Welcome to San Diego!

Published April 01 2018

To make your stay a little easier, here are some recommendations from the Zhang Lab at the University of California, San Diego, for local places worth checking out. This advice comes to you from eight graduate student, postdocs and project scientists who have lived here at most three years; it’s meant to be necessary and sufficient, though by no means exhaustive. Every place listed has been visited at least once by one person (N=1).

A note about transportation: San Diego is a city of neighborhoods (well, duh). Unlike some cities, however, it can be difficult to navigate between neighborhoods without a car. I’ve structured this list such that places closer to the San Diego Convention Center are listed first, and you can easily fill any free time with things downtown. Buses and the trolley system are accessible from downtown/convention center, but they don’t reach all the cool places. So, if you find yourself with more free time and want to venture farther out, know that San Diego has both Uber and Lyft ridesharing options.

Members of Jin Zhang’s lab at UC, San Diego, who contributed to this feature include, from left, Shawn Chen, Simin Li, Danielle Schmitt, Terri Clister, Xin Zhou, Chris Booth. Not pictured are Gary Mo and Brian Ross.

1 Old Town Trolley Tour

The Old Town Trolley Tour is a great way to see San Diego and learn about local history. Options are for a one-day or two-day pass with hop-on/hop-off privileges for stops at or near many of the places listed here. The Seaport Village or Horton Plaza stops are the closest to the convention center, 0.6 mile each.

2 5th Avenue in Gaslamp Quarter

All along this street are restaurants and bars to try. If you’re looking for a bar with a club vibe, check out Vin de Syrah (901 Fifth Ave., 0.6 mile), which has a hidden entrance and a cool atmosphere.

3 Seaport Village

849 W. Harbor Dr, 0.6 mile Just around the corner from the convention center is Seaport Village with many shops and restaurants along the water. Check out Aaron Chang Art Gallery for world-famous surfing photography displayed in a unique way. And if you’re hungry, Puesto (789 W. Harbor Dr.) has really good Mexican food, especially the tacos.

4 USS Midway

910 N. Harbor Dr., 1 mile Just beyond Seaport Village is the decommissioned USS Midway aircraft carrier, now a museum ship. Exhibits and tours give insight into the ship’s involvement in post-WWII action.

5 Horton Plaza

324 Horton Plaza, 0.6 mile Need to do some shopping? Horton Plaza is close to the convention center and has many common retail stores.

6 Balboa Park

A staple of San Diego, Balboa Park offers many activities. Museums? Check. Gardens? Check. Hiking/walking paths? Check. International houses? Check. An artist’s village? Check. Special Earth Day events on April 22? Yep. (Actually, the “largest free environmental fair in the world.”) The Old Town Trolley stops in Balboa Park; otherwise the easiest way to get there is by rideshare. Museums offer student discounts, so bring your student ID.

7 Coronado Island

The trolley stops at the historic Hotel del Coronado. You also can catch the ferry at the convention center to the island for $4.75 one way. The hotel has a nice restaurant and beach access, both open to the public.

8 Old Town

Both the green line trolley ($2.25 one way or $7 day pass) and Old Town Trolley have a stop in Old Town, which has many museums and restaurants. The Old Town market is a great place to get Mexican souvenirs. Check out Miguel’s (2444 San Diego Ave.) for a great Taco Tuesday special.

9 Liberty Station

The former naval training center has been redeveloped with multiple restaurants and shops, including artist storefronts. If you’re into local craft brews, check out Stone Brewing.

10 Cabrillo National Monument

A beautiful location with a lighthouse and tide pools during low tide. (Plan your visit accordingly if you want to check them out, and wear good shoes.) The monument, at the end of a peninsula in the bay, commemorates the first European to arrive in San Diego. From the monument are some fantastic views of the city. This is a national park with a $15/vehicle fee or $7/person fee if you walk in.

11 Sunset Cliffs

In a neighborhood called Ocean Beach (call it “OB” if you want to sound like a local), this place is exactly what it sounds like: cliffs right above the ocean with beautiful sunset views and walking paths. Maybe you’ll even see the rare green flash.

12 Mount Soledad

A park/veterans memorial overlooking the city with a beautiful view of the bay, the ocean and mountains.

13 Torrey Pines Nature Reserve

A great place for a longer hike, though be warned there is a long, steep hill to climb before panoramic ocean views on any of multiple paths.

14 Torrey Pines Gliders Port

Active gliding club on a cliff overlooking the ocean, with a small café.

15 La Jolla Cove

A popular tourist destination to see sea lions and walk along cliffs by the ocean, with many restaurants and shops to check out nearby.


To expand the map legend, click the icon to the left of the map title (it looks like a rectangle with an arrow on it). Select the categories you want to see displayed. This will activate blue pins on the map. Click on a pin to learn more about a location and get directions to a location. The directions icon looks like a diamond with an arrow in the middle.


If you want to brave the water, be aware that different sections of beach are designated for swimmers and for surfers.

Ocean Beach

Great place to watch the sunset. Lots of bars to grab a beer and hang out.

Pacific Beach

Very cool bars; if you want to catch a game, there’s a bar for your team. You can watch surfers from the piero or walk along a boardwalk that extends into Mission Beach.

Mission Beach

Same beach, continues south of Pacific Beach.

Belmont Park

A small amusement park. Has a roller coaster, mini golf, laser tag and other activities.


Voted one of the best beaches in the United States. (Most restaurants have happy-hour specials.)

La Jolla Shores

Many small restaurants are nearby on Avenida de la Playa.

Windansea Beach

South of La Jolla Cove and less touristy. (May be rockier than other beaches, depending on tide and time of year.) Check out The Promiscuous Fork (6984 La Jolla Blvd.), a tiny/hole-in-the-wall café with good food.

The Zhang lab also wants you to stay fed. Here are their best bets for tacos and everything else you might crave in San Diego.

Ana Maria Barral offers some tips on how to deliciously fill your stomach without emptying your wallet — all within a half-hour walk of the San Diego Convention Center.

Terri Clister is a graduate student in Jin Zhang’s lab at the University of California, San Diego, working toward a Ph.D. in molecular biology.