The southern Californian city of San Diego is where you’ll find beaches, beautiful blue skies, and surfing opportunities aplenty. California’s beach city also has all the vibrancy of a larger metropolis, with a good trolley system to ferry you around the cool urban neighborhoods. These offer up museums, world-famous attractions, delicious cuisine, nightclubs – and even historic districts that give you a glimpse into the long history of this city.
Founded in the mid-1700s by Spanish explorers, San Diego is referred to as the birthplace of California; it was the first place visited by Europeans on what is now America’s West Coast. From its beginnings as a Mexican fort, it grew to become the 8th largest city in the United States. It’s not far from the Mexican border, showing just how close (literally) this city it is to its Mexican heritage.
Map of San Diego
1. Downtown · 2. Hillcrest · 3. Old Town & Mission Valley · 4. Coronado · 5. Point Loma & Ocean Beach · 6. Mission Beach · 7. Pacific Beach · 8. La Jolla
Today, the Old Town is an amazing place to witness how it all began. San Diego is a fantastic destination for families. There is always something to do for those who come to see this city with their children, whether that’s playing on the beach, seeing the animals at the famous San Diego Zoo, exploring Balboa Park’s 17 museums, watching shows at SeaWorld, or enjoying a ferry ride.
San Diego is a friendly place – the 20th safest city in the US – and even boasts a liberal, LGBT friendly district in the form of Hillcrest. With plenty of places to stay, including budget hostels for world travelers, motels for those just dropping by, and upscale resorts or historic boutique lodgings, you’ll easily get to see what San Diego has in store for you.
The Downtown area of San Diego is where you’ll find Victorian-era buildings and excellent nightlife in the historic Gaslamp Quarter; the scenic roads, boutique stores and delicious eateries of Little Italy; and the waterfront shopping opportunities in Seaport Village.
It’s a great place to stay if you’re arriving in the city by plane – thanks to the nearby San Diego International Airport – or by train, with Amtrak and Coaster trains serving the 100-year-old Santa Fe Depot. There are also numerous trolley stations in the area, making it easy to get around.
The northeast border of Downtown is defined by Interstate 5, beyond which visitors will find Balboa Park – which houses big attractions like San Diego Zoo, San Diego Natural History Museum, the Botanical Building, and San Diego Museum of Man. For the most part, accommodation in this area of San Diego is mid-range to decidedly high-end.
Where to Stay in Downtown
- Hotel Pendry – Set right in the bustling heart of the lively Gaslamp Quarter, the 5-star Pendry San Diego is the place to stay if you really want to be in the middle of all the best nightlife this city has to offer. Aside from the location, which also puts guests near the Petco Park venue and the interesting USS Midway Museum, the rooms here are decidedly polished and elegant, with sea-themed color palettes. Choose from one of six bars and restaurants, chill at the rooftop pool, or treat yourself to a spa treatment.
- Horton Grand Hotel – A few minutes’ stroll from sights like the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum and the Horton Grand Theatre – of course – the Horton Grand Hotel is a 4-star offering set in a wonderful 19th-century building. Guests can expect elegant fittings and fixtures, including period furnishings, antiques in the rooms, ceiling fans, and ornate staircases. Enjoy evening drinks at the on-site bar and breakfast in the breezy, New Orleans-style courtyard.
- Gaslamp Plaza Suites – A few minutes’ walk from the nearest tram stop – making it easier to explore what the city has to offer – this 4-star hotel is set in the historic Gaslamp Quarter. Bars, restaurants, cafes, shops, and theatres dot the surrounding streets. The hotel itself is set in a cool historic building – a tower dating back to 1913 – and the rooms within are decorated with classic touches. One of the perks of this hotel is the continental breakfast served free of charge daily on the rooftop.
- Staypineapple at Hotel Z – A funky alternative to some of the more classic accommodation options to be found in and around the heritage of the Gaslamp Quarter, this hotel boasts minimal rooms that mix muted yellows with greys and natural tones for a cool, retro feel. Complimentary bike hires mean you’ll be able to pedal around the area and see the sights, though Park and Market tram station is within easy walking distance. As an added bonus, there are free cupcakes here, too! And for pet lovers, your furry friends are welcome.
Tolerant and liberal, Hillcrest may not have any trolley stops, but it is still well located in the city and makes for a convenient place to stay.
Many northern entrances and paths leading into Balboa Park are located in the southern portion of this district, making it very easy to get to the numerous cultural exhibits and attractions of the park – including the top-notch San Diego Zoo.
This area of San Diego is very walkable, with numerous cafes, shops, and restaurants dotted around. Hotels may not be rife in this area, but there are a few mid-range B&Bs to choose from, as well as hostels, which are great for those on a budget who want to meet other travelers.
Hillcrest is famous for its yearly pre-Pride block party, which it hosts on Friday night before the march itself on Saturday, which begins in Hillcrest.
Where to Stay in Hillcrest
- ITH Colive Balboa Park – ITH Colive Balboa Park is a fun and friendly hostel where you’ll not only get to save money on a hotel, but also meet some pretty interesting people doing what you’re doing. Simple but brightly colored, the dorms here (both mixed and single-sex) are all you need for a good night’s sleep. But with the lively area to explore on the doorstep – from cafes and gay bars to international eateries and nightclubs – you may not be getting much sleep anyway!
If you’ve come to San Diego looking for history, then you should look no further than the Old Town district. Practically neighboring San Diego International Airport to the south, the Old Town area boasts a few mid-range options, some of which are housed appropriately in historic buildings.
For further convenience, this district even has its own trolley stop – Old Town. The Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is a living museum; here and at adjacent Presidio Park is where the city was first founded in 1769 as part of Spanish California.
Continue north on the trolley, and it makes a turn for the northeast, where you’ll find the overlapping Mission Valley area. With the San Diego River running through its center, you’ll find more accommodation here – particularly in Mission Valley West. Shopping is great in this area; try Fashion Valley on for size, or the branch of Westfield here.
Where to Stay in Old Town & Mission Valley
- Hilton San Diego Mission Valley – As you might expect from a Hilton, this branch is all about polished rooms and amenities. The rooms boast muted, minimalist color palettes, while elsewhere, there’s a swish outdoor pool, a fitness center where you can keep up with your workouts, a lounge to chill out in, and an on-site restaurant serving up Californian cuisine. Located just off Interstate 8, this 4-star hotel is a convenient option for those who find themselves on a road trip. For families, San Diego Zoo is a mere three miles away.
- Kings Inn – With its calm but stylish rooms, this 3-star hotel is a blast from the past. Each room at this 1960s-themed hotel features vintage black-and-white photographs depicting the history of the local area. A budget hotel located just off Interstate 8, it’s suitable for anyone watching their expenses while on a Californian road trip. There are also two restaurants located on-site, one of which is a triple combination of a bar, Mexican cuisine, and live music – what’s not to like?
Situated on a spit of land stretching northwards a stone’s throw from the Mexican border, with its tip facing Downtown San Diego, Coronado is actually administered as a separate city and has been known for decades as a resort getaway.
Evidence for this lies in the numerous places to stay in Coronado – from historic places like the famous and sprawling wood-built Hotel del Coronado (constructed in 1888), all the way to the RV parks further south along the spit – and just about everything in between. You’ll find the latter in the Silver Strand State Beach area, which boasts both Bay and Pacific Ocean facing stretches of sand.
Getting to Coronado is easy from San Diego proper, either via the Coronado Bridge or one of two ferry crossings – one from the Fifth Avenue Landing adjacent to the Gaslamp Quarter, and one from Broadway Pier near Santa Fe Depot.
Where to Stay in Coronado
- Hotel del Coronado – Quite possibly the coolest hotel in San Diego, Hotel del Coronado is set in a beautiful Victorian building that dates all the way back to 1888. The rooms here, however, are modern and minimalist, with color pops and design-led furnishings. In terms of amenities, there are seven restaurants and bars – including a seafood restaurant and a pizzeria – as well as two outdoor pools and a spa complete with its own infinity pool. If all that wasn’t enough, this historic 5-star offering is practically on Coronado Beach itself, which is all the better.
- Coronado Island Marriott Resort – Set across the water from the main skyline of San Diego, this Marriott hotel boasts some stunning views of the city from its island location. Situated just a ten-minute stroll from the ferry landing, getting into the heart of the city is easily done from this 4-star hotel. Guests can enjoy high-end rooms before heading down to sample one of the three outdoor pools. Dinner outside at the on-site restaurant, underneath the palms with a sea breeze, is divine.
Curving around from the north, the peninsula of Point Loma – along with Coronado – shelters San Diego proper from the Pacific Ocean and defines San Diego Bay itself.
In the northern part of Point Loma is Ocean Beach; there’s a bohemian vibe here, where surfers and sunseekers enjoy the waves and catch rays. You’ll even find the regular Ocean Beach Farmers Market, which puts on live music amongst all the organic food stalls.
If this sounds like your thing, there are a handful of budget hotels with brightly colored facades, as well as some waterfront villas for you in Ocean Beach.
Point Loma is more isolated and rugged, offering excellent hiking opportunities like Cabrillo National Monument – featuring tide pools and trails – plus Sunset Cliffs National Park, which is a great place to watch sunsets from, of course.
There are mid-range hotels here, but not a huge selection; however, it is reasonably close to San Diego International Airport.
Where to Stay in Point Loma & Ocean Beach
- USA Hostels Ocean Beach – The colorful, hippie-friendly USA Hostels Ocean Beach is the place to stay if you are looking for some seriously budget accommodation and a social place to stay. Choose from an affordable dorm bed or private room and then get chatting to your fellow travelers. SeaWorld is a couple of miles away, but nearer, less than a 10-minute walk away, is the beautiful Ocean Beach Park. You’ll get free shuttles to transport hubs while you stay here, as well as all the social perks you get from staying at a fun hostel!
- Humphreys Half Moon Inn – The lovely Humphreys Half Moon Inn features beautiful rooms with wooden shuttered windows in a stylish yet calm beach house with a tropical design. These boast substantial flatscreen TVs, microwaves, coffeemakers, and even their own patios. Enjoy international cuisine at the on-site restaurant, splash around in the outdoor pool – complete with bar, of course – or rent a kayak or paddleboard and enjoy the seaside setting. Location-wise, this hotel is conveniently placed near San Diego International Airport, which is useful if you’re flying in or out early.
Mission Beach may well be famous for its shore, but in the main Mission Bay area, you’ll also discover the top attraction of SeaWorld San Diego. It also plays host to big hotels like the Hyatt, as well as spa resorts.
Needless to say, accommodation here is mid-range to high-end, and there’s a lot of choice on offer for any potential visitor.
Lots of beach communities surround the area, making it great for anybody who loves a bit of sun, sea, and sand. There’s a beachfront promenade linking all these different communities, which are dotted with cafes, beachside eateries, and restaurants.
While popular with families who visit with children – thanks to SeaWorld and Belmont Park (a rollercoaster and attraction-packed theme park in the area) it’s also good for younger visitors who come to enjoy the boisterous nightlife to be had here. South Mission Beach area is away from the crowds, with more space to enjoy beach games.
Where to Stay in Mission Beach
- Blue Sea Beach Hotel – Mere steps from the beach itself, the Blue Sea Beach Hotel features modern, well-decorated rooms that feel homely and stylish. Guests can enjoy a dip in the heated outdoor pool, or even try something more quirky, with the retro videogames on offer in the lobby. Nearby Mission Bay is relatively reachable; it’s where visitors will find SeaWorld San Diego amongst other amenities. But even closer are the numerous restaurants and bars, which are more than enough for any foodie.
Just a little further north from Mission Beach, you’ll find Pacific Beach. With its wide selection of beachside inns clustered along the seafront, ranging from budget-friendly to more luxurious affairs, there’s plenty of choice when it comes to finding a place to call your own when you’re visiting this part of San Diego.
A super popular spot for surfers, Pacific Beach is a trendy neighborhood, where you can enjoy shopping in clothing boutiques, sipping cocktails in bars, practicing a bit of yoga on the beach, or simply strolling along the boardwalk.
Called ‘PB’ by the locals, at night, things hot up a little – with a pumping nightlife and bonfires on the beach.
The area of Pacific Beach itself stretches from Crystal Pier to Pacific Beach Drive; it’s a great idea to rent some bikes and cycle along the coast here. You’ll also find a more family-friendly area in North Pacific Beach, complete with lifeguards and good facilities for children.
Where to Stay in Pacific Beach
- Tower 23 Hotel – Tower 23 Hotel boasts stylish, minimalist rooms with wooden beds and plenty of whitewashed walls and white linen for a calm, relaxing experience. Situated adjacent to the beach itself, as well as near all the shopping, eating and drinking options in the surrounding streets, this 4-star hotel is an excellent place to base yourself if you want to be close to the sand but also handy to civilization. There’s also an on-site steakhouse, perfect for filling up after a day of exploration.
- Surfer Beach Hotel – A low-key hotel that features clean, modern rooms, Surfer Beach Hotel is fittingly located on the beachfront. Those who love the sun, sea, and sand – or most importantly, the surf – should definitely think about staying here. Good for those on a budget, the affordable rooms are bolstered by the free hot drinks in the lobby, as well as that fantastic location. You can stroll a few minutes from here to find a number of restaurants and bars.
Neighboring the area of Pacific Beach to the south, the district of La Jolla boasts a beautifully rugged coastline, sandstone canyons, and a whole lot of pine forest to enjoy, making it great for outdoor enthusiasts.
There’s something for everyone here in terms of accommodation, from budget motels to more exclusive beachfront hotels, meaning everybody gets to enjoy San Diego’s backyard.
In fact, La Jolla is not just one of the most beautiful beach destinations in San Diego, but the whole of California. Practically all of its coastline is made up of beaches.
The town of La Jolla is punctuated by museums, fashionable boutiques, and little art galleries, for those who like to wander and window shop. Families might want to head over to Scripps Park, which is perfect for a picnic – or you could try to spot the local seals at Children’s Pool.
Where to Stay in La Jolla
- Pantai Inn – Boasting beautiful Bali-inspired boutique rooms, as well as free continental breakfast, BBQ facilities, and even complimentary parking (great for road trippers), the 5-star Pantai Inn is the place to stay if you want to be near to everything this area has to offer. Take a leisurely stroll to La Jolla Cove, enjoy views of the ocean from your room, or simply stroll around the surrounding streets trying the various eateries, cafes, and bars that can be found here.
- Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines – Backed by a sprawling golf course – the famous Torrey Pines, no less – this branch of the Hilton comes with views of the Pacific Ocean. The rooms here are clean, spacious, and contemporary, and offer balconies and patios, too. If you’re not a golf fan, don’t worry; Black’s Beach and hiking at the La Jolla Trail are just a mile or so away. On your return, choose from multiple eateries and bars to unwind in.
- Inn by the Sea – Enjoy laid-back, unfussy rooms at Inn by the Sea, each of which comes with a balcony, cable TV, and coffeemaker. There’s a heated outdoor pool for guests to swim around in at this 3-star offering, as well as a complimentary continental breakfast served each day, making this a great option for those traveling on a budget. If you feel like something cultural, this hotel is just a few minutes’ walk from the Museum of Contemporary Art. Plus, all the eateries, bars and – most importantly – the coastline of this area is just on the doorstep.