(Update, May 2023): Having stayed in two very loud locations in downtown San Diego, I’d recommend finding accommodations north of the city, perhaps in La Jolla, or on the island of Coronado. There’s a ferry every hour going from Coronado to San Diego—it’s just $7 each way, and it takes you right to the Embarcadero, where you can begin the trolley tour, or you can grab a ride-share or walk. You can also drive across the Coronado Bridge, of course. Note that the ferry trip did not begin at Broadway Pier when I was there, despite what the Coronado ferry website says, but instead on the next pier to the south.
It’s a good vacation when you look at local real estate while you’re there.
I didn’t expect to fall in love with a new place during my solo trip to San Diego. I’d seen bargain flights from Denver often, and I have cousins who live there, so I had plenty of great reasons to visit. But I’d already taken trips to Santa Rosa, San Francisco, Sonoma and Los Angeles over the years, so I’d always choose another destination deal instead.
But when my trip with Heather to Machu Picchu was canceled in February 2022 thanks to COVID, I decided that an impromptu, inexpensive trip was in order. And San Diego was a short, affordable flight (around $150 round trip).
It was worth every penny I spent during my four-night, five-day stay in America’s Finest City. I could tell you about the vibe: laid back, fresh, active, upbeat. I could tell you about the scenery: the magnificent ocean vistas, the jaw-dropping views from Torrey Pines, the rolling city hills with cute boutiques and sunset seating. I could tell you about the plethora of interesting things to do in San Diego’s famous perfect weather. (And I will.)
But for me, it was an ephemeral combination of these things that became more than the sum of its parts. It was easy. A good fit. I might be from the Midwest, and I might have chosen to move to Colorado. But I might be part California girl. Some (many?) of my vacations are challenging. This one was simply fun!
My accommodations and transportation in San Diego
I stayed at the Hampton Inn San Diego Downtown during my solo trip to San Diego. (See my blog on Choosing a Hotel on a Budget). Location is key, and this Hampton Inn has a pretty great one. It’s tucked between Waterfront Park along San Diego Bay and the Little Italy district on India Street. (Yes, Little Italy’s main drag is India Street.) Yes, there are some unhoused and perhaps addicted or mentally ill people out and about on the surrounding streets, but fewer than in other cities I’ve visited. There’s also a fire station at the end of the block, so you’ll hear frequent sirens. And I’d recommend a top-floor room, because every footstep from the floor above me was like wild horses galloping in the early morning hours.
But it’s within walking distance of water, restaurants, shops, several attractions, and stops for the Hop-On, Hop-Off trolley. (Market by Buon Appetito is a great resource down the block for snacks, beverages, sandwiches and salads.) This Hampton Inn is also a short Lyft from Balboa Park, home of the San Diego Zoo. I even used the hotel’s app to choose a room with a water view.
It was mostly clean. When I arrive at a hotel, I always wipe down everything with Lysol Wipes: the surfaces of tables and dressers. The curtain wands, Light switches. Door knobs. The bathroom vanity. The hair dryer. Every solid surface that I will touch or that I will rest my things upon. My room wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad.
The hotel is old—the toilet doesn’t quite flush properly, and the grout will never be clean. But the staff is accommodating. There was no bottle filler, but they led me into their very cluttered office/storage area/back room to fill my bottle from the bubbler back there. They also lead guests back there to grab their luggage. Not super professional, but friendly. Breakfast wasn’t bad, either. The early bird gets the yogurt. (I didn’t get yogurt.) But I was able to make breakfast, lunch and dessert out of the buffet selection.
I chose not to rent a car in San Diego, even though most of the places I visited weren’t within walking distance. For one thing, I planned to take the Hop-On Hop-Off Trolley to some far-flung places, including Old Town and Coronado Island — see below for more about that adventure.
For another, traffic is brutal, and the hotel charged an overnight parking fee that would have put the cost of a rental well over the cost of the one-day trolley pass and three days’ worth of Lyfts that I chose instead. I avoided the stress of navigating and finding parking thanks to some great local drivers.
I took an extra early flight out of Denver so that, when I gained an hour from Mountain Time to Pacific Time, I’d have a full day to explore.
When I landed at San Diego International Airport, in the heart of the city (it’s a relatively small, destination airport), I checked the cost to take a Lyft to my hotel just 1.8 miles away. It was over $30. I only had carry-on luggage. So I turned around and crossed back over the shuttle/pickup lane to the city bus stop. (See Heather’s blog on using public transportation when traveling.) It was easy and cost just $2.50. (Be sure to have exact change.)
By 10 a.m. I was checked in and ready to head over to the most famous attraction bearing the city’s name.
I had a unique, extra-special visit to the zoo during my trip to San Diego. My cousin Christy, whom I grew up right next to in the countryside of northeast Indiana, is a horticulture manager at the San Diego Zoo. She’s worked there for 20 years and has been involved in some incredible acts of conservation for plant life from around the world, traveling to places where species are endangered and harvesting seeds or even hand-pollinating plants.
Christy, her young daughter and her daughter’s friend met me at the entrance to the zoo shortly after I landed and took me first to the new Wildlife Explorers Basecamp, which was only open to staff and their families at that time. Then we strolled the perimeter of the zoo as she pointed out rare and exotic species of trees, grasses and flowering plants. She even showed us her office and the greenhouses where rare sprouts get special care.
While not everyone can get this kind of tour, you can make your own using the zoo’s brochures for a self-guided tour of the gardens and grounds. It’s a fascinating story of places, ecosystems, plant exchanges among conservationists around the world and the food that nourishes the San Diego Zoo’s main attraction — the animals. The koalas are a can’t miss!
The zoo is situated in an attraction in and of itself. I only saw a fraction before meeting up with Christy. If you have more time in San Diego than I did, allow a day to peruse Balboa Park’s offerings. There are 17 museums of varying sizes and calibers in the park’s 1,200 acres, plus gorgeous historic buildings and lush gardens.
I only had a couple of hours, so I strolled the Spanish Village Art Center, a whole vibe and home to the best lavender chai at Daniel’s Coffee Cart. I then wandered around the reflecting pool and through lawns populated with playing children, musicians, couples, picnickers and people just generally enjoying the sunshine and temperate weather for which San Diego is famous.
I thought I might be able to walk back to my hotel from the zoo, but by the time I was ready to leave, I’d already walked miles, and the sun was going to set before I could exit the park. So I called a Lyft for a short ride.
My first night in San Diego was a Saturday, but being a party of one, I managed to snag a seat on the patio of the swanky-feeling Brigantine, about two blocks from my hotel. It met all my SoCal expectations: beautiful people; a massive patio perched over the ocean and open to the sunset; good tunes; fire tables lending warmth and brightness to the starry night; exquisite seafood preparations; and complex cocktails.
Despite a terrible night’s sleep — I don’t sleep well at home thanks to fibromyalgia, but when I travel I enjoy extra aches and pains, hives and, in this case, thundering herds outside my hotel door and on the floor above me — I was up early to catch the first trolley, because there is a lot to see on the trolley!
I love booking a hop-on, hop-off tour early in a trip. I’ve done so all over the States and even in Europe, and it’s a great overview of a city’s highlights, not to mention easy transportation. (See my blog on taking hop-on, hop-off buses.) The Old Town Trolley Tour in San Diego is no exception.
It would be helpful if they put the timetable on the website, so that you know when to be at your first stop and how to plan your day. But they don’t. When I asked for the timetable via online chat, they told me to call the local number. I hate to make calls. But I did, and someone answered on a Sunday morning, and he emailed the timetable to me within minutes.
It’s definitely the best way to get the lay of the land in San Diego. You’ll travel through the major parts of the city and groan over punny history and Top Gun trivia from the driver/cast member. The website makes up for the missing timetable with an easy-to-navigate explainer of the highlights at each stop.
And seeing the car vultures endlessly circling Old Town looking for parking, I was so grateful that I didn’t have to negotiate the busy streets, streams of pedestrians and short-term parking meters … not to mention the cost and hassle of getting a rental car, including valet parking expenses at my hotel.
Your ticket to the trolley includes admission to all kinds of incredible museums. The pass is valid for two consecutive days after the purchase of your trolley ticket, in most cases. I didn’t have time to see any; I didn’t even have time to see all of the stops on the trolley tour. My highlights included:
- Old Town, where I wandered the state park (a historic site with a blacksmithery, original buildings from the 1800s, a cathedral where Saint Junípero Serra celebrated his first Mass in California on July 2, 1769, and lots of trinket shops) until I couldn’t resist the enticing smells and had to get a tamale from a street cart. Four dollars of bliss. I also toured the Whaley House, famous for being haunted…though I didn’t notice any creepy feelings. Of course I wouldn’t set foot in there at night. Mia and fans of the ATWWD podcast know why.
- a parade of low-riders cruising past our trolley we drove south along the waterfront;
- stops in cool neighborhoods — I’d love to go back and explore the Gaslamp Quarter;
- seeing the restaurant where the famous “Great Balls of Fire” scene from Top Gun was filmed;
- crossing the vast span over the bay to upscale resort town Coronado Island;
- and visiting the magnificent, historic Hotel del Coronado, walking the beach, feeling the sun cut the chilly breeze and listening to the waves and seagulls.
The tour covers approximately 25 miles; it’s a two-hour ride for the whole circuit if you don’t get off at any stops. Trolleys arrive and depart approximately every 30 minutes, and stops include Old Town, San Diego Harbor, Seaport Village, Horton Plaza, the Marriott/Convention Center, the Gaslamp Quarter, the Hilton Bayfront, Coronado, Little Italy and Balboa Park.
It was late when I hopped off that night in Little Italy. I got a simple carry-out salad and enjoyed it during sunset on the lovely hill in Little Italy a few blocks from my hotel, listening to a street performer strum the same mournful song on repeat and wishing I knew how to get the overhead heater to work. The salad was nothing to write home about, but the ambiance was pure magic.
Sometimes the most unplanned excursions are the very best. And sometimes the things you look forward to the most turn out to be duds. (See Day 4.) I had left open a day — rare for me — on this solo trip to San Diego. And though it was far, I made my way north to one of my new favorite spots in the world.
I took my cousin Christy’s suggestion to visit Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, and it was one of the highlights of my trip. It’s a reserve, which means it’s more protected than a preserve. There aren’t even trash cans in the park — you pack it all out. This means there was no trash blowing around!
I took a Lyft from downtown to the nearest access by car, a parking lot across the bridge. At around $22 each way, the Lyft was still cheaper than renting a car, paying for gas and paying the parking garage fee, and I could look out the windows while sitting in traffic. Parking is limited at Torrey Pines, too, and there’s a fee to enter the park by car.
Despite the crowds at the 2,000-acre park, it felt pristine. People were respectful of the landscape. The weather was perfection — par for the course in San Diego. Sunny, 74 and dry, with a cooling breeze from the ocean. The Torrey pine exists almost nowhere else, and there were many other rare plants and birds in the park. It’s truly a bit of paradise, and I’m so grateful to the people who had the foresight to protect it.
I hiked the whole mountain — every single trail. It was while I had a snack in a shady spot gazing at the pines, the cliffs and the sea that I started to ponder whether we could ever afford a home there. (The answer is no.)
I traversed the cliffs down to the stunning Torrey Pines State Beach and walked the length of it. I lingered until I nearly lost light. I make it a habit to be close to my hotel by dark when traveling solo, so I caught a Lyft downtown in time for what was supposed to be happy hour.
I heavily research places to eat and explore before I visit a place, and I always look for discounts or deals. One of the visitors’ bureau websites led me to an app for Little Italy, the part of downtown San Diego in which I was staying. That app listed happy hour specials 3–6 p.m. at Ironside, where they serve all of my favorite things.
I tried to confirm happy hour on the Ironside website, but there was almost nothing there, nor on their Facebook page, and no one responded to my Facebook message so, since it was close to my hotel, I decided to just go.
I got the perfect table for one near the open garage door on a beautiful evening. The joint was packed, the atmosphere sophisticated, glowing but casual. I was ready for a cocktail and some oysters. I had to wait a while for anyone to come to my table, so my enthusiasm was beginning to wane, and it flagged even further when the server who arrived at last told me that the app was way wrong; happy hour ended at 5.
But I was hungry, and the cocktails looked really great. I had not had a full meal in a restaurant since I’d arrived (Saturday night I just had an appetizer). So I went all in. I ordered the locally caught California Yellowtail with almond romesco sauce, cauliflower, snap peas, corn, herbed bread crumbs and lemon oil. Plus two light, fresh cocktails with seafaring names. It was marvelous — I could have licked my plate. And the service was gracious and fun. I decided I’d come back for happy hour.
A key piece of advice: Google how to say the name of the place you’re visiting. On the fourth day of my trip to San Diego, I was headed to La Jolla. Thank goodness I told the Lyft driver that I wanted to go to “La Hoy-a.”
I thought that this would be the highlight of my solo trip to San Diego. I booked the sea caves kayak tour from La Jolla Kayak. We would explore the La Jolla Ecological Reserve and Underwater Park, home to leopard sharks, Garibaldi (California’s state marine fish), kelp beds, sea lions and dolphins. Whales would even be migrating through the area while I was there.
I was so excited that I got to La Jolla early. As it turns out, I was just north of the busy downtown area, so there were few places to explore in the quiet neighborhood while I waited. As soon as it was time, I joined several pairs of other kayakers in the tiny shop, where a few young people wrangled us into gear. By the time we all made our way down to the beach, the young people reached a consensus on our safety instructions, and we all had a kayak, I’d been ready to go for about three hours.
And then our young guides told us that the water was too rough to go into the caves.
And that the wind was also stirring up the water, making it too cloudy to see marine life.
So my amazing adventure amid the fishes and caves became a simple kayaking excursion. We have a kayak in Michigan that I’ve used many times. It wasn’t their fault, but it was a letdown. Kayaking into and out of the surf break was a novel challenge, but otherwise, I could have been at home.
After that disappointment, I treated myself to a giant, sweet, delicious ice cream cone from Scoops, then hiked with my pack a couple of miles through swanky streets winding through cliffside neighborhoods to downtown La Jolla. I didn’t have much time before meeting Christy and her family for dinner, so I wandered a bit until I stumbled upon the famous shoreline inhabited by hundreds of smelly, playful, grouchy, fascinating sea lions big and small.
It was the kind of serendipity that makes up for a disappointing morning. Because I was traveling solo, I could navigate down the cliffs and into prime viewing spaces to get up close and personal with the creatures (while still respecting their boundaries, especially the mamas and babies). I stayed right through the most glorious sunset, watching the last drop of blazing red sunlight slip below the horizon. The crowd that gathered to honor the moment grew quiet, and the roar of the waves heralded the dusk.
I then joined my cousin, her husband and her kids for a fun and wonderful dinner of street tacos at Puesto before catching a Lyft back to my hotel for the night.
My flight didn’t leave until early evening, so I was bound and determined to squeeze it all in — including a Zoom interview for a long-term freelance position that I was invited to while on my trip. Fortunately, the location of my hotel was again an asset.
This was practically across the street from my hotel, through a pretty park with babies on swings and tots splashing in a stream. The magnificent Star of India, the world’s oldest active sailing ship, was one of the first sights to greet me as I got off the bus from the airport. I intended to spend an entire day exploring the fleet of ships docked here, but as I mentioned, I had to break up my final day in San Diego with an online interview for a new writing client back at my hotel, so I skimmed the highlights. It’s easily a longer adventure, with several bay cruises and historic boat museums, but I chose:
- The $10 Historic Bay Cruise with General Admission: Purchase general admission to the Maritime Museum of San Diego and you can add a 45-minute bay cruise aboard the country’s oldest active Pilot boat for only $10 more. I was SO pumped for this. Even though I’m a mountain girl at heart, I love being on the water, too. It was a bright, blue, sparkly sunny morning as Captain Bob delivered the pre-sail Coast Guard safety narrative. We watched sea lions play in the bay while he pointed out naval stations, explained cargo ships and significant points on the city’s shoreline, shared how a 40-year concerted effort made the waters of the bay hospitable once again for marine life, and took us under the Coronado Bridge. I grinned the entire time.
- A quick lap through the 1898 steam ferry boat Berkeley — a National Historic Landmark and the hub of the floating museums, with spaces that evoke merry Victorian-era outings.
- And a wander through the Star of India where, along with a class of schoolchildren, I peeked my head into the quarters where families emigrating to other countries attempted to maintain their dignity and health during months in the bowels of the ship and sailors hope to survive a career on ocean crossings. The stories on the placards are personal and striking.
By chance my travels took me to three Navy ships in a year: the USS Yorktown in Charleston, the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor on Oahu, and the USS Midway in San Diego Bay. I had a hard time putting together the naval battles of World War II from the Yorktown exhibits, but the Midway displays brought the puzzle together. It was a great bit of history; in particular, the video near the entrance was very moving. I walked through the sailors’ quarters imagining the people who lived, feared, hoped and served there.
There’s also something impressive and inspiring about the sheer size of a Naval aircraft carrier. San Diego is a Navy town, and I was there a few months before the release of Maverick, the sequel to Top Gun, which was filmed in places around the city 36 years prior. This girl right here was a huge fan of Top Gun; I watched it so many times that I memorized the words and wore out the videotape. So while I didn’t have much time at the Midway, I carved out my own Top Gun moment on the top deck.
My solo trip to San Diego was coming to a close. I hustled back up the waterfront and over to Ironside for that long-awaited happy hour. Once again, dining solo was an advantage: The wait for a table was long, but I was able to snag a stool right in front of the oyster counter at the wide open front of the restaurant — like sitting on the patio, but better. I ordered one of almost everything on the happy hour menu, including a plate of oyster bliss. It was a great way to wrap up my fling with this gorgeous region by the sea.
Travel always surprises me in some way. Before I booked a solo trip to San Diego, I believed that it would be a small, simple trip to only take the edge off of my travel cravings; instead, it was too big and wild and wonderful to get my arms around in one trip. I may not be able to buy a home amid the Torrey pines, but I’ll be back to San Diego for more of the beauty by the sea.
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