10 Coolest Things to Do in San Diego
If beaches and Balboa Park are all that come to mind when you think of San Diego, then you’ve seriously underestimated the SoCal city. From its booming craft brewery scene to its emerging arts districts, and game-changing culinary programs, San Diego is finally getting the attention it deserves. Here, the 10 things you can’t miss.
Over the past few years, the historically Hispanic neighborhood Barrio Logan has transformed into a vibrant arts district and the center of Mexican-American culture. Start at Chicano Park, an eight-acre national landmark underneath the Coronado Bridge. Local artists have been adding sculptures and massive Pre-Colombian and colonial paintings to the bridge’s concrete pillars since the ‘70s—and it’s now become the largest collection of outdoor murals in America. Other neighborhood highlights: La Bodega Art Gallery, which is showcasing a Frida Kahlo-inspired exhibit this month, and The Chrch, a chapel-turned-concept space that’s home to Beat Box Records and a rotating group of art collectives. When hunger strikes, make a beeline to ¡SALUD!, where locals line up around the block for the Taco Tuesday deal (three tacos for $6). Order the Barrio (carne guisado with frijol, nopal and sour cream), or Birria (shredded pork cooked in a mole sauce and wrapped in a fried tortilla topped with cotija) followed by the churros and ice cream with caramel and Tajin for dessert.
Filled with trendy boutiques, art studios, and cafés, North Park is the city’s hippest district. Follow the cool kids to Holy Matcha for its unique twists on Japanese green tea (the dirty matcha coconut latte is a must) and for its ‘gram-worthy interiors (a Millennial pink color palette, tropical leaf-print wallpaper, and quartz countertops piled with plates of chili flake avocado toast). Just make sure you save room for brunch at Johan Engman’s much-anticipated North Park Breakfast Co., a two-story restaurant debuting next month. The egg-yolk-filled ravioli with pork belly, guava-infused pancakes, and quail eggs with bone marrow and chorizo are sure to be instant hits. Once you’ve refueled, head to Pigment to browse its selection of home goods, stationery, and succulents, before checking out the custom art supplies at the gallery and pop-up, Visual.
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The Golden State is in the middle of a massive hotel boom, and San Diego is leading the charge—starting with the $100 million Pendry. This buzzy hotel sets the bar high, with a coveted address in the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter, plus six on-site drinking and dining venues, including a retro cocktail den, a rooftop pool lounge, a beer hall, a Prohibition-style nightclub, and a seasonal SoCal cafe. But the real knockout is the sophisticated signature restaurant, Lionfish, run by chef JoJo Ruiz (of Craft & Commerce and Ironside Fish & Oyster). The coastal menu offers shared plates like lobster carpaccio with shallots, sherry ponzu, and brown butter aioli.
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Dare we say it—the second outpost of the famous Buona Forchetta is not only bigger, but it may even be better. The sprawling Liberty Station newcomer has three patios and a decidedly different vibe than the original, trading its homey trattoria comforts for an industrial-chic open kitchen, with concrete floors, subway-tiled pizza stations, and at the center, a vintage red Fiat turned into a table for two. Foodies will love the extensive wood-fired pizza selection, as well as the housemade pastas courtesy of Mario Cassineri. Order the crab gnocchi with corn and asparagus, or the TeePoo pizza topped with mozzarella, prosciutto cotto, artichokes, mushrooms, and ricotta.
San Diego is no stranger to Mexican food, with taco joints and cantinas on practically every corner. But the brand-new Curadero, on the ground floor of downtown’s slick Kimpton Hotel Palomar, stands out for its soulful, seafood-centric take on Mexico’s regional recipes and street food fare. Before opening, chefs Brad Kraten and Emiliano Najera ate their way through the country, getting inspiration for dishes like ceviche de pescado (white fish, tomato, cucumber, serrano, cilantro, avocado), vuelva à la vida (octopus, oysters, and shrimp in a citrusy Mexican cocktail sauce), and an adobo-marinated, charcoal-grilled whole fish paired with Baja wine. Bonus: upstairs, you’ll find Arriba Room, which has vintage arcade games, and a late-night, walk-up window that serves mouthwatering tacos like the braised short rib with marinated onions, cilantro, and chipotle-peanut salsa.
After the thriving success of his swanky Herb & Wood restaurant, celeb chef Brian Malarkey decided to launch a casual, counter-service spin-off next door. The 3,500-square-foot Herb & Eatery café and gourmet market sells fresh pastries and produce, healthy lunch options, and a to-die-for breakfast line-up. We’d recommend the maple croissant with fried egg, gruyere, maple pork sausage, arugula and aioli as well as the baked eggs with mushrooms, humboldt goat cheese, kale and crème fraiche.
This summer, all eyes are on Born & Raised, the latest restaurant courtesy of CH Projects—y’know, the all star team behind Ironside, Craft & Commerce, Underbelly and more. The $6.5 million overhaul will turn the former Nelson Photo Supply store in Little Italy into a 10,000-square-foot, bi-level steakhouse, with two bars, a rooftop terrace, a dry-aging room, a butcher station, and a garden for fresh herbs and produce. The best part? Every detail echoes old-school glam, from the handsome mid-century decor (walnut walls, Italian leather booths, green marble tabletops) to the service—waiters will mix martinis on retro cocktail carts, sear prime cuts of Wagyu beef tableside, and serve the city’s largest scotch selection.
Although San Diego is sunny practically year-round, the summer is the only season you can catch al fresco shows. Snuggle up on the lounge chairs at Mission Hills’ Cinema Under the Stars, which screens weekly cult classics such as The Graduate, Pretty Woman, Casablanca, and The Blues Brothers, or slip on your swimsuit for the free dive-in movie nights at The Pearl Hotel’s pool on Wednesdays. For the true San Diego experience, Balboa Park hosts dozens of free events, including live jazz, swing, and salsa performances at the Twilight in the Park concert series, as well as art-themed films (like Séraphine and Goya’s Ghosts) put on by the San Diego Museum of Art every Thursday in August by the Botanical Garden.
With more than 140 breweries across the county, San Diego has earned a prime spot in the nation’s craft beer scene. Most of the breweries are located outside San Diego proper, in Carlsbad, El Cajon, and Miramar, but they’re worth the trek—especially AleSmith, which serves flights of its acclaimed Speedway Stout and Anvil ESB at its Miramar headquarters. Don’t feel like straying too far? There are tons of tasting rooms in downtown San Diego to check out. Mission Brewery in the hip East Village pours a killer Russian imperial stout called Dark Seas, and Ballast Point, in Little Italy, continually experiments with new suds (though, you can’t go wrong with the iconic Sculpin IPA). North Park’s Brewery Igniter is an incubator for kickstarters like Eppig Brewing, Pariah, and San Diego Brewing. But for the best brews and views (IOHO), there’s no better place than Amplified Ale Works in Pacific Beach, where you can kick back on the oceanfront rooftop with a pint of Pig Nose Pale Ale.
CH Projects is the trailblazer for handcrafted cocktails, and has opened up a set of upscale watering holes like Craft & Commerce, False Idol tiki bar and the Noble Experience speakeasy. If you’re looking for something more low-key, there’s the beachy, open-air Fairweather next to Petco Park; the romantic Starlite in Mission Hills, known for its signature copper mugs of Kentucky Colonel (Buffalo Trace bourbon, ginger beer, lemon, and homemade cherry vanilla bitters); and the 14th-floor Nolen rooftop in the Gaslamp Quarter, with its sweeping skyline views, cozy outdoor firepits and inventive menu of barrel-aged cocktails and “hoptails” (beer cocktails). JS Tip: Don’t miss happy hour at Madison, a design-forward Mediterranean restaurant in University Heights. Sip a Sea to Sea (pisco porton, giffard peach liqueur, absinthe, and lime), then tuck into beet-cured salmon crudo with fennel, jicama, orange, and seagrass jalapeño sesame drizzle.
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