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A Life Less Ordinary

Things to See and Do in San Diego, California

When Mark and I started our current three-month house sit in San Diego, we knew we couldn’t go on weekend trips with our camper van like other times. Frida and Elvis, the two Italian Greyhounds we are taking care of, are relatively old – 12 and 10 years respectively – and home buddies; their owner prefers them to remain nearby. In a city like San Diego, that is not a problem at all! There is so much to do and see in this area that we could spend many weekends exploring and discovering. Here is a selection of what we visited over the last six weeks.

San Diego skyline with moored boats

San Diego Safari Park

We contemplated a visit to the safari park in Escondido, about 20 minutes north of the city, for my birthday (November 28), when our friend Amy (who recently graduated as a zoologist) gave us four free tickets that expired within a week. So, one Saturday, Mark and I set out to the park earlier than planned and had a fantastic time. Not as fascinating as the real thing in Africa, of course, but not a bad alternative! We were especially intrigued about the relationship between cheetahs and dogs. Every young cheetah is paired up with a dog and they become buddies for life.

San Diego Zoo

Since we had two free tickets left, we decided to use them for the Zoo (both parks are associated) on Thanksgiving Day, the date of their expiration. It was busier than expected and very hot, but this world-renowned zoo, which is heavily focused on conservation and rehabilitation efforts, delivered. The animals have a lot of room and are cared for in the most fantastic way. Our first visit here on Christmas Day 2005 impressed us, so coming back was a treat. Seeing the two baby tigers (one rescued from a Mexican smuggling operation) and the polar bears in the water was pretty special.

Cabrillo National Park

Since those animal highlights were explored early on, we decided on a picnic and visit to Cabrillo NP for my birthday. The weather wasn’t great, however, so we didn’t stay long. We had a very rare nap in the afternoon and a fantastic, affordable dinner at the sushi/tapas restaurant (interesting combination, right?) The Joint in Ocean Beach. Our planned “wine at sunset” extravaganza was postponed until the sun appeared again, the following weekend.

Coronado Island

Coronado has a fantastic off leash dog beach. It was a joy to see Frida and Elvis run free and have fun, while also being able to just relax on our own sunny spot of sand.

Harbor Island

Mark and I have two old bikes available to us. One easy destination with them is Harbor Island, about 20 minutes away along a bike path. The views of the city – and sailboat races – is amazing! This island is also a popular place for weddings.

Shelter Island

A bit trickier to bike to, this island is only a 5-minute car ride. It is an enjoyable place to walk the dogs, and to watch the Holiday Parade of Lights, which we did last Sunday evening. The fantastically lit-up boats will do a repeat cruise in San Diego Bay this coming Sunday (12/17) at 5pm.

Liberty Station

Mark and I live right across this upscale district of San Diego. There are bars, restaurants, art galleries, museums, stores (Trader Joe’s!), several green areas and a big park, which we frequent almost daily. A 5-minute walk away, it is a vibrant, fun and easy destination to take the dogs out. And, to go grocery shopping.

San Diego City

From Liberty Station, there is a bike path that goes all the way, past Harbor Island, to the city. Once at the Embarcadero, we usually walk the bikes to be part of the tourist vibe, stare at the ships from the open-air Maritime Museum, and listen to all the performers. Kitschy-looking Seaport Village is colorful and cozy; the Gaslamp Quarter is full of bars and restaurants and warrants a visit at night. Balboa Park is a destination in itself.

Balboa Park

This cultural and natural highlight of San Diego has visitors come back again and again. Historical buildings, a variety of museums and several gardens entertain forever. People watching, relaxing on the grass and listening to street artists playing classical music add to the experience – a sunny Saturday or Sunday delight. Balboa Park is also the location of the zoo and many special events.

Frugal Tips:

  • Parking is free everywhere we visited, except in the city center and at the safari park (parking at this animal park is a steep $15 for cars and $20 for oversized RVs – luckily, our entrance was free; all the money goes to the care of the animals by the way).
  • Taking a packed lunch on day trips makes for cheap – often free – excursions.
  • The entrance fee to Cabrillo National Park is $15 per vehicle, or free when you have an annual National Park pass (which we have been using extensively).

Have you ever been to San Diego? What are your highlights? Would you like to visit? Why?

71 Comments

  1. Great highlights and pictures! Thanks, Liesbet, for sharing this. I visited SD a long time ago but do remember and have some pictures that I took at the places you mentioned.

    • Your memory is better than mine, Natalie. Mark and I quickly passed through here over a decade ago and, while we had a very good feeling about San Diego and really liked it, we don’t seem to remember what we saw back then (except for the zoo).

  2. Hopping over to your blog from Karen Hume’s Favorite Blogs, Liesbet. I was in San Diego attending a conference in December and saw the parade of lights. It was fantastic! I also went to Coronado Island and the San Diego Zoo. We went into the Gas Light district to eat dinner and explore the city. I thought it was a lovely place and weather was fantastic for a Maine girl whose December is cold and snowy. Your photos are very nice!

    • Hi Molly, and welcome! You mean you were here as well this month? Or, maybe it was another year. You managed to see and do a lot of highlights during your visit. How wonderful! And, I hear you about the weather. After spending ten years in the tropics, Mark and I didn’t only have a culture shock when returning to the States, but also a weather-shock. The result is that we try to find a warmer house sit every winter. Starting in New England the first winter and ending here for this one is not too bad. 🙂 We love Maine and always say we could live there, if it wasn’t for their winters.

  3. I’ve visited San Francisco, but never San Diego. I’ve always heard the weather is perfect year around. Thanks so much for sharing your photos with us, Liebet. The safari zoo looks incredible! Enjoy!

    • San Francisco (and DC) used to be my favorite US cities, Jill, but I have to add San Diego to the top of the list after spending some quality time here! The weather is a big bonus… 🙂 But, still a tad too chilly for our tropical bodies.

  4. I haven’t been to San Diego, but I’d like to visit – even more so, having seen this post. Your pictures are beautiful.

  5. www.retirementreflections.com

    December 17, 2017 at 07:10

    Happy belated birthday, Liesbet. It sounds like you found a perfect way to celebrate it!
    I love San Diego. Your post highlights much of its incredible charm.
    Where is your next house-sit?

    • Thanks, Donna. It was more like a birthday week, by the time we did all the things I liked doing. 🙂 It is unbelievable how mucht there is to do and see here in SD. I, honestly, had no idea. And, more to come.

      We don’t have our next house sit lined up yet. We are becoming more and more picky when it comes to the climate and might dip into Baja California for a bit with Zesty after this sit.

  6. Belated Happy Birthday Liesbet! It looks like a lovely area to explore and Frida and Elvis are so adorable – please give them a big pat from us :o) xxx

  7. Your pictures make me very proud of my city! I’m glad that you are enjoying your stay. Look forward to exploring more of my hometown with you in the New Year!

    • San Diego is a city to be proud of, Janis! I’m sure you know of a few more gems and I’m looking forward to discovering them. Hopefully there will be time for that in January.

  8. Liesbet, you captured everything about San Diego I know and love. Been to ALL those places multiple times! Although Hans and I don’t live there any more, we do visit at least twice a year, staying in the East County areas of Lemon Grove or Lakeside. Great sights out there too. Take a trip to Julian if you can (a bit like Sacramento’s Apple Hill). Nice thing about SD, the weather is great this time of year, but it can get cold. Hope to see you down there soon! Definitely a dog date at Coronado Dog beach!

  9. Happy belated birthday! I’d really like to visit San Diego one day and see the zoo.

  10. One of the cruising blogs I follow – “Little Cunning Plan” – was recently in San Diego on their way to Mexico, and posted a couple of very similar photos, including the “sailor & Nurse” statue. Wondering if you nearly crossed paths!

    • Hi Keith! I have seen that name “Little Cunning Plan” float around on blogs. 🙂 We might have crossed paths. It is so interesting that we are doing these sights overland now, while others visit by boat. San Diego is definitely a sailor’s paradise as well, based on the amount of boats, marinas and races in the bay!

  11. Hi Liesbet,
    I was in San Diego to present at a conference many, many years ago. We were pretty busy with the conference but I do remember loving the wide downtown streets, walking along the waterfront, and a couple of excellent restaurants in the city. I also managed to find time to go to Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo, both of which, I agree, are quite excellent. I wish I’d been able to visit the three islands you went to; they all sound relaxing.

    • The waterfront always draws us, Karen, wherever we are (and wherever there is one :-)). I hope you get to return to SD one day. Harbor Island and Shelter Island are both very small and walkable and not really islands. One side is very built-up and they appear more like peninsulas. Not quite highlights, but nice to visit if you have extra time. Coronado Island, on the contrary, is quite large and we only walked along one side. We hope to return. Most of it is a naval base, I believe. The beach there is worthwhile, though.

  12. Hi Liesbet! Oh your photos made me miss visiting San Diego. We’ve been fortunate to spend quite a bit of time there over the years and have gone to all of the places you list before. We LOVE staying downtown and walking the Gas Lamp and along the Harbor…a very nice and walkable downtown. As for tips, have you gone to old town yet? That’s a fun couple of hours. We also enjoy just walking around La Jolla and watching the seals. Enjoy the rest of your time there. ~Kathy

    • I can imagine it is quite special to stay downtown and just walk out of the door into the Gas Lamp District’s atmosphere. We are hoping to maybe go out to dinner there while we are here, but we would have to drive (with the camper), which makes it less tempting. Maybe we can take the bus one evening… Still so much to do and so little time!

      Old Town is definitely on our list. We took the dogs to Mission Bay last weekend, so maybe Old Town can be explore next weekend… And, we would love to return to La Jolla as well.

  13. I’ve been there once, and it was such a great city. You’ve covered so much in your time there! I think being a short-timer makes one more apt to get out and see and do stuff. I was sure I’d visit dozens of museums and do all kinds of other things when I lived in DC for a year, but I ended up going to work and coming home and never did get around to many of the things I thought I’d do!

    • I have yet to meet anyone who didn’t love San Diego! And, you are right, Lexie, staying in these places while house sitting (meaning temporarily) gets us out and about during the weekends. What a pity about DC – such a wonderful place to stroll around and visit the monuments and (free) museums. But, I know what you mean, you always think there is still time to go, and then, something else happens and you’re gone. I have the same feeling about Belgium (and Europe in general).

  14. Hi Liesbet! Your timing is perfect! Jeremy and I have an accumulation of frequent flier miles, and we’re looking at San Diego as a place to consider in January, when we’re sick to death of being cold! I’ve never been to San Diego, so your post gives me lots of ideas! I’m sure to revisit after the holidays so I can do a little planning! Thanks! ~ Lynn

  15. Hi Liesbet

    Sounds like you and Mark are having a wonderful time. I love the photo of the stairwell at Cabrillo NP.
    San Diego is such a unique and beautiful area. Might suggest a trip to the San Juan Capistrano Mission. It’s quite peaceful there.

    Enjoy the holidays and the rest of your time in San Diego

    Laura

    • Hi Laura! The house sitting lifestyle does suit us. We have always been able to work from “anywhere”, but combining a change of scenery with comfortable, unchallenging living makes it all a tad easier. 🙂 Thanks for the suggestion about the mission. I couldn’t agree more! I actually visited this peaceful, inspiring, historical place earlier this year, while on a house sit in Costa Mesa. Happy holidays!!

  16. I have never been to SD, sounds like there is a lot to do there. You have certainly been very fortunate with this house/pet sitting. The dogs are adorable and with such a lot on offer at your doorstep it is a win win situation😄 Merry Christmas to you and Mark.

    • Loving this house sit, Gilda! And, we are glad the owner chose us as the perfect sitters for her pups. 🙂 We won’t run out of things to do here and time is flying by very fast! Merry Christmas to you and your family as well!! Wishing you many fun adventures for 2018.

  17. I missed this post, better later than never I suppose 🙂 Yes, could see us exploring Coronado Island, the photos look great. Love the one of you and hubby in front of something bright 🙂 Have a good one, Christmas that is. See you in 2018, well most probably “see” you sooner!!

  18. Happy belated Birthday, Liesbet, trying to do too much before heading back outside to finish off pruning 🙂 xx

  19. If I could live anywhere in the world, this place would rate pretty highly, Liesbet. I’ve been to the Zoo, Balboa Park and Coronado. 🙂 🙂 Fascinating the combination of cheetahs and dogs! Wishing you a joyful Christmas and a fantastic 2018.

    • Same here, Jo. If we would ever settle and, if we could ever afford living in a real house in a warm location, San Diego would be high on the list. 🙂 Happy holidays to you and yours, Jo!!

  20. Very cool! I’ve always wanted to visit San Diego, and even more so after seeing your photos. What a stunning place.

    • While we knew we loved this city from previous visits, we are pleasantly surprised with all the activities and sights we didn’t know about. I hope you get down here one day, jh! Maybe to speak at a conference… 🙂

  21. I’ve only been to San Diego once, and while I loved it, it reminded me of everything difficult about Southern California- Traffic, confusing streets, did I mention traffic? It is beautiful, diverse, and filled with things to do. Thanks for the reminder of how amazing San Diego can be/is.

    • You are right about the traffic, Ryan, even though that appears to be even worse in Northern California, especially in the SF Bay area. We hate driving there. Luckily, we don’t notice it much here in San Diego, because we try to bike and walk everywhere. But, the heavy traffic and high cost of living will get us out of here and looking for sits in other states soon. 🙂

  22. No, I’ve never been to California! But your beautiful tours are sure making me wish I was there! What a lovely place to spend the winter. So jealous! LOL. Merry Christmas to you and Mark, Liesbet. 🙂 xx

    • Not a bad place to be these months at all, Debby, especially since we are allergic to the cold. But, while we have been able to improve ourselves weather-wise each winter we have been back ashore, it is still too chilly for us here. So, there is only one solution for next winter: Mexico or back to the tropics. 🙂 Merry Christmas to you both as well and happy holidays. I hope you get to take a little break from writing!

      • Lol you complaining about chilly in California while it’s freezing here and nonstop snow, while I wear sweatpants, sweatshirt and a hoodie in my own home? LOL. Well, just so you know, I”m off to Mexico in 5 weeks for 2 months and can’t wait!!!!! 🙂

  23. I LOVE the San Diego area and haven’t been there in almost 10 years, so I appreciate the trip via your post here. ;-0 When we lived in the SF Bay area, we drove or flew down at least once a year. Stayed in Coronado Island often and walked the ‘town’ from one end to the other every day. GREAT sidewalk walking, and of course beach walking too. We’ve explored all that you did here, and I admit, I’m a bit green with envy. So glad you found this perfect ‘winter’ house and dog-sitting opportunity. ENJOY! And give Frida and Elvis a hug from me. <3

    • I agree, Pam! Walking on Coronado (and in many SD neighborhoods, actually) is very nice, because of all the sidewalks. We only walked the end of the beach, as far as beaches on the island go, because dogs are not allowed elsewhere. We will definitely go back and walk to “the other end of town”. 🙂 Someone told us to check out the Christmas tree in the Hotel Del Mar, so we better head back this weekend…

      The SF Bay area is very attractive to us as well and we have visited (and even lived there on a sailboat for a bit) often. Yet, the weather and architecture pleases us more here. Yes, we have been fortunate with this house sit, which is going too fast already. And, your hug has been delivered and received with licks in the face. 🙂

  24. Liesbet this a great post. We love San Diego for its mild and consistent temperatures and the beauty of the city. Certainly we plan to travel back again at some point and will come back to your post for ideas. Love the idea of being able to bik to so many locations. Sending very best wishes for the holidays and many thanks for all of your support and encouragment over the year.

    • All the same to you and Dave, Sue! I am very happy to call you a friend and wish you a fantastic time with family and friends the coming holidays. Have a wonderful 2018! I hope you will be able to return to San Diego soon. There are some bike paths, but not nearly enough and biking to the stores can be a pain and dangerous. But, we have come to realize that having bikes will be a nice attribute to the van life… 🙂

  25. Your photos and description of the places you have visited bring back many fond memories of San Diego. It is more than 15 years since I last visited SD. On one trip, we ended up camping for more than a week at Santee Lakes, which at that time was a pleasant inexpensive place to camp with children. Interesting area too —a reclaimed wetland.

    Jude

    • I have a feeling (based on conversations with others) that San Diego has grown quite a bit those last 15 years, Jude. It is quite busy on the roads and all the sights have become very popular. I’ll check out Santee Lakes. Maybe we can go there on a day trip if it isn’t too far away. Happy holidays!!

  26. Fabulous photos and overview of San Diego Liesbet! Was there many years back. The zoo is impressive. I usually hate zoos but this one is a great role model of what zoos CAN be!

    Love your temporary pooches and the off leash beach for them. Must be fun to watch them run! What a fabulous house sit opportunity.

    Peta

    • You are 100% correct about the San Diego zoo, Peta. It made me see zoos (this one anyway) through different eyes. We still have to experience Elvis and Frida run to “full capacity”. They are 10 and 12 and our feeling is that they prefer sniffing and strolling better. 🙂

  27. There is so much to see and do in San Diego.

    All the images are also too beautiful.

  28. Liesbet, as I’m sure you know, you guys picked the perfect spot to spend the winter. In addition to the multitude of things to see and do, it’s warm. And since it’s a bracing 2°F at our house this morning, I’m thinking of watching the sun go down at your house. ~James

    • Hi James! Every winter, we try to secure a warmer house sit than the last. So far, we succeeded. Other than Southern Florida, it doesn’t get much better weather-wise, in this country, I agree. We couldn’t deal with 2F!!! Brrrr…. That being said, circumstances have us jump a plane to New England the end of the week, so I will be able to feel what you are going through… I do hope, it warms up by then, though. Stay warm and have a fantastic 2018!!

  29. Fantastic pictures! Makes me want to visit 😉
    Oh, and such cute dogs❣

    • Haha. Funny, Gail. 🙂 Glad you enjoyed your stay with Frida and Elvis. You know you can always come back for another stay, or visit the sights of your wonderful city, right?

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