San Diego Neighborhoods You Shouldn’t Miss

Most visitors to this sunny Southern California city are familiar with the Gaslamp District, Balboa Park, and the zoo, but to understand the true San Diego, head to where the locals live and play.

San Diego Neighborhoods You Shouldn’t Miss

Don’t skip the beach, of course, but we’ve rounded up some areas of San Diego that should not be missed, either.

Courtesy of

Sprawled across 372 square miles with neighborhoods separated by hills and canyons, San Diego has a geography that has resulted in some far-flung districts with their own distinctive personalities. For a real slice of the city, venture outside of its more touristed areas like the Gaslamp Quarter and Seaport Village to explore these five neighborhoods.

Get a hot dog topped with pickled peppers. Or pomegranate seeds. Barrio Dogg does not serve boring weenies.

Get a hot dog topped with pickled peppers. Or pomegranate seeds. Barrio Dogg does not serve boring weenies.

Courtesy of Barrio Dogg

Barrio Logan

This low-key secret neighborhood is also San Diego’s most culturally distinctive one. Many who fled the Mexican Revolution in 1910 settled in this area southeast of downtown, and it has thrived as an epicenter for Latino and Mexican American culture since the 1920s. Chicano Park, a National Historic Landmark (and neighborhood pride and joy), features colorful murals by Mexican and Mexican American artists.

Visitors should seek out Las Cuatro Milpas for its house-made flour tortillas and crispy tacos filled with juicy shredded pork (the family-owned restaurant has been operating in Barrio Logan since 1933) and BasileIE for envelope-pushing art exhibitions.

Further down Logan Avenue, check out locally owned Barrio Dogg, a Mexican American comfort-food restaurant that serves creative hot dogs topped with fresh pomegranate seeds and smoked paprika.

At that end of the avenue, you’ll also find the Grand Artique, a cabinet of curiosities where the owner prefers to barter or trade for vintage jackets, silver coins, and Native American blankets.

Mission Hills

This upscale neighborhood, overlooking the city from a bluff, is home to stately houses and one of San Diego’s most historic sites, Presidio Park, where in 1769, Europeans established their first settlement on the California coast.

Visitors can learn about the history by visiting the park’s mission-style Junípero Serra Museum. Walk along palm tree-lined Sunset Boulevard, where the affluent homes on display include Italianate villas and colonial revival–style estates.

The neighborhood’s business district offers good coffee shops, bars, and restaurants, including Fort Oak,where diners can dig into zesty scallop aguachile (a raw seafood dish, like ceviche) or a rib eye dry-aged for 45 days.

A trip to North Park should include delving into eclectic shops and boutiques.

A trip to North Park should include delving into eclectic shops and boutiques.

Courtesy of Pigment

North Park

San Diego’s creative set continues to flock to North Park, named for its location northeast of Balboa Park. The quirky neighborhood has art walks, a lively bar scene, and some of San Diego’s best shopping along 30th Street and University Avenue.

Pigment’s eclectic inventory includes locally made kids’ clothes as well as camp-style place settings—and the results of the shop’s build-your-own terrarium bar make great souvenirs.

Aloha Beach Club stocks a line of made-in-Hawaii menswear—think slim-cut Aloha shirts and chino pants—as well as women’s clothing, home goods, and designer surfboards.

The Observatory, a restored 1939 movie theater, was repurposed to become one of San Diego’s best live music venues for bands like Sleater-Kinney and Lake Street Dive.

In addition to the surf at Ocean Beach, you'll find restaurants, shops, and laid-back local culture.

In addition to the surf at Ocean Beach, you’ll find restaurants, shops, and laid-back local culture.

Photo by Annie Pearson

Ocean Beach

No visit to San Diego would be complete without time spent on the beach, but some of the city’s coastal neighborhoods can feel more like spring break party spots than laid-back surf enclaves. Ocean Beach, on the other hand, has managed to maintain a classic, bohemian, SoCal vibe.

Every Wednesday from 4 to 8 p.m., the Ocean Beach Farmers’ Market offers live music and a mellow crowd. At the end of Newport Avenue (which is lined with antique shops and brew pubs), you’ll find a wide beach with tide pools, a 50-year-old pier, and waves that break to the right, making it a nice place to surf and to watch surfing.

More low-key than fancy, the local restaurants include Hodad’s, one of San Diego’s best burger joints. The popular South Beach Bar & Grill, which overlooks the ocean, is famous for fish tacos piled high with pineapple and teriyaki-marinated mahimahi.

Ocean Beach doesn’t have a lot of hotel options, but it does have one of the city’s best Airbnbs—Loch Crane, a Frank Lloyd Wright protégé, designed and built One Bunk Beach. A stay in the post-and-beam home has a ’60s vibe with its volcanic rock walls, open floorplan, and curvy swimming pool.

Little Italy's mom-and-pop restaurants have been joined by some of the city's most talked-about food options.

Little Italy’s mom-and-pop restaurants have been joined by some of the city’s most talked-about food options.

Photo by Robert Benson

Little Italy

Italians working in San Diego’s tuna-fishing industry settled this neighborhood in the 1920s, and while the canneries are gone, Little Italy has mostly stayed true to its roots. Family-owned Italian restaurants still line India Street, but other restaurateurs have moved in as well, resulting in the city’s most dynamic neighborhood for food lovers.

The 5,000-square-foot Little Italy Food Hall, on pedestrian-friendly Piazza della Famiglia, serves wood-fired pizza, lobster rolls, and creative tacos in a rollicking setting with communal seating.

Born & Raised, also in the neighborhood, is a two-story steakhouse whose opulent design delivers a glitzy side of The Great Gatsby with your dry-aged steak.

For something more upscale, head over to Juniper & Ivy. The New American restaurant, run by Richard Blais, Top Chef’s Season 8 winner, picked up a Michelin Bib Gourmand designation in 2019.

>>Next: Our Favorite Airbnbs in San Diego

Casey Hatfield-Chiotti is a former television news reporter whose passion for food and travel has taken her from the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro to the cobblestone streets of Paris’s Marais neighborhood, where she lived for two years. Casey’s been known to plan an entire trip around a destination restaurant and regularly sniffs out bakeries like a bloodhound. In addition to AFAR, the multimedia journalist’s work has been featured in the New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Sunset, Robb Report, Departures, Bon Appétit, and Modern Luxury. Her family travel-focused website launched in 2009.
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