With vacations, it always seems to be about tradeoffs and choices. The beach or the mountains? What about the desert instead? Small-town feel or big-city vibes? Family-friendly or action-packed nightlife? Arts and culture offerings or outdoor activities?
When it comes to San Diego, travelers don’t have to choose. It’s all right here. As the most biodiverse region in the country, San Diego has beaches, bays, mountains, lakes and deserts within a short drive. But it’s not just about the landscape: San Diego can deliver a variety of experiences. Here’s how to have it all in just one vacation.
1. Beaches and Bays
Even along its 70 miles of coastline, San Diego delivers diversity. For those seeking elegant accommodations and buzz-worthy restaurants coupled with pristine sandy beaches and to-die-for views, La Jolla is the place to go. Its best-known beach, La Jolla Cove, made the Top 10 in the nation in Tripadvisor’s 2022 Travelers’ Choice Awards. Just south of La Jolla is Pacific Beach, which offers expansive beaches and a lively boardwalk, along with nightlife that will appeal to those who want a plethora of party options along la playa. For a more laid-back, classic beach-town vibe, visitors can head a little farther south to Ocean Beach to enjoy funky bars while surveying souvenir, surf and antique shops.
While San Diego’s beaches and bays often get the attention, the region is also a land of lakes, with 20 freshwater lakes and reservoirs. One local favorite is Lake Murray in the centrally located Mission Trails Regional Park. Fishing is at its best December through September when black crappie, bass, bluegill and catfish abound. But for those uninterested in catching their own dinner, there are options to motorboat, rowboat, kayak or pedal boat. Located just 25 minutes northeast from downtown San Diego is the San Vicente Reservoir, the city’s largest. There are places to picnic and barbecue, but the real draw is fishing as the clearwater reservoir is home to crappie, sunfish, channel catfish and Florida strain largemouth bass. It is also a great spot for boating, kayaking, waterskiing and wakeboarding.
For those seeking the rustic feel of a mountain retreat, San Diego’s East County boasts majestic ranges to explore. Located less than an hour from downtown San Diego is Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, which is home to more than 100 miles of hiking trails, many open to horseback riders, as well as campgrounds and picnic sites. On a clear day, the park’s highest viewpoint, Cuyamaca Peak (6,512 feet), reveals views of Mexico, mountain ranges near Los Angeles and wide expanses of desert. A little farther east is the pine-studded Laguna Mountains, located within the Cleveland National Forest’s 8,600-acre spread. The range offers opportunities for hiking, biking, camping, fishing and mountain climbing during the summer months, and sledding and tobogganing in the winter.
The San Diego region also offers up the stark and dramatic beauty of the desert for visitors to explore. To the east is the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California’s largest state park. Filled with sweeping landscapes of cacti and other fascinating desert vegetation, the park is also home to roadrunners, golden eagles, kit foxes and desert iguanas. In springtime, the dry, rugged landscape is transformed by winter rains into a kaleidoscope of colorful wildflowers. If you’re looking for some pampering, the desert community of Borrego Springs hosts several spas.
5. Small town
San Diego might be the country’s eighth-largest city, but the region boasts a number of small towns for those looking to escape the hectic pace of city life. To the east is the historic town of Julian. This mountain town dates back more than a century and was home to the only gold rush in Southern California. Julian is known for its apple pies, quaint shops, art galleries, wine-tasting rooms and charming hotels and inns. For those who love a small-town beach feel, Encinitas in coastal North County is a must to check out. Harking back to the Historic Highway 101 beach culture of yesteryear, its main street features inviting shops, chic restaurants and neighborly coffee joints, while its nearby beaches are among some of the most coveted in the region.
For the more metropolitan traveler, Downtown San Diego offers a bounty of happenings and cultural riches. The historic Gaslamp Quarter is home to a diverse lineup of restaurants, shops and entertainment venues. The neighborhood also boasts spas, art galleries and artisan shops. Nearby Little Italy is perfect for any urban enthusiast. Little Italy’s lively neighborhood feel is fueled by outdoor cafés, international restaurants, craft breweries, wineries, art galleries, unique shops, boutique hotels and the festive Piazza della Famiglia.
Maybe the most distinctive destination the region has to offer is Baja California, Mexico, whose close proximity to San Diego lets visitors enjoy a two-nation vacation. The U.S.-Mexico border is a short drive or trolley ride from Downtown San Diego, providing access to Tijuana, Rosarito, Ensenada and the Valle de Guadalupe — a cluster of communities known for their rich artistic and culinary offerings. Tijuana is an energetic hub of activity day and night, with duty-free shopping, tasty cuisine and a tremendous arts and culture scene, highlighted by the Tijuana Cultural Center. Rosarito is a resort community known for its beaches, oceanfront hotels, aquatic adventures, shopping, seafood dining and nightlife. Ensenada, which is a 90-minute drive from San Diego, offers breathtaking ocean vistas as well as taco shops, seafood carts, craft breweries, and mescal and margarita bars. Just outside Ensenada is the Valle De Guadalupe. Considered the Napa Valley of Mexico, the Valle produces 90% of the country’s wine and features 100+ wineries. It is also home to outstanding restaurants, serving gourmet farm-fresh cuisine and local seafood.
Bonus: San Diego Road-trip Bliss
Of course, you don’t have to settle for just one of those great San Diego destinations. Not if you’ve got wheels and a sense of wonder and adventure. Check out one of our ultimate San Diego road trips. Options range from stunning beachside excursions to awe-inspiring backcountry and desert drives. Whether you decide to ply one of the region’s historic highways, or choose a route that blends the best of the city and the shimmering Pacific, you’ll find yourself shifting mental gears into a state of San Diego bliss.