Our first-timer’s guide to San Diego, CA

For me California conjures images of endless pristine beaches, perfect weather, happy people and great food.

The First-timer's essential guide to San Diego CA - Mr and Mrs Romance

 It’s a cliché, but like all clichés, there’s got to be an element of truth to it somewhere. A quintessence that provides the rule.

There’s nowhere else closer to this perfect visage than San Diego. It’s a happy city – a city in love!

Mr and Mrs Romance - San Diego views

Even the weather’s perfect. San D has that desert heat – that perfect low humidity high temperature combo. And then cool evenings wake you up after a drowsy day at the beach or mixing it up downtown.

The happy San Diego locals are proud to announce they have the best weather in the States, and I think they’ve got a point.

Mr and Mrs Romance - Downtown - San Diego

But it’s not just the weather that makes the locals so cheerful. Just a two-hour drive from the mad chaos of Los Angeles, San Diego’s wide streets are quiet and their polite drivers are happy to let pedestrians stroll out in front of them.

Even in the middle of the city you’re met with the calm smiley faces of locals who have the pick of things to do out and about their city.

Stroll around Balboa Park

Mr and Mrs Romance - Exploring Balboa Park San Diego Mr and Mrs Romance - Balboa Park San Diego Mr and Mrs Romance - Spanish buildings in Balboa Park San Diego

Balboa Park is an enormous reserve in the city that offers so many choices. Botanic Gardens, walking tracks, museums, galleries – and let’s not forget the world famous San Diego Zoo.

It’s a great spot to walk hand-in-hand with your other half – maybe even take a picnic with you!

Downtown and the Gaslamp Quarter

Mr and Mrs Romance - Gaslamp Quarter San DiegoMr and Mrs Romance - Looking down over San Diego

There’s lots to do here with bars, restaurants and shops – it’s great for watching the city go on its way over a margarita or two.

Like a lot of American cities, the downtown area is laid out in a grid format, so getting lost is pretty hard.

San Diego Old Town

San Diego old town

With Mexico on its doorstep, San Diego has a well-developed ‘hola’ culture. It’s never as clear as in Old Town. The main street is flooded with taco restaurants and burrito bars, and margarita madness is in full flow.

The restaurant we tried to get into had an hour’s waiting time. The place we ended up in was just as good. We had to share the mega margarita that Mrs Romance ordered, and it sorted us both out nicely!

Coronado Island

Mr and Mrs Romance - Coronado Ferry San DiegoMr and Mrs Romance - Coronado - San Diego

Off to the west from San Diego harbour, you can see this island devoted to holidays and luxury. The Coronado Bridge bends its way from the mainland to this haven of incredible houses, a great restaurant district and – on the eastern side of the island – just about the best view of the city you’ll find.

Mr and Mrs Romance - Coronado Hotel San DiegoMr and Mrs Romance - Coronado Beach sunset San Diego

On the west side is Coronado Beach and its palatial resort. The sand here is white and soft, and the views of Mexico are pretty cool too. If you can, reserve your own fire pit and beach seats a romantic evening on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

Locals’ secret: can you see where the grassy sand dunes spell out the name of the island on the beach? It’s easy to spot from the air!

Ocean Beach – known to the locals as ‘OB’

Mr and Mrs Romance - Ocean Beach in San DiegoMr and Mrs Romance - Ocean Beach San Diego

It’s SD’s alternative quarter. Head down here every Wednesday for the Ocean Beach Farmers’ Market for tasty hawker-style snacks, cool bars and incredible people-watching!

We also enjoyed the beach itself and a lovely walk along the fishing pier where hopeful anglers cast their lines.

Pacific Beach

Mr and Mrs Romance - Pacific Beach - San DiegoMr and Mrs Romance - Pacific Beach in San Diego

Go north a little way and you’ll find Pacific Beach, or PB to its friends. The beach itself is enormous and stretches north and south for miles. In fact, head far enough south and PB just gives up and Mission Beach takes over.

PB is a hustling bustling holiday hub and there’s plenty to do here. Hire bikes to ride the esplanade, sunbathe, or sit at one of the hundreds of bars and restaurants, and watch people doing their thing. You can even rent an over-water holiday home on the wooden pier as it stretches out over the Pacific!

Try to the PB Ale House for a killer burger and great craft beers. Monday night is the beer-and-burger special: WIN!

La Jolla

La Jolla San Diego

Photo via Robbie’s Photo Art

Pronounced ‘la hoya’, and known as San Diego’s ‘Jewel by the Sea’, this northern beach district is a rare place indeed. It boasts an unusual micro-climate where the temperature never dips below 50dF (10dC) or over 90dF (32dF). It’s also home to some stunning natural beauty, with a dramatic coastline surrounding three sides of this large peninsular.

The houses along this stretch of coastline are incredible too. It’s fun to imagine living in these expansive properties so close to such glorious beaches.

SD food and drink

Mr and Mrs Romance - Where to eat in San DiegoHola in San Diego - Mrs and Mrs Romance

The food in San Diego is all pretty bloody good. There’s everything to choose from you’d expect in a city, but being so close to the Mexican border, tacos, burritos and margaritas are the call of the day.

The best thing about San Diego having such consistently good weather is the number of outdoor bars in the city. Our favourite is Altitude Sky Lounge a rooftop bar overlooking the harbour.

For a laid back dinner, you can’t beat El Camino in Little Italy. With its cantina style interior and packed little courtyard, we felt more like one of the locals than at any other time in San Diego.

The bizarre proximity to the San Diego International Airport’s flight path adds a unique element to your meal; score a table outside and watch the planes fly so close overhead you can feel the draft as they go past.

Tuesday is the most popular night here, mostly because it’s cheap taco night and margaritas are $3!

By the way, the tacos are good but get the California burrito. It’s incredible!

Mr and Mrs Romance in San Diego

Due to different tobacco laws in San Diego, there are also lots of cigar and shisha bars in and around the city. Here’s our review of some of the San Diego cigar bars we liked.

San Diego’s a funny city – it feels like you’re in a small beach-side town, but with every little part you explore, you start to put the jigsaw together. Soon you realise San D’s a pretty big place.

Even so, with its heart so clear to see on its sleeve, you feel like you know the city from the moment you arrive to the point where it’s time to say a sad goodbye. We really miss you, San Diego!

What are your favourite pieces of San Diego?

Images by Mrs Romance.


  • Reply March 4, 2014


    Oh it’s so pretty and blue! I’ve been wanting to travel more in th states and never really considered San Diego but I totally want to go there now!

    • Reply March 6, 2014

      Mr Romance

      You should definitely try it out, Smags. It’s such a cool little city. Very little pretense and great food and drink. Would be back in a heartbeat.

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  • Reply August 23, 2018

    Rhiannon Day

    I would love to come back and explore San Diego more fully. We visited Sea World, San Diego in October 2015 but unfortunately didn’t have any time outside of that to explore the area. As we were driving through it looked so beautiful. This guide has definitely given us some things to add to the bucket list when we come back!

    • Reply August 24, 2018

      Mr Romance

      Don’t you just hate that, Rhi? When you see a place disappear in your rearview mirror that looks great but you just don’t have time to explore. Hope you get a chance to head to SD again soon. It’s a wonderful city. Glad we could help with your bucket list – it’s pretty much what we live for. 🙂 Jim

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