Live like a Local in… San Diego

Looking for some last minute holiday and city trip inspiration? Try our Local’s guide to So Cal’s chilled out skate and surf mecca from last

Words and photography by Britta Burger

If you like the idea of Southern California but want to avoid the sprawling megalopolis that is LA, San Diego is a chilled little alternative.

It’s got the same West Coast vibe and perma-mild climate, plus 70 miles of mostly surfable coastline, but it’s infinitely less hectic and easier to navigate than Los Angeles. You can literally walk to the airport from downtown it’s so close. Except that, this being Southern California, nobody walks. The only time the number of pedestrians vaguely approaches European standards is on weekend mornings when the joggers come out to play. But you can always explore San Diego by bike, especially on the popular cycling paths along the beaches, though you’ll need to hire a car or take the train for Encinitas or Oceanside.


Anyone with a soft spot for Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, a super-ornamental style combining old school Spanish and Mexican influences, will be in their element. There are a good deal of mid-century modernist and Victorian buildings too, but the Spanish influence can be seen pretty much everywhere. The Mexican border is only a stone’s throw away after all, with 300,000 tourists crossing into Tijuana every day from the Greater San Diego Area.

Anyone with a soft spot for Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, a super-ornamental style combining old school Spanish and Mexican influences, will be in their element.

While a penchant for architecture and naval fleets (San Diego hosts one of the largest in the world and Top Gun was filmed here) are a plus but not essential, to truly appreciate the area’s charm you need a good love of skate and/or surf culture. San Diego is the vert capital of the world and a majorly important location for skate manufacturing and skate mags. Skaters from across the globe move here to compete with the local talent pool, which includes the legendary Tony Hawk, Danny Way, Cara-Beth Burnside and last issue’s Cooler cover girl Lyn-Z Adams. You’ll also get the odd superstar snowboarder spending the off-season here skating and surfing, Shaun White being one of them.

Aspiring vert skaters should head down to the Magdalena Ecke Family YMCA in Encinitas, complete with a back yard-style kidney pool, a multi tiered clover pool and the actual 120-foot vert ramp used in the 2003 X Games. Though if that sounds a bit daunting, fear not there’s a beginner’s area too. Another vert skater favourite is the YMCA Krause Family Skate Park in Clairmont, which also boasts one of the best concrete pools in Southern California.
Pacific and Mission beaches offer good vibe and decent surf for all levels, Ocean beach is best left to serious surfers, while the sheltered La Jolla Shores is great for beginners and longboarders.

If you’re sub cultured-out and need a fix of high culture try Balboa Park.

Now this is a major tourist attraction, but it’s equally popular with the locals. The whole area is dedicated to countless museums, from the San Diego Museum of Art to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, most of which are located along El Prado, a boulevard running through the centre of the park. El Prado is also a prime example of the aforementioned Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in all its full-on glory. It’s wonderfully overdecorated and eclectic but not for the faintharted minimalists among you who might prefer the more modern San Diego Air and Space Museum for a bit of old school space age optimism.


With a menu ranging from vegan apple crisps to Luau pork tacos, famously chilled staff and environmentally friendly business practices, the Hillstreet Café in Oceanside is a hipster magnet. It features a huge menu and doubles up as an art gallery, a lot of the art being suitably skate or surf related. It’s right next to the aptly named The Fish Joint, which has the same owner, so you can order from both menus.

Arguably the best fish tacos ever are served in South Beach Bar and Grill on Ocean Beach, the grungier alternative to the more stylish Pacific beach and Mission beach. Should you happen to be there during one of the large Pacific winter storms, venture out to the beach’s seawall to watch the huge waves break against the top of the pier, and if that reignites your appetite head for a post taco burger at Hodad’s Hamburgers across the road. It’s so good that even the locals don’t mind the long queues.


San Diego has quietly turned itself into a beer mecca, some even call it the number one beer town in America. But don’t worry that isn’t because it attracts marauding stag parties and lager louts, it’s thanks to the impressive number of award winning breweries, which means the beer you get is unique and locally-crafted. Head down to the 30th Street Corridor in the North Park area, San Diego’s best beer boulevard.

If you do like your beer cheap and beverages called “pap smear” don’t deter you, Tower Bar in the City Heights area might be your new favourite dive bar. 50s novelty porn, the most comprehensive absinthe collection in town and a very hip tattoo parlour upstairs are added bonuses.


The coolest stuff you can get in San Diego is invariably surf or skate related and often has a post-hippie vintage feel, so why not combine it all and shop in Captain’s Helm in Oceanside? Apart from a rad selection of new and vintage clothes, you ‘ll find surfboards, records, wetsuits, fins, as well as art shows, part swap events and movie premieres.

The coolest stuff you can get in San Diego is invariably surf or skate related and often has a post-hippie vintage feel

Downtown San Diego obviously offers a wide range of high street shops, Urban Outfitters in the Gaslamp Quarter probably being the one that reflects the style of the local hipsters best, but there are a few underground gems too. 5 and a Dime for example, in the newly regenerated East Village, is an independent shop catering mainly to fans of alternative music, skate boarding, surfing and car culture (


Travellers on a budget should check out the 500 West Hotel with its cool approach to European hostel-style accomodation. The term hostel doesn’t really do justice to the sleek modern guestrooms with flat screen TVs, high-speed internet access or indeed the crocodile ottoman sporting fireplace lounge, the only concession to hostel lifestyle being the shared bathrooms. The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma will give you the full mid century modernism experience at a reasonable price in one of its 23 rooms complete with mosaics, kingsize beds and wall hanging tropical fish bowls. There’s also a saltwater pool where you can sip cocktails and watch dive-in movies.


Rough spend

Pint of beer: 5 USD
Taco: 10 USD
Bike hire: 26 USD per day
Car hire: 52 USD per day
Room: from 52 USD

Images shot on the LOMO LCA+


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