In late May 2019, my family and I decided to take a spontaneous vacation to San Diego. My little brother had just graduated high school, I was in town for Mother’s Day and my parents were in need of some beach time. Here's what we did, ate and experienced during our incredible 5 day vacation.
Prior to our arrival, we looked at reasonably priced Airbnb’s. My family and I are big fans of having a kitchen while on vacation so we can cook our favorite meals in a new place. We booked an excellent Airbnb not too far from the city center in a neighborhood called Normal Heights. It’s exactly what you would expect: it was normal. I would go a step further and call it basic. It was a primarily residential neighborhood which was great for a family but not so great for party animals. We stayed in a modern two story apartment behind the owners of our Airbnb. It was about a 20 minute commute to and from the center of San Diego. In case you're interested, we stayed here.
The first thing my family and I did when we arrived in San Diego was head to Mission Beach. This lively and popular beach was the ideal spot for relaxing, catching some sun rays and people watching. I particularly enjoyed renting a pair of rollerblades and cruising down the sidewalk dodging bikes, electric scooters, pedestrians and everything in between. I put on my music and took a nice cruise up and down the beach several times before I joined my family and became a starfish on the beach. The water was COLD. I’ve been to several beaches around the globe but this one was no joke. The water temperature was a solid 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees celsius). When I saw surfers in wet suits, I knew why. After my first dip into the 60 degree water, I stayed for a bit but later regretted it. As soon as I left the water, my teeth were chattering all the way home. I swore I almost got hypothermia. A long hot shower at the end of the day helped sooth my frozen my body but it wasn’t an easy transition. I recommend visiting Mission Beach if you want a nice beach experience with lots of energy and people. However, do go in the summertime when the weather is hot and the water is a tad bit warmer.
One of my favorite parts of the trip was driving to Sunset Hills and gazing out at the epic rocky cliffs leading out to the ocean. It was a breathtaking experience as I had never seen such a majestic looking point. The hills overlooked the ocean with tall, dry and porous rocks that crumbled next to the sea. Waves splash at your feet and the wind sweeps through your hair. It’s a super majestic place to catch the sunset or spend time with loved ones.
The Waterfront Park
On our second day, we hit the Waterfront Park. We needed tourist information and this was the spot where we found the most reliable tourist information spots. On our way there, my parents and I were mesmerized by the maritime vibe there. we found the amazing Unconditional Surrender statue near the water. It's a statue of a military man returning from the war and kissing his wife near the water. I thought it would be fun to recreate this scene with my parents. My mom was swept off her feet.
We also enjoyed seeing the battleships in the San Diego bay It was Memorial Day weekend so people were especially prideful of our armed forces. They hung special Memorial Day flags on the battleships and opened the Maritime Museum for us to see.
San Diego Zoo
We spent much of day two at Balboa Park. We decided to drop the $50 a piece to visit the San Diego Zoo. Let me start off by saying that I’m a vegan and I vehemently oppose animal cruelty and containment. Zoos tend to be associated with animal cruelty in my book, so I was quite resistant to the idea of visiting the San Diego Zoo. When we arrived, I was pleasantly surprised by how grandiose the park really is. There’s a double decker bus that can take you around the park, there is air lift that can give you an aerial view of the park and of course, you can walk the miles and miles around the circumference of the park. I was also amazed at how well-researched the park was. The zoo has hundreds of species of animals all of which were organized by geographic region with plants and a natural environment that mimicked their home environment.
I could tell the people who set up the living areas for the animals were very aware of the needs of each animal and took special care to feed and house the animal in a way that would be similar to its home environment. This is a totally different approach compared to other zoos I’ve seen which place the animals in dry and desolate cages with no resemblance to their home environments.
Overall, the San Diego Zoo offered my family and I hours of fun and delight with plenty of opportunities to walk around and be surrounded by lush environment and healthy animals.
Old Town Mexican Cafe
After the zoo, we were in need of a filling meal. So we made our way to the Old Town Mexican Cafe. This cafe is located in the historic Old Town, known to be the birthplace of California. Old Town is full of old-style Mexican-Spanish architecture and culture. We heard from more than one local that the best Mexican food can be found in Old Town and they were telling the truth!
The Old Town Mexican Cafe has an outdoor monument that highlights the history of the borough with ancient photos of the original inhabitants of Old Town. It was interesting looking at photos from the 1800’s of cowboys, Mexicanos, and white settlers.
To compliment the history, we entered the cafe and had some of the best Mexican food we’ve ever had. My family and I are from Colorado, a state that used to be part of the old Mexican empire. With that said, we know Mexican food but this was totally different. Old Town and much of San Diego is only 30 minutes from Tijuana and you can tell the Mexican culture is still so strong there.
My family ordered beef street tacos and I ordered a vegan tostada. Even though these meals were simple, they were incredibly flavorful and highlighted the amazing amount of time and effort taken to flavor the meals. On top of that, just across our table, were four ladies making handmade tortillas in front of our eyes. The very tortillas we were eating were made by the hands of these talented women and you could taste the quality and love put into the food.
Needless to say, we highly recommend visiting Old Town and stopping by the Old Town Mexican Cafe for your daily dose of delicious and authentic Mexican food. You can more about the Old Town Mexican Cafe here.
After our fix of Mexican food, we wanted to hit a beach to catch the sunset. We heard a few recommendations of beaches from various locals so we decided to stop by one that sounded interesting to all of us: Coronado Beach.
Coronado is a totally different city. It’s separated from San Diego by a long bridge that connects the island to the mainland. Coronado is culturally different and we could tell very quickly that the island was a financially well-off community. The island is full of perfectly manicured grass, million dollar mansions and an extremely private beach. As we drove through the winding neighborhood roads, we were met with house after house after house that was estimated at over a million dollars. We even found rental properties with the average rental price set at $6,500 a month.
Coronado is an exclusive, rich island community with its own private (or it felt pretty private to us) beach. We arrived to Coronado Beach at 6:30pm and it was almost completely deserted. There were a few people walking their dogs or playing in the sand but it was nothing like Mission Beach which was crowded, lively and eclectic. Coronado Beach was quiet, tranquil and secluded. My mother really enjoyed the privacy but I much preferred the liveliness of Mission Beach. After about an hour of cautiously dipping our big toes into the 55 degree water, we decided to head home for the night.
La Jolla Shores
Day three was the warmest day during our trip to San Diego so we felt it was absolutely necessary to call it a beach day and relax. We arrived to La Jolla Shores around 11am and stayed until 4pm. A lot happened in that time. For one, I was nervous about entering what I perceived as freezing cold water. Even though it was the warmest day of our trip in San Diego, to my standards it wasn’t warm. It was 69 degrees outside and the water was about 60 degrees. That’s nowhere near the ratio of outside temperature to water temperature that I enjoy. So I procrastinated on my phone for the first two hours of the beach day. My mom sunbathed next to me as my brave younger brother and stepfather took to the ocean. When they returned, their teeth were chattering. They said, “it’s not that bad”, which was code language for “it’s freezing out there”.
After seeing my brother and stepfather jump in and out of the water several times, I felt inspired to join them. My mother was also turning into burnt toast and decided it was time for both of us to jump in. We moved our beach stuff closer to where my brother and stepfather were swimming and forgot to wrap up our chips and beach snacks. Just 30 seconds after my mother and I joined the others in the water, the pelicans completely devoured every bread and chip product we had. We were lucky enough to have a couple of nice neighbors who tried to help us but it was too late. The birds had done their damage and all of my pita bread was gone.
Not only did we lose our snacks, I also lost a lot of body heat and went into small bought of teeth chattering after dipping in and out of the water. I was in the water, jumping over waves for about an hour and when I retreated back to our towels, the chattering did not stop. My teeth continued to chatter all the way home until I took a long, warm shower.
Despite the birds and the ice cold water, La Jolla was a beautiful beach. Not too crowded and very family friendly. However, it didn’t have a lot of amenities like coffee shops, restaurants or beach rental spots like Mission Beach did. So it was my second favorite beach of the trip. Either way, I highly recommend this beach for families that want a more laid-back and less crowded beach experience.
Back to Mission Beach, Belmont Park and Rollerblading
After La Jolla, we decided to return to Mission Beach and give it another go. My family didn’t like Mission Beach too much because of how many people there were but I loved it. Right next to Mission Beach is Belmont Park, a vintage amusement park. My family and I enjoyed grabbing ice cream and observing the park rides. Apparently, you buy tickets to your ride of interest, pay and hop on. It’s refreshing compared to Elitch Gardens (Denver’s major amusement park) back home where you have to pay $100 a day regardless of what ride you enjoy.
After our ice cream, I decided I wanted to relive my 90’s youth and I rented a pair of inline skates (or rollerblades) at the price of $10 for four hours. There are a ton of beach rental businesses on Mission Beach that rent all sorts of beach equipment which includes skates. I spent the next 2 hours skating up and down the sidewalk with the beach on my left and cute restaurants, souvenir shops and coffee houses on my right. I put on my favorite California beach tunes and let my feet do the work. This was by far one of the most enjoyable experiences I had while in San Diego. Skating on the sidewalk next to the beach was such a classic California experience for me and it felt good to indulge.
The rest of the evening was spent at home cooking dinner together and doing laundry before our final day of the trip arrived.
Dolphin and Whale Watching
On our last day in San Diego, my mom was fixated on having a mid-oceanic experience. She found a great deal on whale watching tickets. We spent $50 a person for a three hour whale and dolphin watching boat trip. I wasn’t crazy about the idea but my mom really wanted to go. So we went and boarded a two story boat with plenty of seating at the front, top and back of the boat where we could spot dolphins and whales from all angles. We went at 10am and the trip lasted until 1pm. On the journey, I was shivering as usual so we went inside and grabbed some coffee and snacks. They were pretty pricey at $5 a drink even for a hot tea which was nothing but a tea bag and hot water. We sucked it up and paid the price. It really helped with the cold ocean breeze.
As we cruised, we saw two different species of dolphins swimming in families of up to 20 dolphins! It was a truly magical experience to see their fins go up and down, as they swam around our boat with curiosity and playfulness. When it came to the whales, they were much harder to find. We had to go about 10 miles off the coast of San Diego and cruise around their typical feeding area; a trench that was about 700 meters deep. Eventually after much waiting, we saw three in a row! Our tour guides were sure to remind us that the great Blue Whale is one of the biggest mammals ever to inhabit earth. They are thought to be bigger than even the largest dinosaur.
For my family, we huddled together for warmth and found solace in watching nature’s most free and wild animals enjoying their daily breakfast while we drank our warm tea and hot cocoas. Overall, the whale watching experience was excellent. It’s important to dress warm and bring a little bit of cash if you want to snack onboard. The overall experience was magical and was well worth the $50 a piece to go.
In-n-Out Burger and Evolution
After whale watching, all of us were starving, so we decided to hit up a classic California burger chain. My family decided on In-N-Out Burger, a California food chain known for their simple menu and fresh ingredients. The chain has a 1950’s vibe with its red and white color scheme and cheerful employees. My family enjoyed the Double-Double burger with the animal fries (fries with ketchup, cheese and everything in between on them).
As for me, the only vegan on the trip, I decided to hit up Evolution, a vegan fast food burger spot that mimics much of In-n-Out’s burger experience. It had a drive-thru and could let me order virtually everything my family had earlier but veganized. I ordered the black bean burger with guacamole and jalapeños with fries and a lemonade. It was super delicious and helped me feel included in the family burger experience.
Needless to say, our trip to San Diego was magical. We got to see three amazing beaches, eat the best Mexican food on the planet, watch whales and dolphins in the Pacific Ocean and so much more. If you find your way to San Diego, be sure to check out these amazing spots.