Planning a Trip to San Diego? How to Choose Where to Go

According to this Wikipedia page, there are 85 neighborhoods and communities in San Diego.  That’s a lot to try to sort through if you’re planning a vacation to San Diego and don’t know where to start.  At least for me, it was a bit overwhelming at first.

The Basics

Most first-timers usually plan on going to the usual spots:  Downtown San Diego (Centre City), Old Town, Pacific Beach, Balboa Park, possibly La Jolla, Ocean Beach, and Mission Valley depending on how much time you have.  I’m certainly not saying to just go to these places.  They just seem to be the more common places for first-timers to San Diego.  Here’s a brief description of each of these areas.

Downtown San Diego 

This area includes 7 districts, the most popular ones with tourists are Gaslamp Quarter, Horton Plaza, and Little Italy.  The 16 1/2 blocks of Gaslamp Quarter mostly contain night clubs, shops, and restaurants.  94 historic buildings, built mostly around 1870, in Gaslamp Quarter put it on the National Register of Historic Places and make it San Diego Historic Landmark #127.  Many events and festivals are held here.  Horton Plaza is a small city park that is also a historical landmark, designated by the city of San Diego in 1971.  Little Italy is full of (not surprisingly) Italian restaurants, Italian shops, art galleries, and apartments. There are many events and festivals throughout the year in Little Italy.

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US Grant Hotel behind fountain in Horton Plaza Park
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Davis House, the oldest house in “New San Diego”

Old Town

Old Town is the oldest settled area in San Diego and is the site of the first European settlement in present-day California.  It contains Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and Presidio Park, both of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Old Town is also huge, with 230 acres of land.  There are many restaurants, shops, art galleries, and historic buildings and sites.  Old Town State Historic Park is free to tour the buildings which include 5 original adobes, San Diego’s first newspaper office, a schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop, and many others.

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Old Town

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Pacific Beach

Pacific Beach runs from Mission Bay to La Jolla and has a very long boardwalk (3 miles) that goes along the beach into Mission Beach, ending at Mission Bay.  You’ll usually find PB pretty crowded with people shopping, rollerblading, cycling, and walking.  This area is also a popular spot for nightclubs and bars.  I found it interesting that Eddie Vedder, the musician most famous as the lead singer for Pearl Jam is originally from Pacific Beach.

 Ocean Beach

This is an interesting area in San Diego.  It is home to the longest concrete pier in the West, Ocean Beach Municipal Pier, coming in at 1,971 feet (why they chose that distance is beyond me).  You won’t find many chain stores here because the residents have led several protests of chain companies through the years.  You will find many bars and a thriving nightlife scene here however.  Fun fact:  Ocean Beach and Point Loma are home to a large population of feral parrots that are mostly active at sunrise and sunset.

Balboa Park

In 1835, 1,400 acres of land in San Diego were set aside for the public’s recreational purposes, making it one of the oldest places in the United States dedicated to public recreational usage.  Balboa Park has an incredibly detailed history, much of which you can read on the Wikipedia page here if you’re interested.  In my opinion, Balboa Park is beautiful and I enjoyed just walking around here taking in the scenery.  In addition to several museums, there are 10 gardens, multiple theaters, the San Diego Zoo, the Naval Medical Center San Diego, playgrounds, walking trails, and an enormous sports complex with a golf course, baseball and softball fields, tennis courts, swimming pool and more. You could spend weeks at Balboa Park and still not see and do everything, it’s that enormous and that complex.

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Balboa Park

La Jolla

This community in the northern part of San Diego is perhaps best known for its beautiful views and beaches.  Surrounded on three sides by ocean bluffs and beaches, people aren’t the only ones to have taken up residence in La Jolla.  Hundreds of seals have made Children’s Pool Beach and Seal Rock their home, making the area a popular tourist hangout.  La Jolla is an expensive resort area full of art museums, high-end shopping, and some of the most expensive homes in the country, with a median home price of close to $2 million.  The Torrey Pines Golf Course, Torrey Pines State Reserve with some great hiking, and the famous Black’s Beach (a nude beach) are also in La Jolla.  Finally, La Jolla is also home to University of California, San Diego and numerous scientific research facilities.

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Seals at Children’s Pool Beach
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La Jolla

Mission Valley

One of the most historical places in San Diego, Mission Valley was the first Spanish settlement in California, in 1769.  Today Mission Valley uses its prime location in the middle of San Diego for the placement of apartments, hotels, and retail shops.  Although the Presidio of San Diego and Mission of San Diego de Alcalá were established in 1769 in present day Old Town, the Mission was moved in 1774 to its present location in Mission Valley.  The general boundaries of Mission Valley are Interstates 5 and 15, making for easy access to other parts of San Diego.  The green line of the public trolley system also runs through Mission Valley and the main hub for buses is at the Fashion Valley Transit Center and Mall.

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San Diego Presidio Site

Of course these are just some of the most-visited areas in San Diego for first-time vacationers.  Depending on your situation, you may choose to go to other areas.  You may only have time to visit one or two areas.  I know someone who went to San Diego for a work conference and only saw the Gaslamp Quarter downtown.  She greatly missed out on other areas of San Diego obviously, but her conference was downtown and she only had time for that brief glimpse of San Diego.

What if you only have time to see one or two areas of San Diego?

I personally would recommend going to Balboa Park, La Jolla, and Point Loma.  OK.  That’s three areas.  It’s really hard to limit it less than that.  If I was hard-pressed to choose just one place I think I would say go to Point Loma.  The views from Sunset Cliffs in Point Loma and Cabrillo National Monument are stunning.  That’s what I think of when I think of San Diego- ocean bluffs with views like nowhere else in the world.

For those of you that live in San Diego or have been there before, where would you recommend?

 

 

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Author: runningtotravel

I'm a long distance runner with a goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states in the US. I also love to travel so I travel to other places when I'm not running races. Half the fun is planning where I'm going to go next!

14 thoughts on “Planning a Trip to San Diego? How to Choose Where to Go”

  1. You mentioned UCSD! That’s my school. 🙂 La Jolla is a great area, but I think because I’ve been here for so long, it’s lost a lot of the beauty that it once had. I do enjoy running around the richer areas and looking at all the houses wishing I could own one. LOL. Balboa park is one of those must see areas. Did you end up going to the zoo? It’s one of my favorite areas. My boyfriend’s favorite area would be Mission Bay because there’s a small amusement park there called Belmont Park. We picnic on the beach there, play a few games, and people watch. It’s pretty fun. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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