In a word association game, San Diego will almost always lead to beach. Right along with blondes, surfboards and fish tacos.
There’s no argument about beaches being a lifestyle in this city of 1.4 million, sitting 120 miles south of Los Angeles and 17 miles north of Mexico. Each sandy and rocky slice of land along the Pacific has its unique personality: Pacific Beach for the young party crowd, Imperial Beach for the bird watchers, Mission Beach for families and novice surfers, and Ocean Beach for the hippies. There’s even a naturist spot at Black's Beach for those who want to bare all (and descend a harrowing cliffside trail). But you’re skimping on a winter escape if you drop anchor at the water’s edge in San Diego, where February’s average high is 65 degrees.
Mission Beach. Courtesy of John Bahu.
“You can be skiing in the morning, and swimming in the afternoon, and still have enough time between to get lunch,” says Grant Barrett, a New Yorker who landed here six years ago. True to the SoCal stereotype, San Diego’s downtown streets serve a bounty of VW buses and RVs stacked with surfboards or kayaks. Even in the sea of glass towers and zero-emission taxis, these harbingers whisper: The ocean is near.
“There’s always something compelling out there: the beach, biking, hiking, camping, swimming, running, kayaking,” Grant says.
You can survey the options from atop the California Tower in Balboa Park. Rising 462 feet above the sea, the carillon tower recently reopened to the public after 80 years in solitude. Visitors on a viewing platform look north to the Cuyamaca Mountains beyond the renowned San Diego Zoo. Snow-dusted Laguna Mountain peaks pierce the eastern skyline. Even Mexico is visible south of downtown on a clear day, with the glittery horizon of sapphire to the west.
California Tower in Balboa Park. Courtesy of Museum of Man.
The tower’s home of Balboa Park caters to every kind of traveler. As the nation’s largest urban cultural park, it holds more than two dozen museums, gardens and cultural attractions. Here, you’ll find the world-famous San Diego Zoo, where pandas, rhinos and some 650 other species live. The Old Globe Theater, modeled after Shakespeare’s original in London, hosts Tony Award-winning musicals. Pick up a multiday Balboa Park Explorer pass for seven-day access to 16 museums (including the Museum Of Man and the San Diego Air And Space Museum). Or stick with free offerings such as the Botanical Gardens and the Timken Museum of Art (home to San Diego’s only Rembrandt).
Courtesy of San Diego Zoo Global
Several restaurants in the park, such as Panama 66, feature seasonal California items, including panko-crusted mushroom patties and tempeh, lettuce and tomato sandwiches, served with local West Coast IPA beers. San Diego is home to nationally recognized Ballast Point, Green Flash, and Stone Brewing companies.
For a midwinter ocean fix, there are few better spots than the La Jolla Coast Walk Trail, 12 miles north of downtown. The 1.5-mile dirt path rolls from a cliff-studded cove harboring sea lions to hillsides of yellow succulents and glass- walled mansions perched above sea caves. It ends at La Jolla Shores, where surfers in wet suits scope out lines and sun worshippers bask. Beyond the sand, paddleboarders, divers and snorkelers gaze at canyons and a kelp forest in La Jolla Underwater Park. The 6,000-acre submerged preserve is one more reminder why visitors should venture beneath San Diego’s beachy veneer.
Coronado Island Call it Nado to sound like a local and ignore that it’s technically a peninsula. Catch the ferry from downtown or drive via Silver Strand Boulevard for scenic bike rides or boutique shopping on Orange Avenue. coronadovisitorcenter.com
Gaslamp Quarter Victorian-Era buildings and new towers coexist in a 16-block historic district downtown. It’s the epicenter of nightlife with rooftop restaurants, dance floors and off-Broadway stages. gaslamp.org
Gaslamp Quarter. Courtesy of Joanne DiBona/SanDiego.org
Everyday California Tours Access La Jolla sea caves by fins and snorkel, or kayak with guides (from $50). Gray whale kayak tours run in the winter (from $60). Or rent gear for an independent adventure. adventure.everydaycalifornia.com
USS Midway Museum Step aboard one of America’s longest-serving aircraft carriers. The floating museum in San Diego Bay displays 29 restored aircraft among 60 exhibits. midway.org
Puesto Tacos The menu centers on tacos and tequila inside an open-air mall in Seaport Village downtown. Learn the difference between reposado and añejo tequilas with a flight, and quiz bartenders about the tastiest off-menu tacos. eatpuesto.com
Courtesy of Puesto Tacos
Donut Bar Forget the glass of milk. This gourmet doughnut shop near Balboa Park serves fried doughy creations beside 20-plus local brews on tap. donutbar.com
Cafe 222 Get a classic breakfast near the bayside Embarcadero neighborhood. The peanut butter and banana French toast was featured on Food Network. cafe222.com
Bluewater Seafood Market & Grill Choose your fish and make it a sandwich, taco or salad at an eatery near the airport. Or peruse cases of raw fish, bought on the docks or caught by restaurant staff that day. bluewaterseafoodsandiego.com
Manchester Grand Hyatt A 40-story tower a few minutes’ walk from the harbor boasts impeccable service with picturesque views of the skyline and ocean. Modern rooms offer a mini fridge and tasteful decor in San Diego’s tallest waterfront hotel. manchester.grand.hyatt.com
Hotel del Coronado The beach town of Coronado was built around this legendary hotel, open since 1888. Enjoy an elegant pool with a bar and cabanas that have hosted dignitaries and royalty. An adjacent marina accesses San Diego Bay and the ocean surrounding the property. hoteldel.com