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San Diego is having its moment in the sun. Okay, that literally happens everyday but, figuratively speaking, the city is in the midst of a real renaissance. While smoggy LA’s tenure as the Golden State’s it paradise peaked mid-century and San Francisco lost its cool cred the day one bedroom rents inched above $3K (of course, we still love both cities), San Diego is on the rise. From A to Z, here are 26 reasons to love San Diego right now.

RELATED: San Diego is now one of our favorite food cities

Since we’ll be ending this list with a place to see animals (you know what’s coming), we thought we’d start it with one. Birch Aquarium at Scripps boasts all kinds of cool marine life including sea turtles, leopard sharks, starfish, seahorses and many others. Its best feature, however, is its terrace tide pool featuring gorgeous ocean views.

La Pensione

Budget lodging
As downtown cranes portend the arrival of more upscale hotels, it’s refreshing to know that San Diego is still a mid-range and budget lodging haven. Mission Valley’s Hotel Circle remains ground zero for cheap chain accommodations, but for both affordability and charm there’s no beating La Pensione in Little Italy or North Park’s Berkshire Motor Hotel.

The California Tower | Photo courtesy of the Museum of Man

Climb the Tower
Closed to the public for 80 years, the California Tower at the Museum of Man in Balboa Park is open once again! Ascend its 157 steps to get a fascinating history of San Diego, culminating in stunning 360-degree views which, on a clear day (that’s basically everyday), extend all the way to Mexico.

Anza Borrego State Park | Photo by author

It’s unfair that one city has so much to see and do within a couple hour’s drive. Get boozy and woozy in Temecula wine country; bite into homespun apple pie in mountain town Julian; color yourself impressed at the Flowers Fields in Carlsbad; cross the border to explore the emerging food scene in Tijuana; and be amazed by 130 large-scale metal art sculptures in Anza-Borrego State Park.

San Diego is no late-night mecca, but folks do rise, shine and join the lines for weekend brunch. The city is full of egg-cellent brekkie joints including reliable standby Mission Cafe, the original Hash House A Go Go, our current fave Breakfast Republic and homespun icon Big Kitchen Cafe (where Whoopie Goldberg once washed dishes).

“Favorite Color” mural in La Jolla | Photo by author

“Favorite Color”
You’re visiting in part to fill up your Instagram feed, right? Artist Roy McMakin’s mural “Favorite Color,” part of the Murals of La Jolla program, is surely its most grammable and alone worth the trek to charming La Jolla (where you can also swim with sharks, visit a clothing optional beach and explore a secret cave via a gift shop).

Nomad Donuts | Photo by author

Gluten-free (and regular) donuts
There was a time when a visit to Nomad Donuts in North Park meant suffering long lines at that painful AM hour when a sugar and caffeine fix were needed stat. But the new location is big enough to quickly feed the hungry masses and Nomad’s stellar small-batch treats (like honeydew mint bacon) are a reason to rise before noon.

Headquarters at Seaport Village
The respectable face of San Diego’s biggest tourist trap, the city’s old police headquarters, is now a historic landmark featuring shops, eateries and actual jail cells. Fuel your fix for Mexican at Puesto with small, but meaty and delicious tacos. Do stroll Seaport Village, but only for Coronado Bridge selfies and to watch sea lions splashing around in the harbor.

The Hotel Del Coronado

Imperial Beach
Its claim to fame is that it’s the southwesterly most city in the US, but locals know it as the entry point to the Silver Strand, a spindly and scenic isthmus linking posh Coronado Island (technically a peninsula) to the mainland. After driving the Strand, stroll pretty Orange Avenue and couple it with a visit to the iconic Hotel Del Coronado—the inspiration for the “Wizard of Oz.”

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo
The first European to set foot on the West Coast, his arrival on September 28, 1542 in San Diego Bay is marked by Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma. Highlights include a statue of Cabrillo surrounded by stunning views (the best in San Diego), numerous hiking trails and a series of infinitely enjoyable tide pools.

Karen Krasne
A new crop of young chefs might be pushing out some of the city’s culinary legends, but no one will ever beat “Queen of Cakes” Karen Krasne who’s Extraordinary Desserts come adorned with flower petals and flecks of edible gold and are well worth the long lines. A new location will rise not far from the soon-to-be shuttered original; in the meantime there’s always the outpost in Little Italy.

Chicano Park | Photo by author

Logan Heights
Aka Barrio Logan, is a low-key Mexican nabe tucked under multiple freeways. Rising from Chicano Park are the numerous columns holding up the Coronado Bridge and each one has been turned into the country’s most arresting mural project. In fact, the entirety of Chicano Park is painted in bright colors; a seriously pretty sight.

You’re gonna wash down that burrito with a salty-rimmed drink, right? San Diego is not lacking in south-of-the-border bites and when it comes to recommendations the list is varied (and argued over), but we can safely say that Cantina Mayahuel, Barrio Star, the aforementioned Puesto and Galaxy Taco will all keep you properly imbibed.

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LA isn’t the only California city to boast mid-century cocktail bars that have survived and even thrived throughout the decades. San Diego claims a few hipster-invaded retro cool lounges of its own, including Nunu’s (those Naughahyde booths!) in Hillcrest, the Lamplighter in Mission Hills and the Turf Supper Club, where hungry diners sip retro cocktails while grilling their own meats!

Ocean Beach | Photo courtesy of Visit San Diego

Ocean Beach
San Diego County is blessed with more than 70 miles of coastline and its beach neighborhoods are among its most famous coastal assets. Away from the families and millennials that crowd Mission Beach and Pacific Beach respectively, scruffy Ocean Beach charms with boho Newport Avenue, an energetic dog park and the beloved Ocean Beach Pier.

The Pendry San Diego

The coolest block in the lively, if touristy, Gaslamp District owes its thanks to the Pendry, an upscale hotel breathing new life into luxury accommodations. Can’t afford $300/nightly? Take in city views at Pool House, enjoy a brew or libation at Nason’s Beer Hall or Oxford Social Club respectively or splurge on fancy seafood at Lionfish.

The hallmark of any great food city is unbearable lines for must-have food. In San Diego that means joining the queue at Crack Shack, an addictive, chicken-focused eatery (get the Firebird and pair it with Schmaltz fries) and Carnitas Snack Shack in North Park, which features the heart attack-inducing Triple Threat Pork Sandwich.

Reclining seats
Set your seat fully back and stare up at both screen and sky at Cinema Under the Stars, an indulgent movie-going experience in Mission Hills. In addition to zero-gravity recliners, cinephiles are also treated to love seat cabanas, a retractable roof (in case it rains), space heaters and a mix of classic, cult and current cinema faves.

Don’t alert the masses, but it’s the best month to visit. It’s as warm and sun-drenched as July and August, but sans the crowds. Plus, a smorgasbord of festivals swarm the city including Restaurant Week, the US Sand Sculpting Challenge and 3D Expo and KAABOO Del Mar Festival headlined in 2018 by Katy Perry and Foo Fighters.


Ironside | Photo courtesy of Zack Benson

Top Chef Alley
For some inexplicable reason, San Diego’s top toque’s have all taken up residency in Little Italy, transforming a yawn-worthy tourist zone into a celebrated foodie mecca. Don’t miss Kettner Exchange, Juniper & Ivy, Ironside Fish and Oyster, Craft & Commerce and Herb & Wood. Good luck parking. Seriously, it’s nonexistent. 

University Heights
San Diego’s charming inland neighborhoods are woefully underrated, but it boasts many winsome areas including North Park, Kensington, Mission Hills, Hillcrest and sleepy cool University Heights. Center your visit around Pop Pie, a fast casual eatery serving sweet and savory pies with to-die-for crusts that are perfectly flaky and buttery.

Tower 23 in Pacific Beach

View rooms
Make sure to request one when booking a stay at Tower 23, a glass-box boutique hotel in Pacific Beach located a mere stone’s throw from the ocean (seriously). Pretty much any room category with the word ocean in it guarantees a sweet vista, but even if you’re just passing through the ‘hood, its ocean-facing restaurant JRDN boasts excellent people watching.

Wow Wow Waffle
The outdoor eatery that out hipsters them all, this purveyor of homemade liege waffles is crafted of a vintage airstream trailer, old stadium seating and, get this, is located behind a coin-operated laundromat. But dang, the food is something else. Opt for the savory Number Seven (baked in brown sugar and topped with goat cheese, avocado and candied bacon).

Botanical Building and Lily Pond | Photo by author

That’s the horticultural term for orchids and if you’re a fan of the precious and adorned flower, check them and many other plant and flowers out at the Botanical Building at Balboa Park. Thanks to its domed structure and lily pond out front, it’s probably the most photographed building in San Diego—best of all, admission is free.

Bivouac Cideworks | Photo by author

You think we’re reaching for a “Y” word here, but we’re not. San Diego is a craft beer mecca and White Labs is where many brewers both local and nationwide get their yeast. There’s a tasting lab and restaurant on site, but if you’d rather just hop (get it?) to the nearest brew pub, check out Monkey Paw, Karl Strauss or North Park newbie Bivouac Ciderworks.

You didn’t think we were going to leave this out, did you? The most esteemed zoo in America, the San Diego Zoo occupies 100 acres of northwest Balboa Park and contains more than 3,500 rare and endangered animals including bonobos (our closest relative), red pandas, koalas, grizzly bears, hippos, elephants and many more.

Tagged: California

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Jason Heidemann

Jason Heidemann

Jason is a Lead Content Specialist for Expedia Group, and manages content initiatives across numerous Expedia-owned brands. His work has been featured in the Chicago Tribune, Time Out, the Huffington Post, Chicago Magazine, Passport and many others.

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