With San Diego turning 250 in 2019, the city and its surrounds have been shaping up a massive year of openings, new attractions and familiar favourites that ensure the coastal Southern Californian destination remains at the top of everyone’s vacation lists, as we head into Summer 2021. Here’s a guide to what you need to be doing this Summer in San Diego.
Editors Note: This article was originally published in February 2020, with many openings and activities cancelled due to Covid-19. As such, this article has been updated for 2021 – as California enjoys its reopening, and is now for our North American readers. But rest assured, San Diego will be ready to look after Australian travellers in 2022 when International travel resumes. So use this guide for some early inspiration…
Have a Mezcal experience at Tahona
With the city sitting around 30 kilometres from Tijuana and the Mexican border, it should come as little surprise that this is one of the best cities in America to find great Mexican food and drink. A refugee resettlement city, some 44% of the population is from Mexico (and, interestingly, 12% from the Philippines), in what is the 8th most populated city in America.
If you’re a fan of Mezcal – the national spirit of Mexico (it’s not Tequila, though both come from the Agave plant) – one of the best spots to visit is the Tahona Bar & Tasting room (2414 San Diego Ave), where they serve up no less than 120 types of Mezcal and offer up tasting experiences.
They’ve very much designed this place to make it feel like you’re at home from the minute that you walk in. They even offer a private mezcal locker program. So they – and the locals who come here – take this all very seriously. But if Mezcal isn’t your jam, don’t worry – you’ll have more than enough food to enjoy here too. This is some of the best upmarket Mexican food I’ve ever had. The Pulpo (Grilled Ocotpus), with pipián mole, is among the best dishes I’ve had in my life.
The people behind this amazing bar also just opened a speakeasy called “Oculto 477“. Oculto translates to “hidden”, while the number refers to the amount of bodies buried in the nearby cemetery. So expect a pretty unique time in this Prohibition-style bar.
Have a night out in the Gaslamp Quarter
Speaking of Prohibition-style bars, while you’re in San Diego, head to the Gaslamp Quarter and treat yourself to an amazing cocktail at the city’s long running speakeasy Prohibition (548 Fifth Avenue). Celebrating its ten year anniversary last year, they pride themselves on being the first modern speakeasy in San Diego, offering great live music (Shane Hall was performing when I visited, and was an amazing artist to see live), and incredible cocktails.
The head bartender Ryan Andrews really takes pride in classics like the Old Fashioned – which was absolutely perfect – using their own bitters, alongside some more unique cocktails of their own concoction.
If you are looking for a straighter drink, then a short walk away is The Whiskey House (420 Third Ave), who, with more than 3,300 whiskeys on offer in what is the most comically large alcohol menu you’ve ever seen, hold the Guinness World Record for the most Whiskeys for sale.
And if you’re looking for a good meal in the area, enjoy the farm-to-table Mediterranean cuisine at Cafe 21 (802 Fifth Avenue). The brussel sprouts were to die for, and we also enjoyed some live music courtesy of lounge crooner Roman Palacio delivering some standards.
Hang with the Sea Life in La Jolla
Head to the San Diego seaside district of La Jolla to visit the only sea cave on the California Coast you can access from land – the Sunny Jim Sea Cave.
The 100+ year old tunnel takes you right down through the cliffs of La Jolla Cove into a sea cave, over 145 steps. It’s a unique experience that every visitor to the area who’s physically able needs to enjoy. Though there’s amazing action against the waterfront all over the town. There are seals just about everywhere – and a smell that follows them too.
And while there, try and get a seat on the roof at George’s at the Cove, one of La Jolla’s best restaurants, with a view to boot!
And I know I was raving about the octopus at Tahona earlier in this article, but the dishes here are almost as good. Here though it’s under the banner of “New American Cuisine” from renowned chef Trey Foshee.
And that’s not all that you can do in La Jolla. While it’s been cancelled in 2020 and 2021, La Jolla Concours d’Elegance, will run April 22-24, 2022, and draw vintage car enthusiasts to the luxury seaside village. Look out for cocktail parties, VIP Steam Punk parties and the signature Concours d’Elegance car show. It’s all held at Scripps Park overlooking scenic La Jolla Cove.
And the Tony Award-winning La Jolla Playhouse on the campus of the University of California San Diego, will return with live performances from September 21st, 2021, with the world premiere of The Garden, by Charlayne Woodard. Another world premiere play will follow, with To The Yellow House from November 16th. Find the full details of the upcoming season here.
For more information about the region, head to lajollabythesea.com.
Take a ride on some of the oldest and newest roller coasters in America
Like many major cities in California, San Diego has its fair share of theme parks. In fact, this Summer you could ride one of the oldest roller coasters and newest in the same day! Start out on Mission Beach, with its three mile boardwalk and Belmont Park (3146 Mission Blvd) – which opened on July 4th, 1925. The Giant Dipper – also known as the Mission Beach Roller Coaster – was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978, one of only two historic wooden coasters on the West Coast (the other is the Giant Dipper in Santa Cruz, which was built the year prior). It remains a truly fun coaster and you can ride it for $7 or by way of a day pass that starts at $56 for adults and $46 for kids.
And it’s not the only coaster you’ll want to ride this year. SeaWorld San Diego is opening a new dive coaster this year. Named “Emperor”, after the world’s largest penguin, it will be the tallest, fastest and longest dive coaster in California and the only floorless dive coaster in the state, mimicking the species’ amazing underwater diving ability.
Climbing to 153 feet with feet dangling in the air, riders will be suspended on a 45-degree angle at the crown of the ride before plunging down a 143-foot facedown vertical drop while accelerating to more than 60 miles per hour. Riders will also experience inversions, a barrel roll, Immelmann loop, hammerhead turn and flat spin as they race along the nearly 2,500 feet of track. Find out more about the ride HERE.
Take a trip to Legoland
While on the subject of theme parks, about 40 minutes away from San Diego, in the city of Carlsbad is Legoland, who just enjoyed the biggest expansion in the park’s 21 year history.
The LEGO Movie World opened its doors on May 27th, 2021, based on the films of the same name. Expect to be fully immersed onto the streets of Bricksburg, with rides like Masters of Flight, where guests hop aboard Emmet’s triple decker flying couch for a thrill-seeking adventure. And there’s Unikitty’s Disco Drop, which will see you launched to the top of Cloud Cuckoo Land and then dropped, spun and bounced down to earth. Additionally, guests can explore Benny’s Play Ship, ride a fully reimagined carousel, and meet Emmet and friends in Emmet’s Super Suite apartment.
Guests can also check out the sets from the second film, which are on display at the park. The park is one of 8 Legolands worldwide (with a 9th soon to open this Summer in New York State), and the Californian location has been enjoying a wide range of updates in the last couple of years.
There’s been the addition of a Submarine ride, the Deep Sea Adventure, and a new hotel (The “Castle Hotel”) which both opened in April 2018. And you can always find their dragon coaster, and some 35 million bricks making up their “Miniland”, which sees their resident master builders re-create iconic cityscapes from around the world. For 8 years they even had a section dedicated to Star Wars…
And also in Carlsbad, if you’re looking for more family fun, the beautiful Flower Fields are on display March 1 through May 10, 2022, featuring 80 acres of Giant Tecolote Ranunculus flowers on coastal farmland overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Explore the museums at Balboa Park
Back in San Diego, no trip to the city is complete without a visit to Balboa Park. The 1,200 acre urban cultural park – the largest in all of the USA – is home to more than 16 museums, ensuring it rivals the Smithsonian on the East Coast.
The Air & Space Museum (open everyday 10am-4:30pm) could keep you occupied for hours, and the Automotive Museum (open Tues-Fri 11am-5pm, Sat-Sun 10am-5pm) which was celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2019 has a lot of treats, including one of the 9,200 produced 1981 Deloreans. And then there’s the Natural History Museum (open 10am-4pm, Fri-Tues), which has a rooftop bar – and there’s even an escape room!
There’s also arts venues, beautiful parks, trails and more. Learn more about everything on offer HERE.
Explore the Arts District Liberty Station
And finally, you have to spend some time at the former Navy Training Station, turned arts and culture precinct, the Arts District Liberty Station. The first buildings here reopened ten years ago, following three years of physical restoration – a process which continues to this day – and almost a decade of efforts to fund the project. All of this has saved some incredible 1923 California Architecture, as well as a big part of the city’s navy history, all for a new destination for arts culture and creativity. How good is that!
It’s truly a remarkable achievement, with the facilities – which stopped being used by the Navy in 1997 – being turned into a six screen cinema complex, museums, food halls, galleries, dance spaces, and Michelin star restaurants. They put on outdoor concerts and movies here, install an ice rink to the holidays – with plenty of room to do just about anything. There’s 125 acres of green space, 100 acres for the art district (which is literally covered in art – as you’ll see in the headline image of the article – even the benches are painted!), and still quite a lot of land that has yet to be re-developed. Still to come are projects like a new performing arts centre, and a hotel in the old barracks.
The museums on site include the Visions Art Museum (open Thurs-Sat 10am-2pm), which has four exhibitions a year featuring artists from all over the world (including Australia). The New Americans Museum (open Wed-Sun 11am-5pm) has two galleries – when I visited this included “Children of Immigrants”, part of the Museum’s focus to emphasise positive messaging about immigration, and making sure immigrants feel they belong, that they’re part of the American story. Given this is a city with a large refugee population, this makes a lot of sense. The other exhibition was “Between 2 Worlds”, which told stories of refugees from Laos.
Also check out the San Diego Watercolour Society Gallery (open Fri-Sun 11am-3pm), with new shows every month. There’s also the Women’s Gallery of California (open Sat-Sun 10am-5pm) and the MK Envision Photographic Gallery (open Sat-Sun 12-4pm) in one of the barracks building (#17) – an original structure from 1923. Here, they feature San Diego photographers as much as possible, and San Diego life.
And then there’s the Liberty Public Market, where you’ll find some of the best food in San Diego, and Stone Brewing (open Sun-Thurs 11am-9pm, Fri-Sat 11am-10pm) – where you’ll find some of the best beer. You’ll find plenty of local beer in the Mess Hall Bar (open Sun-Thurs 11am-7pm, Fri-Sat 11am-8pm, happy hour everyday 3-6pm) at the markets, including Modern Times’ Ice, which is one of my favourite beers from the region – an exceptional Pilsner. Come with an appetite, because you’re going to want to eat and drink everything you see there.
Getting around San Diego
You can easily jump in an Uber or a Lyft in San Diego, and there’s ample public transport options. It’s $2.50 for one way trips or $6 for a day pass on the efficient tram network, with most lines seeming to run every 15 minutes.
And make sure to take a cruise around San Diego Harbour. You never know what you’re going to see. In our case, it was dolphins and seals – lots of them! And Navy ships, of course.
Getting to San Diego
At the time of printing, casual international travel for Australians is not possible nor recommended until mid-2022.
If you’re flying into LAX, you can get the FlyAway shuttle to Union Station and get a regular train service to San Diego – on the Pacific Surfliner. It’s one of the most scenic rides in the world, and highly recommended. You can also fly direct to San Diego via Honolulu with Hawaiian Airlines, and many other US airlines will offer internal flights directly to San Diego Airport.
This trip was made possible with the support of San Diego Tourism. While in San Diego we stayed at the Intercontinental San Diego hotel. All photos by the author unless listed otherwise. All prices (in US$) and links were correct at the time of printing.