Weekend Getaway: Cool Things to Do in San Diego

San Diego Zoo

Even in a state enviable for a laid-back culture and countless natural and culinary assets, San Diego is a place apart. The sprawling, sun-drenched city has a paradisaical feel, with a number of attractions (including zoos and beaches) that often rank among the very top in the nation. Indeed, California’s southernmost city offers so much it would be impossible to see it all in one weekend, but we’ve outlined the nuts and bolts of what to do in San Diego.

What to do

1. Take a walk on the wild side. From cute koalas (the largest colony outside Australia) and loveable pandas to majestic gorillas, fascinating meerkats, and and incredible Elephant Odyssey, it’s no surprise that the San Diego Zoo (2920 Zoo Drive) is often ranked the top zoo in the nation. Giraffes, zebras, rhinos, and more roam together on an open plain at the Safari Park (15500 San Pasqual Valley Road, Escondido), while lions, tigers, and other predators can be viewed from platforms.

lion cubs at the san diego safari parkBoth parks are operated by San Diego Zoo Global, the renowned conservation organization that has been instrumental in saving the California condor (the rare birds have their own ridge at the Safari Park), as well as increasing the number of pandas at China’s Wolong Breeding Center. Tickets to each park cost $44 ($34 for children), but there are a number of combination passes available.
Directions: To reach the zoo, take Bus 7 to Park Boulevard and Village Place. The Safari Park, located in Escondido, can be difficult to reach via public transit.

2. Isle away the hours. Spend a day wandering in Coronado, a breezy beach community just a scenic ferry ride ($4.25 each way) away from downtown San Diego. Stroll down Orange Avenue, exploring its myriad boutiques, cafes, and restaurants until you reach the historic Hotel Del Coronado, known for its famous visitors and cameos in many a Hollywood film. And don’t forget to bring your suit (or even a volleyball if you’re feeling sporty) to enjoy the fine soft sands of Coronado Beach. Set against a backdrop of Victorian homes and the fairy-tale-esque hotel, with tide pools, gentle waves, and a pristine dog beach, this is yet another San Diego spot that is regularly ranked as one of “the best.”
Directions: Take the San Diego-Coronado Ferry.

3. Put the pedals to the metal. What better way to explore San Diego’s wonders than on two wheels. There are a number of rental spots downtown and on Coronado Island. Try The Bike Revolution (522 6th Avenue), where you can rent wheels for $25 a day. Then cycle along the waterfront, or, for a more intense ride, head over to East San Diego, where mountain bike trails abound. Mission Trails Regional Park (1,Father Junipero Serra Trl) is a favorite among cyclists, boasting plenty of wilderness to be enjoyed by bikers and hikers alike.

balboa park casa del prado4. Park it. The word “park” just seems an understatement when it comes to Balboa Park (1549 El Prado), one of San Diego’s signature attractions, and, not surprising, another source of the city’s many superlatives—clocking in at 1,200 lovely acres, this is the largest urban cultural park in the country. And it’s got something for everyone. There are 15 major museums (running the gammut from art to history to air and space), that amazing zoo, and plenty of green space.

In one day you can see art in the making at the Spanish Village Art Center, tap into international goodwill at the International Cottages, and relax in the Japanese Friendship Garden, all before taking in an evening show at one of the many performing arts spaces. Day passes and weekly passports (from $39) offer fabulous savings to those who intend to visit multiple museums.
Directions: The park is about a 20-minute bike ride from downtown, or you can take bus routes 120, or 7.

Where to eat

1. It’s a gas.  Wander the San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, and you’re bound to find numerous bars and restaurants perfect for passing a pleasant evening. This is the sort of district where the hosts offer up their menus as you pass, which can feel touristy and continental (rest assured, these eateries are popular among locals and visitors alike). If continental is just what you’re after, head to Chianti (644 5th Avenue) for authentic Italian eats, from traditional osso bucco to linguini with clams. The atmosphere is festive, the dishes oh-so-fresh, and the position a perfect jumping-off point for a night on the town.
Directions: Take bus 7 or 120 to 4th Avenue and Broadway.

coronado sunset2. Farm-tastic. A farmer’s market is so much more than a shopping trip. Awash with colors, flavors, smells, and, often, live entertainment, these weekly pop-ups are a feast for the senses and a fun community activity in one. And just about any day in San Diego you can find one to attend. Tuesdays are for the small-town vibe at the Coronado Farmers Market (Ferry Landing, 1St and B), while Wednesday evenings in Ocean Beach (4900 Newport Avenue) bring llama rides, art vendors, and more. Thursdays, the yuppies and hipsters congregate in North Park (N Park Way & Herman Avenue) , and on Saturdays it’s la dolce vita at the Little Italy Mercato (2210 Columbia St) or an Eastern affair at the Third Avenue Farmers Market and Asian Bazaar (Third Avenue and J Street). On Sundays, pick up your beach snacks (and flowers) at the La Jolla Open Aire Market (7335 Girard Avenue).
Directions: Vary by location. Visit sandiego.org for a full list of Farmers Market locations, days, and times.

3. Beachy (burger) keen. Out-of-staters tend to wrap at least one pilgrimage to In-n-Out into their California visits, but we have other burger chanis with equally (if not more) understandable cult followings. In San Diego, that would be the Burger Lounge, where a burger is also a way of life. Founded in 2007 in La Jolla, the burger joint with a purpose has made a big footprint on the community and an small one on the environment, through a devotion to sustainable practices and all the best ingredients, from grass-fed beef to locally sourced cheeses. Whether you go all out (house-made onion rings and a chocolate caramel salted brownie shake? yes and yes!) or keep it healthy with a salad of quinoa veggie burger, it’s certain you’ll be eating well. Hit up the La Jolla (1101 Wall Street) or Coronado (922 Orange Avenue) outposts, and then enjoy your burger on the beach. There are also locations in Gaslamp, Little Italy, and more.
Directions: Varies be location.

Where to sleep

1. Fame slept here. If you’re looking for something extra special, spend your nights at the famed Hotel del Coronado (1500 Orange Avenue). A National Historic Landmark since 1977, the hotel celebrates its 125th birthday in 2013, and and it’s still as lovely as always. The iconic property has been setting for many a movie, including Marilyn Monroe’s Some Like It Hot, and has housed presidents, princes, and starlets galore. And it’s no wonder the hotel’s been around so long—with airy rooms (from $309), stunning views, a decadent spa, beach access, and more, it covers all the luxurious bases.
Directions: Take bus 901.

hotel del mar resort2. The rock. Situated smack-dab in the the heart of things, the Hard Rock Hotel (207 5th Avenue) offers modern luxury with easy proximity both the Gaslamp’s bustling nightlife and the tranquil views from the harbor. Rooms (from $183) are done up rockstar-style, complete with a green-room-inspired bar, plus VIP access for two into Hard Rock’s Clubs. The Hard Rock and Rock Star suits offer even further swank.
Directions: Take bus 7 or 120 to 4th Avenue and Broadway, or bus 3 to 4th Avenue and G Street.

3. Sweet and simple. Travelers with a more modest budget will be happy at the Ramada Gaslamp: Historic St James Hotel  (830 6th Avenue). Originally built in 1913, this baby combines historic charm (old-school elevators and crystal chandeliers) with modern style and amenities. Plus, its hear-of-the-Gaslamp location places you in the center of the downton action, and just a half mile from Balboa Park and its many attractions. The hotel also provides complimentary airport transportation (rooms from $84).
Directions: Take bus 7 or 120 to 4th Avenue and Broadway, or bus 3 to 4th Avenue and G Street.

Getting around: San Diego has a large variety of public transport options, whether you want to get the bus, the train, the trolley, or even the ferry (take it to Coronado Island for a special treat!). Staying downtown means easy walking and biking as well.

Getting there: Fly into San Diego International Airport. From there, Amtrak into downtown, or catch the Metro Bus, which easily syncs up to the trolley. Or, for an extra treat, take Amtrak all the way to San Diego, making the journey part of the adventure.

Photos: San Diego Zoo Global,  Miss Shari, SDZ Safari Park, Joanne DiBona (SanDiego.org), OrangeandPark.com, Hotel del Coronado

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