With a population of over 1.3 million, selecting where to stay in San Diego can be difficult. But if you love culture, the beach, delicious food, wildlife, and friendly people, San Diego is the perfect city for you. There are so many unique neighborhoods to choose from.
But how do you know which one to choose? Local writer Chantae Reden created this guide to help you with your decision. These are the five best neighborhoods and places to stay in San Diego.
Where to Stay in San Diego
Born and raised in San Diego, I might be a bit biased on just how incredible the city is.
There are neighborhoods centered around the arts and culture, nightlife, family friendly beaches, and more.
I've narrowed down this great city into the five best neighborhoods in San Diego.
This guide will show you where to stay in San Diego, what to see, and share the best things to do.
Though you'd have a great time sticking to the main tourist points of interest in San Diego, I'll also share some activities that the locals love to do.
Each of these neighborhoods has plenty things to do within walking distance, a unique vibe not found anywhere else, and a range of accommodation options to suit all budgets.
Southern California is notorious for its bad traffic. Unfortunately, San Diego is no exception.
This is why it important to check out one of these neighborhoods when looking for places to stay in San Diego.
It is a great way to make the most of your time in America's Finest City.
You might not ever want to leave!
Suggested San Diego Neighborhoods
If you want to skip directly to any of the neighborhoods in San Diego, click on the links below.
- #1. La Jolla - for the classic Southern Californian beach experience
- #2. North Park - a colorful urban neighborhood near museums, restaurants, and nightlife
- #3. Ocean Beach - a fun and funky beach area stuck in the 1960s
- #4. Gaslamp Quarter - San Diego soul in the heart of downtown
- #5. Old Town - Mexican food hotspot and early 1800s Spanish architecture
San Diego Quick Tips
How to get around San Diego: San Diego has over 100 neighborhoods and is the state's second largest city.
Getting from one end of the city to another can be a hassle in rush-hour traffic.
If you plan on seeing the whole city while you're here, its best to rent a car for your trip.
The freeways will take you to any major highlight. Outside of downtown, parking typically isn't a problem. Downtown San Diego is easily walkable and has trolley system with over 50 stops.
You won't need a car if you're staying downtown or in Old Town, where the cost of parking can be very expensive.
Tickets for the Red Trolley are between $0.50 - $3.00.
The Old Town trolley stops at 11 places and even comes with a narrated tour. For more information on times check out their website.
The beach and inland neighborhoods of San Diego are less accessible with public transport, so you'll want to hire a car.
If you're leaving San Diego to go towards Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, and Northern California, take the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner. You'll be able to relax and see parts of the California coastline that are only viewable from the train line.
If you would just like a day trip to L.A. from San Diego then check this out.
Grab yourself a San Diego City Pass to really take advantage of everything the city has to offer.
Where to Stay in San Diego: Neighborhoods
There are enough neighborhoods in San Diego to suit every personality. Some are very laid-back and beachy while others are energetic and urban.
However, you'll quickly discover that there are quite a few consistencies throughout San Diego. There are Mexican food stands or restaurants in every neighborhood, the sky is usually sunny, and locals love to small talk.
Plan Your San Diego Trip
It's usually sunny in San Diego, but the temperature often drops once the sun goes down.
Along with your bathing suit, T-shirt, and shorts, pack layers to put on in the evening and early mornings.
The ocean temperature is also quite chilly. If you have a wetsuit (3 mm thickness or less) and plan on swimming, pack it. Otherwise, there are plenty of rental shops in the beach neighborhoods if the sea water ends up being too cold for your liking.
If you plan on hopping the border into Mexico for a few hours, you will need your passport to return. Beer is the alcoholic vice of choice for San Diegans, the micro-brewery capital of the world. Don't be afraid to order a brew you've never heard of before.
Tip 15% of the bill for decent service and 20% or above for great service.
Book your tickets in advance -- there are usually deals running online or offered through your hotel.
There are also plenty of free things to do in San Diego.
#1 La Jolla
The Major Attractions
If you were born to be at the beach, you'll love La Jolla (pronounced the Spanish way, la hoya).
This upscale neighborhood is home to many San Diegan celebrities, and where Dr. Seuss penned many of his cartoons.
If you are looking where to stay in San Diego that offers lots of adventure this is the place for you.
Picture sunny days spent lounging on the wide beach of La Jolla Shores, paddling in a kayak through the La Jolla Caves, browsing through boutiques, dining on fresh Mexican fare, and more.
La Jolla also hosts Mount Soledad, the Birch Aquarium, a handful of museums, and enough adventure tour companies to keep you active for days.
Suggested Hotels in La Jolla
Things to see and do in La Jolla
La Jolla Shores - The main beach of La Jolla. Children can run across fresh grass, play on the playground, build sandcastles and splash in the waves.
The beach is heavily patrolled by vigilant lifeguards. You can also take surfing lessons at La Jolla Shores if you're a beginner, or walk north along the beach for more advanced waves.
It's also a great base for scuba diving, kayaking, and paddling.
The La Jolla Caves - Paddle to the La Jolla caves with a kayak or standup paddleboard. Curious sea lions lounge on the surrounding rocks and often swim by paddlers to get a closer look.
Pack a pair of fins, a mask, and a snorkel to look at the neon orange Garibaldi fish, leopard sharks, and kelp beds below the surface.
Birch Aquarium - This aquarium features educational exhibits and will give you a new perspective of the marine life local to La Jolla.
Torrey Pines Gliderport - Conquer your fear of heights by going hang gliding or paragliding from the top of Torrey Pines cliffs. Or, order a coffee and watch from the safety of the Cliffhanger Cafe.
The Children's Pool - Watch harbour seals relax and play. The beach is open to the public for part of the year and closes during seal pup birthing season, where you might witness a birth from a distance.
Mount Soledad - Walk to the top of Mount Soledad at sunset to capture incredible views of the San Diego.
Tour the neighborhood by bicycle - Rent a bicycle from Avenida de la Playa and weave through the neighborhood of San Diego's rich and famous.
Tan your cheeks Black's Beach - If you want an all-over tan, walk north of Scripps Pier to Black's Beach, a de facto nude beach. While not technically legal, rangers and lifeguards won't hassle you for tanning in your birthday suit. They won't help you put on sunscreen, either. The surfing at Black's Beach is also world class.
La Jolla Cove - Swim, snorkel, lounge, and kayak from the shores of this peaceful cove.
Dine and shop at the many venues in La Jolla.
Walk through the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve - One of the only places in the world to see the rare Torrey Pine.
Kayak caves and reserve tour - Paddle with a guide to the amazing La Jolla Caves, where you're nearly guaranteed to see sea lions.
Bike tour - See local and nearby landmarks on the Hike Bike Kayak "Freefall" bike tour.
Segway Tour - Take in the beauty of San Diego by Segway.
Kayak whale watching tour - Head out on a boat and look for migrating gray whales.
By bus - The public bus #30 runs downtown San Diego to La Jolla
Follow the #30 bus in real time through the SDMTS website.
By car - Take I-5 and exit La Jolla Parkway. Follow the road into La Jolla, turn right on Prospect Street.
The main streets in La Jolla are La Jolla Village Drive, Prospect Street, Avenida de la Playa, and Girard Avenue.
By taxi - La Jolla does not have a public taxi stand. Book one by phone or through a hotel.
Looking for a car rental?
We use them all the time!
#2 North Park
Creative urban living
North Park is one of downtown San Diego's most vibrant and diverse neighborhoods, with street art, bars, quirky restaurants, and cultural sites lining the streets. Here, creativity is rewarded and the locals aren't afraid to experiment when it comes to how they live and work.
It's the type of place that serves beer cocktails, lattes with foam art, and paint pallets as plates.
If you are looking for a convenient and quirky place to stay in San Diego this is the neighbourhood for you.
North Park is walking distance to many cultural hubs like Balboa Park, the Ray Street Arts District, and the North Park Theater.
Suggested Hotels near North Park
Things to See in North Park
Balboa Park - The southern end of North Park borders Balboa Park, San Diego's cultural hub with science centers, museums, art galleries, gardens, performance venues, and more. Balboa Park is a must-see for every visitor no matter where you stay.
The San Diego Zoo - See over 3,700 animals and attend educational experiences put on by the world's largest zoo.
30th Street - An entire street made for foodies who like to chase their meal with a creative cocktail or craft brew. Locals love Tiger! Tiger! Coin-Op Game Room, Polite Provisions, and the True North Tavern. The best way to experience 30th Street is to start at one end and stop into whichever venue catches your eye. Bad bars and dud restaurants don't last long in North Park, so most places are bound to be good.
University Avenue - North Park's main shopping area, this street has everything from designer boutiques, used bookstores, music venues, and psychic reading stations. Business owners here tend to shy away from big name brands and instead sell goods that are produced locally or are from a small label.
Observatory North Park Theater - Opened in 1929, this theater hosts music and theatrical performances for as little as $5 per show.
Ray Street - This road with tens of art galleries is home to the city's busiest art walk, called Ray at Night, that takes place on the second weekend of every month.
San Diego: Buds and Brews Tour - Visit a craft brewery and learn about the history of Cannabis. It is legal now!
Balboa Park Walking Tour - Perfect for those who want to see Balboa Park from an insider's perspective. Do this before spending a full day at Balboa Park's many museums.
1 Day Skip the Line Admission to the San Diego Zoo- Skip the line with this full day pass to the San Diego Zoo.
Tour The USS Midway Museum - Enjoy a memorable visit to the USS Midway Museum when you're in San Diego. On active duty from 1945-1992, this was the world’s longest-serving aircraft carrier. On board, you’ll relive the Midway’s exploits and hear about events that changed the world.
By car - From the I-805: Exit University Avenue. Turn left onto University Avenue.
From the I-5: Exit Pershing Drive and continue onto Upas Street.
Parking available in a garage on 29th Street.
By bus - Bus #2 stops all throughout 30th Street. Check the bus in real time on the SDMTS website.
By taxi - Taxis are common throughout Downtown San Diego and can be called in advance or hailed from the road.
Looking for a car rental?
We use them all the time!
#3 Ocean Beach
Beach town stuck in the 1960's
My free-spirited grandfather used to take me to Ocean Beach as a child and wistfully say, "O.B. -- where you live happy and free" as soon as we stepped out of our car.
Today, the sentiment still rings true. Ocean Beach is a casual neighborhood where alternative lifestyles are not just welcomed, but embraced.
Walk along the main street past all types of restaurants, boutiques selling tie-dye everything, healing crystal shops, and taco stands. Street art covers formerly bare walls and the sun is usually shining after noon -- once the marine layer of fog burns off.
Explore the tide pools, go swimming in the ocean, and walk along the Ocean Beach Pier.
Ocean Beach is accepting of everyone, including pets.
If you are looking for where to stay in San Diego with pets, you'll find that Ocean Beach is just about as accommodating as it gets.
Suggested Hotels Near Ocean Beach
Things to see and do near Ocean Beach
The Ocean Beach Pier - Walk along the historic pier and check out the shoreline from a unique angle.
O.B. Farmers Market - Every Wednesday, O.B. hosts a farmers market where you an buy fresh produce, hot meals, flowers, and artwork.
Tide pools - Look for crabs, anemones, clams, and other marine life at the O.B. tide pools during low tide.
Voltaire Street Beach - If you want to go away from the crowds and hang where most of the locals go, venture to Voltaire Street Beach. Along the road are many quirky restaurants, shops, and bars leading to the shoreline.
Newport Avenue Beach - O.B.'s main beach, this is the perfect place to surf, relax, build sandcastles, and live the California lifestyle.
Sunset Cliffs - Like the name suggests, it's best to walk along the cliffs of this nature reserve right before the sun goes down.
Street art - Walk around Ocean Beach and you'll see artwork in many forms. In the main area, you'll see murals painted in a mosaic style - with each section painted by a different member of the community.
Newport Avenue - If you love hunting for unique souvenirs, Newport Avenue is lined with thrift stores and antique shops.
Surf lessons - Take surf lessons from a bohemian San Diegan surfer and catch one of the friendly waves of Ocean Beach.
Dog Beach - O.B. has an entire beach devoted to dogs, where they can run off-leash and dig until their paws get tired.
Getting to Ocean Beach
By car - From the I-5, to the 8/Sunset Cliffs Boulevard and follow that to Bacon Street.
There is free street parking in residential areas of Ocean Beach and metered parking in the main areas.
By bus - Bus #35 runs from Old Town (a major public transport hub) to Ocean Beach. Bus #923 runs from downtown San Diego to Ocean Beach.
By taxi - Taxis frequently run to and from Ocean Beach, but you'll likely have to call one in advance.
#4 Gaslamp Quarter
Historic neighborhood that never sleeps
If you are looking for where to stay in San Diego and want to be in the heart of downtown, the Gaslamp Quarter is a great choice.
The Gaslamp Quarter has an interesting wild western history marked with stories of tavern brawls and shootouts. The quarter was once home to the city's red light district, gambling casinos, and 1860s Chinatown. Many residents believe that the ghosts of Gaslamp's past haunt this neighborhood to this day.
There are almost 100 historic buildings in the Gaslamp Quarter, which makes it an interesting contrast to the rest of downtown San Diego's modern skyscrapers.
Aside from its rich history, the Gaslamp Quarter has restaurants, bars, and is walking distance to highlights like the San Diego Convention Center, Petco Park, Balboa Theatre, and Horton Plaza.
If you're up for a bit of light spirited debauchery and want to stay near many of San Diego's greatest landmarks, choose the Gaslamp Quarter as your base.
Suggested Hotels in the Gaslamp Quarter
Things to See and Do in the Gaslamp Quarter
The best way to experience the Gaslamp Quarter is to explore the nearby areas and neighborhoods during the day, and return to the Gaslamp Quarter at night.
Go bar hopping - The Gaslamp Quarter has some of San Diego's most beloved bars like Karl Strauss, Vin de Syrah Wine Parlor, Prohibition Lounge, barleymash, and many more. You can hop from a speakeasy style bar to a loud nightclub as often as you'd like.
Watch the Padres Play at Petco Park - Despite being a less-than-stellar baseball team, San Diegans adore the Padres. If you want to see a baseball game, stay in the Gaslamp Quarter for the night. Transportation is hectic around game times, and the district is usually celebrating or mourning the game's outcome right after at the local bars.
Shop at Horton Plaza - This mall in the middle of downtown San Diego is where you can shop for all the latest Southern Californian necessities (and desires).
U.S.S. Midway - In the San Diego Harbor is the U.S.S. Midway, an aircraft carrier turned into museum that offers tours led by veterans. Here, you can see what daily life was like on the U.S.S. Midway, climb inside military aircraft, and chat to experts.
Brothels, Bites, and Booze - A walking tour that takes you to some of the best places to eat in the Gaslamp Quarter while educating you about the neighborhood's boisterous history.
Petco Park Tour - Take an exclusive look at where the Padres practice and play.
U.S.S. Midway Docent Tour - While entry to the U.S.S. Midway comes with a self-guided audio tour, why not get a personal perspective from one of the volunteers who know the ship best?
By car - The Gaslamp Quarter is in the middle of downtown San Diego and runs along 5th and 6th Avenue.
Parking can be hard to find and is very expensive in the Gaslamp Quarter.
By trolley - All trolley lines service the Gaslamp Quarter. The stations are Gaslamp Station and Fifth Avenue Station.
By pedicabs - The Gaslamp Quarter is serviced by pedicabs, bicycle-powered rides that often have music playing out of a boom box. These are a fun way to get around downtown.
#5 Old Town
The birthplace of California
Old Town, as you can guess from the name, is a historic part of San Diego that was the first Spanish settlement in the early 1800s. Before that, it was an important area for the Kumeyaay Native Americans. Old Town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
What makes Old Town so interesting today is that its retained its charm and style of architecture.
Many San Diegans believe that Old Town is haunted, with most ghosts residing in the Whaley House.
You can spend your time browsing through museums, visiting the Mission, sampling Mexican food, and listening to live music from a mariachi band.
Old Town is perfect for visitors of all ages interested in food, history, folklore, and have a great imagination.
Suggested Hotels in Old Town
Things to see and do in Old Town
- Eat Mexican Food - Rotate meals at Casa Guadalajara, Old Town Mexican Cafe, Cafe Coyote, El Agave, Fred's Mexican Cafe, and any other restaurant that calls to you with its fresh and spicy aroma.
- Junipero Serra Museum- The place where San Diego began, this museum features pieces from when California was established.
- Whaley House Museum - The source of many San Diegan's nightmares, the Whaley House was built in 1856 on property where James "Yankee Jim" Robinson was hanged for grand larceny. The Whaley family first noted Yankee Jim's presence, and are thought to also haunt the house today. You can go on a guided tour of the Whaley House Museum and see the ghosts for yourself.
- Presidio Park - Picnic, walk, and enjoy the views offered throughout Presidio Park, home to the San Diego Mission. Old Town paranormal activity continues in Presidio Park, where you might see the ghost of Lucy, a benevolent white deer.
- Casa de Estudillo - This home built in 1825 has 13 rooms is furnished with antiques and was once the home to San Diego elite.
- Old-time shopping and activities - Step back in time at Old Town's market where you can taste handmade taffy and chocolates, make your own candles, and paint traditional Mexican trinkets.
- Mine for Gems and Gold - How would you have fared during the California gold rush? Try your hand at panning for gold, gems, and other minerals at the Old Town mine.
Urban Adventure Quest - A tour led by your smartphone that has you and your team solve clues and complete puzzles to get to the next destination. Starts in Old Town.
Tequila, Tacos, and Tombstones - This tour highlights Old Town's haunted reputation and takes you to some of the best Mexican food restaurants in town.
Old Town Tequila and Tortillas - A tour nearly every foodie will love, this walking tour explores Old Town's best Mexican fare.
Old Town State Park Tour - A free tour led by at the state park -- no reservations necessary.
Old Town Trolley Tour - Ride one of San Diego's quirky trolleys and listen to fun historical facts about the area.
By car - Old Town is located in the northern end of downtown San Diego between the I-5 and the I-8. Exit Pacific Highway from the I-5 and Taylor street from the I-8.
By bus/trolley - Buses #8, #9, #10, #28, #35, #44, #88, and #105 service Old Town and go throughout most of San Diego. The Green Line trolley also passes through Old Town and stops at the Old Town Transit Center.
Get more details about the bus routes on the SDMTS website, including live updates.
By taxi - Taxis frequent Old Town regularly but you will likely want to call one in advance.
Looking for a car rental?
We use them all the time!
No matter which neighborhood you choose as a home base in San Diego, you're sure to have a spectacular time. You can easily bounce from one neighborhood to the next without ever feeling bored or as though you've seen it before.
The city has a well-deserved reputation for being lively and diverse, a combination that pleases even the most high-maintenance traveller. I hope this has made the task of finding where to stay in San Diego a little easier.
Remember to pack sunscreen and brace yourself for spicy Mexican cuisine. Eat an extra California burrito for us!
Chantae Reden is an action sports and travel journalist from San Diego, California and has been living an expat lifestyle since 2013. She is currently on a mission to try out every adventure sport around the world. You can find more of her writing on her travel blog, Chantae.com
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