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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.