Follow two native daughters on a Covid-safe, family-friendly tour of their hometown’s beaches, neighborhoods, eateries and sights. There’s so much to do, you won’t even miss the zoo.
By Judith Gottesman & Maria De La O
Perfect weather and 70 miles of usable coastline… what’s not to like? As San Diego natives who’ve lived in many places, both in the United States and internationally, we always find San Diego a great place to come home. Below are some personal favorites, heavy on the beaches, to highlight what makes the city an awesome place for a family vacation for your whole tribe. You can do a fair amount of these activities in a well-planned 7- to 10-day visit, and there’s no Legoland or zoo listed here. (Although the world-famous San Diego Zoo is among the greatest zoos in the world, so it might be worth a day.)
Of course, during Covid-19, be sure to check websites for updated schedules, pricing, restrictions and closures. And while there is a trolley system in the downtown and central parts of the city and public buses most everywhere, it really is best to have a car and be prepared for lots of freeway driving.
The Best Covid-safe Spots in San Diego
The Coast (West of I-5)
Swami’s is an internationally known surfing spot, near the town of Encinitas in the northern part of San Diego County. (Note that it’s not a great spot to bodysurf or boogie board as the water is filled with fairly competitive surfers. The beach is named after Swami Paramahansa Yogananda, who opened the Self-Realization Fellowship ashram, which overlooks the reef. The grounds of the ashram, built in 1937, were originally built to provide dissemination of the swami’s writings and teachings, including Kriya yoga. A highlight of the temple, which is open to the public, is the meditation garden, which features flowers, trees and small ponds with waterfalls and koi. It extends from the temple to the beach cliffs.
Torrey Pines State Park The famous Torrey Pines trees are only found here, in this state park. It is a narrow and at times steep dirt trail down cliffs, with breathtaking views of the ocean and an easier walking path down to the beach. Torrey Pines also sports a world-famous golf course, where all the greats have played.
Torrey Pines Gliderport Judith has paraglided at this famous gliderport twice on birthdays (Maria and Vivienne watched agape during the second fly.) There are also hang gliders. It’s a wonderful chance to float like a bird over the cliffside mansions of La Jolla and take in breathtaking views of the ocean from high above. You must not only sign a release of liability but also record a video reading it. Two people collided and died a few months after Judith’s second flight, so this is definitely not for the risk-averse, however the instructors boast that children as well as adults can do a tandem fly.
Black’s Beach This beach is famous for being the most beautiful nude beach in the country. You can walk down a steep and rather treacherous cliff they call the “goat trail” down to the popular portion, across from the University of California, San Diego, and just up the road from Torrey Pines Gliderport. We prefer the empty south end of the beach with almost no people. It’s a great place to sit in nature, with just the sound of the waves. You can see sandcrabs and watch surfers and occasionally dolphins in the waves. To get to Black’s not via cliff trail, park in the nearby neighborhood and walk down a paved, windy, steep road which is closed to vehicles.
La Jolla Cove Snorkeling La Jolla Cove is famous for its sheltered kelp forest with the California state fish, garibaldis, who stand out with their beautiful orange coloring. There is also a nearby cave. People swim, snorkel and kayak, along with seals, sea lions and plenty of shorebirds along the cliffs. Divers head deeper out to the La Jolla Canyon. If you look toward the ocean, on your left will be “The Clam,” a challenge for teenagers who like to jump off a small cliff into the cove. Do you dare? It’s still something on Maria’s bucket list.
Children’s Pool Seals & Sea Lions An over 20-year battle has finally been settled in court with the protection of the seals and sea lions who come ashore to have their babies on the beach here. The beach was originally meant to be a sheltered beach for kids, hence the name Children’s Pool, but the pregnant pinnipeds realized it made a perfect spot for birthing and raising their young for the same reason. Now, children come from all over to enjoy watching the mothers nurse their pups, nap in the sand and see the pups learn to navigate in the waves and up to the beach and rocky shore. They have some sort of presence throughout the year here, but here’s a pro tip: Pupping season happens in the spring. There is a wall to walk out overlooking the waves, and great viewing from the walkway and benches above the sea lion territory, although you’re likely to see obnoxious tourists walking on to the rocks and beach here, getting right up in the seal faces. If the kids are a bit snacky at this point, walk up to fancy downtown La Jolla (the Beverly Hills of San Diego) with plenty of eateries to choose from. Vivi likes Swensen’s. Judith recommends smoothies or a meal at Trilogy Sanctuary’s casual rooftop cafe. It’s vegan, organic, and has a great view. During non-COVID times they have yoga classes, as well.
Leopard Sharks You can snorkel directly in front of the Marine Room, a renowned restaurant on the coast—which tends to flood during very high tides—with leopard sharks from June through December, as well as spy an occasional guitarfish or stingray. Have no fear: The sea creatures here are all perfectly calm and not nibbly. Farther north of the Cove is La Jolla Shores, a good place to surf, boogie board, body surf or just wade in the water. Note that lifeguards are stationed at all the major beaches in San Diego.
Tourmaline Beach is for surfing on the northern Pacific Beach border with La Jolla, and is known for calm and consistent waves. A good beginner beach.
Mission Bay Mission Bay is 4,600 acres of water, making it the largest human-made aquatic park in the United States. Judith grew up taking sailing lessons with her summer day camp in Mission Bay. Across the street at Mission Beach, the camp gave surfing lessons. While she never got the hang of surfing, sailing stuck with her. Judith also taught many friends to sail in Mission Bay in her teen years and twenties. They rent boats of all sizes for all abilities, and the bay is very calm, safe water, so it’s a great place for beginners to learn to sail.
Giant Dipper Roller Coaster and Belmont Park The historic 1925 wooden roller coaster here isn’t super big, but the creaky wood and shaking motion from the old design makes it extra scary. Great views of the coast and beach below.
Ocean Beach Our favorite beach for remembering “how the beach used to be.” A little funky, this is where you’ll find small beach cottages, tiny, unassuming restaurants and The Black, San Diego’s longtime smoke paraphernalia and rock ‘n’ roll boutique (no kiddos allowed and “straight-edge” Judith has never been, either). Just past Ocean Beach is the neighborhood of Sunset Cliffs, which is just what it sounds like. Also, a great place to fly a kite.
Hotel Del The historic Hotel Del Coronado opened in 1888 and is one of the few surviving Victorian beach resorts, located right on the sand. Originally designed by the Reid brothers, the hotel has been undergoing major renovations to its interior, spa, and pool. A museum with photographs of some of its famous guests and history of being one of the first hotels in the West to have electricity, is expected to open in coming months. Frank Baum was a frequent guest and designed four of the dining room chandeliers. He based the “Emerald City” in The Wizard of Oz on the view of the hotel at sunset. You can see photos of movies filmed there like Some Like It Hot,” the comedy classic starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as two men who dress like women to join an all-girl band. During the holidays, check out the lobby area for its amazing collection of decorations and order an amazing takeout Christmas dinner for four ($215). If you opt to stay at the hotel, note that for a fee, hotel management now allows cats and dogs up to 40 pounds in the rooms!
Coronado Dog Beach Not the only dog beach in San Diego, but probably the safest for your dog. Few crowds, mellow dogs, giant beach far off the road.
USS Midway If you like big boats—we said boats—check out this Navy aircraft carrier. It’s unfortunately closed at the time of this writing, but virtual tours are still available here. (Of course, you don’t need to be in San Diego to partake of this slice of military history, so go ahead and save this one until you get home.)
Inland (East of I-5)
Balboa Park Just east of Little Italy, on the edge of the Hillcrest neighborhood (the longtime hipster and queer center of San Diego) is Balboa Park. Notable sites in the park are Spreckels Organ Pavilion, which has free concerts featuring the world’s largest outdoor musical instrument. At 25 percent more acreage than Central Park, the park also houses most of the museums in San Diego, including the Natural History Museum, the Reuben H. Fleet science museum and IMAX, an aerospace museum and the photography museum, which features some really cool roving exhibitions. Also enjoy the koi pool outside the Botanical Garden and the magic wall (located to the left of the Botanical Garden, where there’s an air grate, that creates a blast of air where kids like to throw paper and other assorted stuff to watch it defy gravity.) The world-famous San Diego Zoo is also in the park, as well as a cool carousel and steam train for the littles.
The Old Globe Theatre, is one home of great theater in San Diego (Superman Christopher Reeve, Marion Ross of Happy Days fame, Dennis Hopper, Jon Voight, Mary Martin and Ian McKellan, to name a few, are some of the actors who have found a home at the Old Globe.) Many Broadway shows begin their run at “The Globe” to fine tune before opening in New York. During the 2021 holiday season, you need to check out the live version of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, a San Diego tradition personally blessed by Audrey Geisel, who lived with her husband, Theodore Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss), in La Jolla for many years.
Evolution Fast Food is just a few blocks from the park. With a fun drive-thru and patio area with vegan fast food, raw foods, smoothies, and super delicious soft-serve ice cream, it has something for everyone’s tastes.
The Berto’s You can pretty much go to any rundown taco shop in San Diego and get the best Mexican food of your life, whether it’s from Alberto’s, Roberto’s, Aliberto’s, Jilberto’s, Humberto’s or any other Berto. So go—even if you’re in town for just a day, get thee to a Berto’s. Pro tip: Most Berto’s include something called the San Diego Burrito. (It includes French fries. Yep, you read right—French fries.) Don Carlos Taco Shop is popular with locals and UCSD students, alike, since it’s good, and cheap in the heart of pricey “downtown” La Jolla. And, in addition to the usual burritos, has the best vegan taco special of rolled potato tacos and vegan tamales! Maria nearly always opts for the crispy taco plate with tacos, rice, beans and “salad.” Judith always sticks to vegan. Pokez in downtown is popular with the punk crowd and is known for good vegan options.
Mission Trails Regional Park If your trip takes you a little farther east, here’s a popular place to take a hike. At more than 8,000 acres, it is one of the largest urban parks in America. Judith grew up hiking to the top of Cowles Mountain with her dogs; and as an adult has done trail running here.
Hot-Air Ballooning Just a bit inland from the coast are a number of outfits that will take you and your family up into the skies above Carmel Valley. You can usually see four or five of these balloons floating above you as you drive along I-5 going north or south. All in one shot, you can get the perfect view of the ocean, mountains, downtown and even some wildlife while silently gliding above the fray. But at $150 to $200 or so per person on the low end, you’ll definitely want to check your Groupon for this little slice of heaven.
The Historic Town of Julian Yep, San Diego has mountains, and they even have snow sometimes. The tiny town of Julian is famous for its fall apple harvest, cider and apple pie, so get it while it’s warm (and a la mode)! You can also stargaze (Julian is now registered as a dark-sky town.) Different local outfits offer nightly star tours and the town has a stargazing festival in August. An optional behind-the-scenes tour of the world-famous Palomar Observatory is also available to a limited number of people. Register here.
Lions, Tigers and Bears Also in the mountains, you can explore this exotic animal and big cat sanctuary. Stay the night—if you dare.
Wild Flowers If you happen to be in San Diego during the spring and don’t mind driving past the mountains, check out the Anza-Borrego desert, where, especially after a rainy winter, you can check out a riot of colorful wildflowers and unearthly plants. If you can’t make it all the way to the desert, go to Carlsbad (home of Legoland) for cultivated flowers in bloom.
San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge In the southern part of San Diego County, you can find this wild area established to protect a rich diversity of endangered, threatened, migratory and native species and their habitats, right in the middle of the urban jungle.
Mexico! San Diego abuts Mexico. Yes, it really does. Drive to the southern part of the city, past the odd yellow freeway signs featuring an immigrant family running across the highway, and you’ll hit the border. If you just plan to go to Mexico for the day, remember to bring your passport and walk across the border bridge to get to Tijuana. Jump in a cab and ask questions. Avenida Revolución is the street to head to—it’s home to bars and restaurants, American fast-food chains and tourist kitsch (as well as silver, kahlúa and vanilla). Pro tip: bargain for any goods you wish to buy, and don’t forget to walk away—it’s just part of the game. A fair number of shady characters also hang on the Avenue. (TJ is quite high crime but you’re likely safe on Revolución.) Note that every high school kid hits Tijuana on their 18th birthday and many nights thereafter because the drinking age in Mexico is 18. Security does check IDs: Maria ended up having to walk all the way to the jai alai arena to dodge security and get a drink with her date, who was unfortunately still 17 on her birthday.)
Old Town If Real Mexico isn’t on your agenda, try to make some time to check out Old Town, site of some of the first settlements in San Diego, just below the Presidio. Heritage Park has several historic buildings you can tour. It’s also the site of San Diego’s first synagogue, Temple Beth Israel, dating back to 1889. Back on the main drag, you can watch the old señoras make tortillas from scratch and grab a margarita to go.
Where to Stay in San Diego with Kids
There’s always Airbnb and VRBO, but if you want a fancy hotel or a spot to rough it, read on.
La Costa Resort & Spa Seventeen tennis courts—international matches played here have featured the Williams sisters and pretty much every other tennis luminary around. (Judith saw the Virginia Slims match between Chris Evert Lloyd and Martina Navratilova there when she was 12.) Eight sparkling pools, seven restaurants, two championship golf courses and an award-winning spa.
Crystal Pier Cottages In the middle of Pacific Beach, you can find Crystal Pier. The pier is open to the public, but if you have a reservation at Crystal Pier Cottages, which fill up months or years in advance, you can drive right out onto the pier to park in front of your cottage.
La Valencia Located above La Jolla Cove, this classic Spanish-style pink hotel has been a classic Hollywood destination since its opening in 1926. During World War II, locals spent long hours perched in the windswept tower scanning the skies and seas for enemy planes or ships. During the ‘50s the Valencia was back to the glamour when it became a haven for the Hollywood stars that would come down to do theater at the La Jolla Playhouse. Day passes available for the iconic ocean-view pool. Pet-friendly amenities.
The Gaslamp There are a variety of fairly inexpensive but cool options in the Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego’s downtown hip and “old-timey” neighborhood, along with a plethora of eating and drinking options. This is also where you’ll be near Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres, which may just be the most strangely named baseball team ever. (The area can get a bit rowdy with revelers when the Padres do something, especially winning.)
Beach Camping There are a variety of options: San Onofre State Beach Camping, San Elijo State Beach Camping, Guajome County Park Camping, South Carlsbad State Beach Camping and Oceanside’s Harbor Beach (where two parking lots at Harbor Beach allow overnight camping for RVs (no tents allowed). Although Maria generally loathes camping, camping on the beach is another Bucket List experience for her.
Mission Valley A bit east of the coast is Mission Valley, home to a couple of malls, a driving range and hotels aplenty. After the Kumeyaay Indians had lived in this valley for something like 10,000 years, the Spaniards came. (You know, pretty much the story of the West.) Originally the site of the first Spanish settlement in California way back in 1769, on the west side of the valley, it began its modern-day incarnation back in the 1950s, when hotels began to replace what had become farmland. Although most of the transformation was finished by the ’70s, if you look closely on the eastern end of Mission Valley, you can still spot an old yellow farmhouse (with a scarecrow) that the owners apparently never agreed to sell.
Good to Know
Big-City Traffic Although there’s still something a bit small-town about San Diego, the place can still have traffic. The saving grace, however, is that unlike the Bay Area or Los Angeles, (San Diegans typically HATE L.A and we’re no exception) the traffic is predictable. It’s heaviest between about 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.; it tends to snarl the worst in North County, along 805 and Interstate 5 and centrally on Interstate 8 and 15. The good news? If you avoid the traffic, which really isn’t difficult, you can get to most places in San Diego within a half hour.
Comic-Con Avoid it. Unless it’s your thing. And unless of course, you dig crowds, which thousands do. It’s set for July 2021.
Summer can be hot. We recommend late March and April (avoiding the overcast that grips the city during “May Gray” and “June Gloom”) or September and October for best off-peak travel.
Summer can be crowded. You might want to avoid Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day at the beach. And where else would you want to be during a San Diego summer? Summer rentals on the boardwalk rent for a premium this time of year, especially since Arizona residents like to escape their 115-degree heat and spend their summers here.
Judith Gottesman & Maria De La O
Judith Gottesman specializes in writing about romantic getaways, families with children, dog-friendly and vegan-friendly travel, best snorkel and nature destinations, eco-resorts and volunteer vacations. Maria De La O is executive editor of ROAM.
© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved
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