Train-ing Down the Coast: Santa Barbara to San Diego

trolley in downtown san diego

The final leg of my trans-California train trip had me heading down the last stretch of coastline, bypassing the Los Angeles area to see if notoriously sprawl-y San Diego could be explored car-free.

Things to Do:

1. Most visitors head directly to the beach, but it’s worth spending at least a day in downtown San Diego. While it’s not the easiest city to explore car-free (it’s hillier than you might expect!), it is doable. Head to a trolley station and pick up a $5 daypass, which gets you unlimited use on the reliable trolley system, as well as the somewhat less timely buses. The public transit system will take you to Little Italy, to the baseball stadium for a Padres game, and even over to the renowned San Diego Zoo, all without getting in a car.

Littly Italy Mercato2. The Little Italy Mercato on Saturday mornings is, for starters, a great farmers’ market (two-for-$1 avocados!) but also a spot to peruse gourmet foodstuffs, take in live music, and sample just-caught sea urchin, cut open and served while still alive.

3. Beer nerds won’t want to miss the area’s many breweries, but most are set far from the downtown area. Brewery Tours of San Diego will pick you up at downtown hotels and take you on a full-day beer-hop, visiting Stone Brewing Company, Ballast Point, and other SD craft brewers, all without having to get behind the wheel.

Where to Eat:

Pacos from R Gang Eatery1. Carnitas Snack Shack in the hipster-fied North Park neighborhood is home to San Diego’s hot taco of the moment: a Mexican-meets-southern-BBQ mash-up that layers slow-cooked local pulled pork on fresh, homemade tortillas.

2. R Gang Eatery in the Hillcrest “gayborhood” serves up some of the most playful hangover-soaking food we’ve ever seen, including pacos (buttermilk pancake “tacos” stuffed with scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, cheese, sour cream and pico de gallo).

3. Be sure not to leave without sampling the iconic San Diego foodstuff—a California burrito (carne asada, French fries, salsa, cheese and guacamole). Available all over the place, but the open-24-hours Saguaro’s is one of the best bets.

La Pensione HotelWhere to Sleep:

La Pensione Hotel (from $109) is an arty boutique property in the heart of the trendy Little Italy neighborhood, and adjacent to the city’s main Amtrak station. From here, you can easily hop on the trolley to explore most of downtown San Diego, car-free.

Getting There: 

The trip from Santa Barbara to San Diego is 5.5 hours on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner (from $41, or $68 total for a direct ticket from San Francisco). Pulling out from Santa Barbara, views of the Channel Islands give way to the San Fernando Valley, at which point the train heads through downtown L.A., then on to San Diego.

Photos: Courtesy of JoeInSouthernCA, R Gang Eatery, La Pensione

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  • Avatar
    Jennifer Lenik
    January 21, 2014 at 7:21 pm

    to clarify train ticket costs, would I be paying approximately 68.00 for the full trip (one way) from San Francisco to San Diego? If so, would I be able to get on and off with this itinerary with the same ticket? It appears that there are two trains, the Starlight and the Surfliner…

    • offMetro SF
      offMetro SF
      January 22, 2014 at 6:44 am

      Hi Jennifer, Only the Surfliner goes all the way to San Diego (the Starlight stops in LA). Ticket prices vary depending on the time of the year, if there are specials, and how far in advance you book (the prices we list are “from $68,” meaning that is the low rate. You’ll have to check the Amtrak website to see what the rate is for the time you’ll be traveling. You can save by booking un advance. Unfortunately, I do not believe there is hop-on/hop-off available (you have to go straight through or buy tickets for each leg of your trip). However, you should double check with Amtrak about that. If you intend to make many stops, the California Rail Pass is a great deal: Hope this helps!

  • Avatar
    December 31, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    This sounds fantastic. Im from Boston and planning on visiting both San Fran and San Diageo in March/April. This would be a great way to get from SF to SD. Im just not sure we’d have enough time to make each stop. Which overnights would you recommend if we were to do just 1?

  • Avatar
    Brendan Spiegel
    December 31, 2016 at 3:56 pm

    San Luis Obispo is absolutely beautiful and a very manageable size for a one-night stop.

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