Exploring and experiencing San Diego like a true local in one day. Over the years we have visited San Diego several times. It is definitely a city we enjoy returning to each time to explore and experience. However, on previous trips to this laid back city with perfect weather we found ourselves essentially doing a lot of the same things every time.
A walk around the Gaslamp quarter, coffee in Little Italy, lunch in Old Town San Diego, admiring the historic Hotel del Coronado, and getting sand on our feet at Coronado Beach. We can’t forget one of our favorite places to visit has always been Balboa Park. It has amazing offerings of museums, gardens, and is home of the famous San Diego Zoo.
On our recent filming trip to San Diego, we were lucky enough to get one whole day to explore more of what San Diego has to offer. We wanted to find out what locals would do in their hometown on days off.
Since we wanted more local insight into what to do and where to go on our one free day in San Diego, we asked two local residents Rob Hammer and Marc Bennett. Rob is the photographer and author of “Barbershops of America,” and Marc is the owner of Pappy’s Barber Shop.
Between Rob and Marc, we were given a great list of suggestions of places to visit and places to eat. We were not sure if we would have enough time in the day to hit all of the places. So with camera in hand, we set off to experience locally suggested things to do in San Diego!
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Where To Stay In San Diego
On this trip we decided to stay close to the airport. The main reason for this was that we needed a place with available parking yet was close to downtown San Diego. We opted to stay at the Hampton Inn & Suites San Diego Airport Liberty Station as the price was competitive. Check out the availability and prices for this hotel at Booking.com. In addition, we have Hilton membership cards to collect points that we can use later.
Over the years, when we visited San Diego we have found ourselves staying in different areas. Mission Valley area is probably good if you have a car and prefer to stay in a modern chain hotel with available parking. Hotels in downtown San Diego can get very expensive.
One place we stayed at a couple times over the years is La Pensione Hotel in Little Italy. The rooms are small and the parking was challenging. In addition, pricing has increased over the years since our last stay. However, we really enjoyed the Little Italy location. Check out the availability and prices for this hotel at Booking.com.
Chula Vista which is the area a little south of downtown San Diego is also worth considering if you are on a budget. The hotels in this area are definitely more affordable. Even if you don’t have a car, the area is accessible from San Diego with the light rail. Just remember if you’re using public transportation you need to budget a little extra time.
The hotel we had stayed at and liked in the Chula Vista area is El Primero Hotel. This is a cute Art Deco style hotel that is family owned and operated. The rooms can be on the small side. However, the bonus is they have a wonderful breakfast available to enjoy on their patio. Check out the availability and prices for this hotel at Booking.com.
Have A Bite To Eat At Liberty Public Market
Every day should begin with the perfect pick me up. I may be more of coffee dude in the morning but as we were going to be spending the day running around, we decided to start with a filling breakfast.
Rob told us about the Liberty Station area as a place to hangout, meet friends, and do some shopping. The whole area has been gentrified into a pedestrian friendly concentration of restaurants, cafes, and boutique shops.
It’s actually the old navy barracks and you can see this when you’re going through. Imagine the wide open areas of Liberty Station park in the days they would have been used for parades and training exercises. These days you are more likely to see people on scooters and families taking strolls on warm sunny afternoons. This park is great to sit down and just take in the fresh air.
Head into Liberty Public Market which is one of the larger old buildings. It has been converted into a hip space of eateries, bars, and specialty shops. There are a variety of vendors to choose from including seafood, gourmet tacos, Korean BBQ, ramen, Thai food, Peruvian cuisine, pizza, and fresh smoothies. Liberty Public Market is open 7 days a week.
The day before we had a bite to eat with Rob Hammer at the Stone Brewing World where we dived into a plate of street tacos.
This morning we headed to “Olala Crepes” for a sweet and savory fix. We ordered the savory Je Suis President Crepe made with bacon, Brie, mozzarella, tomatoes, and spinach. As well as a sweet A La Folie Crepe filled with Nuttella, bananas, and strawberries.
Seating is limited to a small counter but there’s other communal seating in the building.
Explore Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
A little north of San Diego yet still within city limits is Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. The reserve is 1750 acres of land that will give you a good idea as to what San Diego looked like before it became the metropolis it is today. The reserve is one of the wildest stretches of land remaining on southern California’s coastline and an important refuge to many animals.
Access is on the north end of the park just off of Highway 21. We parked near the visitor center lodge and took a stroll towards razor point to get a feel for the reserve. Definitely very popular with locals who use it daily as a place to hike along the trails and workout in the fresh air.
If you’re more interested in just accessing the beach, the nearest parking is just north of the entrance. Here you can access the beach to walk along the ocean front.
Having spent a little time exploring, which I have to admit consisted mainly of checking out the many spots to sit taking in views, it was time to head into La Jolla for some refreshments. Our destination was a popular quirky little coffeehouse called “Pannikin” which happens to be Welsh for a small cooking pot.
Stop For A Coffee Break At Pannikin
Thanks so much to Rob for suggesting this little coffee house! One little shop with great coffee, tasty brunch options, and all the essence we seek in the barbershops we film at!
Pannikin has been a fixture in La Jolla for over fifty years. An eclectic sanctuary for artists, castaways, and romantics. The café character organically grew over the years since the seeds of its roots were first placed when founder Bob Sinclair’s car broke down in town back in 1968.
Bob decided to stay in La Jolla and over time Pannikin evolved from his eclectic style and love of taking time for coffee and conversation. From the inside out, Pannikin reflects Bob’s love of restoring, fixing, and preserving the “old”around us. Check out the interior artwork, especially the bright red motorcycle hanging above the open fireplace.
We stopped for coffee and a light bite to eat. We found Pannikin’s breakfast and lunch menu offers a variety of opportunities to taste the bounty of locally sourced farm produce.
Discover Balboa Park
Over the years, all of our visits to San Diego have never been complete unless we spent some time in Balboa Park. There is something for everybody here.
Balboa Park is the home to seventeen museums including The San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego National History Museum, Museum of Man, and Museum of Photographic Arts. All situated within a short walking distance along the parks El Prado. Take your time and check out at least one that piques your curiosity. The best part about having such a high concentration of museums within this park setting is that there is plenty of space just to take a break and rest.
100 acres of Balboa Park is home to the world famous San Diego Zoo. On a previous trip, we easily spent an entire day at the zoo. Open seven days a week, the zoo pioneered the concept of open air natural habitats and is now home to over 3,000 animals from around the world.
Typically we park on the Park Laurel side of Balboa Park then walk across Cabrillo Bridge. One of the two spots we revisited this time was the Botanical Building with its collection of exotic plant life. The building with its Lily Pond out front is probably one of the most iconic and most photographed spots in the whole of Balboa Park.
Just to one side of the Lily Pond is Timken Museum of Art. Probably overlooked by a lot of out of town visitors. This museum of only five rooms has been named one of the best small art museums in the world. Admission is free and aside from the permanent collections hosts a number of temporary exhibits.
Enjoy The Roses And Desert Blooms
Across the road from the Natural History Museum and the Science Center is the other spot we always find ourselves visiting while in town. Balboa Park Rose Garden boasts over 100 species coming to full bloom during April and May every year. The Rose Garden is a favorite spot for wedding photographers.
A lovely addition since our last visit is a Desert Garden right next to the Rose Garden. Meander the short desert loop and take in the unusual shapes, textures, and colors of cacti. Get close up with your camera for that interesting macro photo shot. The resulting abstract images are more revealing after some time has passed.
Vegetarian Food In San Diego
If you have noticed in our videos with Marc at Pappy’s Barber Shop, Marc is a vegetarian. So it was not surprising when we asked for local recommendations, Marc quickly came up with a couple tasty restaurant options.
Jhyoti Bihanga in the Normal Heights area of San Diego is run by students of Indian spiritual leader Sri Chinmy who taught meditation in the USA. The restaurant has been around since the late eighties and offers an all you can eat Sunday breakfast buffet for less than $15.00. As we discovered, it’s a good idea to verify their hours before planning a visit. The restaurant is closed for a couple weeks each year for a meditation retreat.
Marc also recommended Plumeria in the College Heights area. It’s a few minutes drive from Balboa Park but is accessible by public transport with a little walk and transfer. Located on Park Boulevard the community provides a cozy respite to rest and recharge.
Plumeria serves up a variety of classic Thai dishes with a vegetarian twist. I say if you go vegetarian then you have to go with the fried tofu. The tofu is organic non-GMO and locally produced. All dishes are prepared daily using organic produce as much as possible.
We were not disappointed with the Spicy Noodles. A dish of wide rice noodles, fried tofu, carrots, bell peppers, onions, and basil sautéed in a chili garlic sauce. The second dish we ordered was the Penang Curry with brown rice. A flavorful spicy curry with coconut milk simmered over carrots, bell peppers and fried tofu. We also enjoyed Thai iced tea before heading back into downtown San Diego.
Take An Evening Stroll Around Little Italy
Our last recommendation for the day was a local coffee shop located in San Diego’s Little Italy. We are a little more familiar with this community as we have stayed in Little Italy a couple times before. We have always enjoyed spending time in this area with its cafes and restaurants enticing locals and tourists alike. The community is also home to several boutique shops.
Bird Rock Coffee Roasters
We were heading to Bird Rock Coffee Roasters on Kettner Boulevard. This coffeehouse chain has six locations in the vicinity of San Diego including La Jolla, Torrey Pines, and Pacific Beach. Bird Rock brings fair trade coffee in a bustling yet relaxed hangout.
I like how this company strongly works with building community not only around the coffeehouse locations, but also through engaging in direct trade with Coffee bean farmers. The company believes in the importance of giving back to the farmers and communities they operate in.
“it’s important to be part of something bigger than ourselves” -Bird Rock Coffee Roasters
The menu focuses on basic needs; coffee without the frilly stuff! I ordered my usual caffeine kick, a simple latte.
The interior of Bird Rock has an open airy communal workspace atmosphere. A bit of a minimalist feel that makes it an ideal place to sit down with coffee in hand and a laptop or a book for work.
Go Vintage Shopping In Little Italy
Then, we took a stroll around Little Italy just to see what’s different and what’s new. There is one shop we were happy to see was still there. If you are vintage lovers like us, then you will enjoy having a look around Architectural Salvage of San Diego. Also located on Kettner Boulevard up the street from Bird Rock Coffee Roasters.
This shop has been in business since the nineties and is a premier supplier of assorted treasures. Whether you are working on a restoration project or just have an appreciation for architectural salvage, this is the place for you. The inventory is constantly changing, but the motivation is consistent.
Architectural Salvage of San Diego focuses on conservation and the reuse of materials. Reputed to amaze who stop in the shop, there is something interesting and unique for all. From doors and door knobs to watering cans and bottle openers.
Looking for an eclectic one-of-a-kind treasure to remind yourself of your travels to San Diego? Then this will be the place to find it! Forget the typical tourist knickknacks. Here there’s a good chance you’ll discover something that could be a beautiful unique addition to your home. As well as a great conversation piece for years to come.
Thank you so much to Rob Hammer and Marc Bennett for all the great local tips you shared for a wonderful day in San Diego! We got to see new parts of town and experience some new eateries and coffee shops we would love to visit again. Hope you will find some of these local suggestions useful as well when you are planning your trip to San Diego.