San Diego the Local Way
Tips on the city's best cocktails, music venues, romantic spots and more, from those who know best.
Next time you watch a newscast filled with reports of severe weather and snowstorms, think about San Diego. When the weather gets rough, there's no better time to plan a getaway to this perpetually sunny, quintessentially California oceanfront city.
This border town may exist in the long shadow of Los Angeles, but San Diego’s beaches are where Angelenos come for weekend escapes. And while some call San Diego sleepy, we say it’s just, like, totally laid back, dude.
Need more reasons to visit? San Diego’s restaurant scene is on a steady climb; many a Broadway show tests its legs here first; and every neighborhood (hip North Park; tony La Jolla) has its own story to show and tell.
Experts Weigh In
To really convince you of San Diego’s charms, we’ve turned to two experts: Archana Ram and Erin Jackson.
Archana is a senior editor at San Diego Magazine and has more than a decade of experience covering travel, food and style for outlets including Travel + Leisure, AFAR, Sunset and Vogue. She also contributed to the 2017 edition of the Fodor’s San Diego guidebook.
Erin Jackson is a food writer and photographer who has been on a mission to discover the best chefs and restaurants in San Diego since 2010. She is also the founder of Friendly Feast, a nonprofit organization that produces food and drink events to benefit the local community.
We asked both for a local-eyed view of the city, and they were kind enough to share their secrets.
Tourist Trap to Avoid
Don’t look for Archana anywhere in the Gaslamp Quarter, the downtown entertainment center. Other areas of San Diego are a much better reflection of the superb food, culture and community that define San Diego, she says.
As for Erin, she says SeaWorld is off limits. “If visitors want to see local marine life, I suggest visiting the seals and sea lions at Children’s Pool in La Jolla, or swimming with leopard sharks at La Jolla Cove,” she says.
Tourist Trap That's Actually Really Cool
Balboa Park suits Archana, who loves walking around the trails and paths in the mornings before work, when she has the giant urban park mostly to herself (and her dog). The park is also a dynamic cultural hub, featuring several museums and performing arts venues.
Erin doesn’t mind the waterfront dining and shopping complex of Seaport Village. The shops and restaurants are better suited to business travelers and families, but she loves walking around the perimeter and hanging out on the sea wall.
Best Fancy Dining Spot
Archana fancies Born & Raised in Little Italy. It’s a high-design cross between old-school steakhouse and old-school gangster rap, featuring framed photos of legends like Ol’ Dirty Bastard. "And they pull it off!” Archana says.
Cowboy Star, a steakhouse in East Village, makes Erin feel fancy the second she steps through the door. Insider tip: “If you want the five-star experience on a budget, the lunch menu has some affordable options that won't break the bank,” she says.
Best Cheap and Greasy Dining
Archana loves the steak fajita burrito at El Zarape, located on Park Boulevard in University Heights. She always packs on the salsa verde. Also on the menu here? An excellent Mexican breakfast menu, including huevos a la Mexicana and chilaquiles with eggs.
Hodad's burgers are a San Diego institution, says Erin. The restaurant’s combo of tasty food, great prices and a laid-back atmosphere is tough to beat.
Best Place to Go for Live Music
Archana gravitates to The Observatory North Park to hear great indie bands. “Humphreys by the Bay skews a little more classic,” she says, “but the outdoor venue overlooking the bay is stunning.”
The old-school Casbah is Erin’s pick. “It’s a cozy space with excellent acoustics,” she says. “I loved seeing Pinback there!”
Best Cup of Joe
Archana gets her caffeine kick from the Golden Hill location of the local chain Dark Horse Coffee Roasters, which pairs its high-quality brews with (yes) tasty vegan donuts.
“I'm partial to the Kryptonite cold brew at The WestBean,” Erin says. “It's infused with mint and finished with simple syrup and a dollop of cream.”
Archana isn’t a big drinker — her husband is her official booze taste-tester. He has three outposts at the top of his list: Trust, where the cocktails are stiff and flavorful; Madison, which serves an excellent selection of Mezcal flights; and Polite Provisions, where cocktail-mixing classes are also on the menu.
Erin raves about The La Verdad served at Puesto. “It's a tequila drink with cactus agua fresca and lemon,” she says. “It's clean and simple, with a slight vegetal flavor that tastes refreshing and like it might actually be good for you.”
Best Place to Nerd Out At
Archana didn’t have a pick for this one, but Erin went for something many, many people would agree with: the world-famous Comic-Con International. “It’s wall-to-wall nerds for four days, at dozens of venues in and around the Gaslamp Quarter,” Erin exclaims.
Erin also singles out the annual W00tstock at the Balboa Theatre, a geeky music-comedy show whose co-founders include “Mythbusters” host Adam Savage and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” actor Wil Wheaton. But , she admits, “half of the references go right over my head.”
Best Spot for a Daytrip
Heading south to Tijuana is the way to go, Archana says. The Mexican city is “just 20 minutes from downtown with an amazing mix of great cuisine (both high-end restaurants and cheap food trucks), shopping (Object MX), drinks (Cine Tonela) and art (La Caja Galería).” Just don’t forget your passport.
Erin loves taking the train about an hour north to Carlsbad Village to poke around the different shops and cafes. “C'est La Vie has the best Smartie cookies I've ever tasted,” she says. “If you bring your bike on the train, you can ride down the coast and catch a ride from the Encinitas station.”
Best Events for Mingling with Locals
The South Park Walkabout is a quarterly community event in a charming neighborhood south of Balboa Park. Archana says many of the indie boutiques stay open late, host live music and pour free drinks.
As president of Friendly Feast, Erin organizes fun food and drink events that raise money for charity, including the Chef-Driven Bake Sale (Sunday, May 6th at Herb & Wood), Pop-Up Doughnut Shop events and more.
Both are popular among the people who call San Diego home.
Best (and Worst) Months in the City
Archana loves late March and April, when the purple jacarandas and jasmine are blooming. She believes walking through Balboa Park at that time of the year is like walking through a perfumery.
Erin also enjoys April, when the jacaranda trees (and everything else) are in bloom. And, she adds, “I love November in San Diego because the sunsets are especially stunning and the beach areas tend to be less crowded because it's a bit chilly to hang out in a bathing suit.”
Best Hidden Spot for Romance
Archana’s romantic spot isn’t necessarily hidden, but she loves a sunset picnic on a bluff at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, a 68-acre oasis stretching across the coastline.
Bleu Boheme, a classy French restaurant in Kensington, does it for Erin. “It has delicious food and a romantic, Old World atmosphere,” she sighs. “It's tucked away in a quiet neighborhood with beautiful homes and big trees.”
What to Buy Before You Head Home
Shop Good in North Park is among the best for the eco-friendly skincare and beauty products San Diego is known for, Archana notes. She says the shop is as stylish as the products, and touts its famous organic facials (just note that they get booked up quickly).
“Buy a t-shirt from your favorite bar or restaurant,” Erin recommends. “It's more personal than a standard tee from a souvenir shop.”
Why San Diego is Objectively the Best City on Planet Earth
Archana is quick to tick off San Diego’s many attributes: “The weather, the small town feel in big city shoes, the relaxed pace, and the fact that it is making huge strides in so many industries — biotech, food, drink, art and more. Plus, we’re the most dynamic border city in the U.S. No one else can make that claim!”
Erin digs the scenery, climate, restaurant scene and laid-back nature of San Diego. “Quality of life here is pretty excellent,” she says.