Boasting the largest concentration of military personnel in the U.S. alongside lots of retirees, San Diego, California’s second-largest city, has long suffered a straight-laced, sleepy reputation: “Blandiego,” as some have teased. Indeed, for a long time it was just that. But no more.
In today’s San Diego, one finds all of the top-tier dining, drinking, and cultural offerings befitting a city that calls itself “America’s finest.” And though the sparkling Pacific coast is integral to its splendor, San Diego shines with more than just sand and sun. It is no mere beach destination.
The food and cocktail scene has soared over the last few years, with a bevy of impressive upstarts and the Michelin stars to prove it. And its cultural offerings, from a top-notch theater scene to plenty of great comedy and music clubs, make for an endless list of activities. San Diego is a generally easy-going place: folks are friendly, active, and not particularly concerned with fashion or punctuality. In most places at most times, flip flops will do. But that doesn’t mean San Diegans don’t appreciate nice things–quite the contrary.
San Diego, which stretches far beyond the immediate downtown area, is a city of neighborhoods. Among the skyscrapers, one of the nicest and most centrally located hotels is the Pendry, a part of a new line of luxury hotels from Montage International. Located in the Gaslamp, San Diego’s nightlife capital, it manages north of 300 rooms, including three dozen suites, fusing old-fashioned luxury with modern SoCal chic.
For something farther removed from the urban jungle, there is Rancho Valencia, an extravagantly luxurious home-away-from-home, done up in Spanish colonial opulence. It features 39 casitas, each with its own dipping pool, an award-winning spa and elegant and long, sun-lit swimming pools, all within 45 beautifully landscaped acres. The Mediterranean-inspired restaurant Veladora is absolutely not to be missed; order the lobster ravioli with passionfruit for a taste of the divine. Afterwards, hit The Pony Room to sample one of its 100 tequila varieties.
Also offering plenty of solitude but at a much larger scale is the Fairmont Grand Del Mar, an opulent gem among rolling green hills reminiscent of a Spanish palace. Featuring a two-Michelin-starred restaurant–the Addison–a fantastic spa and golf course, the property is popular with attendees of horse races at the nearby Del Mar Fairgrounds; the cozy lobby area can become quite rambunctious. The sprawling property, with a palm-lined pool, features sparkling marble, roman columns, and stately paintings, and is surrounded by the picturesque Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve.
EAT & DRINK
San Diego dining is much more than tacos and french-fry-stuffed burritos (though there are plenty of those.) Fine dining here hits a sweet spot of boasting exciting artistry without big city pretension. This bears out in spots like Herb & Wood, a Mediterranean-inspired tapas place in Littly Italy that is both decadently chic and refreshingly laid-back; order the grilled Spanish octopus.
For something a bit more formal but also gastronomically playful there is Animae, a glittering art deco Asian fusion spot across from the San Diego bay waterfront. Coal-fired dishes are inspired by Asian street food like the scrumptious roast duck with pineapple and the caviar shrimp toast. The cocktails, too, are heavenly, such as the A5 Old Fashioned, which features “wagyu fat-washed bourbon.”
In the trendy Mission Hills neighborhood there is Fort Oak, an upscale seasonal-focused spot, which, like Animae, is recently Michelin-approved. The seafood-heavy dining is superb–ahi crudo, scallop aguachile, rockfish tiradito–but don’t sleep on the cocktails and definitely don’t skip dessert, specifically the cinnamon roll bread pudding.
For cocktails worth writing home about, get a reservation at the uber-exclusive Young Blood, a hidden bar on the outskirts of the Gaslamp with a three-course cocktail experience. From the same design outfit, Consortium Holdings, comes another over-the-top speakeasy, Raised By Wolves in La Jolla, which requires entry through a spinning fireplace; prepare to be impressed. For smaller bites there is Wayfarer, in sunny seaside Bird Rock, the best bakery in town, hands down. The gelato soars at An’s Dry Cleaning, a cheeky gelateria with an ever-rotating spread of flavors. And, finally, a taco recommendation: Salud, in Barrio Logan for the al pastor.
Marine activities are legion in San Diego: snorkeling in La Jolla cove with leopard sharks, sea turtles, and sea lions; surfing the friendly break at Tourmaline; sunbathing on the sprawling, soft sands of Coronado beach. But there are plenty of other, drier things to get outside for. At the Torrey Pines Gliderport, near the famous golf course, leap off the ocean cliffs in a tandem paraglider, a heart-pumping way to survey the coast (falconry lessons are also on offer).
In the winter months, gray whale watching is a delightful way to spend a morning or afternoon. Animal lovers can also hit the world-famous San Diego Zoo, though even more thrilling is the zoo’s 1,800-acre Safari Park to snap elephants, rhinos, giraffes, and other megafauna in open field habitats, like you’re on the Kenyan savannah itself.
In the evening, check out a comedy show at the Balboa Theater or a play or concert at the historic Spreckels Theatre. Smaller productions are on offer at the excellent La Jolla Playhouse. Music aficionados can venture into the Observatory in the hipster-friendly North Park neighborhood for indie rock bands or the Belly Up Tavern for folksier acts.
For museum-lovers, there are over a dozen occupying the spacious, leafy grounds of Balboa Park, including the Natural History Museum and the stunning Museum of Us, which features an impressive anthropological collection.