san diego city guide

Illustration by Nilo Naghdi

Our San Diego City Guide update comes to us from blogger and San Diego resident Julia Wheeler. Julia shares with us her love for the sunny beachside city of San Diego with a wonderful guide to eating, seeing and shopping in each unique neighborhood. Thanks, Julia, for this fantastic tour through San Diego!

CLICK HERE for the full guide after the jump!

You probably know San Diego as a beautiful, family-friendly beach town or as Spring Break central. While it most definitely fits the aforementioned stereotypes, its personality reaches beyond boardwalks and keg stands. If you have the time to dive a little deeper, you’ll realize its artistic and cultural personality shifts by neighborhood borders. Aside from a multitude of professional surfers and skateboarders, San Diego is the hometown of Tom Waits and Eddie Vedder. Frank Zappa’s first band was formed at Mission Bay High School, and Rob Halford is our neighbor (hypothetically speaking — I’ve never seen the guy, much to my dismay). Even Shepard Fairey and Dr. Seuss called San Diego home at one point in time. Have I name-dropped enough artistic types to convince you that we have more culture than two-dollar-you-call-its on Garnet Avenue and Shamu? Good, then read on!

Little Italy is pretty much our hub for high-end modern design, swanky new lofts, galleries . . . oh, and Italian food. The neighborhood is basically India Street and its surrounding blocks.

EAT + DRINK (these are all non-Italian options, as most of the India Street Italian spots are pretty choice)

  • Craft & Commerce This place serves up delicious cocktails, a slew of craft beers (try a local Green Flash brew!) and a selection of seasonal treats. Who could say no to a mini corn dog served by a cute boy wearing suspenders and a newsboy cap?
  • El Camino is a swanky lounge-y Mexican food experience. With a more modern take on Mexican décor, you can experience the culture without the touristy vibe of Old Town.
  • Burger Lounge is a local chain that serves up only free-range, grass-fed burgers, as well as a delicious vegetarian option in the form of a delish quinoa burger.
  • The Waterfront is the oldest bar in San Diego, which opened just after the repeal of prohibition. It has a dive-bar feel without being located in a seedy ‘hood. The burgers are actually kind of amazing, which is pretty unexpected from a dive.

HOME + FASHION

  • Vocabulary is a great little boutique for accessories and well-priced clothing. A perfect place to pop into while you’re meandering along India Street.
  • Klassik is one of my absolute favorite spots to covet mid-century items. The owners have impeccable taste, and the pricing is definitely reasonable for the quality of the pieces you can find here. You’re stoked if you can make it there for the Mod Swap (aka mid-century yard sale) in their parking lot a few times a year!
  • Mixture is just a couple of blocks from Klassik and has an excellent selection of modern furniture, a variety of accessories and small gift and home items.
  • Boomerang For Modern recently celebrated 25 years of bringing San Diego the best in mid-century modern furniture and design. You really can’t miss here.
  • Architectural Salvage is the spot for authentic period pieces and items ripe for up-cycling. It’s like a building filled with fantastic flea-market finds without having to do the actual flea market digging!

SEE + DO

  • JETT Gallery is a great little gallery attached to Klassik that features beautiful modern art and design in a bright, open gallery space.
  • Subtext borders on Little Italy and Downtown and is a gallery and bookstore that showcases fresh, independent artists, photographers and graphic designers. If you’re in the Little Italy neighborhood and are digging the modern, artistic vibe there, absolutely make a stop at Subtext.
  • Objects USA Event List If mid-century art and design are your thing, check out this event list before you head to San Diego for related happenings.
  • Little Italy Farmer’s Market This happens every Saturday from 9am to 1pm. There is so much to see and so much to eat here. It’s definitely worth wandering through with your morning espresso.
  • The Casbah is the best independent music venue in San Diego, hands down.

North Park + South Park are the neighborhoods that you’ll be in if you follow 30th Street from Adam’s Avenue to the 94 Freeway. These two side-by-side neighborhoods have been in gentrification-mode for the past few years, which has paved the way for loads of independent business owners to refurbish existing dives.

EAT + DRINK (from North to South)

  • Jayne’s Gastropub is a great spot if you’re looking to treat yourself to a bit of a pricey dinner. Jayne’s specializes in seasonal, local, organic offerings, has a great selection of craft beers and cocktails and lovely, simple yet elegant décor.
  • Bar Pink is owned by San Diego’s own John Reis (Rocket From The Crypt, Drive Like Jehu, Hot Snakes) and is a dive that’s been revitalized but not so much that it’s lost its independent vibe. You can catch tons of awesome local shows here, too.
  • Urban Solace is a comfort-food eatery in the heart of North Park. Try it for the Bluegrass Sunday Brunch, where you can experience the live music and some serious biscuits.
  • The Smoking Goat was featured here on Design*Sponge for its fantastic “before and after” on the interior. The food is just as wonderful as the design, and though it’s a small space, it’s worth the time you may have to wait for a table.
  • Vagabond is an adorable spot with eclectic global cuisine.
  • Alchemy is a wide-open space with simple, clean decor and wonderful service in the heart of South Park. Pop in here for some delish cuisine, and then head next door to Hamilton’s for some craft beers (dogs welcome!).
  • Station Tavern is a family-friendly spot with a simple-menu that consists mainly of gourmet burgers and a variety of deep-fried items (from sweet potato fries to tater tots!). It’s dog-and-beer snob friendly, to boot!

HOME + FASHION (from North to South)

  • Mimi & Red is a great boutique with adorable items (mostly for ladies) and totally reasonable prices.
  • Pigment is the absolute best spot in North Park to find amazing, unique home decor. They have a super terrarium selection and even offer kits and workshops for terrarium building led by master green thumb, tend!
  • Nest Vintage is tops in South Park for its mid-century and vintage furniture items.
  • Progress is a lovely little home and gift shop that’s definitely worth popping into!

SEE + DO

  • 30 on 30th is an event that happens every month on the 30th (go figure!) where restaurants on and around 30th street offer food and bev specials.
  • South Park Walkabout is an evening in South Park where you can meander around the neighborhood scene, catch some live tunes and get some dinner and drink specials!
  • Lulu’s Nail Salon is a small, higher-end nail salon that I highly recommend if you’re looking to get pampered while in SD. The spot is adorable, quiet, carries Chanel and Butter polish and won’t harass you with up-sells.

Ocean Beach + Point Loma are my favorite beach areas, as they’ve been able to maintain their vintage feel and personalities — total beach towns trapped in time. Almost Famous was filmed here for this very reason. OB is famous for its barefoot hippies, and if you can handle the patchouli smell for a few hours, there’s much to see.

EAT + DRINK

  • Nati’s has been an OB staple since 1960. It’s simple, cafeteria-style Mexican food. Don’t go here expecting gourmet — go to sit on the patio and try the ground-beef tacos and cheese enchiladas!
  • Bo Beau is a cute, rustic farmhouse-style French spot owned by a local San Diego family chain. It’s a great option for a swankier yet bohemian meal.
  • The 3rd Corner is a super fun place where you can bring your own wine or choose something from their large selection in the wine shop to have opened inside the restaurant. The baked brie is unreal.
  • Hodad’s has been around since 1969 and has been featured on The Food Network numerous times. It’s definitely a choice spot to grab a tasty burger and probably the best milkshake you’ve ever had.

HOME + FASHION

  • Newport Antiques is a large antique mall with loads of booths filled with everything from vinyl to vintage furniture to jewelry. It’s not the cheapest place around, but you never know what you may find and whether you may score a deal. From here you can easily walk a few steps to get to a handful of other antique malls on Newport, but this spot is my fave.

SEE + DO

  • The Pearl Hotel is your best bet for a vintage, mid-century boutique hotel while staying in San Diego. Even if you don’t stay, it’s a great place to catch a cocktail or a “dive-in” movie on the big screen by the pool!

Downtown + East Village can be a bit of a challenge for the unknowing traveler looking for a more independent experience. If you know the right spots, you can easily navigate your way past the tourist traps and experience some really rad gems tucked away between $5 t-shirt stores and the Hard Rock Café.

EAT + DRINK

  • Pokez is one of my favorite Mexican spots in San Diego. I love it for its large amount of vegan and vegetarian options. The place is filled with independent art and eclectic objects that you’ll love, especially if you’re into graffiti/street/tattoo/skateboard art.
  • Cafe Chloe is an adorable little French cafe that I love for breakfast, though they have a great lunch and dinner menu, as well.
  • Neighborhood is a great spot for a burger, sweet potato fries and a craft beer.
  • Noble Experiment is modeled after an old-time speakeasy. The drinks are all handcrafted by serious mixologists who truly take pride in their craft. You must have a reservation for this small, hidden spot behind the Neighborhood, but it’s absolutely worth the wait.
  • El Dorado Cocktail Lounge is another great spot for handcrafted cocktails and DJs or live music. If you can catch this place on a night when Lady Dottie and the Diamonds are playing, bring your dancing shoes — you won’t be in one of the red Naugahyde booths for long!

HOME + FASHION

  • 5&A Dime is a super hip spot for trendy threads for dudes and ladies interested in brands like Brixton and Clarks.
  • Urban Outfitters is Urban Outfitters . . . standard.

SEE + DO

  • The Machine Shop Gallery is an urban art gallery/studio/workshop that is working to showcase local artists. Check out the upcoming shows on their Facebook page.
  • Museum of Contemporary Art has one location here in Downtown and one in La Jolla. They frequently update their featured exhibitions and work to keep contemporary art available in San Diego.

Barrio Logan + Golden Hill are a bit newer on the gentrification scene. Barrio Logan has been a bit rough around the edges for quite a while and has just begun to attract artists and independent business folk for the cheap rent and open industrial spaces. The most exciting part about watching Barrio Logan take shape is that it’s close to the border, so the Mexican culture is woven throughout the trendy new galleries, which keeps it extremely unique.

EAT + DRINK

  • Blueprint Café features a local, seasonal menu filled with delicious comfort food in the really rad up-and-coming industrial neighborhood of Barrio Logan.
  • Two Roses is a barbershop/cafe/tattoo parlor in Barrio Logan. Pretty much a one-stop shop, right?
  • Krakatoa Coffee Shop in Golden Hill is a lovely little spot to have a coffee and a bite to eat on a peaceful little outdoor patio.

SEE + DO

  • Glashaus Artist Collective Warehouse is an artist collective in the heart of Barrio Logan.
  • The Bakery Design Collective is located in Barrio Logan in what used to be an old Mexican bakery, hence the name. It’s another awesome little artist collective that opens up a few times a year for gallery shows.
  • Chicano Park is a freeway underpass filled with beautiful murals that celebrate San Diego’s hispanic culture. It’s a cultural street-art must-see if you’re in the area.

Mission Hills + Hillcrest + University Heights are all bordering neighborhoods that lie within the main cross streets of Park, Washington, El Cajon, University, Adams and the lower numbered streets (4th, 5th and 6th.) I know that was a long list of streets, but it’s a really small vicinity, I swear. Hillcrest is famous for its over-the-top Gay Pride Festival & Parade, its prominent gay scene and the colorful culture that brings with it. Mission Hills is a gorgeous little neighborhood to the east of Hillcrest and just north of Little Italy with tons of cute restaurants and shops. University Heights is a small nook of a neighborhood with a handful of great spots, all within walking distance.

EAT + DRINK (ordered by neighborhood listing above)

  • Starlite was featured on Design*Sponge here, but what the write-up didn’t mention is that the local, seasonal menu and handcrafted cocktails are TO DIE FOR. Two words: Moscow Mule. They make the best in town!
  • Blue Water Seafood is part fish market, part made-to-order fresh fish restaurant. It’s served up in a casual atmosphere, but don’t let that fool you ― it’s some of the best seafood in town.
  • Bronx Pizz is some of the best pizza I’ve had outside of NYC. Comes complete with New York attitude, which definitely makes it taste better!
  • Kous Kous is tucked away below street level on the main drag of 5th Avenue in Hillcrest. It’s delicious Moroccan food in a cozy atmosphere with incredibly friendly service.
  • Ebisu is my favorite sushi place in town . . . and possibly ever. Their garlic edamame is incredible.
  • Pomegranate Russian-Georgian Restaurant is a totally unassuming spot on El Cajon Boulevard, right where El Cajon meets Park and Washington. The waiters speak adorable broken English and will be more than happy to make a recommendation for you. If you’re hesitant to try Russian food, don’t be. It’s ridiculous (as in ridiculously good). Try the salad sampler plate and the veggie stroganoff. If your garlic breath isn’t too bad afterward, head across the street to The Red Fox Room for a piano lounge experience or to the Livewire — an awesome dive with a killer juke box.

HOME + FASHION (ordered by neighborhood listing above)

  • mid*century on Park has an excellent collection mid-century designs. The staff is incredibly knowledgeable and helpful, and the prices are totally reasonable here, too.
  • design/one is next door to mid*century and is filled with very high-end mid-century modern designs.
  • Atomic Bazaar is just across the street from the above two shops on Park. It’s packed with a great selection of mid-century items. The staff here is super nice and helpful, and the prices are totally reasonable.
  • Flashbacks is a buy/sell/trade shop for vintage clothing. At first glance, it might look like a costume shop filled with Afro wigs and Elvis sunglasses, but there are definitely some gems mixed in with the costume madness! Head across the street to Buffalo Exchange for more buy/sell/trade clothing action.
  • Frock You is a fantastic spot for great vintage finds. It can be a bit pricey, but it’s worth it if you aren’t into digging through thrift-store racks!
  • Hunt & Gather is filled with impeccably styled vintage, new and up-cycled clothing. It’s tucked around the corner right behind Twiggs Coffee shop on Park.

SEE + DO

  • Cinema Under The Stars is a super fun little outing in Mission Hills where you can check out a classic or new movie in a small little open amphitheater on comfy lawn chairs.
  • Balboa Park is definitely a given. Meander through the gorgeous park, have a picnic or go for a bike ride. While there, visit one of the fantastic museums.

If you’re into collecting vintage and new vinyl, this is the perfect area. Check out any one of these nearby record shops for a great selection of vinyl:

Nod To North County – If you have some time to venture north about 20 to 30 minutes, there are some adorable beach towns that line the Pacific Coast Highway. Here are just a handful of my favorite spots:

EAT + DRINK

  • Hill Street Café in Oceanside is a great spot for yummy vegan and vegetarian food in a cute little Victorian house.
  • Honey’s in Encinitas has delicious comfort food and fresh, delish salads.

HOME + FASHION

  • Bixby & Ball is a fab new shop in the Cedros Design District with all sorts of adorable items from gifts to furniture.
  • Solo in the Cedros Design District is filled with eclectic items from Moroccan poufs to vintage mid-century items.
  • Rustic Rooster Interiors has a great selection of vintage and refurbished furniture, as well as fun knick-knacks and decor.

SEE + DO

  • Ducky Waddles Gallery is a great little gallery and book shop in Encinitas.
  • Lou’s Records is right next door to Ducky Waddles and is filled with a great selection of new and used music. You can sometimes catch really amazing shows right in their parking lot, too.
  • The Belly Up on South Cedros gets shows that vary from smaller local acts to big names like DEVO and Leon Russell.
  1. Suzette Nguyen says:

    Thanks for all the great suggestions and updates! As a native, I love exploring all the nooks and crannies in different San Diego neighborhoods :)

    My one suggestion – Sab-E-Lee in Linda Vista for Thai food. A mom and pop place that serves up some of the most authentic tasting Thai food – yummm. Note-it only seats about 12 people at a time.

  2. Amy says:

    What a great guide! Thanks to this and all these great posts, have had a completely decadent, fun week in SD! A shout out is warranted for my friends at Smoking Goat – delicious food and even better service!

  3. sarah says:

    maybe my computer/server is acting funky, but i can’t see the names of the neighborhoods or sections above each list of spots…i’ll be spending a week in san diego at the end of the month and would love to get full use of this great guide!!

    1. Grace Bonney says:

      sarah, our tech guy said:

      “This is a case of the browser being zoomed in / zoomed out. Go up to the view menu and select “actual size”: https://skitch.com/jayroh/886cm/view

      Or hit command + 0 in your keyboard (if you’re on a mac). I think it might be control + 0 if you’re on a PC.”

      grace :)

  4. jamie says:

    yay! so glad to see this update. well done lady!

    it’s been said, but never too much: blind lady ale house. and now their sister tiger! tiger!

    it should be mentioned that SD is kiiiind of the craft beer capital of the world, with north park at the retail heart of it. a few more north park restaurants worth mentioning include ritual tavern and the linkery.

    coffee and pastries or sandwiches at influx (golden hill or little italy)

    a manakeesh ultimate from mama’s lebonese bakery.

    up in escondido there is an ammaaaaazing niki saint de phalle sculture park

    and for any architect nerd the salk institute is an absolute requirement!

  5. Karen says:

    Whoa wait a minute! Can we talk about the only place to get a Chicago style hot dog, Italian beef sandwich, and deep dish pizza? Lefty’s in North Park (the original) and in Mission Hills are the go-to haunts for Chicago expats missing. Plus.. Underbelly is delicious (downtown), and someone’s gotta throw down for El Zarape on Park in University Heights (get the chile relleno burrito, trust me!). Plus… no mention of Live Wire? Great dive bar. I could go on. Bluefoot is the place to be if you like soccer and nice people. Or just nice people. And Soda Bar has great shows, surprised it isn’t listed!

  6. Amy Ramaker says:

    A couple of great places not mentioned in beautiful Solana Beach, just off of Cedros Ave. Design District are : RE-Gallery http://regallery.org and then stop by for an amazing lunch at Lockwood Cafe!

  7. hugo vazquez says:

    When in the south bay (chula vista) visit http://www.casadondiegos.com , this restaurant has been there for like 40 years and serves authentic mexican food, i love going there for a carne asada along with a madgarita.

  8. Annie says:

    Please make an LA City Guide!!

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