Living in sunny San Diego as a college student for four years exposed me to all the fun experiences the city has to offer and the hidden gems beyond typical tourist activities. San Diego has an abundance of must-see sightseeing spots for first-time tourists, which can be enjoyed by people of all ages and passions, whether they are laidback vacationers, nature-lovers or seeking adventure.
The San Diego Zoo is the city’s most famous attraction and often touted as the best zoo in the world. It was also one of the first sights I visited in the city, thanks to my love of wild animals and obsession with Jurassic Park, in which San Diego Zoo is featured as the first zoo to ever have a, albeit fictional, Tyrannosaurus Rex. Besides being home to 3,500 animals and 650 various species, is also well known for its conservation efforts. I spent almost a full day here because of the variety of animals, so visitors must set aside ample time to get the full experience.
Some of the world’s most remarkable animals can be seen here: Australian creatures like koalas and Tasmanian Devils, incredibly rare Okapis, and the Forest Gorilla. One of my favourites here was the polar bear exhibit at the Northern Frontier, where I got to see the magnificent animals in the underwater viewing room. I was lucky enough to be there when one of the huge bears took a plunge off their tundra habitat and glided powerfully through water. Another feature of the zoo I really enjoyed was the Skyfari Aerial Tram, which offers rides with spectacular views of the entire zoo and the surrounding hills.
Another attraction that tourists, and especially families, cannot miss out on is SeaWorld, home to a variety of aquatic animals including dolphins, sharks and beluga whales. The marine mammal theme park offers exciting rides, such as the Electric Eel, which is the fastest roller coaster in San Diego and the infamous Shipwreck Rapids, a thrilling river rapids ride themed to a shipwreck on a deserted island, which passes by animal exhibits and through a waterfall.
The park’s principal attraction, the killer whale or “Shamu” show, was one of the most incredible experiences. The interaction between the trainers and the whales, and the graceful, high leaps of the gorgeous, gigantic orcas was an astonishing and unforgettable sight.
The zoo is located in the midst of Balboa Park, a 1400-acre cultural oasis that houses theatres, 17 museums and 16 unique gardens. The park reflects San Diego’s ethnically diverse history with its stunning Spanish-style architecture and the three museums, the Museum of Man, the Museum of Natural History and the San Diego Museum of Art, which tourists can visit for a historically rich and thought-provoking glimpse of the city.
As it is also a heaven for plant lovers, visitors can take a calming stroll around the picturesque park, which features a botanical garden with a Koi and Lily pond, the spectacular Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden displaying over 2,400 rose bushes and the Japanese Friendship Garden, a living work of art and a fusion of Western and Eastern cultures that exudes an aura of elegant simplicity. This garden includes a bonsai exhibit, a moon-viewing deck and ornamental plants such as camellias, magnolia and cherry blossom trees.
San Diego also has a fascinating maritime history. Located right on the waterfront on the Embarcadero, a cruise ship hub, is one of the US military’s largest ships and its longest serving aircraft carrier, the decommissioned USS Midway, which is permanently berthed at Navy Pier. Visitors can climb aboard to see the exhibits and restored aircraft and learn all about the rich history directly from army veterans who served on the ship. The floating Maritime Museum features one of the finest collections of historic ships in the world, including the Star of India, built in 1863, which made several risky voyages to India in the 1800s as a cargo ship.
It also has an amazing collection of military heritage artworks which include memorials that commemorate World War II service and some of the most heroic naval actions in American history. One of the most captivating sights here is the 25-foot (8 metre) sculpture Unconditional Surrender, colloquially known as “The Kissing Statue,” a beautiful recreation of the famously unintentional, photographed embrace between a sailor and a nurse the moment the end of World War II was declared in New York’s Times Square in 1945.
Located right next to the USS Midway Museum is another must-see attraction. Seaport Village is a wonderful place to stroll around the promenade and spend a relaxing afternoon enjoying the cool coastal breeze, with unlimited seafood restaurants and souvenir shops, complete with gorgeous views of Coronado and live performances right on the pier.
Like all waterfront towns, San Diego’s selection of beaches is unparalleled, accompanied by a mild Mediterranean climate with lots of sunshine and a plethora of watersports and activities for tourists and locals both. Cycling, surfing, volleyball, and simply basking in the sunshine can be enjoyed at a number of locations like Mission Bay, which has a buzzing beachfront boardwalk and an endless array of seaside cafés, Ocean Beach, which is friendly to pet owners, or even Black’s, which is notoriously known for being a nude beach. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is another option for tourists who prefer a more wild and rugged coastline with scenic hiking trails. It is a protected area targeted for conservation and contains threatened plants, animals and unique geological formations, and hence is ideal for nature enthusiasts, although it is also peppered with rattlesnake warnings.
Among the most unique splendours of San Diego beaches are the glowing blue tides of the ocean, which exist in only six places around the whole world, including in Japan, Malta and Taiwan. This striking phosphorescence is caused by bioluminescent algae that float to the coast of San Diego beaches. In the daytime, the plankton bloom makes the water appear red (known as the red tide), but after sunset, the organisms’ natural defence mechanism causes them and the sea water to turn a vivid blue. The bioluminescent algae are very rarely seen and even scientists cannot predict its appearance. I was fortunate enough to have witnessed this stunning phenomenon twice during my stay in San Diego, and it is an exciting event, with everyone driving to the beach late at night to capture a glimpse of the electric waves.
As my university was located only a 10-minute walk away from La Jolla Shores, this beach has always been popular with college students and is one of the most family-friendly beaches in San Diego. One of my favourite memories here is having picnics and bonfires on the beach almost every month as there are conveniently located fire pits, which fill up fast on holidays like Memorial Day and 4th of July. Characterised by its white foam-capped aquamarine waves and over a mile in length, it is also popular with tourists who want to explore the historic La Jolla Caves, which were dug in 1902 and used to smuggle alcohol and opium in during the Prohibition. Visitors can also have fun snorkelling, scuba diving, kayaking and watching the seals lazing around the caves.
La Jolla is one of the poshest neighbourhoods in the city, widely known as the “Beverly Hills” of San Diego. Downtown La Jolla, in particular, is a paradise for tourists who love art and culture, as they can plan trips to visit the comedy club, La Jolla Playhouse, one of America’s most acclaimed theatres, or stroll along La Jolla Village Art Walk, which is home to several stunning, locally-owned art galleries.
It also has some of the most exclusive and upmarket dining options in the city, perfect for a swankier night-out for couples at restaurants like The Cottage and Herringbone La Jolla, which have an assortment of delectable seafood dishes. For younger locals and visitors, the brunch options are in abundance, with famous cafés such as Richard Walker’s Pancake House and Brick & Bell, which often have hour-long waits on the weekends. My personal favourite for an enjoyable Sunday brunch was Duke’s La Jolla, an exquisite ocean-view café where friends can relax and gossip over a mimosa and enjoy the gently lapping waves of the Shores.
San Diego’s culinary landscape is exceptionally diverse. Due to its proximity to Mexico’s border, the city boasts some of the most authentic Mexican food in the United States, with unlimited options for burritos and delicious, colourful margaritas at popular joints like The Taco Stand and La Puerta’s. Mexican cuisine is so widespread that the eateries celebrate ‘Taco Tuesday’ every week, with majorly discounted prices for food and drinks during Happy Hour.
Moreover, owing to its large Asian American demographic, the city also has a trendy Asian and “Koreatown”- style locality in Convoy District, with a multitude of chic, decorative desert bars and eateries serving exceptional Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and Korean dishes such as Phở, sushi, boba milk tea, Binngrae Samanco (a fish-shaped red bean ice-cream sandwich), Patbingsu (shaved ice desert), and delicious, all-youcan-eat Korean barbeque (KBBQ) joints that can even compete with local dishes back home. Convoy also has popular Karaoke bars and Instagram-aesthetic cafés where you can often find college students hunched over their laptops with cups of iced coffee. Other cuisines include a small but impressive variety of Indian restaurants like Taste of the Himalayas and Royal India, and an elegant, upscale Little Italy in Downtown San Diego.
Although San Diego can be flaunted as a tranquil, pleasant escape from the commotion of big cities like Los Angeles or New York, after dark, the city comes alive with its dynamic nightlife scene. The epicentre of San Diego’s hottest nightclubs is Gaslamp Quarter in Downtown SD, buzzing with popular dance bars like Omnia and The Tipsy Crow, which play a mix of rap, pop and EDM. Pacific Beach is another popular area for tourists looking to party and has some of the city’s trendiest gay nightclubs like Rich’s and Flick’s, each with its own unique vibe.
There are also several options for accommodation for tourists as these are prime areas, from high-end hotels like Grand Hyatt to small holiday inns and boutiques. An excellent way to embark on a budget trip is to stay in one of the several seaside Airbnbs available and travel around using the city’s convenient public transportation, or even pay-perride services such as Bird scooters and Lime Bikes.
To visit all the unique sights this city has to offer, tourists can plan to spend at least a week or more in San Diego. Moreover, if this is not one’s first trip to the United States or if they have the leisure of a longer vacation, visitors can skip some typical tourist spots and explore the hidden gems of nearby small towns around San Diego, such as Catalina Island and Joshua Tree, a quaint town with scenic hiking trails and a 1960’s vibe. My favourite nearby weekend getaway is undoubtedly Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, only a two-hour drive from the city centre. Anza-Borrego is especially known for being one of the most ideal spots for stargazing. I have had unforgettable trips in this park with my best friends. Visitors usually bring their own charcoal and lighter fluid and roast marshmallows and chocolate over the campfire, enjoying delicious s’mores under a canopy of bright stars; little moments like these can make inimitable memories for life.