San Diego is known for its year-long mild weather, beaches, and Mexican influence. This makes it the perfect place to visit during COVID since you want to avoid indoor venues and spend all or most of your time enjoying the outdoors. I’ve been to San Diego multiple times before our October 2020 trip, so I’ll also be including recommendations that are relevant to non-COVID times where things should be open.
Where to Stay
If you aren’t planning on staying in a hotel, I highly recommend considering beach accessible lodging. Options like vacation rentals and Airbnb are the perfect way to enjoy beach activities without wasting time looking for parking and getting your sandy clothes and shoes all over your car. Beach houses often come with beach amenities like beach chairs, boogie boards, grills, and bonfires (make sure to check amenities when booking). We stayed in a beach house on Mission Beach and absolutely loved being able to walk down to the beach. Mission Beach is very walkable, has tons of great food options, and is relatively close to everywhere else you'd want to visit in San Diego.
For hotels, I’ve only stayed in La Jolla. Both the La Jolla Shores hotel and the Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa were great. The Shores hotel is very family friendly and perfect for being able to access the beach immediately. If you want something a bit more luxurious with access to an award winning spa, then the Estancia is the place for you. Both are in a great location and pretty close by to everything in La Jolla that you want to explore. It is a reasonable drive down to the other San Diego beaches and not too far from Downtown either, but you will definitely want to rent a car for the most flexibility and convenience.
Things to do in San Diego
La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove is a small, picturesque cove surrounded by cliffs in La Jolla. The Cove is protected as part of a marine reserve; underwater it is very rich in marine life, and is popular with snorkelers, swimmers and scuba divers. This area is also very well known for its wild sea lions. Hundreds of them are found daily basking in the sun, playing in the water, or just making loud obnoxious sounds. It's definitely a site you wouldn't want to miss. They do give off a stench though, so consider yourself warned if you are sensitive to strong odors.
Right behind the Cove are a few streets filled with amazing restaurants, unique boutiques, and art galleries. Some of the restaurants like George’s and Duke’s have great views of the Cove. Make sure to make a reservation if you want to have dinner right before sunset.
There are countless beaches in San Diego, so make sure you pack your swimsuit. Some of my favorites are Mission Beach, Torrey Pines Beach, and Coronado Beach.
Mission Beach has beautiful soft sands, is very family friendly, and is perfect for swimming. Get there in the early morning to watch surfers or enjoy the walking path that leads to tons of great places to eat.
Torrey Pines Beach is breathtaking. Parking is $15 but it is worth every penny. This beach is perfect for long walks and photoshoots during golden hours.
You’ll have to cross the bridge to get to Coronado island, but it is worth the drive since the neighborhoods have a totally different feel. The beach isn't as clear as Mission beach, but it is a still a great family friendly spot to visit. You can also visit the famous Coronado hotel if you are into that sort of thing.
Gaslamp Quarter & Seaport Village in Downtown
The Gaslamp Quarter is usually bustling in the evenings since it's full of restaurants, bars, and shops. Even if you are not a drinker, it's a fun place to walk around in the evening. Covid pretty much killed this neighborhood, so it was sadly very dead when we visited this October.
Nearby is Seaport Village which is a family friendly, walkable pier area with novelty shops and a few restaurants. This place is typically packed with tourists and street performers, so it is a fun place for people watching. You can also walk to the end of the Pier where you’ll find the massage USS Midway ship carrying dozens of aircrafts. This area is beautiful around sunset. The Seaport Village was pretty much empty during October 2020 (COVID) but it was still a pleasant experience since some shops were still open and the gorgeous water views were calmer than ever.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve & Torrey Pines Beach
You absolutely do not want to miss Torrey Pines when in San Diego. If you only have time to visit one beach, make it Torrey Pines Beach. It’s a super long beach with breathtaking cliff views. You can either park your car along the road and watch the sunset from the top of the cliffs or park in the Torrey Pines Beach parking for $15 and walk down to the beach itself. Don’t forget your camera, this place is beautiful.
Ocean Beach Farmers Market
The Farmers Market is open 4pm - 8pm on Wednesday and Saturdays on Newport Avenue. Make sure to check out their website for updated times. It’s a good idea to be hungry because there are lots of delicious options you’ll want to try. Grab your goodies and walk down to Ocean beach.
San Diego Zoo
I usually skip the Zoo in most cities and countries I visit, but San Diego is an exception. It is probably one of the priciest Zoos you will ever visit, but you will know why once you learn about all the research that goes into caring for their animals. Make sure you look through their website thoroughly and decide if you want to visit the Safari which is a separate part of the Zoo. You can also buy special animal encounter tickets which gives you the opportunity to learn more about the animals from their Zoo keepers, feed animals yourself, and get special seating in shows.
There is so much to see here, so make sure you review the website thoroughly. Some of the museums, attractions, and gardens have entrance fees. We grabbed scooters and cruised around the entire park which was the perfect way to explore the area without breaking our legs.
Centro Cultural de la Raza
Japanese Friendship Garden
Mingei International Museum
Museum of Photographic Arts
Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
San Diego Air & Space Museum
SDAI- Museum of the Living Artist
San Diego Automotive Museum
San Diego Hall of Champions
San Diego History Center
San Diego Model Railroad Museum
San Diego Museum of Man
San Diego Natural History Museum
San Diego Museum of Art
Timken Museum of Art
Veterans Museum & Memorial Center
What to Eat in San Diego
San Diego is taco paradise, so I hope you are ready for several taco recommendations. This city is filled with amazing food that can fill up your itinerary for weeks, but my short list is based on what we recently enjoyed.
We went to the La Jolla location near The Cove. They have a bunch of taco options, but the filet mignon was incredible, so make sure you order that one. I also LOVED their chicken taquitos and sweet corn. This place is great for sharing.
This food market is a great place to satisfy a big group. There are plenty of food options for everyone to choose from. I personally loved the chicken bun from Bao Bar, the empanadas at Paraná Empanadas Argentinas and the fried chicken cheesy fries from Fluster Cluck Hot Chicken.
You can’t miss this spot. They have incredible seafood tacos with both corn and flour tortillas. If you have party pooper friends that don’t like seafood, they have some meat and chicken options too which are just as delicious.
This is a great cheap meal with multiple locations. There are lots of options to choose from and I only got to try 4. My favorite was the Mexicali taco which has meat and melted cheese. I’d definitely go back because I still want to try their vegetarian options which sounded delicious.
The earlier you go in the day, the better. There are limited quantities of each flavor and they don’t always have the same flavors everyday. Our favorites were the creme brulee stuffed donut, the apple crumble, and the strawberry cheesecake. They always have vegan options too!
Great spot for a chilled dinner. We enjoyed the roasted brussel sprout cesar salad, the fried cauliflower, caramelized onion dip (with amazing warm potato chips), and incredible fried chicken. The only disappointing dish was the steak - it was way too smokey.