Updated September 2020
San Diego is famous for Top Gun, Sea World and the Zoo, but as I am boycotting Sea World and also found the Zoo a bit traumatic after seeing the polar bear in his tiny concrete quarters several years ago, this post features six cool and quirky things to do in San Diego – without those last two. But yes, you have to have a Top Gun fix!
Three picturesque hours by train from Los Angeles down the Pacific coast sits San Diego, close to the border of Mexico for a day trip to Tijuana if you run out of things to do in the big smoke.
1. Gaslamp Quarter
This historic neighbourhood of 16 blocks and 94 Victorian buildings was built circa 1880 and dotted with, you guessed it, gas street lamps.
This is where you go for shopping, eating and a vibrant nightlife. It’s also near the Padres ballpark so fans congregate in one of the many bars, clad in their team strip, to down a few beers before (and after) the game.
FYI: when you visit San Diego, you’re a fan of the Chargers in football season, or the Padres during the baseball months. (Well, we from New Zealand had no other allegiance so went all in!)
The shops open about 11am till late and with 145 restaurants and nightclubs with every taste from tapas to Italian, dance floors to cocktail lounges, you’ll not be disappointed.
This would be a fun part of town to stay in too. See my recommendation for which hotel at the end.
2. Visit Kansas City Barbecue
This is your Top Gun moment! If you’re looking for the Top Gun bar, it’s located opposite the Manchester Grand Hyatt (where we stayed a couple nights in the Gaslamp Quarter).
Kansas City Barbecue not only has great barbecue and if there’s a game on you’ll be all amongst it, but this is the bar made famous in the 1986 hit movie Top Gun.
You remember the scene where Meg Ryan and Goose sing Great Balls of Fire before her iconic line, “Goose! Take me to bed or lose me forever”? It was filmed here. The best decision the owners made, they say.
Today the bar is filled with movie memorabilia as well as police patches from all over the US and beyond. And as I was traveling with my husband, aka the Thin Blue Line, we added the New Zealand police shoulder flash to the wall. Prizes for anyone who can find it!
3. Tour the USS Midway
This retired aircraft carrier will enthrall every male no matter his age, and doesn’t do too badly with females either.
The admission price gets you an audio tour on a supplied headset and off you’ll go, climbing up narrow ladders and through hallways, past crew sleeping quarters and onto the flight deck where several planes are parked including the Skyhawk alongside the Top Gun F14 Tomcat.
I don’t want to stereotype, but you could send the boys here while you try a massage or hit the shops?
4. Swim with sharks
You can actually swim or snorkel with leopard sharks for free at La Jolla Beach, San Diego! And there’s nothing to fear, these guys are harmless. Also known as the tiger shark, they grow to four or five feet long and spend about six months each year here to feed and breed.
The best time to see them – or jump in and swim with them – is from June to the end of September/early October, with August being the peak. But don’t worry if you’re here at other times, as there are typically more than 100 here year round and you can even take a boat tour to snorkel with them.
They typically hang out in the shallow waters of La Jolla Cove looking for food and a mate and are more scared of you than you are of them! There are life guards and as with any wild animal, you’re not allowed to touch them.
If you don’t have your own snorkelling gear you can join a local tour company and rent theirs.
5. Old fashioned drive-in movie
If you’re looking for things to do at night in San Diego, drive-in movies are having a renaissance! But if you are like us and took the train to San Diego from Los Angeles, you’d have to rent a car for the night just to see the movie(!)
But for those of you with wheels, this is a fun night out in America’s finest city. Not to mention, just the ticket for social distancing!
There are two drive-in movie theatres in San Diego: Santee Drive-In Theatre, since 1962 but now with digital screens and sound. It’s open seven nights a week no matter the weather. Bring your own food or buy burgers and snacks on site. Sound is broadcast on your car radio – so make sure it’s working.
And South Bay Drive-In Theatre, since 1953, 20-minutes from San Diego. It’s been upgraded with three 100-foot digital screens and sound and also sells snacks and food. Sound is via your radio, so they suggesting bringing an FM radio lest your car battery run flat. FYI, both theatres have jumper leads!
6. Visit Old Town
For the best Mexican food this side of the border!
The winner of best Mexican restaurant in San Diego for 18 years in a row is Café Coyote. They have over 100 different tequilas, although by no means the largest on the street, apparently. It’s the busiest restaurant on this one street that makes up the tourist part of Old Town.
Our server recommended his favourite dishes so we had the El Ray – carnitas carne asada (pork and beef) served with refried beans, rice, guacamole and sour cream to fold into fajitas. It was delicious. We also got chipotle camarones – a spicy dish of large shrimp sautéed in a chipotle cream sauce and served with refried beans and rice.
There are a lot more things to do in Old Town San Diego than just food though! Make some time to shop, get amongst the history, take in some live music and if you strike it right, some cool events might be on.
Where to stay in San Diego
Book a bayside bungalow at Paradise Point where the sand is literally at your front door. Light a fire in the fire pit in the evening and sit there with marshmallows on sticks you can buy from the hotel store.
This is such a luxurious spot. We stayed here during our honeymoon and absolutely loved it.
This hotel is my pick for being close to everything you want in the city.
Plus it’s on the water with great views of the bay and right beside Seaport Village for boutique shopping and outdoor dining.
They also have a rooftop pool area with hot tubs and a children’s playground.
You might also like to read my post on driving the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco!