San Diego is a great spot to hit the trails and enjoy the beaches, but we planned to explore more of the heart of the city on a recent weekend trip. San Diego’s downtown is compact and full of character, which makes it easy and fun to ramble down the streets on foot. I love the vibe of the shops and restaurants filling the Gaslamp Quarter’s early 1900s Beaux Arts buildings, ethnic neighborhoods like Little Italy and Barrio Logan, and the fact that the baseball stadium is right in downtown, meaning you can catch a game from your balcony if you have a well-placed apartment. With so many things to do in downtown San Diego, we jam-packed our weekend with all the fun the city has to offer.
When to visit San Diego
It’s coastal southern California, so the weather makes San Diego a perfect year-round destination. You can’t beat a So Cal summer day, but sometimes January is sunnier than June. If you’re going solely for the beach, water temps will be warmer at the end of the summer.
Where to Stay
To stay right in the thick of things, check out the Westin Gaslamp Quarter Hotel. This was our second time staying in this hotel, and our most recent stay proved to be just as good as the first. You can’t beat the location, right in the heart of the San Diego’s most happening neighborhood, the Gaslamp Quarter. We could walk to almost anything in downtown, and it’s a quick drive to places like Balboa Park and Coronado Island.
As with any Westin, the rooms are equipped with the Westin Heavenly Bed, which is the best hotel mattress I’ve ever slept on. You’re surrounded by so many great restaurants and nightlife, but I almost wanted to turn in early just to enjoy the bed for a full eight hours. The hotel is kid-friendly and pet-friendly; we were provided with a baby cot, and if you bring your little dog, they’ll get a Signature Westin Heavenly Dog Bed of their own.
Whether you’re visiting for work or pleasure, this hotel has everything you’ll need. The gym is huge, though we preferred to get our exercise with a morning swim. The warm outdoor pool on the third floor is perfect for some laps or a quick dip!
Parking tip: Hotel parking is a bit pricey at $49 a night, but we did not have a problem finding street parking on the weekend, which is free from 6 pm to 8 am and all-day Sunday.
We were guests of the hotel but were planning on booking a stay here either way based on our previous experience.
Where to Eat
Donut Bar. This place touts its breakfast treats as “The World’s Most Award-Winning Donuts,” so you can bet there is a line at 8 am. It’s called Donut Bar because it also functions as a bar, so if you miss this place for breakfast, it’s open late on the weekends.
Tip 1: Order online a day ahead so you can skip the line and pick up your dozen. And if you do end up in line, someone usually comes by passing out free donuts to the kids!
Tip 2: The regular donuts are good but by no means the best we’ve ever had. We’re on a bit of a mission to find the best donuts in Southern California, so we have plenty to compare it to. The french toast donut, on the other hand, was mind-blowing. They take an already delicious donut, slice off the skin from the top and bottom, soak it in an egg mixture and cook it on the skillet. Of course, as any french toast should, it’s served warm (so they’re made-to-order) with butter, jam and syrup.
Eat your way through Little Italy. If you’re in the mood for freshly-made pasta and flavorful Southern Italian seafood dishes, try Civico 1845 in Little Italy. Kettner Boulevard is nicknamed “Top Chef Alley” for its restaurants helmed by celebrity chefs, including Juniper & Ivy and Herb and Wood. Afterward, stop by Pappalecco for gelato.
Las Cuatro Milpas. For simple yet amazingly delicious Mexican food, head to this spot that’s been serving up rice, beans, and burritos since 1933.
Classics Malt Shop. This is a bit out of downtown, but you can’t go more classic than burgers and malts. Plus, it landed on Yelp’s 2017 Top 100 Places to Eat list, so now it’s official, you have to go here.
Discover Downtown San Diego
Explore downtown’s neighborhoods. Most of the neighborhoods within downtown San Diego have maintained a distinct character, so it’s worth visiting the different parts of the city. I’ve already mentioned the Gaslamp Quarter, Little Italy and Barrio Logan. Cortez Hill is one of San Diego’s oldest residential neighborhoods, known for its beautiful Victorian style homes. The Marina District is pretty low key, but the USS Midway Museum is worth a visit, and the waterfront park is great summer fun for kids with interactive splash pads. From here, hop on a sunset cruise around the harbor.
Visit Balboa Park. We could have easily spent the whole weekend here. There are over 17 museums and 8 gardens. The park features some of the most beautiful architecture in the city; many of its buildings were completed as part of the 1915–16 Panama–California Exposition and the 1935–36 California Pacific International Exposition. My favorite spot was the Botanical Building, an iconic view of the park and one largest wood lath structure in the world. Next time, I’m looking forward to a concert at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion and spending some time on the park’s walking trails.
Catch a Padres Baseball game. This whole trip was initiated because Aaron wanted to go to a Padres game. Not to see the Padres (though he does like the team), but to see Bryce Harper, the right fielder for the Washington Nationals, the team that was playing the Padres that weekend. Unlucky for us (and much more misfortunate for him), Harper suffered a knee injury a few games before and is likely out the rest of the season. While that was a big disappointment, the game at Petco Park was still a lot of fun. We weren’t as glued to our seats in right field, so we wandered down to Park at the Park, a little grass hill beyond the outfield. Kids can run around, people bring blankets and picnic, and you can either watch the outfield or the large jumbotron. Even if you don’t like baseball, it’s a great baseball experience. And if you’re looking for dinner in the park, line up at Phil’s BBQ, an outpost of San Diego’s famous barbecue restaurant.
Make Your Own Foodie Tour. Visit Little Italy’s farmers’ market on Saturdays from 8 am – 2 pm or the Hillcrest farmers’ market from 9 am – 2 pm on Sundays. If you’ve already been down Little Italy’s Kettner Boulevard, find Convoy Street, nicknamed Asian Restaurant Row.
Things to do with Kids in San Diego
Plenty of the activities above are totally kid-appropriate, but here are a few things your little ones will especially love. If you’re trying to decide when to go, October can be one of the best times as it’s dubbed ‘Kids Free San Diego.’ Kids get free entrance and meals to over 100 attractions and restaurants all over the city. Learn more about the promotion on sandiego.org.
Visit the San Diego Zoo. The San Diego Zoo is part of Balboa Park and just hit its 100-year anniversary last year. The park is huge and the terrain is hilly; we went for a half day and probably didn’t get through a third of the park. Parts of the park feel like you’re walking in the middle of the jungle, with huge trees and waterfalls, especially the aviaries. Popular exhibits include the panda bears, polar bears, and koala bears. A bus tour covers much of the park if you or your kids need a break from walking. At the end of the day, take a shortcut back to the entrance by soaring over the treetops on the Skyfari aerial tram.
Get creative at the New Children’s Museum. This museum uses hands-on art projects, artistic performances, and engaging exhibits to make this experience both education and fun.
Or, if your child is anything like ours, just a simple fountain will be plenty of fun!