8 minute read

California Dreaming

The Ultimate Guide to San Diego

Written & Photographed by Alison Engstrom

When it comes to perfect travel conditions, San Diego is an easy sell—days of seemingly endless sunshine, temperate weather, desert landscapes, and a breathtaking coastline dotted with towering palms are just a few of the lures of this Southern California locale. We explored the best this diverse region has to offer including where to shop, dine and wander.


The lively pink façade at Pigment in North Park.
The pool lounge area at the Pendry Hotel.

Where to stay


550 J Street, San Diego, CA, pendryhotels.com

The latest outpost from the Pendry Hotel group is located in the city’s Gaslamp Quarter, a neighborhood known for its galleries, shopping and nightlife. This design-forward boutique hotel has a cool California aesthetic, with tufted white leather sofas, a working marble fireplace and decorative details like chevron-patterned rugs. The cozy rooms have beds outfitted with linens from Fili D’oro and bath products from MiN New York. Additional amenities include a rooftop pool, hot tub, spa and six different restaurants to choose from on the premises, including PROVISIONAL, which serves a dynamite brunch, and LIONFISH, which boasts a seafood-centric menu, served right beside the pool.

Where to shop and eat

Our Guide to the Best Boutiques and Restaurants in SAN DIEGO by Neighborhood


Located just a block from the pier in the laid-back surfer community of Ocean Beach, The Nest sells small items for the home in addition to surfing gear. Relax in the café located in the rear of the shop, where they serve a strong espresso.


Madison is one of those places that exudes a cool California vibe— take the wooden walls painted with bright geometric patterns or the large garage door that opens from the bar area into the dining room. The menu is Mediterranean-inspired, with lots of fresh salads—try the Watermelon Stack, which layers local melon with salty halloumi, or the free-range chicken with wild mushroom bread pudding.


Despite its name, this isn’t your average Little Italy neighborhood; rather, it’s an eclectic area where up-and-coming chefs have set up shop with restaurants like Herb & Wood. Housed in a former warehouse, the menu runs the gamut from wood-fired pizza to seafood dishes. To start, order the roasted baby carrots with cashew sesame dukkah, finished with carrot top pesto—you’ve never tasted carrots this good. And if you’re a seafood lover, we suggest the roasted branzino with lemon herb stuffing.


Pigment is a shop that offers curiosities, including the Plant Lab stocked with a variety of succulents, a great selection of lifestyle books, and bath and body products from brands like San Diegobased line Beauté Nouveau. If you’re in the market for coffee and flowers, head to Communal Coffee, a space that is just so pretty, and not just because it sells two of our very favorite things. We also love the mellow atmosphere and the menu, which includes tempting light bites like lavender honey toast.


Moniker General is a communal space located inside Liberty Station that is equal parts coffee shop, boutique and bar. The shop stocks brands like Norden Goods and fragrances from Imaginary Authors. For a California-meets-Belgium vibe, stop by The Little Lion Café where you’ll find indulgent options like waffles and gluten-free dutch baby pancakes, or healthier choices like smashed avocado on toast—locally grown, of course.


Seals basking on the beach at La Jolla Cove.
The sun slipping below the horizon at Windansea.

La Jolla

La Jolla, the quintessential laid-back California beach town, is just a short ride north from downtown San Diego. Here you can relax and unwind on the beach or, if you prefer a more active stay, you can surf or hike along one of the many walking trails.


After breakfast at the hotel, walk or drive to an entry point to TORREY PINES NATURE RESERVE, where scenic sandy trails meander through the hills overlooking the Pacific. Many of the paths are canopied or flanked by the endangered Torrey Pine, which is native only to this region. This majestic tree is characterized by its long needles and extra-large pine cones. Visitors to the Reserve will find themselves surrounded by a profusion of native plants, including flowering cactus, assorted varieties of wildflowers, and palm trees, which provide a colorful contrast to the carved, sepia-toned rock formations that resemble a network of veins pulsing through the landscape. There are a handful of paths that trace around the edges of the cliffs, offering stunning ocean vistas as you make your way down to the sandy beach below—depending on your love of nature and hiking, you could end up spending a good amount of time just exploring this breathtaking terrain. After your hike, head to downtown La Jolla and refuel at the colorful Parakeet Café, which serves coffee along with grain bowls and hearty salads throughout the day, all in a tropical-themed environment with vibrant bird-patterned wallpaper. After lunch, take a walk down to LA JOLLA COVE and get up-close-and-personal with seals and sea lions in their natural habitat. The seals are typically sleeping on the sand—from afar, you might easily mistake them for large rocks. But when they awaken, many make the journey down to the water by fiercely scooting their way along the sand before flopping back down—it’s quite amusing to watch. The sea lions, on the other hand, are farther down the beach, either swimming or perched one on top of the other on the rocky formations. If you can pull yourself away from observing the wildlife, stroll back into town to take in the colorful MURALS OF LA JOLLA. Painted by various artists and scattered throughout the area, these large scale artworks are on display for two months at a time.

With San Diego just a stone’s throw away from Mexico, you’ll find many restaurants serving authentic, mouth-watering Mexican cuisine, including Puesto, an award-winning taco joint. The menu features a “taco of the month” option, plus inventive spins on guacamole, including zucchini and cactus varieties. Another south-of-the-border pick is Galaxy Taco, a short drive from the center of town, with both an indoor and open air dining area. Share their flavorful wood-fired salsa and impeccably seasoned guacamole, or sample their range of tacos, from mushroom to grilled avocado, served in tortillas made with heirloom Masienda corn ground daily on site. End your day the California way by taking in an epic sunset. Head to WINDANSEA, a prime spot for observing surfers as they catch some waves, and watch the sun dip from the sky, painting a wash of vivid colors across the horizon. Post-sunset, grab a cocktail at George's at the Cove, where you can sip drinks inspired by the many neighborhoods of San Diego.

A lone tree stands near the Pacific.
The swimming pool at the Lodge at Torrey Pines.

Where to stay


11480 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla, CA, lodgetorreypines.com

Cozy interiors, roaring fires, ocean views and the smell of pine are just a few of the reasons to book your stay at the Lodge at Torrey Pines. This five-star hotel, located next to the world-famous golf course, offers many places to unwind, including the botanical courtyard filled with wild grasses and native flowers, a hot tub, and a pool that looks out across the putting green towards the Pacific. The hotel also features two different restaurants—THE GRILL is a more low-key space offering dishes like eggs, sandwiches and salads, while A.R. VALENTIEN serves farm-to-table fare. For breakfast, order the ethereally light lemon ricotta pancakes served with a side of raspberry sauce; for dinner, the homemade herb biscuits and fish are a delicious bet.

To slide into full vacation bliss, book a treatment at The Spa, which offers a diverse range of treatments for face and body. We recommend the 80-minute Torrey Pines Signature Massage, where the therapists tailor the treatment to your specific needs, concentrating on any areas that need some extra TLC. Afterwards, step into the eucalyptus steam room to round out your visit.

A shortbread cookie garnished with a marigold at the Parkeet Café.
The formal garden at Balbao Park.
The rocky view from the path at the Point Loma Tide Pools.
Beneath the wildflower-covered cliffs, sea lions rest.

Escape to nature

A trip to San Diego allows you to really reconnect with nature from the beaches and the wildlife to the desert landscape. Some attractions not to be missed include the CABRILLO NATIONAL MONUMENT, where you can hike along the cliffs and look for sea urchins at the POINT LOMA TIDE POOLS, and visit CORONADO BEACH, where the gold-flecked sands stretch for a mile and a half and sand dollars are almost everywhere you step. In the downtown area, head to BALBOA PARK, which is no ordinary greenspace—within its sprawling 1,200 acres, you’ll find no less than 16 museums, rose, cactus and Japanese gardens, plus countless trails to explore.

Brought to you by Visit San Diego