Tuesday, 22 Oct 2019

Where to stay in San Diego: a neighbourhood guide

Whether you’re a seasoned surfer, professional sunbather or looking for an escape from LA, San Diego needs to be on your West Coast wanderlist. If you’re looking at staying in San Diego, here’s the lowdown on the best neighbourhoods, from boho beach towns to buzzing LGBTQ+ hubs.

Boasting all of Southern California’s best attributes (epic weather, golden beaches and a legendary food scene) without the bad bits of LA (traffic, tour buses and the Kardashians), it’s crazy that San Diego has never been huge on the tourist trail. But we’re not complaining, that means less people to share it with! With mild weather all year round, loads of postcard-perfect beaches and a seriously world-class food scene, there’s tonnes of reasons for  backpackers to explore what this Californian gem has to offer before the rest of the travel world cottons on.

San Diego is two hours south of LA and less than half an hour north of the Mexican border, with over 70 miles of coastline and a variety of different neighbourhoods for you to choose from depending on your travel tastes. Beach bums can’t go past Pacific Beach, with its never-ending boardwalk, casual eateries and well-known surf schools to try your hand at hanging ten; foodies will fall in love with Little Italy’s gastronomic delights and weekend farmers’ market; and Gaslamp Quarter is the perfect spot if you brought your dancing shoes and want to let your hair down with a cocktail in hand. No matter what you’re looking for during your SoCal adventure, one of San Diego’s funky neighbourhoods is sure to be perfect for you.

Getting around the city is super simple, with decent public transport to get to you to the key must-sees and must-dos from wherever you’re staying. There’s the trolley system with four lines – you can jump on at Gaslamp Quarter or Little Italy and it can take you to the historical site of Old Town, the megamall Fashion Valley, Balboa Park which is home to the famous San Diego Zoo, or all the way down to San Ysidro, right next to the Mexican border and home to an incredible outlet shopping centre. If you’re staying beachside then the buses will be your friend, and you can easily buy a transit pass each day on the Compass Cloud app. Too easy. There are also coastal trains, ferries to get you over to Coronado Island, e-bikes for rent, or rental cars to go a bit further afield to La Jolla or Torrey Pines – parking and traffic are okay as soon as you’re outside of the downtown area.

Want to figure out which part of ‘America’s Finest City’ is calling your name? Here’s our ultimate guide to San Diego’s neighbourhoods.

Jump straight to:

Gaslamp Quarter: The best area in San Diego to hang out after dark

  1. What to do in Gaslamp Quarter
  2. Places to eat in Gaslamp Quarter
  3. Best hostels in Gaslamp Quarter

Pacific Beach: The best area in San Diego to soak up the sun

  1. What to do in Pacific Beach
  2. Places to eat in Pacific Beach
  3. Best hostels in Pacific Beach

Little Italy: The best area in San Diego to eat your bodyweight in carbs

  1. What to do in Little Italy
  2. Places to eat in Little Italy
  3. Best hostels in Little Italy

Ocean Beach: The best area in San Diego to chill out

  1. What to do in Ocean Beach
  2. Places to eat in Ocean Beach
  3. Best hostels in Ocean Beach

Hillcrest: The best area in San Diego for endless good vibes

  1. What to do in Hillcrest
  2. Places to eat in Hillcrest
  3. Best hostels in Hillcrest

where to stay in San Diego - girl standing by green camper van

? @jakobowens1

  1. Gaslamp Quarter: the best area in San Diego to hang out after dark

This downtown location is hands down the best spot to get amongst San Diego’s buzzing nightlife, with the added bonus of being on a trolley line and multiple bus lines with easy access to the rest of the city. Known as the historic heart of San Diego, the Gaslamp Quarter is famous for Victorian-era buildings, countless galleries and museums, and rooftop terraces that serve up divine dishes and drinks alike while you watch the sun set over the San Diego skyline. Note that while the welcome sign says ‘Gaslamp Quarter’, the locals actually call it the ‘Gaslamp District’, and anyone who says quarter is automatically singled out as a tourist. As if your accent and Thailand elephant trousers didn’t do that anyway…

For those culture vultures and city slickers that are also awake during the day (shock horror!), Downtown SD has bottomless brunches galore, with plenty of stylish boutiques for you to visit after a mimosa (or five) before you get prepped for another night on the town.

Need a break from the beverages? Spend your day visiting ultra-cute Seaport Village, catch a major league baseball game or pop into San Diego Zoo to hang out with animals for a day.

where to stay in san diego - girl standing by simmons hotel

? @sarahheu

What to do in Gaslamp Quarter

Squeezed into only 16 blocks, Gaslamp Quarter is best explored by foot. Spend your day wandering down urban lanes, window shopping at local design stores and getting your culture fix with a visit to a fine arts museum or a theatre show, then dance the night away at Parq, San Diego’s world-class nightclub with a 10,000sqft main room and the largest HD LED wall in the Americas. Now this is a next level party. There’s plenty of late night food options once you’re done on the dancefloor, but we suggest visiting Brian’s 24, who serve massive portions of comfort food 24/7.

For a more chill evening, we’d suggest popping across to the gorgeous Seaport Village, a super cute waterfront entertainment complex with ice cream and candy stores, live music all summer and street performers. Disclaimer: this place is understandably a hit with families, so it might not be the best place for a hungover backpacker sensitive to loud children after Parq antics the night before. While you’re at Seaport Village, walk just six minutes to the USS Midway Museum, an authentic aircraft-carrier-turned-museum packed with more than 60 Naval history exhibits.

Keen sports fans will love Gaslamp’s proximity to Petco Park, home to the San Diego Padres, where you might be able to catch a game between April and October. If you’re all about a bit of history, opt for a local walking tour of the neighbourhood to learn about its dark past as the Stingaree District between 1880 and 1916, San Diego’s historical red-light district.

where to stay in san diego - petco park

? @meganmarieee19

If you’re looking for a location for date night (travel romances, am I right?) then Theatre Box is what you’re looking for. Choose from a full meal of American bistro classics or a fancy dessert while you’re watching a film, and you can even order a one litre alcohol-infused candy goblet right to your seat. We don’t even know what that means, but we like the sound of it.

Places to eat in Gaslamp Quarter

With over 100 dining options ranging from midnight Mexican snacks to casual al fresco eateries to fine dining steakhouses, Gaslamp Quarter has something for everyone (and every time of day!).

Let’s kick off with the morning. After a big night out, you can’t go past the aptly-named The Morning After, a huge bistro open from 8am daily serving sugary and greasy breakfast goodness, like red velvet waffles with cream cheese icing, the ultimate breakfast burrito or a bloody mary complete with bacon, fried chicken and a waffle ON TOP of the drink. Hangover making it hard to decide what to eat? No problem; go for the brunch flight and get a taster of French toast, waffles and pancakes, coupled with a cocktail flight of a mini mimosa, margarita and bloody mary. BRB, booking our flights to San Diego right now just to visit this place. The Morning After reopens at night too (except for Monday) where it transforms into a sports bar with casual bites available, as well as the usual epic beverage list.

For lunch, we’d recommend taste-testing some of San Diego’s most-loved cuisine… Mexican, of course! Pop into Tocaya, an LA-born chain fresh to SD, for a healthy bite in the form of tacos, burritos, salads or bowls. With vegan and gluten-free options, locally-sourced ingredients and ultra-chill decor, this is the health kick you probably need. If you’re hungry for a bit of seafood don’t miss the famous spicy shrimp tacos at Tacos el Cabron, where you can people-watch from the sidewalk bar leaners.

Your dinner choice will depend largely on your budget, with highly-rated cheap eats sitting right next to luxury establishments. If you’re keen to treat yourself to an iron boost, STK is a global award-winning steakhouse with a party vibe and upbeat background tunes. Craft beer lovers need to check out the Hopping Pig for burgers and local brews, and Whiphand’s next level finger foods are absolutely worth a try, like the short rib fondue served with white cheddar bechamel and truffle oil crostini. Um, YUM.

where to stay in san diego - STK rooftop bar - people chilling in pool

STK Rooftop Bar ? @sarahheu

If your budget doesn’t stretch far then no worries, grab a slice or two from Pizza on 5th for $3.50, chomp down some $4 burritos from Lolita’s, or head to American Junkie on Taco Tuesday for all-you-can-eat tacos for only five bucks. A backpacker’s dream!

And for something sweet to top it all off, pop into California classic Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop for their famous ice cream sundae, topped with handmade hot chocolate fudge.

Best hostels in Gaslamp Quarter

Between brunching in the day and drinking at night you probably won’t spend much time in bed, but we’ve got you covered for some sweet places to rest your head anyway.

Ultra-colourful USA Hostels San Diego is one of our absolute faves, with consistently high ratings from your fellow backpackers. It’s got everything you want in a home-away-from-home – free breakfast, discounted dinners on movie nights, free WiFi, weekly beer Olympics and a club crawl on Saturdays. Opt for a private room with a TV or mixed or female-only dorms, where each bunk has a privacy divider and your lockers have power points inside for safe charging.

where to stay in San Diego - USA hostels san diego - stairs and sofas

? USA Hostels San Diego

Social butterflies will love HI San Diego Downtown, with its games room, epic city tours and day trips, and swings at reception. Yes, like the ones from a playground but built for adults! Meet new friends in the shared kitchen, on the lounge bean bags, or while doing your laundry (no excuses now), and hire a bike from reception to cycle around the city.

And with free WiFi, a free weekly pub crawl, free breakfast, free tea and coffee all day and free luggage storage, Lucky D’s is the place for bargain hunters. With loads of fun activities (beer pong tournament, anyone?), a three minute walk to Petco Park and the option of a 4-bed dorm or private room, this is a great spot for a sporty solo traveller or group.

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  1. Pacific Beach: the best area in San Diego to soak up the sun

Affectionately known as PB to the locals, Pacific Beach is an absolute hit with young (and young-at-heart) San Diegans, and for good reason. With a winding boardwalk that’s three miles long, tropical-themed beach bars lining the main road, and surf spots perfect for both beginners and veterans, it’s impossible to get bored in this laid-back suburb.

At the north end of PB you’ve got Crystal Pier, a historic landmark that was built in 1927 and a fantastic spot to catch a sunset (or a fish!) Then at the southernmost end of PB you meet the top of Mission Bay Park, a 4,600-acre aquatic park surrounded by little beach towns, each with their own vibe.

The Pacific Beach end of Mission Bay Park is home to the creatively named Mission Beach, which can get confusing. Home to Belmont Park, an amusement park with a 94(!)-year-old rollercoaster, Mission Beach is easily reached by foot or bike along the boardwalk. Oh, and there’s another spot to the south of Pacific Beach, Mission Beach and Mission Bay Park called Ocean Beach, which we’ll cover later. Who else thinks San Diego needs to find a new beach namer?!

where to stay in san diego - crystal pier at sunset

? @themirraz

What to do in Pacific Beach

Well-known as the neighbourhood of choice for young professionals and college students, PB’s got enough going on to fill any traveller’s itinerary, from activities on the sand and in the surf to park hang outs and inland adventures.

Party animals will be stoked to hear that summertime means beachfront beverages, live DJs and seemingly endless happy hours, so you can fill up on alcoholic slushies to your heart’s content. Sign us up! Outside of weekends and summer holidays PB is more chilled out, but you can always find a party at PB Shore Club, Mavericks or Backyard.

You can’t stay in PB without giving surfing a go, and we recommend heading down to the legends at San Diego Surf School to lock in a lesson or two. They’ll take you to a safe and calm surf spot with decent waves to test out your balance. If you rate yourself as a surfer already, check our Tourmaline Beach and Surf Park, a hot spot for longboarding.

where to stay in san diego - pacific beach - girl sitting on wall

? @merion

One other absolute must-do is to hire a bike and ride along the boardwalk and into Mission Bay Park, finding things to see and do along the way. At the very top of PB is Palisades Park, well worth a visit on Saturday and Sunday mornings for their free 10am beachfront yoga meetup. Then jump back on your bike down to Crystal Pier for a spot of fishing, pop into the Baked Bear for a DIY ice cream sandwich, then finish up by going inland a bit to Crown Point, near the top of Mission Bay, to get involved in a local game of bayside volleyball.

Places to eat in Pacific Beach

From supersized breakfasts and legendary burgers to ultra-fresh seafood and cheap beachfront bites, there’s loads of foodie faves in PB.

In the heart of Pacific Beach, easily recognisable by the line out the door, you’ll find Kono’s Cafe, home to one of San Diego’s best (and biggest!) breakfasts. Kono’s opens at 7am every morning, so if you’re an early riser you’ll be able to skip the queue. We love the big breakfast with pancakes, the veggie egg scramble and the backpacker-budget-friendly $5.50 chorizo breakfast sandwich.

To satisfy any seafood cravings, we reckon Pacific Beach Fish Shop is not to be missed. It’s got a board out front showing where all its fish and seafood of the day came from, so you know it’s fresh. The TKO Taco with grilled mahi mahi is an award-winner, but the fish ceviche and clam chowder aren’t to be scoffed at either. If you’re around on a Thursday, pop in for their $1 oyster happy hour from 4pm until they run out.

If you’re keen to splash a bit of cash on a fancy meal then check out JRDN Restaurant right on the boardwalk, with a fusion menu of Californian, Mexican and Japanses bites, or visit the Patio on Lamont who have happy hour deals on food and drink all day Monday and other days between 3pm and 6pm.

Looking for something classically American? Rocky’s Crown Pub’s burgers have been a Pacific Beach staple for more than 40 years. It’s cash only, the menu is either a third or half-pounder, with or without cheese, and it’s 21+, but under 21s can order takeaway over the phone.

where to stay in san diego - green van with never stress motto against palm tree backdrop

? @shasha333

Best hostels in Pacific Beach

Just 30 seconds away from the ocean, California Dreams Hostel is just that… a California dream! You’ve got nightclubs and dining within easy walking distance, there’s a bus stop only a block away for easy access to the rest of the city, and they offer complimentary breakfast burritos. You can rent a surfboard, a bike, or a paddleboard from the hostel and there’s even a SmartTV in the lounge for binge-watching Netflix after a hard day on the waves.

If you want to be even closer to the beach, ITH Beach Bungalow Surf Hostel has your back. With a private outdoor deck right on the beach, loads of space inside and outside to relax, hang out or work, and social events each night so you can meet fellow travellers, it’s the ideal spot for your Pacific Beach visit.

where to stay in san diego - surfers at ITH beach bungalow surf hostel

? ITH Beach Bungalow Surf Hostel

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  1. Little Italy: the best area in San Diego to eat your bodyweight in carbs

All foodies listen up – we hope you packed stretchy clothes because Little Italy was made for you! What began as a community of Italian fishermen and their families has now morphed into an almost 50-block area home to family-owned institutions, celebrity chef residences and funky craft beer establishments, and it’s the largest Little Italy in the whole of the USA.

As well as being smack bang in the middle of San Diego’s strongest gastronomic hot spot (and with the competition it’s up against, that’s saying something!), staying in Little Italy means you’ve got easy access to the rest of the city, and loads of things to do once you’re full of pizza and pasta.

With a trolley stop located just behind Kettner Boulevard, one of Little Italy’s main roads, you’re just a short ride on the Green Line to either Downtown San Diego and Gaslamp Quarter, or north to Old Town or the huge Fashion Valley shopping mall and cinema complex.

When you’re all carbed out you can wander through museums, plane watch while sipping beer at Nolita Hall or build your own platter from the farmers’ market and take it to Amici Park for a picnic.

where to stay in san diego - little italy sign

What to do in Little Italy

Aside from the obvious which we’ll get to next (eating, duh), there are plenty of activities and experiences in Little Italy for you to get involved with, from walking trails and weekend markets to museums and massive piazzas.

Little Italy is a beautiful neighbourhood to just stroll around, with stories to discover around every corner. Along W. Date Street you’ll find bronze plaques with quotes from local businesses, you’ll stumble across granite tiles with historical information etched onto them throughout the town, and if you take a blank piece of paper and a pencil to Amici Park, you’ll discover classic Italian recipes from the raised text on the tables.

History buffs will love the Maritime Museum at the Waterfront Park, home to a vast collection of historic ships and submarines, and the San Diego Fire House Museum which is over 100 years old. If you prefer your old buildings with a glass of wine in hand, pay a visit to M Winehouse to see the oldest house in Little Italy, built in 1888.

You also can’t miss the Little Italy sign! It might seem touristy but if you look closely at the mosaic tiles on each side of the street, you’ll learn all about Little Italy’s history. And if you’re around on Saturday morning, set your alarm for 8am to hit the acclaimed Little Italy Mercato Farmers’ Market, packed with fresh produce, artisan food and a friendly community vibe.

Places to eat in Little Italy

Where do we even start?! This could be an entire guide on its own, but we’ll try and keep this as succinct as we can.

Let’s start off with some local icons. Filippi’s Pizza Grotto is one of San Diego’s most famous pizzerias, The Waterfront Bar (est. 1934, the city’s oldest tavern) is known for classic pub grub, and Pappalecco is a Tuscan-style cafe and gelateria that serves up delicious Italian breakfasts, paninis, gelato and fantastic coffee. Mona Lisa Italian Foods is a must-visit too; it’s a family-owned deli started in 1956, where you can stock up on fresh bread, olives, cheeses and meats, or opt to eat in with a deli sandwich or a sit down meal from the attached restaurant.

If you need a break from Italian, there are plenty of other cuisines available in the neighbourhood. We rate the ramen at Rakiraki, The Crack Shack boasts loads of different ways to eat fried chicken (our kinda place), and James Coffee Co. has the best brew in town. Born & Raised is worth a visit if only to see the inside, which cost a whopping $6.5m to decorate! Splurge on a quality steak if you can afford it, otherwise just pop your head into the fancy restaurant on your way up to their more casual rooftop bar.

For top-notch drinks you can’t go past Craft & Commerce cocktail bar or Bottlecraft Beer Shop & Tasting Room, where you can BYO food or order delivery from eateries nearby. For dessert we recommend homemade ice cream in super weird flavours (like James Coffee & bourbon, or goat’s cheese marionberry habanero) from Salt & Straw, or divine pastries from Extraordinary Desserts.

Best hostels in Little Italy

If living in the centre of good food, good wine and good company sounds like your kinda thing, then Little Italy is definitely the place for you.

ITH Adventure Hostel is one of our favourites in this gastronomic paradise, set in a Victorian building with loads of social spaces inside and out. It hosts social events each night, there’s free Wi-Fi and you can choose from different room options depending on if you’re solo, a couple or a group of friends.

Another great option to stay at in Little Italy is Found San Diego, a hotel with both private rooms and dorms in a gorgeous restored building from 1910. Comfy beds, plush towels and modern amenities are all on offer, plus the staff are super friendly!

where to stay in san diego - found san diego hostel

? Found San Diego

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  1. Ocean Beach: the best area in San Diego to chill out

Ocean Beach or OB (not to be confused with Pacific Beach/PB) is a suburb so chill you can basically feel your heart rate drop as you drive in, with endless casual eateries, yoga studios and boho boutiques nestled in between the palm trees that line the main street. It’s about as close to a classic 60s SoCal beach town that you’ll get these days, with flip-flopping locals strolling down the sidewalk, surfers crossing the road with their boards and VW Kombi vans parked up to watch the sunset.

Ocean Beach is much smaller than its northern neighbour PB, and it’s home to just two main beach spots, the Pier and Dog Beach, plus some chilled out dining options, a thriving nightlife scene and a couple of decent shopping streets. Spend your days soaking up the sun, catching waves or making friends with local pups, before searching for the best fish tacos and craft breweries at night.

With easy access to the rest of the city by bus, bike or e-scooter, and small enough to be explored on foot, OB is a great option for anyone looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the tourist spots and Downtown.

where to stay in san diego - two surfers walking into the sea on ocean beach

? @frankiefoto

What to do in Ocean Beach

Missing your doggo? We’ve got the solution. Dog Beach is the canine favourite in San Diego, with local four-legged friends allowed to roam free and splash through the water to their heart’s content. It’s a popular spot that claims to be the original dog beach in California, and it’s got a sweet surf break that’ll make you want to hit the waves yourself.

If you’re keen for a stroll, wander along the beachfront and make your way to OB Pier, the longest concrete pier in the world at 1971ft. The Pier is one of the only spots in San Diego where you can fish without a license, so make friends with the regulars or grab a cheap rod from a bait shop and try your luck at catching some dinner to take home to your hostel. At low tide you’ll discover the tide pools just south of the pier, where you can spot starfish, clams, crabs and anemones. The beach to the north of the pier, Newport Avenue Beach, is the most popular (and busiest) beach in the area.

Away from the seaside, OB’s chill vibe extends into the city streets. Voltaire Street in northern Ocean Beach is the go-to spot for local bites, eco-friendly toiletries and surf-inspired art galleries, and Bacon Street is home to yoga studios, ethical clothing stores and laidback beach clubs.

where to stay in san diego - ocean beach wall of street art

? @sarahheu

Although OB is small, its fantastic location also gives you easy access to two of San Diego’s other must-visits: Point Loma and Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. Sunset Cliffs is, you guessed it, San Diego’s number one spot for sunsets, and it rivals the beauty of Portugal’s famous Algarve. Some of the cliffs require a short rope climb to get on and off the beach, so wear proper shoes.

where to stay in san diego - sunset cliffs at sunset with birds in the sky

? @neilsoniphotography

Point Loma is an upper-class, predominantly family-focused neighbourhood but it’s worth a visit if you want to wander around ultra-trendy boutiques, check out the fancy beachfront houses, or take an easy hike up to Cabrillo National Monument, where you can sometimes spot whales migrating past San Diego in winter. If you’ve got nieces or nephews back home waiting for presents from their trip, Point Loma is the place to get them!

Places to eat in Ocean Beach

OB isn’t known for being San Diego’s foodie hot spot, but you’ve still got some strong options for delish meals. From well-known staples to eclectic health cafes or pubs with to-die-for views, here are some of Ocean Beach’s can’t-miss bites.

It would be wrong to start this list with anything other than OB Noodle House, home to San Diego’s favourite pho bowls. With decent portions from only $9, two locations and an extensive sake, beer and whiskey list, it’s no wonder OB Noodle House was rated as San Diego’s best Asian fusion restaurant. Visit between 3-6pm on weekdays for happy hour specials, including $1 beer with your food order, and be sure to check out Bar 1502, the Noodle House’s sister bar.

OB is home to some proper old school favourites too! Pay a visit to Hodad’s, a San Diego institution from the 60s known for its classic (and massive!) burgers and milkshakes, don’t miss the Old Townhouse Restaurant who’ve been serving big brekkies and bottomless coffee since 1973, and pop in to Poma’s Italian Deli, who’ve been known as the best Italian outside of Little Italy since 1965. Their torpedoes (super fresh sandwiches) are stuffed with delicious deli meats and fresh salad, and their meatball sandwich is world-famous in San Diego.

where to stay in san diego - hodad's burger on the beach at sunset

Hodad’s ? @maceyyay

Craft beer fans will love Pizza Port, who started brewing back in 1992 (way before it was cool). Celebrate your day of hitting the waves, or maybe just watching, with a slice of beer crust pizza and a beverage to match. If you prefer your beer with a sweet vista, pop up to Wonderland Ocean Pub to soak up panoramic ocean views while you sip a cold one. Visit on weeknights from 6pm for live acoustic music too.

Looking for a healthy bite instead? Peace Pies offers locally and sustainably-sourced ingredients mixed together into wraps, tacos, salads, milkshakes and desserts, with vegan, soy-free and gluten-free options available.

where to stay in san diego - girl by VW van covered in stickers

Hodad’s ? @maceyyay

Best hostels in Ocean Beach

With two of our best-rated hostels in the city, Ocean Beach has you covered for your San Diego adventure.

USA Hostels Ocean Beach is a kaleidoscopic funhouse straight out of the late 60s, complete with tie-dye bedding, egg swing chairs and a giant peace sign on top of the house. Well, you certainly won’t miss it! They offer bagels for breakfast, surfboard or beach chair rental, and a free shuttle to get you to downtown if you want to hit the clubs. They’re just two blocks away from the beach, and right next to Ocean Beach’s farmers’ market, which is on every Wednesday between 4pm and 8pm. Absolutely ideal for a chilled out beach break.

where to stay in san diego - USA hostels ocean beach from the outside

? USA Hostels Ocean Beach

If you want to stay in the suburbs, HI Point Loma is smack bang in the middle of Point Loma, the fancy, laid-back neighbourhood we mentioned above. There’s a huge kitchen that’s great for group cooking, a relaxing courtyard complete with hammocks and a fire pit, free surfboards and boogie boards, and weekly activities so it’s easy to meet other travellers. HI is only two miles from Ocean Beach, a five minute drive from Mission Bay, or a 10 minute drive from Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo or Gaslamp Quarter.

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  1. Hillcrest: the best area in San Diego for endless good vibes

With easy access to the pumping downtown nightlife, action-packed beaches of Mission Bay Park, tourist must-see Balboa Park and historical Old Town, the LGBTQ+ hub of Hillcrest is a strong contender for the best place to stay in San Diego.

San Diego as a whole is packed with friendly and welcoming locals, but Hillcrest takes that to the next level. From smiling baristas and talkative bartenders to the USA’s only openly gay brewery, the diversity, tolerance and acceptance you’ll meet in Hillcrest will warm your heart.

If you’re lucky enough to be around in July, Hillcrest throws one of the country’s most long-standing and biggest Pride parades, with more than 250,000 people in attendance. If your timing doesn’t line up, you can still get a taste of the suburb’s proud culture just by wandering the streets, shops and restaurants, and don’t miss the huge Pride flag on the corner of Normal Street and University Avenue.

The main roads are lined with endless brunch spots, ethnic eateries and sophisticated wine bars, with some artisan gift shops and colourful homeware stores nestled in between. There’s plenty to do keep any backpacker busy here in Hillcrest.

where to stay in san diego - hillcrest - coloured light up heart

? @iamjiroe

What to do in Hillcrest

Eat. Shop. Drink. Repeat! Hillcrest’s community feel and endless good vibes make it the perfect place to brunch the day away, stock up on some unique local souvenirs and bar crawl once the sun goes down. And the best thing? The diversity of this ‘burb means there’s thousands of different experiences to have while you’re here.

First up, take a snap with the historic neon ‘Hillcrest’ sign, then decide on your budget and hit the shops. Whether you want to scour through vintage threads, designer boutiques or cheap and cheerful craft stalls, Hillcrest’s streets and plazas are a shopaholic’s dream, no matter what you’re searching for. Visit Cody’s for little home decorations and Footnote Books to see an incredible collection of well-looked-after reads.

Feel like a bit of beauty therapy? You’ll find loads of salons and barbers here too, so it’s the perfect place for a mid-adventure trim or style. We recommend Detour Salon for gals and Winn’s Barbershop for the lads. And if you’re a bit of a culture vulture, Landmark Theatres is home to an excellent show list of indie and foreign films.

Aside from everything going on inside the neighbourhood, Hillcrest’s location is ideal for exploring San Diego’s stunning Balboa Park, the largest urban park in the USA. Boasting over 1,200 acres of gardens, 16 museums, multiple performing arts venues and a Spanish arts village, you can see it all by foot, by a trolley tour or even by Segway.

? @urre

Places to eat in Hillcrest

Everywhere! But seriously, Hillcrest’s food and drink scene has everything from classic American diners and international fusion to decadent dessert houses and craft cocktails, so every craving will be satisfied.

For your most important meal, you can’t go past Snooze A.M. Eatery. Chow down on a hearty breakfast pie, opt for a fancy eggs benedict complete with prosciutto, or try the renowned pineapple upside down pancakes, one of the reasons the line is out the door every morning. Pair your dish with one of their 15 morning cocktails, a seasonal craft brew, or a coffee (hot or iced) with a dash of bourbon or rum.

If you’re keen to try somewhere boujie, check out award-winning Italian restaurant Maestoso, or treat yourself to top-notch seafood at insideOUT. Top off a fancy night by indulging in sugary goodness at Chocolat.

International flavours are intertwined throughout Hillcrest’s food scene, with a couple of key stand outs. Saigon on Fifth serves Vietnamese cheap eats, India Palace is a winner for curries in a gorgeous and elegant setting, and Amarin Thai offers a weekday lunch special where you get a main, soup, salad and egg roll all for $8. Sawadee kha!

Desperado for tacos? Pay a visit to the legends at Libertad! Tacos for Good, a late-night Mexican joint where all profits go to a local charity. It’s open till 2.30am Wednesday to Saturday, so it’s the perfect spot for a midnight snack after a night of fun.

Speaking of fun, here are our ultimate recommendations to let your hair down. Urban MO’s Bar & Grill has been a staple in Hillcrest’s LGBTQ+ scene for over 24 years, Nunu’s Cocktail Lounge is a classic old school dive bar complete with all-American bar snacks, The Loft is a must-visit top-rated gay bar and Cigar Cave houses an impressive wine list.

Best hostels in Hillcrest

If you’re looking for a Hillcrest home away from home, CoLive Balboa Park by ITH is the place to be. With quiet bedrooms and a strong focus on community, CoLive’s bargain prices are the icing on top of the cake. Home to travellers, students and young professionals alike, you’ll love the nightly events and community dinners each evening, the ideal way to make new friends. There’s also a library with private workstations, perfect for freelancers and digital nomads.

where to stay in san diego - colive balboa park by ITH reception

? CoLive Balboa Park by ITH

Hostel Habibi is another option in Hillcrest, located on the main street of University Avenue. There’s laundry facilities, a decent kitchen and the option of a private room or 6 bed dorm, and you even get a cookie on check in! That’s a win in our eyes. It’s also pet-friendly if you are travelling with a pup.

Compare more hostels in San Diego

Phew, and there you have it, our ultimate San Diego neighbourhood guide. It’s a hard choice to decide where to stay in such an epic city, but hopefully you’ve got a better idea of which area is right for you. Are you attracted to the after-hours excitement of the Gaslamp Quarter, the classic California beach vibes of PB or the gastronomic adventures waiting to be had in Little Italy? Or maybe you’ve been enticed by the chill vibes and dogs in Ocean Beach, or want to get amongst the glitter and rainbows in Hillcrest? No matter which neighbourhood is calling your name, we’ve got you sorted while you plan where you’re staying in San Diego. We guarantee you’ll have an incredible time!

Did we miss out a neighbourhood you think other travellers should know about? Share your best San Diego travel tips in the comments below!

where to stay in san diego - birds eye view of del mar fairgrounds

? @aeroviews

About the author:

Alexx is a Kiwi traveller obsessed with finding the ultimate things to see, do and eat in each place she visits. She’s a cheese addict, loves a travel planning spreadsheet, and is allergic to desk jobs. She’s about to take off on an epic 52-week, 52-country travel project, and you can follow her adventures at @findingalexx.

Keep reading: ?

? The ultimate West Coast road trip

? Best places in the USA to escape the winter sun

? The best hostels in San Diego

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