Our Town: A Travel Editor’s Guide to San Diego
From old school favorites to new hidden gems, America’s Finest City is teeming with innovative eateries and fun things to do. Editorial Producer & Contributing Writer Michelle Gross takes us on a tour of her hometown.
There’s nothing that evokes more of a sense of personal pride than when someone asks me where I’m from, and I get to answer with “San Diego."
It’s a city I’m proud of and one I will always call home—no matter how long I’ve lived elsewhere. So it’s been of particular interest to me of late that San Diego is being touted as one of the country’s best travel destinations. The capital of craft beer, the birthplace of Comic Con, and home to a world famous zoo, San Diego has always has been cool. It was cool 41 years ago when my father packed up his 1972 Red Dodger Charger and drove cross-country from Detroit to Mission Beach, and it’s cooler than ever, thanks in part to a thriving culinary scene, crafty sommeliers, local artisans, and entrepreneurs.
Where to Eat
The city’s culinary scene has expanded far beyond the burrito in recent years. If you’re seeking something with bit of San Diego history, dinner on the patio of Piatti’s in La Jolla is a great way to listen to a bit of local gossip while sipping chianti and chowing down on some homemade linguini or veal scaloppini. If you venture a little further up the coast, breakfast burritos are served all day at Pipes Café in Cardiff By The Sea. Make sure you save some room for dessert because across the street, VG Donuts is home to some of the best maple-glazed donuts in the history of maple-glazed donuts.
With a weekly farmers market and a variety of freshly minted bars and boutiques, San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood is teeming with some of the best and most innovative eateries in town. Ironside Fish & Oyster is turning out some of the freshest seafood and creative cocktails. Plus, you really can’t beat the $1 oysters and drink specials during happy hour. A relative newbie to the neighborhood is Top Chef all-star Richard Blais’ Juniper & Ivy. His take on refined American classics like chorizo and octopus and carne cruda asada are prepared expertly and with a “left-coast edge.”
If it's Mexican food you’re after, you can stop in to any one of the nine-million hole-in-the-wall spots around town. A trip home for me isn't complete without a stop at El Indio Shop for some rolled beef taquitos, carne asada, and homemade chips and salsa. For those looking for something a little more upscale, chef Javier Plascencia’s Bracero Cocina is the hot ticket these days, serving up everything from street tacos to crispy brisket. Reservations at this James Beard-nominated spot can be hard to come by. Luckily, the bar offers a full menu and a front-row seat to bartenders mixing up freshly shaken tequila based cocktails.
What to See
Between the world famous San Diego Zoo, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and downtown's trendy Gaslamp Quarter, there’s no shortage of fun and family-friendly activities. Considered the cultural heart of San Diego, Balboa Park will forever be engraved in my mind as the setting for many happy childhood memories and now it’s expanded its reach (and its audience) with the opening of open-air resto-lounge Panama 66. Catch a theater production in the Old Globe Theater or a concert at Spreckels Organ Pavilion for an experience you’ll never forget.
Another interesting area worth a mention is Historic Old Town, which is full of restaurants, galleries, cafes, and a plethora of souvenir stores. Though it’s kitschy (and a bit touristy), Old Town is nonetheless an interesting piece of San Diego history.
Where to Relax
Yogis around the world know the Self Realization Temple and Meditation Gardens in Encinitas are some of the most beautiful and serene places to find a sense of calm in an otherwise over-stimulated world. From the beautifully cultivated Japanese gardens to the koi ponds and sweeping ocean views, these are the best places to take a leisurely stroll and find some inner peace.
If you’re looking for even more zen, head to the Spa at Torrey Pines Lodge. Their signature treatments, like the Spirit to Soul Ritual and Ancient Oceans Ritual, won’t disappoint.
Where to Stay
Because I’m partial to anything with an ocean view, La Valencia Hotel is an amazing little boutique in downtown La Jolla with killer views of the Pacific Ocean. Situated within walking distance of tons of shops and restaurants (including one of my favorites, George’s At The Cove), this is the perfect place to post up while you’re in town. A little further up the coast, L’Auberge Del Mar is an attractive seaside resort with a lively (and very local) Living Room bar scene and award-winning spa.
For those seeking more of countryside vibe, the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe boasts a newly refurbished 3,000 square foot spa and access to the highly coveted Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club. Lastly, the Fairmont Grand Del Mar is worth an honorable mention here. The ultimate in luxury hotels in San Diego, what the Grand lacks in ocean view it more than makes up for in on-site amenities including golf, spa, pool, and five-star restaurant Addison. The beautiful Tuscan-inspired architecture and décor doesn’t hurt either.
Best Day Trips
If I was a contestant on The Bachelor and this was the hometown dates episode, La Jolla Shores would be my go to seal-the-deal spot. Simply put, it’s beautiful and it has everything you need for a perfect day. The Shores, as locals refer to it, is a great spot to go for a swim, boogie board, or try your hand at surfing. The neighborhood surrounding the beach is peppered with restaurants, surf shops, and boutiques. Likewise, Avenida De La Playa in downtown La Jolla is full of kayak and paddleboard rental shops, many of which offer guided tours though La Jolla coves and see sunning sea lions.
Coronado Island is a day trip that shouldn’t be missed—go to the quaint ice cream shops and boutiques, and visit the historic Hotel Del Coronado. If you’re looking for some adrenaline-fueled gambling action, a day at the Del Mar Racetrack is an excellent way to spend an afternoon. The track really comes alive in the summer months between July and September, when racing season, big hats, and Del-Tinis are in full swing.
Finally, with over 115 breweries spread across the county, the beer business is booming in San Diego these days. There are so many good ones it’s tough to narrow it down, but if I have to choose, I’d say Green Flash Brewing Company in Mira Mesa and Stone Brewing in Escondido provide excellent tours and food-centric events.
Things I Want To Try
One of the great things about going home to San Diego is that it’s almost like going on vacation. There are a couple of places in particular that I’m most looking forward to on my next trip back. Housed in the former San Diego Police Department, the Headquarters at Seaport is being touted as one of the best new dining and retail districts in town—according to my dad, anyway. And the Liberty Public Market opened recently right next to the airport and is supposedly the new it spot to sample the cuisines and culture of San Diego. I can hardly wait to see for myself!
Michelle Gross is a Freelance Producer and Contributing Writer at Travel + Leisure.Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @mtothegnyc