San Diego Neighborhoods & Towns
San Diego neighborhoods aren't traditionally defined districts, but they do have distinct personalities and attractions that separate them. Though not quite as well-known as San Francisco's neighborhoods, San Diego's various precincts offer a clear snapshot of the city's diverse cultural influences. Those who wish to get a better feel for the city should plan to explore a few of these eclectic districts while visiting.
Downtown and the Gaslamp Quarter
Sitting only a few miles southeast of the airport, downtown San Diego is a vibrant, bustling area filled with hotels, eateries and shopping venues. Most of downtown's activity is concentrated around Horton Plaza, a massive outdoor pavilion featuring restaurants, shops and nightlife spots. Downtown is also where you'll find the Gaslamp Quarter. This 16-block stretch is the epicenter for downtown San Diego's top restaurant and nightlife spots, boasting more than 100 restaurants, 40 bars and nightclubs and 100 retail shops. You'll also find several boutiques and art galleries, including the popular New Children's Museum. Part of the area's charm is the Victorian architecture that hearkens back to the neighborhood's days as San Diego's red light district in the 19th century.
East Village and Little Italy
San Diego's East Village has experienced a resurrection of sorts, thanks to the opening of Petco Park, home turf for the San Diego Padres MLB team. Situated just east of the Gaslamp Quarter, this emerging cultural precinct features new restaurants and live music venues.
About 2 miles northwest of East Village is where you'll find Little Italy. As its name suggests, this community is known for having some of the best Italian cuisine in the city.
Sitting just north of downtown is the 1,200-acre Balboa Park, which is probably the most visited of the city's neighborhoods. It's so vast and full of its own attractions; you could spend several days here and not see everything. In Balboa Park you'll find the Old Globe Theatre and the most popular San Diego museums (the park is often referred to as the "Smithsonian of the West" because of its abundance of museums). Plus, the park's beautiful gardens are perfect for afternoon strolls and family picnics. However, the main attraction is the world-famous San Diego Zoo, which is home to nearly 4,000 animals.
Old Town and Mission Valley
To experience what San Diego was like in its early years, head northwest from Balboa Park to Old Town. The first Spanish settlement on the U.S. West Coast is now a well-preserved state historic park, featuring 12 acres of museums, art galleries, shops, and of course, delicious Mexican cuisine. For a more complete history lesson, tag along on an Old Town heritage tour, during which costumed guides detail San Diego's founding.
Just north of Old Town is Mission Valley, home to a large number of the city's budget-friendly hotels. This a great place to stay if you're looking to save money without sacrificing location. You'll also find the upscale Fashion Valley mall, where high-end stores like Gucci and Jimmy Choo neighbor mainstream outposts like H&M and Gap.
Sitting across San Diego Bay from downtown, Coronado offers a luxurious respite from the hustle and bustle of central San Diego. Although residents refer to it as "The Island," Coronado is actually situated at the tip of a peninsula known as the Silver Strand. Here, you'll find the Naval Base Coronado; a military facility that has been in use since World War I, as well as a respectable stretch of sand that travelers say is quieter and cleaner than Mission Beach. Among the quaint shops and al fresco eateries in this beach town is its crown jewel: the Hotel del Coronado. If you don't have your own set of wheels to get across the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, you easily get across the bay via ferry. The ferry landing on the Coronado side is an attraction in itself, so stick around and explore the casual cafes and souvenir shops before venturing to the beach.
You'll likely make your way to this affluent stretch of coastline for a visit to the Torrey Pines State Reserve, or to try your hand at surfing the calm waves that crash against its shores. Situated a little more than 14 miles northwest of San Diego, La Jolla (a take on the Spanish word, "la joya," which translates to "the jewel") is full of luxurious charms, like upscale hotels and designer boutiques. You'll also find the award-winning La Jolla Playhouse here, as well as The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.
Known to locals simply as "O.B.," Ocean Beach is the personification of a laid-back Southern California beach town with a palpable hippie vibe (don't be surprised if you spot a VW van or two). Locals spend their days surfing, sunning and walking along the pier that extends for half a mile into the Pacific. Ocean Beach Pier is one of the few places within San Diego where you can fish without a California fishing license, so bring your rod and bait if you're hoping to reel in a big catch. Among the surf shops, taco stands and antique outposts, you'll also find an eclectic array of restaurants featuring patio seating and menus chock full of fresh seafood dishes.
Pacific Beach and Mission Beach
Pacific Beach and Mission Beach appeal to a younger crowd, thanks to the area's laid-back eateries and rowdy bars. Along the boardwalk that connects Pacific Beach with Mission Beach, you'll find a mélange of inline skaters, runners and beachgoers crowding the 3-mile walkway. When you're not playing in the surf, head to Belmont Park for carnival rides and a National Historic Landmark — a nearly 100-year-old roller coaster called the Giant Dipper.
In the 20th century, Barrio Logan was a safe retreat for Mexican residents escaping the revolution. Now, this area situated nearly 3 miles south of downtown plays host to San Diego's Hispanic community. You'll find plenty of authentic Mexican eateries (local favorites include Las Cuatro Milpas and Panchitas Bakery), along with a flourishing art scene in Chicano Park (located beneath the San Diego-Coronado Bridge overpass).
The hub of San Diego's LGBT community is in Hillcrest; an area situated about 3 miles north of downtown. During the city's annual Pride Festival, Hillcrest acts as the starting point for the parade. If you're not visiting during the festival, you should still make a point to visit Hillcrest for its lively, pedestrian-friendly scene. Here, casual eateries rub elbows with upscale restaurants, and vintage clothing stores complement the neighborhood's chic boutiques.
San Diego is a relatively safe city, especially compared to Los Angeles. Stay alert when walking around, especially downtown where San Diego's homeless population is mostly concentrated. The population doesn't hamper visitors' ability to comfortably enjoy the city, but you should exercise caution when around these individuals as some of them are law violators. The San Diego Tourism Authority also advises against offering any money to panhandlers because that is regarded as a short-term solution to a city-wide problem. If you're in San Diego for a convention, take off your badge when leaving the convention area to avoid being marked as a tourist.
When at the beach, you should take extra precautions to stay safe. Only swim at beaches with lifeguards and accompany your children in the water. Be especially cautious of San Diego's rip tides, which are notorious for pulling unsuspecting swimmers into danger. If you find yourself caught in a rip tide, do not panic. Swim parallel to shore and, once you feel you are out of the tide, swim toward shore. If you cannot make it to shore, wave your hands and shout toward the lifeguard stand. Never bring glass containers to the beach, and remember that alcohol is illegal at all beaches and parks in San Diego.