Rediscover San Diego by exploring some of the city’s latest additions and lesser-known spots worth seeking out.
By Ashley Ryan and Sharon Stello
Often overshadowed by its bigger tourist attractions, San Diego is filled with eateries, shops and other destinations that are among local favorites. Here, we offer a glimpse at some of the must-visit places that are new to the scene and a few best-kept secrets tucked away in the nation’s eighth largest city—which lies only about 1 ½ hours from Laguna Beach, making it a perfect weekend escape.
With San Diego being just a short drive down the coastline, it’s easy to think you’ve already seen all there is to see. But frequent flyers need not worry, as there is always something new to experience in America’s Finest City.
The new Carte Hotel San Diego Downtown, part of the Curio Collection by Hilton, is the perfect home base, with just as much to do at the property as in the nearby neighborhoods. An outdoor pool, state-of-the-art fitness center and on-site restaurant give hotel guests reason to pause and stay a while, but it’s the rooftop bar that truly seals the deal. With views of the San Diego skyline down to the water, cozy fire pits for breezy evenings and classic cocktails, Above Ash Social is a great place to unwind before heading out to dinner.
Start your trip just in time for a elegant yet laid-back dinner at Civico by the Park. The menu boasts traditional Italian fare, but from the southern part of the country, incorporating Calabrian pizza, oval Roman-style pinsa, house-made pastas and unique antipasti, or appetizers, such as the polipo e calamari, which features European octopus, squid and purple potato cream. Opt for the large-scale tiramisu or the handcrafted cannoli for dessert. With a sprawling, heated patio and plenty of refreshing cocktails, this spot is great for date nights, family outings or girl’s trips. Civico by the Park opened last summer during the pandemic, and is the sister concept to Civico 1845, one of the oldest restaurants in California.
The next morning, you won’t be disappointed with a visit to Morning Glory, a new premier brunch spot in Little Italy. But make sure to snag a reservation, as the line is sure to wind down the street and up the stairs to the second floor eatery. The popularity is warranted, with a pink, ’80s-inspired interior, throwback music and creative menu items. Locals love the baked blueberry skillet pancake, which is soft and moist in the middle but crisp on the outside, as well as the Morning Glory fried rice, served with fried eggs, pork belly, cheese, spinach, peas and scallions. And don’t forget a side: The crispy scalloped potato, breaded and fried, can’t be beat. Morning Glory also specializes in—you guessed it—morning cocktails, as well as coffee drinks and elevated hot chocolates.
Those looking to add some wellness to their day should head to The Westgate Hotel, where AquaVie Fitness & Wellness Club offers everything you could dream of. Whether you’re looking for a relaxing massage, a replenishing facial, a therapeutic visit to the sauna or a more amped-up experience in the lap pool or fitness center (which offers Pilates flow, HIIT, barre, yoga and spin classes), you’re sure to leave feeling better than ever.
After working up an appetite, visit The Presley for lunch. The restaurant, located at Liberty Station, is entirely outdoors, giving guests the feeling of dining in a garden. The American fare, much of which is shareable, is great for groups, but the setting can also serve as a romantic spot as well. Those looking to share can find dishes like lobster sliders, a charcuterie board and flavorful cilantro-lime grilled shrimp lettuce wraps. As for entrees, choose from a selection of salads, flatbreads, sandwiches, wraps, tacos, skewers and more. Dessert here is a hit as well, with house-made ice cream sandwiches and Roast Your Own S’mores on the menu.
When you’re finished with your meal, stick around and spend the afternoon exploring Liberty Station. Originally a naval training center, the space has become an all-in-one gathering place, filled with art studios and galleries, restaurants, stores, paddleboard rentals, coffee shops and more. There are also plenty of sprawling green lawns for staying active or reading a book as well as views of the nearby ocean.
For a luxe dinner that you won’t soon forget, make your way to Rare Society, which opened just before the pandemic. An elevated window allows diners to see into the kitchen, while the classic interior of the steakhouse will leave you feeling as if you’ve stepped back in time—aside from the modern neon sign that reads, “In Steak We Trust.” The starters are phenomenal, with highlights like parkerhouse rolls with truffle butter, beef tartare and the wood-grilled Maine lobster bathed in garlic and parsley butter. But the main attraction is definitely the restaurant’s steak boards. Deemed The Associate and The Executive, these platters each feature chef-selected cuts of meat, such as 40-day, dry-aged strip steak; filet mignon; or Durham Ranch wagyu tri-tip. Bearnaise, salsa, creamy horseradish and steak sauces are also served with these boards, so you can mix and match to find the best flavor combinations. Throw in some family-style sides and glasses of fine wines and you’ll be planning your return trip.
On your way back to Orange County, swing by One Paseo, a shopping center in Del Mar. The health-conscious Parakeet Cafe is ideal for either breakfast or lunch, with overnight oats, acai bowls, toasts, soups, salads, sandwiches and burgers on the menu. The cafe also plays double duty, with a counter of sweet and hearty treats, an eclectic handcrafted coffee menu and a small merchandise space.
While on-site, take advantage of everything One Paseo has to offer. Shoppers will love Shop/Good, a clean beauty store that offers skin care products, makeup, nail polish, hair care items and more. Another great find is Whiskey & Leather, which showcases everything from clothing, jewelry and shoes to books, art supplies and candles. One Paseo is also home to Serena & Lily, Faherty, lululemon, West of Camden and more.
Those looking for activities to keep them busy at the center can get a blowout at Drybar, squeeze in a workout at SoulCycle or stop by to see what’s on tap at Harland Brewing Co. From Japanese lagers and double IPAs to kombucha and hard seltzers, the varied lineup can tempt any taste buds.
Before you hit the road, grab dessert to go. At Le Macaron, a giant case full of French macarons allows you to pick your flavor, but the shop also offers everything from chocolates and pastries to tasty gelato. One Paseo is also home to a SusieCakes, if you’d prefer a cupcake or cookie, as well as Salt & Straw, known for its small-batch ice creams with incredibly unique flavors like pear and blue cheese, maple and bacon streusel, honey lavender, and arbequina olive oil.
For an experience right in the hustle and bustle of downtown San Diego, head to the Gaslamp Quarter, which encompasses 16 square blocks of restaurants and nightlife, bordered on the south by the waterfront and Petco Park, where visitors can take in a Padres baseball game.
Centrally located and boasting a unique history, the Horton Grand Hotel provides a perfect home base for exploring the area. The charming—and reportedly haunted—hotel, complete with a brick facade and Victorian details, is actually a restoration of two 1880s-era hotels: The Grand Horton and the Brooklyn-Kahle Saddlery were carefully disassembled brick by brick and then put back together in a new location.
Notably, the original Grand Horton was visited by U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, Hawaii’s King Kalakaua and famed lawman Wyatt Earp. Historic touches can be seen throughout the lobby and in the Salt & Whiskey bar, which also offers daily breakfast. Many of the rooms, which juxtapose antique furniture with modern amenities like flat-screen TVs, have balconies facing an open-air courtyard while other rooms look out to the surrounding streets.
The lively area is great for people-watching, dining and entertainment at almost any hour of the day or night. For dinner, stroll a few short blocks north—past the comedy club and dueling piano bar—to Operacaffe, an authentic Italian eatery serving decadent dishes like homemade ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta cheese in a light pink sauce with lobster meat and artichokes. Owner Patrizia Branchi ran a family restaurant in Florence, Italy, before coming to California, where her latest establishment serves those same Tuscan dishes. The menu spans the spectrum from flavorful carpaccio and bruschetta to salad, pizza, pasta and entrees like chicken Parmesan and wild salmon in white wine sauce as well as tempting desserts from tiramisu to limoncello cake.
After eating, wander next door to the magic shop to peruse its selection of playing cards and trick sets or take in a show in the back, presented on Friday and Saturday nights by Illusions Theatre & Bar. Truly a hidden gem, those who have performed at the Magic Castle in Hollywood often grace the stage here.
For breakfast the next morning, get a taste of Paris with delightful pastries and other light bites from crepes to croissant sandwiches, French toast with berry sauce, a croque-madame or an avocado toast flight at Le Parfait Paris. Wake up with an array of traditional coffee drinks as well as the creative Nutellacchiatto or creme brulee latte.
Next, indulge in some relaxation with a drive to Kona Kai Resort & Spa, located at the tip of the Shelter Island peninsula. Feel the stress melt away with a massage at the resort’s SpaTerre, choosing from Swedish, deep-tissue, Balinese or a blend of European and ayurvedic modalities. Continue the sense of calm with a walk along Shelter Island’s waterfront, which offers views of sailboats cruising the bay.
Of course, a trip to San Diego wouldn’t be complete without a sampling of the city’s well-known craft beer scene. Head to Thorn Brewing Co. in Barrio Logan, a neighborhood south of the Gaslamp Quarter that has become a creative and cultural hot spot with towering murals under the freeway overpass in Chicano Park. Thorn Brewing started nearly a decade ago in the city’s North Park area and opened the Barrio Logan tasting room and brewery operation in 2017, serving a full lineup of beers from hoppy IPAs to a Baja-style lager, chocolate-infused stouts and sours.
In an interesting collaboration, just next door, Hott Mess eatery uses some of Thorn Brewing’s spent grain to make its pizza crusts while Sideyard BBQ by Hott Mess—an outdoor space for tasty barbecue, drinks and live music—provides some of its used charcoal to filter the vodka made by ReBru Spirits in the same complex. Make an afternoon of it and enjoy a few brews then grab some pizza, brisket or ribs with all the fixings like pineapple coleslaw or jalapeno macaroni and cheese while sipping ReBru cocktails and taking in the tunes in the laid-back setting.
If you aren’t still stuffed by dinnertime, Farmer’s Bottega in the Mission Hills neighborhood is worth the drive. The charming restaurant features farm-to-table dishes and a rustic, romantic setting with brick walls, warmly glowing Edison light bulbs and reclaimed decor like a treadle sewing machine. Aside from the ambiance, the food also enchants with three types of bruschetta, pork belly on a bed of risotto, vibrant beet salad with tangy goat cheese and vinaigrette, a wide range of flatbreads and pastas (think duck gnocchi and lamb ragu pappardelle) as well as entrees like tender short rib and braised lamb shank. Pair with a glass of vino from the lengthy wine list.
After a good night’s rest, there’s one more hidden gem to experience on the road home: Stop in Solana Beach for breakfast at Ranch 45 Local Provisions. Tucked in between a church and office buildings a few blocks from the freeway, Ranch 45 sees itself as an extension of the farms that are providing its ingredients. When it comes to meat, the eatery and butcher shop exclusively sells Brandt Beef, from a family-owned ranch that raises its animals humanely and without hormones or antibiotics. Notably, the restaurant’s breakfast burritos, sandwiches and the like incorporate house-made beef “chorizo” and “bacon” rather than the typical pork varieties. Non-meat options like pancakes, pastries, avocado toast and an acai bowl are also available to enjoy at the outdoor tables with plenty of coffee to refuel for the rest of the drive home.