First Time in San Diego: 9 Things To Know Before You Go

Petco Park in Downtown San Diego

Visiting San Diego for the first time? This guide will help you plan your trip with an overview of the best things California’s Beach City has to offer.

San Diego Has Culture in Spades

Comic Con is lots of fun, but San Diego’s culture comes in many forms other than superheroines and superheroes.

Take Balboa Park, San Diego’s vast central public park, for starters. In addition to beautiful gardens, it’s home to 17 museums and cultural institutions encompassing science, air and space, railroads, anthropology, natural history, and art—including a collection stocked with works from greats like Matisse, Monet, Dalí, and O’Keeffe.

Public art, like massive colorful neighborhood murals, emblazons walls in every corner of the city. The campus of University of California San Diego leads a second life as an open-air public art museum, as permanent pieces by a variety of renowned artists are permanent parts of the idyllic campus.

Music lovers will perk their ears to the city’s symphony and philharmonic, not to mention the never-ending stream of acts that play venues like House of Blues San Diego, the iconic indie rock haven Casbah, Belly Up Tavern, the annual Kaaboo Del Mar festival, and more.

Architecture plays a starring role in the region, from the distinctive Central Library to the world famous Salk Institute to the 2-mile, elegantly arcing Coronado Bridge.

For a dose of history, check out the Cabrillo National Monument, which commemorates the first landing of the Spanish in California, as well as Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá in Mission Valley and Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside.

San Diego is Synonymous with Craft Beer (And Don’t Forget Wine, Kombucha, Cider, and Mead)

You can thank the San Diego region from almost single handedly igniting America’s thirst for a universe of delicious, small-batch suds. Names like Stone Brewing, Ballast Point, and Green Flash put San Diego on the beer lover’s map, right next to Belgium, Germany, and the United Kingdom. It’s not easy to keep track of them all, but north of 150 breweries in San Diego turn out an ever-changing array of beer styles, available on countless taps at bars, restaurants, and tasting rooms in every corner of the county. But the obsession goes much further.

San Diego’s dry, sunny climate makes it a wine region, dotted with wineries that make for lovely outings to the rural towns and backcountry. For that matter, San Diego is currently experiencing a craft spirits boom, with numerous kinds of liquor being handcrafted in the same quality-is-king fashion as the local beer. Let’s not leave out craft kombucha, cider, and mead, all of which are brewed locally and available on tap at many locations.

San Diego is a Boat Lover’s Paradise

San Diego is surrounded by water, and you’d better believe there’s every kind of water craft imaginable here. Let’s start big: The USS Midway Museum, an aircraft carrier that was the biggest ship in the world until 1955, is permanently docked in the downtown waterfront, home to 30 restored aircraft, and other exhibits.

Just a few blocks away is the Maritime Museum of San Diego. Tour the tall-masted Star of India, the oldest active sailing ship in the world, which survived a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, trapped in Alaska, and 21 trips around the globe.

With such glorious boating weather, there’s hardly a day when you can’t charter a boat for a sailing lesson or a sunset cruise with the family or a special someone. To see the whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions that populate the coast, you can hop aboard a traditional whale-watching boat, or climb inside a much smaller craft used by Navy SEALs to get up close and personal with the marine mammals.

The placid waters of Mission Bay are ideal year-round for learning to pilot small craft of every kind, from small sailboats to kayaks and SUPs.

The Culinary Scene is Truly World Class

San Diegans aren’t the boastful type, so we’ll do it for them: San Diego can hold its own against any foodie destination on earth. Local chefs and restaurants have earned many of the highest food-world accolades and appeared on every food show on television, including numerous Top Chef appearances. Using ingredients fished from local waters, raised or grown on local farms, or carefully picked from far-flung regions abroad, San Diego chefs create top-notch food of every kind. Classy, casual, hole-in-the-wall, hip. Breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, and tacos in between. You’re bound to find the right restaurant with the right mood—and first rate eats—wherever you look.

Let’s not forget the profound influence that Baja plays in local cuisine. San Diego could well be considered the world capitol of fish tacos, and familiar Mexican staples like burritos, tacos, fajitas, and mariscos can be found in every style—and every level from food truck to fine restaurant—around the region. Cali-Baja cuisine is truly a San Diego original.

San Diego – a Nature’s Lovers Dream Come True

Endless sunshine and a mild climate naturally make San Diego one of the most biodiverse places in the United States. From teeming wetlands, tide pools and grey whales to cacti, mountain lions and hawks, they’re all here.

The same is true for the landscape, which incorporates everything from the stunning coastline to the desert and snow-capped peaks over 6,500-feet tall. But when you add to those natural features the zoos, aquariums, and public gardens, you have a nature lover’s bonanza.

For good reason, the San Diego Zoo (near downtown) and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (near Escondido) are known the world over. Between them, they’re home to a ferocious litany of critters from jungles, savannahs, and seas everywhere.

The experts at Scripps Institution of Oceanography provide the public with a chance to see sea turtles, leopard sharks, moray eels, and 5,000 other sea creatures in dozens of different habitats.

Plant lovers swoon for colorful blooms, prickly cacti, and plump succulents at Balboa Park’s 16 gardens, including the Japanese Friendship Garden and a rose garden bursting with 22,400 rose bushes.

The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is just one of two places that stately, rare Torrey Pine trees naturally grow.

And the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California.

It Can Be As Wild and Crazy or As Calm and Blissful As You Like

Spring breakers know San Diego as a place to whoop it with the city’s vibrant nightlife. Golfers know it as the home to the world-famous links of Torrey Pines. Those who meditate or revel in spiritual experience or luxury spas recognize San Diego as a global center of these relaxing, reinvigorating pursuits at places like the Self-Realization Fellowship Encinitas Temple or spas like SpaTerre at Kona Kai Resort & Spa, Willows Spa at Viejas Casino & Resort, and others. Whether you’re looking for a crazy good time, or a blissful rejuvenating one, it’s here, just waiting for your arrival.

San Diegans Are True Localvores

What doesn’t San Diego produce? The region is home to an astounding array of farms and orchards growing everything from wine grapes, to fruits and vegetables, not to mention the fruits of the sea that fishing fleets catch each day. The county is even home to one coffee plantation, courtesy of musician Jason Mraz, who’s growing the beans on his Oceanside farm. And all that bounty—citrus fruit, avocado, lobster, you-name-it—finds its way onto innumerable menus, as well as into local craft beer, kombucha, cider, and basically everything else made in San Diego.

Looking for Adventure? You’ve Come to the Right Place

Anyone looking to experience a bit of adrenaline will find it in San Diego. San Diego’s famous surf—consistently fun all year-round—is just the beginning. The ocean also offers the chance to snorkel face to face with gentle leopard sharks, drop in a line on a deep sea fishing trip, or strap on a scuba tank to experience the biodiversity of the Pacific coast. If being on the ocean surface is more your speed, try zooming around on a jet ski, kayaking into sea caves, or sailing on a boat that raced in the America’s Cup.

Take to the air with a full-ocean-view skydive in Oceanside, or lift off at the Torrey Pines Gliderport, a world famous paragliding and hang gliding destination. There’s even indoor skydiving.

The rugged backcountry hides phenomenal granite for rock climbing, ample trails for hiking, mountain biking and running, and plenty of opportunities to get behind the wheel of an ATV.

Cyclists love both the coastal roadways in eyeshot of the ocean as well as the winding country roads.

Whether you ask a surfer, a marathoner, an open water swimmer, a cyclist—or an average Joe just looking for a good time—they’ll all tell you the same thing: San Diego has it all.

Coronado Island – Just Across The Bridge, but A World Away

Coronado Island is an idyllic small town escape just minutes from downtown San Diego. Whether you reach it via the Coronado Ferry or the iconic Coronado Bridge, the resort island’s hotels, restaurants, and beaches are a stone’s throw from downtown San Diego. With one side facing the waterfront skyline and the other the Pacific, Coronado is blessed with both calm waters and fun waves. The Mica-rich sand’s glittery appearance makes it recognized among the best beaches in the United States.

The laid-back pace of life makes it perfect to explore via foot or bike. Don’t miss the mansions and manicured gardens along the beach. Art galleries, restaurants, and the Coronado Museum of History and Art line Orange Avenue, the island’s main drag Golf-lovers should swing down to the celebrated public course. And everyone—whether to stay overnight, to dine or drink, or simply view the National Historic Landmark where presidents, movie stars, and royal families have alighted—will enjoy the Hotel Del Coronado.