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Our impression of a new city is often influenced by the people we experience it with, more than the place itself. Would we have enjoyed our time in San Diego as much if we hadn’t stayed with our friends Tom and Jenny?
Surely not, although San Diego has a lot to offer: warm, sunny weather even in late October; a laid-back outdoor lifestyle with beaches, parks, and hikes nearby; and delicious vegan-friendly food.
But having local knowledge enhanced our experience. We didn’t go to the zoo or SeaWorld or visit any museums.
Instead, we drank gourmet cocktails at a secret bar, played volleyball and disc golf with locals, and discovered beautiful beaches and hikes. We played board games, decorated the house for Halloween, and Simon and Tom even created a new iOS game during a geeky hackathon weekend.
Note: This post was originally written in 2014. See my up to date guide on the best outdoor adventures in San Diego after our latest visit.
There are many beaches to choose from in San Diego and even in the fall it was warm enough to swim. Lively Mission Beach is one of the most popular, so you won’t have it to yourself, but it’s a good place for people-watching, and running or cycling along the boardwalk. Simon even joined a local volleyball tournament.
Coronado beach is on an upmarket island reached by bridge or ferry from downtown. We stayed nearby and enjoyed the long stretch of white sand that’s quieter than Mission Beach and often voted as one of the best beaches in the US.
Simon and Tom went surfing a few times. Some of Tom’s favourite beginner surf beaches include Tourmaline in Pacific Beach and the jetty by Dog Beach in Ocean Beach.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
We did a beautiful, easy hike at Torrey Pines on sandy trails through pine trees, along cliffs, and down to the long wild beach. There are lots of trails and the views are gorgeous.
Self Realization Fellowship Meditation Gardens
After Torrey Pines we headed to Swamis in Encinitas for lunch and visited the meditation gardens that are opposite. The lush tropical gardens are free and are a tranquil spot with sea views, a koi pond, and many flowers and succulents.
Read more about fun things to do in Encinitas.
We don’t usually like bars but Noble Experiment is different. It’s hidden speakeasy style in the back of a restaurant—push a wall of kegs and a door swivels open. It’s an intimate, dimly lit space with a few tables, a wall of gold skulls, and a crystal chandelier.
The bartenders take their cocktails seriously, so it’s most fun to sit at the bar and watch them work. There’s a changing menu of 10 creative cocktails, but we recommend Dealer’s Choice. Tell the bartender what you like and he’ll craft a cocktail to your tastes. We all did this and each drink was very different but perfect for us. I loved mine made with blackberries, lemon, gin and champagne; Simon’s rum and cherry liquor concoction was equally delicious.
Noble Experiment is the kind of bar I like—relaxed, friendly, quiet enough to talk, and with delicious drinks. Don’t miss it, but make sure you reserve in advance.
Coin-Op Game Room
If you’re a video game fan like Simon, head to Coin-Op in North Park which combines an arcade and a bar serving craft beer and cocktails. Their focus is old school games, with many from the 80s and 90s, like Simon’s favourite Marvel vs. Capcom.
Games are free on the last Sunday of the month.
We had never heard of disc golf, but this uniquely Californian sport is popular here. You throw a frisbee around a course trying to get it into each target (a metal basket) in the fewest throws. Despite being terrible, we enjoyed playing at the scenic Morley Field course.
It costs $3 to play at Morley Field ($4 on weekends) and you can rent discs for $1.50.
This is California—everyone does yoga. I joined them, taking advantage of the seven day free trial at CorePower, which has multiple studios across the city. Their yoga style is powerful Vinyasa flow in heated rooms for an invigorating and sweaty workout.
Hillcrest Farmers Market
California’s fantastic produce is best sampled at one of the many farmers markets. We went to the extensive Hillcrest market on Sundays where local producers sell fruit, vegetables, cheese, honey, dips, nuts, oils, salsas, and an array of international hot food with plenty of veggie/vegan options. We made the mistake of going after a huge brunch so couldn’t take advantage of all the tasty treats on offer—go hungry and spend a few hours tasting your way around the stalls.
We love going to the cinema but don’t usually go in the US as it’s so expensive. Luckily our local guides took us to see Gone Girl at UltraStar in Mission Valley where tickets are just $6 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You don’t sacrifice comfort either— they’ve just renovated the theatres with spacious, reclining leather seats.
For the real American experience—if you know someone with a membership card—pay a visit to the wholesale store Costco for discount movie tickets.
San Diego has a fantastic food scene with lots of Mexican and healthy Californian fare. I found it easy to be vegan—read my San Diego vegan guide for all the tasty things we ate.
Another crazy North American sport, Broomball is like ice hockey for those of us who have no idea how to play. You head onto the ice rink in shoes not skates, and use special brooms to hit the soft ball into the goals. It’s fast, fun, and kind of dangerous (there will be bruises).
Our friends hired the ice rink after it closed for some midnight broomball to celebrate Tom’s birthday with a big group of friends.
We carved our first ever pumpkin (named Pumpkin Patches after our friends’ cat Patches) and decorated the house for Halloween. We felt so American!
OK, so maybe this is more something we made locals do, but Disneyland is only a two hour drive away and well worth it for a day of fun. See our Disneyland one day itinerary for adults.
If you want to experience San Diego like a local, but don’t have the benefit of local friends, we recommend renting an Airbnb apartment in the hipster neighbourhood North Park and renting a car, as the city is very spread out. Even without a local guide you should be able to do most of the things on this list, as well as enjoy the cool restaurants and bars of North Park.
Thanks to Jenny and Tom for being amazing hosts and introducing us to their sunny city!
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Experiencing a place like a local is always a different type of experience. Locals know where to go and how to enjoy themselves and they know all the secret places.
Nice visit to San Diego! I am also horified with a sceleton on the door – uhhh, it looks dangerous! )))) I appreciate following your travels! I would also love you checking out my photoaggregation project carde-app dot com to know your attitude. Happy travels 2015! Daria
Great post….I have plans to travel to San Diego in the near future so this post is very helpful to me!