My mom and I recently returned from an incredible mother/daughter getaway in the sunny city of San Diego. It had been 22 years since both mom and I had visited (fam took me there when I was three), so naturally I didn’t remember a thing! It’s a fantastic city, big enough to keep you plenty busy for a week, but not too big to where you feel like you’re going to miss something if you’re only visiting for a few days. Below you’ll read a recap of everything mom and I did; where we ate (with recommendations!), what we saw and other fun tips to the city of SD! I’ve also included a map of all the attractions, locations and restaurants I mention in this post below for reference.
- San Diego Zoo
- Balboa Park
- La Jolla / Pacific Beach
- Coronado Island
- Downtown & Gaslamp Quarter
- Hillcrest (The “Gay” neighborhood)
Rent a car: This is what we did. Definitely the most convenient option, especially if you plan on going for longer day trips outside of the main city limits. There are rental agencies right at their airport which provide a super easy pick-up and drop-off system.
Bike: The city is fairly hilly, but if you’re an avid biker, it is a very bike-friendly city and wouldn’t take you long to get from place to place.
Scooters: There are rentable scooters (kind of like a bike share) all around the city, which are another great quick transportation option. If you’re staying in the city, you could probably take these everywhere you go and don’t have to worry about car rental. Plus, you’d save a lot of $$. Here’s me pretending to use one.
WHERE WE STAYED
A darling 1-bedroom studio-style cottage in University Heights we found through AirBNB. We really enjoyed our stay at this location, it was perfect for our needs – one queen bed, a comfy couch, a quaint kitchen and bathroom and also a parking spot for our rental car! It’s located in a great neighborhood, in close proximity to tons of restaurants and attractions. We easily could have walked to Balboa Park & The Zoo had we been so inclined. My mom made the comment that the neighborhood was just a bit too noisy for her liking at night, but I barely noticed. I wouldn’t recommend this location, though, if you have more than two people in your party – it would be tight in the cozy cottage.
Day 1 (Wednesday):
We spent our first morning exploring Little Italy. We had a late breakfast at Harbor Breakfast, which is a cute brunch spot but we were a little disappointed with the food (wouldn’t strongly recommend). Following breakfast, we wandered down to Embarcadero and Waterfront Park, then walked along the bay to the USS Midway & Museum (WWII aircraft carrier). While mom and I didn’t purchase tickets to go aboard, if you’re into history, I would recommend taking time to explore this museum, as it’s supposed to be really informative and interactive.
Continuing down the pier, we stopped at Seaport Village for a snack, where an elderly Italian man asked me to dance to a live performance of a Frank Sinatra impersonator. I couldn’t say no! (See video below). By late afternoon we ventured to University Heights to check into our AirBNB. For dinner, we found a fantastic authentic Italian restaurant in the Hillcrest neighborhood called Arrivederci. Excellent food, HUGE portions, fantastic wine selection and an array of desserts. Mom and I loved it.
Day 2 (Thursday):
We dedicated this entire day to the San Diego Zoo, which is in the middle of Balboa Park.
In the morning, we found a very popular, modern coffee shop in Hillcrest called Better Buzz, where we enjoyed some strong coffee and a fueling açaí bowl. We arrived at the zoo by 10am and the parking lot was already packed. The San Diego Zoo is enormous, open from 9am to 6pm, and if you truly want to take your time and see everything it has to offer, it will take you an entire day. While a $54 admission price may seem a little spendy, this zoo is home to the largest number of animal species in America, including some incredibly endangered species that you may only get a chance to see once in your lifetime (sadly). The price is well-worth the experience. There are restaurants, gift shops and refreshments around every corner. There’s a tram that takes you from one end of the zoo to the other, giving you an amazing aerial view of the zoo + views of Balboa Park. If you want to split up your zoo trip into two days, or if you also want to visit the San Diego Safari Park in Escondito, you can get a two-day pass for $84. You can also pay a little extra for special guided tours or an Animals in Action experience, where you can interact with certain animal ambassadors. We didn’t do this, but I’d love to get the chance to next time I visit! Imagine holding a sweet baby leopard or a wolf cub, I WOULD CRY tears of joy.
Highlights from our day were the Amur leopards (obviously, although hard to photograph), the giraffes, the various species of reptiles (crocs, alligators, gharials – look them up), and the flamingos!! We concluded our zoo exploration around 5pm, where we then wandered up to Old Town district to search for a place to eat dinner. The main street in Old Town is lined with Mexican restaurants, one after the other. We chose to eat at Cafe Coyote, and enjoyed some delicious Mexican food (I had the steak fajitas, so good) and strong margaritas after a long day of walking.
Day 3 (Friday):
We started this morning at another darling coffee shop in the Hillcrest called Refill, which serves everything from simple coffee and pastries to elaborate sweet or savory crepes. I ordered another açaí bowl and a large cup of coffee, as we had another big day ahead of us.
After breakfast, we drove northwest to the gorgeous cliffside town of La Jolla. The town screams boujie tourist destination, but mom and I both loved it. We window-shopped, walked up and down the two main avenues to the bay, where an abundance of stinky sea lions call home. Mom and I highly recommend having lunch or at least walking through La Valencia Hotel, which sits right on the coastline. It’s a picturesque historic building, with beautiful landscape and amenities. We had lunch next door to the hotel at Brockton Villa, a cozy bayside restaurant which overlooks the La Jolla coves. I had the pork carnitas street tacos, which were excellent, and mom raved about her burger and piña colada.
From there, we drove further north up the 101 through Del Mar, Solana Beach, all the way to Encinitas. We explored the quaint surfer town until early evening, then drove 1.5 hours back to our AirBNB (in heavy evening traffic), where we enjoyed leftovers for dinner.
That night, a friend of mine who lives in town invited me to go out, so I was able to experience a little bit of San Diego nightlife. We started at a bar called Bootlegger in the Gaslamp District, and went dancing at Side Bar. I love going out in cities that aren’t Portland, since PDX doesn’t have that exciting of a nightlife scene. Plus, I never have to worry about running into people from work, or high school, or people I just don’t want to see (whoops, is that mean?)
Day 4 (Saturday):
I did some research the day before and learned that Little Italy hosts a fantastic Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, so we began our morning there. It was a great call; the weather couldn’t have been better and the market was huge, spreading over six blocks lined with food and art vendors plus tons of live music. We enjoyed some fresh iced coffee and pastries for breakfast, strolled up and down the entire market and got a delicious crepe to-go before we headed out for our day at Balboa Park.
Like the zoo, you could spend an entire day in Balboa Park and not see everything. The park is gigantic, with numerous museums, gardens and installments. We walked through the free botanical gardens, the San Diego potter’s guild, discovered the hidden cactus garden tucked behind the Balboa Park Ballroom, then Mom wanted to check out the SD Museum of Art ($15 admission). We ate a late lunch in the park at Prado (request to sit outside here, the view is amazing), where I enjoyed the best passionfruit lemonade I’ve ever had.
After a long day in the sun, mom and I were craving more margaritas, so we drove back to Old Town where we enjoyed a taco salad and some blended beverages at Fred’s Mexican cafe and watched the sunset over the horizon. Later that evening, mom and I made reservations at Extraordinary Desserts, a modern eatery with an enormous selection of delicious extravagant desserts. We shared passionfruit gelato and a Napolean, a beautifully crafted layered pastry cake with fresh fruit and vanilla garnish. Strongly recommend this place for a date night!
Day 5 (Sunday):
We found a darling brunch spot in Gaslamp Quarter, Broken Yolk (HIGHLY recommend), to enjoy a sunny outdoor breakfast. The french toast was excellent, covered with berries and caramel drizzle. Around the corner from breakfast was Petco Park, home field to the San Diego Padres. After exploring Petco Park, we drove across the Coronado Bridge to Coronado Island. We started by exploring the iconic, historic Hotel Coronado, which throughout the years became a popular destination for the rich and famous. We walked around the entire gorgeous property which sits on Coronado Beach. After people-watching along the beach for a bit, we ventured up and down the main street, Orange Avenue, did a little shopping and enjoyed some gelato. We stopped for a few minutes to listen to some live music outside of an Irish pub and then later in the afternoon found a hidden Mexican restaurant, Miguels’s, where we enjoyed more happy hour margs and a light snack (see the theme here?).
From there, we drove to the other side of Coronado to Centennial Park, which overlooks the entire bay and downtown San Diego. It’s an excellent spot for pictures, and was a great way to wrap up our memorable trip. By early evening, we drove back to the mainland, filled our rental car up with gas to return it and headed back to the airport!
I hope this was entertaining and informative, and helps assist with a future trip to San Diego!
As always, thank you for reading!