San Diego is not the typical American city everyone has on their list. But it’s one that’ll surprise you with its diversity and beauty – and its amazing beaches!
We’ve never really planned visiting San Diego until we moved to California. But once we lived so close to it, why miss it? We expected a big American city with skyscrapers and cars honking their horns, and it has some of those features for sure, but some parts of it – the parts we especially loved – have elements which are more Native American, Spanish and Mexican. Altogether, it has such a special cultural heritage and atmosphere!
On the other hand, it’s a harbor, the southest large bay along the Pacific coastline which means small islands and bridges for us, evenings walks in the ocean sunset and long, sandy beaches. Oh, the beaches! I couldn’t imagine talking about San Diego without mentioning its amazing beaches.
Old town: a piece of Mexico
In the old town of San Diego we felt like being in a Western movie. It’s a small, vibrant place with exciting gift shops and big cactuses. (And believe it or not, it’s the best picture we took there. Uhm… My photography skills have improved significantly in the past 6 years. Also, we haven’t even had this blog in mind back then when visiting San Diego. What else can I say? We have beautiful memories – and very few and not very pretty photos. 😀 )
The most special urban park ever: Balboa Park
San Diego’s biggest park is not just a green space to hang out, it’s a center of culture and art, too. Tons of museums, art performances, impressive buildings and gardens – there are always interesting things going on here.
Our favorite free attraction is the Desert Garden. Want to see huge, I mean HUGE cactuses in every color and shape? This is the place for you then.
Best beach: Coronado
Our favorite swimming beach in California! Huge, perfectly sandy, always sunny, and it’s in a picturesque location set against the backdrop of iconic Hotel del Coronado.
It’s one of those rare beaches in California where we went into the water for swimming – and we weren’t out after 10 minutes because of the ice cold water. Probably it’s the warmest by September and early October.
Best city panorama: Cowles Mountain
There’s some hiking to do in San Diego! Oh, we always find hiking opportunities even in the cities, and those offer the best panorama of the city. Just like Cowles Mountain.
It’s a short, but steep hike to the top of Cowles Mountain which is not a place near San Diego, it’s truly inside the city, and rewards with views of the San Diego skyline, all the nearby mountains and distant ocean views.
Best coastal panorama: Point Loma Lighthouse
For closer ocean views, views of the beaches, harbors and bridges, we drove up to Point Loma Lighthouse. It’s located inside the Cabrillo National Monument, so you better check the opening hours of the park before you go, because they normally close very early (like 5 pm). Sadly, no night views of San Diego from here.
There’s hiking, biking and jogging opportunities in the park, but it was such a hot day that we headed to the beach after a very short time – and we did it right. 🙂
Best sunset hike: Sunset Cliffs
You have to walk the coastal trail in Sunset Cliffs Natural Park just before sunset! It’s a breathtaking walk along the rugged coastline, offering great views. You might stumble upon a coastal wedding or two, as well, or catch a glimpse of migrating grey whales.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park lies to the west of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard.
Day trips from San Diego
There’s plenty of day trip options! If you want more beaches, you find miles of them at La Jolla. Laguna Beach, the 7 miles long wonderful sandy beach should be a stop if you drive towards LA. Or combine beaches with short, scenic coastal hikes at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.
Go to Lake Poway for hiking, or rent paddle boats, rowing boats or power boats to explore the lake. Find spectacular desert landscapes in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park – it’s blooming in the winter! San Jacinto Mountains offer countless hiking and biking trails, and also rock climbing at Suicide Rock and Tahquitz Peak.
If you only have a day, that’s what you could do:
Take a walk in Balboa Park and in the old town, then head to the beach!
Any city which surprised you?
This post was updated in January 2021.
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