Where: San Diego, southern California, USA.
When: September 2017
Why: Preposterously cheap flights. J saw a crazy cheap offer for flights to America with LEVEL, a new budget airline which is a subsidiary company of Iberia – so we had to go.
We had been hoping to get to California to visit our friend Priscilla who I had taught with in Dongtan, South Korea. However, being on teacher’s budgets we didn’t think we could afford it – until this offer popped up. Even though it meant we would be on a really tight budget for the whole summer, it was worth it to get to this part of the world so cheaply.
I thought San Diego was a huge city before I went here, but actually the centre is not that big. The outer areas do sprawl up and down the coast but most of the downtown area is pretty compact and easy to get around.
The main areas downtown are the Marina, Downtown, Gaslamp Quarter and East Village – where Petcoe Park baseball stadium is and where we stayed. The Gaslamp Quarter is an area of shops, bars and restaurants.
San Diego is located on a huge bay (San Diego Bay). A peninsular comes up from the south and then widens out at the top of the bay, looking like an island. This island like area is Coronado, which is a very exclusive area, which has a beach resort on the Pacific side. The bay is enclosed by Point Loma, a peninsular which comes down from the north.
I’ve been dreaming about visiting San Diego ever since I worked with a San-Diegonite. P sold her city so well: she told us about the beaches, the mild-weather, the food, the culture, the things you could do. In the depths of a freezing Korean winter, she told us about the sunshine. It always seemed to be 30 degrees in San Diego – not too hot and not too cold: just perfect. P also told us about the food and the drink – and we always agreed that one day we would go for a $50 taco tour around her city: that she would show us the best Mexican-American food in the world. So we had to go.
Luckily, thanks to a preposterously cheap flight deal we were able to visit California. We went for a week and had two days in Los Angeles and four days in San Diego. It wasn’t enough time to properly get to know the city but it was enough time for us to spend some time with our friend and to explore this city.
Being on a budget and a time-limit there was a lot of San Diego we didn’t get to see. This was literally a flying visit. We did see the beach, but we didn’t get to spend any time there, so this was more of a city break than a beach holiday. We also didn’t get to see the famous San Diego zoo and Aquarium.
I liked San Diego, but I didn’t love it. P had sold the city so well that I had quite high expectations and I don’t think we had time to see all the great things about this city. I think had we spent more time here, spent some time on the beach, really gotten to know the city we would have loved it a lot more. I’d love to go back to explore further, to get to know southern California better, to carry on down the Baja Peninsular in Mexico. I’d hire a car and explore inland, the coast and more. I can feel a new trip brewing…
We flew to Los Angeles with a new budget airline called LEVEL. Our return flights cost €295 return! We stayed overnight in LA, close to the airport, and then we took the airport shuttle bus from the airport to Union Train Station, in downtown LA. I’ve written about all of this on the Los Angeles page.
We caught the train from Union Station to San Diego. I love trains and I’ve always wanted to explore America by train. Although it is in no way comparable to Asia or Europe, America does have a good train network that when it works is a really nice way to travel.
We could have travelled from LA to San Diego by coach or train, but as traffic in southern Caifornia is infamously busy and this was Labour Day weekend, we decided the safest and easiest option for us would be to get the train. Amtrak runs the direct service from LA to SD about ten times a day.
Union Street Station in LA is gorgeous and not what I expected at all. The station is split into two waiting/shop areas, with the tracks and platforms in the middle. At one end there is a cactus, palm tree garden, a huge fishtank, some shops and a beautiful glass roof; at the other end there was a fabulous, Mexican style booking hall, an ornate, airy waiting room with wooden throne-like chairs and again some good shops. It was such a pleasant, calm, friendly place that I’d be tempted just to go there for a sit if ever I was in LA. Not what I expected at all.
We had pre-booked our Amtrak tickets online before our trip. We booked them on the Amtrak website and they cost us $88 each for a return, second-class ticket. Even though we had pre-booked a specific train we didn’t have specific seat reservations and we were allowed to travel on any train that day. As we were at the station by 11 and our booked train didn’t depart until 15.00, we decided to get an earlier train, if we could.
The 11 a.m. train was a wonderful, double-decker, silver surfer train, but there were only three coaches (one of which was first class) and about 500 people wanting to get on. We waited in the hot sun for about 30 minutes before Amtrak announced that this train had been cancelled and we would have to get the next one. For us this wasn’t such a problem – we were going to be earlier than expected either way; but a few people we spoke to were quite frustrated. One woman was telling us that every train she had gotten that day had been delayed. It is such a shame that the network doesn’t run well when it’s needed, as if people are going to be enticed from their cars onto the trains then the service needs to be reliable. We could tell from the hundreds of people trying to get the train that there is demand for this service and people love it.
Anyhow, we got the train an hour later. This service had ten coaches, so there was a lot more room for all of the Labour Day holiday folks and the LA Dodger fans heading down to San Diego for the game. Even then though, the train was pretty-packed and the aisles were full of people standing. Being LA though, there was none of the underlying fed-up-ness that you’d get in the UK: this was a party! People were drinking, random people were talking to each other. It was a really friendly environment.
We were seated upstairs in the restaurant car. The restaurant served snacks, sarnies and drinks (including local alcoholic drinks) and they weren’t too expensive.
Each car had its own conductor who helped the passengers in their section. There were announcements way before every station explaining how best to get on and off and ensuring everyone had space to move about.
The journey itself was interesting. The train runs through the southern suburbs of Los Angeles city and then down through Orange County to San Diego. On the way down we sat on the left hand side, so we mostly saw town, hills, suburbs and wetlands; coming back we sat on the other side and for a long time we had wonderful views of the beaches and the Pacific Ocean. I so wanted to jump off the train to dive into that sparkly sea.
The journey took about two and a half to three hours, which, time-wise, is comparable to driving, but I think it’s a much more pleasant way to travel.
San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot (station) is another architectural beauty: again, light and airy, Mexican style. There’s palm trees on the platform. The station had an information centre, a small shop and toilets.
The local tram/trolley station is located just across the street from the station.
I love trains, they’re my favourite way to travel, and I was really happy to see that California is embracing this public transport. Hopefully America will one day soon get the great train service it deserves: it could be revolutionary and open up the country again.
Downtown San Diego is a lot smaller than I expected, so we walked everywhere within the city centre. Built on a grid pattern, the city is pretty easy to navigate.
For longer journeys we got the trolley (what we would call trams). There’s three Metro lines in San Diego: the Green Line, the Orange Line and the Blue Line. The Blue Line runs down to San Ysidro, which is on the Mexican border. The Green line runs past San Diego Old Town.
Each ticket cost $2.50, and there were ticket machines on the platform. You can buy a one-day pass for $5 or a two-day pass for $9, but we didn’t use the tram enough to justify buying one of these.
San Diego also has an extensive bus network. San Diego MTS have a route planner on their website which links to Google Maps.
We were lucky enough to have a friend with a car and an Uber account, and this is how we got around to some of the more off the beaten track places. Thanks P.
What we did on our holiday
Went to a baseball game
It’s strange how you can go through life and then forty-years in discover that you really, really enjoy something that you are completely not expecting. I, me who hates team sports, love watching live baseball. I never would have expected this but I absolutely loved going to watch a baseball game and now I can’t wait to go back. I loved it not just for the experience, for the crowds, the atmosphere, the food and the whole Americaness of it, but I also loved the sport too and really got into the game. Who’d a thunk it?
To be fair, I did have a pretty good introduction: my first ever baseball game was at Petcoa Park; the Padres vs the LA Dodgers; a local, friendly grudge-match, which the home team won.
Petcoa Park stadium is amazing. It’s right in the city centre, it has a park where you can sit and eat a picnic whilst watching the game (great for families as the kids can run and play whilst the parents watch the game). Apparently they used to have an outdoor pool from which you could watch the game (I think it was in one of the bars). There were also hundreds of amazing food and restaurant franchises inside the compound.
We decided to go to a baseball game simply because this is an American cliche that I’d never done before and for the sheer newness and Americaness of the experience.
Before we went into the stadium we went to Lolita’s (see the Where we Ate section for more information) and bought huge tacos to take into the stadium with us. Then we made our way into the bleachers, to our high seats, where we sat in the sunshine, dribbled burritos down ourselves, nattered and watched the game. It was such a relaxing way to spend an afternoon and there was a really friendly atmosphere amongst all the fans.
Eventually the heat got too much for me and I headed back to the cool of the air-conditioned hostel, where I watched the game, taking place at the end of our street, on TV.
Watching live baseball was great fun and it was lovely to find something new to love.
Our tickets cost £20 each and we booked them in advance online at www.mlb.com/padres/tickets.
San Diego Old Town
We met our friend P for lunch on the Sunday and then she took us to see San Diego Old Town, an area of old, settler buildings. First, we went into Cafe Coyote and had huge Margarita’s, then we went for a wander around the old buildings. It’s very touristy and quite fake, but I loved it! The old town buildings look like something out of the wild-west, which I suppose they are.
The Old Town is the oldest part of San Diego (hence the name) and it is the site of the first European settlement in California (so people call it the birthplace of California). Five original buildings remain from the first settlement in this area.
We walked around Old Town San Diego Historical Park, a pedestrianised area, based around a fairy-light lit square. It was a lovely place to explore, shop and relax.
Priscilla’s taco tour
When we lived in Dongtan together, P and J would often talk food and P promised us that if we ever came to San Diego she would take us on a taco tour: that for $50 she could take us to some of the best taco joints in the world. I won’t say this is why we decided to go to San Diego – but it was a big draw.
So P, her friends Michelle and Lucy, J and I all piled into P’s car for a tour of what they consider the best taco joints in San Diego – and these girls know their tacos!
First we went to Tacos El G – which looked like a run down, garage cafe – but which sold amazing pork adobada tacos and real Mexican cola. Yelp has information about opening hours, location and the food.
Next stop was a Marisco’s food truck. There’s a few of these food trucks around San Diego and they serve delicious sea food. Here I had the battered fish tacos with fresh lime squeezed over. It was yum. They also gave us vegetable soup whilst we were waiting. That was yum too.
We then went into the grocery store next door to buy some delicious Mexican candy for our desert.
By this point, I was getting pretty full – but Jeff can eat – and so we headed off to our next stop at Tacos El Paisa. Here we sat outside in the sunshine. I didn’t have any tacos here but I did try the amazing drinks which were absolutely delicious. I can’t remember what they were but one was a coffee/nutty drink and the other a strawberry drink. Yum.
After all this food, we headed off to the Children’s Beach at La Jolla, where we went to see the seals and the sea-lions lounging on the rocks. I always thought Sea-Lions were massive creatures (I think I’m mixing them up with walruses) but these looked a lot like the seals. I think the difference is that they are noisier than the seals and they have ears (maybe why they are noisier).
The coast here was really wild and pretty and I’m sad we only got to spend a little time here. I think if we go back I would like to spend more time exploring this area and the Point Loma peninsular.
La Jolla is a pretty, exclusive neighbourhood with lots of high end stores. It is on the beach and very pretty.
After this, P took us up and over Coronado Bridge – the huge, high bridge which you can see from all of downtown San Diego and which connects downtown to the Coronado Peninsula. We first stopped in a car park by Centennial Park so that we could have a little walk on the beach overlooking the bridge and downtown SD. Sadly for me, this is the only time I went in the water on our whole trip. I’d like to pretend it was the Pacific, but actually I was paddling in San Diego Bay – a natural harbour and deep-water port, which is home to a huge naval base. It was fascinating to see all of the huge ships in the bay here.
After a quick paddle, we went to Coronado Beach, which is on the Pacific Coast, on the other side of the peninsular. We went for a walk on the beach and to have a drink in Hotel del Coronado, an exclusive country-club style hotel. We had a pop here in the cafe. The Hotel Del seems to be very exclusive and I enjoyed watching all of the very rich people in their natural habitat. I was looking out for celebs, but I didn’t see any.
Coronado Beach, to me, is the kind of beach you picture when you picture California: golden sand, lifeguard huts on stilts, sun-light sparkling off the sea. If I were in San Diego for a beach holiday, this is where I would come to for my beach day. There wasn’t a huge amount of infrastructure on the beach front, where we were, but it was really pretty.
We hadn’t eaten for a few hours by this point so we headed to Middletown/Mission Hills, a fun area with lots of international cafes and restaurants (including a fake British pub). We had wanted to go to Lucha Libre Gourmet tacos, but it was closed for the holiday, so we ended up at El Indio instead. Here we had the amazing Carne Asada (chips with meat, salsa and guacamole) and Posole soup – which was delicious.
We ended the day at what P called the million dollar view. This is a beautiful spot overlooking all of San Diego. Million dollar view is actually just a side street in the La Jolla Alta residential area, but it probably has the best view of the city, the bay, the naval base and the sea. It was a great end to a great personal tour of the city and we wouldn’t have gone to half of these places without P. Thanks P!
Lunch in Mexico
Jeff hadn’t been to Mexico before, so we had to pop down to bag another country for him. Also, we loved the idea that we could get a tram to Mexico, and the San-Ysidro-Tijuana border is a unique place in the world, that we really wanted to see.
Getting to Tijuana from San-Diego is really easy. You just get a tram/trolley on the Blue Line. A ticket to the border cost $2.50 and the journey took about an hour. It’s not a pretty journey, past naval shipyards and suburbs; the land is very dry and desolate here.
When we got off the tram at San Ysidro we followed the signs for the Mexican border and we got through customs really quickly. There was a lot of construction taking place while we were there and I think we might have entered the country at a back-border post, as we ended up on a random back street – and when we came back later we came through a more significant border, with shops and things at either end.
Neither J nor I had much of an idea of where we were or where we were going. Neither of us had a map or cell phone coverage. I’d glanced at a map before we crossed the border, so had a vague idea of where to go, but we did find ourselves wandering along random back streets, on the wrong side of the main road. Eventually we met a strange American man who could tell we were lost and who directed us to where we could get a bus to the centre. He was a little strange, but his information turned out to be correct.
The buses were well dodgy: they were run down, falling apart and there didn’t seem to be any set-stops – we just flagged one down. It did get us to the centre though, for about 60 cents.
In the centre we went to Avenida Revolución, which is the main part of the town for visitors. This strip of shops has tourist centres, cafes and huge pharmacies. There were donkeys, who had been painted stripy. They didn’t look mistreated, but they didn’t look that happy either.
We made our way, down a side street to a restaurant which P had recommended to us. It was very genuinely Mexican and we knew it was going to be good as there was a queue out of the door.
After lunch, we headed back to the border and home. To be honest there wasn’t really anything to hold us in Tijuana. It wasn’t a nice place. With the amount of visitors it gets, money should be trickling down in Tijuana – but it really didn’t seem to be. There was such a disjoint between this city and the one over the border and it made me feel uncomfortable. I can see for Americans, the lure of cheap alcohol, food and medicines makes this an attractive place to visit, but that’s not what we were looking for and so it wasn’t for us. Like other border cities, trying to sell what it can to those over the border, Tijuana seems to be a weird mix of nothing and shops – a town grown up just to cater to the needs of the neighbours. Probably, things get better the further south you go – we shall have to go back to find out.
Coming back we followed the signs to the US border, walking up and through the concrete walkways, but we crossed quickly and easily and everyone was very friendly. We had been told that it can take hours to get through – but we just walked straight through On the other side, we followed the signs back to the trolley stop and then got our tram back up to SD. So we really did just go to Mexico for lunch.
Maybe we would have got more from our visit had we looked at a guide first. Lonely Planet and Wikitravel both have guides to Tijuana (though it’s a bit worrying that Wikitravel lists the red light area as something to see.).
What we didn’t do on our holiday
SD is packed with bespoke craft-breweries and we didn’t go to any of them because we just didn’t have time. This article by SanDiego.org has a complete list of breweries in the county.
The one thing I really wanted to do whilst in San Diego was to go whale watching. Sadly though, we didn’t have time. Both blue and grey whales migrate past San Diego: blue whales in the summer (June to September), grey whales in the winter (December to April). The San Diego Org website has a list of boat companies that run whale watching experiences.
San Diego Zoo and Sea World
San Diego Zoo is world-famous. It is one of the largest zoos in the world. Sometimes in class I put the San Diego zoo panda-cam up for my students and I to watch. zoo.sandiegozoo.org
Sea World is a sea world and theme park. They have killer whales, beluga whales, penguins, dolphins and more fish than you could shake a chip at: seaworld.com/san-diego.
Museums and galleries
There’s over 45 museums in San Diego and we didn’t make it to any of them. There’s aviation museums, boat museums, a railroad (train) museum, an automobile museum and a space museum; two museums for children and a museum for women; art, music and photography galleries and museums; a surf museum; a Chinese museum, a Japanese Garden; historical museums, archaeological museums and many many more.
Probably the most famous museum in town is the USS Midway Museum, which is actually the USS Midway aircraft carrier which you can go to visit and explore. San Diego is a key US navy town, so you can understand why this is here. The USS Midway sits in the harbour downtown. It has pretty red, white and blue lights on it.
Seventeen of the museums are in Balboa Park, including the air museum, the zoo, the natural history museum etc. There’s also nature here and a tram which runs between all of the sights. Balboa park seems to be the centre of tourist san Diego, so I’m really sad we didn’t visit here. We shall have to go back. www.balboapark.org.
Where we stayed
We visited San Diego on Labour Day weekend and I think this had an impact on our visit – especially so for Lucky D’s, our accommodation.
Accommodation in the USA is really expensive! Finding well located, good value accommodation is really hard and though there are many nice places to stay in San Diego, most of them were either out of our price range or only accessible by car.
As we were only here for a few days, we decided we wanted to stay as close to the Gaslamp district as possible – this is the area with all of the bars and restaurants; essentially the centre of town.
Lucky D’s has an excellent location on 8th Street and Market. It is two streets over from the Gaslamp District and two streets over from Balboa Baseball Park. There’s loads of cool bars and restaurants and shops near by, and the trolley is only five minutes walk away.
I’m not sure how I feel about Lucky D’s. It was okay, but if I went back to San Diego I would look to stay somewhere else. In contrast, my husband really liked it.
We both loved the decor: all of the walls were covered in funky artwork; it was bright and fun; cosy and warm. The staff were friendly, though we didn’t really interact much with them. Breakfast was great: blueberry bagels, bananas, peanut butter, coffee and cereal bars. Yum.
So what didn’t I like about it? Our room had the most amazing comfy bed, but the rest was a bit slap dash: the lampshade was askew, there wasn’t much room to negotiate around the fridge and air-conditioning unit (which we had to reattach to the window), our room was quite dark and overlooked the other bedrooms. I think that normally there are a lot more private rooms available, many of them with bright views and more spacious, but because we were there on labour day weekend they had been converted into dorms and were being used to host more people. The room was clean and we had good facilities, it was just dark and pokey.
I think this also had an impact on the facilities. There were two toilets and two showers for our floor and over the weekend we had to queue for hours to get in to wash and clean and wee. Although once everyone had gone this wasn’t a problem.
Where we ate and drank
See Priscilla’s taco tour above
Oscar’s Mexican Seafood
Even though we knew we were going on a taco tour in three days time, the first thing we did when we got to San Diego was go for tacos. To be honest, by the time we went for food it was late, we were tired, we didn’t want a huge amount to eat and we didn’t want to spend a lot – so tacos seemed like the best option. Oscar’s is a fast-food type taco joint, albeit a very nicely decorated one. They had very nice fish tacos. That is all.
Oscar’s has a great location, just next to the park by Petco park, where you can take a picnic to watch the baseball. It’s a convenient place for a quick bite.
From what I understand, Lolita’s Mexican Food is a staple for those going to Petco Park Baseball Stadium. They sell amazing burritos, which we were allowed to take into the park with us. They were enormous, dribbling lettuce and meat juices. Yum. We knew it was going to be good as the queue went out the door – even though the game had started.
Lotus Thai Cuisine
Thai restaurant located next to our hostel. It was fine and dandy. That is all.
Bootleggers was connected to our hostel and we tried to go there but it was always packed. I’m mentioning it though as it looked like the perfect American sports bar and they had unlimited mimosa brunches on a Sunday – that is what we tried to go to but couldn’t. It was a little pricey, but not unreasonably so. If we go back, I’d go here just for the brunch – but I’d book first or get in early.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is our own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny, unless otherwise stated. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.