Two free days in San Diego for adults.
July 10, 2015 8:45 AM   Subscribe

Two free days in San Diego next week with my 66 year-old mother. Assuming we're not going to visit Sea World/the Zoo/Legoland - what do you recommend we do (and where should we eat)?

We'll be in town for wedding at sea, so we'll have a few hours on a boat enjoying the ocean. Not terribly interested in beach time. My mom's in pretty good shape, so walking around is fine, but strenuous activity (hiking, etc) is probably not ideal. We're staying in the Shelter Island area but will have a rental car. Neither of us have been to the area before.

Things I've thought of/found but I've no idea of the quality:
- The USS Midway Museum
- The Birch Aquarium
- Checking out the Sea Lions at La Jolla Cove (is this worth a trip just to see them and not swim? Are there other less-crowded places to see aquatic mammals?)

Would love a couple of restaurant recommendations too, especially for seafood and Mexican and Mexican seafood. Also if there's a great Mexican arts and crafts marketplace, I'd be interested to know that.

This is likely to be the only time that either she or I visit the area. What should we not miss while we're there?
posted by Ufez Jones to Travel & Transportation around San Diego, CA (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
We are actually going to San Diego next week as well, and plan to spend at least a day on Coronado Island.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:47 AM on July 10, 2015

Closer to Encinitas than the city proper but Juanita's for taco shop Mexican food (there's some shopping up and down the street, though more large yard things than arts and crafts) and the Potato Shack for breakfast or any meal. Note: Potato Shack is cash-only.
posted by tilde at 8:48 AM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Brunch at the Hotel Del is pretty spectacular.
posted by notyou at 8:48 AM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Torrey Pines reservation has a pretty steep uphill walk but I'm not sure it's "hiking" level difficulty. A solo walk up to the rocky promontory there was the highlight of my recent business trip to San Diego.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:58 AM on July 10, 2015

Best answer: I know I sound like a broken record, but every time somebody asks me about visiting San Diego, the first thing I recommend is taking the trolley tour.

Look, I get it. Tours aren't for everybody. And I've been on lots and lots of bad city tours. But this isn't one of those. Everybody who has followed my recommendation has come back raving about how good the tour is. I've taken it twice. The first time my host took me. The second time, I was playing host and took a relative.

The guides are entertaining and not too fake ha-ha funny. I love the ability to hop on/hop off, so you can spend more time in areas that really interest you. You get a good sense of the entire area--its geography and its history.

Even if you don't take the tour, take a look at the company's website for an idea of where the main tourist stops are, and some potential areas you may want to visit.

I won't recommend any restaurants, since I'm sure they've all changed since my last visit, but if you can make it up to La Jolla, there should be some really great options. (I can't remember the name of the one up there I really loved. I think it was mainly noted for the view, but the food was really good as well.)
posted by sardonyx at 9:01 AM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

How mobile is your mother? There's lots of really neat stuff in Balboa Park -- museums, exhibition halls, gardens, etc.. If she's up to it, it's a lovely place to explore and probably not too taxing for a reasonably fit senior.
posted by Nerd of the North at 9:08 AM on July 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: La Jolla Cove! La Jolla Cove! Our traditional routine was breakfast at Brockton Villa (if it's a weekend, make a reservation - and share an order of Coast Toast no matter what time of day you're there), then across the street to look down at the sea lions, around past the stairs down to the beach, around the point at Scripps Park and then up to Children's Pool, but if that walk is too far (I think the entire loop was like 1.4 miles if we parked fairly close to the park) you can skip Children's Pool as it gets pretty crowded in the summer on weekends. (If you're out that way on a weekday, check the tour schedule at the Salk Institute if you dig architecture.)

That's your prime place to see sea lions, and they're pretty much guaranteed to be there (though there are points in the day where there are a dozen and then points in the day where there are 40-50).

I was first taken as a visitor up to the lighthouse at Point Loma. It's a great view, and we lucked out and saw a submarine deploying.

Yelp is trying to tell me that the Mariscos German truck is gone, so I don't even know what to tell you anymore. It looks like Nine Seas might be the new champion.

Burritos are a controversial topic, and my suggestion will surely outrage someone, but I stand by it: the local chain Cotixan (sorry, music and a terrible website, but it has locations listed - some of the menu is here). What you really want is the Super Breakfast Burrito, but they're all pretty good. So are the chilaquiles. As a nicer sit-down place, I haven't had the burritos at El Zarape but the tacos are excellent and it came recommended by an expert.

Besides burritos with french fries in them, or carne asada fries, San Diego's actual specialty is Asian food. There's Thai there better and more authentic than anything I've had in LA, and Convoy street is lined with Vietnamese, Chinese, and Korean restaurants. Yelp is pretty reliable in SD, so make sure you have the app on your phone so you can just check nearby wherever you happen to be when you get hungry.

If you guys get a hankering for a mini road trip, and you like pie (and/or wine), head up to Julian for a couple of hours. It's a nice drive that takes you through several different SoCal geological zones/microclimates. (Sadly, I guess you're going to miss Watermelon Days at the Camel Dairy, which is apparently a thing that has a dairy.)
posted by Lyn Never at 9:30 AM on July 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: La Jolla is a lovely place to visit and walk around even without looking at the seals. You generally do not want to or can't go swimming where the seals are (because seal poop). Just walking around the point is nice, and it's one of the more scenic beach areas in San Diego. The area generally caters to rich people and tourists, so eating there might not be what you're looking for - either fancy or junk that manages to survive because of the tourist trade. sardonyx is probably thinking of either Top of the Cove or George's. If you go to the aquarium, you'll be in the La Jolla area anyway.

There's probably better and more authentic places, but if you want to hit both Mexican food and arts and crafts at the same time you can go to Old Town. It's touristy as heck, but there is some historical stuff around, and you may be able to find actual Mexican crafts made in Mexico around there. There's also a ton of sit-down Mexican restaurants, most of which are pretty gringo, and I just don't like the food at some places (Fred's, El Coyote). I haven't been in a long time, but I used to like the Old Town Mexican Cafe.

As a nicer sit-down place, I haven't had the burritos at El Zarape but the tacos are excellent and it came recommended by an expert.

There are actually two El Zarapes! The sit-down place mentioned here and a taco shop on Park Blvd a ways to the west. I've only been to the taco shop, but it's pretty good, and was included as a contender in the generally flawed fivethirtyeight burrito challenge last year. If the taco shop is any indication, the nicer place should be pretty good.

It's pretty hard to go wrong with Balboa Park on a Sunday. Museums (the Timken is free), gardens, and just some interesting stuff. Arts and crafts (by local artists) at the Spanish Village, possible open houses at the international cottages.
posted by LionIndex at 9:51 AM on July 10, 2015

I live and work in San Diego and have OPINIONS. Some of these are responses to the above suggestions.

1. Balboa Park is a short drive from where you're staying. It's really pleasant to walk around, even without buying tickets to any of the many museums. (I work at the San Diego Museum of Man, the one with the big tower and dome in the park). Free things to see include a lily pond, the botanical house, a cactus garden, a rose garden, the Timken Museum, the architecture, and a small, easy trail called Palm Canyon. The newish Panama 66 restaurant right on the main plaza is a decent lunch or dinner stop. Spanish Village is decent, though it's a mix of really beautiful handcrafts and utterly trite amateur work (like paintings of lighthouses and palm trees on the beach at sunset). On Sundays there are free concerts at the organ pavilion at 2 p.m., which can be rousing. The Prado restaurant is also good. I do like the Japanese Friendship Garden, both the garden and its little Japanese cafe. HOWEVER: Next week is the San Diego Pride celebration on Saturday and Sunday July 18-19, and there's a major gala in the park on the 18th, so if those are the days you are in town, know that if you are headed for Balboa Park (or for the pride celebration), traffic and parking will be difficult and unpredictable.

2. La Jolla is fine but the sea lions are not really worth the trip to La Jolla, especially as parking and traffic tend to be annoying at most times during most daylight hours. I do like the Birch Aquarium a lot and going to it can mean avoiding the parts of La Jolla with heavy traffic. Walking around La Jolla can be pleasant but the description above is apt.

3. I wouldn't recommend a drive to Julian as taking to much of your limited time.

4. Both El Zarape restaurants are really decent Mexican food. The small one on Park Boulevard is more of a quick stop with a few tables and a mostly tacos and burritos menu. (I ate there three times this past week!) Its best bargain: 99¢ fish tacos. The other El Zarape on Adams is a sit-down place with a substantially different menu of plates and entrees that are more higher-priced, but worth it. It can be loud, though. I have had better Mexican food in San Diego, but both of these restaurants are solid and reliable and I've never had a bad meal at either, and plus, I don't have to drive out of my way just to get slightly better Mexican food.

5. Never trust Yelp reviews in San Diego for restaurants in bar districts or near college campuses or in areas with lots of nightlife. They have amazing star ratings because people vote when they are drunk and high. I've had so many mediocre meals from places like these.

6. The Balboa Park day pass is a very good deal: $45 for general admission to 17 institutions, all within walking distance of each other. It's a huge discount, even if you only visit just two museums in Balboa Park. I'd recommend the Mingei, the Art Museum, and the Museum of Man to start.
posted by Mo Nickels at 12:52 PM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Do not go to Torrey Pines. It is lovely. It is also arduous and it is an ecological preserve where you can not eat anything. Water only is allowed on the trail. The hiking is pretty vigorous and you can carry a picnic basket to the beach to do lunch, assuming the beach isn't too swamped by the tide. Parts of the beach disappear completely at high tide. Given the no hiking and no beach interest, I think you would be unhappy.

You will not be far from The Embarcadero and Seaport Village and the historic Gaslamp District. Sometimes, arts and crafts people from Mexico who barely speak English sell their stuff along The Embarcadero. There are sometimee street performers and touristy things for sale as well. It changes all the time. I think that is also where the museum is that you mentioned. There is a lovely park where people routinely fly kites. There is a kite shop. There are various eateries and multiple public bathrooms. At the far end by The Hilton is a new-ish pedestrian bridge that leads to the stadium, basically. It has an elevator if you do not feel like taking the stairs. It has quite the view and is architecturally notable in its own right.

The Embarcadero is basically across the street from the Gaslamp District. Lots of restaraunts in the area, many with sidewalk cafe seating. It is a very San Diego kind of thing and you should totally do that for at least one meal.

Visit Horton Plaza as well. It is a five level open air mall. From the outside, it looks like a mishmash of buildings so it blends in to downtown. Not Mexican, but I highly recommend the California Crepes place in the mall.

If you do go to La Jolla, take a gander at the Geisel Library on the UCSD campus. Although I never ate there, the campus also has one of Wolfgang Puck's restaraunts. It is Asian fusion and it is called Jai.

The sea lions are not far from Scripps. There is another awesome pedestrian bridge there. But, seriously, if you are pressed for time, traffic to La Jolla tends to be ugly. The landscape interferes with connecting streets and you wind up trapped for long-ish stretches on one of the north-south roads.

You can do all kinds of things not far from where you will be staying and more than adequately fill two days while barely scratching the surface of what all is there. There really is no need to jump in a car and waste precious time driving somewhere unless there is something specific you desperately want to see (like the Leeds Platinum building at one of the ecological preserves if you are an eco-urban planning nerd extradordinaire).
posted by Michele in California at 2:45 PM on July 10, 2015

I don't know what kinds of travelers you are, but the places Michele pointed out -- Embarcadero, Seaport Village and the Gaslamp District — are not everyone's cup of tea. The first two are touristy to the extreme. The Gaslamp has lots of restaurants and some shops, but is caters to the tourist trade, mostly, and meatheads at night.
posted by Mo Nickels at 3:38 PM on July 10, 2015

If you were just going for seafood, without it necessarily being Mexican, I would normally recommend the Fish Market, at the west end of G Street downtown. But, they had kitchen fire at the end of May and I don't know how that impacted their operations. They have some standard fish stuff that's on the menu all the time, but the main part of the menu is just a list of fish they have on hand, usually 10+ items long, including halibut, shark, lobster, snapper, etc. It's a bit of a tourist destination (it's right next to the Midway), but sort of deservedly so. The restaurant building is actually out on a pier over the bay, so you get a view of the Navy base across the water (menu sometimes identifies which aircraft carriers are in port) and can see all the boats going by. There are other Fish Market locations around, but pretty far flung.

In lieu of that, another option is the Brigantine, with multiple locations around, but you'd probably want to go to the one on Coronado, almost across the street from the Hotel Del (but there's also one ON Shelter Island). They're a little more upscale than the Fish Market, and their menu has a bit more non-seafood items, and their fish selection is slightly inferior in variety but still lengthy. The Brig also has a sister restaurant almost next door that's a bit of an upscale Mexican place, called Miguel's (again, there's one really close to Shelter Island)

There's also some smaller fish places that are more counter service/take out kind of joints that have good reputations (but I haven't been to) - Blue Water on India St., just a couple blocks south of Washington and a mile or two north of downtown. There's also places near H&M Landing, right where Shelter Island connects to the mainland and the commercial fishing boats lay up. Mitch's has a really good rep.
posted by LionIndex at 8:21 AM on July 11, 2015

Best answer: I have a weird fondness for Miguel's (I used to work across the street from the one in Carlsbad) because even though they make zero claim of being Tex-Mex, and they have more seafood than you'd get in a Texas Tex-Mex place, they are pretty much my platonic ideal of the sit-down big-ass Texas Tex-Mex restaurant and bar. Reminiscent of Uncle Julio's or Blue Goose or Pappacito's, if you recall any of those fine Dallas institutions.

And they have this queso, sort of a cheese bechamel, that I one day hope to take a bath in.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:34 AM on July 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Why not the zoo? (There was a baby giraffe the last time I And there's a very nice restaurant in the middle as well (forget the name, but MUCH nicer than you would expect in a zoo)
posted by sexyrobot at 11:43 AM on July 11, 2015

If you like sushi, try Sushi Ota. It's off in the corner next to a 7-11 in a strip mall, but the food is great. Not a cheap option, so take that into account. Prime time will be quite crowded, you might want to get a reservation.

The zoo is huge, and built into a canyon. It probably qualifies as hiking unless you stay near the entrance or take the bus tour.

If you go to Birch Aquarium, which I recommend, you will have an awesome view of the coastline off their back deck.

Also check out the botanical garden in Balboa Park. I think the sculpture garden at the art museum is free to go in. The park is great to walk around regardless.
posted by expialidocious at 12:03 PM on July 11, 2015

Best answer: Depending on your route, I strongly suggest a visit to Torrey Pines Gliderport. (If you go look at the sea lions or if you go to Scripps Aquarium (aka Birch), you'll be pretty close to the gliderport.) You can just wander around for a few minutes and check out the amazing view (one of the best in all of SD County), plus you'll get to see people paragliding, which is awesome.

I agree with others that dealing with getting and and out of La Jolla Village (where the sea lions are) can be pretty rough, especially on weekends. However, I love seeing them!

Closer to where you'll be staying is Cabrillo National Monument. Again, gorgeous views, plus some cool historical learning to be had. Also, tide pools. Also close to you: Sunset Cliffs Natural Park and Ocean Beach Pier -- many lovely, pleasant, non-strenuous strolls and gorgeous views to enjoy all around the area. Shelter Island itself is also great for a stroll. If you'll be here on a Wednesday, check out the Ocean Beach Farmers Market -- it's like a cross between a regular produce-oriented farmers market and a mini street fair.

If you go to Balboa Park (and like others above, I recommend you do!), don't miss Spanish Village. It's a collection of working art studios/galleries and unlike a lot of other stuff in Balboa Park, it's free to visit. A few others have mentioned it above. I think you'd really enjoy it, and I would recommend it over Old Town, which I have found to be way too touristy and crowded and just annoying to deal with. Plus, if you don't like Spanish Village, you can go to other parts of Balboa Park and find something you'll enjoy. My favorite museum in Balboa Park is the Mingei.

There are a ton of fun things to see and do within 5-10 miles of where you'll be staying. If I only had two days, I would probably stick with things close by to avoid spending excessive amounts of time on the freeway or in traffic. However, if you do venture up north a little, drive home on Coast Highway (aka the 101) between Encinitas and Torrey Pines. That's my favorite stretch of coast driving -- you'll get some breathtaking views, especially headed south.

I think you'll have a great time! It's a beautiful area :)
posted by hansbrough at 4:24 PM on July 11, 2015

Just for future searchers: I don't agree that Albert's, the restaurant in the zoo, is very good! It's expensive and about as good as airline food.
posted by Mo Nickels at 5:14 PM on July 12, 2015

Albert's is great...for a zoo. Our strategy is to go there when we need a sit-down in the shade for a while, and share a couple of appetizers or one entree while downing a lot of water (and I think they serve beer and wine, if I remember right from the last time) and iced tea. The food is pretty much Straight Outta Sysco, but it's got real chairs.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:59 PM on July 12, 2015

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