This is one of those cities with so many great neighborhoods — laid-back Little Italy, the lively Gaslamp Quarter, beachy Coronado across San Diego Bay — that it’s hard to decide which one to land in. In such cases, I often split my time between two hotels. In San Diego, that meant basing the front half of the trip on Coronado and the back half in Little Italy. And, of course, there were some Lyft rides hither and yon, too.
Happily, San Diego, although it’s packed with about 1.5 million residents and there seems to be a new condo building going up on every corner, is compact. Even the airport is right at the edge of the city. Most Lyft rides were less than $10, even at peak times. So, no need to decide whether to spend your weekend in the city or at the beach. Do both.
My Montana friend Clare joined me for the first part of my trip, based in the independent city of Coronado, known as an island but really a peninsula (or “tied island,” if you prefer, connected at its southern end by a mere sliver), offering broad beaches where we took early morning walk-runs (she ran; I walked) amid purple sand dollars as we watched a few locals dig for clams in the waves.
San Diego touts its mostly consistent sunny-and-70s weather, and that prevailed for six of my nine days. The other three, though, were quite chilly, especially in the early morning, and occasionally rainy. Yeah, poor us. We put on jackets.
Off the beach, we found good food and shopping on Coronado, scoring sandals at Birkenstock and thriving on garlicky grilled oysters at Brigantine, overflowing lobster rolls at Lobster West, nicely garnished swordfish tacos at Costa Azul, deftly made oysters Rockefeller at Bluewater Boathouse Seafood Grill, and tender duck a l’orange at Chez Loma.
Best happy hours: We loved Stake Chophouse & Bar, a breezy rooftop indoor-outdoor steakhouse. We didn’t want to spoil a dinner reservation elsewhere, so we merely ordered up a bowl of the best-seasoned popcorn I’ve ever had to accompany our drinks. The perfect people-watching perch is Leroy’s Kitchen & Lounge, where we enjoyed a glass of Vinho Verde one afternoon as humanity strolled past our sidewalk table. And, of course, it’s mandatory to do a cocktail hour overlooking the beach at one of the bars at Hotel Del Coronado, Coronado’s huge, historic hotel anchor. Don’t sit on one of the couches, though, unless you can commit to $100 per person.
The Del, as the hotel is known, is a grand resort, and it’s fun to stroll through the lobby and look at photos on the wall, some featuring the hilarious “Some Like It Hot,” which famously was filmed there. But the Del is seriously expensive (midweek summer queen rooms start at $522), so we based across the street at the delightful El Cordova Hotel, where Clare and I split the $179 rate for our small but comfortable and recently renovated room, well planned, with a coffee pot and safe. It backed up to an alley, though, so it was loud. We found the hotel’s verdant courtyard, complete with fountain, charming and its house restaurant, Miguel’s Cocina, the right spot for two Mexican food lovers to sate our cravings. Its margaritas were perfectly tart, too.
Clare and I tried to go whale watching one day (Seaforth Sportfishing charges just $28 per person), but the seas were too rough, and we were given a rain check. For future reference: Whales can be watched in both winter and summer, we were told. Different whales in different seasons.
We hit the San Diego Zoo on a perfect day, though: a chilly weekday, when crowds were thinner and the animals, including two pandas, seemed roused by the brisk air and were roaming friskily. This is a big zoo, so plan to spend the day here. A fish-and-chips lunch at Albert’s, the zoo’s sit-down restaurant, bridged our day nicely.
The zoo is part of the 1,200-acre Balboa Park, filled with 17 museums (some of them free) in California Mission Revival style and tropical landscaping to stroll. Myriad ticket packages are available. A seven-day combo ticket is $100. One day at the zoo is $60. But many museums are free, as is basic entry to the park. If nothing else, spend a day strolling the park grounds. I did during the second half of my trip.
My Montana friend had to head home, so my husband, John, flew in for the second half of my San Diego expedition, based on the mainland in Little Italy, where you can’t swing a house-made noodle without hitting an Italian restaurant, from the long-standing family-friendly Filippi’s Pizza Grotto (first-rate pizza, groaning with ingredients) to the high-end Bencotto Italian Kitchen, where we dived into squid-ink linguini and rich pumpkin tortelli.
Italian’s not the only cuisine though. We loved the oyster happy hour ($1 West Coast oysters) and po’boys at Ironside Fish & Oyster Bar and the ramen and sashimi cakes at Underbelly.
Our Little Italy base was La Pensione, a friendly air-conditioned contemporary boutique perched at Date and India streets, dead-center of restaurant row, and yet, somehow, nights were quiet, after a nightly fireworks display in the distance at Sea World, perfectly visible from our window. A huge benefit to staying here is a daily ticket for coffee and a big, freshly made pastry next door at Caffe Italia. We paid $129 a night, booked well in advance.
Saturday morning, we walked out the hotel’s front door into the farmers market that covers Date Street, offering beautiful vegetables, fruits, cheese and more.
We zipped over to the Gaslamp Quarter to mill amid the club-hopping mob and roamed out near the airport with San Diego friends for beautifully overstuffed fish tacos and cioppino (good, though it lacked crab) at Blue Water Seafood Market and Grill, a longtime staple of San Diego dining, unrelated to the Coronado place of similar name. The same friends also drove us around to Harbor Island (also a peninsula) on the other side of the airport out to C Level Lounge, where we got lost in a silky lobster bisque with a view of the skyline as a backdrop.
On our last day, we took the 15-minute ferry (only $4.75 each way) back to Coronado to wave goodbye to the beach and get a good view of the city from the water. I’d sung the praises of Chez Loma, so John felt entitled to a duck a l’orange of his own. He got it.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Southwest Airlines flies nonstop Austin-San Diego daily.
El Cordova Hotel and Miguel’s Cocina, 1351 Orange Ave., elcordovahotel.com
Brigantine, 1333 Orange Ave., brigantine.com
Lobster West, 1033 B Ave., No. 102, lobsterwest.com
Costa Azul, 1031 Orange Ave., costazulcoronado.com
Bluewater Boathouse Seafood Grill, 1701 Strand Way, bluewatergrill.com
Chez Loma, 1132 Loma Ave., chezloma.com
Stake Chophouse & Bar, 1309 Orange Ave., stakechophouse.com
Leroy’s Kitchen & Lounge, 1015 Orange Ave., leroyskitchenandlounge.com
Hotel Del Coronado, 1500 Orange Ave., hoteldel.com
In San Diego’s Little Italy
La Pensione Hotel, 606 W. Date St., lapensionehotel.com
Filippi’s Pizza Grotto, 1747 India St., realcheesepizza.com
Bencotto Italian Kitchen, 750 W. Fir St., #103, lovebencotto.com
Ironside Fish & Oyster Bar, 1650 India St., ironsidefishandoyster.com
Underbelly, 750 W. Fir St., #101, godblessunderbelly.com
Balboa Park, San Diego, balboapark.org
Seaforth Sportfishing (for whale watching), 1717 Quivira Road, seaforthlanding.com
Blue Water Seafood Market and Grill, 3667 India St., bluewaterseafoodsandiego.com
C Level Lounge, 880 Harbor Island Drive, cohnrestaurants.com