Guest Post: Off the Beaten Path in San Diego
San Diego is famous for its world-renowned zoo, Seaworld, Balboa Park, and its fantastic beaches. But you probably knew that, didn’t you? That’s where all the tourists go. But it’s not where the local residents usually hang out. Want to learn about the San Diego that’s off the beaten path?
I’ve lived in San Diego since 1989. When I first moved here, of course we went to Seaworld and the San Diego Zoo. But those attractions cost money and that adds up fast. And they’re often so crowded. Besides, how many times can you keep going back to those places? I’m going to let you know where the locals go. And it will most likely save you some money too.
5 Things To Do In Or Near San Diego That Are Off the Tourist Radar:
Old Town San Diego
Old Town is actually the birthplace of San Diego, with historic buildings that date back to 1821. You can visit the first courthouse and a schoolhouse, see a working blacksmith shop and live burros, walk through the historic cemetery, and tour La Casa de Estudillo (one of the first homes).
Many buildings have been turned into museums, shops, restaurants, and even a hotel. You can visit a general store that looks much like it would have nearly 200 years ago.
On weekends, the Harney Street Market adds to the festivities by selling handmade works by local artisans. Another worthy stop is the Mormon Battalion Historic Site, where you can be part of an interactive display of the longest infantry march in US history, pan for gold, make a clay souvenir brick, and have your photo taken. Or you can just sit in a rocking chair on the porch and enjoy the view of Old Town.
If you head to the Old Town Mexican Cafe, you can watch ladies making fresh flour tortillas by hand through the front window. They don’t just look good; they’re very tasty. If you’re ready for a sit-down meal, enjoy something modern and Mexican at the same time, at the historic Cosmopolitan Hotel Restaurant. You might be serenaded as well.
Little Italy and the Mercato
Little Italy is a distinctly Italian neighborhood tucked into a 30-square-block zone north of downtown San Diego. At one time, nearly 6000 Italian families lived in Little Italy and they worked hard to become the center of the world’s tuna industry.
Now, Little Italy is a hub for top chefs and home of a fantastic farmers’ market called Little Italy Mercato, where residents go to do their Saturday shopping and tourists come to people-watch, try street vendors’ fare, sample locally grown fruits and produce, and listen to musicians perform.
In the evenings, residents sit on their porches or at tables on the sidewalk and visit. Strolling through Little Italy almost feels like being part of a family.
Amidst plenty of boutiques and galleries, you’ll find bocce ball courts, the San Diego Firehouse Museum, and the new European-styled plaza, “Piazza della Famiglia” scheduled to be completed this year.
Little Italy has so many great restaurants, it’s hard to choose, but my personal favorite is Isola Pizza Bar, named after the cook’s grandmother and her downhome Italian cooking.
Escondido is a city about 20 miles north of downtown San Diego. It’s name literally means “hidden” in Spanish, and it truly is a hidden gem.
There are two places you just have to see if you visit Escondido:
1) the Kit Carson Park with its Queen Califia Magical Circle, and 2) “Cruisin’ Grand” — a 50’s style vintage car cruise and hoppin’ fun hang-out for all ages on Grand Avenue.
Kit Carson Park is a huge park with several playgrounds, a sports park area, an outdoor theatre, lots of green grass and walking trails, and a duck pond.
It’s unique because it’s within walking distance of a sprawling shopping mall and also because of the Niki de Saint Phalle art installation here. I’ve seen a lot of Niki’s colorful mosaic work, and you probably have too. But the Queen Califia Magical Circle is built on a much grander scale — walls, arches, a giant snake, Queen Califia herself, and lots more. It’s definitely worth checking out.
“Cruisin’ Grand” is pure fun! Even if you’re not particularly into vintage cars (please tell me that’s not true!), you can still enjoy strolling along Grand Avenue, watching hula hoop contests, listening to 50’s music, browsing the shops, and taking advantage of sidewalk sales.
Traffic is blocked on Grand Avenue to all cars except vintage cars, and more beauties are parked along Grand Avenue with the hoods popped so you can see their inner workings. “Cruisin’ Grand” takes place every Friday night from April through the end of September.
If you’d like to catch a bite for dinner, I highly suggest treating yourself to Salvadorean pupusas at Cuscatlan, on Grand Avenue. Pupusas are thick handmade corn tortillas filled with cheese, pork and refried beans; they are very inexpensive and incredibly flavorful!
Torrey Pines State Natural Preserve
Torrey Pines State Natural Preserve is 2000 acres of coastal state park in La Jolla (an upscale bedroom community of San Diego). The park includes two beautiful beaches with paid parking lots, a historic visitor center/nature museum, and miles of trails for hiking, many with incredible views of the Pacific Ocean from atop stunning seaside bluffs.
It is also home to the Torrey Pine, an endangered species of pine tree that grows only here and on one of the Channel Islands. You can bring a picnic, lay out at the beach, or enjoy a vigorous hike from beach to blufftop.
Everywhere you look is photo-worthy. The preserve is also popular among sports enthusiasts: surfers, runners, kayakers, and bicyclists. Between the two beaches is a natural protected lagoon where you can spot all kinds of birds, especially herons, kites, and red-winged blackbirds.
As luck would have it, there is a very popular Mexican restaurant nearby (Roberto’s Mexican Food) where you can treat yourself with tacos, burritos, and other Mexican fare at a crazy low price.
Coronado Island sits right across the harbor from San Diego, with a beautiful arching bridge that connects it to the mainland.
It’s crowning glory is the Hotel Del Coronado, a beautiful Victorian hotel built in the late 1800’s. It has hosted presidents and celebrities, and is still attracting many to its pristine beach and historic hallways. Anyone can enter the lobby to see the exquisite woodwork, the chair that President Taft sat in, or the original wire cage elevator.
You can also stroll the many beach-side shops or wander down to the beach where you might catch a glimpse of Bill Pavlacka (aka “The Sandcastle Man”) carving another masterpiece.
Coronado also has a beautiful downtown ambiance with art galleries, boutiques, restaurants, and an olive oil tasting room.
My favorite thing to do on Coronado is to rent a cruiser bike (there are several bike rental shops on Orange Avenue) and ride through the streets admiring the multi-million dollar homes and beach views.
At Ferry Landing, you can catch a ferry for under $5.00 to downtown San Diego.
While there are lots of great places to grab a bite, the thing you should not miss is authentic European gelato from Nado Gelato.
See Related: 10 Unexpected Experiences in Los Angeles
When you go to San Diego, just remember there’s so much more than the big tourist attractions. For a better feel of the culture and beauty that San Diego has to offer, be sure to get off the beaten path and see a few of these treasures!
Will you be visiting any of these places on a San Diego trip? Have you previously visited San Diego? Are there any other unique destinations that weren’t covered here? We’d love to hear from you! Let us know in the comments below!
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Tami Wilcox, author of Postcards and Passports, has a passion for travel. She loves the way travel helps couples and families connect and create lifelong memories. If she’s not traveling, she’s exploring San Diego and taking photographs, playing with grandchildren, or working on home-improvement projects. Follow Tami on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.