San Diego in one day-o
July 14, 2017 7:33 AM   Subscribe

One day in San Diego: what should we do? Asking for a co-worker (and also for me, sort of; see post-script): My wife and I have one day in San Diego coming up in early August. It's a weekday, the length is not negotiable, but assume it's a full day. Is there something in San Diego we absolutely should not miss (except the zoo, unfortunately)? Where should we eat (breakfast, lunch, and dinner)?

p.s. My family will coincidentally be in San Diego around the same time as my co-worker (but we won't be meeting up or anything), but we'll be there for 4 full days and 2 half days. We're going to Disneyland for one day (not negotiable), and the zoo; what else (besides the beaches, the USS Midway, all the museums I want to see...we don't have enough time!!!!) should we 100% NOT miss? Also: give me all the food recommendations, please! Four adults (mostly), no picky eaters at all. Go!

p.p.s. Do we absolutely, 100%, do-not-pass-go need to have a car? We're taking Amtrak to Anaheim, the hotel has a shuttle to and from the airport, we're good with lots of walking, fine with taxis/Uber/Lyft/Whatever. Really don't want to rent a car. But should we?
posted by cooker girl to Travel & Transportation around San Diego, CA (14 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If you wanted to spend the whole day in a single place, I'd recommend Balboa Park. It's right next to the San Diego zoo and hope to a ton of museums, but it's also a fantastic place to spend a day walking around. There are a bunch of cool free things, gardens, and museums to see, and several small museums & gardens that are relatively inexpensive and can been seen in an hour or so. It's my favorite place.

The gaslamp quarter is a nice old-town style downtown area with plenty of boutiques and bars and the like.

Also, San Diego has some fantastic beaches.
posted by sleeping bear at 8:22 AM on July 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've been to San Diego a number of times for work. Here are things I liked a lot:

Cafe Gratitude, an all-vegan restaurant heavy on raw food and super, super delicious. I am not vegan and cannot get enough of this place.

Ranchos Cocina. If you like Mexican food, you're about to hit gold. Lots of options, really fresh, super delicious.

For breakfast, I'm partial to Snooze, which has lots of options and killer pancakes, and a very charming atmosphere that is so California I nearly laughed the first time I was there.

For stuff to do, I'd recommend Balboa Park, which has a ton of museums and space to walk around. The Japanese Friendship Gardens are lovely and a great place to grab a tea and a snack, and there are a couple of really good art museums. I haven't been to the big art museum as it was closed last time I was there, but was absolutely delighted with a few of the smaller ones and got to see some really unusual exhibits.
posted by bile and syntax at 8:23 AM on July 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I can't tell where you will be staying. That matters a lot, even if you have a car. You don't want to be driving to La Jolla for breakfast if you're staying in San Diego.

Do you mean you're spending time in Anaheim, then taking a hotel shuttle to the airport, and then flying to San Diego?

Is it a full day as in 24 hours? Or one day as in arriving in the morning going back in the evening? I don't understand how you'll be in San Diego a full day but also four full days. Have you mixed your coworker's or family's schedule with your own?

As much as I like the zoo, it's such a time-consuming thing, and it's going to be so hot there in August, that if you only have one day I would say don't do it.

If you are doing the zoo, make sure you do the sky ride. It's so pleasant and gives nice views. Also find the hummingbird aviary: it's a sweet little place where you can (if others will cooperate) sit quietly and watch colorful birds flit around.

Also, as soon as you enter the zoo, get as far away from the entrance as you can. The zoo is so much better away from the crowds.

They'll also still be doing summer hours, which means they're open until 9 p.m. Going to the evening/night zoo is so great! It's cooler, for one thing. For another, many of the crepuscular and nocturnal animals are more active. We tend to head right down to the hippos at dusk. We've had so many wonderful moments with the hippos frolicking in the half light of their see-through tank. The big cats, too, tend to be more active at dusk. Watching them prowl is impressive.

If you're going to the zoo in the day, I would go to museums in Balboa Park right after. If you're going to do nighttime zoo, then go to the museums in Balboa Park before it. They're just a few minutes away on foot from the zoo through part of the park. See the botanical house and lily pond for free. The Timken museum is also small but free. There's a video game exhibit at the Fleet Science Center. The Japanese Friendship Garden is charming (and I like their little cafe for lunch). The model train museum is a must-do for the kids (plus they have air conditioning); nothing like people with a mania putting their maniacal obsessions on display! There's a big exhibit on cannibals at the San Diego Museum of Man (the museum housed in the big dome and tower — it's worth walking down to those buildings just to see them up close). If you like art, the Mingei and the San Diego Museum of Art are both worth it.

If you're hungry in Balboa Park, Panama 66, an outdoor cafe attached to the Museum of Art, is good. Locally sourced food (no Sysco food trucks!) and locally brewed beer. Music in the evenings. San Diego County has more than 120 breweries, and this would be a good place to get a sample of the region's brewing skill.

If you're willing to do public transit and Lyft, then you don't need a car. But it would be a lot cheaper and more convenient to rent a car. San Diego is not a good transit town. It has transit but it seems to have been designed to tick the transit box and not to actually fulfill the needs of very many people.

This best-of list on Reddit is a pretty good way to get off the beaten track, although many of those things are out in the county, which is huge.

I'd also skip the Midway. I mean, walk by it but don't go aboard. It's a grand ship but once aboard it's a so-so museum and too much of a time-sink for a day-tripper. I feel like the main thing you're buying is a sense of patriotism, which you can get anywhere. If you want to see aircraft, the Air and Space Museum in Balboa Park can scratch that itch for you.

Also skip all the tourist stuff on Harbor Drive. And skip Seaport Village (which I like, but which also isn't worth it for a day-tripper).
posted by Mo Nickels at 8:26 AM on July 14, 2017

Response by poster: Co-worker: one day. Driving through, basically, but have planned for one, long day in San Diego.

Me and my family: four full days, two half days in San Diego. We currently have a hotel booked near Little Italy but I'm always open to changing that and am currently vacillating between staying nearish to Balboa Park and staying near Liberty Station (I take FOREVER to make hotel decisions, a fact I attribute to a horrific stay in a hotel in NYC). Zoo is a must (daughter is planning on a zoology/conservation major in college; visiting the San Diego zoo is literally on her bucket list), Midway is a probable must (family members are former Navy, husband LOVES ships). We were planning on taking the train to Anaheim and then a shuttle bus to Disney. Disney is probably non-negotiable and right now we've blocked out a whole Friday for that. I really don't want to rent a car and it seems to me that if we stay closer to Balboa Park we'll be able to walk/Uber/Lyft pretty much anywhere, I think?

So it sounds like Balboa Park is the place for my co-worker! (and it's definitely on our list as well)
posted by cooker girl at 8:51 AM on July 14, 2017

Best answer: For the day tripper, I'd say Balboa Park if you don't want to get in the ocean, and La Jolla if you do. Other people have the park covered, so here are some recommendations for La Jolla. August is a great time to snorkel with the leopard sharks. Get lunch at the Cheese Shop. It'd probably be neat to eat dinner at the Marine Room, because that's probably where you just snorkeled. I love the Birch Aquarium. Don't forget to see the seals and sea lions at Children's Beach/La Jolla Cove (just don't get too close!). There's also a couple of museums in La Jolla.

And for your 4 day trip:
Definitely check out the Maritime Museum right by the Midway, especially the Soviet-era sub. Get yourself to Convoy St in Claremont for a dizzying array of Asian restaurants (I just went to Tofu House for dinner last night (not just tofu!), and Iceskimo for dessert, and used to go to Phoung Tran every Friday for lunch).

If you're beer people, spend an evening bar hopping along 30th. Start at Tiger! Tiger! on El Cajon, and walk south on 30th. My usual stops are Belching Beaver, Rip Current (if you haven't already eaten, get the mac n cheese there), Toronado, and Mike Hess (actually two blocks east of 30th).

If you don't want to go too far afield (say, to the Safari Park or somewhere), you will be OK without a car. Having a car would be more convenient, but the parking in all of the places I just mentioned is a nightmare, so it's probably break-even time and money wise between Lyft/Uber vs parking. Public transit is not really worth it unless your origin and destination are on a direct route, or you're going to a big event (sports, Comic Con, etc).

On preview -- your daughter will probably REALLY enjoy the Safari Park too, but that would eat up most of a day. I have a couple of botanist/ecologist friends who work(ed) for their research arm doing things like habitat restoration and population counts. I think switching to a hotel closer to Balboa Park is a good idea. There will be a ton of restaurants and bars to walk to, and you can do the park and the zoo on foot.
posted by natabat at 9:02 AM on July 14, 2017

Best answer: Little Italy but I'm always open to changing that and am currently vacillating between staying nearish to Balboa Park and staying near Liberty Station

Little Italy is close to Balboa Park! It's about 1.5 miles from the middle of Little Italy to the heart of the museum area of Balboa Park.

If you're in Little Italy, you're walkable to the Kettner Boulevard branch of Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and the trolley (light rail) system. The trolley is good for some destinations (Gaslamp, downtown, two big malls, the border) but doesn't go to the airport, Balboa Park, or any beaches. The trolley will also take you to Old Town, just a couple stops away from Little Italy. That can be fun: shops, old buildings, a few small museums, food. (Just ignore the Yelp reviews on the Mexican restaurants, or add a star to each one. San Diego locals like to crap on the review pages of restaurants that cater to tourists.)

If you want to be RIGHT next to Balboa Park, try the Inn at the Park. It's across the street. You can even see bits of the zoo. However, it's still a one mile walk to the heart of the museum area. But a pleasant walk, as most of it is in the park itself. I stayed at the Inn at the Park years ago when it was under different management. I don't know how it is now but as it's been bought by a big chain, I assume a baseline of quality.

I would avoid staying near Liberty Station, except maybe a few places on Harbor Drive, which aren't quite walkable to LS or much else. Liberty Station is itself a nice diversion but many ways into it lead you through constant traffic and ugly parts of the city. If you do Liberty Station, IDW (the comics publisher) has a public gallery, there's a comics store, and all the food options in the public market are worth exploring.

Gaslamp can be diverting during the day but at night it tends to be a lot of meatheads. However, it's not typical San Diego. It's pretty much like all the convention-area Chamber of Commerce-hyped wanna-be-hip districts that so many American towns have.

I agree with the others on the Safari Park! I prefer it over the zoo almost always. But it is a bigger chunk of your day and you would need a car (or else it would be an expensive Lyft fare).

The best beach in San Diego for out-of-towners is the one near the Hotel Del Coronado in Coronado. Clean sand, great dog beach (they're so fun to watch!), occasional Navy ships going by, occasional dolphins, peeks of Mexico and its islands. The town of Coronado is charming. It has a different feel from San Diego. Very nice houses, nice shops, nice restaurants. Orange Avenue from about Eighth Street south about ten blocks is particularly walkable. Books, food, ice cream, people-gazing. Parking is easy.
posted by Mo Nickels at 9:30 AM on July 14, 2017

Best answer: If you go to La Jolla, the Children's Beach is fine, but my top recommendation is to look at the tide tables and find a good time to go to this tidepool area. When the tide is low, you have a huge amount of wet rock and sand to explore. Crabs, starfish, anemones, and all the other little critters, including the occasional jelly or sea slug. Occasional dolphin sightings out further. Ships going by. Just park on one of the nearby streets and go down the access road you can see on the satellite map. It's also a great place to fly a kite (as is pretty much any beach in San Diego).
posted by Mo Nickels at 9:39 AM on July 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: One more thing and I will stop:

posted by cooker girl at 12:21 PM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Mexican food! It's hard to trust reviews in San Diego, partly because, as I said above, locals tend to under-rate places frequented by tourists. On the other end of it, places that are near student hangouts or bar districts tend to be *over-rated* because people are leaving ratings when they have been drinking. And then it seems like most of the rest of the reviews are by the usual cranks, by people who seem to rate only based on portion size, by people who rate the restaurant low because of things like parking, and then a sprinkling of genuine reviews by people who have fairness in their hearts. So. That said.

Here are my recommendations for Mexican food:

El Borrego. I love their lamb burrito, the borrego. It's so good. Small place, clean. Not near much that might interest a tourist but easy to get to from the freeways. When you really love Mexican food it can be worth it to go out of your way. Get the glass bottle of Coke ("Mexican Coke") with your meal.

Super Cocina. I have had the San Diego burrito there a couple of times and love it but their specialty is meaty sopas. Ask for samples! Be adventurous. Try the empanadas, too. Small. They might speak to you in Spanish first but just answer back in polite English if you don't have any Spanish. Be sure to figure out the specials. There's a menu board across the top, then sometimes other dishes listed on a paper sign to the side, and then sometimes you just have to look at what they're currently preparing and ask for some of that for yourself, even if you don't know what it is.

Salud! for tacos. The area isn't great but it's been trying to become the next up-and-coming hip district for a while and this restaurant is one of the successes. Beer and tacos. Cool art, loud music, lines during weekend mealtimes. You can leave here feeling like you were, for a moment, plugged into the future of a San Diego.
posted by Mo Nickels at 3:18 PM on July 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: PS: that La Jolla tide pool road can be accessed by the public. There's a sign with says "KEEP OUT Authorized Vehicles Only." But it only refers to vehicles. People are allowed — by law — to walk down that road to the beach.
posted by Mo Nickels at 3:24 PM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As a Midwesterner, I really enjoyed going to Crystal Pier and the beach there. It was the end of the line for the bus (we didn't rent a car) and the area around there seemed very California hippie, I guess, and just lowkey. We went in February, though, so that would be very different than a beach in August, I'd assume. But we liked to see the ocean at sunset.
posted by jillithd at 5:36 PM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This recommendation may be too specific, but the shrimp sopes at El Cuervo are my must-eat whenever I'm in San Diego. You can get them two ways -- al mojo de ajo (garlic sauce) or a la diabla (tangy, spicy red sauce). Both are reliably delicious. The rest of the menu is just average.
posted by aws17576 at 10:52 PM on July 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For one day, I agree Balboa Park is a great place to spend your time.

In San Diego threads I always recommend these two places:

- Seconding natabat on the Maritime Museum, one of my all-time favorite museums. Aside from the submarines, you can board a bunch of other ships from different eras (also has late summer hours and is open until 9pm; except the museum is closed for the Craft Beer Festival event on Aug. 5). My favorite ship there is the Star of India (formerly Euterpe); started as a full-rigged ship and is supposed to be the oldest ship in the world that still sails regularly. Aside from the ships and exhibits, the museum also offers various types of tours on the water (which I haven't taken myself but look interesting).

I really do recommend the Maritime Museum for your husband or for you/co-worker if you're at all interested in history, the era of sail, emigration, trade, military history, and/or seeing what it was like to be on a ship that sailed around the world over 20 times (from England to New Zealand) in the 19th century. I'd pick a few ships and spend time on those, and then visit some others if you have time left (some of the smaller ships are fast visits).

- Cabrillo National Monument which, weather-depending, can have some stunning views. Some nice walking/hiking and there's a neat old lighthouse you can go upstairs and see the tiny rooms (unfortunately not always to the very top, though). There are also tidepools but I haven't gone down to those in particular. It's a really nice area but probably easier if you had your own car, so maybe save this for a future visit.
posted by rangefinder 1.4 at 12:00 AM on July 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Super Cocina review should have said something about meaty antojitos, which are like appetizers or small dishes. Not really sopas, which are soups.
posted by Mo Nickels at 4:29 AM on July 16, 2017

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