Known as “America’s Finest City,” San Diego’s year-round sunny weather, endless outdoor activities, and rich arts and culture scene are just a few reasons why so many people love to call this stunning seaside city “home.” With a slew of great restaurants, plenty of parks and beaches to soak up the sun, as well as museums and art galleries – you’ll never run out of things to explore.
Whether you’ve just recently moved to a new apartment in downtown San Diego, planning a weekend trip to visit, or you’re just wondering what it’s like to live in San Diego, we’ve gathered some of the top hot spots, as well as hidden gems, that San Diego locals love. From beautiful beaches to delicious eats, here are some spots to check out if you want to experience the city like a San Diegan.
Stunning views, hikes, and other outdoor hidden gems in San Diego
Balboa Park is, without a doubt, one of the crown jewels of San Diego. This 1,200-acre park comprises a variety of gardens, museums, and botanical attractions.
California-based blogger Gennifer Rose shares, “Most people are aware of the Desert Garden located right off the main road of Park Blvd, but very few people know about the Old Cactus Garden that was planted back in 1935. This secluded desert oasis is hidden behind the Balboa Park Club and has enormous cactus plants that stand over 10 feet tall.”
Just a short drive from downtown San Diego is the stunning seaside neighborhood of La Jolla. Known for its breathtaking beaches, boutiques, great restaurants, and a plethora of outdoor activities, there’s so much to explore in this neighborhood.
“The La Jolla Coast Walk Trail is one of the most scenic trails you’ll find in Southern California,” says LaJolla.com. “Nestled just north of the cove and just above Sunny Jim Cave, this trail walk is primarily only known by La Jolla locals. You can walk the cliffside among beautiful greenery, look out to the expansive ocean, and bonus points if you can find the trail down to a hidden pebble beach and rope swing.”
San Diego is undoubtedly known for its beautiful shorelines, jaw-dropping sunsets, and fantastic Mexican food, but it also has some great hiking trails. San Diego photographer Nicole Smith recommends visiting one of the largest urban parks in the US, Mission Trails Regional Park, which is located just 20 minutes from downtown.
Smith says, “With nearly 60 miles of trails that range from easy to difficult, it’s a great place to work out with family or friends. You can also stop by the visitor center to learn about the Kumeyaay tribe, the original inhabitants of the land, and the geological marvel that is Mission Trails.”
If you’re looking for a place to enjoy the sun with your furry friends, add Fiesta Island to your list. This hidden gem in San Diego is the perfect spot for a beach day, and the entire island is both dog and horse friendly.
“My favorite hidden gem in San Diego is Fiesta Island, a lovely little beach and dog park in the middle of Mission Bay. The water is protected by the bay, so there aren’t any big waves, making it an easy place to try paddle boarding for the first time or let a toddler splash around,” shares San Diego-based photographer Allison of Allison Shamrell Pet Photography. “Most of the island is a huge off-leash dog park. Let your dog run free on the beach and in the massive field overlooking the downtown skyline with pretty yellow flowers that bloom in the spring.”
Another hidden gem in San Diego that can be found at the famous Balboa Park is the Palm Canyon Trail. Boasting over 450 palm trees across 2 acres, San Diego-based creator Connie Kamilla of Life with Connie says it’s the perfect place for a scenic photo shoot.
“The trail gives you a beautiful palm tree background for perfect photos. The wooden stairs entrance to the Palm Canyon Trail is to the west of the Spreckles Organ Pavilion near the bathrooms. It’s usually quiet down there, making it an easy photo opportunity.”
If this is your first time visiting San Diego, then spending the day exploring Coronado is a must. “As a San Diego local, one of my favorite hidden gems is taking the ferry over to Coronado,” says Maria Haase of San Diego Explorer. “After your ’mini bay cruise,’ go shopping at the shops in Ferry Landing and explore the fun things to do in Coronado.”
Haus continues: “You can rent a bike and drive along Orange Avenue, where you’ll find fun little shops, boutiques, coffee shops, and restaurants. Once you reach the Pacific, make a pit stop at the famous Hotel del Coronado. Before you hop back on the ferry to San Diego, enjoy happy hour or dinner at Peohe’s, where you’ll have the best sunset view over Downtown San Diego.”
Born and raised San Diego local Paulina Mo. of Lil Bits of Chic shared with us one of her favorite hidden gems in San Diego: Mission Bay Beach Club. This new waterfront destination has a vegan cafe and coffee shop called Superbloom, as well as a shop to rent bikes and paddle boards.
She says, “This place is a gem in terms of location, the beautiful view of Mission Bay, and how picturesque it is with Instagram-worthy walls. It’s a great place to go for a walk, grab a cup of coffee, or sit and enjoy the view and San Diego fresh air.”
Looking to enjoy the outdoors and get a little exercise in while exploring San Diego? This moderately challenging route is a great spot for hiking and boasts sweeping views.
“My favorite hidden gem in San Diego is to hike Cowles Mountain, which is about a 3-mile hike round trip that goes up to about 1,500 feet in elevation,” says Amanda Sobkowiak of Blonde out of Water. “On a clear day, you can see Mount Laguna and Julian to the east, and out west, you can see the Coronado bridge, the point of Point Loma, and San Clemente islands.”
North City in San Marcos offers plenty of things to do in a concentrated area. San Diego-based blogger Carmen Varner of It’s Carmen says, “The Tuesday farmers market is a great place to bring the family. You can walk around, eat something from the market or from one of the restaurants, listen to live music, and drink coffee, cider, or beer.”
San Diego offers a wide variety of delicious cuisines
Cannonball is a world-class sushi restaurant in the heart of Mission Beach. San Diego local photographer Diane Hamacher recommends this hidden gem if you’re looking for some delicious dining in San Diego. “Be sure to try the shrimp ceviche and the red dragon roll. And let’s talk about the panoramic ocean views – the restaurant is located on the first floor and right on Mission Beach boardwalk for the perfect California vibes. It’s a must-try when you’re in San Diego!”
If you’re longing for authentic Italian cuisine in San Diego, look no further. Gwen Bates from Fashion Week San Diego recommends Vigilucci’s Cucina Italiana as they use authentic Italian flavors and have several special entrees to select from. “I recommend the Spaghetti ai Gamberetti for seafood and pasta lovers. In addition to the tasty food, guests have the option of private dining, as well as indoor or outdoor dining, and a beautiful scenic view of the ocean.”
“Harumama in Little Italy is my favorite Asian fusion restaurant,” says San Diego-based Tiffany Kelterer. “You can’t go wrong with any of the ramens, but the ‘Fat Duck’ is my favorite and you must add the egg. They also have the cutest Instagram-worthy animal-shaped steamed buns – the ‘Pig’ and ‘Bunny’ buns are a must-order. They don’t take reservations, so get your name in early for a table during busy times.”
“My favorite hidden gem in San Diego is Grand Ole BBQ Flinn Springs,” shares Kimo Quance. “They serve Texas-style smoked meats. The brisket is amazing by itself but you couple it with one of their Top Chico Margaritas and some live music with their great outdoor atmosphere and you are living high on the hog.”
Quance continues: “They have space for the kids to run around and enjoy themselves while you relax with some BBQ under the San Diego sun. It’s a super unique offering for food and atmosphere in San Diego.”
Tuetano Taqueria first started down at the San Diego and Mexico border with incredible birria tacos and a side of bone marrow. Courtney of Coco San Diego says, “During the pandemic, Chef Priscilla Curiel closed her San Ysidro location and moved up to our beloved Old Town. I love this taco shop because of the incredible flavor of her tacos and the new location is outdoors and perfect for San Diego weather. If you’re in San Diego, you’ll have to stop by to have a taco and check out the rest of the new food hall which also offers Mexican craft beers and ceviche.”
“Living in San Diego, it feels like there is a new hidden gem to discover on a daily basis. The city is full of so many dynamic neighborhoods, making it easy to uncover a new adventure in almost every corner. And at the core of it all, we have my favorite type of food: brunch. Brunch has so many different options but my personal favorite brunch dish is and will always be chilaquiles,” shares Giselle Campos of City Fashion Blog
She continues, “If you are new to chilaquiles, I recommend you make Cocina 35 your first stop. They specialize in chilaquiles and offer many different variations of this traditional dish along with ‘make your own’ options. This place is so good that even Mexican celebrities stop by when they are in town to get their chilaquiles fix!”
Campos recommended ordering the “El Mercado Chilaquiles” with a traditional Mexican coffee. And because this place can get so busy, she says you can skip the line by placing your name on their waitlist online – sometimes the wait time to get in can be as long as 3 hours.