Vacation San Diego: 4 Self-Driving Tour Itineraries

Vacation San Diego: 4 Self-Driving Tour Itineraries

For fans of sunny weather, impressive ocean drives and shoreline sunsets, Southern California is calling to be explored from the open road. Fly into San Diego International Airport, pick up your rental car and get ready to experience San Diego — where the weather’s nearly always nice and scenic routes to nearby attractions are plentiful.

From cruising through the heart of the city’s family-friendly sights to beach-hopping (and eating) along the Pacific coast, San Diego offers a diverse set of driving tours for adventurers to choose from. Hit the road on any of these four itineraries, and you’ll be en route to a memorable Golden State vacation.


Tour 1: Explore the Heart of San Diego in Balboa Park and Little Italy

Begin by driving to the crown jewel of San Diego: Balboa Park. Located off Interstate 5 and Highway 163, just about a mile northeast of downtown, this expansive park was built to host the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal and promoted San Diego as the first U.S. port of call for ships headed north after passing through the canal.

Balboa Building and Lily Pond Make sure you stop at the Botanical Building and Lily Pond, one of the world’s largest lath structures, featuring not only vibrant seasonal flowers but also more than 2,100 permanent plants, from orchids to palms.

Filled with hundreds of stunning species of plant life — from eucalyptus trees to cacti and roses — Balboa Park’s award-winning gardens and distinctive Spanish Renaissance architecture will introduce you to the splendor you’ll experience while driving through Southern California. Inside the park, explore the world-famous San Diego Zoo and some of the city’s most beloved museums, like the Air & Space Museum. Or attend one of the diverse outdoor festivals Balboa hosts throughout the year, such as the popular December Nights, which lights up the park for the holidays and fills it with seasonal treats, décor and dance performances.

Once you’ve cruised around the park — including the historic Cabrillo Bridge — head 1 ½ miles west on Laurel Street into Little Italy, a hip enclave just southwest of the park. Peruse unique boutique shops that line the streets of this neighborhood, such as Architectural Salvage, with its wide array of period building materials like vintage doorknobs, as well as fine art galleries, like the contemporary Subtext Gallery.

Take a cocktail break at San Diego’s oldest tavern, the Waterfront Bar & Grill, and then bite into an authentic Italian meal at the popular Filippi’s Pizza Grotto on India Street. Order an entire pie for the family or meatball lasagna just for you. Adjacent to the restaurant, you’ll also find a take-home market. Here, you can purchase items to practice cooking your own Italian cuisine.

Tour 2: Make It a Beach Day and Cruise Along the Coastline

Looking for some beach action? Drive less than 15 miles north of downtown to La Jolla to begin your self-driving tour along California’s coastline. Start your day with phenomenal surf-breaking shore views served up with an order of Giuseppe’s French toast, the prime smoked salmon presentation or a hearty helping of eggs at Caroline’s Seaside Cafe, one of the tastiest breakfast joints in the area. Tip: Try to arrive before 9 a.m. on the weekends. It’s first come, first served, and the line can get long quickly.

For those who prefer a later start, head to downtown La Jolla and grab a quick picnic lunch from Deli-icious. Then drive just a few minutes down to the Children’s Pool to watch the sea lions frolic before making your way to the world-famous Sunny Jim Sea Cave, the only one of seven ocean-carved caves accessible by land.

When you are ready to hit the road again, cruise Pacific Coast Highway through Pacific Beach and Mission Beach, two of San Diego’s quintessential beach communities, before heading into bohemian Ocean Beach, where you can catch the sunset at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. What’s for dinner? None other than what many consider San Diego’s best fish tacos at South Beach Bar and Grille, located at the end of Ocean Beach’s famed Newport Avenue.

Sunset Cliffs Drive to Sunset Cliffs at dusk to watch as the last of the California sun’s fiery rays blaze over the Pacific Ocean.

Tour 3: Venture from the Beach to Gardens, Mountains and Breweries

For those seeking a bit of everything, this tour’s got it covered. Begin by catching the California sunrise from the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, located about 15 miles north of downtown. Here, you can choose what to do based on your passions and interests, whether that’s simply relaxing while taking in breathtaking views of the Pacific coastline, hiking, surfing or collecting sand-smoothed stones on the beach.

Once you’ve had your sunrise fix, drive 18 miles east on Via de la Valle toward Del Dios Highway en route to Lake Hodges via Rancho Santa Fe. Though it’s a lesser-known route for tourists, this course will take vacationers on one of the most scenic drives in the country. Don’t be surprised if you see a horse trotting down the street next to you, alongside the Spanish architecture of the multimillion-dollar homes in the area, or a variety of simple fruit stands offering some of the valley’s best produce.

Enjoy these Southern California scenes as you make your way to Lake Hodges, where you can pull over and try shrimp quesadillas at Hernandez’ Hideaway lakeside, or go for a leisurely walk through the Botanical Trail at Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve. (To break a sweat, hike the reserve’s Way Up Trail instead.)

Lake Hodges In between all the savory West Coast bites, work in a beautiful hike at Lake Hodges for views of the tranquil lake and Bernardo Mountain.

End your day in nearby Escondido sipping on any of the 36 specialty and craft beers at Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, one of the country’s largest breweries, which also offers bus tours.

Tour 4: Plan a Day Driving Around the Bay

For postcard-worthy surroundings, some of the area’s tastiest dishes and a glimpse at why Southern Californians are so laid-back, opt to see the sights around San Diego Bay. Start your driving tour downtown at Richard Walker’s Pancake House, conveniently located just a couple of blocks east of the water. Once your tummy is full, drive less than 3 miles south to Barrio Logan, a community where Latino culture and Mexican food are king. Scroll through Chicano Park and explore the incredible murals showcasing Latin heritage before heading to Las Cuatro Milpas, home to some of the most authentic and mouthwatering Mexican food in San Diego.

Next, explore picturesque Coronado. Leaving Barrio Logan, drive 2 miles west over the Coronado Bridge, where you’ll be hard-pressed not to notice the incredible bay views. Start in the north by planning a family hike or bike ride at Coronado Ferry Landing and bayside, boasting stellar outlooks for admiring San Diego’s skyline.

Hop back in the car and cruise down Orange Avenue to check out the world-renowned Hotel del Coronado — an 1888 Victorian beachfront property known for its elegance and the prestigious guests it attracts — before visiting Coronado Beach, considered by many the best beach in the country. If you fancy some window-shopping, park alongside Orange Avenue and stroll through boutique shops such as Charisma, featuring unique seaside memorabilia, or the Coronado Resort Wear Company for that perfect SoCal outfit to complement the area’s laid-back lifestyle.

Coronado Beach Known for its white sand beaches, gentle surf and family-friendly attractions, Coronado (or “the Crown City”) is just minutes from San Diego.

Close the day with a flick under the stars. Drive south on Highway 75, also known as “The Strand,” about 10 miles into the community of Imperial Beach, where you’ll find South Bay Drive-In Theatres. Established in 1958, this beloved South Bay staple still showcases the hottest from Hollywood 362 days a year.

San Diego Google Earth Tour

Take a virtual tour of San Diego on your computer or mobile device! Zoom in on a satellite map and click around to see breathtaking 3D views of beaches, parks, historic neighborhoods and scenic drives, experiencing them almost as if you were really there. To view the experience on mobile, you will be prompted to download the free Google Earth app.

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About the Author

Cynthia Beisiegel is a writer and editor based in Dallas specializing in sharing travel tips and tricks. A native of New York, she has also lived in central Florida, Southern California and even on the island of Oahu for a few short months. She travels extensively throughout world, stamping her passport so far in five of the seven continents. Follow her adventures on Instagram @lalabicicleta.