A shimmering city on the ocean, San Diego is a refreshing stop for any traveler. Though far less glamorous than its neighbor to the North, San Diego has just as much to offer even if it doesn’t have a giant name sign. Each of the city’s seventeen neighborhoods offers something intrinsically different, providing travelers with something new to experience upon every visit.
San Diego is home to the internationally renowned San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park. Its stunning vistas of San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean are enough to make any traveler swoon.
Popular San Diego neighborhoods are often known as beach towns. Art galleries, shops, boutique hotels, and restaurants comprise a bustling downtown San Diego. But once you venture out from downtown you’ll discover other parts of San Diego.
Luxury resorts and casual beachfront properties are both abundant here. You certainly don’t have to stay downtown to experience all that San Diego has to offer — where you stay can completely depend on your personal travel focus. You’ll never have to go far to get what you need in San Diego.
Best Areas to Stay in San Diego
From the beachy La Jolla to the historical, and night owl haven that is the Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego has a little bit of everything. Let this Pacific Ocean-facing city show you what California living is all about.
PRO TIP: San Diego is chock-full of terrific attractions and landmarks, many of which charge admission. This can get expensive after a while, so you may be compelled to cherry-pick attractions. If however, you decide to go for a San Diego All-Inclusive Pass from Go City, you can save a mint on tickets and admission fees!
- Best area for first-timers/tourists – Old Town
- Best area for budget travelers – Mission Beach
- Best area for luxury travelers – La Jolla
- Best area for safety – Del Mar Mesa
- Best area for families – Ocean Beach
- Best area for nightlife – Gaslamp Quarter
- Best area for food – North Park
- Best Area for Young People – Pacific Beach
Where to Stay in San Diego
1. Old Town: Best Area for First-Timers
As the oldest neighborhood in San Diego and the first European settlement in the state of California, Old Town, San Diego lives up to its name. It’s actually considered the birthplace of California. So not only is it perfect for first-time San Diego visitors, it’s perfect for anyone seeing California for the first time too.
The reason it’s perfect for these visitors is that so much of the city’s history is condensed into this single neighborhood. It’s where you’ll find the most historic sites, museums, and cultural activities in San Diego. While staying in Old Town you can learn more about the settlers, but also about the Kumeyaay people who were the original inhabitants of the area dating back more than 10,000 years.
It’s highly walkable and has nearly three dozen sites or museums in the neighborhood like the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park which is a living history museum. The park demonstrates life in San Diego from the 1820s to the 1870s.
Visitors can see several preserved buildings from the area as well as on-site museums to learn more. Admission is always free here and at several other historic sites in the neighborhood.
Learn more about the area with a twist through the San Diego Old Town Tales, Tacos, and Tequila Tour. Or embark on a haunted tour of the city’s oldest neighborhood with a paranormal investigation group.
Old Town’s dining scene is firmly embedded in the area’s historic ties to Mexican culture. Because of this, many of the area restaurants specialize in authentic Mexican cuisine which is also why a tequila and tacos tour makes so much sense here. Or you can hang out at Oculto 477 for a new style of speakeasy bar near the Campo Santo Cemetary.
Here you have everything you could need on a vacation. You can find everything from food to shopping in Old Town, but when you inevitably want to see other parts of the city it’s easy to get around via public transit.
Highlights of the Old Town area:
- Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
- Casa de Reyes
- Casa Guadalajara
- Junipero Serra Museum
- Old Town Trolley Tours
- Bazaar Del Mundo
Our favorite accommodations in the Old Town area:
See Related: Do You Need a Car in San Diego? Things to Know
2. Mission Beach: Best Area for Budget Travelers
A charming, laid-back beachfront neighborhood, Mission Beach is perfect for budget travelers. Honestly, San Diego as a whole is pretty budget-friendly, though Mission Beach is a little budget-friendlier because of the beachfront views, amenities, and vibe.
Water sports are huge in Mission Beach too because of the beach access. Whether you want to snorkel, scuba dive, paddleboard, surf, or any other kind of water sport, Mission Beach is a great place to do it. This is one reason twenty-somethings and families alike find paradise in this relaxed neighborhood.
For thrill-seekers, Belmont Park is an iconic Californian boardwalk amusement park. Formerly known as the Mission Beach Amusement Center, the park is an institution in the neighborhood.
It’s home to the beloved Giant Dipper Roller Coaster as well as thirteen other rides. There are also tons of games, places to eat, and views of the nearby ocean to enjoy at Belmont Park. This neighborhood is also where you’ll find SeaWorld San Diego.
You can go on whale and dolphin-watching excursions, or just take a casual bike tour guided or on your own to see what you can see. The best time of year to see whales is from mid-December until mid-March. They’re also usually the most active between 11 am to 3 pm. So keep that in mind when scheduling your tour.
Just because this neighborhood has a chill vibe doesn’t mean you can’t have an elevated vacation dining experience here. Restaurants like Oceana Coastal Kitchen and Red Marlin are fine-dining seafood restaurants in the neighborhood. Being so close to the ocean how can you say no to some tasty fresh seafood?
Fishers in particular love Mission Beach, specifically South Mission Beach Park, because of the incredible access to the water. There are even sunken ships turned artificial reefs off of the beach park area that snorkelers and divers love to explore. This neighborhood offers all of the waterfront fun without the city living atmosphere of other parts of San Diego.
Highlights of the Mission Beach Area:
- Belmont Park
- USS Midway Museum
- SeaWorld San Diego
- Mission Beach Boardwalk
- Oceana Coastal Kitchen
- Red Marlin
Our favorite accommodations in the Mission Beach area:
3. La Jolla: Best Area for Luxury Travelers
La Jolla is a beloved part of San Diego. Along the coastline, this neighborhood is known for its pristine beaches, being home to both the University of California San Diego and the Salk Institute. Even so, nothing beats the beaches in La Jolla which are considered some of the best in the world.
You can find ten different beaches in La Jolla. Some of the most popular ones include La Jolla Shores Beach, La Jolla Cove Beach, and Shell Beach. Though each one has a slightly different aesthetic than the others.
For fans of the show Grace and Frankie, you may recognize the name La Jolla because that’s where the characters lived. You may remember Martin Sheen’s character Robert frequently talking about La Jolla Playhouse which is a renowned theater in the neighborhood.
Visitors can take advantage of La Jolla’s primo landscape with a kayaking tour of some sea caves or a snorkeling tour. Take a La Jolla coast walking tour to examine the rugged terrain up close or even go sightseeing for sea lions. That’s right, the sea lions want to live that luxe life too!
Beyond the stunning surroundings, La Jolla also has some of the best dining experiences in San Diego. Many of the spiffiest, spendiest spots you can find in the city are in La Jolla. From seafood at eateries like The Marine Room or Eddie V’s Prime Seafood, French fine dining at Maitre D’ Restaurant, or heightened Americana food at A.R. Valentien, you’ve got your bases covered.
When nighttime rolls around, take in a show at the iconic La Jolla Playhouse or see the San Diego Harbor transform into the colors of a sunset with a dinner cruise. Whatever you decide to do in La Jolla you can do it in style.
Highlights of the La Jolla area:
- La Jolla Cove
- Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography
- Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
- The Marine Room
- Eddie V’s Prime Seafood
- La Jolla Playhouse
- A.R. Valentien
- Children’s Pool La Jolla
Our favorite accommodations in the La Jolla area:
See Related: Best Restaurants in San Diego, California
4. Point Loma: Best Area for Safety
Point Loma’s fame stems from its historical context in the development of the United States. It was where the first Europeans landed when they “discovered” the area. You can see where that happened at the Cabrillo National Monument. There is where you’ll also find the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. There are still two significant military bases in the neighborhood too, though it still has its touristy side too.
There aren’t swimmable beaches here, however, the spectacular ocean views from the neighborhood will help you forget that mild inconvenience. Incredible tidepools, cliffs, and vistas of the water await all those who pay a visit. But just because you can’t lounge at the beach all day doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the water! Climb aboard a road and water-friendly Seal vehicle for a tour of the city, go whale-watching or stick to the land with a GoCar tour.
You can also take a variety of cruises from here as well. Dinner cruises with music around the bay, sightseeing harbor cruises, and even pedal boat rentals make seeing things from the water a relaxing adventure. Perhaps, in keeping with the historical ties of the neighborhood, you’ll make a few “discoveries” of your own while exploring the neighborhood.
In addition to nature experiences, this neighborhood also has tremendous shopping, lots of varied food options, and the opportunity to disconnect. Despite the views of the city skyline, Point Loma is removed enough from downtown San Diego that you can get the small-town experience even from within the city boundaries.
Head downtown to get the full San Diego experience, but retreat to this neighborhood for the calm you seek on vacation. Take in a romantic sunset from Island Prime or Cesarina for a more relaxed atmosphere.
Highlights of the Point Loma area:
- Liberty Public Market
- Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
- Liberty Station
- Tide pools
- Women’s Museum of California
- Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern
Our favorite accommodations in the Point Loma area:
5. Ocean Beach: Best Area for Families
If you’re looking for that classic SoCal beach lifestyle, look no further than Ocean Beach. Hang out at Ocean Beach Pier, go for a swim, visit the Ocean Beach Farmers Market, and watch the sunset over San Diego Bay. Embrace your inner California surfer chic even if you’ve never touched a board.
This is also a neighborhood where you don’t necessarily have to plan your days down to the minute. Why not take some spontaneity to heart and take activities as they come? There’s no better way to relax than to let the vacation unfold as it will.
Find your inner peace with some beach yoga, learn about life at the beach, or take a tour of the local beach bars. However you want to see Ocean Beach with your family or on your own, there’s no wrong way to see it.
If you want to see more of San Diego’s natural beauty, wander through Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. This green patch of natural beauty includes the named cliffs which showcase the ocean in a whole new way. It borders the Point Loma neighborhood and leads into the Point Loma Ecological Reserve.
Even your pup will love Ocean Beach. More specifically they’ll love Dog Beach, where pups are free to play in the sand and water right alongside you. Do be careful with your doggie friends as it is an off-leash park.
Help your kiddos learn about tide pools by showing them the crabs, anemones, and other critters that call them home. Then see if you can spot some whales or dolphins in the distance. If they’re particularly interested in marine life, take a family whale-watching tour together to see the mighty creatures up close.
Highlights of the Ocean Beach Area:
- Ocean Beach Pier
- Ocean Beach Farmers Market
- Dog Beach
- Newport Avenue Shopping District
- Mike’s Taco Club
- Corvette Diner
Our favorite accommodations in the Ocean Beach area:
See Related: Best Museums in San Diego, California
6. Gaslamp Quarter: Best Area for Nightlife
San Diego’s nightlife can be found throughout the city, though it’s well-known that Gaslamp Quarter is the place for San Diego nightlife. Besides partying, visitors can enjoy entertainment venues, museums, and galleries and shop to their hearts’ desire.
Gaslamp may have modern-day accommodations, but it’s still very much enmeshed in its 19th-century history. This is where you’ll find San Diego’s most impressive Victorian architecture. You aren’t going to find brothels or shootouts in the quarter anymore, though you can tell that it has always been a raucous destination.
Join up on a tour to learn about San Diego’s scandalous history, find some of the city’s many ghosts, or simply enjoy getting to know San Diego in the moonlight. From the convenience of the Gaslamp Quarter’s location, you can get a feel for everything San Diego offers.
If you want unique San Diego shopping, be sure to check out The Artisan Market in the neighborhood. You’ll find one-of-a-kind souvenirs, food, and surprises from the vendors there. Visiting the market gives you a real sense of the neighborhood beyond its touristy offerings.
Grab a drink or two at the Prohibition Lounge or The Tipsy Crow or splurge on a dinner at Lionfish Modern Coastal Cuisine. There is a hangout in the neighborhood for every kind of budget. Be sure not to miss the views at locales like The Rooftop by STK or Altitude Sky Lounge.
Even if you aren’t a partier, the vibrance of the Gaslamp Quarter is contagious even in broad daylight. Enjoy the neighborhood’s namesake by paying a visit to the Gaslamp Museum.
Highlights of the Gaslamp Quarter Area:
- Gaslamp Artisan Market
- Lionfish Modern Coastal Cuisine
- The Gaslamp Museum
- The Pool House
- Prohibition Lounge
- New Children’s Museum
- Altitude Sky Lounge
- The Rooftop by STK
Our favorite accommodations in the Gaslamp Quarter area:
7. North Park: Best Area for Food
Every city seems to have a hipster neighborhood. For San Diego, it’s North Park. A place that claims to be the country’s best beer neighborhood is also a foodie and entertainment fan paradise.
Young people flock to North Park, but so too do travelers of every variety. People also tend to gravitate towards North Park if they’re looking for a more budget-friendly place to stay with easy access to Balboa Park and San Diego Zoo.
Get to know North Park’s wild side with a bar crawl tour, enjoy a cruise around San Diego Bay, or take in a show at the 1939 auditorium The Observatory. Although Gaslight has the nightlife crown for San Diego, North Park’s nightlife is also a rollicking time.
There is no better place to showcase North Park’s history as a destination than The Office bar. No, it isn’t another pop-up bar themed like the mockumentary comedy The Office. Through its iterations, since it first opened in 1948 the bar has been a part of North Park’s cocktail scene. It was even a significant part of punk rock’s history in the country too.
With so many eateries, you could easily create your own foodie trail around the neighborhood. Make your trip a tasting journey and check out Tabu Shabu, The Smoking Goat, and Tribute Pizza to see what all the fuss is about. All three will give you a unique perspective on this neighborhood and the city of San Diego as well.
You could even do a beer tasting across the seven (that’s right, seven) breweries that call North Park home. The aptly named North Park Beer Co. might be a good place to start. Their taproom can be found in the middle of the neighborhood, so it’s easy to get to no matter where you’re calling home on your trip.
Highlights of the North Park area:
- The Observatory North Park
- Balboa Park
- San Diego Zoo
- Japanese Friendship Garden
- Tribute Pizza
- Morley Field Disc Golf Course
- Tabu Shabu
- The Smoking Goat
- North Park Beer Co.
- Go thrifting!
Our favorite accommodations in the North Park area:
Given how residential North Park is, there really aren’t many hotel options in the neighborhood itself. That said, there are one or two of them, plus the vacation rental game here is pretty terrific.
See Related: Best Day Trips from San Diego, California
8. Coronado: Best Area for Older Travelers
Unlike the other neighborhoods in San Diego, Coronado Island feels a world away. With its shimmering sand, Coronado Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches in the area. Standing tall like a gem in the mine, the island’s historic Hotel del Coronado is its most iconic resident. We’d say most famous but Charlie Chaplin and Dick Van Dyke might take offense.
Head back to the mainland from Coronado Island for a daylong tour of some of San Diego’s most beloved neighborhoods, get bubbly with a champagne brunch buffet, or feel the ocean breeze on a bike tour around the island. The views of the city and San Diego Bay are unparalleled.
You could just spend a day discovering everything that Orange Avenue has to offer. This street is the main stretch in Coronado, the historic main street full of shops, eats, and things to see. You could even learn a bit more about the area at the Coronado Museum of History and Art which can be found on Orange Ave.
Campers will be happy to know that they’re more than welcome in Coronado too. Though the only place you can camp on the island is at Silver Strand State Beach. Considering the few hotels in the area though and the prices of the ones on the island, it’s a great budget option to just camp instead.
Anyone could love Coronado, but the reason it is particularly special for older travelers is because of its easygoing island lifestyle. There is plenty to do if you want to or nothing to do at the same time. You have the freedom to decide how much you want out of a stay on the island. So active and not-so-active older travelers can all revel in all this place has to offer.
You’ll fall in love with the charming Coronado area and the gorgeous views all around the island. After all, in Spanish, its name means “the crowned one,” so it has to be a jewel.
Highlights of the Coronado area:
- Hotel del Coronado
- Coronado Beach
- Coronado Ferry Landing Pier
- Coronado Museum of History and Art
- Brigantine Seafood Restaurant
- Silver Strand State Beach
Our favorite accommodations in the Coronado area:
9. Little Italy: Best Area for Seasoned Travelers
Obviously entrenched in the neighborhood’s history of welcoming Italian residents, Little Italy Is also part of downtown San Diego’s vibrancy. The reason it’s such a great neighborhood for seasoned travelers is because of its walkability and boutique hotels. So much of San Diego can also be seen wandering through this neighborhood.
Little Italy is best experienced through its food which is easily done with the myriad tours offered around the area. From a Taste of Little Italy tour to a Little Italy/North Beach combo or even a neighborhood wine tour, your bases are covered. If you feel especially adventurous why not go on a scavenger hunt?
Cooling off at Waterfront Park or grabbing some local grub at the Mercato Farmers Market are great places to people-watch. Not to mention the prime people-watching real estate at the various neighborhood cafes.
Seasoned travelers will also appreciate the Piazza Della Famiglia (the Little Italy Food Hall) which offers a wide range of food options. It’s perfect for anyone who can’t decide what they want or want to make a meal out of a little bit of everything.
Each April visitors can take part in one of the neighborhood’s biggest annual events, the Mission Federal ArtWalk. There is another ArtWalk event in August, ARTS District Liberty Station. Both are San Diego’s fine arts festivals which beckon artists from all over North America including San Diegans too.
Highlights of the Little Italy area:
- Waterfront Park
- Mercato Farmers Market
- Piazza Della Famiglia
- Amici House
- Fireman’s Museum
- Lady of the Rosary Church
Our favorite accommodations in the Little Italy area:
See Related: Fun & Best Things to do in Point Loma, San Diego
10. Pacific Beach: Best Area for Young People
Lovingly referred to as PB for short, Pacific Beach is the premiere San Diego destination for young people. Particularly loved by surfers and beach lovers, this neighborhood can sometimes be overshadowed by its neighboring La Jolla.
It’s worth noting that PB has a partying reputation. So if you aren’t interested in partying it up with college students, we recommend not visiting during school break periods. You can definitely still have a relaxing vacation in this neighborhood even if it’s known for its party atmosphere, just be sure to time it right.
From here you can tour some of the area’s coastal gems, see the area on your own terms with a rented moped, or splurge on a luxury catamaran tour. Or just spend a day looking at all the colorful beachside homes along the Pacific Beach’s Ocean Front Walk. The walkway runs over three miles and even goes into neighboring neighborhoods as well.
Before Belmont Park became the city’s amusement park hotspot, Pacific Beach had its own pier amusement park. Though the park is no longer there, the neighborhood’s Crystal Pier remains where it’s been for over a century. The Crystal Pier Hotel with its 1930s cottages is still there too, reminding visitors and locals alike of the pier’s history in San Diego.
Pacific Beach is also where you’ll find Kate Sessions Park. Named for the horticulturalist known as the Mother of Balboa Park, the park is nearly 80 acres of green in the city. There is plenty of room for playing, enjoying the outdoors, or having a picnic at Kate Sessions Park. Here is where you can also get some of the best views of the San Diego Skyline as well as the bodies of water around the city.
Highlights of the Pacific Beach area:
- Crystal Pier
- Pacific Beach Ocean Front Walk
- Kate Sessions Park
- Pacific Beach (the beach)
- Rocky’s Crown Pub
- Baja Beach Cafe
Our favorite accommodations in the Pacific Beach area:
How many days in San Diego is enough?
You could easily fill three days or a long weekend in San Diego and see most of the things you want to see. But if you want more time to enjoy the area and relax on your vacation, you’ll want to your trip, consider spending five to seven days in San Diego instead.
Is San Diego a walkable city?
San Diego is generally a walkable city, especially in its various neighborhoods. If an area isn’t walkable, the city also has convenient public transit options. It’s also pretty easy to get around via bike.
Is it better to stay in La Jolla or San Diego?
It depends on what kind of vacation you want. La Jolla is going to be a quieter time with less bustle than downtown San Diego. If you crave the vibes of city life you’ll want to stay in San Diego. Or you could split your stay between the two if you’re up for it.
Where do the Kardashians stay in San Diego?
When the Kardashians stay in San Diego, they head to La Valencia Hotel. The Mediterranean-inspired La Valencia Hotel has plenty of privacy between its rooms and villa options.
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