Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
12600 N Torrey Pines Rd., La Jolla
Torrey Pines is 1,500 acres of pure, pristine, untouched California. This nature reserve is right on the water and delivers some of the prettiest views you’ll find anywhere in the state. First the bad news: This is a reserve, not a park, which means you can’t bring food or drinks inside, so no picnics. (No pets are allowed in the reserve, either.) But the good news is you won’t really care. The reserve is so full of hikes and trails and cliffs and places to explore, it feels like a vacation within a vacation. If you have kids, this place is heaven (actually whether or not you have kids, it’s pretty much heaven): There are deer, rabbits, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, lizards, snakes, opossums, bobcats, and all kinds of insects—so watch your footing. The reserve is open every day of the year from 7:15 a.m. to sunset.
Liberty Public Market
2820 Historic Decatur Rd., Point Loma
Picture 25,000 square feet of Maine lobster and craft beer and live music and New York pizza and food trucks and happy hour and art exhibits and handmade ice cream and picnic areas and Bangkok street food and Italian soda and fresh-made popcorn. Now you have scratched the surface of Liberty Public Market. The marketplace, a collection of local food vendors and artists, is in Liberty Station, a grand and imposing building in Point Loma. The space is as impressive as the shops that fill it—plan to spend at least an afternoon here.
La Jolla Playhouse
2910 La Jolla Village Dr., La Jolla
La Jolla Playhouse comprises three theaters on the campus of University of California San Diego. It’s basically a miniature Lincoln Center with a reliably good selection of plays and musicals. Many well-known actors—Matthew Broderick, Laura Linney, Neil Patrick Harris, and Billy Crystal to name a few—have gotten their start at the La Jolla Playhouse and the quality of the performances never disappoints. Go early to have dinner at James’ Place beforehand—the preshow menu is full of crowd-pleasing options. Whatever you’re seeing, we’ll wager it’ll be more enjoyable with a lychee elderflower martini and beet and blue cheese salad beforehand.
Gaslamp Quarter, Gaslamp
The Gaslamp Quarter is not unlike a miniature New Orleans (and in fact, this is where the city throws its Mardi Gras parade): a historic pocket of downtown full of Victorian-style buildings, bustling sidewalks, late-night revelers, and restaurants that stand cheek by jowl next to bars that spill onto the street. This district is the epicenter of nightlife in this city. Given the fame and popularity of the Gaslamp Quarter, it can get pretty touristy, and one of the best places to take it all in is from a rooftop bar, like the one at the Andaz Hotel. Sit by the firepit, order a wild mushroom flatbread pizza and something called a Smoky Ginger (like a smoky margarita with ginger), and listen to the sounds of the city coming to life after sunset.
Balboa Park, San Diego
Calling Balboa Park a park is like calling One World Trade Center an office building. These 1,200 acres include over a dozen museums, several performing art spaces, gardens, trails, and perhaps most notably, the famous San Diego Zoo. (The zoo doesn’t get the highest ratings for humane treatment of its animals, so we skip that part.) You can easily spend a morning, an afternoon, or both here. And if you’re with children, you can’t go wrong at the Natural History Museum or the Modern Railroad Museum.
860 W Washington St., Mission Hills
Farmer’s Bottega is the kind of restaurant we seek out in every city: rustic but comfortable, laid-back but with great service, and delicious (no but). The farm-to-fork approach translates here to crisp, fresh salads featuring ingredients like arugula, squash, quinoa, and herbed goat cheese, as well as heartier dishes, like a pork chop with mashed potatoes and braised radicchio and a stuffed quail. There are also plenty of vegetarian options, so no one leaves hungry. But it’s the Edison bulbs, the semigreen wall, and convivial atmosphere that really have this place humming from lunch to dinner and beyond.
Hansen Surf Shop
1105 S Coast Hwy 101, Encinitas
You know those surf shops that make you consider being a surfer for a minute? Hansen is one of them. If you’re serious about the sport, you’re covered—from boards and leashes to wet suits and wax. If you’re more into surf culture than actually standing on a board, you’ve covered, too. Hansen also stocks shoes, hats, bikinis, and all the trappings of someone who spends a lot of time at the beach.
3803 Ray St., North Park
You’re only about seventeen miles from the border, a fact that is apparent everywhere from the food to the language. And one of the most authentic places to dive into Mexican culture is Artelexia, a boutique and event space that specializes in beautiful, highly curated wares from all over Mexico. Cookbooks, dishes, chocolates, textiles, toys, cutlery, ornaments, candles—it’s far more a lifestyle shop than a souvenir one. It hosts dinners and events all year (and can even help you plan a trip south of the border), but Artelexia really comes to life in the late fall during the Día de los Muertos festival.
675 W Beech St., Little Italy
A hidden tiki bar sounds like something you’d find at an amusement park, but designer Ignacio Gonzalez took every step to make sure that the False Idol tiki bar was cool, thoughtful, and anything but cheesy. But first you have to get there. The entrance to the bar is hidden within Craft & Commerce. (Look for the steel door to the walk-in cooler—the human skulls inside really set a mood—then open the second door, which is the actual entrance.) The inside will leave you speechless—and make you feel as if you’re underwater thanks to the colorful glass buoys suspended from the ceiling in a fishing net. Then there’s the waterfall, the authentic Polynesian art and memorabilia, the elaborate wood carvings, the skulls on spikes, and the occasional fireballs: It’s an inspired sensory overload. And we haven’t even mentioned the cocktails. If you’re overwhelmed, order a Panther’s Fang (rum, honey, lime, club soda) and take it all in.
Wayfarer Bread & Pastry
5525 La Jolla Blvd., La Jolla
If you’re gluten-free, cover your ears. There are bakeries, and then there is Wayfarer. Wayfarer is the creation of Crystal White, who worked at Tartine in San Francisco before opening what is arguably the best bakery in San Diego. Small-batch loaves (olive, sourdough, baguette, the usuals) and pastries (apple jam and hazelnut croissants are as good as they sound) are the raison d’être here. But there’s also a selection of sandwiches and salads, and every Wednesday is pizza night. Plan accordingly, people.
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