California Coastal Spotlight: Downtown Santa Barbara
Ready to experience the American Riviera? Add these things to your Santa Barbara itinerary and devote a day to explore the downtown.
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From eating at the top restaurants to exploring the iconic coastline, here are the best things to do in downtown San Diego.
11 min read
May 21, 2020
As communities across the world and in California mitigate health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are shifting our content focus and not encouraging any travel or social activities during this time. We will, however, continue to shine a light on and celebrate the many beautiful aspects of our State with the intention of being a source of inspiration and joy during this difficult period. Thank you for reading, and stay safe.
As soon as you cruise into the coastal city of San Diego, you’ll likely never want to leave. The salt-kissed air, sun-soaked landscape, cool marine breeze, and spectacular scenery immediately invigorate the senses and spark a childlike wonder. As the birthplace of California—San Diego was the site of the first permanent Spanish settlement in the Golden State—the vibrant city is steeped in history but maintains its youthful energy, resulting in a distinctive vibe you won’t find anywhere else.
Indeed, San Diego is known as “America’s Finest City” for a reason. Aside from its world-famous tourist attractions—such as the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park, SeaWorld, and Legoland—San Diego also boasts temperate weather year-round, pristine beaches, illustrious surf spots, acclaimed dining destinations, hip coffee shops, various museums and art galleries, and diverse neighborhoods with buzzy social scenes.
Given the sheer number of San Diego attractions, it’s impossible to see them all in one weekend. But San Diego’s thriving urban center provides a proper introduction to the city with its vast array of activities—all easily accessible by foot, bike, car, or public transportation. Whether you’re seeking a romantic escape or a family-friendly getaway, downtown San Diego provides something for every interest. Here’s how to spend a weekend in the heart of San Diego.
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Flying into San Diego is the quickest and simplest option for most travelers, especially since downtown is located mere minutes from the San Diego International Airport. But driving is also feasible for those visiting from other Southern California towns. Another transportation option is the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, which departs from San Luis Obispo and San Diego, offering gorgeous scenery as you pass by the rolling hills and shimmering coastline.
If you arrive via plane or train, consider renting a car during your trip. San Diego is built atop undeveloped canyons, which intersperse the city with open space but also make attractions more spread out, so you might find it easier to get around by car.
There’s no better way to start your first day in San Diego than by getting a taste of the city’s intertwined history with Mexico. After all, the city is known for its authentic Mexican food, which isn’t surprising, considering that California was still part of Mexico less than two centuries ago and that downtown San Diego is only 15 miles from the border. While there’s certainly no shortage of Mexican joints in town, Lucha Libre Gourmet Taco Shop is a one-of-a-kind eatery that’s ideally situated right off the I-5 and across from the airport.
Outfitted with lucha masks, hot pink walls, framed pop art, and sparkly chandeliers, Lucha Libra embodies the wild world of Mexican wrestling. But it’s the stellar tacos and burritos that continue to draw crowds. One such knockout is the Surfin’ California—a unique take on the famous California burrito, which was invented in San Diego—packed tight with steak, shrimp, avocado, french fries, cheese, pico de gallo, and chipotle sauce. And if you have a hankering for tacos, you can’t go wrong with the savory mole taco stuffed with juicy chicken or the blackened-Mahi taco topped with spicy serrano sauce. Watch wrestling matches on TV while you devour your food, and take in the quirky decor surrounding you.
Less than 10 minutes away from Lucha Libre lies another beloved local favorite: Spruce Street Suspension Bridge. Tucked away in the Bankers Hill neighborhood, this inconspicuous pedestrian bridge spans 375 feet long and boasts a beautiful vista of the Kate Sessions Canyon below. But if you have a fear of heights, beware. The lightweight bridge hovers 70 feet above the ground and can swing from side to side when a powerful gust of wind hits.
Once you’ve lived out your Indiana Jones fantasies, cruise into the city and check in to the Hotel Republic. Located in the heart of downtown, this polished yet unpretentious boutique hotel serves as an ideal home base for discovering San Diego. Whether you’re taking a dip in the rooftop pool, relaxing in your coastal-inspired room, or savoring impeccable cuisine in one of the dining areas, it’s easy to immerse yourself in the city’s laid-back ethos. (Plus, it’s one of the best dog-friendly hotels in San Diego, so you can bring Fido along or simply fawn over the pups staying on the premises.)
Bags put away, it’s now time to explore the bustling streets of downtown San Diego. A short stroll away is the waterfront Embarcadero, where the boardwalk hugs the San Diego Bay and the sweeping views are awe-inspiring. This area is also home to the cruise terminal, the Navy Pier, and Seaport Village, so there are several activities to choose from. Climb aboard the famed USS Midway Museum, the Maritime Museum of San Diego, or the Star of India to learn about the region’s rich maritime history through captivating exhibits and displays. If your discoveries leave you feeling compelled to take to the high seas, go on a San Diego boat tour to traverse the bay while taking in the skyline views and historic landmarks.
But if you prefer to have some on-land fun, walk through Seaport Village to admire local artwork, ride an antique carousel, and browse for bespoke take-home treasures from the 70-plus shops. Away from the water, you can also meander through the historic Gaslamp Quarter, where modern architecture and Victorian Age buildings stand side-by-side. You’ll also discover eclectic galleries, chic boutiques, trendy bars, and fine-dining restaurants lining the sidewalks.
As the sun starts to sink into the horizon, head back to the Hotel Republic and freshen up for an elegant dinner at Biga. Named after an age-old fermentation process used for pizza dough and breads, this spacious, airy eatery is where farm-to-table meets quality Italian cooking. The extensive menu is driven by the seasons, and each handcrafted dish features local purveyors as much as possible.
Your mouth will start watering as soon as you step foot inside, with the scents of heavenly wood-fired pizzas and decadent bolognese sauce permeating the air. Settle in at your table and begin with the creamy burrata, stone fruit salad, roasted vegetables, or house-made charcuterie.
While it’ll be difficult to decide on the main course, you can’t go wrong with any of the wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas—they’re the main draw here. Featuring everything from 18-month prosciutto di parma and braised octopus to wild mushrooms and house-made fior di latte mozzarella, these pies are among the best in town. There’s a lot to love besides pizza, too, including delectable pastas, succulent porchetta, and wood-roasted rib-eye. (The menu even offers vegan-friendly and gluten-free options.)
Afterward, walk down the street to catch a show at the House of Blues and end the evening on an entertaining note.
Rise and shine to make the most of your second day in downtown San Diego. There’s much to see today, so fuel up for your adventures with a hearty breakfast at The Morning After. This fun, witty dining hot spot in the Gaslamp district will leave you wanting for nothing. For something sweet, indulge in the signature Fruity Pebbles pancakes or the “Crunchy Crunch” toast featuring Texas toast dusted with Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal and Grand Marnier icing. But if you prefer something more traditional, order the satisfying avocado toast or the Southern-style shrimp and grits with pancetta-herb gravy.
Walk off your meal at Balboa Park, situated about one mile away from the Gaslamp Quarter. Balboa Park is one of the top attractions in the city—once you arrive, you’ll understand why. Spanning 1,200-plus acres, this beautiful botanic paradise offers many of the best things to do in San Diego. You can visit 17 diverse museums, cultural landmarks, architectural wonders, award-winning performing arts venues, and iconic sites such as the San Diego Zoo (one of the top zoos in California).
There truly is something for everyone in Balboa Park. Whether you want to visit the renowned Museum of Man, go on an urban safari at the San Diego Zoo, climb to the top of the ornate California Tower—which offers one of the best views in San Diego—or snap photos of the myriad plants inside the Botanical Building, you can find endless activities in this breathtaking expanse. (Tip: If you plan to visit more than one or two of the many attractions here, consider purchasing a Balboa Park Explorer Pass.)
Aside from all of the museums and countless things to do and see, Balboa Park is vast and peaceful. It’s simply beautiful to stroll through its varied gardens and admire the Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. Best of all, Balboa Park is free to enter. With grounds open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you can always walk right in. Once inside, many of the exhibits, museums, and attractions do charge for admission, but there are still plenty of things to do in the “Jewel of San Diego” that don’t require you to spend a dime.
Once you’ve explored Balboa Park, make your way from downtown San Diego to Coronado via the Coronado Ferry. (If you’ve rented a car, you can also choose to make the 15-minute drive there and cross the famed Coronado Bridge.) Situated on a peninsula in San Diego Bay, Coronado is a must-see San Diego destination, offering some of the best beaches in town.
When you arrive, grab a quick bite to eat Serẽa, a sea-to-table restaurant tucked inside the storied Hotel del Coronado. Built in 1888 and designated a National Historic Landmark, the hotel has a fascinating and colorful past, which includes presidents and princes, socialites and scandals, and ghosts and glamorous celebrities. The approachable, ocean-friendly menu at the hotel’s on-site eatery highlights locally sourced ingredients and sustainable seafood. Choose from an appetizing collection of rotating dishes such as fresh California oysters, lobster croquettes, sea urchin, halibut ceviche, and whole rock cod.
Now, it’s time to hit the beach. The hotel is perched upon the shores of Coronado Beach, a slice of paradise with gentle surf and glittering sand. The mile-and-a-half of silvered coastline is known around the world and is considered one of California’s best beaches, making for a quintessential San Diego postcard experience.
Spend the rest of the day relaxing on the soft sands with a classic book or surfing the waves, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding. You can even rent a bike and tour the island on two wheels via Coronado’s beachfront boardwalk. Linger until sunset to watch the sky morph into breathtaking cotton-candy hues, then head back to the mainland for dinner.
For your final night in San Diego, enjoy more local flavors and immerse yourself in the city’s Little Italy district, right on the edge of downtown. You’ll find amore as you stroll past the charming trattorias, outdoor cafés, mini piazzas, and authentic gelato shops on your way to Juniper and Ivy. This former abandoned warehouse is now a coveted dining destination, serving up innovative plates studded with seasonal, locally sourced ingredients.
Sink into a plush booth under the soaring wooden beams and industrial-chic lights, and make the challenging decision of what dish to order first. Many of the plates are meant to be shared, so don’t hesitate to order an array of appetizers if you can’t choose between such crave-worthy options as buttermilk biscuits with smoked butter, succulent pork belly atop chorizo polenta, and savory apple cheddar tart adorned with cashew brittle.
The artful mains are equally delicious, but standouts include the juicy 16-ounce, bone-in prime ribeye; the spicy squid-ink linguine with San Diego sea urchin; and the not-so-secret “In-N-Haute” burger—an upscale take on the California classic featuring a custom blend of short rib, brisket, and chuck mixed with dry-aged beef fat. (Drooling yet?)
End the meal on a sweet note with one of the seasonally inspired desserts, which may include the silky chocolate caramel mousse, bourbon-soaked pound cake topped with fresh peaches, or black sesame churros accompanied by tortilla ice cream.
Once you can bring yourself to check out of the sumptuous Hotel Republic, meander over to Breakfast Republic, one of the best brunch spots in San Diego. This quirky and innovative restaurant offers “cluckin’ good” dishes that reflect the eatery’s eccentricity. Some of the unique menu offerings include a Vietnamese chicken wing breakfast bowl, a crab and crawfish eggs Benedict, a breakfast mac and cheese, and breakfast hot dogs—plus more traditional recipes such as shrimp and grits, chilaquiles, and veggies omelets.
If your preferred power breakfast entails a small sugar high, go for a decadent food flight. The French Toast Sampler gives you the option to savor three of seven toasts—including the gluten-free cinnamon raisin, sweet banana split, and decadent Mr. Presley (peanut butter with bananas foster and bacon)—while the Flight of 3 pancakes gives you the option to choose any three flapjacks such as the Oreo cookie, pineapple upside-down cake, and strawberry cheesecake.
Work off your brunch with a walk along Waterfront Park. Bordering the harbor, this verdant open space offers an 830-foot-long fountain with a wading pool (perfect for children to play in), several garden rooms with distinct themes, and a large modern playground area with slides and climbing walls. Expansive grassy areas and numerous pieces of public art round out the park, making it an ideal spot to relax and enjoy the San Diego Bay views.
Spend some time savoring the spectacular scenery and reveling in the sensation of the refreshing breeze, the sound of the lapping waves, and the permeating scent of salty air. Soak up as much as you can, and take the feeling home with you.
When will you plan your San Diego adventure? Tell us about your bucket-list San Diego experiences and your favorite local spots in the comments below.
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