San Diego travel tips and things to do: 20 highlights

1 SOAK UP: THE SUNSHINE 

San Diego consistently ranks in the top 10 American cities for annual quota of sunshine. With a median daily temperature of 21.4°C, around 26 centimetres of rainfall per year and low humidity (and consequently hardly any mosquitoes because of this) it's no surprise that locals – and visitors – spend plenty of time enjoying the outdoors.

2 DO: BALBOA PARK 

America's largest urban cultural park, Balboa Park, is an educational refuge (who knew such a thing existed?). You could spend days – or even weeks – making your way through the 17 diverse museums. There are one-day, seven-day and yearly passes available (the seven-day and yearly passes are good value and permit admission to all 17 museums) and museum displays span everything from thought-provoking photography works and history exhibits to immersive science displays and aviation showings. In between museum visits stroll through the various themed gardens (there's even an Australian garden if you're missing the smell of Eucalyptus). See balboapark.org.

3 EXPLORE: GASLAMP QUARTER

Gaslamp Quarter oozes sophistication thanks to its dynamic mix of dining, entertainment and shopping facilities. The former red light district is home to over 100 shops, 100 restaurants and 40 nightspots luring crowds from all over the city looking for a good time. Although San Diego is a stunner by day, night time is particularly beautiful in the Gaslamp Quarter as the main promenade is lit up with hundreds of … gas lamps (now running on electricity we'd say). It's also the best time to soak up the atmosphere – get lost in the crowd, eat, drink, dance, repeat. See gaslamp.org.

4 DRINK: CRAFT BEER

California is redefining the meaning of The Golden State (copious amounts of golden nectar for beer lovers) and San Diego is where it's at. In fact, San Diego is often referred to as the craft beer capital of USA and beer aficionados have close to 100 breweries, microbreweries and brew pubs to choose from. In the last few years the craft beer scene has gone through a rapid stage of growth thanks to an enthusiastic bunch of brewers keen to share their love of beer (and their brews) with anyone who takes an interest. Mission Brewery and Mike Hess Brewing are two of the best – completely different ambiances, reliably good beer. See missionbrewery.com and mikehessbrewing.com.

5 EAT: MAC AND CHEESE

Barleymash, located in the trendy Gaslamp Quarter, is the go-to-eatery-cum-bar for the most decadent lobster mac and cheese. Just visualise a gigantic bowl brimming with coiled cavatappi noodles, topped with two types of beer-cheese sauce (we're in San Diego after all), a three-cheese blend, panko breadcrumbs, a splash of truffle oil and succulent chunks of butter-poached lobster (plenty of them). It's indisputably not good for you, but so worth it. See barleymash.com.

6 WORK OUT: ANYWHERE

Although the locals like to drink beer and eat good food, they also work out – and they want to work out (it's true, we asked). The combination of balmy year-round temperatures and the magnificent coastline fashions a population who walk, run, kayak, surf and cycle. San Diego is also recently introduced DECOBIKE, a bike share initiative that allows people to rent and return bikes across a network of 180 bike stations scattered around town. See decobike.com.

7 WATCH: PEOPLE AT MISSION BEACH AND PACIFIC BEACH

Mission Beach is the place to head to for a seriously epic walk/run/cycle. The four-kilometre beachfront boardwalk hugs Mission Beach and Pacific Beach and on weekends it's chockers with cyclists, roller-bladers and joggers. The hectic weekend vibe is a good thing, as some of the best people-watching happens here. 

8 DO: RIDE A HISTORIC ROLLERCOASTER 

One of the last remaining seaside wooden rollercoasters in the US, the Giant Dipper in Belmont Park is all about the thrill. There's something exhilarating (and downright scary) about taking the plunge on a rollercoaster that's 91 years old. It's a registered national historic landmark too. See belmontpark.com

9 DO: GO FOR A LLAMA RIDE 

Looking for a ride that's a little more chilled? Head to Ocean Beach (the Byron Bay of San Diego County) on a Wednesday afternoon and you can ride a llama. This dreamy, hippie district is full off eclectic antique boutiques, dive bars that are so divey they are cool, and quite possibly the best fish tacos in town at South Beach Bar and Grill. And llamas on Wednesdays … in case you missed it. See oceanbeachsandiego.com and southbeachob.com

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10 EAT: MEXICAN FOOD

Honestly, there are stacks of places to get amazing fish tacos… and quesadillas, burritos, enchiladas and empanadas too. San Diego is a stone's throw from the Mexican border and there are Mexican eateries dotted all over town, usually headed up by chefs who learned to cook from their madre. Try the hand-made tortillas at Las Cuatro Milpas, the sizzling fajitas at Cafe Coyote… try it all. See cafecoyoteoldtown.com.

11 SEE: STREET ART

Take a break between taco feasts and head to Barrio Logan for a dose of Hispanic culture and art. Originally a refuge for Mexican residents fleeing the revolution in the early 20th century, today Barrio Logan is San Diego's funky and happening arts neighbourhood. Chicano Park, beneath the San Diego-Coronado Bridge overpass, features an impressive display of colourful Mexican street art murals and sculptures. See chicanoparksandiego.com.

12 LEARN: TO SURF

La Jolla Shores has mellow sand and reef breaks that deliver smooth learning conditions year round. Book a lesson with Surf Diva and you'll get free amusement too. Founded by quirky-cool twin sisters Izzy and Coco Tihanyi (Isabelle and Caroline in serious talk) lessons might involve downward facing dogs while dolphin spotting and always lots of laughter. See surfdiva.com.

13 DO: PARAGLIDE OR HAND GLIDE

Just a few kilometres north of La Jolla you'll find Torrey Pines Gliderpoint , a historic aviation site – and more importantly somewhere the average Joe can leap off into the ether. It's a learning facility, so any tandem paraglide or hang glide (this varies on wind conditions) will come with a lesson on technique too. After getting through the legal waivers you'll tranquilly glide over the picturesque coastal cliffs, taking in a bird's eye of the beaches underneath, the Torrey Pines Golf Course and the beautiful La Jolla mansions. See flytorrey.com

14 EXPLORE: CORONADO

The thin strip of land between San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean is home to the some of the best beaches in America (they actually glisten thanks to the mineral mica flecks in the sand), suave boutiques, top-grade restaurants and friendly locals who don't act as snobby as they could (Coronado, along with La Jolla, is home to some of San Diego's wealthiest folk). Rent a bike, order an ice cream, wander around aimlessly – do whatever you need to do to soak it up. See coronadovisitorcenter.com.

15 EAT: SUNDAY BRUNCH AT HOTEL DEL CORONADO

Indulge in the mother of all brunches at the grandiose and historic Hotel del Coronado. A delightful surplus of fresh seafood, carved meats, pastas, sushi, baked dishes, fruits, cheeses and much more awaits (so wear something loose) and smiling waiters whiz around ensuring glasses are never empty. The Bloody Marys come highly recommended, as does the house champagne. See hoteldel.com.

16 DO: GO FISHING

If you prefer catching your own fish, San Diego is home to over 20 lakes and reservoirs teeming with fish varieties such as largemouth bass, trout, catfish, bluegill, sturgeon and carp, to name a few. The Pacific Ocean is a whole other pool and avid fishermen might come across bluefin, yellowfin, mahi mahi, mako, albacore, halibut, rockfish, white sea bass and numerous others. Book a charter, rent a boat or head to one of the seven designated ocean piers that permit fishing and fling a line. 

17 HANG OUT: IN NORTH PARK

Everyone is talking about North Park of late. You'll find several of the craft breweries here as well as a vibrant medley of restaurants, bars, cafes, art galleries and shops. The arts scene is flourishing too and on the second Saturday of each month during Ray At Night local businesses, art galleries and boutiques stay open late for art shows and live entertainment. See northparkmainstreet.com and rayatnight.com.

18 CHECK OUT: HILLCREST

Sydney has Darlinghurst, New York has Greenwich Village and San Diego has Hillcrest. The gay-friendly hood is located minutes from downtown and is home to an array of eccentric shops, cutesy eateries, rollicking bistros and smiling locals with a colourful attitude to match. The best bread in town can be found in Hillcrest too. Open seven days a week customers have the bees' knees of fresh-baked European-style breads and pastries to choose from at Bread & Cie. See hillquest.com and breadandcie.com.

19 STAY: HARD ROCK HOTEL SAN DIEGO

Confidently sitting in prime position in the perpetually busy Gaslamp Quarter, Hard Rock Hotel San Diego oozes sophistication and style. The rooms are smartly furnished and turndown service includes a personalised soundtrack being played (staff ask what kind of music you like at check in). If you want more tunes you can download tracks with the Sound of Your Stay program or have a Fender guitar or a Traktor DJ system delivered so you can rock out in your room! If food is more your thing head downstairs to Nobu and indulge in imaginative nouveau Japanese fare. See hardrockhotelsd.com

20 DO: SAN DIEGO ZOO

This year marks the 100th birthday of the San Diego Zoo, an urban oasis in Balboa Park. The 4000 or so animals that call the zoo home reside in surroundings that are designed to be comparable to their natural environments, and guests can walk or take a guided bus through the expansive premises. Highlights include the panda trek (the zoo is one of only a handful in the USA that has giant pandas on display) and the monkey trails – elevated tracks that take guests on a journey through monkey mania. See zoo.sandiegozoo.org.

Tatyana Leonov was a guest of Visit California. See visitcalifornia.com.au

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