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San Diego is a beautiful and safe coastal city to visit. The beaches and food are absolutely amazing! We are so glad that we were recommended to head to San Diego, before going to LA. Surprisingly, we could cover the highlights of San Diego in 2 days by car. However, 3 days would be ideal unless you start the day at 7am-10pm like us.
The key areas/places are Old Town, La Jolla, Little Italy, Balboa Park, Seaport Village (on a Saturday) and Gaslamp District.
Getting Around in San Diego
You definitely need a car in San Diego for accessibility and to make the most out of your time. Public transport is a little slow in San Diego and most people drive. We rented a car from Klook at San Diego airport (car rental is available for 24 hours, although the timings suggest otherwise).
Although we did not get any San Diego pass to gain access to paid attractions, we had a fabulous time (as fun as New York). If you want to visit San Diego Zoo, Belmont Amusement park, join kayak tours in La Jolla or whale watching tours, you can consider it. For us, such things are nice to do and not a must do.
After visiting Disneyland Park, Disneyland California Park or USS because they are "should do" activities, I realized that I would actually enjoy myself more at Six Flags. So, plan your activities according to what you like. Do I regret not going to world famous San Diego Zoo? Not really, I wouldn't know what I would have missed anyway. I think it is wiser to visit San Diego again with a child. At my age (ouch), I choose soaking up the breathtaking views at the beaches and coves.
- Breakfast republic (This place was so good, that we went twice. Must try their creme brulee french toast - specials and shrimp & grits. Can skip their peanut butter french toast. Chai dirty latte and butter cookie latte are good)
- Torrey Pines State Beach & Torrey Pines State Reserve
- Torrey Pines Gliderport
- Mission Beach Boardwalk & Mission Beach Park
- Belmont Park
- Sunset Cliffs Beach & Sunset Cliffs Cave
- Liberty Public Market food court
- Crazee burger for venison burger (interesting and creative burgers, whipped cream and peach sauce on a burger!)
- North Park Farmers Market (amazing selection of interesting food)
- Verbatim Bookstore
- Old Town (we visited Old Town during the day and night - awesome vibes)
- The Cottage for breakfast (must go for their pancakes. We would have gone twice but it was closed the next day)
- Sugar and Scribe Bakery for Cookie butter croissant (plenty of sold out croissants)
- Lajolla Coast Walk Trail (you can spot gigantic and baby seals)
- The Cave Store for La Jolla Cove (some reviews complain about the fee to enter the cove, but it was worth it! The view and occasional waves that would splash onto you is fun)
- Balboa park
- Little Italy for crack shack (Little Italy is filled with Italian restaurant but this fried chicken gem is a must-go. I am so glad that we did not skipped this as the burger and fries taste incredible. Close to 5K reviews on google - I think this is the most for a restaurant in SD. Try the firebird sandwich - super crispy chicken with a subtle spicy kick and saucy fries)
- Little Italy for Ironside fish & oysters (cheap oysters but long waiting time. The oysters aren't memorable but soak in the vibes and people-watch at this utterly busy restaurant if you have time to spare)
- Little Italy Food Hall food court (Delicious beers, ice cream, lobster tacos)
- Gaslamp quarters (walkable streets filled with restaurant and shops. Beware of people that push their signature and CDs to you)
- Cali ice cream (over ~50 flavors and the alcoholic flavors taste great. Skip pistachio and cheesecake flavor!)
- Tuna Harbor Dockside Market (opens on Saturday only, with rows of fresh seafood that I wish I could buy and cook at my airbnb. Thankfully, there is a stall that sells fish n chips and tuna poke. I think shark meat is used and the batter is a delightful to munch on. You don't have to visit the market too early, try to time it such that Seaport village mall would be opened afterwards. We skipped the Midway Museum.)
- Seaport village mall
- Devil's Dozen Donut Shop (popular donut shop - they taste quite good. But if you have a chance to visit Orange County, you have to try M&M donut which is only opened at night. Hands down best donut that I tried so far)
- Little Italy Mercato Farmers' Market (biggest market for us in San Diego, the various food sold is so unique and delicious)
- Old Town San Diego State Historic Park (beautiful park to visit during the day. Don't waste your calories on the candies)
- Fiesta de Reyes mall (we bought churros)
- Watergrill for Dinner (this is a popular restaurant, but perhaps they were overwhelmed with orders on Christmas. Grilled Cod fish and oysters were good. Steak and lobster were overcooked)
- Salt & straw ice cream (must go despite the long queue)
Revisited some spots
- Breakfast republic
- La Jolla
- Balboa Park for Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden, Bea Evenson Fountain, Desert Garden, Botanical Building & lily pond
- Little Italy for Italian food
You can consider heading to Desert Hills premium outlet from San Diego. We went there from Orange County. It is a must-visit despite the 2 hours drive (moderately heavy traffic). There were plenty of shops and long queues. We spent 6 hours over there!
We also went to Citadel and Camarillo factory outlets as we have plenty of time to spare. Although these 2 are smaller, they have great sales as well. No regrets going to all 3 factory outlets near Los Angeles because each of them have unique sales and it is a great shopping experience. The sales were fantastic.
At Desert Hills premium outlet, you have more established brands such as Prada, Celine, YSL etc. If you are hunting American brands with incredible sales, Tory Burch and Coach should be your first stops despite the queue.
At Citadel, I visited Fossil as I missed it at Desert Hills. Awesome sales! Example: a bag going for 55USD, vs 495sgd in Singapore.
It is a long drive towards Camarillo factory outlet from Los Angeles. But the view during the 1.5h drive is quite good. Lots of hilly areas and mountains! Relatively good sales at Sketchers and Tommy Hilfiger etc.