A Weekend in San Diego
(for San Francisco Locals)
Downtown San Diego is a nice quick trip from San Francisco. The weather & ocean views are great and there is plenty for out-of-town visitors to see and eat. Also, it’s reasonably priced in terms of both time and money if you take the plane. Below are sights and tips from our recent trip you might find interesting.
See this map if you are not familiar with the downtown tourist sights discussed below.
Southwest Airlines has several daily flights from SFO to SAN and looked to us like the best way to go. By signing up a few weeks early we paid only $69 apiece one way to fly there. A friend who waited until the last minute paid over $250 for the same flight. Another advantage of Southwest is that you can take two pieces of baggage for free.
Uber to SFO
We made an advance reservation to take Uber from our house in San Mateo to the SFO airport on Friday morning. The ride cost $26 (plus a tip which Uber management says is not required). Since this was our first trip on Uber we took advantage of their $22 new customer coupon.
While in San Diego Uber didn’t work out so well. Monday, our last day there, it rained so Uber’s response to numerous inquiries throughout the day for trips around town was “no cars available.”
In the late afternoon we ended up walking in the rain to the #992 Bus Stop for a bus which goes from the Gas Lamp District to the Airport every 15 minutes (on weekdays every 30 minutes on weekends) and costs $2.95/trip if you don’t have the $5 day pass (we did). This 992 Bus to and from the airport is not a bad way to go if you know what you are doing. BTW, Uber worked well, from the car rental building to Little Italy, on a more recent trip.
At San Francisco Airport we tried to use Uber to go home. It wasn’t raining at SFO but still the Uber iphone application said “no cars available.” Not good! We ended up taking a cab home for about $50 including tip.
As an aside San Diego airport was only about 5-10 minutes by bus from our hotel in Little Italy. That makes getting into San Diego from the airport very easy regardless of which mode of transportation you use.
We picked Hotel Found because it is only a couple of blocks from India Street in the heart of Little Italy. The rooms and staff were quite nice and the price was right. (Update: We went back in June and found it was no longer called Hotel Vivante and the prices were much higher. The staff was still very nice.) Parking might have been a challenge but since we were not renting a car this was irrelevant.
San Diego Transportation
Since distances to the main tourist attractions near downtown are fairly short, parking in general is tight and somewhat expensive and trolley transportation is cheap we decided not to rent a car. That turned out to be an excellent decision. (Note: We did rent an Avis car at the airport on second trip later to Safari Park).
The downtown transit system is outstanding … accessible, fast and cheap ($5 for an all day pass which includes busses & trolleys). For example, a San Diego friend who lives nearby uses the trolley all the time. He joined us at Old Town. From there we trolleyed to the Broadway Pier from which we took the Coronado Ferry to Coronado Island Ferry Landing and the #904 bus from there to Hotel Del Coronado. We then returned by bus to the ferry and took the trolley back to our friend’s condo. From there we took his car to see Balboa Park. (Note: The #901 bus that goes over the bridge from Horton Plaza downtown to Hotel Del Coronado works quite well too).
We were initially planning to use the on-off commercial trolley tours to see all the local sights ($40 for a 1-day round trip plus on-off privileges via trolleytours.com); however, since our friend was kind enough to guide us we found taking trolleys (they are fast & easy), buses & the Coronado ferry faster and more flexible.
We had also planned to use Uber as needed but that turned out to be unnecessary most of the trip and no Uber cars were available the one rainy day we did need them.
This was a fun experience which quickly oriented us to the area with a fast, long guided tour of the Embarcadero and the GasLamp District. We walked 5-6 blocks back to our hotel in Little Italy and stopped on India Street for excellent lasagne at Filippi’s Pizza Grotto.
By staying in Little Italy we were able to leisurely fit in a variety of good things there during our four days in town. For example, Filippi’s Pizza Grotto (a well known local favorite), Farmers Market (8-2 Saturdays … OK), Lofty Coffee (went twice, near Saturday’s Farmer’s Market), Our Lady of the Rosary Church (OK), Napizza (good pan pizza), Caffe Italia (fair cannoli, slow service), Heartsleeves Coffee (a hidden local’s spot), Influx Cafe (good hangout). We also hear that Extraordinary Desserts is worth trying but didn’t make it there this trip.
This free state park, the “birthplace of California” established 1769, was the most interesting historical site we visited. See attractions there and a map. We especially liked the blacksmith shop which showed off many modes of transportation used in early California times. There were plenty of other things to see as well. Old Town is a tourist favorite for good reason.
There are dozens of good Mexican restaurants in this area. On our second trip we enjoyed the Casa Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant inside Old Town Park proper; it had a lot of atmosphere (excellent for tourists) including background live music, good margaritas and reasonably priced food. Old Town Mexican Cafe, a block or two away from the park, is a local favorite; their chips and salsa were some of the best ever. At Cafe Coyote, a big Mexican restaurant nearby, you can buy home made tortillas from the sidewalk.
Hotel Del Coronado, is definitely worth visiting. This historic national landmark is a Victorian beach resort featuring the second largest wooden structure in the United States. Check out the fabulous beach and the shopping in and near this 4 diamond hotel. We also wandered around the shops on Orange Street across from the hotel and dropped in to see McPs Pub, a comfortable dive bar frequented by Navy SEALS and island locals. Lobster West was a great find for lunch. You can get there via the trolley/ferry/bus system as mentioned earlier. Also, Hotel Del Coronado is one of the Trolley Tours stops.
We spent a half day at Balboa Park visiting its many museums & exhibits including the free Timken Museum of Art, Botanical Garden and the little cottages representing 34 different cultures. We especially enjoyed the Spanish Village Art Center (the city’s largest art community) and the Model Railroad Museum was interesting too. The architecture, much constructed for the 1915 Panama Exposition and 1935 International Exposition, gives it all a unique flavor. Balboa Park is definitely a pleasant, relaxing place to hang out and we could see that it is a favorite venue for locals to visit and socialize.
We came down for a second trip in early June to see Safari Park. It’s worth seeing but get there early to minimize the crowds and heat. We especially liked the Africa Tram (make this your first morning stop to reduce your wait time), the Bird Show (trained birds fly loose right above your head), Tiger Trail (get right next to big ones on the other side of glass walls) and Condor Ridge (rare birds up close).
Near Safari Park is Orfilia Winery which is worth a quick stop, and on the way off Highway I-15 in Rancho Bernardo, is a stop with more entertainment at Bernardo Winery, the oldest operating winery in Southern California. If you like beer check out Stone Brewery in Escondido.
Quick Day Trip North
We spent a pleasant Sunday with long-lost local relatives driving the sights north of downtown San Diego.
* After an interesting baked apple & pecan pancake at Richard Walkers in La Jolla we walked down to Children’s Pool Beach to see dozens of seal pups
* The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve had some nice hikes on terrain different than you find in Northern California. Good views & wild flowers there.
* The 4 mile cement “boardwalk” along Mission Beach & Pacific Beach is obviously a happening place during the summer. It took us several minutes to find paid parking even during off season. A local attraction, Belmont Amusement Park complete with an old wooden roller coaster, was quiet and not as big as our own Santa Cruz amusement park.
* We didn’t make it to Sea World, on Mission Bay about 8 blocks from Belmont Park, having been there before many years ago.
We were not planning to bother to visit the Maritime Museum but had some extra time on our last day Monday. It turned out to be a very neat place and worth dropping by for at least an hour or two; it had even more to see than does the excellent Maritime Museum in San Francisco. Exhibits include two submarines (one was a famous Russian B-39), The Star of India (the world’s oldest active sailing ship with an exciting history including 21 global circumnavigations) and a tour of the bay (for a few $ extra) on one of the PCF 816 Swift boats used to patrol rivers during the Vietnam war.
This older touristy “village” is not exciting, especially when it’s raining :), but does have many restaurants with good views of the Bay. And, it is near several other destinations along the Embarcadero such as the Midway Museum and the San Diego Visitor Info Center (which has a variety of free maps and discount tickets to the Midway & other attractions).
USS Midway Museum
Every local we know agrees that this museum is a “must see” attraction. This CV-41 aircraft carrier contains 29 restored aircraft and was the largest ship in the world until 1955, big enough to handle a 4500 person crew.
Our Next Trip
We are definitely looking forward to spending more time in San Diego. Here is a list of possible future destinations that have been recommended to us by local friends:
* Balboa Park – We want hang out there some more and will probably visit the famous San Diego zoo there.
* Tecate, Mexico – Another friend has volunteered to take us to Mexico for a nice afternoon. He says it’s safe and much, much more pleasant than Tijuana. You park on the U.S. side and walk across the border to the square tree-shaded town plaza & famous Tecate Brewery.
* Temecula wine valley – Recommended by another local friend who enjoys fine wine.
* Extraordinary Desserts – Two or three friends recommended this dessert shop near Little Italy. We dropped by but it wasn’t open yet.