San Diego visitor tips for Seaworld area, and do we need a car?
June 4, 2007 9:30 AM   Subscribe

Visiting San Diego this weekend: do we need a rental car, and is there anything secret and great near Seaworld that we should see? (esp. good coffeeshops for hanging around in?)

We'll be going to and from the airport, to a hotel near SeaWorld, to Mission Beach, University of San Diego, and a Padres game. Can we reasonably do all this without a rental car (on buses or by taxi)? If we rent a car, are there any secrets to driving around those areas (eg routes to definitely avoid)? Are there good coffeeshops or book/comic/record stores near where we'll be? Great medium-price restaurants? Other must-sees for bookish types interested in architecture, old stuff, baseball?
posted by LobsterMitten to Travel & Transportation around San Diego, CA (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
San Diego is not a great place for public transportation. It can be done, but do you really want to spend your vacation dealing with this? My partner and I tried living with one car and gave up after a few too many "it took me an hour and a half on the bus vs. a 15 minute drive in a car." There is a trolley system, but I have never used it since it's never taken me anywhere that I want to go. I hear it's useful if you want to walk into Tijuana, though.

The only exception is parking for the Padres game. It might be worth taking a cab there and back because parking downtown can be tough, and you'll probably have to pay.

The Mission Bay area can get traffic-y around rush hour, but is otherwise not too bad. Interstate 5, which will get you downtown, is your standard 4-5 lane CA freeway of doom where everyone drives too fast and tailgates. But it's better than wasting your vacation waiting for the bus.

It sounds like the Hillcrest/North Park area, to the north of Balboa Park is your kind of place. Lots of coffeeshops, restaurants, and some decent used bookstores. Try Bread & Cie on University for tasty baked goods & good coffee. Used book stores are on 5th Avenue just south of University.

Balboa Park is very pretty and has cool architecture - lots of museums and gardens. I like the odd & decrepit cactus garden a lot. The San Diego Zoo (which, along with the Wild Animal Park, is a must-see) is also there.

Wow, this is really long. Feel free to email if you want more San Diego suggestions.
posted by ilyanassa at 10:05 AM on June 4, 2007

Yes, you'll need a rental car, and there's no way to avoid traffic in SD as there are only two freeways that run north-south, the 5 and the 805, both of which are frequently nightmares. Driving the 101 along the coast is slow but you'll have a gorgeous view along the way.

this restaurant is worth a try if you're into crazy california cuisine. There's a comic store here, although it's nothing revolutionary, just your basic comic store with (very) nerdy clerk, at least as of 2005. Hillcrest, the neighborhood that comic store is in and which is near the restaurant I linked, is the artsy fartsy (read: gay) neighborhood with some cool stores, good restaurants, etc. Head to the north end of Park Blvd. for a great persian restaurant called soltan banoo which I could not recommend more, especially to vegetarians who would love to try persian food but never could because of all the meat- this place has vegetarian options for everything, even kebab!

Avoid the gaslamp district, pacific beach, and ocean beach, because they are filled with loud, boozy blond jocks who will irritate the hell out of anyone erudite enough for metafilter.
La Jolla is overrated, overpriced, and boring. Coronado has the beautiful Hotel Del, set of some marilyn monroe movie, and if you don't anticipate a return visit to SD in your immediate future, it's worth a visit, as the community it's in is gorgeous and the beaches are incredible. You also have to drive across the coronado bridge at least once if you come to SD, it's really cool.

For architecture, you may want to take a jaunt up to la jolla despite my telling you to avoid it to take a gander at the crazy-looking ice-palace that is the mormon temple. There are three main universities in San Diego- UCSD, USD, and SDSU. SDSU and USD have beautiful architecture, UCSD looks like an office park.

That's all I can think of off the top of my head, I'll write more if it comes to mind. Have fun!

on preview: I forgot about Balboa park- beautiful architecture and very peaceful, and if you just go to sea world and miss the SD zoo, you're REALLY losing out, so make sure you go to the zoo as well (monkeys!)
posted by tumbleweedjack at 10:16 AM on June 4, 2007

We really enjoyed going to museums in Balboa Park, in which Sea World is also located (or next to maybe). I particularly remember the Museum of Art, the Museum of Man, the Japanese Garden, and the Spanish Village craft vendors. Even to stroll through the part of the park with all the interesting museum buildings is (imho) worth going out of your way for. The Zoo, also in/by the park, is cool as well, but a big outing in and of itself.

Padres games are right downtown now in the new stadium and would be a big pain to drive to, I think. I would bus or trolley to that.

We were there without a car; took a bus from a hotel in the touristy/conventiony Gaslamp area to the park for the things we did there (not a problem if you're comfortable with big city buses), a couple basic excursions (e.g. Old Town) were easy using the trolley. It's also easy to get to Tijuana on the trolley, in case you're interested in that. All that said, I imagine a rental car would be handy if you're going somewhere other than where the trolley goes, I imagine.
posted by aught at 10:47 AM on June 4, 2007

I live right by USD, and yes, your own car is a must.

In terms of Comics I reccomend Comikaze at 5517 Clairemont Mesa Blvd. Its right off the 805, which runs into the 163 or the 8, both of which are pretty close to USD. In terms of nearby food, JV's Taco shop on the corner of Morena and Buenos is pretty good! Check out the surf and turf burrito - its huge.

If you go into Mission Beach, be sure to hit up the Liars Club at 3844 Mission Blvd for great bar food and beer. You can avoid parking hassles by parking at Santa Clara Point. Near USD, there really arent any good coffee shops.

Anyways, this is my stomping ground so if you have any questions feel free to email. Google City Beat San Diego for or the Reader for local things going on, resturant listings, etc.
posted by fillsthepews at 11:15 AM on June 4, 2007

nth the offer for emailing specific questions/assistance, and nthing the recommendations for the zoo/balboa park/hillcrest. the sea world/mission beach/usd areas are just kind of bleh. you won't find very many interesting coffee shops and hangouts there, but once you head down towards uptown (aforementioned hillcrest neighborhood), they're a dime a dozen. further west up the street, close to the 5 freeway at washington, is m-theory records in a neighborhood called mission hills. to the east of hillcrest, in north park, is off the record. basically, university ave from the 5 freeway east to the 805 freeway is a good place to find restaurants, coffee shops, independent book stores, clothing stores, record stores, and all kinds of good things. you'll find a lot of similar things on adams ave (a few blocks north of university) from park blvd to kensington, a neighborhood just east of the 15 freeway.

i'd recommend getting a rental car, a good map of the area, and just driving around stopping at places that catch your fancy. personally, i prefer to vacation without a specific agenda, and i think those neighborhoods would suit you well. definitely take the trolley if you're going to a ballgame, but everywhere else you'll want to drive.
posted by booknerd at 11:43 AM on June 4, 2007

oh, and san diego is pretty active on, so check that out for more restaurant/coffee shop/shopping recommendations.
posted by booknerd at 11:44 AM on June 4, 2007

Response by poster: (We're going to USD/Mission Beach for a wedding; we aren't going to Seaworld but the hotel is near there.) It sounds like the areas you've identified will be right up our alley - I'm so glad there are places like that in SD, since I've only seen the UCSD-looking (boring-looking) areas. And yeah - vegetarian restaurant suggestions (Mexican, Thai, Indian esp) are doubly appreciated!
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:59 AM on June 4, 2007

Comikaze (suggested earlier) is a few store fronts down from a very enjoyable vegan restaurant. Sipz, they serve mostly asian stuff.

Rancho's in point loma (very close to where you're staying) is a great Mexican restaurant with lots of veg options.

I enjoy old town, they have a great gaming shop, Gametown, and there is an awesome burrito place that you can get all kinds of veg stuff at too.

also, it was mentioned that Seaworld is near balboa park, not true, its the Zoo that is located in Balboa Park. The park itself is awesome and sounds like you'd love it. If the zoo sounds at all interesting, then hit that up too, its really one of the best Zoos in the world.

And yes, getting a car is pretty crucial.
posted by teishu at 12:30 PM on June 4, 2007

Sipz is great! Also, check out the veggie supreme burrito at El Zarape, on Park Blvd. Park is the street that runs against Balboa Park, but this is way... North? I think. On the same street.
posted by fillsthepews at 1:08 PM on June 4, 2007

I enjoy old town, they have a great gaming shop, Gametown, and there is an awesome burrito place that you can get all kinds of veg stuff at too.

Dude, there's like 30 Mexi places in Old Town, you're going to have to be more specific than that. You can't walk 100 feet without hitting some kind of Mexican restaurant there. It's not specifically vegetarian, but we had the last SD meetup at La Pinata, which is pretty good. But it's a sit-down place rather than a taco stand.

Generally, everyone's done an excellent job so far in providing info, so I'll just add some things: Taking the trolley to the ballpark is incredibly easy, and you can probably just park at Old Town (or near the Morena trolley stop) and then take the trolley from there downtown. There's plenty of parking downtown for games if you must drive, but be prepared to pay $10+. I think the trolley's the easiest way to do it, but the only drawback is if it's some big game or a Friday night and the trolley's loaded down with people. Also, there's not much of an opportunity to buy a return ticket before getting on the trolley at the stadium after the game, so be sure to buy a round trip ticket ahead of time. I think they don't even let you in the station unless you have one.

As far as vegi-Mexi food, supposedly Pokez at 10th and E (kinda/sorta near the ballpark) is great. Note that the service is intentionally snotty, and the place is full of hipsters. Avoid if either of these facts would annoy you.
posted by LionIndex at 1:26 PM on June 4, 2007

my favorite indian food place this side of the atlantic is in hillcrest, in central san diego. it's called bombay, and they've got loads of veggie options including tofu and mock duck. for mexican, i'll second recommendations for rancho's, el zarape, and pokez (north park & ob, university heights, and downtown neighborhoods, respectively). i wouldn't trust most of the other taco shops if you're vegetarian, since cooking with lard is pretty common.
posted by booknerd at 1:39 PM on June 4, 2007

I grew up in San Diego but can't add much except to say the recommendations above are dead-on!

If I had to choose between the Zoo and Sea World, I'd pick the Zoo any day. It really is an awesome Zoo. I recall the Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park was this amazing futuristic place when I was a kid - its where the first OmniMax film was shown! But now, unfortunately, it seems a bit decrepit like the vision was lost.

Avoid La Jolla. It used to be young and beautiful but hordes of yuppies all wanting a piece of it - pretty much killed it. Pacific Beach feels like a neverending Spring Break which does kind of suck but I have great memories of beach bonfires there.

Old Town has a lot of Mexican places but they're all pretty much Tex-Mex more than Mexican. Old Town actually gives me a bit of the creeps in that its more of a simulacrum than a living community.

There are more laid-back seaside communities further north - I'm thinking Cardiff (where my parents live) and Leucadia and parts of Carlsbad but thats probably too far out of your way unless you're also driving up to LegoLand which nobody has mentioned.

(Sorry if my post sounds melancholic. I grew up there in the 70's and the changes since have been vast....)
posted by vacapinta at 1:41 PM on June 4, 2007

Old Town has a lot of Mexican places but they're all pretty much Tex-Mex more than Mexican.

Sure, but most Mexican restaurants in San Diego are pretty much cut from the same cloth.

There are more laid-back seaside communities further north - I'm thinking Cardiff (where my parents live)

I miss Taco Auctioneers as well.
posted by LionIndex at 1:52 PM on June 4, 2007

La Jolla is great to check out the seals at seal beach, though!

Its pretty much on Coast Blvd. If you take Prospect and head west, you will hit it eventually. And, its pupping season. Dang, they are cute.
posted by fillsthepews at 1:59 PM on June 4, 2007

Skip Old Town Mexican (pretty generic, in my experience) and go up the hill to El Indio, right off the Washington exit of the 5. Their roasted red pepper salsa is SO YUMMY on their fresh homemade tortilla chips.

My favorite vegetarian place is Jyoti Bihanga, about a 15-20 minute drive from Mission Bay. It's a little bizarre since it's run by a quasi-cult, but really good. Their milkshakes are especially tasty.

There's a good Thai place, Amarin, in Hillcrest. But I've been really disappointed with the Indian food.
posted by ilyanassa at 2:06 PM on June 4, 2007

DZ Akins has the best pastrami south of Canter's.
posted by rhizome at 2:43 PM on June 4, 2007

Sure, but most Mexican restaurants in San Diego are pretty much cut from the same cloth.

Is this the place for a plug? My dad's friend runs a Mexican restaurant in Leucadia called La Especial where he does strive for authenticity. Among other things he has a wide variety of soups, displaying the little known fact that Mexican cooking is in fact very soup-oriented.
posted by vacapinta at 2:51 PM on June 4, 2007

Again, sorry, but there's really not much IN the Sea World area. I also recommend hanging out in Hillcrest and North Park, and yes, you need a car.

This Saturday (the 9th) is Ray at Night in North Park, which is a fun thing where art galleries and boutique-y shops are open late and sometimes serve snacks.

In general, North Park has lots of great restaurants, like the Linkery (my favorite) and Apertivo and Mama's Bakery.

If you like Asian food, the Convoy/Balboa area has some amazing restaurants like the Szechuan Ba Ren (link is to an excellent SD food blog). If you are in the USD area, K Sandwiches or Pho Pasteur in the same shopping center have excellent Vietnamese food.
posted by exceptinsects at 3:09 PM on June 4, 2007

If you are both veggies, I'd stay away from "authentic" mexican food. If lardy fantasticness is ok, please by all means run dont walk to Las Cuatros Milpas in Barrio Logan.
posted by fillsthepews at 3:12 PM on June 4, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you all; these are amazingly great tips.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:07 PM on June 4, 2007

One more thing--the best cofffeehouse for hanging out in is Rebecca's in South Park.
Very cozy and less scene-y than Claire de Lune, and they have excellent scones.

Plus, there's an ice cream shop across the street.
posted by exceptinsects at 3:04 PM on June 5, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you all - we just got back, and had a grand old time.
Unbelievably lovely weather. The areas you described were so great! We did get a car, and thank goodness.

In SD, we hit Bread and Cie (yum!), Soltan Banoo (yum! cherry rice and tofu!), several 5th Ave used bookstores, drove over the bridge to Coronado and saw the Hotel Del Coronado -- beautiful as promised. We went to a Padres game, got caught in the completely bizarre outdoor many-level "mall" near the Gaslamp district (and yes, the Gaslamp district is as described above - club clothes, bleach blondes, yuppie wannabe dudes, Hummers). Went to David's coffeeshop in Hillcrest, not mentioned here but a reasonably nice porch. Spent an afternoon wandering around Balboa Park -- cactus garden! velorome! -- and another afternoon just driving around different neighborhoods. I only wish we had had more time. Can't believe that I now think of southern California as a place I could see living -- thank you again.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:19 PM on June 13, 2007

Response by poster: Forgot Taang! Records on 5th Ave, a welcome throwback to husband's 1990s Boston past.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:21 PM on June 13, 2007

Went to Pokez on the basis of its mentions in this thread and met with: snotty service, hipsters by the barrelfull, and TEX-mex food -- crunchy tacos and sour cream??? Would not go again.
posted by msittig at 11:42 PM on October 4, 2007

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