You might also like:

Explore: San Diego Neighborhood Guide

Those looking to splash into California’s surf scene have long set course for San Diego, where the temperature rarely dips below the 60s and about 70 miles of coastline beckon. There’s more here than just surfing, thanks to a spate of restaurant openings, a flourishing arts scene and independent boutiques. What’s more, the influx of newer offerings hasn’t altered San Diego’s easygoing attitude. Travelers can comfortably tour the area in flip-flops and jeans, striking up conversations at breweries or galleries with the city’s cheerful, laid-back residents. Read on for our guide to three neighborhoods that are helping transform this mellow seaside city into a cultural center.

Point Loma/Liberty Station

Evidence of San Diego’s maritime history dots the Point Loma district, on a pen­insula of the same name. You can get your bearings at the Cabrillo National Monument (1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr.; 619-557-5450; admission, $10 a car), within the Cabrillo State Marine Reserve on the peninsula’s southern tip. A 14-foot sandstone likeness honors Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, the first European to set foot on the West Coast, in 1542. From the statue you can see across San Diego Bay to a zigzag of mountains hovering beyond downtown. Mid-December through March, the ocean vista is even more compelling, as thousands of Pacific gray whales migrate from the Arctic to Mexico’s warmer waters. Make your way to the whale overlook with a few quarters on hand to take advantage of the viewfinders.

It’s about a six-mile drive to Point Loma’s thriving arts enclave, Liberty Station. A naval training camp until the late ’90s, the facilities have been converted into studios, shops and restaurants. You can grab a bite at one of the many food stalls or eateries that make up Liberty Public Market (2820 Historic Decatur Rd.; 619-487-9346), which launched this past March. Or head to the adjoining Mess Hall (2820 Historic Decatur Rd.; 619-255-8360; dinner for two, $60*). Nautical paintings border the ceiling, and more than one Navy man has remarked on at last being able to dine in this former officer’s commissary. The menu changes daily based on the market’s offerings, and it features filling fare, such as vegetables pickled in-house and wood-fired pizzas. Boutique beer shop Bottlecraft supplies rotating craft brews, like a tart pineapple cider.

Deeper in Liberty Station, dozens of museums, galleries and workrooms have taken over the naval barracks. San Diego Comic Art Gallery (2765 Truxtun Rd.; 858-270-1315) overflows with colorful action figures and comic strips. Across the courtyard, Casa Valencia Galería (2730 Historic Decatur Rd., Barracks 16, Suite 101; 619-752-6188) promotes Latin American painters and sculptors. Most studios are on the second floor, and many artists will eagerly share their work and their stories. Painter Nancy Tokos delights in showing off her Impressionist figures, while animator Wattana Khommarath cheerfully walks visitors through vibrant storyboards and gives area recommendations. Peggy Fischbeck, a plein air painter who served in the Navy, remembers Liberty Station before its transformation.

Fishbeck’s oils also grace the walls of the former commander’s HQ, now chic décor and design store Scout @ Quarters D (2675 Rosecrans St.; 619-225-9925). Popular items include typewriter-inspired letters you can hang on the wall and candles that take San Diego neighborhoods as their theme. You can keep shopping or put your feet up at Moniker General (2860 Sims Rd.; 619-255-8772), where small-batch coffee and brews are on tap; the space also sells travel-friendly items by SoCal outfitters, such as durable canvas doc kits, SD-embroidered woolen baseball caps and hand-dyed leather totes.

South Park

San Diego’s main inland wonder is Balboa Park (619-239-0512), 1,200 acres of museums, performing arts centers, gardens and other attractions. To its east lies South Park, an emerging neighborhood with a Brooklynesque vibe. Here, pedestrian-friendly streets are lined with quirky independent shops and historic Craftsman homes, some trimmed in brilliant shades of lime green or electric blue. Before you start exploring, consider fueling up at Station Tavern (2204 Fern St.; 619-255-0657; lunch for two, $20), a transformed trolley station known for its reasonably priced burgers, San Diego brews and family-friendly outdoor patio.

Afterward you can peruse oddities at offbeat mercantile store Junc Life (2209 Fern St.; 619-283-2611). Leather bags made by owner Jeffrey Parish hang next to dream catchers, and teacups marked with clever phrases are tucked amid plaid shirts and oversize hats. Across the street, Graffiti Beach Boutique (2220 Fern St.; 858-433-0950) sells board shorts, pineapple-shaped tumblers and graphic tees. Keep an eye out for items created from repurposed materials, such as Solo Eyewear sunglasses made in San Diego from recycled bamboo, and jewelry handcrafted from drum cymbals by California designer Leslie Barrett. Nearby Gold Leaf (2225 30th St.; 619-738-8120) opened this past April. Its products are chosen according to zakka, a Japanese movement that celebrates thoughtful home goods. The airy interior showcases vintage and contemporary kitchenware, a peppy children’s section and rope chairs by San Diego–based furniture company Joybird.

Kindred (1503 30th St.; 691-546-9653; dinner for two, $30), a Victorian-meets-punk vegan joint that launched last winter, is about a 10-minute walk south. Part of the appeal is the aesthetic: pink wallpaper, white marble countertops and two wall-to-wall windows that can be raised for alfresco dining. Tattooed bartenders pour sippers of Cynar, a sweet artichoke liqueur, while servers present spicy tofu scrambles and cauliflower steaks.

The northern end of 30th Street is famous for its beer scene, but some of the brewpubs and tasting rooms are making their way down the corridor, and the evidence is just next door. Established in 2014, South Park Brewing Co. (1517 30th St.; 619-610-9038; beer for two, $15) has already won recognition from international beer festivals and Draft Magazine for its small-batch brews.

Little Italy

One of San Diego’s oldest neighborhoods, Little Italy is set along the harbor. In recent years, it’s become a hot spot for more than Italians, and several restaurants run by celebrity chefs have sprung up along Kettner Boulevard. In a former warehouse, Herb & Wood (2210 Kettner Blvd.; 619-955-8495; dinner for two, $80), the latest venture by Top Chef finalist Brian Malarkey, delicately plates upscale dishes. The interior is decked out in blue velvet banquettes, dreamy portraits and chandeliers studded with seashells.

Two doors down, the team behind one of San Diego’s star dining destinations, Juniper & Ivy, has opened up an outdoor restaurant in its former parking lot. Helmed by another Top Chef contestant, Richard Blais, The Crack Shack (2266 Kettner Blvd.; 619-795-3299; dinner for two, $30) has already proved so popular that an Encinitas location is in the works. You can play a round of bocce ball in the restaurant’s court after feasting on sandwiches of fried free-range chicken, mini biscuits with miso-maple butter and tangy fruit slaw. One street over you’ll find Ballast Point (2215 India St.; 619-255-7213; beers for two, $15), a cornerstone San Diego brewery named for Cabrillo’s landing spot. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can order four-ounce tasters of the curry-flavored Indra Kunindra stout or the Mango Even Keel IPA.

Back on Kettner, the rustic-chic Bracero Cocina de Raiz (1490 Kettner Blvd.; 619-756-7864; dinner for two, $70) mixes serious tequila-based cocktails and cooks up modern Mexican: molcajete brimming with market vegetables, pork shank in mole sauce, and tender roasted octopus. If you’re inspired, you can pick up artisanal salt and other ingredients at Little Italy Mercato (519 W. Cedar St.; 619-233-3901), a farmers market open most Saturday mornings. Two blocks away, Vitreum (619 W. Fir St.; 619-237-9810) displays minimalist tableware handmade in Japan, as well as cast-iron bottle openers and geometric silk scarves.

The Maritime Museum of San Diego (1492 N. Harbor Dr.; 619-234-9153; admission, $16) is well worth a visit before you leave. It’s made up of several ships—from an 1898 steam ferryboat to a Cold War–era Soviet sub—that are floating in the working harbor. You can examine exhibits on nautical life or simply enjoy poking around these historic vessels. There’s even a re-creation of the San Salvador, the ship Cabrillo commanded when he dropped anchor at Ballast Point. Aboard the wooden deck you’re surrounded by ships from San Diego’s past and present, reminders of the city’s history and promises of what’s yet to come.

Day-Tripping to Carlsbad

Soak up the sun in this family-friendly shore town.

About 35 miles up the coast from San Diego, Carlsbad is a popular getaway. One of the best times to visit its main attraction, Legoland® (1 Legoland Dr.; 760-918-5346; admission, $90; children 3–12, $84), is during the week, when the crowds are typically lighter. The amusement park opened Lego® Ninjago® World last May, a one-acre section near the entrance. Its interactive rides are the first in North America to take advantage of 4D™ Maestro technology. Kids can throw fireballs, ice and lightning to defeat villains as if they’re inside a video game.

Nearby, children can play everything from gongs to electric guitars at the Museum of Making Music (5790 Amanda Dr.; 760-438-5996; admission, $10). Each gallery focuses on a different period in American music history, touching on song trends and cultural developments. Fill up afterward on smoked ocean trout or roasted lamb at Campfire (2725 State St.; dinner for two, $60), a new restaurant centered around two large wood-fired grills.

Consider wrapping up your trip with a walk through Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park (6200 Flying Leo Carrillo Ln.; 760-476-1042). Best known for his role as Pancho on The Cisco Kid, Leo Carrillo was an actor and conservationist in the first half of the 20th century. You can take a self-guided tour to see what life on the ranch was like. Jewel-toned peafowl roam free, providing an opportunity for colorful snapshots.


RCI® affiliated resorts near San Diego include:

Grand Pacific Palisades Resort 5362

Rooms afford views of the Pacific Ocean and Carlsbad Flower Fields. 5805 Armada Dr., Carlsbad

Carlsbad Inn Beach Resort 1285

The courtyard’s expansive lawn is a great place to catch the sunset. 3075 Carlsbad Blvd., Carlsbad

Hilton Grand Vacations Club at MarBrisa 8774

After visiting the nearby attractions, kick back in the resort’s serpentine pool. 1594 MarBrisa Circle, Carlsbad

Winners Circle Resort 0422

This resort offers four tennis courts, a whirlpool and an exercise facility. 550 Via de la Valle, Solana Beach


Non-RCI affiliated resorts in San Diego include:

Hotel Palomar

An on-site pool and spa are just two of the treats that await you in this boutique property. 1047 5th Ave.; 888-288-6601;; doubles from $159 a night

The Bristol Hotel

A modern eco-friendly hotel with a bar and grill within walking distance of the waterfront. 1055 First Ave.; 619-232-6141;; doubles from $180 a night

Hotel Vyvant

Twenty-four chic rooms set in a historic 1910 building in San Diego’s flourishing Little Italy neighborhood. 505 W. Grape St.; 619-230-1600;; doubles from $79 a night


NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.