California’s colourful border city offers a wealth of ways to chill

OF all the places to live the California Dream San Diego has few equals. The Golden State’s southernmost city is immoderately blessed with perfect weather, surf culture, pristine beaches to match, heavenly food that blends Cali with Mex and a laid-back West Coast attitude that belies its history as a major deep sea harbour for the US Navy. 

North Park isn’t bad either if you are into foraging for vintage vinyl, thrift store chic, hipster brews and chakra practitioners

So many major attractions to see but sometimes Seaworld and AquaticaSan Diego Zoo,  and the USS Midway Museum may have to take a backseat to exploring the possibilities of the city’s many cool hang-outs. Here are 15 suggestions to make you want to get up and go…

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1 Go to the Park

Sounds a dull place to start? Not when you are talking Balboa Park, which stretches across 1,200 acres and encompasses everything from the 660 species San Diego Zoo to nearly 20 museums and a host of other venues in glorious lush gardens, the Japanese one the pick. Best place, for an overview is the California Tower, closed to the public for 80 years but now open for tours via seven sets of winding stairs from the Museum of Man. You are rewarded with a spectacular panorama of the city. You almost duck when the planes fly past low. A change of perspective – check out the nearby San Diego Model Railway Museum, the world’s largest and a mecca for train buffs (or should that be buffers?). The Park, a National Historic Landmark, is named after Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa, in honour of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, held on the site.

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2 Go El Greco

It seems appropriate that in a US city with so many Hispanic ties that the San Diego Museum of Art, among the country’s finest, should boast such a strong Spanish collection. Francisco de Zurbarán, Murillo, Juan Sánchez Cotán’s iconic Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber and, of course, El Greco. Check out his glorious Adoration of the Shepherds and the unearthly Penitent St Peter. We were introduced to that painting by the museum’s charismatic exec director Roxanna Velasquez (pictured), herself Mexican. The SDMA is not just about Old Masters; you’ll find benchmark collections of Indian art and 19th and 20th century American paintings and sculpture. All set in one of the Park’s original Mission-style buildings, with a Platereresque frontage inspired by Salamanca in Spain.

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3 Go fly a kite

After all that history it’s time to get the wind back in your sails. And where better than Embarcadero Marina Park? We didn’t exactly fly our own kite but it was good to see lots of them fluttering against the backdrop of the mighty Coronado Bridge. The breezy harbour-front Embarcadero walkway is jogger’s and dog walker’s heaven, while Seaport Village offers a cluster of folksy gift shops, including Upstart Crow, a quirky bookstore/coffee shop. The harbour is where it all began for San Diego back in 1542 when Juan Cabrillo sailed into the sheltered Bay. Loma Point where the explorer stepped on shore is celebrated with a scenic National Monument. There are breathtaking views from here and the adjacent Ballast Point Lighthouse.

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4 Go for a beer

Ever-impressionable, where better to dip into San Diego’s amazing craft beer scene than the brewery that calls itself Ballast Point? The vanguard of San Diego’s acclaimed craft beer scene has been shared with Stone and Green Flash breweries, but rival Ballast Point stole some of their thunder when it was bought for $1billion by an an international beverage group (who already own Mexico’s Corona brand).  That was three years ago. So how would the beers taste under the corporate yoke? Absolutely terrific, as it turned out, at the original brewtap up in the Little Italy district. The flagship Sculpin IPA, served unfiltered, was fantastic, but so too an array of different beer styles to match various dishes in their ‘Kettle Room’ dining experience. I’d highly recommend booking this intimate three course food-pairing dinner served among the brewery mash tuns (kettles).

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5 Go to market

Little Italy, these days more chic eaterie and art gallery territory than Genoese fishermen’s  slice of the ‘Old Country’, does offer the pick of the city’s farmer’s markets – the Little Italy Mercato every Saturday from 8am-2pm, straddling several streets, its 175 vendors showcasing the richness of Southern Californian food culture. The same applies to the very different Liberty Market, a seven days a week artisan-led operation in a former naval training complex. It’s an eclectic mix with a vintage comic bookshop rubbing shoulders with a feminist museum and and a bistro/boutique brewing facility run by Stone, where you can sample their more experimental beers. 

The focus, though is the globally-influenced food hall, where you’re spoilt for choice. In the end I went for a trio of ceviches plus oysters and a sea urchin from the Poke Bar. Washed down in the ‘Mess Hall’, with sour beers sourced from the comprehensive Bottlecraft beer shop.

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6 Go brunching

We prefaced our visit to the Little Italy Mercato with brunch in a bright, invigorating cafe come chef’s market called Herb and Eatery. It’s the casual eats adjunct to the acclaimed Herb & Wood restaurant; I’d happily be a cafe regular for their immaculate baked goods, Kombucha, house-made bone broth and savoury specials such as salmon rillettes on avocado and sourdough. 

Sometimes you just can’t wait for brunch, so it has to be the ‘Great American Breakfast’. With seven locations, an essential pit-stop is Breakfast Republic. We stretched our brekkie busting capacity at the quirky East Village branch at 707 G St. It should have been my initiation into Oreo cookie pancake stacks and banana split French toast, but I chickened out and ordered house-made crab cakes, which were glorious. Pity it was too early to sample the 20 beers on tap.

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7 Go plant based

As with craft beer and small batch coffee roasts, we in the UK are always playing catch-up with our West Coast cousins. So too with San Diego’s vegan culture. Combine it with a heavy metal ethos and you get Bar Kindred, cool even by the cool standards of its South Park setting (North Park isn’t bad either if you are into foraging for vintage vinyl, thrift store chic, hipster brews and chakra practitioners). There’s no booking at Kindred, so get there early for breakfast cocktails, drop biscuits with mushroom gravy, then signature brunch main Hashes For The Mashes, which for $13 delivers fried potatoes, smoked coconut, calypso beans, soy curls, maitake mushrooms, charred kale, jicama salsa and Creole aioli. Ask if you can sit under the giant four-eyed snake wolf. No wi-fi. Well, we said it was heavy. 

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8 Go grab a coffee 

All the hangouts mentioned do great coffee the locals claim rivals or even surpasses Portland and Seattle’s (they say the same about the beer with some justification; there are over 150 breweries – check out the likes of Modern Times, Karl Strauss, Burning Beard and Belching Beaver). Amazingly there are 1,900 coffee shops in the city, so definitely a risk of caffeine overload in your quest for the best. I asked the locals and they came up with this trio: Dark Horse (North Park, Normal Heights and Golden Hill) and the Barrio Logan district duo Cafe Moto and Cafe Virtuoso, the latter organic. A current fad elsewhere is to spike your morning ‘bullet’ coffee with a shot of omega-3-rich flax oil or fat-burning coconut oil. Avoid.

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9 Go to the beach

There is a string of strands to show off your beach body all along the coast. We ended up at La Jolla, which boasts some of the USA’s most expensive beach front real estate and boutique shopping to match. Ostensibly we were there for kayaking to the La Jolla Sea Caves with the added carrot of possible whale or shark watching but, gauging the ocean swell, I chickened out (a themde developing here) and instead sauntered the length of the beach to Caroline’s clifftop cafe at the fascinating Scripps Institute of Oceanography . Hardier souls donned wetsuits and experienced the marine ecosystem more hands-on with kayak specialists Everyday California

Next door to their Avenida de la Playa HQ is the perfect energy restorer, award-winning Galaxy Tacos. Ask for the terrace; order the essential Baja rried fish with chile lime crema, avocado mousse, cabbage, pico de gallo or the more unusual Lengua (tongue) with cilantro, onions and  avocado salsa verde. Everybody in Southern California seems to love brussel sprouts as much as local hero avocado. Galaxy roast them with chipotle mayo. Not converted.

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10 Go hiking

The coastline to the north of La Jolla offers a string of laid-back beach towns, seafood and surfing, along the legendary Route 101, but before you get to all that take in the managed wilderness of Torrey Pines State Reserve. The name gives away its raison d’etre – preserving 3,000 endangered examples of the US’s rarest pine tree,. Pinus Torreyana, which only grows here and on Santa Rosa Island off Santa Barbara. Below the 1,750 acre clifftop reserve you’ll find one of the last great salt marshes and waterfowl refuges in Southern California. The well-kept trails – family-friendly or more testing – provide stunning views of the Pacific. ‘Beware of rattlesnakes’ notices made me watch where I was putting my dusty Vans.

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Stephen Kurpinsky presents

11 Go for a cocktail with a view

Pacific panoramas are all very well but when the sun starts to sink iyou need a cocktail in your hand to admire the Ocean glow. Welcome to Level 2 of ‘California Modern’ restaurant Georges at the Cove. This La Jolla institution has given Level 2 bartender Stephen Kurpinsky and his team the chance to stretch the mixological boundaries. Their ‘Neighbourhoods of San Diego’ concept menu is inspired by the 23 districts of San Diego. Try the North Park (Monkey Shoulder Blended Malt Scotch, Cimmaron Reposado, hopped grapefruit cordial, lemon, sea salt or Little Italy (Apertivo Rinamato, Amaro Montenegro, Prosecco, balsamic strawberry shrub, lemon, Fernet Branca and charred aperitivo mousse). if you don’t need the view and love Little Italy (as I did on first sight) head back to Herb & Wood on Kettner Boulevard and check out new cocktail curator Meghan Balser’s refreshing Mezcal & Flowers with Agave de Cortez mezcal, aloe liqueur, chartreuse, lime, agave and mint. Agarve is the big draw at Gaslamp Quarter newcomer Volcano Rabbit with more than 175 selections from around the world, fuelling some admired concoctions.

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12 Go get into the spirit

Got the taste now for some hard liquor? Head for the East Village where You and Yours Distilling Co trumpets itself as California’s first destination distillery and its on-site cocktail lounge certainly looks the part, all whitewashed brick, salvaged wood and plush velvet. Launched by Laura Johnson in March 2017 after almost three years of planning, it is an ultra chic pioneer in a gentrifying area but also a full production distillery, making two quite different gins (‘Sunday’ and ‘Winter’) and a vodka for the moment. They are the bedrock of the cocktail list. Recommended: Rye Me A River (Winter Gin, toasted rye, Angostura and orange bitters). Or if you’re on a health kick: Little Bunny Foo Foo, where Sunday Gin meets carrot, turmeric, ginger and lemon.

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13 Go Gaslamp

If the area around You and Yours is aspirational, then theGaslamp Quarter has truly made it. In a transformation typical of many American cities, a once dead downtown is now the centre of a food and drink-centric nightlife. A long period of neglect preserved the Victorian architecture of this 16 block historic district. Just wander around, looking up at the ornamentation of buildings such as the Romanesque Keating Building, ornate, domed Balboa Theatre and the hallucinogenic Louis Bank of Commerce, once home to a favourite bar of Wyatt Earp and the notorious brothel, the Golden Poppy Hotel. When your neck starts to get stiff there’s an abundance of bars to recover in. 

Restoring the green wrought-iron gas lamps (they actually run on electricity) was an inspired move to inspire after-dark footfall. We succumbed, dining at upmarket seafood restaurant Lionfishin The Pendry Hotel on Fifth Avenue, close to Volcano Rabbit. Further up this Gaslamp main drag was our own base, the handily placed and ultra-cool Kimpton Hotel Palomar (see Factfile).

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14 Go Chicano

Eighty colourful, politically provocative murals under a fly-over? Chicano Park is the emotional epicentre of the Barrio Logan district. Its painted pillars depict the life and struggles of San Diego's Mexican community. Back in the Sixties, when the Coronado Bridge was constructed through it, the Park itself was the cultural focus of these struggles. It still is, its cultural importance confirmed by being granted National Historic Landscape Status in 2017. The street art has spread out across the Barrio now as vacant warehouses have become creative spaces and live music venues and authentic Mexican food is a big draw. At Quatros Milpas the tortillas are made fresh each day, while fish and chorizo are the tacos of choice at Salud! by the San Diego Taco Company. Alongside the Barrio coffee already mentioned there’s also a strong craft beer presence with the likes of Iron Fist and Border X Brewing (try the Blood Saison mad with hibiscus.

15 Go Mexico 

Once you’ve got the tacos between your teeth you won’t be able to resist slipping over the border to the city once called ‘Satan’s Playground’. Read my Tijuana blast – a foodie day trip down Mexico way.

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Fact file

Neil Sowerby stayed at the Kimpton Hotel Palomar, 1047 5th Avenue, San Diego CA 92101. This downtown boutique hotel (pictured above) is on the doorstep of the city’s fun hub, the Gaslamp Quarter, and close to all the city’s hot spots. Don’t miss the hotel’s own authentic Mexican restaurant, the Curadero, with its late night taco window (which I couldn’t resist – a brace of the Baja fish ones with a nightcap beer). Guest rooms and suites offer spectacular views of downtown San Diego, with several boasting floor-to-ceiling windows. Prices start from £150.

British Airways offers flights from £651 return and operate a daily year-round flight to San Diego from London Heathrow Airport. 

For full San Diego tourism information visit

Balboa Park Explorer Pass. Buy here

One-day passes start from $29, giving access for up to five museums.