You only have a few days to make the most of your San Diego visit, so why waste your time? The city is ripe with beaches and parks to explore, amusements parks to visit, and, of course, a world-famous zoo. So skip these following five activities, and fill in your time with San Diego's best sights. You won't regret it.
Skip the Tourist Traps
Gaslamp Quarter: It's San Diego's Historic center, with lots of shops and restaurants, but it's also close to the convention center, and most of the eateries seem more focused on getting people in the door than on getting them out it with a smile on their face. Go during the day for a historical tour, but check out the options later in this guide for a more fun dining experience.
The Maritime Museum: This waterfront museum is an impressive slice of maritime history that includes the Star of India, the world's oldest active ship and a current-generation America's Cup yacht. The thing is, if you aren't interested in that kind of history, you may be bored speechless. A harbor cruise or a tour of the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier might be a better bet.
Old Town: You'll find a lot of touristy Mexican restaurants in the city's oldest neighborhood, along with a few shops selling souvenirs and goods made in Mexico. Go for the history, but if you want Mexican souvenirs, take a side trip to Tijuana instead.
Seaport Village: It's by the water, with shopping, restaurants, and an antique carousel, so what's not to like? High prices, mediocre food and nothing to buy but a bunch of touristy souvenirs. If that's your thing, go for it. Otherwise, try La Jolla instead, where you can also go shopping and also take a walk along their scenic oceanfront.
Whaley House: It's supposed to be the most haunted place in America, and it has been featured on a lot of paranormal TV shows, but most of the time, it's just a historic house that's not unlike a lot of others. Unless your imagination gets all fired up by the stories they tell. Instead, try a ghost walk in Old Town.
Don’t Get Fooled About Beach Hotels
San Diego is known for its beaches. It sounds like a good idea to stay in a beach hotel during your visit. You’re probably already imagining a hotel with its back doors wide open, framing a sandy beach. Or daydreaming about looking out your hotel window, looking at sand and surf. Maybe you already typed “san diego beach hotel” into your favorite search engine. That’s where the trouble can start.
The sad truth is that some hotels put the word “Beach” in their names when they’re miles away. Others advertise themselves as “oceanfront” when in fact you have to cross a busy highway and walk through a grungy tunnel before you can wiggle your toes in the sand.
INSTEAD: Find Hotels Guaranteed to Be ON the Beach
That’s where I come in. I’m obsessive about maps. I’m also a stickler for the truth. I already did a lot of the work for you. Using a strict set of criteria, I culled out all those liars and truth-benders. If there's anything between the hotel and the sand other than a sidewalk, it isn't a beach hotel. It's that simple.
All you have to do to find your perfect place to stay is check out this guide to San Diego Beach Hotels.
Don’t Leave for Tijuana Without Your Passport
The last place you want to be is at the US/Mexico border, trying to get across it without your passport - or green card - or other citizenship documentation.
INSTEAD: Be Prepared.
Take your passport. A Driver’s License won’t do. Neither will a note from your mother. This guide has everything you need to know before you go to Tijuana.
Don’t Turn Up Your Nose at Fish Tacos
When I first went to Southern California, I remember thinking “how weird” when someone mentioned fish tacos. It took me years to try them, something I now regret.
What the heck is a fish taco, you may be wondering. I understand taco; that’s a fried tortilla with spiced ground beef, lettuce, tomato, and cheese inside. You might even know about soft tacos and all the delicious bits they can contain. But fish in a taco? What’s that all about?
On Mexico's Baja peninsula, it’s about fresh, flaky white fish, battered and deep fried, nestled in a soft corn tortilla. Add shredded cabbage - or even better, crunchy jicama. Drizzle with a sour cream or mayonnaise-based sauce, add a little salsa and spritz with lime juice.
You may also find grilled fish tacos, which are also delicious.
Try any of these fish tacos that Locale Magazine says you shouldn’t miss.
Don’t Eat All Your Meals in the Tourist Areas
Before you run off to the Gaslamp, Old Town, Seaport Village or any of the other tourist areas for a meal, think about it. If most of your restaurant’s customers are visitors who will never come back, what motivates you? Getting them in the door, or serving them a memorable meal with great service?
INSTEAD: Go to the Neighborhoods
Restaurants in San Diego’s neighborhoods focus on their food and service, making for a more enjoyable experience. You’ll also get a chance to see part of the city its residents spend their time in. Among the fun neighborhoods to explore are
- North Park: A craft beer hub with more than half a dozen microbreweries and plenty of places to eat.
- Ocean Beach: Off the typical tourist track with a traditional, relaxed, California beach town vibe.
- Kensington: French restaurant Bleu Boheme is reason enough to check out this retro neighborhood, but you could also make an entire day out of visiting it.
- Barrio Logan: The 70-plus murals in Chicano Park are next door to Mercado del Barrio, a retail and dining complex.
Don’t Be Surprised by June Gloom
If you live in a California coastal area, you already know about this, but bear with me while I explain June Gloom to everyone else.
If you’re among the people who think all California beaches are sunny and warm, all the time, I’m here to clue you in to something we Californians would rather ignore.
Here’s how it happens: When summer arrives, it gets warm. Hot air rises. When it rises, more (and cooler) air gets sucked in to replace it. If you’re near the beach, that cooler air comes from the ocean. All of that would be okay, but that cool air brings the so-called “marine layer” with it. In layman’s terms, that’s fog. The conditions that create it can start as early as "May Gray", sometimes lingering into "No Sky July". To find out more and what causes June Gloom, check out this guide.
Beaches can be cloudy, foggy and damply cold all day - sometimes for weeks at a time.
INSTEAD: Know What to Expect
The only thing to do about June Gloom is to avoid it. If you want to enjoy a sunny day at a San Diego beach, go before mid-May or after July 15. And if you must visit during the summer, take warm clothing for your visit to the beach.
Avoid Going During Comic-Con (Unless You Plan to Attend)
The big comic and sci-fi convention attracts more people than New Haven Connecticut has residents. In 2015, that was more than 130,000. That’s so many people that local hotels devote as much as 90 percent of their capacity just for Comic-Con attendees. That leaves everyone else competing for what’s left over, and prices skyrocket.
INSTEAD: Plan Your Trip Some Other Time
If you’re planning a trip to San Diego in July, the first thing to do is look up Comic Con’s dates - and avoid them at all costs.
Things You Should Do in San Diego
If these are the things you shouldn't do in San Diego, then what should you do? If you're a contrarian traveler who seeks out the undiscovered spots, then don't miss these 9 Things You Didn't Know You Wanted to Do in San Diego.
If your budget is limited (which applies to most of us), you can have a lot of fun without spending a penny. Just use the Guide to Things to Do for Free in San Diego.
Even though San Diego weather is mostly sunny, it might rain in the winter. Here's what to do in San Diego if those raindrops start falling on your head. And if it's summertime when you visit, you'll definitely want to know What to Do on a Summer Night in San Diego.
If you want to find out what the most popular San Diego tourist attractions are, you can find them (with their pros and cons) in the Top Things to Do in San Diego.