! They were tasty! (For other vegan-friendly options, check out their beet hummus and Shishito peppers!)
- Trilogy Sanctuary is a rooftop oasis for health-seekers wanting to come together for food, fitness, and fun. Overlooking La Jolla and the Pacific Ocean, the venue is inviting. The outdoor patio is set up for aerial yoga and live music, and the inside space is where customers line up to order savory, nutritiously dense, plant-based foods. The sense of community at Trilogy is strong, a gathering of all walks of life, all sharing one common intention: self-growth and acceptance, trying to heal, as they say, “from the inside out.” The dishes—many traditionally non-vegan dishes—are creatively prepared using meat and dairy substitutes, such as cashew cheese. As you stand in line to order, your mouth will literally water as you read through the menu and stare at the food sent out to tables. Everything looks so delicious choosing one or two dishes is merely impossible. Therefore I recommend either coming with a large group so you can taste test the entire menu or returning a few times!
- Mediterranean Spaghetti Squash: This dish combined some of my favorites—pesto, portobello mushrooms, spaghetti squash—to mimic a hearty pasta dish without the heaviness yet still very rich in flavor.
- Enchiladas: Tortillas filled with fajita veggies over a bed of Mexican rice. So delicious! Particularly loved the mole sauce! (pictured above)
- Raw Brownie Sundae: Typically, I avoid desserts because of my milk allergy and the excessive amount of added preservatives, but this deliciousness is dairy free with simple, natural ingredients. If you’re a chocolate lover, leave room for this!
True Food Kitchen
- Whoever claims healthy food can’t be delicious has never been to True Food Kitchen. Based off the Dr. Weil’s anti-inflammatory food pyramid, their dishes are carefully crafted and only use “real” food—vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, meats, fish. None of the extras that often wreck havoc on our bodies. As their table pamphlet states, “They believe in simple dishes that minimize sugar, emphasize whole grain and lean meat, and never sacrifice taste.” Toting T-shirts that proclaim, “HONEST”, “TRUE”, and “FRESH”, the wait staff exude the energy you’d associate with those who live a healthy lifestyle. Eager to help and educate, we felt extremely pampered. Don’t let your assumptions get the best of you; True Food Kitchen serves up meat and fish dishes, satisfying all dietary preferences and restrictions. Head over to their Mission Valley location (where we ate) or this Fall (November 2017), check out their brand new spot in UTC at the Westfield Mall!
- Torched Avocado: A mix of cucumber noodles, other veggies, and literally a torched avocado, this dish is on point!
- Ancient Grains: A colorful mix of grains (brown rice, quinoa, and barley) as well as roasted veggies (portobello mushrooms, sweet potatoes, snow peas, onions), accompanied with hemp seed sauce. So good!
- Grilled Fish Tacos: Your standard tacos with the works, including avocado, cilantro, and pickled onion!
- Flourless Chocolate Cake: With a scoop of vegan vanilla ice cream on top! I was too stuffed to try this, but it looked tasty!
- Local Mixed Beet: One of the tastiest, satisfying salads I’ve ever eaten! The dressing is exactly what you want salad dressing to be. And the portion is big!
- Habanero Mango BBQ Ribs: My friend (my meat-tester) devoured these! Though I’m not a meat eater, I could tell the ribs are super tender!
- Roasted Rosemary Potatoes: Hands down the best roasted potatoes I’ve ever eaten in my life. The end. You MUST get these!
- Roasted Brussel Sprouts with Turkey Bacon: My friend kept trying to convince me to try them. He loved ’em!
- Macaroni and Cheese: This dish is as it should be–simple and classic, just as my friend likes it. (I’m allergic to milk so I avoided this one.)
- Kelp Noodles with Tamari and Ginger: I could eat this dish every day. It is light and original with lots of fresh veggies!
- Rainbow Carrots & Golden Beets: Roasted to perfection, these are ideal for the non-veggie lover because they taste so good.
- Curry Tofu & Vegetable Soup: Having lived in Thailand and fallen in love with green curry , Urban Plates had me wanting more.
- Sweet Potato Red Curry Soup: Smooth and creamy, it really is the perfect fall soup.
- Chocolate Vanilla Layer Cake, Flourless Chocolate Cake, AND Chocolate Pudding: Obsessed with chocolate, my friend couldn’t get enough of all three of the desserts he ordered. He took home the leftovers and savored them over the next couple days.
Let’s just say we were very stuffed when we left! If you’re anywhere near one of Urban Plates’ 12 locations, definitely stop in for a meal!
Viewpoint Brewing Co.
- Opened in June 2017, Viewpoint Brewing Co. has quickly become the go-to spot for a relaxing yet energizing night out. Bustling with upbeat wait staff and customers, Del Mar’s first brewery isn’t just about the beer. The owner, executive chef, and brew master all have backgrounds in fine dining and were determined to translate that level of quality and detail into everything they serve: both food and drink. Intended to be a place to gather as a community, Viewpoint Brewing offers a casual dining experience, void of pretentiousness, while still serving up the highest quality, thoughtfully crafted dishes and beers. Come with friends or alone, you’ll surely meet people while drinking and eating at communal tables. Extra bonus, it’s dog-friendly.
- Charred Broccoli: To die for! Prepare your self for garlic and salt overload.
- Hand-cut Fries: Always a go-to for me…if they’re hand-cut.
- Watermelon & Feta Salad: So tasty and fresh. I am a huge fan of the fresh butter lettuce cups. (I got the feta on the side because I’m allergic to milk.)
- Beef Tartare: Aesthetically pleasing, this dish almost looked too beautiful to eat. My friend gave it a big thumbs up!
- Mussels & Nduja: Beautifully presented, even I (someone who has never eaten shellfish) thought it looked delivious!
Wheat & Water
- Dubbed a California coastal pizzeria, Wheat & Water is Bird Rock’s new favorite neighborhood eatery. Sit on the patio or relax inside; relish in the inviting, wood-heavy design. Chef Christian’s menu focuses on seafood, using all fresh ingredients. The restaurant is dog-friendly, and the owners and servers made our dining experience so pleasurable!
- Brussels Sprouts & Potatoes: Brussels Sprouts have become a staple on almost every menu these days, but Wheat & Water has given it a facelift. The inclusion of roasted and flash-fried potatoes make this dish to die for! Sadly for me, after a couple bites I found out it had butter in it (I have a milk allergy), so I had to watch my friend eat the rest of it. But if you’re not allergic to milk, you MUST order this appetizer!
- Summer Citrus Salad: Mixed greens topped with avocado, citrus fruits, and a tasty vinaigrette. Light and fresh!
- Hand-Cut Fries: Some of the best I’ve eaten in a long time.
- Hamburger: Charbroiled beef stacked with smoked, roasted, and fresh veggies, it really did look as delicious as my friend said it was!
ADVENTURE + ACTIVITIES
Surfing in San Diego
I moved to San Diego to learn to surf, so it’s no wonder ocean playtime is top on my list! Here are some of my favorite surf breaks up and down the coast!
Tourmaline Surf Park
- I live a block from Tourmo (as us locals call it) so it’s almost always where I paddle out. (Pictured above.) The waves are perfect for longboarding, and it’s a beach break, so no reefs to fear. Know that the beach can get incredibly rocky at times (due to varying swell and earth rotation, all that scientific-y stuff), so be prepared to hobble over some rocks to get in the water. Personally, I wear wetsuit booties to make walking on the rocks less painful. Plus, my feet stay warmer in the water! The parking lot at the bottom of the steep hill is safe and easily accessible. Depending on the day, I’ll either surf just to the right of Tourmo, straight in front, or a bit to the left (what is called “Pumphouse” because of the old water pumphouse on the beach).
- Way less crowded than Tourmaline, Beacon’s is a nice longboarding beach break. Park in the Leucadia neighborhood and walk your board carefully down the long wooden stairwell to the beach. To wash off the sand and salt, walk a 1/4 mile north to the winding stairwell with a fresh-water shower head.
- For those loving the naked life, Black’s Beach is a must; it’s the only clothing optional beach in San Diego. Park at the Torrey Pines Gliderport which, depending on the time of day, may or may not be crowded, and then carefully walk your board down the steep path to the beach.
- A hippie beach town, OB is a fun beach break, especially north of the pier with both lefts and rights. Ride some waves, and then play a couple games of beach volleyball and/or hang out on dog beach where furry friends run rampant.
- A few miles south of Ocean Beach, up along the rocky shore, Sunset Cliffs offers a more risky surfing experience. I have never personally surfed this spot because I fear tripping and hurting my longboard. However I have taken photographs on the long staircase leading from the lookout spot to the rocky shoreline and watched others surf there. Be super mindful of the tide and where you step while getting in and out of the water! People love these breaks, so don’t follow my lead on this one!
15th Street, Del Mar
- Just off the main drag in Del Mar, the break is also a great spot if you’ve got non-sand lovers in tow, because a grassy area for picnics and playtime overlooks the beach. Expect there to be many children playing in the water, so be ready to dodge them to avoid collisions.
I’m a Tourmaline girl through and through, mostly because it’s where I learned, its convenience to my home, and it’s a perfect break for longboarding. However there is not a shortage of surf breaks up and down the coast in San Diego. Click here for a complete list of where to surf in San Diego!
Hiking in San Diego
One of the best things about San Diego is its proximity to both the ocean and mountains. After you’ve gotten your fill of salty waves, lace up your sneakers and start walking!
- One of the most popular hikes in San Diego, Cowles is a 3-mile trail of steep switchbacks. Many run up it for sunrise views, though personally I went in the middle of the day because I love the heat! Be sure to take water. Dog friendly!
- Inland 30 minutes by car in Poway, Iron Mountain is a well-traversed trail. However, if you go during the week, the trail is considerably less busy. Lots of nature and a challenging hike. 5.6 miles in total! After you hike, head over to Elements Massage Spa mentioned below (that’s around that area) to relax those muscles! Dog friendly!
- The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a heavily visited trail. Both locals and tourists flock here, especially on the weekends. The well-manicured trails and hoards of people won’t really make you feel like you’re one with nature, but the ocean views are beautiful, and you can hike up, sweat a bit, and then hike down to the beach. It’s a nice, relaxed outdoor adventure. Not dog friendly, sadly.
- Considered the hardest hike around town, Three Sisters Falls is a 4-mile, steep, kinda treacherous hike. Park at the intersection of Boulder Creek and Cedar Creek Roads, and start hiking! Bring lots of water.
Biking in San Diego
If you know me, you know I’m obsessed with bicycling. I love the freedom a bike permits. Move your body AND avoid traffic and parking headaches? Huge wins! Here a few of my favorite biking excursions/rides around San Diego
- Ride around Balboa Park to explore the grounds with pitstops at some of the museums. Enjoy the Spanish-influenced architecture and multiple water fountains. The Museum of Photographic Arts is a personal favorite.
- Drive 45 minutes north of downtown and arrive in Carlsbad, an upscale, high-end beach town filled with families and professionals. The mile-long boardwalk along Highway 101, overlooking the Pacific Ocean is a great spot for a rigorous or a leisurely ride.
- Those who live in and around Pacific Beach joke about the “PB Bubble,” and in many ways it’s true! But there are really adorable neighborhoods away from the beach that are a must. Rent or take a bike into Hillcrest/University Heights/North Park, and toot around for a while, feeling out the differing vibes. There are a ton of tasty eateries and dive bars around that part of town.
Pacific – Mission Beach Boardwalk
- A day in Pacific Beach and Mission Beach isn’t complete without a ride up and down the boardwalk. Especially if it’s sunny, tourists, locals, and city-dwellers leaving inland neighborhoods for a taste of the beach life are sure to crowd the paved path along the beachfront! But don’t let that deter you. The scene is a hoot. You might even catch a glimpse of Slomo rollerblading on the promenade! Be very careful riding on the path because most don’t pay attention, walk across without looking, and/or are inexperienced bikers. Go slowly and walk through more crowded areas, such as in front of World Famous (a popular fish taco joint). Head south into Mission Beach for Belmont Park (where you can ride the rollercoaster) or all the way to the end of the trail to the dozens of volleyball courts for a few games. Head north into North Pacific Beach for a bit quieter vibe. Don’t miss the Law Street Lookout, a favorite spot for sunbathing and photo ops!
Pacific – Ocean Beach
- The 45-minute, 4-mile ride from Pacific Beach to Ocean Beach (and vice versa) is one of my favorite daytime activities, particularly on Wednesday evenings for the Ocean Beach Farmers Market. You’ll cross two bridges and ride along the water. Definitely check out Dog Beach and stop in town for a bite and drink.
Revive Salon & Spa
- Revive Salon & Spa is perfect for a daytime getaway! In addition to a full-service salon, they also offer the highest quality services on the market (such as botox and laser) to literally revive your skin and body (pun intended). Get your hair done, a massage, or a facial…or do it all! Their staff and therapists are extremely knowledgable and accommodating, and their amenities are luxurious, especially the super comfy massage and facial tables.
- Classic Facial: A chance to infuse my skin with some much-needed moisture and extractions. Super relaxing, especially the face and neck massage at the end!
- Deep Tissue Massage: If you’re anything like me, the sensation of hands kneading your worn-out muscles is so needed.
- Halo Laser Treatment: Using light therapy, this treatment strips your skin of damage, impurities, and blemishes. Expensive but so worth it. I didn’t receive the Halo during my spa day at Revive; instead I’m getting it the day this travel guide goes live. I’ll be writing about the entire experience and the topic of anti-aging in a blog post in the coming weeks! Look out for that!
Elements Massage (Carmel Mountain)
- Elements Massage focuses solely on body work. The space is peaceful and well-managed. I received a much-need sports massage; everything was sore and tight from heavy duty surf and yoga sculpt sessions! We often focus entirely on how we fuel our bodies and neglect body care muscularly. Do yourself a favor, schedule a massage…possibly after a hike up Iron Mountain since it’s relatively close! Your body will love you back!
- You’ll never want to go to another movie theater again after experiencing the big screen at The Lot. With locations in La Jolla & Liberty Station, this has to be your date-night destination! You can either eat dinner beforehand in their gorgeous, patio-style restaurant or during the show. Servers deliver directly to your seat, which fully recline! Of course, you can also enjoy the standard popcorn and candy. My friend loved their chocolate chip cookie!
Red’s Saloon Comedy
- Standup comedy is one of my favorite things, ever. So naturally, I gravitate toward comedy shows. Every Wednesday night at 9pm, people pack into Red’s Saloon in Pacific Beach for a solid lineup of stand-up comics. And it’s FREE! The host, Josh, is hilarious. He pulls in some really talented performers, including my friend Nicole Aimée Schreiber. You should check her out—shameless plug!
The Comedy Store
- The Comedy Store in La Jolla is one of the best. Big names, small names, it doesn’t matter; most performers are hilarious. I’m not a huge fan of the 2-drink minimum in addition to the ticket, but it is what it is. Either way it’s a great date night event!
SWEAT IT OUT!
Law Street Yoga
- Every Saturday and Sunday from 10-11:30 am, yoga classes are taught on the Law Street grassy lookout. Over a hundred people line up to breath and sweat together. Steve, referred to as NamaSteve, will make you laugh while holding poses.
- With locations in both Pacific Beach and Crowne Point, Performance360 is a strength and conditioning gym, with a focus on weight lifting. Strong local community feel, owners are very passionate. Barebones gym, nothing fancy, but gets the job done!
Did I miss anything? Comment below! Though know we’ll be putting together a second guide for more restaurants around San Diego. Have a favorite spot in town? Let me know so I can include it!