California Trip: Exploring San Diego and Southern California
When I plan a vacation, I know not to leave a lot of downtime. Nick and I went on two vacations where we did the whole drink-by-the-pool-all-day thing: our very first vacation and our honeymoon. Every other vacation was packed full of adventures. Our California trip was no different. We only had three days to explore Los Angeles where in between we were in San Diego and southern California. We chose to stay in this area for two reasons: visiting my grandmother in Carlsbad and seeing (or maybe more appropriately sipping) the beer culture of San Diego. There wasn't a single day where we just sat and relaxed and I'm totally okay with that. Our travel bucket list is long and who knows when we'll make it back to California?!?
What we saw and loved in Southern California
Driving truly is the best way to see this big country of ours. Nick and I started our trip by driving from Los Angeles to Manhattan Beach. It's still hard to get over the difference between a West Coast beach and an East Coast beach. I love my Jersey shore but the big, almost white sand beaches with that bright, blue water is hard to beat. We walked on the pier, explored the bustling beach town, and then hit the Pacific Coast Highway on our way to Carlsbad.
Along the way we coasted through parts of Long Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Dana Point, and Laguna Beach. Since it was a Saturday, it was crazy busy and taking the PCH ended up doubling our time in the car. Though we got antsy towards the end, it was incredible to see the character of each beach town. The rocky cliffs and stark, scrubby landscape of California is so different from lush and flat New Jersey. That's why you travel: to see, feel, hear, taste something different. Just thinking about it now and looking out my window makes me want to go back!
La Jolla and San Juan Capistrano
While we mostly kept moving through towns in Southern California, we managed to stop in two: La Jolla and San Juan Capistrano. Both are towns I visited with my family growing up and it was fun to take Nick to both.
La Jolla is just an absolutely gorgeous beach town with stunning views of that rocky coast and the most adorable sandy cove beaches. My main goal in La Jolla was to see the seals. La Jolla is what you might call "ritzy" with lots of high end shopping in the downtown. At the same time you've got these seals that hang out on the beaches. The seals don't actually do anything really. They pretty much either lay on the sand or on a rock, as was the case when we were visiting. But how cool is it to see animals in their natural habitat?!? It is a must-see even if you just stop for 30-40 minutes like we did.
San Juan Capistrano is located north of Carlsbad and off the coast. It is a town built around an old Spanish mission and the home of the swallows that migrate yearly to and from Mexico. In all my visits to San Juan Capistrano I haven't seen a single swallow. However, I always make a point to step inside the mission. Each time it has stunned me in the way that hundreds of years old architecture can.
San Juan Capistrano's mission is pretty intact for something built in the 1700's. The grounds are absolutely stunning with flowers intermingled with cactus and the low Spanish style buildings. We wandered around without the audio tour and it was so quiet with only the faint rush of the traffic outside of the walls. Mission San Juan Capistrano is just a few miles off the highway but feels like it's world away. Both of these towns are now on my California recommendations list!
Exploring San Diego: what we saw and what we ate
Though I was quick to plan on a California vacation in San Diego, I wasn't quite sure what we would do there. Like I said before, much of my motivation was centered around seeing my grandma and seeing some breweries. Everything else would be icing on the cake. However, like any planning junkie, there was plenty of research in the weeks prior to our vacation. I also left some free time for exploring. This was turned out to be the perfect recipe for a place like San Diego.
One of the must-see spots in San Diego is definitely Balboa Park. Located on a high point on San Diego, this park overlooks the city all the way to the ocean. But you're not going there just for the views. You can hike, walk, bike, and run the many trails of the park. Or you can explore the zoo. Or you can visit one of the many museums. Or you can just take in the stunning architecture. In case you didn't pick up on it, Balboa Park has it all. With not a lot of time to see everything we wanted to see in San Diego (even with less planned on my part) we chose to just stroll through Balboa Park. The grounds and architecture are expansive and give you plenty to see. We spent a good hour and a half walking around without paying for admission to a single museum or garden. I would venture to say that you can't see San Diego without visiting Balboa Park.
The next stop was Coronado Island. How many here have seen Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot? If you haven't, you must. The movie was partially filmed at the Hotel del Coronado, a stunning Victorian beach resort. The hotel is still in operation and was packed with vacationers when we were there. Just like the Jekyll Island Club hotel in Georgia that was built in the same era, it's so grand and elegant when compared to the chain hotels we have today. You just can't get that same grandeur at the beach anymore. Definitely on my hotel bucket list!
Coronado Island has charming beach bungalows and a sophisticated and refined downtown that matches the character of the Hotel Del Coronado. While Coronado has its charm, Nick and I wanted to spend our afternoon somewhere a little funkier and that led us to Ocean Beach. This beach town is not too far from Sea World and has that surfer-California-laidback vibe that made our California vacation so relaxing.
We loved the main drag of antique shops mixed with local boutiques and brewery tasting rooms mixed with local pubs. For lunch we grabbed a pizza and some beers at Pizza Port. This is the kind of restaurant we need here at the Shore: order a beer in one line, order a pizza in another, grab a seat. So easy and delicious!
San Diego's neighborhoods
Growing up and vacationing in southern California, we were mostly at the beach or spending time with family (my mom's oldest brother lives north of LA). Going back as an adult, I wanted to see and explore things I didn't see when I was a kid. That meant digging into some of San Diego's neighborhoods. The best way to do that? Find some really good food.
One of my favorite places we chowed down at is Lucha Libre, a recommendation from many including Lindsey from Follow the Ruels. Lindsey's a food blogger who's recipes I love so following her recommendation was easy. Located in the Mission Hills neighborhood of San Diego, Lucha Libre is Mexican food paired with funky luchador decor. The walls were pink and teal with zebra print seating and luchador masks covered every wall. Sure, the decor was fun to see but the food was SO SO good too. I'm salivating thinking about my enchilada.
Another restaurant we loved was Blind Lady Ale House. We stumbled upon this spot in our pursuit of all things beer-related in San Diego. Besides having a killer beer list, it has really good pizza. BLAH is a funky neighborhood gathering spot. Again, another place I wish we could bring back home with us!
Finally, I managed to drag Nick over to the North Park section of San Diego with the promise of ice cream. This was not just any ice cream we're talking; this is gourmet ice cream from Hawaii in flavors like chocolate coconut macadamia nut and peanut butter guava jelly. Hammond's solved the problem of wanting to try every flavor of ice cream by creating ice cream flights. Yup, flights of ice cream where you pick 4, 8, or all 32 flavors to sample. Nick and I shared a flight of four: pineapple coconut, lemon cream, toasted coconut, and Vietnamese coffee. I can't even put into words how creamy and delicious these flavors were. I don't know if I'm brave enough or have a big enough stomach to handle all 32 flavors but I'd like to try some day.
And because why not...Disneyland!
I couldn't relive my childhood trips to California without a trip to Disneyland. Even though we knew that Disneyland would essentially "eat" one of our vacation days, a trip to Disney as a baby-free couple was on our bucket list for a long time. There is something so fun about cruising through the park with just us two and knowing that the next time we visit a Disney park we might have kids in tow!
Disneyland is much, much smaller than it's counterpart in Florida, even with the California Adventure park. It's completely possible to do everything in one day, even without Fast Passes, as long as you're willing to wait. The longest wait we had was 30 minutes but, since people watching is my favorite pastime, it didn't feel like a wait at all. Definitely one advantage of being childless! We spent the whole day there from 10:30 to 9:30 and did every ride we wanted. I even managed to get Nick on a roller coaster! Disneyland is truly magical.
Focusing on food and my favorite memories took us all over San Diego but I also feel like we didn't get to spend nearly enough time there. What was so interesting, and kind of similar to LA, is that each neighborhood has such a distinct atmosphere that you could get lost there. San Diego also stretches so far that we couldn't possibly drive everywhere we wanted to see and do everything we wanted to do in that short amount of time. Even as we were driving back towards the airport, I was planning what I wanted to do on our next California adventure.
One thing I'm dying to do again? Visit more of San Diego's 130 different breweries! Check back next week to see all about our California breweries tour!