Ah, beautiful San Diego a land rich in history. If you are here for a conference, chances are that you are going to be spending most of your time downtown in the Gaslamp district. If this is your first trip to San Diego, have fun there, amble along the bay and don’t worry too much. Might I suggest going to Craft&Commerce for excellent cocktails? Or try to sneak in to the hidden Noble Experiment (reservation by text message required; hidden behind a fake wall). But if you’re like me, wanting to get out and explore the actual city – well, here are some things to do.
From a conference-goer’s perspective, there are several ‘rings’ of neighborhoods – roughly corresponding to distance or the time it will take to visit. This map actually sums it up well. I’m going to focus on places you can easily get to by bus, with a few notes on places you might want to go by car.
Let’s first talk about Uptown (Hillcrest/Balboa Park on the map). Originally a ring of streetcar suburbs, San Diego decided that sounded too nice and ripped up all the streetcar tracks but left a somewhat dense and walkable set of neighborhoods. At it’s center is Balboa Park. This is a good place to focus your time. Here are the neighborhoods, some suggestions, and bus lines.
Note: outside of Normal Heights, it’s relatively easy to walk between all of these neighborhoods once you’re in Uptown. Also, you’ll easily know which neighborhood you are in by the neighborhood arches. Obviously, I am focusing on food/bar suggestions; each neighborhood has much more to offer than that.
Balboa Park – At the center of all the neighborhoods is Balboa Park, a truly gigantic park. At the center of Balboa Park is a set of buildings originally built for the World’s Fair in the Spanish style. There is tons to do here: many museums, gardens, just general perambulating. And, of course, the world-famous Zoo. If you go to the zoo, make sure to buy a ticket for the Skyfari arial tram for great views of the park and the city. The park itself is quite large and hosts things like a velodrome and ping pong courts. Bus directions.
Hillcrest – The largest of the uptown neighborhoods, often the extended area is known as ‘Hillcrest’. Probably the center of the LGBT community in San Diego. Try Snooze for brunch or Hash House A Go Go if you like vast amounts of deliciously greasy food. Nunu’s is a classic San Diego lounge that feels right out of Anchorman. Banker’s Hill Restaurant is one of my favorite restaurants, though some people feel similarly about Cucina Urbana. Bus directions.
North Park – The hippest of the uptown neighborhoods, it is adjacent to Hillcrest. Fun to walk around. Hands down the best coffee in San Diego is at Coffee & Tea Collective, though Cafe Calabria is the establishment candidate here. Carnitas’ Snack Shack is filled with delicious pork snacks and seems to always have a line, for good reason. My favorite bars are 7 Grand (for whiskey) and Bar Pink. The whole neighborhood is filled to the brim with food. Tiger! Tiger! offers good food and a great selection of beer. Another favorite for a wide selection of great beer is Toronado. Bus directions.
University Heights – A slightly more upscale and smaller neighborhood. Try the Red Fox for a really classic San Diego bar and excellent people watching (don’t expect tons of great food, however…). Small Bar is similar to Tiger! Tiger! in its beer selection. It’s also small. Try Bahn Thai or Plumeria for food. El Zarape is also a classic. Bus directions.
South Park – Hamilton’s is one of the epicenters of the San Diego beer scene. Go there. Lucky for you, SfN in 2013 is on second saturday which if you can get there early means delicious free food and cheap beer. Eclipse Chocolate also has some amazing sipping chocolate flavors. Bus directions.
Normal Heights – A bit more out of the way and less upscale, Normal Heights is just starting to come into its own (ie: gentrify). Lestat’s is one of the best coffee houses in San Diego (though not the best coffee), though if you want the emphasis on the beans go across the street to Dark Horse. Blind Lady Alehouse has great beer and the best pizza in San Diego. Viva Pops has Mexican-style popsicles. Polite Provisions looks like a 19th-century pharmacy and has great cocktails. I haven’t been to Sycamore Den yet but hear it also has great cocktails. Bus directions.
Other things to do
Outside of these areas? If you have a car, try going to the Wildlife Safari – it’s better than the Zoo. Maybe also drive out to Cabrillo National Monument.
Ocean Beach is great. Many of the beach towns in San Diego – and Southern California in general – have lost a lot of their soul. The exceptions are the ones that are difficult to get to, like Ocean Beach. Full of hippies, beach bums and the best hamburgers in America (be prepared for hours-long lines).
If you’re in Mission Valley/Old Town/Hotel Circle, you are in a land of shopping malls and tourist traps; spend as little time here as possible. If you are stuck in a hotel here, well, you happen to be right next to one of my favorite bars: Albie’s Beef Inn. It’s…an interesting place!
You might be tempted (as an academic) to go up to UC San Diego in La Jolla/University City – Although UCSD is in “La Jolla”, it’s separate from the traditional La Jolla, in a neighborhood called “University City” or UTC. UTC is a mess, try to avoid it unless you need to visit the campus or one of the other institutes such as Salk. La Jolla is expensive but nice; try visiting the cove. For a relatively inexpensive bite to eat, go to El Pescador or Puesto. Otherwise try Whisknladle or Prepkitchen.
Finally, try Tijuana! But don’t blame me for anything that happens, but Tijuana is a pretty fun place with good museums and an exciting food scene (not open on Sundays, however).
Other things to know about San Diego
Famous Bands from San Diego: Pinback, Blink 182, Crocodiles, Stone Temple Pilots, Tom Waits, Hot Snakes, Rocket From the Crypt
Best Authors from San Diego: Dr. Seuss
Best Movies set in San Diego: While some might expect me to say Anchorman, the clear answer is either Jurassic Park 2 or Top Gun.
Best Indian – There’s not a lot, but go to Himalayan or Suharti Farsan Mart
Best Sushi – Sushi Ota is the traditional king (with a location by the same people near downtown at Hane Sushi), but the recently opened Sushi Tadokoro is better and does not yet have the prestige price added to the menu. You will want to get the uni if you go to one of these places as San Diego Bay uni is honestly some of the best that you’ll find.
Best Other Japanese – Okan is the gold standard, and for ramen try Ramen Yamadaya. We have been going through a tsukemen trend lately so maybe get some of that.
Best Mexican – Tacos El Gordo, Super Cocina, Las Cuatro Milpas, El Borrego
Best New American – Banker’s Hill Restaurant, Whisknladle or Prep Kitchen
Best Chinese – Nope.
Best Fish Sandwiches/Tacos – El Pescador in La Jolla or German Mariscos taco truck if you can find it
Best Thai – Easily: Sab E Lee
Best coffee[shop] – Hands down the best coffee in San Diego is Coffee & Tea Collective. Other than that, you’re going for the coffeeshop not the coffee. Try Lestat’s (in Normal Heights, not Universight Heights) or The Living Room in La Jolla (or Birdrock Cafe, but it’s been a long time since I’ve made it there).
Here are some other suggestions.
I like the beach and art galleries. Where should I go?
La Jolla is the ticket! Just be aware that it’s a bit of a ways off, so I hope you have a rental car. A cab will be fairly spendy ($40+ each way, maybe?) and the bus takes >1 hour. Ocean Beach and Mission Beach are closer, but sans art galleries.
Where should I get tacos/lunch?
If you’re willing to walk a bit, it’s 20 minutes to some of the best mexican food in San Diego: Las Cuatro Milpas. Other than that, I don’t go downtown so you might as well check yelp. Just be sure to leave 20-30 minutes before lunch starts to beat the rush.
Is there a local San Diego cuisine?
Beyond practically inventing the fish taco, a local staple, there is one other hallowed bit of food: the carne asada fries. Think of them as a Mexican-influenced take on poutine. Make sure to get these while in San Diego, just try not to be sober while you eat them.