With 70 miles of coastline in San Diego, visitors often spend a lot of their vacation at the beach. But just east of the ocean is a network of charming neighborhoods that show off the city's diverse culture.
"San Diego is known as America's Finest City, and it's known by that moniker for a reason: Because it really encompasses the best of so many things about different cities," says Robert Marks, chief concierge at the Omni San Diego Hotel.
To help you discover the San Diego that locals love, U.S. News asked city experts to point the way to one-of-a-kind neighborhoods and nearby towns that visitors should know about. Here are six places that are sure to give you a taste of what San Diego has to offer.
North Park's charm is found in its mix of old and new. Flanking the northeastern corner of Balboa Park, this neighborhood is home to historic buildings – like the first local commercial high-rise, built in 1912, and a restored 1920s theater – as well as a multitude of hip bars, restaurants, shops, galleries and microbreweries.
[Read: 6 Breweries to Visit in San Diego.]
Local experts agree that North Park is currently one of San Diego's trendiest neighborhoods. Justin Robbins, chief concierge at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar, says the number and variety of nonchain restaurants make North Park a sought-after community. "It is definitely representative of our San Diego culture," he notes.
Robbins recommends checking out Underbelly, a trendy, industrial-style restaurant known for its ramen. "It often has lines around the corner," Robbins says. Another good option is Urban Solace, which has comfort food and a Bluegrass-themed brunch. Brett Hamblen, chief concierge at the Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa, says, "It feels like you're on Bourbon Street" in New Orleans.
Located on the southeast side of Balboa Park, South Park is known for its tranquil, tree-lined streets and mix of 1900s Craftsman-, bungalow- and Spanish-style homes.
"South Park is a very walkable community," Marks says. "There are fun little bars and clubs that have a very hipster vibe to them." Marks recommends the laid-back Station Tavern, which offers an outdoor area, communal table-style dining and a kid-friendly play area. Also great for people-watching and relaxation is Hamilton's Tavern. Andrew Tellez, chief concierge at The Westin San Diego, recommends this restaurant for its tap list of largely local and California brews.
South Park is also home to many art galleries, like the Studio Maureen & The Next Door Gallery, with affordable art created by local artists, and specialty shops like West Grove Collective, which prides itself on having staff who are eager and willing to talk to customers about the store's books and unique merchandise.
Known for its thriving LGBT community, Hillcrest has a vibrant and lively feel with weekly farmers markets and numerous cafes and coffee shops with outdoor patios. "Hillcrest has an open and urban vibe, with unique little stores, as well as a lot of thrift stores and quirky shops," Marks says.
Peyton Pierce, concierge at the Andaz San Diego, says that Hillcrest has plenty of fun activities. Specifically, she recommends going to a puzzle room, where you have to solve an intense problem to escape a room.
The dining options are fun as well. Hash House A Go Go, which describes its menu as "twisted farm food," serves up massive portions of hashes, scrambles and eggs Benedict. For dinner, try Trust, known for its seasonal and locally sourced American fare with mid-century modern decor and bold colors.
Ocean Beach, known locally as O.B., is a bohemian neighborhood with an eclectic vibe. Marks says it reminds him of the hippie days of the 1960s. "It's a really colorful place to go and explore," he notes.
Mark Peak, chief concierge at The US Grant, says O.B., located just south of Mission Bay, makes him think of the Beach Boys and is a popular spot for surfers to catch some waves. The pier is a must-see: It is one of the longest piers in Southern California, stretching almost a half-mile into the water.
Afterward, stop by Wonderland Ocean Pub for craft cocktails and tacos with an ocean view, or make your way to Pizza Port for pizza and beer.
Coronado is most known for its white-sand beaches and a lively downtown area filled with theaters, art galleries and restaurants. Located on an island across the bay from downtown San Diego, Coronado can be accessed either by ferry or bridge.
This city is home to the famous Hotel Del Coronado, which was built in 1888 and is a National Historic Landmark. The hotel has hosted celebrities and international dignitaries, and is believed to be the inspiration for the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz, Tellez says.
Though walking is a viable option, Peak recommends biking along the paved pathway that runs along the bay and under the Coronado Bridge. "It's the best way to see the island," he says.
Located about 30 miles north of downtown, Encinitas is a surf town that evokes the beach culture of the 1950s. Of course, the beaches are worth checking out – Swami's Beach is great for surfing, and Moonlight Beach features volleyball, fire pits, playgrounds and a snack bar. According to Robbins, Encinitas has "amazing coastal restaurants and bars ... no chains anywhere there. I highly recommend [it] in terms of unique atmosphere."
[See: Photos of San Diego.]
The community is also known as the world's largest producer of poinsettias and has many nurseries and gardens. The most noteworthy is the San Diego Botanic Garden, which has more than 4,000 kinds of plants from around the world.
Encinitas is also home to Solterra Winery, an urban winery that ages grapes from California and Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico, in French oak barrels on site.
To experience more of what San Diego has to offer, check out the U.S. News Travel guide.
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