13 Hours in San Diego: Beaches, Tacos and Beer in ‘America’s Finest City’

By Adam Elder

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Photo by Superstock/Alamy

Photo by Superstock/Alamy

Living in San Diego is a little bit like living in the movie Groundhog Day—minus the snow, of course. Apart from two months in which the city merely gets cloudy (May gray and June gloom), the city's weather is relentlessly pleasant. It's what draws people from everywhere else in the world to this overstuffed, sun-soaked metropolis crammed into the southwest corner of the country. San Diego, which dubs itself "America's Finest City," offers little of the high culture that world-class cities do (though it has billionaires and art patrons in abundance). In fact, for better or worse, people tend to come to San Diego to escape the rat race, to a city where simpler pleasures like surfing, Mexican food and craft beer count among the world-class offerings.

1:16 P.M. Stop wasting time and get a fish taco already. The humble, Baja-inspired fare might be San Diego's defining cuisine, as pizza is to Naples and as the cheesesteak is to Philadelphia. Though Mitch's Seafood in Point Loma isn't strictly Mexican (the décor goes heavy on the aquatic aesthetic), it serves some of the city's tastiest tacos. Get a spot on the balcony overlooking the marina, ask which fish is freshest and pair it with the seafood-friendly Yellowtail Pale Ale by local brewery Ballast Point.

2:08 P.M. If there's one nearby beach that offers a trippy blend of city and nature, it's La Jolla Shores, at the bottom of the ritzy enclave of La Jolla. The consistent waves make for solid kayaking or surfing. But a note to beginners: Stick close to other novices and away from the pros or risk getting yelled at or run over. After fun in the surf, walk north, below the huge sandstone cliffs along the secluded coastline. Head far enough to encounter the surreal Mushroom House: a mid-century residence nestled within the cliffs that resembles a Roger Moore-era Bond villain's lair. Go a little farther to reach Black's Beach, one of the best surf breaks in California as well as an occasional nude beach. (Though, it's mostly men; this ain't the south of France.)

4:21 P.M. The sun's still up, but that never stops anyone in Pacific Beach from partying. There are more than a hundred bars to choose from in this neighborhood, but grab a spot on the patio at JRDN, in Tower 23 Hotel. Enjoy an Orange Avenue Wit by Coronado Brewing Co., and watch surfers, sorority girls, skateboarders, off-duty bartenders, burnouts, bodybuilders, tattoo artists, Rastas, rollerbladers and other keepers of the SoCal beach-culture flame stroll by in front of you on the busy boardwalk above the ocean.

5:05 P.M. While beach dwellers seem to enjoy having any kind of drink anywhere in the vicinity of the ocean, the inhabitants of revitalized urban neighborhoods like North Park and South Park can be much pickier about their booze. Here the richest selections of San Diego's craft beer and inventive cocktails can be found. Knock back whatever's on tap that day from Lost Abbey or Green Flash while getting lost in the 16-bit nostalgia of Donkey Kong and NBA Jam at Coin-Op Game Room. Once all of your quarters are gone, head north on 30th Street for a unique mixed drink at the airy Polite Provisions, Imbibe magazine's 2014 Cocktail Bar of the Year. Under a ceiling of skylights, bartender Erick Castro handcrafts and barrel-ages small-batch cocktails and serves them on draft out of beautiful wood and brass taps. Selections change all the time, but if the Kentucky Buck is on tap (bourbon with ginger beer and strawberry), drink several. Finally, add a touch of local style to your wardrobe: Return to University Ave. and drop into Aloha Sunday, a neighborhood surf shop, clothier and apparel line that eschews branded surf T's for more stylish—and totally original—menswear.

6:37 P.M. Just north of downtown, San Diego's own Little Italy is a SoHo-ized neighborhood teeming with lofts, art galleries and restaurants—yes, many of them offering differing shades of the same Italian fare. Skip those for the exciting El Camino. It's a kitschy Mexican fever dream of votive candles, luchador movies on loop, bejeweled Dia de los Muertos skulls, bandito murals and great music. The DJ's stereo goes to 11 here, so if you'd like a quieter atmosphere, head back to the open-air bar, underneath the glow of crisscrossing strands of lights. Order shrimp ceviche tostadas and a beer-rita in a glass boot. Then try not to flinch at the planes coming in low and loud directly overhead as they approach the airport nearby.

7:58 P.M. Downtown's historic—and historically sketchy—Gaslamp Quarter was scrubbed, sanded and defibrillated back to life starting in the 1980s thanks to the unstoppable redevelopment forces of tourism, the Convention Center and Petco Park, home of the Padres. Between the legions of expense-account holders and the architecture dating back from the days when Wyatt Earp enforced these once-mean streets, it has now come to resemble Disneyland's Main Street USA—if Walt Disney's tastes included sushi, pedicabs, retail shopping and house music. The neighborhood is a touch too polished, but still comes alive at night like few downtowns in America can. And luxury hotels like Andaz have arrived for a piece of the action. Head up to the hotel's rooftop lounge to take in the nighttime cityscape—either by the bonfire or next to the pool. It's a swanky place so drink the part with one of the bar's cocktails, Only on the Weekend (Bombay Sapphire, St. Germain, cucumber and lemon).

9:49 P.M. Follow the hipsters east on Broadway a few blocks to El Dorado; bands sometimes spin DJ sets at this craft-cocktail bar after their show at Little Italy's famous Casbah rock club. Ask for a Oaxacan River (mezcal, tequila, Crème de Cacao and peach bitters) and stop standing around—start dancing. Then for a totally different flavor, move on to SideBar for a dose of hedonism. After all, there are worst things than being stuck between go-go dancers in lingerie and bachelorette parties enjoying bottle-service in corner booths. Order a round of shots—what could be more appropriate at a place like this? Then hit up a club before it gets too late. Although San Diego's late-night scene can be as fickle as anywhere else, right now the name DJs tend to roll through the sweaty, subterranean Bassmnt. Pay the cover, descend the stairs and lose your shit.

1:57 A.M. The state of California has its share of problems, but its liquor law mandating last call at 1:30 a.m. is nothing less than an atrocity. As bars shutter all at once, males full of liquid courage roam the streets re-enacting Lord of the Flies. Even worse? Most restaurants closed hours ago. Luckily, in this city a California burrito—a thousand-calories' worth of carne asada, French fries, cheese, pico de gallo and guacamole in a toasted yet chewy flour tortilla—is available around the clock. Catch a cab to the 24-hour La Posta de Acapulco taco stand—a crowd converges on this little kitchen from all parts of the city at this hour to place their orders through a comically tiny cutout in the wall at the counter. Most of the menu is average by local standards, but they do this unique San Diegan burrito variety far better than anyone else. It's as perfect of an end to a busy, boozy day as food alone can provide.


Adam Elder is a writer in San Diego. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired.com, Esquire.com and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @adam_elder.


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