Ten spots not to miss in San Diego, California
Author: Sophie McComas
Photography: Sophie McComas
The Southern Californian city of San Diego actually sparkles. When light hits the sands of La Jolla Shores, flecks of mica - a natural mineral - glitter in the sun, washing the water with speckles of gold and silver like the insides of a dazzling snow globe.
This glittery feeling permeates the rest of the city. It's there as you kayak over crystal waves and as dolphins skim the water nearby. It's in the fantastic enthusiasm for craft beer, shown in the hundreds of breweries that exist in the city, cementing it as a dynamic hub for small-scale brewing.
It's easy to see that San Diego is beautiful, maybe even a little too beautiful. Manicured golf courses dot many suburbs - 93 of them in total - and the cuisine is fresh and light. It's a centre for research, with reportedly more PHDs per capita than anywhere else in the States, and its people are friendly and relaxed. Streets and homes are groomed and neat, while Balboa Park, a brilliant, lush oasis in the heart of town, effortlessly melds art with nature.
Though often overlooked in favour of gritty Los Angeles or the glitzy desert resort of Palm Springs, San Diego is well worth a stop on a tour of California. Here are a few restaurants, bars and activities to try on your trip:
La Jolla Shores beach
The area of La Jolla Shores is about 20 minutes' drive north-west of downtown and offers a polished, Orange County-esque union of neat-and-tidy Californian style and breezy beach culture. Palms line the promenades and gulls swoop overhead, carefree and after your chips. After a swim in that glittery water, jump in a double kayak with Everyday California tours for a paddle around the La Jolla Ecological Reserve, the perfect excuse to rubberneck at glitzy houses perched on the clifftop as you cruise around the coastline. Being a marine-protected area, the water at La Jolla is crystal clear, with plenty of dolphins and sea lions to see as you paddle.
La Jolla Shores.
After working up an appetite, stop for lunch up the road in La Jolla at Galaxy Taco for a taste of So-Cal cuisine. There are plenty of Baja-style fish taco shops to be found across the city, but chef Trey Foshee has upped the ante at Galaxy. Tortillas are made fresh and fillings are flavour-packed, such as grilled fish with al pastor spice, pineapple and jalapeño salsa with the option of added fresh sea urchin, or grilled steak with charred tomatillo salsa, red onions and radish.
Al Pastor fish taco with uni at Galaxy Taco.
Thorn Street Brewery & Ballast Point
San Diego is a thriving metropolis of craft brewers. There are so many it's almost parodical, with a new brewery popping up almost every week. Hoppy, boozy IPA is the most prevalent style - the quality of San Diego's calcium-rich water is said to be conducive to the IPA brewing process. You can't walk a block without hitting at least two breweries in almost any neighbourhood, but two that stand out are Thorn Street Brewery in the hip neighbourhood of North Park and Ballast Point in Little Italy. Thorn Street is a more low-key, pub-style brew house where food trucks pull up out front and dogs lounge under communal tables. Ballast Point is bigger and shinier and is well known and respected nationwide (in fact, it was sold in 2015 to beverage company Constellation Brands for US$1 billion - not small change). An expansive menu of So-Cal classics (more fish tacos, sliders and burgers) matches the extensive range of sours, stouts, IPAs, white ales and lagers at Ballast Point, while large floor-to-ceiling windows let in plenty of that California sunshine. Take a six-pack of Session IPA cans back to the hotel for later.
Just around the corner from Ballast Point in Little Italy is an excellent grab-and-go fried chicken spot called The Crack Shack with almost exclusively outdoor seating and a large takeaway area. Have a crack at the Firebird, a spicy fried chicken thigh topped with cool ranch dressing, pickles and fried onions on a soft potato roll, or double down with a side of devilled eggs with French toast crumble and candied bacon.
The Firebird at Crack Shack.
James Coffee Co and Bird Rock Coffee Roasters
Good-quality espresso is a little hard to uncover in San Diego, but that doesn't mean there isn't any gold to be found. James Coffee Co is a housed in a garage-style, open space that's also home to a sharp menswear store, bicycle workshop, barber and café. Choose from espresso, pour-over, cold-drip and iced varieties of single origin beans, roasted in-house. Bird Rock is another local roaster that has locations in downtown San Diego, Little Italy and La Jolla and all deliver the goods.
False Idol and Noble Experiment
Though most of the world jumped on this trend a few years ago, San Diego's speakeasy bar scene is alive and well. False Idol is a tiki-style bar that opened in mid-2016 with a focus on rare rums. To access it, scurry down a decorated passageway next to Craft & Commerce bar in Little Italy and look for the doorbell. The tiki theme (do all bars need a theme?) has been dialled up to a 10 here. The roof is strung with rope-tied buoys and petrified puffer fish, woven-topped stools line a bamboo-clad bar and every square inch of wall is etched with Polynesian carvings.
Just outside the Gaslamp Quarter in the centre of town is a bar that's a little more difficult to locate. Out the back of Neighborhood Eatery, a secreted door behind a wall of beer kegs opens onto a small cocktail bar lined with skulls, Noble Experiment. With room for just 35 on banquettes and a handful of barstools, it's wise to make a reservation if you're rolling in a group. The cocktail menu offers interesting riffs on the classics and is the work of Melbourne-born bartender Sam Ross, who's behind New York cocktail bar Attaboy.
Hotel del Coronado
The grand, red-roofed, soaring Hotel del Coronado, or 'The Del' to locals, should be on your hit list even if just for a stickybeak. Set on absolute beachfront, it was used as the set of the 1959 Billy Wilder film Some Like it Hot starring Marilyn Monroe and has played host to the likes of Charlie Chaplin and President Franklin Roosevelt since its opening in 1888. Pull up for breakfast in the sunny outside dining room overlooking the Pacific, or order a margarita just as the sun sets at the Sun Deck bar.
Hotel del Coronado.
The beating heart of San Diego takes the shape of Balboa Park, just five minutes' drive from downtown. Housing no less than 15 museums on its 485 square hectares including the San Diego Art Institute and the Natural History Museum, the park is also home to lush sectioned gardens for cacti, Australian flora and California native plants among others. Best experienced slowly and pleasurably, it's a thoughtfully designed intersection of nature and culture and a wonderland for children.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Just inside the city limits but far enough away to feel as though you've gone a bit rogue is Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Skinny hiking trails snake through dry, scrubby bushland to take you to clifftops that overlook the Pacific. One of the best places to watch the sunset and surfers is from Torrey Pines city park. Surfers clutch their boards as they scale precarious trails down to the water, and on gusty days hang-gliders launch from the ledge into the breeze.
Sunset at Torrey Pines City Park.
Every American city has its own myriad of doughnut shops, but Nomad Donuts is pushing the envelope of flavour and experimenting with left-of-field combinations from its home in North Park. Pop by for doughnuts flavoured with Thai peanut butter, or perhaps jelly and habanero peach guava is more your speed. We'll take a couple of brown butter popcorn doughnuts with salted caramel bacon for the road.