San Diego is famous for its sun, sand and surf, but there’s so much to do beyond the beach.
I’ve been a local resident for two years now, and in my downtime, I love to explore the city’s vibrant offerings. If you’re seeking to explore a few off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods or nightlife spots, here are a few of my favorites you won’t want to miss.
I love visiting Ocean Beach — more specifically, the Santa Cruz Cliffs beach, a hidden gem at the end of Santa Cruz Avenue that’s popular with locals. The unique landscape features two beautiful coves, abundant tide pools, large rock formations you can walk along, and a cave that goes through the rocks and connects one cove to the other. Some of the most breathtaking sunsets I’ve experienced have been while laying out on those rocks at the Santa Cruz Cliffs.
While you’re in the Ocean Beach area, you can also stroll along the longest concrete pier on the West Coast. Or visit the Ocean Beach Farmers Market on Wednesday night between 4 – 8 p.m. Every week, locals gather across five blocks to sell handmade jewelry, art and more. You’ll also find tons of food vendors offering diverse cuisine for every palate.
Looking for a great cocktail spot? Another place to see the sunset like a local is the South Beach Bar and Grille, where you can admire the view while enjoying a great happy hour. Order your favorite drink and some mahi-mahi tacos and then pull up a seat on the west-facing balcony to witness the sun setting over the sand, surfers and the Ocean Beach Pier.
One more place you won’t want to miss is Azucar, a fantastic Cuban bakery. As a Cuban-American, I’m very particular about Cuban food, and this place offers the best pastelitos I’ve ever had (they’re delicious puff pastries filled with cream cheese and/or guava). The bakery also offers house-made Cuban bread; to eat Cuban bread properly, order it toasted alongside a café con leche (coffee with milk, or a Cuban version of a latte). Then dip your toast in the coffee while eating it — your tastebuds will love it!
Next, you’ll want to explore Barrio Logan, another fun neighborhood that many tourists don’t know about. This neighborhood is rich with Mexican-American culture in the form of food, people and art. Chicano Park is a National Historic Landmark and community art park located under the Coronado Bridge just off Logan Avenue. Each bridge supporting beam displays a colorful mural, with more than 80 paintings total across seven acres. The park is also home to a playground, skate park and community events stage.
Nearby on Logan Avenue, Border Brewing is a great place to stop for suds and a snack. The brewery’s back patio features a hidden taco stand that’s run by a family that commutes from Tijuana every day. Be sure to order a quesataco, which is a quesadilla-style open-face taco — trust me, it’s delicious. Across the street, you’ll find Salud, an excellent taco and street food stop. Check out their weekly specials; on Thursdays, they offer a discount on their mouthwatering empanadas.
Around the corner, La Bodega is my favorite local art gallery and spoken arts hub. Every second Saturday of the month, residents flock to the Barrio Art Crawl, a free community event that features art, drinks, food, vendors, music, low-riders and just an all-around great time immersing yourself in local culture.
Speakeasies and Secret Spots
After spending your days discovering San Diego’s beaches, cuisine and culture, it’s time to unwind. You’ll find plenty of nightlife to explore, including several speakeasy-style watering holes. If you like tiki bars, you’ll love False Idol. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it rum bar is hidden inside another bar called Craft and Commerce. As you step inside, it’s like you’re walking into the jungle village of an ancient indigenous civilization. Reservations are highly recommended.
Another great option is the underground (literally) wine bar in the Gaslamp District. Located beneath San Diego’s first skyscraper, Vin de Syrah has the best wine tastings in the city. To find it, locate the street-level stairs on the sidewalk and head down. You may think you’ve come to a dead end, but you’ll see a plant wall on the left that’s actually a door. Push it open to reveal an “Alice in Wonderland”-style bar. Reservations for the wine tastings are required, otherwise the bar is open to drop-ins. Make sure to try the pesto burratta appetizer.
Then there’s the Noble Experiment, which is my favorite. Hidden behind a fake wall of kegs inside the Neighborhood burger bar, this French-gothic cocktail lounge offers a swanky yet spooky atmosphere that sort of resembles upscale catacombs. There’s a cocktail menu, but I prefer to order a drink by informing the bartender of my spirit of choice and my mood, and then letting them craft a magical concoction customized for me. Reservations are a must.
Where to Stay:
Marriott Vacation Club Pulse® San Diego