In addition to having awesome beaches and a world-famous zoo, San Diego has a bunch of cool neighborhoods with their own interesting character.
From touristy enclaves like the Gaslamp Quarter and Old Town to local hipster ‘hoods such as North Park and Barrio Logan, these are some of the spots I’ve enjoyed most during my numerous visits to the city.
Cool Neighborhoods in San Diego
Here’s the full list, presented in random order.
1 Little Italy
Best for: Shopping and Italian food
Recommended Activity: Taste of Little Italy Tour
If you’re thinking that most Little Italy neighborhoods are small and kinda lame, get ready to reset your expectations.
San Diego has the largest Little Italy in the U.S., at 48 square blocks, and there’s always something going on, from art walks to summer concerts to Wednesday and Saturday farmer’s markets.
Yes, this area features the usual pizzerias and Italian restaurants that have been going strong for years.
But it also has a side you don’t see from most Little Italy ‘hoods: chic and modern cocktail lounges, fun local shops, and boutique clothing stores. It’s a destination neighborhood for both tourists and locals.
Take note of the flagpole signs showing famous Italian-Americans, from Madonna to Bruce Springsteen.
Best for: Ethnic restaurants, coffee shops, gay culture
Recommended Activity: Hillcrest LGBTQ History Walking Tour
I could easily live in Hillcrest. With excellent thrift stores, bookstores, affordable food options, bicyclists, and cute residential streets, what’s not to like?
Sitting outside on the patio of a Thai restaurant in Hillcrest for lunch with a friend in the 80 degree January sun was one of my favorite memories from my last San Diego trip.
It featured everything I love about the city: good food, nice weather, cool neighborhood.
Hillcrest features a number of global restaurants of all types, coffee shops, and LGBTQ+ bars. It’s a vibrant and trendy place for young adults, similar to Capitol Hill in Seattle or Wicker Park in Chicago.
3 Ocean Beach
Best for: Hippie environment
Recommended Activity: Eat at Walking on Water Cafe in the ocean
Of all the beaches in San Diego, Ocean Beach seems to be the most hippie. There’s such a laid-back feel where no one’s in a hurry and people are content to just chill, have a few drinks, and hang out on the water.
This is where you come to enjoy the sun, wind, and waves. I can really get used to this slow pace of life. I should make this my winter residence.
4 Barrio Logan
Best for: Mexican culture and food
Recommended Activity: Barrio Logan Food and Art Guided Walking Tour
Barrio Logan was a neighborhood that I hadn’t explored on my previous San Diego visits, but now it’s one of my favorites.
The Mexican heritage of this area is reflected on Logan Avenue, from the taquerias to the small galleries to the murals in Chicano Park.
My food recommndation: Salud! has pretty awesome tacos and enchiladas, as well as a boozy horchata spiked with Fireball, while playing songs like Prince’s “DMSR” on its soundsystem. Good stuff!
5 Balboa Park
Best for: Museums and walking in the park
Recommended Activity: Balboa Park Highlights Small Group Tour
Balboa Park is so big that it should be treated as its own neighborhood.
Just look at all the things to do here: the San Diego Zoo, the Natural History Museum, the Japanese Friendship Garden, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Veterans Museum, and the Air & Space Museum, plus hiking trails and a disc golf course.
Be sure to dig deep and check out some of the lesser-known museums, such as the Comic-Con Museum, the Automotive Museum, the Museum of Us, and the Model Railroad Museum.
6 University Heights
Best for: Eclectic shops and dining
Recommended Activity: Old Trolley Barn Park
Another fun walkable hood near Hillcrest is University Heights, which boasts a number of eclectic restaurants, bars, and other fun spots that a hipster could enjoy. I had occasion to grab drinks at Lancers and Kairoa Brewing.
This was the neighborhood where I discovered Wells Banana Bread beer. That beer is as fantastically delicious as it sounds – do yourself a favor and seek it out at a store near you!
7 Downtown / Gaslamp Quarter
Best for: Dining and bar hopping
Recommended Activity: Gaslamp Quarter Walking Tour
San Diego has one of my favorite urban downtowns. The famous Gaslamp Quarter is part of downtown.
That’s a vibrant area with nightlife, retail and food options like Gaslamp Strip Club, which is actually a steak restaurant – get it? (Update: Sadly, it has permanently closed.)
You can also find Horton Park Plaza, a public park at the site of a former weird shopping mall.
I have to call out two places I love in this neighborhood: Stout Public House, the best San Diego bar for watching hockey games; and Cali Cream, which has inventive ice cream flavors like Banana Cream Pie, Pumpkin Spice Latte, Kahlua Espresso Chip, and Bourbon Butter Pecan.
8 North Park
Best for: Mingle with locals
Recommended Activity: North Park Beerucation Tour
San Diego’s most formidable hipster community is North Park, where I ended up spending a lot of time on my last visit.
North Park has cool dive bars, art walks, local theater, quirky retail stores, farmers markets and music festivals.
A few interesting places to visit in North Park: the independent store Verbatim Books, the dog-friendly bar Belching Beaver, and the Observatory live music venue.
9 Old Town
Best for: Gift shops and history
Recommended Activity: San Diego Hop On, Hop Off Trolley Tour
Old Town was the site of the first European settlement in what became California, and the town acknowledges its long history with a state park of the same name.
The park and open-air market area are a popular tourist attraction. The park runs regular “living history” re-enactments by workers in costume.
On this particular day, they had a Mormon battalion parade in honor of the group’s 2,000-mile march from Iowa to San Diego.
Old Town has a large number of gift shops and restaurants, all aimed at tourists. Many have Mexican gifts, such as luchador masks and knit blankets, plus offbeat snacks like Oreo churros (delicious!)
The eateries get very busy, so make reservations or show up during off hours between lunch and dinner.
10 Mission Beach
Best for: A real touristy California beach experience
Recommended Activity: Mission Bay Bike Tour to the Beach
Mission Beach feels like a typical touristy California beach. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s a busy neighborhood with a boardwalk that extends for miles.
This area also has silly attractions like a roller coaster, The Plunge indoor pool and water slides, video arcades, and miniature golf. Sea World is also here, if that’s your thing.
If you want scenic beach photos with a long stretch of sand and houses and hillsides in the distance, Mission Beach is a good spot to visit. Continue further north to experience the similar neighborhood of Pacific Beach.
11 La Jolla
Best for: Kayaking, sea lion watching, dining
Recommended Activity: La Jolla Sea Caves Kayaking Tour
I first visited La Jolla years ago to see the seals and sea lions at Children’s Pool Beach, where they gather by the hundreds along the rocky coastline.
These days, the animals are found at both Children’s Pool and La Jolla Cove, along with thousands of large birds that use the hillsides as their homes.
What I overlooked on my first La Jolla visit were the large number of fancy restaurants, bars, and shops. Now, La Jolla is one of my favorite places to go for a nice meal.
12 Point Loma & Sunset Cliffs
Best for: History and beaches
Recommended Activity: Cabrillo National Monument
The residential seaside hood of Point Loma has two cool things going for it. One is Sunset Cliffs, a great place to surf, people watch, and take in the sunset.
The other is the Cabrillo Monument, an underrated attraction and great place to see whales, view the city skyline, and explore tide pools.
Point Loma is an area that you visit for a short time to see the attractions, and then move on to other areas that have more going on in terms of nightlife and activities.
Best for: Views of San Diego from across the bay
Recommended Activity: Coronado History and Highlights Small Group Tour
Coronado is known for the Coronado Bridge, the imposing structure that towers 200 feet high, allowing Navy ships to pass under it.
It’s one of the most eye-catching sights in San Diego, along with the kissing sailor and nurse statue.
If you visit the Coronado itself (it’s technically a separate city), you’ll see tremendous views of the San Diego skyline. There are a couple nice beaches, and you can take a Coronado Bicycle Tour along the shore.
Take some time to do a bit of shopping and dining, especially on Orange Avenue, which is full of boutique clothing stores.
Neighborhoods and Day Trips Just Outside San Diego
Oceanside: Only 35 minutes north of downtown San Diego, the coastal city of Oceanside has an excellent beach. Stop for breakfast at 101 Cafe, which has been serving diners on Highway 101 since 1928, and visit the fascinating California Surf Museum.
Temecula: The city of Temecula has its own Old Town, which has a vibrant shopping district and the Temecula Valley Museum with exhibits on the history of the area.
Escondido: Come here for the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and leave some time to drive to the outdoor sculpture garden known as Queen Califia’s Magical Circle.
Tijuana, Mexico: Here’s a wild day trip idea. Drive right to the Mexican border to see International Friendship Park. Walk across the border into Mexico and take an Uber around Tijuana to see the highlights. Or make things easier and just book a Tijuana Day Tour with a local!
Want a longer road trip? Head the other direction and start driving Route 101 toward Seattle!
What are your favorite neighborhoods in San Diego?