Robin’s Guide to San Diego

January 2012 — I made this for friends who were visiting. Perhaps it may be of use to you as well! These are my favorite places in my hometown of San Diego. Being from Encinitas, my recommendations are weighted fairly heavily in North County. These are presented from north (Carlsbad) to south (downtown), with a few other, farther recommendations. Unless noted otherwise, all photographs are my own.

Enjoy your visit to America's Finest City! —Robin


This city grew exponentially in the 1980s. The downtown area along the 101 is a nice area to walk along, and the beaches are (of course) lovely.

Naked Cafe


A delicious and healthy(ish) breakfast cafe along the 101. Pancakes and French toast! Then a stroll three blocks south to the beach. Map.



Order a double-double, fries well-done, and a neopolitan milkshake. The drive-thru never has fewer than 8 cars in it. Map.

Kings Fish House


Really big on seafood. A Southern California chain. Map. Main site.

Premium Outlets

mallOutlet mallimage source: Google street view

A bazillion outlet stores, including Crate&Barrel, Coach, BCBG Max Azria, Theory, Joe's Jeans, Cole Haan, Michael Kors, Le Creuset, etc etc etc. Map. Main site.


attractionLegolandimage source: Google street view

Tap into your inner child. Unless you're Willem. Then just be yourself. Map. Main site:


Sleepy beach town with some hidden treasures (mostly Mexican food). The 101 is great for a stroll.

On the 101

Juanita's Taco Shop

bars-on-windows Mexican foodJuanita's

Incredible taco shop on the 101 across from a pottery shop. It is nondescript from the outside, but the food is to die for — great guac and carnitas. Cash only!! Map.

Pannikin Coffee & Tea Encinitas

breakfastPannikin Encinitasimage source: Google street view

Great for a pastry and coffee/tea breakfast. It's in a huge bright yellow building that used to be a train station. Map.

Seaside Bazaar

walking around

An outdoor artists market, every Saturday and Sunday. Lots of local wares — pottery, glass, jewelry, drapey clothing, things carved from wood. Map.


shopHome shopimage source: Google street view

Hip vintage/used clothing shop, very well edited. The employees are all tatted and snobby, but in an endearing way. Map.

Boat Houses

drive-by attractionBoat Houses

Just a fun local quirk — two houses built inside bright blue boats, on a residential street like it's not a big deal. Map.


beachSwami's Beach

A nice surfing, walking, and tidepooling beach. Lots of wooden steps down. Not often crowded. Tiny free parking lot. Map.


beachMoonlight Beach

The best local beach — sand, surfing, swimming, volleyball, playground, and bonfire pits! You'll have to get there at like noon to reserve a pit, though. There is a big free parking lot. Sometimes crowded. Map.

Self-Realization Fellowship

templegardenSelf-Realization Fellowship

So beautiful lit up at night — like a pink and gold cake! During the daytime, you can walk around the Asian-inspired gardens and gaze out into the sea. Map. Main site:

Downtown Encinitas

Casa de Bandini

fancy Mexican foodCasa de Bandiniimage source: Google street view

This used to be in Old Town San Diego before it was ruined by out-of-town investors. Diane Powers moved it up to Encinitas, mariachi band and all. It's beautiful inside, especially at Christmas, and the food is really good. It's fancier than most Mexican places around here; entrees are in the $13 range. A large margarita is served to you in a glass bigger than your head. Sit outside when the weather is warm. Don't be put off by the unremarkable chain stores in the surrounding plaza. Map. Main site:


nice Mexican food

My favorite Mexican good place. So good! So clean. I recommend the crunchy taco combo plate. You will also learn all kinds of Spanish from the educational placements. Map.

Isabell French Pastry


Decent French goods. Not a sit-downy place, but still good for a to-go order of un croissant aux amandes. Map.


nice dinner

Tucked away in a strip mall, this restaurant is tastefully decorated and serves "European country dishes with a fresh California twist." Excellent service and good wine; regular joint of the foodies in the area. Map. Main site:


VG's Donuts

breakfastVG's donuts

Breakfast essential along the 101. Lots of kinds of donuts. Order a few with a carton of milk and sit at the dirty tables outside with local surfers, still salty from the beach across the street. Map.


shopPatagoniaimage source: Google street view

High-quality outdoorsy clothes with great style. Right near the beach. Map.


breakfastburritosPipesimage source: Google street view

Breakfast burritos. Breakfast burritos. Breakfast burritos. Beware, this place can get packed. Map.

Solana Beach

A coastal town with a creative streak.

Cedros Design District

walking aroundCedrosimage source: Google street view

A street full of furniture and design-y shops, ranging from beautiful to awful and cheap to chintzy. Find street parking for free and walk around. Map.


shopSoloimage source: Google street view

Fun and lovely design store on Cedros. Furniture, books, wall decor, stationery, and fun knickknacks like classroom spelling cards from the 1930s. Map.

Leaping Lotus

shopLeaping Lotus

On Cedros. One of those co-op shops — 120 merchants in a giant space. Lots of little gifty things. Strong in housewares and accessories. Map.

The Beach House

dinnerThe Beach Houseimage source: Google street view

Good for a seafood dinner; good wine list. Get reservations on busy nights so you have a table next to the floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto the ocean. At night, they shine floodlights onto the waves so you still have a view. Map. Main site.

Del Mar

The racetrack is the stuff of old-timey 1930s San Diego, located on Jimmy Durante Boulevard. Seabiscuit raced here.

Del Mar Racetrack & Fairgrounds

seasonal attractionSan Diego County Fair (Del Mar Fair)

Fair in June-July, racetrack July-September. The Fair is enormous and has typical fair fare: rides, fried anything, huge halls full of goods that need zealous demonstration, and also a gemological exhibit. For the rest of the year, it's home to concerts and events like the Holiday of Lights. Map.

Holiday of Lights

drive-thru festivity

This is at the Del Mar Racetrack in December. Really hokey, but so fun! Map.

Powerhouse Park

beach shopsPowerhouse Park beach

This family beach is beautiful and right near a lot of little shops and cafes. Free parking is rare, but there's a parking garage at Del Mar Plaza (15th St. and 101). The park is great for picnics and tossing a Frisbee. Map.

Pannikin Coffee & Tea Del Mar

cafePannikin, Del Mar

If you're in the area, this is a nice little cafe to catch your breath and relax. It's in the middle of a lot of fun little stores. Again, I will recommend the Mexican hot chocolate. On Fridays, they have live music. If the elusive George Svoboda is playing, do listen to his excellent classical guitar stylings. Map.

La Jolla

Fancy houses with incredible views. Little shops, both chain and local. Somewhat walkable. Surreal, gorgeous coastline.


beauty of natureTidepools

Absolutely gorgeous here! Just ridiculous. Tidepools feature anenomes, crabs, little fish, sometimes a sea cucumber or tiny octopus. Be sure to go during low tide (tide charts). Street parking, free on residential streets, mostly paid near downtown area. Map.

Harbor seals

funny animalsSeals.

Also see the harbor seals, who took over an area built for children. They are smelly and hilarious. Map.

D.G. Wills

bookstoreD.G. Wills

My favorite bookstore in San Diego! Chock full of books. The proprieter is always reading behind the counter and is a friendly guy. Many luminaries have read here, including Ginsberg and Billy Collins. Be sure to go all the way in the back, through the door disguised as a bookcase (!), to the used book area. Here, the books are layered three-deep in the shelves, and there are a lot of hidden gems. There's not much parking around here, but park in the Vons lot down the street for free. Map.

Pannikin Coffee & Tea La Jolla

cafePannikin, La Jolla

Right next door to D.G. Wills. The interior is really adorable — fireplace, chess tables, knick knacks. Try the Mexican hot chocolate or (if you need a pick-me-up) the Jimi Hendrix coffee. Map.

Birch Aquarium

attractionBirch Aquarium

Brought to you by UCSD and Scripps, so you know it's educational! It's not huge, but it is very well done. My faves: ray pool, seahorses, jellyfish, shark eggs. Main site:

Downtown San Diego

Lovely in some places, icky in others, lively everywhere. Expect meters or parking garages.


nice dinnerCroce'simage source: Google street view

This is a restaurant and jazz bar in the Gaslamp District and is incredibly good. It was opened by the wife of Jim Croce ("Bad Bad Leroy Brown"), and it's decorated with tasteful rock 'n' roll memorabilia. Highly recommended: vanilla lavender honey creme brulee. Yeah. Map. Main site:

Gaslamp Quarter

walking around

Best at night. Mostly restaurants and bars. Some theaters and shops. A little grungey off-path. Map.

Seaport Village

walking aroundbookstoreSeaport Villageimage source: Google street view

Seaport Village is a cutesy mall with local shops right next to the ocean. The shops are hit or miss — like Upstart Crow (really excellent bookshop) next to a Wyland gallery. For those who may be interested, there is a merry-go-round nearby. Parking free, abundant. Right around the corner from the convention center. Map.

San Diego Maritime Museum

attractionStar of Indiaimage source: Google street view

This museum is actually a collection of historic ships! Including the Star of India, the world's oldest active sailing ship (built 1863). The harbor is a cornerstone of San Diego's history, and this museum is extremely well done. Map. Main site:

San Diego Harbor Excursion

attractionSan Diego Harborimage source: Google street view

A boat tour around the harbor. It's nice to see the skyline from a distance and enjoy the salty breeze in your hair. Make reservations at main site:

Little Italy

walking aroundLittle Italyimage source: Google image search

An artsy little enclave in San Diego with some galleries and cheesy (get it?) Italian restaurants. Map.

Balboa Park

walking aroundBalboa Parkimage source: Google street view

This is also a must-see. Beautiful carved buildings, palm trees everywhere, fountains, good-looking families enjoying themselves in the sun. This is San Diego's densest cultural center — a lot of museums. Parking is free and abundant, but you may have to walk a long way. See for maps and a full list of attractions. Map.

San Diego Zoo

attractionSan Diego Zoo

In Balboa Park. World-famous! Pandas! Elephants! Penguins! And a really well done monkey area. Very worth it. Map. Main site:

San Diego Museum of Art


In Balboa Park. Large and pretty good, as far as museums go. It's strong in Spanish work, especially El Greco. Its sister museum, the Timken, is next door and free. Map. Main site:

The Prado


In Balboa Park. Quite yummy, lovely menu — a great place for lunch in between Balboa Park stops. Map. Main site.

Coronado Island

The downtown area has some cutesy shopping areas. The island prides itself on getting decked out for Christmas. The Coronado Bridge is 2.1 miles long and a little scary (but toll-free!).

Hotel del Coronado

attraction Coronado Hotel

Known as the "Hotel del", this landmark opened in 1887 on the island of Coronado. It's very walk-around-able, and there are restaurants and shops on the premises, including a really delicious ice cream shop. It's all pretty overpriced. Also, it may be haunted. The beach is glorious though, and there's a lot of sand. There's street parking but it might be paid, and on busy days it's really hard to find a spot. Map.


A little east...

Safari Park

attractionSafariimage source: Google street view

Operated by the San Diego Zoo, this is an animal park on a huge plot of land, where the animals can run free! (Ish.) Big on African animals; some Asian animals too. Map. Main site:


A little north...

Oceanside Pier

walking aroundbeauty of natureO'side pierimage source: Google street view

Nice place for a slow stroll at sunset. You'll pass families fishing and watch surfers in the water. At the end of the long pier is a Ruby's restaurant, good for a burger and shake. Map.

Robin Camille Davis. Last updated 2012-01-26. Uses Masonry jQuery plugin.