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CITY GUIDE

A local’s guide to San Diego

  • By Nina Garin
  • Photos by Sandy Huffaker
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Believe what you hear about San Diego. We’re laid-back. We surf. We drive everywhere. And we’re really defensive about our burritos. But once you’re here, you’ll see that there’s more to this place than stereotypes.

San Diego is a border town and a seaside escape, home to a world-famous zoo and West Coast-style IPAs. Our beaches are as diverse as the languages we speak. On the streets you’ll meet a blend of scientists, foodies, biotech professionals and even Tony-winning theater artists. But there’s one thing that connects locals and tourists alike: We all still geek out when we run into Tony Hawk at the skatepark.

Meet Nina Garin

Nina is a San Diego native who was also partly raised in Baja California, Mexico. She’s an arts journalist who, as a reluctant stage mother to two daughters, spends more time in theaters than the outdoors. Although she lives a few blocks from the ocean, she’s never been surfing and is too terrified of rip currents to try.

Want to get in touch?

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IN THE ACTION
North Park
North Park is a 10-minute drive from practically everything: the San Diego Zoo, the Gaslamp Quarter, the beach and, depending on traffic, the border. It’s one of the few areas in San Diego where you don’t need a car to get around. Along 30th Street and University Avenue, you’ll find breweries, art galleries, trendy restaurants and a concert venue. There’s also history: One of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, North Park is where you can still meet longtime residents who remember when an airplane crashed there. The most popular hotel here is the retro-chic Lafayette, but you’ll also find tons of cute short-term rental options. Find this neighborhood.
LOW-KEY
Encinitas
This is no official title, but Encinitas is pretty much the mellowest place in the county. It’s a typical coastal town but forgoes the tourist trappings (no seashell shops here). Because it’s about 30 minutes north of downtown, and because of its low-key waves, you can surf here without being bombarded (or harassed by territorial locals; it happens!). Coast Highway 101 is where most of the action is, with a one-screen movie theater, taco shops, art galleries and dog-friendly cafes. In Encinitas, you’ll find some boutique hotels and quite a few Holiday Inns and Best Westerns, but if you spot a beachfront bungalow on a short-term rental site, grab it. Find this neighborhood.

Eat

BREAKFAST
Atypical Waffle Company
Plenty of places serve waffles, but nowhere else will you find “the number seven” — a Liege waffle topped with smoked brown-sugar bacon, smashed avocado and goat cheese. This glamping-themed backyard restaurant isn’t easy to find (if you’re at the trendy laundromat, you’re close), but once you’re there, you’ll want to linger at the picnic tables or near the bright-yellow fireplace. Food is served on tin plates or in handy to-go pouches. And you can get lemonade, kombucha and cold brew on tap.
BTW: Wear layers. The backyard alley can get pretty chilly in the morning.
Atypical Waffle Company, 3519 30th St. San Diego, Calif. 92104
BREAKFAST
Sugar and Scribe
This restaurant started out as a small Irish bakery where chef Maeve Rochford made cakes from scratch. She upgraded to the posh La Jolla neighborhood, along the way adding items like Irish eggs with goat cheese, traditional brown bread and hot chocolate topped with a giant house-made marshmallow. The front of the restaurant is a bakery, where you can choose from freshly baked croissants, tarts and cupcakes, as well as a full coffee bar. If you’re lucky, you’ll be there on a day when Rochford turns all her treats into Harry Potter- or Willy Wonka-themed designs.
BTW: Buy a box of the ginger chews on your way out. They’re the most incredible cookies in town.
Sugar and Scribe, 7660 Fay Ave. La Jolla, Calif. 92104
LUNCH
The Taco Stand
People say the best Mexican food in Southern California comes from any place called Roberto’s or Alberto’s or Rigoberto’s. While that’s true, if you’re looking for a taco with handmade tortillas and fresh ingredients, you go to the Taco Stand. Don’t be intimidated by the super long lines; these tacos are worth it. Local favorites are the camarón (spicy shrimp) and grilled pescado (mahi-mahi), both served with avocado and chipotle sauce. Seating is limited at all four locations, so be ready to eat these standing up, as though you’re at a stand across the border in Tijuana.
BTW: You might be tempted to go for a burrito, but this place truly is all about tacos.
The Taco Stand, 645 B St. San Diego, Calif. 92101
LUNCH
Monello
This Little Italy restaurant is great for any meal, but the reason it’s so beloved is its authentic Italian aperitivo (happy hour): Show up, even on weekends, between 4 and 7 p.m. for cocktails and get complimentary small bites of the day, such as homemade gnocchi or braised octopus. Monello makes its own sweet vermouth that’s so smooth, you can drink it straight. Other lunchtime favorites are the raspa dura — light cheese flakes served in a paper cone — and fresh pasta tossed in a cheese wheel.
BTW: Monello’s sister restaurant, Bencotto Italian Kitchen, is a few doors away and perfect for a fancy night out.
Monello, 750 West Fir St. San Diego, Calif. 92101
DINNER
Karina’s Mexican Seafood
The guidebooks tell you that Old Town is where you’ll find authentic Mexican food, but farther south, Karina’s is where the Mexican community actually hangs out. Scattered across the South Bay, the area closest to the border, this local chain is where people gather for family dinners and celebrations. The atmosphere is festive and colorful, with brightly painted walls and portraits of Mexican music and film icons hanging on the walls. There’s mariachi music at all times, whether on the speakers or performed live. The menu blends comfort dishes like enchiladas with more adventurous items like mango jalapeño tuna sashimi.
BTW: There are seven ceviche options on the menu, but go for the Ceviche Karina’s; it’s the signature dish.
Karina’s Mexican Seafood, 89 Bonita Rd. Chula Vista, Calif. 91910
DINNER
George’s at the Cove
San Diegans love their sunsets. In some areas, people gather every day to watch the sun dip into the ocean and maybe catch a sight of the mythical green flash. George’s at the Cove is a restaurant that maximizes your sunset experience, boasting both a sophisticated interior and an oceanfront terrace. Fish, lobster and beef dishes are prepared by nationally renowned chef Trey Foshee. The craft cocktails at George’s Level2 bar are inspired by 23 San Diego neighborhoods. (The La Jolla, for example, is dehydrated mango, lime- and chile-infused tequila, lime, agave nectar and a sea cube.)
BTW: Foshee has a casual taco restaurant, Galaxy Taco, a few miles away, at La Jolla Shores.
George’s at the Cove, 1250 Prospect St. La Jolla, Calif. 92037
LATE-NIGHT
Starlite
Starlite is a special place, which is immediately obvious when you spot its grand hexagonal doorway from the street. Step inside to find a gold-hued, twinkling seating area filled with local artists, musicians and other creatives. The front room has a sunken bar where some of the city’s best cocktails are served; the Starlite Mule and Kentucky Colonel are considered local classics. The back, meanwhile, has an intimate dining area where you can share marinated European olives and a charcuterie board, or go for the late-night favorite, a Starlite Burger, served with Gruyere and caramelized onions. The music here is always a blend of Motown, indie rock and soul.
BTW: The saying here is that one Starlite Mule is not enough, and two is too many.
Starlite, 3175 India St. San Diego, Calf. 92103
LATE-NIGHT
Lestat’s on Adams Avenue
Yes, this 24/7 cafe is named after the Anne Rice vampire, Lestat de Lioncourt, and even the aesthetic is very New Orleans French Quarter. During the day, locals zip in for coffee and freelancers work on laptops. But late at night is when its goth personality truly shines. Because there’s a music venue next door, you’ll find singer-songwriters and their guitars sharing space with caffeinated poets, teens too young for the club and friends in the middle of marathon Magic the Gathering sessions. The food is your standard coffee-shop fare: scones, muffins, panini and very, very strong coffee.
BTW: Next door, Lestat’s West features live music or comedy almost every night of the week.
Lestat’s, 3343 Adams Ave. San Diego, Calif. 92116
(San Diego illustrator Lauren Ito for The Washington Post)
LOCALS THINK YOU SHOULD KNOW
  1. San Diego is outdoorsy, but make sure to explore the arts. There’s a strong theater scene here, with the Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse regularly sending shows to Broadway.
  2. Our weather really is perfect, although mornings by the coast tend to be overcast and it gets legitimately chilly at night. So, yes, bring shorts and sundresses, but carry a sweater at all times.
  3. We have an irrational hatred of Los Angeles. Maybe because they stole our football team.
(San Diego illustrator Lauren Ito for The Washington Post)

Do

Liberty Station
Liberty Station was once a very official and very serious naval training center, but in 2006 it was transformed into a sprawling arts and culture complex. The historic buildings are separated into barracks, each one home to galleries, dance studios, upscale boutiques and restaurants. People gather on weekends to ride bikes on its flat, bayside paths or to picnic on its many grassy fields and parks. At the center is the Liberty Public Market, a food complex with international street foods, desserts, fresh produce, a cheese shop and a florist.
BTW: There’s almost always a festival or event happening here. Check its online calendar to make the most of your day.
Liberty Station, 2825 Dewey Rd. San Diego, Calif. 92106
San Diego Zoo
Hear us out: Locals actually love the San Diego Zoo. Even though it’s one of our most famous landmarks and a major tourist draw, San Diegans spend time here, too. Many of us buy an annual pass instead of a gym membership and go on regular early-morning walks through the 100-acre park. That’s when the animals are more active and the sun isn’t quite so hot. It can be enjoyable to walk the many hills that separate the polar bears from the elephants. And along the way, you’ll find shaded paths of exotic plants and flowers, Japanese gardens and, of course, adorable animals.
BTW: You can bring your own food into the park. Save some money by grabbing sandwiches from a nearby supermarket or deli.
San Diego Zoo, 2920 Zoo Dr. Balboa Park, San Diego, Calif. 92101
Convoy food district
Convoy Street is San Diego’s unofficial Asian Restaurant Row: strip malls packed with some of the best food, boba teas, markets and desserts in the city. The flavors are a blend of Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Thai and Japanese, and everyone seems to have their favorite secret spot. Start with Kura, a sushi bar where options roll past you on a conveyor belt, or try authentic Shaanxi biang biang noodles at Shan Xi Magic Kitchen. The desserts on Convoy are worth the trip alone, whether it’s Korean soft-serve ice cream served in a fish-shaped cone at Somi Somi or Taiwanese “shaved snow” at Iceskimo.
BTW: Use taxis or taxi alternatives, or find a parking spot at a nearby side street. You really don’t want to deal with these tightly packed parking lots.
Convoy food district, 4609 Convoy St. Suite F. San Diego, Calif. 92111
Chicano Park
Under the Coronado Bridge, Chicano Park is an artistic tribute to Mexican American (specifically Chicano) culture. Its beams have been transformed into giant murals, each telling a story of Mexican heroism. There’s one of the ancient Aztec warrior Cuauhtémoc and another with the face of Frida Kahlo, while others tell more localized stories of its Barrio Logan neighborhood. Recently, Barrio Logan has taken its artistic roots even further, evolving into a hub for art galleries, studios and creative spaces.
BTW: The second Saturday of every month brings the Barrio Art Crawl, a free, self-guided tour of Barrio Logan’s diverse galleries.
Chicano Park, San Diego, Calif. 92113
Stone Brewing World Bistro
If there’s such a thing as a beer fantasyland, this is it. Stone Brewing is one of the largest craft breweries in the United States, and its North County restaurant is a beer lover’s dream: 36 craft beers on tap, non-pretentious menu items like Bavarian pretzels and deviled eggs, peaceful outdoor seating, and a merch store. Even people who don’t like Stone’s trademark IPAs can find something from its extensive wine list. Or just bring the kids and climb rocks or relax by the outdoor pond.
BTW: It’s a trek from central San Diego to Escondido, but once you’re up there, take advantage of the many small craft breweries nearby. Check out the guide from San Diego Brewers Guild.
Stone Brewing World Bistro, 1999 Citracado Pkwy., Escondido, Calif. 92029
Moonlight State Beach
Going to the beach is a quintessential San Diego experience, but what you don’t always hear is how much of a hassle it is to plan said trip. So, in the best way possible, Moonlight Beach is like an all-inclusive cruise. In one defined area, you get a parking lot, a concession stand, picnic tables, nice bathrooms, grassy picnic areas, playgrounds and fire pits. All you need to add for a perfect beach day is your swimsuit, towel, magazines and cash for snacks. The water here is gentle, so it’s easy to swim, bodyboard or even try surfing.
BTW: If you want a beach trip without a ton of kids around, head over a few blocks to D Street Beach, a local favorite — albeit one with very few amenities.
Moonlight State Beach, 400 B St., Encinitas, Calif. 92024
Nina Garin
Nina is a San Diego native who was also partly raised in Baja California, Mexico. She’s an arts journalist who, as a reluctant stage mother to two daughters, spends more time in theaters than the outdoors. Although she lives a few blocks from the ocean, she’s never been surfing and is too terrified of rip currents to try.
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Sandy Huffaker
Sandy, a contributing photographer for The Washington Post, arrived in San Diego 30 years ago and fell in love with the diversity of the border region. When he’s not shooting, he loves eating great Mexican food, trail running and snorkeling with the seals off La Jolla.

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