Because of the pandemic, I have waited almost a year to write my blog on the best things to do in San Diego. People had stopped traveling. Over time, though, I’ve discovered that armchair tourism lives on. We all want to dream of a freer time. In response, I’ve detailed a virtual tour of San Diego. Kick back, sip your quarantini, and imagine you are there. Or going there soon.
Despite San Diego’s reputation for year-round good weather, I found it unpredictable, particularly in January. I began my trip in short sleeves and ended it in a hat and gloves. Especially if you plan to go out on the water, pack for cold weather, just in case. Since you aren’t going away, at least not yet, feel free to turn up the thermostat or throw open the windows. Or both. No one will judge you, except maybe your cat.
To help plan our itinerary, my husband and I purchased a two-day Go San Diego pass. Such passes, by admitting you to specific attractions, work well if you have only a few days. We had such a great experience with our Seattle passes that we opted for the same in San Diego. Essentially, the pass determined our trip and therefore your virtual tour.
Although my trip also included La Jolla, a part of San Diego, I will write about that oceanside community in a future blog. In the meantime, check out my virtual tour of La Jolla’s murals.
Historic San Diego
The Gaslamp Quarter
The historic center of San Diego, the Gaslamp Quarter, houses restaurants, galleries, nightclubs, and boutiques. It can be a little boisterous, but both times I’ve visited the city, I’ve stayed in this district, most recently at the Kimpton Palomar. I like that I can walk to many attractions, including restaurants.
Balboa Park, located on a hill above the city, cannot be easily accessed on foot. Especially if you’re staying in the Gaslamp Quarter, you’ll want to take a cab, a ride-share, or drive yourself.
Once you arrive, you’ll find tons of things to do — the zoo, several museums, gardens, and a vibrant park scene.
San Diego Zoo
One of the most famous zoos in the United States, and rightfully so, the San Diego Zoo is a must-visit for children and adults alike. Located at one end of Balboa Park, it houses more than 800 different species. The zoo is known for both its animal enrichment and conservation efforts.
As you enter the zoo, raucous flamingos greet you. Because the zoo has had flamingos since 1932 and because of their position at the entrance, these bright birds have become the zoo’s unofficial ambassadors. While they might seem common given their presence at so many other zoos, they never fail to make me smile.
Notable exhibits and species include bonobos, koalas, polar bears, pygmy hippos (and their larger cousins), Galapagos tortoises, meerkats, gorillas, orangutans, cheetahs, and a gigantic harpie eagle. Bird lovers will marvel in all the species the zoo houses, and reptile lovers will likewise be delighted.
Natural History Museum
Like all the museums in Balboa Park, the San Diego Natural History Museum is modest in size. Since we included the zoo and a few of the other museums in Balboa Park on the same day, I welcomed the manageable exhibits.
The dinosaur fossils form the central attraction; however, you can learn about everything from the history of science to present-day Southern California flora and fauna.
San Diego Museum of Art
The San Diego Museum of Art collection includes important artists from the Medieval times to today, spanning multiple continents. Despite its small size, it covers an impressive amount of artists and styles, making it an excellent tour of art history through the ages.
When I think of Southern California, I first think of the ocean. Downtown San Diego doesn’t abut the ocean, however, but rather overlooks San Diego Bay. That said, greater San Diego includes many towns and communities that do sit on the Pacific shore. To get your surfing experience, you’ll have to travel outside downtown to one of those locations.
You can get out on the ocean from San Diego by booking a whale watching tour that departs from the waterfront area. Because of our pass, we reserved spots with Hornblower. Once out of the bay, we saw whales and dolphins as promised, but at a distance. We’ve been whale watching enough to expect that; however, some people expected to get right on top of the gigantic marine mammals. Closer to land, in the bay itself, we saw sea lions and found ourselves in the midst of a regatta. Wear warm clothes because the Pacific can be brutal with its cold winds. (This is where you open your windows to the winter chill outside.)
The U.S.S. Midway
In general, I’m not a fan of things maritime, particularly when it comes to naval warfare, but I highly recommend going onboard the U.S.S. Midway for a fascinating tour of the famous aircraft carrier. The array of aircraft displayed on the top deck would satisfy any flight junkie. For me, though, the highlight was the self-guided tour on the inside, complete with control displays, facts about the Japanese attack, and glimpses of life on an aircraft carrier. Allow lots of time because once you enter the tour pathway, you’ll find it difficult to exit without completing it.
And Then There’s Food
I wish I could tell you that the restaurants we visited have stayed open, or at least solvent, during the pandemic. Unfortunately, the foodie landscape may change. As of this writing, the following continue to operate for take-out or claim to be only temporarily closed. Time will tell. When restaurants open again, please support them during your visit.
For an excellent seafood lunch on San Diego Bay, try Top of the Market; ask for a table overlooking the water. For a fantastic Asian-inspired Happy Hour, go to Nobu on the outer edge of the Gaslamp District. Downtown, try Grant Grill for a dark, retro atmosphere with contemporary presentation. Fleming’s Steakhouse, although a chain restaurant, offers high-end steakhouse fare. For breakfast, grab a doughnut at the Donut Bar.
You can see a lot of San Diego in a long weekend, although the attractions are not always walkable. Either rent a car or use a ride share service to get to where you want to go. We even used Uber to get from La Jolla to San Diego. If you have more time, plan a day trip to Sea World and/or Knott’s Berry Farm. Regardless of whether you visit solo, as a couple, and with your family, you’ll discover a wealth of activities suited to your interests.