Dark, rainy and cold – that is not the usual description for San Diego, but unfortunately, that was how San Diego was for us. California ended its four-year drought with a rare rainy weather, meanwhile we decided to escape the Chicago winter, thinking we could use some warm weather in San Diego. So…there was no beach weather for us and we wore our sweaters and raincoats everyday.
Trying Airbnb for the first time, we picked a relatively cheap lodging in the Chula Vista area, about 10 minutes from the border with Mexico. The stay was surprisingly nice, and might actually be much better than hotels and for half the price at least. Our host left us snacks and drinks, and pretty much freedom to use most of her home. She worked in a hospital and left for work early in the morning, and was asleep by the time we got back. We went days without meeting her, and for a while, thought we would never get to meet her in person. There was this strange feeling we were pretending to be someone else, leading a parallel life. Finally, we caught up with her one early morning before she left for work and got to know her. How could a hotel beat the intimate experience and a chance to be immersed in the local life in a cute home in a random suburb?
What to do in San Diego – Visit the Farmer’s Market
Our first day in San Diego happened to be a Sunday, and we headed straight for Hillcrest Farmers Market. California’s farmers markets never fail to impress us, and this was no exception. The market had over 100 vendors, some were selling produce as expected, but a good number was selling prepared foods, and others were peddling artwork and artisanal cosmetics. There was definitely a lot more variety in vendors to explore compared to the typical Midwest farmers market. We tried exotically flavored sodas, some really good cured salami, a bunch of honey, amazing African barbeque, regular barbeque, fresh ceviche, and even a large cup of margarita. Along the way, finding random things like fossils. It took us all morning but was certainly well worth the time.
Liberty Station – Exploring San Diego California
Our next stop was Liberty Station. Liberty Station’s interesting layout was attributed to being previously a Naval training center in the 1920s, and parts of it still seemed to be a work in progress to bring in commercial activity. Some buildings were empty, while others were turned into art galleries or comic and tea stores. We found our way to Liberty Public Market, an indoor food hall, which had a selection of tasty looking eats. Besides the stores, the courtyards outside made for a pretty and leisurely stroll.
Awesome *&$#&^%$# Tacos Dude! Barrio Logan SD
Barrio Logan neighborhood was on our list for some amazing tacos at low prices. The neighborhood itself might seem a little sketchy and lifeless with decrepit and shuttered stores, but Salud! was a great reason to visit. The tacos were amazing, whether it was fish or pulled pork, with complex and tasty sauces, and the various salsa options were delicious even on their own. The restaurant had an edgy gritty vibe with a huge mural, car parts and a bike on the wall. The prices were also extremely reasonable, certainly a steal for how delicious the food was.
Not too afraid of the rundown-ness of Barrio Logan, we took a walk down the main street. Checked out a little coffee shop along the way, and ended up at Chicano Park, located under a freeway with colorful murals that had cultural and historical symbolism. We are not experts on the park’s history, but there seems to be good work done to document the place here.
A Walk on the Beach on Coronado Island
Crossing the Coronado Bridge that stretched across the bay, we arrived at Coronado Island, where a few locals told us it was the most fun place in town. Coronado Island was a little sliver of an island, where the navy occupied over half the land, while expensive mansions, a historic hotel, and a main street full of touristy fare filled the remaining space. Alas, the rain and cold gusty wind was too chilly for relaxing on the beach. We walked along the beach, found the historical Hotel del Coronado, and took a walk down the main street. Our exploration was brief.
Awesome Seafood at Mitch’s and Drinks in The Gaslamp
For dinner, we were craving fresh seafood and headed to Mitch’s. Mitch’s was a small, low key and bare bones eatery that served really affordable seafood. For a small place, they had a good selection of food options, from tacos to plain grilled fish to the regular breaded deep fried type of seafood. Most options feature local and fresh fish, not hard to believe seeing that the eatery was located on the edge of the pier, surrounded by active fishing boats. The seafood was so fresh and delicious, certainly a far cry from the options we were stuck with in the Midwest, which were mostly frozen imported fish that had lost its flavor in transport or lake trout if unfrozen. Mitch’s really reminded us of what we were missing living in the Midwest. The food was so delicious we actually had dinner there every night, cycling through the different options on the menu each night.
We headed to yet another touristy area, the Gaslamp Quarter. The district was the classic bar and restaurant area. It so happened to be Superbowl Sunday, and so, all the bars were full of rowdy football fans watching the game and guzzling beers. We were one of the few in the city and maybe country to ignore the game. As we wandered around, we found Café 21, a restaurant and bar bravely putting on live music to just three people who were clearly not watching the game. Perfect for us, we went in to check out the music. The music was actually quite good, performed by 2 guys from Argentina, and a lady who grew up in San Diego. The songs were lively yet laid-back, with the guys playing the guitar and the lady drumming. We chatted with the drumming lady in between breaks, and this enthusiastic lady was curious about our plans in San Diego. She nodded in approval as we gave her a quick rundown of places we were planning to visit, and added her suggestions like Balboa Park before she went back to performing. Besides the music, the drinks were also delightful. We treated ourselves to a sangria flight, which consisted of 6 little shot glasses of sangria each infused with different fruits and herbs. A great place to hide from the Superbowl crowd.
Hiking and Exploring outside of San Diego
The next day, our first stop was to get some coffee. We found a tiny little coffee shop called Industrial Grind, and it almost appeared to be a shanty. The coffee shop existed under corrugated metal roof sheets placed between two buildings, and a tarp out back provided shade for the seating area. It was certainly a cool little place with great coffee.
With an energy boost, we headed to Cabrillo National Monument. The national monument was situated high on a cliff in the Point Loma area, and supposedly a spot to see whales migrating. We started the hike at the bottom of the rocky cliff right by the Pacific Ocean, where the winds were gusting and rain was misting. We found some promising tide pools, but on closer inspection, there didn’t seem to be any thing else besides rocks and sand in them. In hindsight, we probably visited at high tide where waves were crashing onto the cliff, so the tide pools we thought we saw were simply puddles of water on cliff ledges.
The other part of the national monument was at the top of the cliff, where there was an old lighthouse and a statue of Cabrillo. There was not much to explore or hike up there, but it was a good spot to get a view of the entire city and beyond. Perhaps it was possible to see whales, but without binoculars, that was not quite feasible.
Our next stop was Torey Pines State Park, in the northern part of La Jolla. We were a little taken aback by what we thought was an expensive entrance fee for a state park, which perhaps hinted at the higher cost of living in California. We drove to the highest point in the park, and started our hike on a trail that would lead out to a beach. The hike was relatively easy, as the sandy ground was well cleared and there were stairs wherever needed. The landscape was sandy and almost desert like, with beautiful sandstone formation reminiscent of miniature mountains. Eventually the path led to a set of stairs that took us down to a beach surrounded by tall cliffs. Being a dark rainy day, the beach was completely deserted. It was a great day for finding solitude and for simply watching and listening to the waves.
La Jolla Cove Sea Lions & Gelato
After the hike, we headed back south to La Jolla Cove. The rain got heavier and we ducked into Bobboi, which had amazing gelatos of fun flavors like rose almond, and most of these flavors were made of organic and locally sourced ingredients. The cold and wet weather seemed to have kept people from doing anything in the city, so we were the only ones in the store, enjoying the rainy view and eating gelatos.
As the rain lightened up, we took a walk to find the famous seals and sea lions at the La Jolla Cove. Sure enough, a few of them were rolling around in the water, giving us tourists plenty of opportunities to take photos and videos of them. Along the rocky cliffs, many more seals and sea lions were asleep, undisturbed by people gawking at them. Somehow these animals continued to live in the area even as the city got built up and busy over time.
Day Trip to Anza Borrego – Hiking to The Oasis
To get some serious hiking, we headed out of the city, driving two hours northeast to Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Once out of the city, we passed little towns and beautiful rolling hills with farms. It was yet another rainy day, and at some point, the hills were completely swallowed in dense fog. Just as we started to worry about hiking in this weather, the fog lifted and clouds parted to reveal the bright and sunny desert. Sure enough, we had arrived at the edge of the Anza Borrego Desert. We found the visitor center, and were surprised to learn that the state park was way larger than we thought. The trails we had planned to hike would take another couple more hours of driving, so we settled on a hike right by the visitor center, which promised to lead us to an oasis.
We started the hike on a rocky and sandy path for a few hours, for once grateful the rainy season kept the temperature down. After about 2 miles, a little stream appeared, along with some palm trees. Then the trail got confusing. To begin with, the trails were not well marked, and we simply hiked wherever the path looked clear. Now at the stream, big rocks were blocking the path in all directions and a few fellow hikers were milling around, unsure of how to proceed. We clambered over large rocks, skipped across the stream, got to some dead ends, back tracked our steps and tried other paths over other rocks. Finally, with some helpful hints from other hikers, we made our way to the oasis.
The oasis was a different world with soft brown dirt and big tropical palm trees. The palm trees’ dried leaves hung loose on its side as fresh green leaves continued upwards. The scent of the trees brought back memories of the sweet smelling thatched roofs of rural Asia or beach resort furniture. Close your eyes and you could picture yourself on a tropical island, surrounded by palm trees and caressed by gentle winds. Finding an oasis after miles of dry, parched and unforgiving rocky land was quite strange. Where did the water come from? How did tropical palm trees find its way here? Oasis was a familiar concept, whether as a word or in pictures or films, but actually being in an oasis was enlightening. The oasis was strangely beautiful and calming, and we finally understood what an oasis truly meant.
San Diego was also known for small breweries. We headed to Miramar, an area just outside the city. Most of Miramar was for the Marine Corps, which might explain why the area was more industrial looking, not too different from certain suburbs of Chicago. We headed for Mikkeller brewery, located right in the middle of an industrial space, where their neighbors were battery distributors and freight services. Mikkeller’s space was large and wide open, with a bar in a corner and huge cartoonish artwork on the walls. The brewing and packaging facility was right inside as well. It happened to be a quiet night, with just one patron besides us. According to Tom, beer was great, but bartender could be friendlier.
San Diego Art Market – Balboa Park
On our last day in San Diego, the sky finally cleared and the sun was out. For the first time, we experienced the beautiful weather that San Diego was known for. With only a few hours left in the city, we went to the final tourist area we had not yet visited. The Balboa Park was a large area with most of San Diego’s museums and zoo contained in there. As we parked our car, we stumbled on one of the curated gardens, the Desert Garden, which had fragments reminiscent of our Anza Borrego hike. The plants we saw on the Anza Borrego hike was condensed in a small area, and other areas had many desert plants we had never seen.
Near the Desert Garden, we found a vibrant courtyard, which turned out to be the Spanish Village Art Center. Mosaic on the walls and colorful painted floor beckoned us. There were quite a number of studios in the village, and some of them were showrooms for a group of artists. Some were working studios where artists were painting right outside. We spent the rest of our time here, watching the artists and getting some little art pieces. Definitely a lot of interesting areas to explore!
San Diego was a good short escapade, even though the weather wasn’t quite as warm as we had expected. We could see why some people considered San Diego a sterile city, with its many clearly designated tourist areas like Gaslamp Quarters and Coronado Island. San Diego may lack the elusive spark for the city to be considered culturally complex, but considering the large military presence, the city still had pockets of authenticity and artisanship. If anything, there were certainly amazing food and friendly people in San Diego.
Priscilla Schmidt : @pristye
Tom Schmidt : schmidtphoto.com @tomschmidtphoto