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AARP's City Guide to San Diego

Dynamic neighborhoods bring a unique allure to this vibrant coastal destination

spinner image left a colorful sunset at oceanside pier right san diego california as seen from the ocean
San Diego makes a beautiful base for exploring the ocean, as well as the city itself.
Alamy / Getty

​Offering more than just surf and sand, San Diego is one of the nation’s most biodiverse areas, with mountains, deserts, lakes and bays all within county lines — and, yes, more than 70 miles of beautiful beaches. Perhaps that’s why San Diego, the county seat, is known as America’s Finest City. Locals and visitors alike enjoy the finer things in life: adventure, connection, wonder and joy, all woven organically into the city’s fabric. Everything seems more accessible here, and not just the outdoors. Dine at Michelin-awarded restaurants without waiting months for a reservation; enjoy free, green public transportation; and reconnect with the simple pleasures that come from truly easy living. 

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When to visit San Diego

San Diego is mild and temperate year-round, but the summer months are high season, when tourism and prices spike. Aim for travel in September and October to capture picture-perfect weather without the crowds and heightened costs. Alternatively, late winter (January and February) is sunny and serene, with daytime temps in the 50s and 60s. ​

How to prepare for your trip

Depending on the length of your visit, root yourself in one hotel, then take day trips to different neighborhoods and areas. But check with restaurants first — many are closed on Mondays. San Diego is generally fairly casual, and many stroll the sidewalks and sit for dinner in the same flip-flops they wore to the beach, regardless of the season. Overall, wear what makes you comfortable.

How to get to San Diego  

Fly into San Diego International Airport (SAN), and use the trolley system to get around downtown or the Coaster commuter train for trips to coastal communities to the north. The usual ride-hailing services (Uber and Lyft) are available throughout the county, though a one-day Old Town Trolley Tour pass ($46.55) grants unlimited rides between 11 popular spots across the greater downtown area, as well as entrance to 10 museums. In the downtown area (Little Italy down to Seaport Village and across to East Village and up to Cortez Hill, bordering Balboa Park), there’s also the free, totally electric Fred shuttle, which offers on-demand rides, much like Uber and Lyft, but for the price of a tip. Most communities have a rental shop for e-bikes, or electric bikes, that give you an extra push — a popular, exciting option for getting around that alleviates the strain of pedaling uphill.

Where to stay

Inn at the Park 

This moderately priced property is a short drive from the airport yet within walking distance of Balboa Park and its suite of amenities (museums, the Old Globe Theatre, restaurants). Inn at the Park offers creature comforts throughout its suites — complete with kitchenettes — at very low cost, given the prime location. The downside? There’s a surcharge for Wi-Fi, and parking can be scant unless you opt for the $20/day valet.

Harborview Inn & Suites 

What the affordable Harborview lacks in style (the furnishings are simple and somewhat outdated) it makes up for in price and location. Just two blocks from the food hub of Little Italy, and within walking distance of the Embarcadero and waterfront, the location can’t be beat. Plus, there’s complimentary, though limited, on-site parking. Accessible rooms are available on the ground floor. 

La Jolla Shores Hotel

Perched on one of San Diego’s premier beaches, La Jolla Shores Hotel offers guests direct access to a wide, flat beach and mellow, shallow waters that are perfect for exploring at leisure. Just ask the beach concierge to set you up with a complimentary umbrella, towel and chair. If the water temperature doesn’t suit you, head to the outdoor heated pool.

The Seabird Resort 

Wake up to the sound of crashing waves when you stay at The Seabird, Oceanside’s pet-friendly coastal luxury resort. The rooms are light and airy, featuring works curated by the Oceanside Museum of Art, while commissioned works from local artists add character to common spaces. There’s also an outdoor pool with lounge seating and a hot tub if the Pacific Ocean, just across the street, is simply too far away. At ground level, nestled into The Seabird’s sister property, is what’s affectionately known as the Top Gun House, an 1888 Victorian home featured in the original Top Gun film as the home of Tom Cruise’s love interest, Charlie. After being all but abandoned for decades, the house was masterfully restored, carefully moved and reopened as a pie shop.

spinner image downtown san diego between the gaslamp district and the convention center
The Gaslamp Quarter is a must-visit for unique boutiques, open-air restaurants and fun bars.
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Things to do in San Diego

Cabrillo National Monument

Named for the first European who landed here in 1542, Cabrillo National Monument juts out into the Pacific, cajoling visitors with wild sea cliffs and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, a 19th-century Cape Cod–style fixture that has served at different times as a signal tower, Army post exchange and tea house. Its interiors have been restored, and it’s now open to the public ($10). When the tide wanes at the nearby Rocky Intertidal Zone to reveal lively tide pools, you can wander the rocks in search of starfish, sea urchins, anemones and other saltwater critters — but typically only in fall and winter during daylight hours. The cooler months also welcome the gray whale migration. These gentle giants grow to 30 to 50 feet in length and can be spotted journeying from the Arctic to Baja each year. Head to the Kelp Forest and Whale Overlook for the best view. You can check with the visitor center for binocular rentals, but supply is limited, so bringing your own is a good idea. On clear days, you can easily see Mexico’s Guadalupe Island with the naked eye. 

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Liberty Station

Formerly the Naval Training Center, Liberty Station first welcomed troops to San Diego in 1923. Some 2.75 million Navy recruits and school sailors trained here over the course of seven decades before the 365-acre site was transformed into a historic district and town square, with artist studios, a public market, shopping, educational centers and more representing San Diegan creativity. Today you can discover Liberty Station at your own pace on a self-guided walking tour or during First Friday Arts District, when a different artist opens their studio to the public for live demonstrations, talks and more on the first Friday of each month. Come hungry: Liberty Public Market is one of the best places in the city to sample food, beverages and crafts from an array of local artisans.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Take a day trip to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California’s largest state park, at more than 900 square miles. Birders will appreciate the hundreds of species of birds that call the park home, along with bighorn sheep, coyotes and kit foxes, bobcats and reptiles. Late spring brings out the best in the park, when it’s in full bloom. Note that cell service here is unreliable and spotty at best, and summer temperatures skyrocket into the triple digits.

See a show, outside

With sunny days and mild temperatures year-round, San Diego knows how to capitalize on good weather. The city is home to two Tony Award–winning theaters and multiple performing arts and live music venues that showcase international talent — and some of the best are outdoors. The acoustically and architecturally divine Rady Shell at Jacobs Park debuted in summer 2021 on the Embarcadero Marina Park South as home to the San Diego Symphony and special concerts. Catch live music or comedy at Shelter Island’s Humphreys Concerts by the Bay, an intimate-feeling 1,400-seat waterfront theater that makes shows even better with stunning sunsets in the background. 

​Oceanside Pier 

San Diego’s northernmost city of Oceanside is home to one of the longest wooden piers on the West Coast, measuring a whopping 1,942 feet, or more than a quarter mile. Stroll the planks, peeking into fishermen’s buckets along the way, and watch as daredevil surfers attempt to shoot the pier (i.e., navigate the pilings without wiping out).

​Soar above the sand

At the Gliderport on the seaside cliffs of Torrey Pines, a state ecological reserve named for the unique tree that grows only here and in one other place in the world, adventurers run toward the Pacific Ocean and jump to catch the wind beneath their paragliding wings. Even if you’re not interested in testing the winds yourself, watching others lazily glide through the air while surfers ride the waves below is mesmerizing.

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San Diego offers a broad range of dining options.
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Where to eat in San Diego 

Wayfarer Bread & Pastry

Keep breakfast simple with a very complex carb from Wayfarer Bread & Pastry, a Bird Rock neighborhood staple that sells out of fan favorites (any and all croissants, which are a three-day production) almost daily. But don’t arrive right at opening; 9 a.m. is the sweet spot for fresh pastries already out of the oven before they’ve sold out. The focus here is on naturally fermented breads, and the bake is dark, caramelized to intensify the flavor profile. Menus change slightly each week, featuring different savory scones and buns. Wayfarer also sells sandwiches (meat and vegetarian on baguettes and sliced sourdough) perfect for a beach picnic. 

Fish 101

Since opening the original Leucadia location in 2011 (and the subsequent Cardiff outpost in 2019), this restaurant has supported local anglers, resulting in premium flavor without the premium price tag. Ask what’s good that day when ordering — no matter what fish you end up with, you’ll leave totally satiated. Bonus: Fish 101 does not skimp on portion sizes. 

​Mister A’s

With 180-degree bird’s-eye views from the 12th-floor penthouse of the Manchester Financial building in Bankers Hill, Mister A’s is a San Diego institution, and has been since it opened in 1965. As of October 2022, the fine-dining staple of the city’s skyline is under new ownership for only the third time in its history. Now at the helm is longtime A’s operations manager Ryan Thorsen, who’s breathing new life into the restaurant in all the right ways, with a tasteful front-of-house face-lift and veggie-forward menus designed for sharing. The best part: You can sit in the lounge and snack on more than just the blue-cheese–stuffed olives in your martini thanks to an expanded bar menu. Note: The business casual dress code is still strictly enforced.

​Anita’s Mexican Restaurant & Cantina

Ask any local their recommendation for Mexican food, and each will have a different answer — the city simply has so many great options. But Anita’s Cantina in Oceanside has been a mainstay of the neighborhood since the 1970s. The lively eatery was founded by Jalisco, Mexico–born, Tijuana-raised Francisco Alvarez, who worked in kitchens in La Jolla and Palm Springs before opening this family-run restaurant. Come for happy hour (Tuesday through Friday, 4 to 6 p.m.) to nosh on complimentary chips and salsa (beware, it has some kick) and cheap eats like fresh grilled-fish tacos ($3.75) or street tacos (chicken, carnitas or local favorite, carne asada, $2.50) and house margaritas ($9.75). Ask for a chamoy rim to make it extra delicious.

​Cesarina

Food that nurtures, fills and uplifts: That’s what chef Cesarina Mezzoni creates for patrons at her eponymous restaurant in Point Loma. Her team’s efforts have earned them a Bib Gourmand from Michelin, an award signifying value and quality in equal measure. The pasta is thick, chewy and handmade in-house. Meals start with a selection of rosemary- and fennel-tinged homemade breads and “salsa” (marinara) — but don’t fill up. You have multiple courses of crispy honey-glazed octopus, light ricotta-filled zucchini blossoms and paccheri with the most deeply divine vodka scampi sauce, topped with one whole wild-caught langoustine that still has some nibbles in it. Tip: Order a build-your-own pasta for the table, and save room for dessert. The light and beautiful tiramisu is constructed in front of you with just four ingredients. It’s masterful in its simplicity.

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spinner image airplanes inside the san diego air and space museum in balboa park california
The San Diego Air & Space Museum celebrates flight history and technology through displays and hands-on exhibits.
Randy Duchaine / Alamy Stock Photo

Balboa Park

Dubbed the Smithsonian of the West, Balboa Park and its myriad arts, cultural and horticultural institutions could capture your attention for days. The 1,200 acres of green space in the middle of the city are home to 17 museums and the San Diego Zoo, all connected by dozens of miles of trails and gardens. Balboa Park is also steeped in history, having hosted the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and served as a base for military operations during World Wars I and II. The ornate Spanish architecture houses attractions for all interests: Aviation and military buffs spend hours at the San Diego Air & Space Museum ($25; $21 for age 65 and older), with its dozens of full-size jets and planes on display, and Veterans Museum ($5; $4 for seniors), a formal naval hospital’s chapel. The Museum of Us ($19.95; $16.95 for age 62 and older) attracts the culturally curious. The park itself (think New York City’s Central Park, but bigger) is a wonderland of history, complete with a working 1910 Herschell-Spillman menagerie carousel (set to reopen in the spring) and a handful of magical, beautifully curated gardens that visitors are welcome to wander at leisure. ​

Ways to save: Every Sunday at 2 p.m., the Spreckels Organ Pavilion booms with the grand instrument’s 5,000 pipes (some as tall as 32 feet) for free alfresco concerts by civic organist Raúl Prieto Ramírez. 

spinner image women swimming with leopard sharks at la jolla shores in san diego california
Leopard sharks are common in the fall in La Jolla Shores near downtown San Diego.
K.C. Alfred/San Diego Union-Tribune/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

Mingle with leopard sharks

From June through October, the already-popular waters of La Jolla Shores get even more crowded as leopard sharks migrate here to breed. You can snorkel with them on your own or with a tour operator, many of whom offer kayak or stand-up paddleboard options as well. 

Ways to save: Book in advance online with Bike and Kayak Tours for the lowest price, and opt for the snorkel and kayak tour (April through November, from $49), a guided option that combines a leopard shark snorkel and kayak exploration of the La Jolla Ecological Preserve.

Savor San Diego’s heritage

A designated California Cultural District, Barrio Logan is a hub for Mexican American culture, arts and crafts. Chicano Park houses the largest collection of Chicano murals in the world, and surrounding homes, businesses and public buildings are part of the ongoing canvas that is Barrio Logan.

Ways to save: Every Saturday, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare transforms into an open-air exhibit during Walk the Block (12 to 6 p.m.), a free event where artists open their studios, custom lowriders peacock proudly, street vendors line the sidewalks and small businesses put their best wares forward. 

​Neighborhood visits

San Diego, though downplayed in comparison to a large metropolitan area like Los Angeles, is actually quite vast, and dozens of neighborhoods have developed their own charm that contribute to the city’s overall feel. Foodies flock to Little Italy, just outside of San Diego’s waterfront and near the airport, or the Convoy District, farther east, for global eats. With its long, paved boardwalk sandwiched between restaurants and retail on one side and sand and sea on the other, Pacific Beach welcomes sunbathers, surfers and an eclectic crowd. To the north (and easily accessible by the Coaster commuter rail), Carlsbad and Oceanside are equally relaxed, the latter offering the Oceanside Pier.​

Ways to save: Take advantage of San Diego Restaurant Week (March 26 through April 2), when you can sample the city’s most lauded menus for a fraction of the usual price.

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