Michelle and I spent 4 nights and three full days in San Diego. My brother keeps winning fantasy football contests, and luckily for us he won a trip to San Diego on a weekend that he had an exam he couldn’t skip!
Day 1 (Thursday, Dec 10): We landed at SAN at around 3:00 pm, about 90 minutes delayed. We took the shuttle to the Enterprise location, where I had reserved a small car for $20/day tax included. I had booked two days, but I ended up only needing it for 24 hours so I was only charged for one day. At the Enterprise location, I was offered a $10 upgrade to a Mustang convertible which I happily accepted.
By the time we left the parking lot, it was 4:00 pm and sunset was approaching, so we headed straight to the Sunset Cliffs in Point Loma (which is a beautiful neighbourhood). I highly recommend it, a great first impression of San Diego!
Afterwards we drove to our hotel for our first night only, The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma. It’s a very fun super-hipster 50’s-style motel that has a very nice restaurant (too expensive for us) and movies projected by the pool. I had originally planned to stay somewhere cheap downtown, but thanks to an incredible promo from Stayful.com ($75 off an already discounted rate) I was able to book the Pearl for only $23 including tax! That promotion is long gone, but if you use this link you can get $25 USD off your first booking.
For dinner we decided to head to South Beach Bar+Grill in Ocean Beach since I had read that they have amazing fish tacos. But when we pulled up to the restaurant, we discovered that although it is close to Point Loma, Ocean Beach is very different – full of bikers and drugs and alcohol. I didn’t feel unsafe (I am from a big city), but it wasn’t our scene and not the atmosphere we wanted on our first night in San Diego. So we left and decided to come back the next day for lunch, during the daytime.
We headed back to our hotel for the wifi, and after trying and failing for 30 minutes to find an appropriate restaurant (we wanted a fun place relatively close by that was not a bar and not crazy expensive), we decided to go to Casa Guadelajara in Old Town, which we had originally planned to go to on Saturday night. We really enjoyed our dinner – it’s a bit touristy and overdone, but that was a positive for us. Fun Mexican place, live Mariachi band, good food, and huge portions. A little expensive but not too bad.
Day 2: This was our one full day with the car, before we based ourselves downtown. Unfortunately, this was the one day that rained, but we made the best of it.
We woke up very early (still on eastern time) so we decided to drive to Coronado to catch the sunrise from the ferry landing, which we read had great views over the downtown skyline. Unfortunately the clouds rolled in by the time we arrived so it wasn’t much of a sight. Anyways, we went for a quick driving tour of Coronado, along Orange Avenue and then the coast before heading back to our hotel.
We put all our bags in the trunk of the mustang (which is surprisingly big), checked out of the Pearl, and went for breakfast at the Fig Tree in Liberty Square, which was expensive but very worth it – I recommend the stuffed french toast (if you’re not counting calories). From there we drove north to Torrey Pines for a morning hike, since according to the hourly forecast it wouldn’t rain till later in the day (never trust an hourly forecast). On the drive it started raining hard and we got quite wet before we were able to put the top back up (still worth it – I was in California and I wanted to drive with the top down for as long as possible, regardless of how foolish we looked). We got to the entrance of the state park and decided that since it was raining hard, we would go to La Jolla first and come back later. Right as we make a u-turn, the rain stopped so we changed our minds and paid the $12 to drive into Torrey Pines (we could have parked by the beach for free, but it was a long uphill walk to the trailhead and we didn’t want to waste any sunshine time). The weather was great when we parked so we walked along the Beach Trail and Razor Point trail for about 20 minutes. We ran into a volunteer who pointed to a cloud and said “See the rain falling under that cloud? That will be here in two minutes.” She was right, and we were caught in a heavy downpour for a few minutes (we took shelter under a bush). When the rain died down we continued down the trail, but at this point the trail was very muddy and my efforts to make it down were not successful – at one point it became far too slippery to walk, so we turned around. We never made it to the beach, but we still had fun (and adventure) and it was worth the $12. After a very quick look around the museum/visitor’s centre we got back in our car and drove to La Jolla. Our first stop was the cove, but when we arrived it was pouring rain again, so we stayed in the car for ten minutes. When it stopped we walked over to the cove, which was way better than I expected! Many seals swimming, playing, and suntanning within feet of us, and the cove itself is beautiful.
Next we got back into our car and drove to Prospect Street, where we parked and spent some time wandering around and getting ice cream at Cold Stone (we were told that we were the only customers on this cold day – but we love Cold Stone and have been desperate for it ever since they left Canada a few years ago).
Next we drove back down south to get a late lunch/early dinner (around 3:00 pm) at South Beach in Ocean Beach, which was a lot nicer than it was the previous night. It’s next to a nice beach/pier with huge waves (at least on this windy day), so we spent some time watching the kite-surfers. As for the restaurant, the fish tacos lived up to their reputation – amazing. The fried zucchini tacos are also a must.
By this time it was almost 4:00, so we brought our car back to the Enterprise airport location (one-way drop-off fees were very high) and took an Uber to our hotel downtown, the Manchester Grand Hyatt (which we didn’t pay for). On a side note, Uber is amazing in San Diego – we had great drivers and it’s very cheap. We paid $11/$8 for rides from/to the airport and $8 from Balboa Park to our hotel. Not much more than two bus tickets, and much faster.
Day 3 (Saturday): We started off the day by getting breakfast at Mission Restaurant in the East Village. Breakfast was great, so much so that we decided to go back again the next day. We spent the morning walking around downtown, taking a long walk from Mission to Little Italy. Gaslamp was fun to walk through but otherwise, there wasn’t much of interest in the main business section of downtown. When we got to Little Italy we ran into the Saturday morning farmer’s market. I faintly remember having read about it online but I didn’t plan to go – I have been to many farmers markets in my life so I didn’t consider this a must-see. That was a mistake. The farmers market is huge, and virtually every vendor is selling fun snacks (not produce) and giving out generous samples. Although it was still before noon and we were full from our huge breakfasts, we ate lots of samples and bought a brownie, cookies, and cheesecake. I would say that this is my favourite farmers market I’ve ever been to, and a big unexpected highlight of our trip.
After the farmers market we walked along the Embarcadero back to the hotel and rested for a little in our room.
At 6 we took the train to Old Town, since tonight was “Holiday in the Park” (we are big fans of Christmas). Our first stop was Casa Guadelajara (we enjoyed our first dinner there so we decided to go again) and picked up a buzzer (the wait was about 45 minutes, which we expected). We spent that time walking around the main part of Old Town, enjoying the music/festivities/decorations and looking around in some shops, though we didn’t buy anything. After our meal we spent another ten minutes or so walking around before taking the train back to our hotel.
Day 4: Last day in San Diego. We walked over to Mission for another great breakfast, and took the bus from there to the zoo in Balboa Park. I love zoos, but I was hesitant to pay $50/person, especially since our Canadian dollar is tanking. Anyways, my fiancee has the deciding vote so we entered the zoo $100 poorer.
In spite of having limited time, the zoo was well worth it! Definitely the best of all the zoos I’ve been to. Huge but not intimidating, and tons of animals to see. And the skytram is pretty fun. For me, the highlight of the morning (and possibly my life) was seeing the gorillas, specifically the baby. I have seen gorillas at zoos before, but I’ve never made eye contact with one. The gorillas were all right next to the glass, and when I moved my hand the baby would follow and try to touch it! I have the best video of us playing together (through the glass of course), which words cannot describe.
I always feel a little guilty going to zoos, especially when intelligent primates are locked in an enclosure, but they all seemed happy.
Lesson of the day: Don’t be cheap! I try to be a frugal traveller, but memories last forever (or at least a very long time), and I’ve never regretted paying for an experience. Get a cheaper hotel/motel/airbnb if the budget is tight.
After spending the morning in the zoo, we went for a quick walking tour of Balboa Park. The park (and especially the Prado and surrounding area) is beautiful and deserves more time than we gave it.
An employee at the zoo told us we should go to the House of Pacific Relations, since on Sundays noon-4 they have a mini “world’s fair” with good food. We had never heard of it, but are so happy she recommended it! There are a dozen or so cottages staffed by volunteers representing their countries of origin, all of which gave out generous samples of their country’s food, free of charge. A very fun place to spend an hour or so, and we highly recommend going on a Sunday afternoon, whether you’re a local or a tourist.
After our rushed visit of Balboa park we took an $8 Uber back to our hotel, and spent the afternoon at a conference. Tonight was the parade of lights, so we decided to get an early dinner (around 5:30) at Puesto in Seaport Village before the parade. We got Fish Tacos which were amazing, on par with those at South Beach, although much more expensive. After dinner we walked over to the water to watch the boats (covered in elaborate Christmas light decorations) go by. A great way to spend our last night in San Diego!
Day 5: Early flight out of SAN.
One last note: we were very surprised at how empty the city felt. We know it’s not a high season for tourism, but we saw virtually no other tourists anywhere we went. The zoo was emptier than any other zoo I’ve ever been to (which is a big positive, as I’m sure it gets very busy in the summer). We found winter to be a great time to travel, assuming you’re not planning on going in the water. Especially if you’re fine with 50-60 degree weather – somehow, we chose the one December weekend when it was warmer in Montreal than it was in San Diego.