Last Updated on December 27, 2023

San Diego, the southernmost metropolis in the great state of California, is a city blessed with abundant sunshine, spectacularly mild weather, a laid-back vibe, and a wealth of entertainment offerings to please even the most particular. No wonder San Diego wears its moniker as “America’s Finest City” so proudly.

When I answer those asking where I live, their response is always a glowing mix of awe and envy. I have never in my life heard anything, but praise for my city.

Shortly after moving here 25 years ago, it finally hit me. The reason I love San Diego so much is that when I was not physically at work, I felt like I was on vacation.

Many of the attributes drawing visitors in droves to my welcoming city are the same things that keep me rooted in this wondrous locale. OK, so the Chargers left town. No big deal. My beloved San Diego remains the epitome of a perfect hometown and an ideal vacation destination.

It’s just not the sunshine and weather. San Diego is a vibrant community teeming with an amazing range of things to see and do, whether you’re looking to relax or are seeking adventure. San Diego has it all and more.

As a resident of America’s Finest City, here are some of the best places San Diego offers which I believe are worth experiencing whether you come for a day, a week or a lifetime.

San Diego Zoo

A zoo is a zoo, right? Wrong.

That’s like saying Disney World is just another amusement park. The stunning San Diego Zoo dazzles locals and visitors alike with its multi-level animal exhibits, gardens, restaurants, and shops flowing over hills and ravines in a spectacular display of natural beauty. Simply put, no other zoo can compare.

The animal enclosures are all designed to replicate natural habitats and many of the zoo’s 4,000 animals are from species considered endangered. The San Diego Zoo is more than just a place to go look at animals, it’s the leading captive breeding and endangered species research institution in the world with an ongoing mission to save threatened wildlife while educating and entertaining the public.

Dine at the towering treetop Pavilion overlooking the park and be sure to hit those not-to-be-missed attractions like the Sky Lift, Elephant Mesa, the Polar Bear grotto, meandering Tiger and Monkey Trails, the African Penguin exhibit and nearby waterfalls.

Embarcadero and the USS Midway Museum

Close up of 'Star of India' at Maritime Museum of San Diego.
Close up of ‘Star of India’ at Maritime Museum of San Diego. Photo by Michael Kompanik

The Embarcadero winds around the waterfront surrounding San Diego Bay, providing a rich array of venues for locals and visitors. Waterfront parks, restaurants, an amazing maritime museum and the USS Midway Museum beckon visitors by the thousands. 

The San Diego Maritime Museum is one of the nation’s largest collections of vintage and restored vessels, currently sporting 10 historic ships.

Her flagship is the Star of India, the nation’s oldest merchant bark. Built in 1863, she is the oldest ship still sailing regularly and also the oldest iron-hulled merchant ship afloat. With its magnificent sails, this tall ship casts an iconic figure on the waterfront.

At the museum, you can tour the HMS Surprise, a replica British sailing frigate that has served Hollywood in several swashbuckling adventure movies including “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Or you can climb aboard an authentically constructed replica of San Salvador, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo’s galleon, the first European ship to visit San Diego Bay in 1542. This maritime museum is truly a crowd-pleaser.

The star of the Embarcadero however is the massive USS Midway Museum. This impressive former US Navy Aircraft Carrier served the nation proudly for over 47 years and three major conflicts. The Midway is San Diego’s number one tourist attraction, and for good reason.

The ship has been restored as if it were still in operation. Battle bills and ship instructions still adorn the walls as speakers make shipboard announcements. Docents are veterans that once served on this vessel and are stationed throughout the carrier providing first-hand knowledge and tales of adventure to enthralled guests.

If being immersed in life on the high seas, visiting the massive galley, engine room, mess decks, officer country, bridge, medical, berthing and combat centers isn’t enough, there is more — much more. The mammoth ship also pays homage to Naval Aviation with the flight and hangar decks filled with the various aircraft that served onboard over its many years of service.

Come early and stay late, as this is an all-day attraction that is simply unforgettable.

Balboa Park

San Diego has perhaps the most beautiful urban park in the entire nation with its breathtaking Balboa Park.

Home to the San Diego Zoo, a myriad of gardens, restaurants, live theater, and incredible museums, the 1,200-acre park’s biggest attraction is its stunning Spanish Colonial architecture. Many of its buildings still reflect the ornate facades from when it was first constructed to host the 1915–1917 Panama–California Exposition.

In 1977, the park and its historic exposition buildings became a National Historic Landmark and were added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Park includes a lovely Botanical Garden, the spectacular Museum of Man, an Aviation Museum that rivals the Smithsonian, a Natural History Museum, a Science Center and more.

An outdoor amphitheater with a massive pipe organ provides a great entertainment venue.

Hotel Del Coronado

Exterior of the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego
Exterior of the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego © Michael Kompanik

The regal Hotel Del Coronado Resort is the queen of San Diego’s lovely Coronado beach community. Completed in 1898, the Victorian-era masterpiece was the inspiration for Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort with its iconic red roofs, conical towers and white siding. This resort oozes history and opulent luxury.

The perfectly maintained resort and grounds are a must-see as its historic woodwork, garden courtyard, and facilities have played host to the rich and famous for over 125 years. Kings, presidents, poets, statesmen, sports figures, Hollywood stars and others have all left their indelible marks here.

Dine or enjoy a drink at one of the resort’s open-air restaurants and bars overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Come holiday season you can ice skate by the sea underneath lit palms or huddle around fire pits enjoying a hot chocolate or evening libation.

Whatever you do here, it will be memorable.

Spectacular Beaches

San Diego Mission Beach Chill.
San Diego Mission Beach Chill. Photo by Noreen Kompanik

San Diego’s many spectacular beaches are a big draw for tourists and locals alike. Pacific Beach sports an impressive pier complete with eclectic cottage rentals. Coronado Beach has wide stretches of white sand.

Everyone has their favorites, be it La Jolla, Del Mar, Torrey Pines, the Strand, or any of the North County beaches including Carlsbad and Oceanside. Many are considered world-class surfing spots.

All offer fresh ocean air, and the cool – often cold – embrace of the Pacific Ocean, along with plenty of fun and relaxation.

One word of caution. Thanks to the cool ocean breezes, I have never broken into a sweat on a San Diego beach, unlike Florida or the Caribbean. Don’t let that fool you, though, and be sure to use plenty of environmentally friendly sunscreen. You can really cook out there and not know it until later.

Old Town

Old Town San Diego
Old Town San Diego © Michael Kompanik

A trip to San Diego would not be complete without a visit to Old Town San Diego. Here you can experience San Diego’s original Mexican heritage and discover that there is a Southwestern soul to the city that predates the palm trees and lush gardens of today.

In the heart of the Old Town district lies Old Town State Park. The park hosts an array of historic structures around a large grassy plaza where a host of garden, coffee, tobacco, sundries, vintage items, and general store merchandise are for sale much like in the past. Several museums such as the Wells Fargo and Carriage Museum showcase the life of San Diego’s earliest days.

Additional courtyards and structures pay homage to San Diego’s past with festive Mexican eateries and boutique shops offering colorful pottery, local wine, and olive oil in a rustic atmosphere.

SeaWorld

SeaWorld San Diego Jelly Experience Rendering
SeaWorld San Diego Jelly Experience Rendering. Image from SeaWorld.

San Diego has one of the two SeaWorld Parks in the US. Sitting on lovely Mission Bay, this park offers an amazing array of animal shows, nature exhibits, themed thrilling amusement rides, dining options and more.

The Park is equally impressive after dark with its spectacular lighting, fireworks shows and entertainment. Shifting from an animal performance focus, SeaWorld has embraced the role of educating visitors about our magnificent and fragile environment and the critical role of marine life ecosystems. It does so in a manner capturing the attention of young and old alike.

La Jolla

La Jolla was one of the very first places I ever visited in San Diego and it made a lasting impression.

A waterfront park there looms over sandstone cliffs, narrow beaches, and spectacular rock formations that include the famous La Jolla sea caves. To say this area is stunning is a gross understatement as its beauty epitomizes everything you’ve ever dreamed about California.

Here you can swim with passive nurse sharks and see boisterous sea lions barking at one another. At the other end of the park is the sheltered Children’s Pool bay that has been commandeered by a host of harbor seals. Come and picnic or dine in one of many lovely restaurants that offer California-inspired cuisine with spectacular views.

Mylist could go on forever.

San Diego offers an amazing array of golfing opportunities including the spectacular Torrey Pines Course in La Jolla. In North County, Legoland is a huge draw for the little ones.

Seaport Village is a relaxing oasis on the waterfront with plenty of dining and shopping opportunities in a charming setting.

If you’re into adventure, visit the Torrey Pines Gliderport and hitch a ride with a licensed and experienced parasailer, taking off from the spectacular ocean cliffs. Hiking trails abound in multiple locations and La Jolla offers kayaking experiences through the magnificent sea caves.

The Downtown Gaslamp Quarter is small, but lively with great dining venues, a distinctive history and a vibe that lasts well into the night.

Mission Bay is a protected water wonderland with parks and watersports where many locals come to play.

Lastly, the San Diego Trolley provides a great hop-on-hop-off tour of many of San Diego’s most popular attractions.

As a local, my best advice is to come to my hometown and find out what you like best. Maybe you’ll be like me and just decide to stay.

Author

  • Michael Kompanik

    Michael Kompanik is a retired Navy Captain, a managing editor of Rovology Online Magazine and a freelance travel writer. He currently resides in San Diego California with his wife Noreen who is also a travel writer and editor. Together they have traveled to such far off places as Europe, Thailand, Central America, Africa and more. Michael’s wide-ranging interests include history, nature, travel, photography, and, of course, military matters.