Overlooking the glittering Pacific Ocean, San Diego boasts a storied history, palm-lined streets of colonial and modern architecture, and a culinary scene built on fresh seafood and Mexican influences.
Its picturesque vistas, vibrant downtown scene, and never-ending list of outdoor activities are what made Alyssa Costenbader, a travel advisor and Navy spouse living in the vibrant Little Italy neighborhood, fall head over heels for the “birthplace of California.” While she loves helping her clients plan dream vacations all over the world, San Diego has earned a special place in her heart for vacations and staycations alike.
“San Diego is really great for any traveler looking for any experience at any price point,” she said. “It’s a major city, easy to access, with unlimited cultural and outdoor activities — you’ll never run out of things to do.”
This ultra-walkable coastal metropolis offers a variety of excursions in near-constant gorgeous weather. Major attractions include the famous San Diego Zoo in gorgeous Balboa Park, ziplining over Safari Park’s wildlife savanna, catching a Padres game, and soaking in rays and waves at the miles of beaches.
“What I love about San Diego is there’s so much you can do outside,” Costenbader shared.
Travelers who like to explore off the beaten path will love the city’s myriad of diverse neighborhoods.
“San Diego is a city of neighborhoods,” said Costenbader.
For indie boutiques and craft-beer bars, head to North Park, or drive an hour to Carlsbad and Oceanside to take in incredible beach fronts.
Where to stay?
When it comes to accommodations, Costenbader says military families shouldn’t overlook the Navy Lodge.
“It sits right on the beach and they have cottages that you can rent … they’re Navy hotels, but the location can’t be beat.”
But San Diego also boasts an unrivaled luxury hotel scene, and, Costenbader informs us, “some resorts are currently offering day passes to use their rooftop pools, so you can lounge and sip on poolside cocktails and enjoy snacks.”
Two of Costenbader’s top recommendations for out-of-state travelers or locals looking for an overnight escape are Hotel Del Coronado (which sits between North Island Naval Station and Naval Amphibious Base Coronado) or Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa in Santa Fe.
Eating in San Diego
For unforgettable eats, Costenbader points visitors towards the city’s old-school delis. Mona Lisa Italian Foods serves up Old-World classics and an impressive wine selection in a cozy, richly appointed setting. The Cheese Shop in La Jolla takes diners back to 1970s San Diego with a timeless selection of imported cheese and fine foods that can be taken to-go or enjoyed on the ivy-draped outdoor patio. The harborside Barrio Logan neighborhood offers quintessential Mexican dishes, and Little Italy is a hotbed of old-school and modern restaurants.
San Diego is also famous for its proximity to an abundance of state and national parks like the Cabrillo National Monument, Joshua Tree National Park, and Channel Islands National Park, which is known as “the Galapagos of North America.” Because of this, Costenbader encourages families to take advantage of the free National Park Pass for military members.
But her number one tip for military families when planning a trip? “Check the cancellation policies! That’s the first question I ask every time I book something,” she said. “I’ve rebooked our anniversary trip three times because my husband’s underway schedule kept changing.”
A perfect day in San Diego
Her professional recommendation for a must-do San Diego itinerary starts with a morning walk on the Embarcadero.
“Walk along the water and see all the sailboats, walk past the USS Midway and the statue of the sailor kissing his lady,” she recommended. “Walk down to Seaport Village and grab The San Diego breakfast sandwich at Spill the Beans. If it’s a weekend, walk through the Little Italy farmer’s market. Rent bikes and ride up to Mission Bay and then the boardwalk at Pacific Beach. That’s the most quintessential SoCal beach destination there is.”
Another must, she says, is visiting the sandstone canyons and seaside cliffs in the La Jolla neighborhood, where you can watch sea lions and seals on the beach and then grab dinner or shop at the waterfront restaurants and boutiques. But always, she urges, end the day watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean at Sunset Cliffs Beach, where visitors can explore caves, tidepools, and seaside trails.
For more on San Diego adventures: www.sandiego.org.