Dear Happy Visitors,
Welcome to San Diego! I originally wrote this when my wife and I were hosting guests through Airbnb. Although we aren’t doing it any more, the tips below should be pretty helpful – especially if you are staying in the North Park/South Park area (or like good food and great local beer). See below for our comprehensive welcome guide to San Diego – but first here are some personalized highlights we thought you all might enjoy!!
- Great Coffee – If you want a quality cup of coffee (and someone to pour it for you), we recommend Caffe Calabria (30th Street north of University – complete with cute parklet out front), Influx (30th & Upas Street), or Coffee & Tea Collective on El Cajon Boulevard (they take coffee VERY seriously).
- Dinner Options: For a quality experience, we really like The Smoking Goat, Urban Solace, or Alexander’s…We recommend making a reservation in advance, as these places fill up quickly! For more casual environments, check out Carnitas’ Snack Shack, City Tacos or Waypoint Public.
- Day trip – Bike Coronado: An easy drive across the bridge (or for more adventure, there is a ferry downtown you can take across the bay) – then rent bikes and cruise around this charming island. Have a relaxing lunch (and a great view!) at Il Fornaio or Peohe’s on the water or more casually at Coronado Brewing Company or Tartine.
- Hiking & Biking: There are several options for good hikes and rides around the San Diego area. We’ve personally done Cowles Mountain (which is about 1.5 mi each way, close, but gets crowded) and Iron Mountain (a 30-40 minute drive, less crowded and about 6 miles round trip). For biking, Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve and Tecolote Canyon both have relatively flat off-road trails. For a more comprehensive view of some of our best trails to hike and bike, visit Mission Trails Regional Park, San Dieguito River Park, and The Preserve at Del Mar.
- Craft Beer: 30th Street is one of two focal points of San Diego’s incredible Craft Beer scene (the other is in District 6 – home to over 20 breweries). If this interests you, consider stopping at Waypoint Public (24 rotating craft beers on tap), then walking over to Hess Brewing to sip either the Kolsch-style Claritas, a Vienna cream ale called Grazias, or – for the adventuresome – the gold-medal winning Rye IPA called Habitus. Drop by Bottlecraft on you way back – a bottle shop with beer from all over – and pick up a few bottles for the fridge later! For a longer stroll but really an incredible line up, head up to Fall Brewing on 30th Street north of Monroe. Whether classic San Diego IPAs like Green Hat or lighter, flavorful Pilsners like Plenty for All is your thing, these guys really nail beer. BONUS! In 2016 North Park Beer Co., will open at University near 30th Street. The brewer has won every major homebrewing award that exists and his flagship Hop Fu IPA is really top notch.
**Below you’ll find information about the community, restaurant suggestions and more**
Hi there. We’re glad you arrived safely and we want to help you get everything you hope for out of your stay. This notebook provides:
- The Basics: Where to find essentials for your stay
- Getting Around: Transportation basics
- The Fun Stuff: Things to see and do (and EAT!) in San Diego and Baja California
- Mexican Food: (yes, it has its own section)
- Neighborhood insights and suggested itineraries
1. The Basics: Groceries, farmer’s markets, drug stores and gas stations (and coffee shops)
There are four grocery stores within 2 miles of 30th and University. The closest major grocery store (where you can find all the basics) is Vons, about 4 blocks north of University Avenue. On Park Blvd in University Heights there is a Sprouts, which is better for produce and natural foods. For more specialty items and organic produce, head 1-1.5 miles west on University, where you’ll find a Whole Foods and our favorite, Trader Joe’s.
There are two local farmer’s markets if you prefer fresh produce in a market setting. Every Thursday from 3PM to 7PM you can shop the charming neighborhood North Park Farmers Market, which is in the parking lot of the CVS mentioned below. On Sundays, just a five minute drive west on University, there is a larger Hillcrest Farmer’s Market in the DMV parking lot on Normal Street and University Ave. And for perhaps the biggest Farmers Market (and a great day trip), consider checking out one of San Diego’s most well-developed markets, the Little Italy Mercato. It is open every Saturday from 8AM to 2PM.
The closest drug store with pharmacy is CVS, at 32nd and University, which is east of our house along University Avenue. There’s also a Target Express (locally known as “Tiny Target”) about a mile south on 30th Street in the community of South Park.
The nearest gas stations are the Valero located at Texas and University to the west and to the east, the Chevron station on University and I-805. We pump our own gas in California. The easiest way to get to the gas station at Texas Street is to zig zag directly west on either Landis or Dwight (the streets on either end of our block) and then turn right when you get to Texas Street. This will help you avoid trying to cross fast oncoming traffic on University. Just be careful, as many of the residential streets have limited visibility due to parked cars.
As for coffee shops, as you might expect, there are three Starbucks within 1 mile. However, we prefer the many delicious local coffee places that roast in house. We recommend trying Caffe Calabria, which has a charming little parklet on the street out front. It’s on 30th Street, 1 block north of University. Another alternative is to try a place called Influx, which opened at 30th and Upas Street in July of 2014. There’s also Holsem, which puts out really interesting coffee options.
2. Getting Around
The easiest way to explore the immediate community is by bike. It’s generally safe and you can rent a bike (and have it delivered!) through Stay Classy Bikes.
Uber/Lyft/Taxi: Uber and Lyft are car services similar to a taxi, only cheaper, cleaner, and more efficient. We’ve found these services to be the best way to stay safe when you’ve been out enjoying yourself (and some delicious libations!). You can download Uber and Lyft apps from your phone. It costs about $11 to take Uber to the airport versus $21 for a taxi. The drivers are always pleasant, interesting and many will offer helpful tips to visitors.
Freeway driving: The major freeways near our neighborhood are Interstates 5 and 805 (North/South), Interstate 8, and State Route 94 (East/West). There is a helpful website called Sig Alert that lets you check traffic. You can actually download an app for your phone and get that information in real time.
Trolley/Light Rail: San Diego has a light rail system of bright red trolley cars that function similar to other cities with mass transit – at least for certain parts of the city. Here’s the link. If you are inclined to use it to get to the international border or perhaps to Qualcomm stadium, parking at the Old Town station is a decent option.
Coaster/Amtrak Train: We are also about 10 minutes from the downtown Coaster and Amtrak station. Both will get you to the northern communities of the county. Amtrak will get you pretty easily to Los Angeles, where you can hop the metro train to downtown Los Angeles for some fun up in that area.
City Bus: Here’s a handy link to Internet maps of all the routes. Candidly, this is only a reasonable option for a limited number of places from our house. You can walk four blocks and take the #2 bus north to a few good restaurants or south to other good restaurants or all the way into downtown. It takes about 20-35 minutes to get downtown depending on the time of day, and as noted above downtown is only a 5-10 minute Uber or Taxi ride away. You can also take the #10 bus on University into Hillcrest and Old Town (head west from our place).
Quick Routes By Car
To access Interstate 5, take Upas St to Pershing Drive, follow this road down the hill and after you cross the traffic light at the bottom of the hill you will see signs for I-5 north and south. Bonus: For downtown, simply avoid the two on-ramps for the freeway and the road dead-ends into B Street. Turn right on B Street and you’ll head into the north end of downtown. To get to the Gaslamp from there, simply turn left on 6th Avenue or 4th Avenue.
To access Interstate 8, head east on University, travel about 1 mile to the 805 North onramp. Get on 805 North and follow signs for I-8 East or West. Bonus: If you stay on I-805 after the signs for I-8, it will ultimately merge with Interstate 5.
To reach Balboa Park & the Zoo, head south to Upas, turn right, drive until the street dead ends and turn left on Morley Field Drive. Take this down the hill, then up the other side. Voila, you are at the edge of Balboa Park (and the San Diego Zoo!). Turn left on Park Blvd and you’ll find the Zoo parking lot at the next light, or drive one more light and you’ll find the parking lot for several of the museums and the central strolling plaza of Balboa Park a short walk from the lot. The whole trip is less than 10 minutes and we have pretty easily walked that route on several occasions.
3. The Fun Stuff: Things to see and do (and EAT!) in San Diego and Baja California
Part I – In the neighborhood
First, our home is in North Park and you are just a few blocks from 30th Street. There is a ton to see and do here. We could write pages and pages of food, music, art, and craft beer recommendations. For ease, we’ve listed a few sure fire winners below. *The starred listings are some of our favorites – the best of the best!
For full service lunch/dinner:
- *Urban Solace – Great for dinner and Bluegrass Brunch on Sundays. Get there by 9:30-9:45 am!
- *Waypoint Public – Try the papardelle or po’ boy tacos to be paired with your beer
- *Ritual Tavern Kitchen & Beer Garden – Delicious burger and fish n’ chips
- Kindred – The team behind some of San Diego’s best restaurants opened a fully vegan restaurant! Bonus: great cocktails
- The Smoking Goat – Try the quail and the pork chop
- Alexander’s on 30th – Great date night Italian – ask for seating on their charming patio
- Buona Forchetta – Napolitano style pizza and homemade pasta
- Piacere Mio – charming Italian spot in South Park
For fast casual:
- *Carnitas’ Snack Shack – pork-centric menu, EVERYTHING is good and well-priced! Our faves include the carnitas tacos and the steak sandwich (but when the pork burger is on their specials menu – order it!)
- City Tacos – see description in Mexican food section
- Station Tavern – great little neighborhood bar and grill. Good burgers, salad, tater tots, and play area for the kids!
For vegetarian options:
- Sipz – Noodle-centric dishes, very tasty and nice service
- Moncai Vegan – Menu changes daily, great food (even for us non-vegans!)
- Kindred in South Park
For Craft Beer/Breweries/Bottle Shops:
- *Hess Brewing
- Thorn Street Brewery
- Fall Brewing
- Belching Beaver
- Tiger! Tiger! Tavern
- Bottlecraft (there’s a cheese shop called Venissimo inside – pretty awesome)
- Kwik Stops (not much to look at from the outside, but really nice craft beer selection)
For Wine Lovers:
Another area we enjoy eating in is Little Italy. Not as walk/bike friendly from the house but worth the drive to try some of the great food options in the area. It’s also a really nicely manicured part of town with charming shops and a pretty harbor walk nearby, so you can make a lovely evening out of it. Some of our favorites in that area include:
Little Italy Options:
Juniper and Ivy – Top Chef All-Stars winner Richard Blais opened this stylish and sexy joint early in 2014, to much fanfare. And so far it’s lived up to the hype. Ask your server what to order, it’s ALL good. Here are some of our favorites.
Ironside Fish & Oyster – Also new to the Little Italy scene, a wonderful seafood restaurant – try the clam chowder and the octopus.
Queenstown Public – New Zealand inspired décor and cuisine, this place is great for dinner and brunch.
Bencotto Italian Kitchen – All their pasta is made in-house and it’s wonderful. Try their meatballs or lamb ragu.
Part II – In the City/Region
There are obvious and not so obvious attractions. We’ve tried to list a few of each. Before we get to that, a few good web sites for doing advanced research are:
- SD Urban
- San Diego Travel Tips
- South Park Scene
- Downtown San Diego – Very user friendly guide to what’s available in downtown San Diego
- Visit San Diego
- Valle de Guadalupe and Tijuana (also check out Club Tengo Hambre and Turista Libre and Baja bound)
The Beach – San Diego has wonderful beaches, and most of the information you need for getting to the beach is in Travel Tips or Visit San Diego (see links above). But we’ll add a couple suggestions: For “fun but touristy” head to Belmont Park at Mission Beach. There’s a boardwalk, games, an old-fashioned roller coaster, and a beach with great people watching. More our speed are the beaches at La Jolla Shores or Coronado. We have two beach chairs, towels, and sunscreen for your use during your stay.
Balboa Park – At 1440 acres (compared to about 840 for Central Park in New York), Balboa Park is filled with museums and walking trails and fun little things to do and see. And you can have lunch at Panama 66, a new beer garden type restaurant in front of the Museum of Art.
Sea World – One of San Diego’s most fun and educational experiences, a day at Sea World is really quite worth it. Get more details here.
Brewery Tours – The company we like the most is Brewery Tours of San Diego. Jon and Mindy (the owners) are really great and if you want to visit several of the 90+ breweries in the region and be safe, this is the way to go. Most current map of all the breweries as of August 2014 – HERE
Downtown Central Library – Opened in 2014, the new library is an incredible addition to San Diego’s downtown. And the views from the 8th floor terrace are spectacular.
Children’s Museum – We don’t have kids, so we’ve never been. But we hear it’s very cool! Check it out here.
Sailing & Whale Watching tours – This is a pretty nice way to spend some time while in town. Here’s a link to a site that does tours.
Less Obvious Attractions
Chicano Park – Chicano Park is an important part of San Diego’s history and is situated in Barrio Logan. Barrio Logan is near downtown and home to some very interesting mural art and authentic Mexican food. The area isn’t as well traveled as some other parts of San Diego, so it may not be ideal for a trip after dark, but a daytime drive to see the park and perhaps eat at the cash-only classic Las Cuatro Milpas for an excellent street taco is a decent way to go.
OB Pier – A stroll along the Ocean Beach Pier and the shops along Newport Avenue is a fun way to see a part of San Diego that frequently doesn’t make the guidebooks. You may encounter some interesting looking (and creatively dressed) folks along the boardwalk, but we’ve never had any problems in the area and it makes for great people-watching! Visit in the late afternoon so you can enjoy a delicious fish taco or two at South Beach and catch the sunset on the edge of the pier, it’s lovely!
Convoy Street Asian Cuisine – There’s a whole business district on Convoy Street and much of the claim to fame is Asian food! Because of the many immigrants it’s easily the best in the region for Vietnamese Pho, Chinese Dim Sum, Korean BBQ and more.
Hike Torrey Pines – A nice hike at Torrey Pines is well worth the drive.
Part III – In Baja/northern Mexico
I could write about how ridiculously cool Baja is but there’s only so much time in the day. We’ve provided a couple of the better links above. Derek Chinn is the owner of Turista Libre. He’s a cool, down to earth guy who basically specializes in tours that make Tijuana approachable for those who haven’t visited much. His email is email@example.com.
Also, there’s the Valle de Guadalupe. The link above is pretty good, but this one is to my own summary about visiting earlier in 2014.
Part IV – Some travel comfort suggestions
First, the rush hour traffic tends to head north (I-5 and I-805) and west (I-8) in the morning between 7am and 9:30am and reverse between 4:30 and 6:30pm. Traffic is mild in comparison to places like Los Angeles or Washington, D.C., but still sitting in it is no fun.
Second, we find the vast majority of San Diego to be safe and unlike the European city warnings we get when we go abroad, we’ve never heard of anyone being pick-pocketed when out and about. Still, it’s a city of more than 2 million people so always be aware of your surroundings. In our neighborhood, we regularly walk the few blocks to the many places I mentioned above, even well into the evening, and it’s a lovely aspect of where we live.
Third, we love visiting Baja in Mexico, especially the Valle de Guadalupe (the wine region mentioned above) and the restaurants and art exhibits in Tijuana. You’ll need a passport, but it’s easy enough to take the trolley right to the border or drive down and either park in a paid lot to walk across the border, or drive your car across. The one difficulty of driving across the border is that returning typically involves long delays, so be prepared for that.
4. Mexican Food
San Diego shares an international border with Mexico. As you might expect, we also share many customs and cultural elements with our southern neighbors. One of those cultural elements that has left a huge imprint on San Diego is the food. Here’s a short list of our favorites and the best items on the menu (or at least our favorites!).
- Ponce’s Mexican Cafe – In the Kensington neighborhood of San Diego, this woman-owned independent small business has been putting out really great food since we were kids. Order any of their burritos (with the cheese and sauce on top!) or try the carne asada taco with guacamole. It’s hard to go wrong!
- Old Town Mexican Cafe – Old Town is a historic location in San Diego and was the original site of San Diego’s downtown. Old Town Mexican Cafe has really outstanding freshly made tortillas, they make some of the best refried beans we’ve had and if you order sides of the mildly spicy but extremely flavorful red sauce you’ll be glad you did. Order anything on the menu, particularly their tacos. We also like the chorizo for breakfast, pork adobada tacos and fish tacos are amazing!
- Rancho’s Cantina – If you want Mexican within walking distance, this North Park staple has very solid traditional Mexican dishes and has the advantage of a large vegetarian menu. It’s a 10-minute walk from our house, so an ideal way to try some very good Mexican close to home. Order the enchiladas or tostadas!
- City Tacos – Also within walking distance is this fast-casual favorite, a newer addition to the North Park scene, but quickly becoming one of our favorites! Don’t miss the chorizo and pineapple taco, or the chile relleno taco!
- Oscar’s Mexican Seafood – Four words: Surf-and-Turf Taco! Amazing fish, shrimp and seafood options in a fast casual environment, about a mile down the road in the neighborhood of Hillcrest. Try all 3 special sauces on your taco – YUM!
- Pancho Villa Market – This is a grocery store that caters to the very large Latino community (Mexican as well as Central and Latin American citizens call the surrounding community home). My recommendation is to head right for the back of the store where a few employees are almost always making delicious and hot tortillas by the dozen. It’s also a nice slice of life for a part of San Diego that isn’t in a typical guidebook.
5. Neighborhood Insights and Suggested Itineraries
The SD Urban link above will get you a decent lay of the mid-city and uptown communities of San Diego. These include the LGBT community of Hillcrest, historic areas like Mission Hills and South Park, fun places and quirky communities like Normal Heights and North Park, and areas just outside downtown like Bankers Hill and Little Italy (technically it is part of downtown, but who’s counting). The beach communities (Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, Coronado, La Jolla and Del Mar) all have their own charm. Walking the pier in Ocean Beach is fun and puts you close to the earthy, bohemian vibe that runs through the community. Conversely, a trip up to Del Mar will get you to more upscale and perhaps tidier beaches and communities where you can pamper yourselves a bit.
Two Suggested Itineraries
We can provide more of this information if you need it, but we wanted you to have a few options that can help you gauge how much time you might need in certain areas. Most of San Diego is best seen on foot and can be experienced in approximately ½-day chunks. Here goes:
North Park – During the week North Park is most vibrant in the evenings, when the bars, restaurants and some shops are open. Here’s a fun link to North Park for the Arts – which has a fair amount of art gallery and exhibit information in the area.
Suggestion: A nice cocktail at West Coast Tavern, dinner at Urban Solace (or any of the places we mentioned above), and a nice stroll down to Hammond’s Ice Cream for dessert. Bonus: If you need a quick gift for someone you are in town visiting, head to Pigment, which is a 10-minute walk away. The owner, an artist named Amy Paul, is really lovely and the shop is filled with great gift items that are different than what you’ll find in boring mall and chain shops.
South Park – There’s a good link to all that is South Park above, but this is a good little community to while away an afternoon.
Suggestion: Weekend lunch at Brabant, stroll down to the shops on Fern and also 30th in the immediate area, visit the Stone Store for a craft beer tasting, and then do a nice walking loop down and around the tree-lined streets on Fern just a bit south. Bonus: We really like to browse all the fun things for sale in the shop Progress.
6. In Case of Emergency
Police/Fire/Medical – emergency just dial 9-1-1. Non-emergency number is 1-619-531-2000
Nearest Hospital – UCSD Mercy – HERE – 201 West Arbor Drive
Head north to University Avenue, then West for 2 miles. Turn right (north) on 1st Avenue and it will run into the hospital after you cross Washington Street. Obviously we hope you have no reason to need it, but better to have the information.
Poison Control – 1-800-222-1222 (I can’t imagine you’d need it, but just in case.)
If we can help you with anything, please let us know. As you might guess, our knowledge runs deepest about food, craft beer, wine, and stuff you can do on foot. But we both grew up here and have lots more recommendations and tips than we can fit in this “quick” guide to the city.
Enjoy your stay!