Cabrillo National Monument
Even if your visitors only have a day or two in San Diego, consider a visit to Cabrillo. The views atop the 400+ foot cliffs at the end of the “point” in Point Loma are spectacular. You’ll see past Naval Air Station North Island across Coronado, and out across the sailboat-specked San Diego bay to downtown, even the mountains southeast that climb into Mexico.
Winter is a great time to visit Cabrillo for several reasons. The conditions are usually clear for great views in all directions, sometimes even as far as San Clemente and Catalina Islands offshore. Take your binoculars and look for migrating Pacific gray whales through March, (or borrow them from the ranger station in exchange for your driver’s license) and watch for multiple V-shaped spouts, as these whales typically travel in pods of at least three.
Winter also offers more negative tides during the day for exploring Cabrillo’s tide pools, some of the best in San Diego. Just keep in mind they close at 4:30pm (the park itself closes at 5). There are negative tides every day for almost a week starting January 13th through January 20th, all during daytime hours for all but the final day of this great stretch for your tide pooling adventures.
If your visitors are up for a two-mile hike, check out Bayside Trail, a scenic out-and-back walk with a moderate grade that begins just beyond the parking lot on a gravel path. (Bear left as opposed to right towards the lighthouse.) Though Cabrillo’s entry fee per car is $10 for San Diego’s only National Park land, it’s worth it in the very least to give your visitors their panoramic photo op of America’s Finest City.
San Diego’s most diverse collection of mural art can be found in Barrio Logan, home to our country’s largest collection of outdoor murals. Artists and art enthusiasts alike will enjoy this place, but almost anyone can appreciate the colorful depictions of Mexican-American cultural flavor. Speaking of flavor, just down the street from Chicano Park is Las Cuatro Milpas, where you can find some of San Diego’s best home style Mexican food goodness. The line stretches down the street at lunchtime, so get there early! (Opens at 8:30am.)
Though Las Cuatro Milpas is good, it’s clearly not the only great Mexican food restaurant in town. As a San Diegan you likely have your go-to spot, but here are a couple of my favorites: In South Bay I recommend Tacos El Gordo in Chula Vista, and The Taco Stand in La Jolla, even a Carne Asada Burrito from Valentine’s on 6th Ave downtown.
Balboa Park & Bertrand at Mister A’s
Most visitors to San Diego have heard of Balboa Park before, if nothing else because of its museums. But there is so much more than the seventeen museums here. Gardens, great walking (or running) paths, and a world famous zoo make Balboa Park a great choice for your visitors if you’re close by. Keep an eye out for special art exhibits such as the Art of the Americas exhibit at the Mingei International Musuem through February 18th.
Pair a trip to Balboa Park with dinner at nearby Banker’s Hill Bar & Grill or drinks on the rooftop patio at Mister A’s, both on the west side of the park.
Road Trip & Optional Hiking en route to Julian
(Via I-8 to Sunrise Highway)
This is the premier road trip in San Diego and the only National Forest Scenic Byway in the county. My favorite hikes are along this route, including part of the Pacific Crest Trail. Stop at Penny Pines Trailhead to walk along the PCT, with a highly recommended ascent to Garnet Peak off to the right (this junction is marked by a wooden sign that points to Garnet Peak Trail).
You can also find a small trailhead parking area (dirt) marked by a brown iron gate labeled, “Garnet Peak Trail” at mile marker 27.8. The out-and-back hike to the summit of Garnet Peak is 2.4 miles round trip from this mile marker, and 4.4 miles round trip from the Penny Pines trailhead, both on the right side of Sunrise Highway as you drive north.
Continue north to where Sunrise Highway intersects with I-79N and cruise on up to apple pie, several wineries, or more great hiking (Volcan Mountain, or Santa Ysabel Preserve).
(Via I-8 to Rt. 79N)
A more direct route than Sunrise Highway, Rt. 79 offers a winding, scenic drive with a handful of great hikes, like Stonewall Peak, or even a walk around Lake Cuyamaca, where we just saw bald eagles. There also some great places to have a picnic, such as Green Valley Falls, and Paso Picacho Campground. Rt. 79 will take you north to the Junction with Rt. 78. A left takes you down Main street in Julian, and a right leads you to the desert.
Check the weather before heading up here; the elevation can make this much cooler than coastal San Diego. You may even find snow in winter, which can be fun, but also a nightmare on the roads if lots of people get the same idea.
Sunset Cliffs & Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
Most any landlocked visitor (especially first-time visitors) will appreciate a sunset at Sunset Cliffs. Crashing waves, front row ocean views, and cliffs that seem to light up with the setting sun. It never hurts to let Mother Nature do the work for you.
If the handful of parking lots are crammed and you don’t feel like hunting for a spot on a side street, continue to the south end of Sunset Cliffs Blvd. and you’ll find some more parking spots here, as well as a set of stairs that will safely take you down closer to the water. Just past this point where Sunset Cliffs Blvd. ends is Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. If your company is up for a little trail walking, this is a great alternative to the busier lookout points along Sunset Cliffs Blvd. Head out on the trails, get a little dirty, and find a spot on the rocks to catch that iconic San Diego sunset.
You already know there are enough breweries here to pique the interest of any craft beer aficionado. Walk the 30th street corridor from South Park Brewing to Green Flash at Adams Avenue and you’ll have your pick between eleven breweries and tastings rooms. Don’t forget Mike Hess Brewing on Grim Avenue, a good place to catch a game, or ChuckAlek Biergarten, which doesn’t have as large a beer selection but does offer a nice outdoor seating area and food from Tostadas on University Ave.
The Miramar area has more breweries than I can count, as well as the well-received Serpentine Cider or The Lost Cause Meadery for those that want an alternative to beer. North County offers plenty of options in the Rt. 78 corridor/San Marcos area, and a personal favorite here is The Lost Abbey. Bagby Brewing Co. and Breakwater Brewing are both walking distance from Oceanside Transit Center if your guests like the idea of an oceanfront train ride up the coast.
You could really pick any town along the coast and it would give an out-of-towner a sense of the good life by the ocean, but my personal favorite is Encinitas. While the Coaster train stop along the 101 makes this great little town convenient for anyone close enough to a train station, there’s much more in Encinitas that makes it worth the drive too.
San Diego Botanic Gardens, Moonlight or nearby Cardiff State Beaches, Good On Ya and EVE restaurants for your health conscious friends, and one of the best Better Buzz coffee shops in town too, just to name a few. A visit to the Self Realization Fellowship Temple may also be a treat for anyone who appreciates that Paramahansa Yogananda wrote his autobiography here in the 1930’s.
C-Level / Harbor Island
This great Cohn restaurant is a convenient, “Welcome to San Diego” spot for anyone flying into town given its proximity to the airport, especially those who want to eat NOW! The front row view of downtown and San Diego Bay from the outdoor patio doesn’t hurt either.
Coasterra, which is right next door, also offers waterfront views while you catch up over a drink, but I recommend saving your appetite for C-Level. If you overdo it on one of C-Level’s insanely delicious desserts, you can always walk it off on Harbor Island Drive’s walking path afterwards.
Note: C-Level’s Happy Hour is Monday – Friday from 3:30-5:30pm.
Whether you like the laid-back beach town vibe or just want to let your visitors try the best fish tacos in San Diego, a walk down Newport Ave in O.B. is a true San Diego experience. Though we all have our own opinions, for my money it’s hard to beat the fish tacos out on the deck at South Beach Bar and Grill as you watch the crashing surf, especially on Tuesdays and Thursdays when they offer specials. Lighthouse ice cream is right next door too, should you want something sweet for a stroll on the west coast’s second longest pier.
Take the 15-minute ferry from downtown ($4.75/pp each way) or cruise across the curving Coronado Bridge to Coronado. The Beach in front of and adjacent to Hotel Del Coronado is one of San Diego’s cleanest and most beautiful. Grab a pricey yet scenic drink or appetizers on the deck of the ‘Del,’ or sandwiches from Park Place Liquor and Deli to eat at the beach or at nearby Star Park.
Centennial Park at the opposite end of Orange Avenue from Hotel Del boasts a prime view of downtown, which is photogenic during the day but even more impressive at night. A walk along the boardwalk to Tidelands Park (walking right from Centennial Park as you face downtown) on a nice day is another option. You could also rent bikes from Pedego Electric Bikes on 1st Ave (or Holland’s Bicycles if you’re closer to Hotel Del) and cruise along the Bayshore Bikeway to Glorietta Blvd. past Coronado golf course and some beautiful homes on the other side of the street.