As your plane hugs California's twinkling turquoise coast and descends directly into the city, you know you've arrived; welcome to sensational San Diego. In this sun-kissed SoCal city, Vitamin D is in high supply–as are reggae beats, surfboards and beach cruisers, casual wardrobes and warm, laid-back attitudes.
San Diego combines the best of all worlds–proximity to water and mountains — Photo courtesy of Courtesy Joanne DiBona
Of course, you've got to check out the must-see spots - Balboa Park, the Gaslamp Quarter, and all the "Top Gun" filming locations - but soon enough, you'll want to get away from the crowds.
Here are the 10 best local gems in and around San Diego. Soak in local culture, food, drink and views. In this stress-free environment, you only have one item on your "to-do" list: watching the sun set over the Pacific.
* Pro tip: some gems are out of town. Get around like the locals do, by car or train. The Coaster commuter train and Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner are both great for stress-free exploration.
Drinking in dreamy, pastel sunsets often becomes a nightly ritual — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
1. SUP in Mission Bay
Get your paddle on at the Mission Bay Sportcenter, where you can take lessons or go on DIY water-based adventures. Travel by boat, jet ski, sailboat, wakeboard or stand-up paddleboard.
Feeling especially adventurous? Get some major ups with a rented jetpack!
2. Eat like a local in Oceanside
Savor fantastic fare at Local Tap House, a bustling, airy new local favorite that delightfully jazzes up the Oceanside culinary scene.
Diners eat at tall wooden tables, bar stools lining the open garage doors, or on an outside patio with a delightful indoor ambience, thanks to stained-glass skylights and old-fashioned, two-headed fans.
The alluring menu lists locally-sourced items from shrimp and chorizo egg rolls to crab BLAT sandwiches, quinoa burgers and specialty dishes as the burrata cheese and fried green tomatoes.
An extensive beer menu boasts regional choices like Ballast Point, Stone Brewing Co., Alpine Beer Company and more.
Authentic Mexican shopping in Old Town San Diego — Photo courtesy of Courtesy Bazaar del Mundo Shops
3. Take time for tacos
No trip to San Diego is complete without enjoying what this town does best: fish tacos.
At Oscar's Mexican Seafood's two coastal locations (in Pacific Beach and N. Pacific Beach), queue up alongside damp-haired surfers taking a break from the waves and enjoy affordable, tasty fare: cups of fresh ceviche, the "Fisherman's Torta," and tacos stuffed with skirt steak, spicy shrimp and grilled octopus.
Find some Zen in Encinitas — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
4. Press "refresh" in Encinitas
Wander the cliffside Meditation Gardens (free and open to the public) on the tranquil grounds of the Self-Realization Fellowship Retreat and Hermitage. Feel your heart rate slow as you wander alongside verdant groves of flora, vibrant patches of Birds of Paradise and bubbling koi ponds.
Before or afterwards, enjoy a rejuvenating fruit smoothie on the patio at Swami's Cafe, a groovy, mellow hangout located just across the street.
5. Get hoppy around San Diego
Explore the thriving brewery scene with an organized group (try Brewery Tours of San Diego or Brew Hop), or put together your own itinerary and Uber between hubs. There's plenty to choose from:
- About 20 minutes northeast of downtown, Green Flash brings cozy beer garden culture to a business park. Here guests enjoy tasty brews and delectable food truck burgers, sliders and jars of pickles.
- Not far from downtown in Point Loma, Modern Times turned a 2,000-square-foot warehouse into a colorful feast for the senses. Entire walls are covered in comic book pages and Post-It notes, creating an awesome life-sized mural. Work your way through the 16 taps, or order a sampler of four, cleverly served in a cigar box.
The San Diego brewery scene is ever-expanding — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
6. Stroll Oceanside's weekly Sunset Market
Every Thursday, from 5 to 9 p.m., the streets of Oceanside bustle with vendors and shoppers. You can get almost anything here: from the decadent (pastries and slabs of fudge) to the health-conscious (cups of probotic kefir soda) to the memorable (jewelry and art).
Dinner options run the gamut: lobster rolls, bánh mìs, gyros, steaming bowls of curry and much more.
* Pro tip: the California Surf Museum keeps later hours on Thursdays, so take the opportunity and escape the market crowds here. Beach- and surf-lovers will enjoy this charmingly intimate collection of all things surf-related, including the famously-chomped board of shark-bite survivor Bethany Hamilton.
7. Get cultured in Carlsbad
Maybe you didn't come to San Diego to be inside, but the Museum of Museum Making is meta enough to deserve a visit.
Afterward, enjoy some casual, alfresco seafood with a view at Harbor Fish Cafe.
Breakfast here often means acai bowls and other tasty treats — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
8. Enjoy the breakfast of champions at Swell Cafe
There's no better way to start the day than on a sunny Mission Beach patio where reggae beats pump overhead. The morning gets a delicious kick-start with generous bowls of acai, bagels with lox, breakfast burritos and, of course, coffee treats.
9. Go into the wild at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Get up close and personal with animal residents at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
Watch a cheetah run up to 70 miles per hour along a 330-foot-long track, feed birds at Lorikeet Landing, take in a bird's-eye view while gliding above animal exhibits on a 2/3-mile-long zip line, or climb like a monkey across a rope-course adventure.
This place is a surfer's paradise (and for those who simply want to watch, too!) — Photo courtesy of Courtesy Lisa Field
10. Follow a three-step agenda around Tower 23
1) After you've sufficiently cruised along the beach (by foot or rented bike), park it around Tower 23.
2) Grab a sun-soaked seat at JRDN, the trendy restaurant inside Tower23 Hotel, and indulge in happy hour specials like refreshing cocktails, beer and prosecco, accompanied by crispy Brussels sprouts and steamed mussels.
3) After the sun has sunk beyond the ocean, walk down the boardwalk to the second-level Amplified Ale Works. Here, find a bustling patio with friendly wait staff, long tables and a menu that features enticing brews, highly-addictive platters of döner fries, naan pizzas and delicious falafel and lamb pita sandwiches.
While we've only scratched the surface of SoCal's bounty here, these local gems reveal the variety and quality available in this gorgeous region. Whatever you choose while here, we guarantee you'll head home bronzed, smiling and moving at a much slower pace.