36 Hours in San Diego

Explore the sunny, coastal city of San Diego through Julia Bennett's many food, beach, and relaxation recommendations.

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For my first trip to Southern California, I could not have asked for better weather, food, or scenery. After my early morning flight touched down in sunny San Diego, the only thing I could think of was my desperate need for caffeine, and San Diego did not disappoint. As this was a mother-daughter trip and my mom shares my coffee addiction, we made our way to The Grounds Bean Bar. This coffee shop, located in downtown San Diego, features local roasts and fresh, organic breakfasts. While they are known for their innovative drinks such as the turmeric latte and raspberry kombucha bomb, I decided to indulge in their classic cappuccino and found that even the simple menu items were delicious!

After recharging we were ready to hit the road and take in some of the stunning scenery San Diego has to offer. Just a short twenty-five minute drive from Downtown lies Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. It was our first time there, and we found parking (barely) at the North Beach Lot. However, if you do not have a lot of time and want to maximise your awe inspiring views, set your GPS to the Torrey Pines lodge. This puts you right in the center of the park with easy access to the best trailheads. After a short and steep hike up to the top, breathtaking views of the Pacific awaited us. One of our favorite trials was the Guy Fleming Trail, the first one you bump into after making the ascent. This easy ¾ mile loop stops at two of the most breathtaking outlooks I have ever seen and is a great place to stop for a picture. Another trail that provides a mesmerising view is the Red Bute Trail. This popular detour brings you to the peak of one of the parks imposing red rocks. From the top you get a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean. There are miles more of trails to explore in Torrey Pines and while we only spent a few hours, you could easily spend an entire day exploring.

Next up on our agenda was a scenic drive. No trip to California is complete without a drive along the Pacific Coast Highway. With this in mind, we made our way North stopping in the cute coastal towns of Cardiff by the Sea, Del Mar Village, and Encinitas. In Cardiff by the Sea a stop at V.G. Donut and Bakery is a must; this locally owned business greets everyone with a smile and provides the most delicious sugar rush after a morning of hiking. As we continued to make our way North, not even ten minutes away, we stumbled upon Del Mar Village. While Del Mar Village is perhaps best known for its charming European-esque architecture, their shopping was also a stand out feature. Pebbles by the Beach is a cute store to pop into and carries a colorful array of swimsuits, cover ups, and other beach accessories. If that is not quite your vibe, then try St Peter’s Thrift Shop down the street which is filled with unsuspecting treasures. And, if you happen to be visiting on a Saturday, as we were, make apoint of checking out their Farmer’s Market. Laden with fresh produce, local crafts, and sweets, it was my favorite stop while in Del Mar Village.

The final town we visited along the Pacific Coast Highway was Encinitas, an eclectic beach community filled with cute boutiques and tasty spots for lunch. Encinitas is home to San Diego’s Botanical Garden and hosts over four miles of trails to wander along and numerous scenic outlooks. Salt Collection, Swirl Boutique, Earth’s Elements, and Pink Soul are just a sampling of the cute stores that fill the town to the brim. When your stomach begins to grumble and you are ready for lunch, there are plenty of options waiting for you. If you are craving an authentic SoCal taco and willing to wait in line, try the Taco Stand. This local favorite always has a line out the door. However, if tacos are not quite your thing or you are too impatient to wait, try Bier Garden. With its spacious outdoor seating and an extensive menu, there is truly something for everyone.

After a jam-packed day of hiking, navigating San Diego’s highways, and shopping we slowly made our way back to downtown San Diego.  The Pacific Coast Highway provided a dramatic backdrop for taking in the colorful sunset. After a quick pit stop at the hotel for an outfit change and chance to drop off our suitcases, we set out to explore one of San Diego’s most historic neighborhoods, the Gaslamp Quarter. The boisterous Gaslamp Quarter is packed into just sixteen blocks and is brimming with Victorian architecture, restaurants, shops, and bars. It is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary truly making it the historic heart of San Diego. La Puerta is the place to go if you are craving Mexican food or did not make it to the Taco Stand earlier in the day. They are known for street style tacos with a twist. But, if you have already had your fill of tacos or just are not quite craving Mexican food, try de Medici, an Italian restaurant serving up old warm charm and innovative pasta dishes perfect for San Diego’s Coastal setting. Either way you might pass out after your jam filled day (as I did)!

Asanother gorgeous sunrise filled our hotel room we were excited for all the coming day had to offer. Deciding that no trip to San Diego is complete without visiting the beautiful La Jolla Cove, known for its dramatic outlooks and sea lion population, we decided to start there. The Coast Walk Trail is the perfect way to explore all the natural beauty that La Jolla has to offer without attempting too strenuous of a hike. It takes you all the way from La Jolla Cove to La Jolla Shores on a mostly flat path, perfect if you plan on exploring the town afterwards, grabbing a nice lunch, or didn’t bring serious hiking gear. For those more inclined for adventure there is an opportunity to climb down to the cove that would challenge even the most frequent hikers. This outlook truly gives you a unique perspective on the cove and all it has to offer. While ambling along the beach path, make sure to head down and get a close look at the sea lions. There are so many of them soaking up the sun on the beach that you can get close enough to touch them, it makes for the perfect photo opportunity!

My favorite town we stopped in by far was La Jolla. From it’s cute boutiques, to big name stores, and adorable cafes and restaurants, I could have spent many more hours wandering around its streets. If you are looking for the perfect pick me up, look no further than Fruittitude. This smoothie, juice, and pastry bar has some of the most inventive and delicious drinks I have ever tried. I would highly recommend the Hawaiian Smoothie, a mixture of mango, pineapple, strawberry, and Greek yogurt or the fresh watermelon Slush. After you have appeased your sweet tooth, head to Rica Boutique, a cute clothing store carrying a wide range of pieces on Girard Boulevard. After, make your way to Warwick’s (which brands itself as the oldest family run bookstore in the U.S.), and finish up your shopping spree with a stop at Hi Sweetheart. This eclectic space has everything from clothing to home decor to jewelry and something to pique everyone’s interest.

The next activity on our agenda was set at a calmer pace compared to our previous day and a half. We decided that the perfect way to end a short stay in San Diego was with a relaxing spa treatment. The Marilyn Monroe Spa at the Hyatt, located along the San Diego Bay, is the perfect place for such relaxation. Choose from a wide offering of massages, facials, hair treatments, and more. I opted for the standard relaxation massage, but was told that the signature massage was one of the most popular treatments. Luckily, the spa is located adjacent to the 18+ pool, so once your pampering is complete head outside to soak up the last of the late afternoon rays and grab a drink from the bar area.

To end the evening, take a walk around Seaport Village, nestled along the bay. The Village is made up of colorful huts filled with every type of shopping you could imagine. From Christmas themed, to souvenir, to jewellery, the stores there do offer something for everyone. And with the cool, California breeze and amazing views of the bay, it is an idyllic way to wind down your time in San Diego.

To conclude, no trip to this coastal oasis is complete without sampling the local seafood, for dinner head to Sally’s, a seafood and sushi restaurant nestled just a few feet past Seaport Village. Sally’s has expansive outdoor seating and floor to ceiling windows, so even if you are inside you can take advantage of the view. Their menu is filled with delicious fresh eats, but I recommend the raw tuna tostada and red snapper. Both are delicious and provide the perfect endnote to an amazing weekend away. I am already dreaming about my future tuna tostada and red snapper, and planning my next trip back to Southern California.

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