Where to stay in San Diego: a local’s guide

Where to stay in San Diego: a local’s guide

Note: This post contains an affiliate link. If you make a purchase from an affiliate link, I will receive a small commission at no cost to you (thank you!). For more info, check out my disclosure policy.

Deciding where to stay in San Diego can be hard. The city is huge! Key things to do on your trip are all over town!

Since it’s so big, there are tons of unique neighborhoods with their own personality and charm. It’s like going to different cities when you’re already in a city. Extra vacations on top of your vacation.

So then how do you find the best area to stay in San Diego? With local help!

This guide is here to help you decide where to stay in San Diego, based on your interests and vacation #goals. I picked some of my favorite neighborhoods in San Diego that would be perfect to stay in during your trip. Some are touristy and have a lot of hotel/hostel options, and some are more where locals actually live so you’ll probably want to Airbnb or VRBO. Some you can get away with walking or Ubering, but some you’ll probably want to rent a car if you want to leave the neighborhood. They all have great things to do and eat. You can choose what’s right for you based on the kind of trip you want!

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PS – I’ve lived in all but two of these neighborhoods, so can vouch for most firsthand (and if you have questions on anything, let me know in the comments!).

Where to stay in San Diego to be close to major sights

While there are great things to do all over San Diego, many major sights are in or around Balboa Park, like the San Diego Zoo, many of San Diego’s coolest museums, and the Embarcadero– so we’re starting here. 

Because around Balboa Park are also many unique and funky districts that are perfect areas to stay in San Diego when you’re visiting. Depending which you choose, you may be walking distance or a quick Uber ride away from the sights in the area.

Note: These areas can get a bit noisey since the airport is nearby. If that will drive you crazy, skip to the beach sections as they’re further away from the airplane sounds.

If you want to be around high end restaurants

Little Italy

This is San Diego’s historically Italian immigrant neighborhood. It’s also incredibly cute. Like some coffee shops greet you with a “Ciao bella!” and the Christmas decorations go all out during the holidays.

A lot of upscale San Diego restaurants that are popular with the locals are here too, which makes it perfect if you want a fancy foodie San Diego trip. For the drinkers, there are also cute wine bars and major local breweries also popular with San Diegans.

  Top Rated Accommodations:   See all Little Italy hotels and hostels.

Nearby Attractions:

  • Embarcadero: 1.7 miles
  • Balboa Park: 1.0 miles
  • USS Midway Museum: 1.0 miles

If you want a slower paced, family friendly area

Golden Hill or South Park or Bankers Hill

Surrounding the bottom half of Balboa Park are the neighborhoods of Golden Hill, Bankers Hill, and South Park. These areas are more family friendly and slower paced since they’re mostly residential and with a lot of children. There are still many great coffee shops and restaurants, but it’s not as concentrated as the rest of the districts in this section, and they’re usually more “local neighborhood spot”.

Pssst – Usually these areas are where my friends stay when they visit San Diego and aren’t staying in my place, because there are so many Airbnb options. But then I have to drive them everywhere.

  Top Rated Accommodations:
  • Check out Airbnb for the best accommodations in these areas. If you haven’t used them before, here’s a $40 referral credit.

Nearby Attractions:
– Embarcadero: 1.7 – 3.5 miles
– Balboa Park: 0.3 – 0.4 miles
– USS Midway Museum: 1.7 – 3.3 miles

If you want to be in a hipster, foodie paradise

North Park

This is the hip hipster neighborhood of San Diego. With craft beer literally everywhere, tasty up and coming dining options, great coffee shops, good thrift stores, and many hipsters, this is where you should stay if you want to be in a hip neighborhood with a lot to eat and drink, still close to the major sights. If you’re in San Diego for an indie concert, it’s probably here. Like everything so far but Little Italy, this is where locals live, so you’ll have a better chance finding a cool rental than a cool hotel.

Nearby Attractions:
– Embarcadero: 4.6 miles
– Balboa Park: 0.6 miles
– USS Midway Museum: 4.4 miles

If you want to be in the LGBTQ friendly neighborhood

Hillcrest

San Diego is an open city, but Hillcrest is the LGBTQ neighborhood. If you want the most LGBTQ friendly bars and restaurants or are coming for Pride, you’ll probably want to stay here. Plus, Hillcrest has food from all over the world and hip things like indie movie theaters and organic grocery stores. There are a few interesting hostels here, but it’s mostly an area where mostly locals live.

  Top Rated Accommodations:   See all Hillcrest hotels and hostels or take a look at Airbnb in Hillcrest.

Nearby Attractions:
– Embarcadero: 3.4 miles
– Balboa Park: 0.8 miles
– USS Midway Museum: 2.8 miles

Best area to stay in San Diego for nightlife

Little Italy is good for like upscale nightlife, and North Park is good for like hipster nightlife, but if you want crazy clubs and shots nightlife on your San Diego trip, consider staying in one of these two districts.

If you want to be close to downtown

Gaslamp

Gaslamp is right next to downtown, so it’s incredibly close to those major sights mentioned above. It also has a lot of San Diego’s major clubs and bars! If you want a vibrant trip at night and to see a lot during the day, you should stay here. For food, there are a lot of great dining options if you do some research first (like my favorite place ever- an arcade bar!). And like Little Italy, there are a ton of hotel/hostel options here since it is downtown.

  Top Rated Accommodations:   See all Gaslamp hotels and hostels.

Nearby Attractions:
– Embarcadero: 1.1 miles
– Balboa Park: 1.3 miles
– USS Midway Museum: 1.3 miles

If you want to be close to the beach

Pacific Beach

This is almost like Gaslamp, but on the beach, more college kids, and historically more wild. It gets its reputation for being on crazy party MTV shows from the 90s, and though you can’t drink on the beach anymore, you can drink at one of the many bars. Some places serve drinks as early as 7 AM (!!) so this is the perfect place to live your best day drinking and beach life. There’s also a lot of water activites like surfing and jetskiing, and for food, there are a lot of taco shops and bar food.

  Top Rated Accommodations:   See all Pacific Beach hotels and hostels or take a look at Airbnb for Pacific Beach.

Where to stay in San Diego on the beach

San Diego is famous not just for having perfect weather but also tons of beaches. Where should you stay in San Diego so you’re by the beach? The beaches are all very different, so I broke it down depending on what kind of experience you want here.

One note about these areas is that they tend to have a lot of hotels, some hostels, and many resorts. But, I would recommend doing a beach house rental, especially if you’re staying with a larger group. The beach houses in these areas are so cute, even though they are making housing unaffordable for locals (which is really the city’s problem).

If you want the hippie beach vibe

Ocean Beach

Ocean Beach is what San Diego was like in the 70s (or so they say- I wasn’t alive then!). Where North Park has hipsters and Pacific Beach has partiers, Ocean Beach has old school hippies and cute retro stores (retro video games, antiques, retro used clothes, etc). Here you’ll also find lots of great, low key dining options, surfing opportunities, and of this list, it’s closest to attractions like Sunset Cliffs and Point Loma.

  Top Rated Accommodations:   See all Ocean Beach hotels and hostels.

Nearby Attractions:
– Ocean Beach Pier: 0.5 miles
– Sunset Cliffs Natural Park: 2.1 miles
– Sea World (don’t support this place): 2.3 miles

If you want a relaxed, vacation-y beach vibe

Coronado

Coronado is an island off of downtown that has a lot of military history. Since it’s own island, this is where you’d probably want to stay if you want a more secluded trip but with major sights easily accessible via cheap Ubers. On the beach, I’ve met a couple of families who stayed here and only visited Coronado and downtown, and loved their San Diego trip! Plus, the Hotel del Coronado, a historical, ultra-luxury resort with unique architecture, is here, and the beach and boardwalk are long and gorgeous!

  Top Rated Accommodations:   See all Coronado hotels and hostels.

Nearby Attractions:
– Embarcadero: 5.9 miles
– Balboa Park: 5.3 miles
– USS Midway Museum: 6.1 miles

If you want a high end beach vibe with a ton to do

La Jolla

La Jolla is a picturesque, wealthy district by the water and in my opinion, has the prettiest ocean front views in San Diego. A lot of other people recognize that it’s awesome and gorgeous, which means if you stay here, it will probably be busy. La Jolla also has high end dining, high end shopping, rich people mansions, and some of the best outdoor activities and things to explore- like snorkeling/kayaking in the coves, seal watching on the beach, and hiking in Torrey Pines.

  Top Rated Accommodations:   See all La Jolla hotels and hostels.

Nearby Attractions:
– La Jolla Cove: 1.4 miles
– Torrey Pines State Reserve: 7.1 miles
– Mt Soledad National Veteran’s Memorial: 2.1 miles

If you like beach boardwalks and younger crowds

Mission Beach

The Pacific Beach boardwalk is fun too, but in Mission Beach is where you have the roller coaster / theme park beach boardwalk life. This would be perfect for kids since there are so many kid friendly attractions in the park, and there’s also bars in the area for adults. Mission Beach is another great choice if you’re interested in water sports- surfing, jet skiing, stand up paddleboarding, and even hoverboarding!

  Top Rated Accommodations:

Nearby Attractions:
– Mission Beach Boardwalk: 1.1 miles
– Sunset Cliffs Natural Park: 5.3 miles
– Sea World (don’t support this place): 2.3 miles

If you want a relaxing trip away from the city

North County

These areas are not near San Diego the city, so you’ll definitely need to get a car or take a lot of expensive ubers to get to the sights listed above. But, there are a lot of upscale dining options, and a rich hippie, surfer, family friendly vibe- so you may not even want to leave. I’d recommend North County cities if you want a totally off the beaten track San Diego trip, or if you want to experience upscale beach life.

Cities like Solana Beach and Del Mar have a ton of fancy resorts and vacation rentals on the beach that you can enjoy. Cities like Carlsbad have things like Legoland, and cities like Encinitas have so many wealthy beach people, some coffee shops have yoga parking spots.

PS – Don’t stay in Oceanside because it’s a little sketchy.

Please just decide where to stay in San Diego for me

Personally, because I love walking everywhere and being around lots of outdoor activities and sights, I would highly recommend staying in La Jolla or Little Italy. The food in La Jolla is expensive and medicore because it’s on the beach and mostly touristy (if you don’t know where to look), so Little Italy gets a slight edge for having food that’s expensive and good. In La Jolla this hotel is popular.

Booking.com

Did you figure out where you should stay in San Diego? Which area is your favorite? Let me know what you think in the comments!

where to stay in San Diego Pinterest imageNeighborhood guide to San Diego pinterest image

Angelica
Angelica

Traveler. Foodie. Student debt haver. I love finding the best things to do and eat when traveling, and sharing them with everyone else who likes experiencing local culture or exploring the outdoors too! You can read more about me in my about page.

Note: This post contains an affiliate link. If you make a purchase from an affiliate link, I will receive a small commission at no cost to you (thank you!). For more info, check out my disclosure policy.


16 Comments

  1. December 21, 2018 / 8:46 pm

    What a great guide! This would have been super helpful when we were in San Diego last March!

    • Angelica
      Author
      December 21, 2018 / 11:02 pm

      Hopefully you all can use it next time you visit San Diego!

  2. December 21, 2018 / 11:55 pm

    San Diego has always been on my bucket list and even more so now! Coronado looks magical to me!

    • Angelica
      Author
      December 22, 2018 / 8:09 am

      Coronado is magical! I hope you’re able to cross it off the bucket list one day. 🙂

  3. Karletta
    December 22, 2018 / 1:39 am

    Loved my stay in San Diego … hoping to return, so thanks for all these options on where to stay!

    • Angelica
      Author
      December 22, 2018 / 8:11 am

      No problem, it’s a great place to return back to!

  4. December 22, 2018 / 9:27 am

    Couldn’t be more detailed! I’d probably pick ocean beach, sounds like the kind of vibe I’d like, thanks for the local tips 🙂

    • Angelica
      Author
      December 22, 2018 / 4:02 pm

      Ocean Beach definitely has a unique, hip vibe. Glad there’s a place that speaks to you 🙂

  5. December 30, 2018 / 8:07 am

    Planning to go to San Diego someday. Will keep these information on where to stay as my reference. Thanks for sharing~!

    • Angelica
      Author
      January 2, 2019 / 9:38 pm

      No problem, hope it’s helpful when you go!

  6. December 30, 2018 / 2:46 pm

    San Diego is so high on my list of places to visit and I’d love to take my daughter to the zoo! I have heard such incredible things about it and remains as one of the best in the world! So many places to. We love the beach but also love being in the thick of where all the action is. Perhaps for us the best thing to do is up the stay so we get the best of both worlds?

    • Angelica
      Author
      January 2, 2019 / 9:41 pm

      All those awesome things you heard about the zoo are totally right! I love the San Diego Zoo too, and usually zoos make me uncomfortable. Luckily the beach isn’t *that* far from the thick of the action downtown, so either way you should be able to get around if you don’t mind using Uber/Lyft or renting a car 🙂

  7. December 30, 2018 / 7:39 pm

    Very detailed guide indeed! Before planning a trip to San Diego this will help to decide where you should stay to explore all top things around.

    • Angelica
      Author
      January 2, 2019 / 9:43 pm

      Yes, location is so important when you travel and you don’t want to be too far from everything if you have limited time!

  8. December 30, 2018 / 7:57 pm

    I personally love it when the locals tour me around their city/province. It’s much more close to the heart and passionate when they talk. Hopefully I can visit San Diego soon and I can ask you more about it. 🙂

    • Angelica
      Author
      January 2, 2019 / 9:42 pm

      Of course, let me know whenever you visit and I can help out :). I totally agree with you that it’s much better when you have locals who know the area that you can work with.

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