Culture Trip’s Guide to San Diego

Soak up the glorious Californian weather at San Diego's La Jolla beach
Soak up the glorious Californian weather at San Diego's La Jolla beach
Photo of Chloe Byrne
17 September 2020

Home to golden beaches, contemporary art galleries and oceanfront hotels, San Diego is a haven for tourists looking to soak up some culture and some rays. Here’s a few ideas to get you started when planning your adventures in America’s Finest City.

Where to stay

FOUND Hotel San Diego

Budget Hotel
Map View
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Courtesy of Found Hotel San Diego / Expedia
FOUND Hotel San Diego occupies a restored 20th-century building in the heart of Little Italy, and is only a short amble from the waterfront. Behind its pinstripe awnings you’ll find shared and private rooms – each bunk in the six-bed dorms has its own royal-blue privacy curtain, while the exclusive deluxe queen comes complete with a kitchenette, vintage furniture and a private bathroom with a tub. In the morning, dig into a complimentary continental breakfast of bagels, toast, coffee in the courtyard.
Everything you need to know

Tower 23

Boutique Hotel
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Courtesy of Tower23 Hotel / Expedia
Be sure to pack your flip flops – Tower 23 sits just strides from the honey-soaked sands of Pacific Beach. You can fall asleep to the crashing waves in oceanfront rooms, breath in the salty air from the turquoise sun loungers of Tower Deck, and hear the story of its lifeguard tower namesake from the bar staff. It might be a long one, so order a fruity Time Killer cocktail to wash it down. If you upgrade to the suite, you’ll be able to rinse off the day’s sand under a waterfall shower before sinking into the bubbling water of the chromotherapy Jacuzzi tub.
Everything you need to know

L'Auberge Del Mar

Hotel, Luxury
Map View
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Courtesy of L'Auberge Del Mar / Expedia
L’Auberge Del Mar rose from the storied ashes of Stratford Inn, a beachside hideout for Hollywood celebrities and a place of respite for soldiers of World War II before falling on hard times. Now, a modern makeover has helped it become one of the most lavish hotels in town. There’s an ocean-inspired spa with herbal-infused steam rooms, a cabana-lined swimming pool and a private path leading to the local beach. Wrap up a day of sun tanning with happy hour drinks by the firepit of Bleu Bar before retreating to your room, fittingly turned out in grass-green, sky-blue and sandy-beige.
Everything you need to know

Where to Eat

Herb & Wood

Restaurant, Contemporary, $$$
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In the capable hands of celebrity chef Brian Malarkey, a finalist on Bravo’s Top Chef, Herb & Wood opened to great acclaim in 2016. Housed in a warehouse in Little Italy, it has wooden vaulted ceilings and atmospheric lighting that makes you feel as if you’re stepping inside a supersized vintage wine barrel. The food is rustic and wood-fired, with a zesty dash of Mediterranean flavour – try the buttery shrimp mafalde, sprinkled with chilli breadcrumbs, and sip on craft cocktails like the Fire & Thyme, comprising peated scotch, firewater bitters and roasted lemon.

The Fishery

Restaurant, Seafood, $$$
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The aroma of fresh seafood spills from the doors of The Fishery, carried on the ocean breeze through the streets of Pacific Beach. Heading inside, you’ll soon discover the source: an open kitchen where market-fresh, wild-caught ingredients are prepared. The interior has elements of a fishing hut – think museum-like collections of fish sculptures, exposed beams and wooden furnishings – but the food is the star of the show here. Locals love the pacific swordfish with housemade ricotta gnocchi, and the macadamia-crusted Alaska halibut is also a big hit.

CUCINA enoteca Del Mar

Restaurant, Italian, $$$
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The only thing that might distract you from the delicious farm-to-table fare served in CUCINA enoteca Del Mar is the whimsical rustic decor. Found on Del Mar’s Flower Hill Promenade, this Italian-meets-Southern-California restaurant features a cascading model horse art installation, dangling vintage globes and antler light fixtures – a haunting sight for fans of Hannibal. From hot honey and fig pizzas to creamy house-made pastas and juicy burgers with parmesan fries, the hard part is deciding what to eat.

What to Do

Meet the Ocean Wildlife

Natural Feature
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Tour boat on San Diego Harbor. San Diego Skyline in the background. Photographed from Coronado, California, USA.
Tour boat on San Diego Harbor. San Diego Skyline in the background. Photographed from Coronado, California, USA. | © joseph s giacalone / Alamy Stock Photo
Another world awaits in the coastal waters just off San Diego. Not only does it give you a new perspective to take in the jagged city skyline, but beneath the rippling surface is a fascinating array of ocean life. Luckily, there are many boat tours that set sail from the harbour, climb on board to see the sun-dappled bulk of a humpback whale, snap shots of glistening sea lions as they languish on the rocks and catch a glimpse of a leopard shark – all while listening to an informative commentary from expert guides.

Learn the Haunted History of Gaslamp Quarter

Historical Landmark
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Buildings on 5th Avenue, Gaslamp district, San Diego, California, U.S:A
Buildings on 5th Avenue, Gaslamp district, San Diego, California, U.S:A | © Visions from Earth / Alamy Stock Photo
No trip to San Diego is complete without a trip to the Gaslamp Quarter. If the Victorian-era buildings and neon-soaked nightlife aren’t reason enough to drop by, the area’s storied past – encompassing the gunslinging Wild West era and roaring 20s – might do the trick. You will be spoilt for choice if you’re looking to delve into its macabre past. there are a variety of walking tours that take you around some of the area’s most infamous murder spots, haunted houses and historical museums.

Explore the Skies of San Diego

Building
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Kansas City bar in San Diego, movie set of the cult Top Gun
Kansas City bar in San Diego, movie set of the cult Top Gun | © Luca DAddezio / Alamy Stock Photo
If you’ve had enough of the sea and streets of San Diego, why not take to the skies? Whether that’s with a guided hike up cloud-brushing mountains or channelling your inner Maverick on a fighter pilot experience. As Top Gun fans will already know, the action blockbuster was filmed at multiple locations across San Diego and now the city pays ode to its Hollywood legacy with experiences that let you put yourself in the flyboy boots of Tom Cruise. Hop in a plane and learn aerobatic maneuvers from a trained fighter pilot, or stay on ground with a trip to Kansas City Barbeque, aka the Top Gun Bar.
These recommendations were updated on September 17, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.