Air travel still feels like a headache, if not a risky endeavor for a lot of us and if you missed the opportunity for a real road trip this Summer, you might be thinking now is a good time for a getaway. It is! This time of year – as temps transition from sweltering to sunny and breezy – provides an easy way to get in some leisure and new scenery. If you’ve got a weekend to spare, a li’l time off from work or can do it remotely (the boss doesn’t need to know that you’re finishing that spreadsheet with a cocktail by the pool, right?), you won’t regret the recharge. We’re big fans of weekenders and mid-week jaunts as a way to re-calibrate, especially during the pandemic. Vegas is an obvious choice, but with mask-wearing seemingly un-inforced and big crowds to contend with, we felt like we dodged a bullet not catching the virus after our last visit there.
Destinations like Palm Springs and San Diego provide the perfect mini-trip option with lots of outdoor sun-soaked amusements for travel-weary Irvine residents. Hotels are eager to revitalize business post-shutdowns, so there are some great deals and in general, the COVID-cleaning protocols are on point. For this reason, we prefer resorts to AirBnBs, especially in S.D.
A little background on our Sunny SoCal sister city adjacent to the Mexican border. It’s named after Saint Didacus (also known as Diego de San Nicolás), a missionary who was part of the territory’s first settlement. Often called the birthplace of California, it was the first site visited and settled by Europeans. These days, a lot of us Southern California folk tend to associate it with childhood and tourism, the place where we went with our families to visit Sea World, The San Diego Zoo and more recently, Lego Land. For many young adults, SD is seen as the city we warm up in before a wild night in Tijuana or other parts of Mexico.
It’s also the home of ComicCon, which makes it an annual party pilgrimage. Well, at least it was pre-COVID; the last two years, they’ve canceled in-person events and done virtual presentations. Just last month, however, the organizers announced a “Special Edition” in-person event at the San Diego Convention Center on Nov. 26-28, which will bring back a lot of business to the city. Panels are slowly being announced so if you’re a movie and TV nerd, or a crazy clothes-loving cosplayer, get your tickets now before it sells out.
San Diego is worth the 3-hour drive any time of year as its own destination if you’re looking for drinking spots, nightlife and a lively vibe. There’s also a vital arts community, inspired dining and plenty of seaside atmosphere and activities. Renovations of S.D. hotels, shopping centers and parks has been in overdrive lately, so the city is constantly evolving with more and more things to do and see.
Here, we spotlight some of our favorites by region. This list just scratches the surface, but we hope it makes for a nice starting point before your next visit. We recommend the following books (which all came out this year) for more extensive guides and background info:
100 Things To Do in San Diego Before You Die By David Swanson
San Diego: Unforgettable Experiences In San Diego: 50 Unique Things To Do In San Diego By Victor Lugardo
Fodors San Diego Travel Guide (various contributors)
Let’s start with nightlife, shall we? The Gaslamp district is the place to be for after-dark revelry but its history is almost more interesting than its present. It got its name after the city brought in gas lamp street lights to light the then-new modern part of the area formerly known as “New Town.” In the late 1880s, the area was known for gambling halls and bars, evolving into a red-light district known as the Stingaree (referencing the stingrays in the nearby Bay). Brothels popped up as well and thrived in the area until the early 1900s, or so. Today, Gaslamp is still kinda sexy, with hot date nights at trendy eateries, and a raucous dance club and bar/pub scene.
We generally have disdain for the concept of “pub crawls,” but when you’re visiting from out of town they can provide a nice overview from a local’s perspective. If you want to get the lowdown on where to let loose on a dance floor and liquor up, try San Diego Pub Crawl which promises VIP front of the line and free entry to some of the area’s most popular nightclubs including Omnia, Fluxx, Parq, F6ix, Bassment and American Junkie.
If you’re looking for slightly less hedonistic vibes, there are plenty of restaurants and bars to see and be seen with slightly more low-key surroundings. For dynamic dining check out Werewolf, Metl, Cafe 21, and Butcher Cut. For buzzing bars, and we like Myst Lounge, Side Bar and Prohibition Speakeasy.
The area known as Hotel Circle may not be much to look at, but there are some really great hotels in the freeway-adjacent region that provide a nice place to plant yourself. Sightseeing is fun and good, but sometimes simply staying put at one inclusive property is the best getaway. If mid-century modern vibes are your bag, Town & Country Resort should fill the bill. The new home of this past year’s first Tiki Oasis event post-COVID, it provides a picturesque pool atmosphere you won’t want to leave.
Following a recent $70 million remodel, the hotel brings to mind the trendy cool of Palm Springs spots like The Ace or The Parker, with irreverent furnishings in its lobby and adjoining “Monkey Bar,” as well as its new signature restaurant Arlo. We love the marquee-style billboard with silly sayings that used to be outside of the hotel and is now behind the reception desk. A really fun four-story twister water slide and a sassy 15-foot long diver girl neon sign add to the stylish frolic-friendly feel. Just behind the hotel, a 3.3-acre park makes for a nice picnic setting place to sit and wait for the S.D. trolley. The San Diego River Park Foundation is overseeing the project, which is the first new green space in the area in nearly two decades. And there’s more development to come, too.
Downtown’s central waterfront is in the midst of a $2.5 billion renovation. The Seaport San Diego project is themed around “ocean optimism” and a 500-foot observation tower, education hub, and office space reserved for ocean research are just a few of the things to come in the next several years. Right now, PR for the locale believe a post-Covid renaissance is occurring and they may be right. The San Diego Symphony’s “The Shell” is an acoustically engineered stage and concert shell that just had its inaugural concert season this past Summer providing a pretty, immersive park experience.
For biking, skating and strolling go to the Embarcadero Boardwalk, which is bursting with outside activity including cruises, harbour tours, whale watching and fishing. There’s also history and culture to discover there via the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD), the Maritime Museum of San Diego and the USS Midway Museum.
San Diego is known for its seafood of course, and the Village’s popular Open-air Seafood Market anchoring its northern edge is can’t miss on Saturdays. San Diego’s history as a tuna port is clearly evident and this gathering gives the public a chance to see it firsthand, with local fisherman selling their fresh catches at more-than-fair prices.
Speaking of seafood, fish tacos are pretty much the city’s signature. Definitely try some at the following spots: Flight Deck, Mike Hess, Malibu Farm and Pier Café.
One of our favorite parts of San Diego is Liberty Station, an area with a laid back, artisanal feel that infuses its food options, shopping and atmosphere. Handfuls of on-site museums, artist studios and dining await here, including the must-see Liberty Public Market, a giant food hall located in a former naval base commissary, the 25,000-square-foot-venue offers over 30 food and drink options under one roof.
If you enjoy shopping, especially vintage, a best-kept secret here is the Sea Hive Station, a colorful co-op retail experience inside a huge 23,000 square-foot historic hardware building in the central Arts District. Over 150 local and independent designers, collectors, crafters and merchants curate their own little boutiques inside the space with clothing, accessories, furniture, art and more from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and present for sale at fair prices. Upon our last visit we bought a lip-shaped ashtray, a maxi dress made out of an Indian sari and some sunglasses. Plan your visit on the second Sunday of the month to shop its “Second Sunday” outdoor flea market.
Also check out: The Presley, a hot new al fresco spot adjacent to the station, retro-styled marble tables, fire pits, custom swinging benches, lounge chairs and greenery accents, and flavorful food options. Moniker General, a curated boutique, café and 1950s-style cocktail bar that takes the hybrid concept to a hip new space with clothing and custom furniture; Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, the famed indie craft brewers known for their devilish labels offer 40 taps, a 23,500-square foot space with quaint courtyard, landscaped gardens, fire pits, bocce ball and outdoor movies screenings; The Loma Club new 18-hole mini-course and stunning new indoor/outdoor clubhouse, from the co-founders of San Diego’s award-winning You & Yours Distilling Co.
La Jolla is one of the most picturesque parts of San Diego and if you’re looking for rest and relaxation it’s a great option. There are plenty of fine hotels in the area and some even offer day passes if you’re focused on pool time and cabana life.
The Hyatt Regency for example, has shaded, fully-stocked poolside cabanas to indulge in. Targeted mostly to business travelers the hotel has an upscale atmosphere and clean, modern look. With rooms and suites on 16 floors, the hotel features a Junior Olympic-size heated outdoor pool, a bar, fire pits, hot tub, lighted tennis courts, and restaurants like the bright and inviting lunch and dinner spot called Drift. Estancia Hotel & Spa also offers plush cabanas and daybeds, plus a heated saltwater pool and whirlpool, exotic hacienda decor and one of the area’s best spas. They just opened a new restaurant called Greenfinch that’s worth a pop-in. Both hotels are also great for the golfing crowd. Torrey Pines Golf Course is nearby, and while we don’t focus on it here, golf is of course huge in all of S.D. For more good swinging check out: sandiego.gov/park-and-recreation/golf.
MORE S.DELICIOUS STUFF
San Diego rivals Los Angeles and San Francisco in terms of food and dining – fine, casual and everything in between. Here are some of the eateries that don’t disappoint:
Cesarina in Point Loma is helmed by 26-year-old-wunderkind chef Cesarina Mezzoniis. With intricate Italian dishes and a charming vine-enveloped indoor-outdoor patio space, it’s a great place for date night. The atmosphere is as rich and romantic as the dishes served; the wait staff are all Italiano and they really know their stuff too. Many dishes are made in its open-air pastificio (pasta factory) which diners can see from virtually every seat. Despite the pandemic, this cafe has thrived with an online retail shop to buy their pastas and sauces, a made-to-order cake company “Le Torte di Cesarina,” and catering, but it’s the alfresco ambiance that must be felt as you feed.
In SD’s Little Italy neighborhood, Barbusa is another modern Sicilian restaurant, and it’s helped put the neighborhood on the map. Pasta mainstays and a secret menu (try the Busa Board, a six-foot-long sharing platter) make it a deliziosa dining option.
Honky tonk women and men should head to Moonshine Flats where dancing cages, spinning chairs and beer pong provide a head-spinning good time. SD tourism has been marketing towards the bachelor/ette crowd as of late and this party hub is tops (there’s a celebration guest list on their website that waives bridal groups’ cover charges).