From surfing to art galleries: five of the best things to do in San Diego

San Diego’s year-round sunshine and surf makes it the perfect road trip stop for water babies, though there’s plenty to discover beyond the shore. With a diverse range of neighbourhoods, from the historic Old Town and lively Little Italy, to the picturesque seaside area of La Jolla, a visit to San Diego can easily feel like several holidays in one.

Bordering Mexico, the city’s cuisine is heavily influenced by its neighbour, offering some of the most authentic Mexican food in all of the United States – a cross border blend referred to locally as Cali-Baja cuisine. However, with an ever-growing dining scene, there is something to be found for every kind of foodie.

1 Sample award-winning Mexican cuisine at Cafe Coyote
Nestled in historic Old Town, Cafe Coyote has been a San Diego staple since 1989 when husband and wife duo Ritch and Lehn Goetz decided to set up shop in the building they were living in at the time.

Offering traditional Mexican food and a festive atmosphere to locals and tourists alike, their story perfectly captures California’s what-if spirit. “Thirty years ago our end of Old Town wasn’t as busy as it is now and it kind of needed a restaurant,” says Lehn. “I had worked in restaurants while I was in university, but hadn’t been in the restaurant business, so it was more circumstantial than a great big plan – though it has turned out to be great now.”

With 200 employees, Lehn credits the restaurant’s staff for much of their success and longevity in San Diego. “We have some people who started with us, back when we only had 20 employees, who are still with us,” she says. “It was hard at first; we lived in the building and the restaurant was very small, but we were tenacious and determined to make it work.”

Lehn recommends every visitor feasts on Cafe Coyote’s famous handmade tortillas with carnitas, which is the house speciality. “It’s a pork dish, which is absolutely delicious and goes great with the tortillas, and Ritch and I travelled all over Mexico to get the specific recipe. You should try it with one of our grande margaritas.”

The couple, while still focused on Cafe Coyote, now also run their own Rancho Coyote winery in Sonoma’s Russian River valley. “Ritch and I have always had a passion for wine too,” says Lehn. “We make a very dry, simple wine that actually goes very well with Mexican food. Now it’s becoming a part of the restaurant as well.” cafecoyoteoldtown.com

2 Catch a wave with Surf Diva
No Californian road trip would be complete without at least attempting to surf, and even complete beginners can take advantage of San Diego’s waves with a little help from Surf Diva. Founded by twin sisters Izzy and Coco Tihanyi, Surf Diva started out as an all-female surf school, but has grown over the past 20 years to offer lessons for all. “In 1996, we were known as the original all-girls surf school,” says Coco. “Six years later, we opened our surf lessons up to boys and men. Our school is now for everyone, of all ages and skill levels.”

Operating from their award-winning store on Avenida De La Playa, right by La Jolla Shores beach, Surf Diva is something of a dream come true for the San Diego natives. “We are so grateful to have grown up in San Diego … Every day was spent either in the ocean, the pool or studying at the beach,” says Izzy. “We learned to surf as kids at La Jolla Shores beach from our dad, a former swimmer and water polo player. Our first jobs were in businesses on the same street where we are now located and we dreamed of someday owning our own surf shop here.”

“Every day at our office is, in fact, a day at the beach,” adds Coco.

Surf Diva’s private lessons can be booked for one or two hours at a time. The company also offers standup paddleboarding classes if that’s more your speed, as well as week-long surf camps for kids and teens. surfdiva.com

3 Mike Hess Brewing
Nothing complements a beach day quite like a good beer and Mike Hess Brewing has plenty of them. While Hess opened his original Miramar spot back in 2010, booming business has led to an additional four locations, with the North Park brewery and tasting room offering a not-to-be-missed experience.

“Our North Park location, located near the famous San Diego zoo, is the mothership of the Mike Hess experience,” says the man himself. “We built a beautiful showcase brewery where guests, upon entering, can see and touch and smell the beer in process. The skybridge, which quite literally goes through the brewhouse vessels, lets guests interact with our brewers and safely be in among the tanks. It leads to the tasting room where we have anywhere from 20 to 25 different options on our menu; we suggest guests get a flight – a five beer sampler – to start their journey and taste a range of flavours and beer styles.”

The production facility is almost as impressive as the Mike Hess story. Born up the coast in San Francisco, Hess attended the University of Colorado where his love of craft beer began. “I started drinking craft beer during my college years, back when craft was just called microbrew,” he explains. “Five or six years later I got a homebrew kit and started making up my own batches in my kitchen. The hobby grew and grew.

“San Diego was already beginning to get a reputation as a world-leading, preeminent beer town. I figured that if I could stand out in the San Diego beer scene, we’d really be on to something and would have a brand that could go places.” mikehessbrewing.com

4 Indulge in a little joie de vivre at Wolfie’s Carousel Bar
If you like your cocktails with a side of whimsy, look no further than Wolfie’s Carousel Bar in Little Italy. One of only two working carousel bars in the US, Wolfie’s opened in August 2021 and quickly became TikTok famous thanks to its playful design, and delicious drinks.

“Based on the dimensions of the space we had to work with, we looked for months around the country to find an existing carousel that we could modify to fit the location,” explains co-owner and designer Mauricio Couturier. “After not being able to find a correct fit, we decided to build our own with the intention to pay homage to the classic carousels of the past with our own twist.”

Mauricio and his wife, Gillian, are well-known in San Diego for designing and operating similarly fantastical venues Bang Bang, Voyeur and Airport Lounge. For Wolfie’s Carousel, they teamed up with co-owner and multimedia artist Abe Aguilar to help bring the vision to life.

“I love that at Wolfie’s you can be in the heart of San Diego and be transported to another space and time for the evening,” says Aguilar. “Nothing makes me more happy than to see people enjoying the space that we’ve worked on so hard for a few years.”

Serving up a menu of French classic dishes, alongside refreshing cocktails and plenty of wines and beers, you can easily make a night of your Wolfie’s visit. Request carousel seating when making your reservation for the full experience, though there are plenty of tables throughout the restaurant as well. wolfiescarousel.com

5 Get cultured at Balboa Park
Balboa Park is something of a one-stop shop for experiencing the history, natural beauty and community of San Diego. Home to 17 museums, including the Automotive Museum, the Natural History Museum, there really is something for everyone within Balboa Park. Be sure to check out gems such as the recently-renovated Mingei International Museum and the anthropology-focused Museum of Us. The park also hosts the San Diego Museum of Art.

“We are so grateful to be located in the heart of Balboa Park – a true gem in San Diego offering visitors an assortment of cultural and science institutions,” says Roxana Velásquez, Maruja Baldwin executive director and chief executive of the San Diego Museum of Art. She emphasises the importance of the park and its museums and says her role there has helped her to both pursue and pass on her passion for art. “I became involved in the arts due to all the wonderful visits to museums with my parents throughout my childhood. I learned that art is a right for everyone, and exposure to the different cultural and artistic languages would make us better as a society … I knew that the arts were the only path for me, and I wanted to share it with broader audiences.”

The San Diego Museum of Art houses works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Claude Monet and Diego Rivera, to name but a few, offering visitors a truly eclectic experience – much like Balboa Park itself. On any given day you could stumble upon an open-air concert at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, home to the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world, or you might find yourself transfixed by the koi ponds at the Japanese Friendship Garden. The possibilities are endless. balboapark.org

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