12 things to do in San Diego: Part II

A sequel, 12 things to do in San Diego: Part II is a continuation of my last post. To see my first 6 recommendations and to get an introduction to San Diego, you can view Part I here

I originally wanted to post part II just after part I, but alas, nature took its course and I’ve been in bed with a vicious fever for the last 4 days.

Yesterday, my first day well, instead of writing I spent it making a special non-animal by-product dinner for my vegan mom, and showing my boyfriend what an intoxicating treat key lime pie is from one of our local bakeries in Santa Cruz. They were small gestures to show thanks to those two for taking care of my sickly self for the past few days.

With that said, I’m back on track, feeling much better, and most importantly ready to tackle my 7-12 recommendations for what to do in San Diego.

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So, let’s get right into it.  

7. Find your wild side at the San Diego Zoo & Safari Park

If you love animals, San Diego is the place to see a wide variety. At 100 acres, the huge San Diego Zoo is seen by many as the best in America, and it’s ranked as one of the top zoos in the world.

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It’s not surprising when you look at the figures. There are over 650 species and more than 3,700 different animals to be found at the zoo, more than enough to keep you happy for a whole day.

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My favorite exhibits would have to include the panda bear family (be prepared to wait in line to see them), and the Polar Bear Plunge. The Polar Bear Plunge allows you to see these amazing creatures in their natural habitat, swimming playfully in the water or hamming it up on the ice.

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I had never seen a polar bear swim underwater before visiting the zoo, and I must say it was one of the most magical animal encounters I’ve had.

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The San Diego Zoo is located in Balboa Park and is open 365 days of the year, the hours vary depending on the season.

The sister San Diego Safari Park is similar to the zoo but on a smaller scale and on the opposite side of the county up in Esconido.

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We made a visit to the Safari Park because it was included in our GoCard, but if you had to choose between the two I would definitely spend my time at the zoo.

The reason I find the zoo more enticing is because it offers a greater variety of animals by far. Even still, the Safari Park does offer a different animal experience with its many safaris, and I applaud them on the fact that the enclosures were much larger for a more comfortable animal living arrangement and daily roaming.

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We only did the generic Africa Tram that’s included with the admission price, which was mediocre if you include the wait time, and how far away you were from the animals. All of the other safaris cost additional to the admission price, but I think if you are willing to splurge those would be well worth it.

We saw visitors feeding giraffes on their Caravan Safari, but if you want that experience it’s going to cost you upwards of $100.

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So, if you’re willing to shell out the extra bucks for these amazing experiences the Safari Park offers a little something extra, but if you just want to pay the one time admission price, the San Diego Zoo takes the cake for me. Both attractions are a great day out and worth seeing if you have the time and money.

Note: the reason I didn’t include the famous SeaWorld San Diego as one of the best places to see animals is because I don’t agree with their practices. Although zoos don’t have a perfect rap, and enclosing animals in general is a sad thing, SeaWorld takes it to the next level with cramped living conditions and mistreated marine mammals.

Whales in captivity are not a pretty sight, especially when you look underneath the surface.

It has been brought up in the news time and time again that SeaWorld doesn’t care for its animals. There are horror stories of orcas being kidnapped and sent to SeaWorld, if they elude capture they’re killed. I would recommend watching the documentary Blackfish to get more of an insight into the issue.

If you want to view some amazing marine life, I would recommend heading to the Monterey Bay Aquarium up the coast. It’s considered the best aquarium in the world and it’s only a 45 minute drive from my hometown, Santa Cruz. Double bonus.

I used to go there on school field trips and I can personally vouch that it’s an outstanding look into life under the sea.

8. Spend a day on one of the many hiking trails

Although the complete opposite to the climate I grew up with in forest-lush Northern California, desert-like San Diego is where I started to get into hiking right before I left for overseas.

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It’s a different style of hiking: dusty, hot, wide expanses of multicolored earth tones for miles and miles, but I grew to love the many hikes I took around the county.

The following are some of my favorites:

Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma (Bayside Trail) – In the same vein as Torrey Pines State Reserve, the Bayside trail in Point Loma in one of the prettiest coastal hikes I’ve been on. It’s a relatively easy hike to start off on, clocking in at 2.8 miles and a mild elevation gain of 400 ft, this hike takes around 2 hours to complete.

My favorite components of the hike are the Cabrillo National Monument, which is a statue dedicated to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who discovered California in 1542. I also loved going inside the old Point Loma Lighthouse, and looking out over the ocean after climbing the winding staircase. The constant views of the blue Pacific Ocean only added to the good vibes of this trail.

Good if you just want to get outside, feel a little bit of a sea breeze, enjoy stunning scenery, but don’t want to break a sweat.

Mount Woodson (aka Potato Chip Rock) – The hardest hike I’ve accomplished in San Diego, if only because of its steep inclines and declines. Mount Woodson is a popular hike in Poway, and shows up on many an Instagram feed for the popular picture with the rock that looks like a potato chip.

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Since Poway is inland, it gets very hot and dusty on the trail and there’s little to no shade. A lot of people don’t come properly prepared, thinking they’ll just get a shot of themselves with the famous rock and not realizing that the rock is well into the steep trail.

If you are willing to put in a little sweat, the views from the top are incredible.

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If you’d like to do the full hike it’s 6.4 miles roundtrip and climbs to 2,000 feet. It takes about 5 hours to complete.

Torrey Pines State Reserve (Razor Point Trail and Yucca Point Trail) – One of my favorite hikes in San Diego, and not only because it was so close to my college campus. Torrey Pines Reserve is just north of La Jolla and has two easy trails. I’ve hiked around the reserve multiple times, and it was one of my favorite places to take friends when they were visiting or looking for a new spot in San Diego.

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Between the golden cliffs and the perfect color of the breaking waves, this is one of those hikes that takes your breath away. It’s also a hike that has very little shade, but the ocean breeze is there to cool you down.

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The Razor Point trail is 1.3 miles and the Yucca Point trail is 1.25 miles, both with no more than 200 feet change in elevation, and taking about 1 hour each to complete. The Yucca Point trail leads down to the beach, but both trails offer a breathtaking view over the majestic cliffs jutting out towards the ocean.

Cowles Mountain  Cowles Mountain is even steeper than Mount Woodson, but comes off as much easier due to it shorter duration. My calves and thighs were definitely feeling it after this hike, but the view at the top is well worth the struggle.

From the peak of the mountain you can look down on Lake Murray below, all the way out to downtown and the ocean, and even all the way to Mexico.

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Similar to Mount Woodson, Cowles Mountain is inland (just west of El Cajon), so be prepared for heat and little to no shade during the hike.

The hike is about 3 miles altogether, and with an elevation gain of 950 feet, it takes around 2 hours to complete roundtrip.

Ones I haven’t tackled yet but are highly popular and recommended:

Three Sisters Falls – The trail to Three Sisters Falls is actually near Julian, just over in hour outside of San Diego, but since a lot of my friends have done this trail and loved it, I wanted to include it.

Another challenging hike, this trail is only recommended for experienced hikers who are in good shape. In addition to its steep nature, the trail also includes rope climbs and optional rock climbing. It’s only accessible from November to June, and it’s recommended to bring to a lot of water and proper hiking boots, as well as gloves for climbing the ropes.

The sight once you get to the falls is meant to be worth all the bumps and bruises you may have acclimated on the climb up.

The trail comes out to 4 miles and climbs to an elevation of 1,000 feet, it takes about 3 hours to complete roundtrip. It’s recommended to avoid hiking it at the hottest parts of the day if possible.

Cedar Creek Falls to Devil’s Punchbowl – Considered the most dangerous hike in the country, one person a year dies on this trail.

The Devil’s Punchbowl is a big pool surrounded by 75-foot high cliffs and a magnificent waterfall. Some deaths happen from the popularity of hikers jumping from the slippery rocks into the shallow waters below, others from falling off the steep downhill part of the trail on the way to the waterfall.

Regardless of its dangers, I’ve been told that the Cedar Creek Falls trail and the Devil’s Punchbowl are a sight to behold. The most popular advice from avid hikers who use this trail is to bring a lot of water.

The Cedar Creek Falls trail is located in Ramona, and is 4.5 miles with an estimated duration of 3 hours. Obviously, add in more time if you want to spend time swimming at the Devil’s Punchbowl.

9. Drive up the Coast Highway

San Diego is blessed with miles and miles of elegant coastline. My favorite way to see the beauty of the North County beaches is along the Coast Hwy, also known as Hwy 101.

Starting around the Torrey Pines Reserve, the Coast Highway goes through some lovely scenery and suburbs, including Del Mar, Solana Beach, Leucadia, Carlsbad, and Oceanside. One of my favorite parts of the highway is a little further outside of San Diego, going past San Clemente.

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Make sure to stop in at the local staple, Pizza Port, for its delicious pizza and beer. There’s a reason why it’s so popular with locals, the fare is mouthwatering and the vibe is very much surfer. When you get to Encinitas, Pannikin Coffee & Tea is one of my favorite coffee shops in San Diego, located in a cute cottage complete with a white picket fence and outside seating.

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I would recommend stopping as much as possible in each little suburb as you go up the coast. The best way to drive the Coast Highway is slow and happy. Another stopover, just off the highway is the Flower Fields in Carlsbad, where you can go frolic in 50 acres of every color of Giant Tecolote Ranunculus flowers in the right season.

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Also, if you keep going north, you’ll eventually come across duel nuke power towers on your left. Locals call them the San Onofre boobs. They’re not worth going out of your way for, but they still crack me up like I’m 10 again every time I pass by them.

If you don’t have a car or you don’t want to worry about driving, another good option for seeing this beautiful part of the coast is by taking the Amtrak Coaster train. I’ve taken it multiple times to go visit my sister in Los Angeles, and it is still the most beautiful train ride I’ve been on.

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It’s the train ride that inspired me to write this when I was leaving San Diego for awhile on the way to my life abroad.

10. Have a least one Taco Tuesday in Pacific Beach

Taco Tuesday, it’s the San Diego version of college kids gone wild with cheap shots of tequila and lime, devoured Mexican food, sombreros here and there, and margaritas that are bigger than your head and hold more than your fair share of that liquid gold called TEQUILA!

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It’s like Cinco de Mayo, but every Tuesday. During the winter months it quiets down a bit, and especially when the universities are out, it’s a whole different scene, but if you happen to stumble upon a Taco Tuesday in the Fall or Spring, get ready to party.

It’s a whole lot of fun while you’re a student in San Diego, especially for those newly 21 year olds, because everything is cheap and there’s a lot of craziness, dancing, and shots.

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The nice thing about going out in Pacific Beach is that it’s so easy to do a bar crawl. Most of the bars line Garnet Street side by side, or are close by off the side streets. Garnet Street virtually turns into a party block, where you meet a random assortment of people on your walk to the next bar.

There are the loud bars turned clubs in the back with stripper poles/cages (I’m talking to you Typhoon Saloon), but then there’s also those bars for the slightly older crowd to be found at Miller’s Field, Pacific Beach AleHouse, and Tavern. If you’re looking for more of the Mexican vibe go to the crazy Cabo Cantina that is overflowing on Taco Tuesdays.

If you’re after a nice dinner of cheap tacos before going out on the town, I would suggest getting to PB as early as possible as places fill up quickly during the busy months. My recommendations for tacos would include Cabo Cantina, Fred’s Mexican Cafe, World Famous, and the taqueria stands that always seem to pop up on the streets on Tuesdays.

If it’s dancing you want, Typhoon is a bit messy and sweaty but one of the best bars/clubs for dancing, other notables include PB Bar & Grill, Johnny V, and Tavern.

If you want to avoid the Coronas and have some nice beer, Bub’s Dive Bar is one of my favorites in Pacific Beach.

Again, it depends on what you’re after, but we used to say all good nights end at Typhoon Saloon – but maybe that was just due to the proximity of the McDonald’s next door.

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The interesting thing about Taco Tuesday is that although there are a lot of 21 and 22 year olds stumbling about, you also find a lot of marines that increase the standard age to around 27. And of course, if you choose specifically for what kind of bar you’re after, you can still find most age groups represented depending on the bar.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that although Taco Tuesday is geared for the newly bar legal, if you want to check it out and you’re a bit older, you won’t stick out like a sore thumb. It’s a very San Diego experience, and I can’t tell you how many ridiculously fun and unforgettable Taco Tuesdays I had in my college days.

11. Walk around the Gaslamp Quarter

Whether you’re after shopping, bar hopping, classy restaurants, architecture, or simply people watching, the Gaslamp Quarter is the heart of downtown. I would recommend seeing it during the day and also at night to see the difference, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when it really comes alive.

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I used to work down in Gaslamp for an internship and our building was the coolest office I’ve ever been in. It was part of the old Louis Bank of Commerce built in 1888.

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The Gaslamp Quarter’s beginnings go back to 1850 when William Heath Davis began developing land in the hopes of creating a town on the San Diego waterfront. You can still go visit his house in the Gaslamp as it has been turned into a museum.

The Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation is in place to make sure that those old buildings don’t lose their façade to more modern aesthetics.

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And today, with a short walk down 5th Avenue, you can tell how their work has paid off.

12. Go paragliding at the Gliderport in La Jolla

This is something on the list that I sadly didn’t get to do with my time in San Diego. When I was in college, my friends and I would always comment on how we’d one day go paragliding off those cliffs next to campus. We watched the gliders out there enough from Black’s Cliffs, and it seemed like the perfect thing to do for graduation.

It never happened though, and I’ve been wanting to go paragliding ever since. I was originally planning on doing it in Maui but they were booked up months in advance, and then I decided to do it in Oahu but the guy who ran the company never got back to me.

Then it hit me, this was a perfect way to see San Diego again after 2 years abroad, to go paragliding over La Jolla.

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Well, I never left the ground because I did things like buy a hippie van and go to Coachella Music Festival, which left very little wiggle room financially, but regardless, it’s still an activity in San Diego that I would whole heartedly recommend and one that I hope to do myself someday.

Torrey Pines Gliderport is located just off the UC San Diego campus, and allows you to glide out over the cliffs and beautiful Black’s Beach below, choosing your preference for hang gliding or paragliding.

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It costs $175 to paraglide for 20-25 minutes, and you call the day of to book because it all depends on wind conditions.

If you’re unable to afford the cost of flying or would rather keep your feet on the ground but you’re still after a grand view, I would very much suggest going to the top of Mount Soledad. I’ve seen many a sunrise up there and eaten many a California burrito while shivering as the sun comes up, but let me tell you, it’s stunning. 

Mount Soledad looks out over all of La Jolla and the ocean, and the sunrises I’ve seen there are some of the best. Of course, it’s beautiful anytime of day you choose to go up, so make your way up there whenever it suits you.

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That’s about all I have for what I enjoy doing in San Diego. I’ll leave you with just two last lists of recommendations: one for eateries and coffeeshops to check out because San Diego is known for its big foodie scene, and one for my favorite weekend trips from the city by the sea.

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Must Eats/Drinks (in no particular order)

Extraordinary Desserts (Little Italy)

Hodad’s (Oceanside)

Phil’s BBQ (Point Loma)

Brockton Villa (for brunch in La Jolla)

Pannikan Coffee & Tea (La Jolla/Encinitas)

Bird Rock Coffee Shop (Bird Rock)

Pizza Port (Solana Beach)

En Fuego Cantina (Del Mar)

Pacific Beach Ale House (Pacific Beach)

And the subgenre of my favorite taquerias….

Vallarta Express Mexican Eatery (Clairemont Mesa)

Cotixan Mexican Food (Clairemont Mesa)

Rigoberto’s Taco Shop (everywhere)

Lolita’s Taco Shop (Kearny Mesa)

Oscars Mexican Seafood (Pacific Beach)

Lucha Libre Taco Shop (Mission Hills)

Weekend Trips from San Diego

Big Bear

Salvation Mountain/The Salton Sea

Joshua Tree

Julian (best apple pie ever)

Las Vegas

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Have you been to San Diego or has this made you want to go? Any other recommendations are welcome, feel free to put them in the comments! 

Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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