Located just on the southern US border and with a population of around 1.3 million, San Diego is one of the most popular stop-over destinations for anyone that’s coming back from or going to Mexico.
However, the city itself has plenty of attractions, and if you find yourself in San Diego, you won’t regret it and might even make it your fully-fledged vacation spot!.
Where to Stay in San Diego
San Diego has quite a lot of great locations, but vacation-goers will probably be most interested to know that there are plenty of beaches.
These sandy destinations are filled with beach-side cafes, bars where you can grab a cocktail or a cold drink, restaurants, and eateries where you can grab a bite to eat, and possibilities for water sports and all sorts of dynamic activities.
The city also has quite a few historic locations, such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Promenade, the Balboa Park, and the William Heath Davis House.
Moreover, there are the museums of science that you can go to, and there are even a few battleships that you can visit and check out from the inside.
Anyone that’s looking for a bit less education and a bit more fun on their vacation can instead visit the SeaWorld that’s in the city or go to one of the many theaters, like the famous Mandell Weiss Theatre.
Additionally, there are also plenty of nightclubs that you can visit if you’re looking to have a bit of fun or dance for a bit, as well as plenty of bars where you can just get a drink with your friends and enjoy the music.
San Diego’s 6 Best Parts of Town
San Diego has a lot of interesting attractions, so we’ve had to leave quite a few of them out; otherwise, this article would be just a bit too long.
However, the attractions that we do mention are what we consider to be some of the best, and they’re located in the following sections of the city:
- Balboa Park: The most popular location in the city, brimming with museums and botanical beauty
- Gaslamp Quarter: The go-to place for a night out and clubbing
- Embarcadero: Home to the best fish restaurants in the city and a few very interesting naval museums
- Midway District: The shopping district of the city
- Mission Beach: The best beach in the city packed with water-based activities
- Hillcrest: Variety in cuisine and a thriving LGBTQ scene
San Diego’s Best Areas and Hotels
San Diego has a lot of hotels that are all over the place, so it’ll be pretty easy to find a room regardless of which section of the city you decide to stay in. The only thing that you’ll need to keep an eye on is the overall prices of the rooms.
We’ve gone ahead and sorted most of the hotels by price, though a lot of them are also sorted by the level of service and amenities that they offer.
You’ll also find mentions of which parts of the city are a bit more expensive than others, so you’ll be able to plan out your budget a bit more while you’re staying there.
1. Balboa Park
While this might not be an area of the city on its own, Balboa Park is definitely a popular destination for any visitor to the city, thanks to the multitude of different attractions that you can find around here.
Famous for its beautiful botanical gardens, this park also has quite a few more attractions as well. The biggest draw of this area is obviously going to be the San Diego Zoo, which is one of the most famous and biggest zoos in the world, housing over 4,000 animals of more than 800 species.
Both kids and adults love this attraction, and it’s just a great way to spend an afternoon by going through the entire place, which — given the zoo’s vastness — will be a true, exciting challenge!
Balboa Park is also the home to the Museum of Us, which is a pretty famous building that was constructed back in 1915. The museum features some good anthropology exhibits for anyone that’s interested in that field or just for curious tourists, and it also hosts some pretty “out there” exhibits as well.
The exhibits on feminism, the history of famous women, and inclusive talks that take place in the museum, open to questions by the audience, are some of the more exciting events organized here.
On the other side of the spectrum, you have exhibits on cannibals, exhibits on the history and methods of brewing alcohol, and some other events that would probably pique anyone’s interest.
The downside of this park is that there are obviously no hotels here, so you’ll need to find a room in one of the surrounding areas and walk to the zoo, the museum, or whichever other attraction you might be interested in seeing.
Things to Do
- Go to the Morley Field Sports Complex, rent out one of the many different sports fields there, and play a few matches with your friends or kids.
- Take a walk through the spectacular park and just enjoy the greenery, the fountains, and even the Japanese Friendship Garden with koi fish that’s located near the middle.
- If you’ve never tried golfing before, then the Balboa Park Golf Course is a great place to learn since the field isn’t too big, and there’s a smaller course that you can try out as well.
- Visit the San Diego Air & Space Museum if you want to see some of the historic spacecraft that are on display there.
Where to Eat
- WorldBeat Cafe is a great place to get a drink and a bite while exploring the park.
- Sabertooth Grill is where you go if you want to try out some BBQ.
- Panama 66 offers you coffee and a live band performance at least once a day.
Balboa Park Budget Hotels
- International Travelers House Adventure Hostel provides all of the guests with free breakfast, wifi, and a flat-screen TV in the lounge.
- Days Inn by Wyndham has an AC unit in every room, free wifi throughout the location, a front desk that’s always available, and a microwave in the common area.
Balboa Park Mid-Range Hotels
- Best Western Cabrillo Garden Inn has rooms that come with free wifi, an AC unit, and a flat-screen cable TV.
- Holiday Inn Express has a complimentary breakfast buffet where the guests get quite a large selection of different food items that they can choose from each morning.
Balboa Park Luxury Hotels
- Marriott Vacation Club Pulse provides each guest with a TV that comes with cable, satellite, and film channels, but you also have suites that you can get, which also come with a microwave and coffee maker.
- Four Points by Sheraton comes with an outdoor heated pool that all of the guests can use all year round, tea and coffee making facilities available in every room, and even an on-site fitness center where you can work out.
2. Gaslamp Quarter
The Gaslamp Quarter is also known as the nightlife district of San Diego. This is where you should go if you want to try out some of the best bars, cafes, and even restaurants that the city has to offer.
And of course, this area of the city is also the place where you’ll find some of the biggest and most exhilarating nightclubs. You’ll easily find live jazz, rock, and even metal performances almost every night.
There are bars that serve every kind of drink or cocktail, and the most famous ones that you can visit are probably the Prohibition Lounge and the Tipsy Crow, but there are plenty of others as well.
While the night scene is why most people come to this area of the city, there are also plenty of things that you can do during the day as well.
There are plenty of trendy shops that you can visit, entertainment venues like the Balboa Theatre or the Spreckels Theatre that you can take advantage of, and even late 19th-century architecture that you can just walk among and marvel at.
Since this is a busy section of the city, not to mention a hot spot for nightclubs located in the middle of the city, it’s pretty expensive to actually stay here.
There are still reasonable hotels that you can find, but the fun clubs and bars charge a lot more per drink than most of the other locales in the city, so you’ll need to dig deep into your pockets if you want to have a good night here.
Things to Do
- Walk around and keep an ear out for any club that might be playing something that you’d like to dance to, or just find a nice bar and have a cold drink.
- Check out what’s plating in the Balboa Theatre and maybe catch a show that might pique your interest.
- The Gaslamp Quarter is actually 16 blocks long, and most of that is made up of late 19th-century buildings, so you can just take a walk and see all of these Victorian buildings.
- Go to the Gaslamp Museum at the Davis-Horton House if you want to learn everything about San Diego, from the history of the buildings to the surfing culture.
Where to Eat
- Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop is a great place to get something sweet.
- STK Steakhouse has a great selection of ribs, pork chops, and of course, steaks.
- The Old Spaghetti Factory offers traditional Italian dishes if you’re in the mood for some pasta.
Gaslamp Quarter Budget Hotels
- Gaslamp Hostel provides all of the guests with a shared lounge that they can use, free wifi in every room, and a continental breakfast each morning.
- HI San Diego Downtown Hostel has an 8-ball table that everyone can use in the shared lounge, as well as coffee and tea making facilities and a shared kitchen.
Gaslamp Quarter Mid-Range Hotels
- Horton Grand Hotel provides each guest with a room that has a cable TV, a gift shop that’s always open, and an on-site restaurant with a bar.
- Courtyard by Marriott has rooms that are soundproofed, which means that the guests can watch their HDTV at full volume if they want without worrying about noise complaints.
Gaslamp Quarter Luxury Hotels
- The Westin San Diego comes with a fitness center that’s pretty well equipped, a swimming pool where you can have a bit of fun, and even a full spa where you can go and relax at the end of the day.
- The US Grant comes with an in-house restaurant, a fitness center that you can use, a massage service that comes straight to your room, and it’s located in the middle of the nightlife section of the city, so it’s surrounded by bars.
Embarcadero is known as the waterfront of San Diego and a cruise-ship hub. Here you’ll find plenty of interesting attractions like maritime museums, water wildlife, public art, outdoor shopping, and more.
The most important historic location that you’ll find in this section of the city would have to be the USS Midway Museum, which is in the hull of an actual naval aircraft carrier that you can board.
You’ll see plenty of ordinance and even a few sea mines, not mentioning the actual crew quarters and many other parts of the ship.
However, a trip to Embarcadero isn’t considered complete until you go down to Seaport Village, which is located down by the south section of this area, and that has the best seafood-themed restaurants that you’ll find in the city.
You’ll also find quite a lot of different shops, entertainment venues, and even parks and ponds that you can explore. That said, after you see the museums and eat at a few of the restaurants in Seaport Village, you might find the rest of the activities lackluster.
There are plenty of hotels that you can stay in, but most people don’t really feel the need to stay in this area for more than a few days before they want to explore other sections of San Diego.
Things to Do
- You can’t go to Embarcadero and not visit the USS Midway Museum to check out some of the most fascinating naval exhibits that you’ll find anywhere.
- Go down to Seaport Village and get on one of the San Diego seal tours if you want to go on the water and try to spot some sea life.
- Take a walk by one of the two parks that you can find in this area and check out the ponds, fountains, and the waves from the shoreline.
- If you’re still not sick of ships, then you can go to the Maritime Museum of San Diego and check out a few more exhibits.
Where to Eat
- San Diego Pier Cafe is a great place to grab a coffee while gazing out into the waves.
- The Fish Market – San Diego is the place to go if you want to try the catch of the day.
- Ruth’s Chris Steak House offers quite an impressive menu for both their steak and wine selection.
Embarcadero Budget Hotels
- Wyndham San Diego Bayside has rooms that come with free wifi and a cable TV, an outdoor pool, and even a pool-side fitness center.
- Embassy Suites by Hilton comes with rooms that have an AC unit and cable TV, on top of the microwave and coffee maker that are also provided to everyone.
Embarcadero Mid-Range Hotels
- San Diego Marriott Marquis and Marina offers all of the guests a fitness center that’s always open, as well as fitness classes that all of the guests can participate in.
- Pendry San Diego comes with an a la carte breakfast that you can enjoy each morning, as well as a flat-screen cable TV and AC unit in every room.
Embarcadero Luxury Hotels
- InterContinental San Diego has rooms that come with a massive 49-inch TV, a coffee machine that you can use, and even three dining venues where you can eat, on top of the rooftop bar where you can grab a drink while enjoying the great view.
- Hilton San Diego Bayfront comes with a 55-inch TV in every room, a safe where you can store your valuables while you’re not in the room, and a pool with a bar on the side where you can get a drink.
4. Midway District
If you want to change up your wardrobe and get yourself some new threads, then the Midway District is the best place in San Diego for you.
There are plenty of different shops and boutiques that you can visit, where you can find anything from a full suit or a formal dress to something a lot more casual and a lot less expensive.
This is also the home of the Pechanga Arena, where you can watch events that include everything from WWE matches to full orchestra concerts. Around this arena, you’ll also find a lot of fast food spots and cafes where you can take a break and maybe grab something to eat before you continue exploring.
The Midway District is also the place where you’ll find the Old Town State Historic Park, which has plenty of pretty interesting things like a few art studios, live Mariachi bands, a fully functional blacksmith shop, and a few more attractions as well.
This park also holds walking tours of attractions such as recreations of cultural events that have deep roots in Mexican history.
There aren’t all too many hotels or restaurants in this area, and there are practically no nightclubs or bars where you can have a bit of fun after dark. This area of the city is more for daytime tourism, so if you’re looking for a party, you might want to visit one of the other areas of San Diego.
Things to Do
- Check out the many department stores that this area has, as well as the cafes and food stands that are located in the shopping malls.
- Rent one of the many available courts in this area and just take a break for a few hours while you play a few matches.
- Go to the Mormon Battalion Historic Site and check out a pretty unique memorial that was erected in honor of a group of Mormons that died during the American-Mexican war.
- Visit the Old Town Market and check out the many food stands, souvenir shops, and different knick-knacks that are on display here.
Where to Eat
- Perry’s Cafe is a great place to grab a coffee when you want to take a break from your shopping spree.
- Bay City Brewing Co is a great place to go if you want to grab a stiff drink.
- Casa Guadalajara is a great place to grab some authentic Mexican food.
Midway District Budget Hotels
- Motel 6 has pretty sparse accommodations, but they still provide all of the guests with a 40-inch flat-screen TV, free wifi, and a reasonable price for the room.
- Travelodge by Wyndham offers rooms with a cable TV with HBO movie channels, a front desk that’s open 24/7, and even on-site laundry facilities.
Midway District Mid-Range Hotels
- Wyndham Garden has an outdoor pool that all of the guests can use during the summer season, dining options at the bistro and bar, and a coffee maker in every room.
- Howard Johnson by Wyndham provides you with free parking, free wifi throughout the hotel, and an outdoor pool.
Midway District Luxury Hotels
- Old Town Inn comes with a cable TV and a DVD player in every room, a reception desk that’s open both day and night, coffee-making facilities, and you also get a complimentary breakfast in the dining area each morning.
- Holiday Inn Express gives you access to an on-site laundry facility that you can use, a free breakfast buffet each morning, and free wifi throughout the hotel, including all of the rooms and the business center.
5. Mission Beach
San Diego has some of the best beaches in California, and that’s saying something. There are plenty of different beaches that you can visit, but Mission Beach is one of the biggest in the city.
It’s great for tourists that want to stay in shape, as it has quite a lot of sport-based amenities. Think volleyball fields, a splendid boardwalk for jogging, an avid surfing culture, and the like.
There are also quite a lot of marine shows, plenty of surfboard rental shops, and of course, Mission Beach also accommodates those who just want to chill in the California sun.
You might also be interested in visiting Belmont Park’s rollercoaster that’s admittedly not the biggest in the world.
But it’s still worth a visit if you want to have some fun. Mission Beach is also quite close to the San Diego SeaWorld attraction, which means that you’re only a short bus ride away from the best aquariums and sea life exhibits in the entire city.
Unfortunately, aside from the beach, there’s very little else going on here. There aren’t many restaurants to find, no particularly interesting bars or nightclubs, and there aren’t even all that many hotels where you can find a room.
If you want to have some fun on the beach, then this is the place to go, but you won’t get much else out of this area of the city aside from that.
Things to Do
- Grab a ball, find one of the many volleyball courts that are present in this area, and see who’s better at spiking the ball.
- Try your hand at a bit of fishing, try to learn to surf, or go and try some of the other water-based activities around this area.
- Go to SeaWorld, check out all of the marine life on display there, and maybe catch a dolphin or orca show.
- There are plenty of whale-watching cruises that you can take to see these giant animals up close, and which will show you some beautiful sights of the city from the water.
Where to Eat
- Arslan’s Gyros can offer you some authentic Greek food.
- Now Sushi is only a relatively small shop, but it has some tasty sushi that you can try.
- Better Buzz Coffee Mission Beach has a pretty big selection of different coffee drinks that you can try.
Mission Beach Budget Hotels
- Boho Chic Beach Suite has a flat-screen TV with satellite channels and free wifi in every room.
- California Dreams Hostel provides the guests with a dining and kitchen area, a cable TV in all of the rooms, and a choice of a continental or buffet breakfast.
Mission Beach Mid-Range Hotels
- Blue Sea Beach Hotel is located right next to the beach, and it provides you with a massive 50-inch TV in your room and a beach-front pool.
- Surfer Beach Hotel comes with a heated outdoor pool that can be used all year round, free coffee, hot chocolate, and tea services, and a flat-screen TV in every room.
Mission Beach Luxury Hotels
- Ocean Park Inn comes with free throughout the whole hotel, an LCD TV and AC unit in every room, and a coffee machine where you can make your morning cup-a-joe.
- Pacific Terrace Hotel comes with an outdoor pool and hot tub that all of the guests can use, free parking in an underground lot, and a fitness center with every type of equipment that you can think of.
Hillcrest has plenty of bars, cafes, and fancy restaurants where you can enjoy a coffee, sit down for a meal, or just enjoy a nice drink at the end of the day.
There’s also plenty of variety in these establishments as well, and you can find everything from the Mexican food that you might expect this close to the border to less standard sorts of cuisine that have Himalayan or Greek origins.
Additionally, while it may not have quite as many different clothes shops and boutiques as Midway District, you’ll still be able to find plenty of great clothes stores in this area of the city.
You’ll also see quite a few second-hand clothes stores, souvenir shops, produce markets, and any other sorts of stores that you might need. This area of the city is actually most famous for its thriving LQBTQ scene, and there are plenty of gay bars that people can visit and have a drink in.
You might also be interested in trying to catch the pride parade that passes through this part of the city once a year, which is a pretty colorful event.
While there are things to do in Hillcrest, there’s no one attraction that actually draws people to this location aside from the LGBTQ bars.
However, since most people prefer to stay somewhere near the water or at least near some more notable attractions, there’s a pretty good chance that the hotels in this area won’t be overbooked, and you’ll easily be able to find a room.
Things to Do
- Visit some of the bars in this area and check out the many cocktails and different aesthetics that all of them have on the inside.
- Go to the farmers market and maybe get yourself some fresh fruit, or sit down and eat something at one of the eateries.
- Go to the Marston House and take one of the many tours that show you the decor and pottery that was common in such grandiose buildings back in the day.
Where to Eat
- Bronx Pizza is just a small shop where you can get a slice of pizza
- Lemonade is a great place to get a bite to eat and try out one of the many different flavors of lemonade that they have available.
- Luna Grill is where you want to go if you’re in the mood for some BBQ.
Hillcrest Budget Hotels
- Extended Stay America Suites allows you to keep pets in your room, provides you with breakfast each morning, and has free wifi in every room.
- The Atwood Hotel has a coffee machine and cable TV in every room, as well as free wifi.
Hillcrest Mid-Range Hotels
- Legacy Resort Hotel & Spa comes with an AC unit and TV in every room, an a la carte breakfast each morning, and a hot tub that you can use.
- DoubleTree By Hilton comes with an on-site fitness center that the guests can work out in, and an outdoor courtyard with a fire pit where you can sit at night.
Hillcrest Luxury Hotels
- Hampton Inn has a fitness center that you can use regardless of the time of day, a free daily breakfast that’s served each morning, and all of the rooms come with an AC unit and a TV.
- Kings Inn has two on-site restaurants, one of which provides you with a breakfast in the dining area each morning and the other with a pretty menu full of Mexican dishes.
So, Where Should You Stay in San Diego?
The answer to this question is honestly going to differ from person to person, so deciding on one single destination in San Diego that everyone wants to visit is practically impossible.
On the other hand, all of the locations that we mentioned have their own draws and strong points, so it’s pretty easy to find something that people might like in just about every part of the city.
We’d also not recommend worrying too much about being close to the attraction that you want to visit since the bus fare will only cost you a few bucks, and you can reach one part of the city from the other in short order.
As long as the hotel isn’t too far away, and you don’t have to spend more than half an hour on public transportation a day, we’d say that you’re free to pick out any of the hotels or destinations that we mentioned since you’ll probably have a good time just about anywhere in San Diego.