San Diego: A Weekend Guide for the Curious Traveler - Atlas Obscura

Weekend Guides for the Curious Traveler
San Diego

Southern California's second city holds plenty of sparkling secrets.

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Day 1
Pacific Gems

Nooks and crannies along the crowded coast.

Park

1. Tide Pools at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

As far as tide pools go, these aren’t as large and packed with sea life as the massive pools down the road at Cabrillo National Monument. But they’re not as packed with tourists, either. Follow the winding road along the park that leads to the stairway down to the pools. There’s something about getting to the bottom of that staircase and suddenly being surrounded by ocean cliffs, sea water, surfers, and nothing else—there’s little sign of the city or even the road above to be seen. Take your time and marvel at the fact that Southern California’s coastline still offers tucked-away spaces like this one.

If you want maximum exposure to the pools’ sea anemone, hermit crabs, and tiny fish, check when low tide is likeliest to happen.

Ladera Street, San Diego, CA, 92107

Pacific Rim Park. Vito Di Stefano
Park

2. Pearl of the Pacific

Pacific Rim Park was designed as a celebration of the United States' relationship with three Pacific Rim countries: Mexico, Russia, and China. Its centerpiece is the Pearl of the Pacific, a large art installation that is a mosaic, fountain, and compass all in one. It features a spherical “pearl” fountain in the center, with a brightly tiled compass rose (the “Pacific”) surrounding it. The piece further incorporates symbols from each country: an American shorebird, a Chinese dragon, a Mexican Quetzalcoatl, and a Russian Siberian tiger. 

Located at the southwestern end of Shelter Island, the park also offers fabulous views of the ocean and San Diego Bay. It’s an ideal spot for a stroll and a picnic.

1407a Shelter Island Dr, San Diego, CA 92106

Fallen Star, 2012, Do Ho Suh. Courtesy Stuart Collection, UC San Diego/ Philpp Scholz Rittermann
Art Installation

3. Fallen Star

There’s perhaps nothing more unusual and disorienting than the feeling of two worlds colliding. That’s the sensation you get when exploring Fallen Star, a little blue cottage perched seven stories above ground, teetering on the edge of the University of California, San Diego's engineering building. The inside is fully furnished, and even includes framed “family” photos of some of the school’s faculty. It’s a nod toward one of the main goals of Fallen Star as a public art installation—its exploration of what makes a home.

Fallen Star is free and open to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. But even if you're there on a different day, it's worth the trip up the coast just to see it from the outside. 

9500 Gilman Dr, La Jolla, CA 92093

Geisel Library. Ian G Dagnall/ Alamy
Architecture

4. Geisel Library

While you're on campus, stroll over to one of the country’s most impressive icons of brutalist architecture. The concrete and glass structure manages to look both human—viewed one way it looks like two hands, open toward the skies—and otherworldly, like a UFO hovering just above the ground. 

Geisel Library is named for longtime San Diego-area resident Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, and is home to the Dr. Seuss Collection. The majority of those pieces are available only to researchers or those who’ve secured advanced permission, but the library does display special pieces from the collection often, usually during the summer, and in March, Geisel’s birth month.

9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA, 92093

Tacos Liberdad. Courtesy Tacos Liberdad
Bar and Restaurant

5. Tacos Libertad and Caché

It’s hard to be a standout taco shop in San Diego, but Tacos Libertad found a way: it’s the city’s first nonprofit taco shop. The restaurant group behind the eatery donates proceeds to a different local charity each month. The menu features a good mix of traditional and modern tacos—grilled fish or steak, as well as duck confit with a mix of Oaxaca cheese and blue cheese. Vegetarians can try tacos stuffed with grilled or tempura-fried avocados.

Toward the back, near the bathrooms, there’s a large steel door that looks like a walk-in freezer. It may seem strange that there’s a bouncer there, but he or she is the tip-off that there’s something more beyond the freezer door. That would be Caché, a swanky and hidden speakeasy made to look like a 1920s Parisian salon. The inside is breathtaking, with low lighting, vintage chandeliers, living trees, and a Toulouse-Lautrec-era mural. The cocktail menu features both Caribbean-inspired concoctions in pineapple-shaped glasses, plus drinks with fresh and unexpected ingredients such as fresh sage or pistachio milk.

The best part: You can bring your tacos in with you.

1023 University Ave, San Diego, CA 92103


Day 2
Urban Oasis

A day of surprises in the heart of the city.

Chicano Park. Vito Di Stefano
Murals

1. Chicano Park

Nestled under the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge, Chicano Park has always been a place marked by both tension and healing. Community members fought tenaciously in the 1970s to protect this space from becoming a California Highway Patrol station. They won, and got a park instead.

Today the park is home to one of the largest outdoor mural collections in the world. The bridge, though a San Diego icon in its own right, was a massive intrusion and disruption to the community, and art became a way to reclaim that space. The pylons of the bridge serve as a canvass for murals celebrating Chicano heritage and honoring its heroes. The vibrant, colorful murals stand in stark contrast to the murky concrete that forms the rest of the bridge.

1949 Logan Ave, San Diego, CA 92113

Restaurant

2. Nate’s Garden Grill

Nate’s Garden Grill is hidden within the City Farmers Nursery in City Heights, so it’s easy to miss. It also pulls off a unique feat: it’s an eatery tucked inside the heart of San Diego’s urban core, yet manages to feel quiet and sparse. Once you’re inside, it’s like you’ve been transported to a small town in the Old West. The restaurant smokes its own meats, and uses fresh vegetables and other ingredients grown steps away at the nursery. Nate’s is also the perfect place to relish San Diego’s obsession with craft beer. There are typically 20 handles on tap, with one local brew highlighted at a discount each month.

3120 Euclid Ave, San Diego, CA 92105

Harper's Topiary Garden. Vito Di Stefano
Attraction

3. Harper’s Topiary Garden

For many couples, yard work is a chore to be pawned off on the other person. That’s not exactly how things work for the couple behind Harper’s Topiary Garden, a private home in the affluent Mission Hills neighborhood that displays dozens of life-sized living sculptures trimmed from trees and bushes. Shapes include a wide variety of people and animals—surfers, tigers, a man in a sombrero taking a nap—all smooshed and stacked closely together in an otherwise unremarkable residential space. The Harpers welcome all visitors to their outdoor display, but while there, remember that this is also their home and act accordingly. 

3549 Union St, San Diego, CA 92103

Spruce Street Suspension Bridge. Vito Di Stefano
Walkway

4. Spruce Street Suspension Bridge

While you're in the neighborhood, head over to the nearby Spruce Street Suspension Bridge, a charming and hidden pedestrian span over one of the many urban canyons that dot San Diego’s streetscape. The bridge is one of several in the area that criss-cross canyons and wind through slices of Balboa Park. If you’re feeling very ambitious, you can take part in a local tradition and do the full Seven Bridges Walk to see them all.

W Spruce St, San Diego, CA 92103

Restaurant

5. ¡Salud!

One of the best-kept secrets about San Diego cuisine is a mystery even to many locals. Yes, San Diego is famous for its taco shops. But only the most devoted fans know that many of the city's taco purveyors also serve a unique take on a hamburger. The chefs behind ¡Salud!, one of the most treasured taco shops in town, are in on the secret and have quietly added a “taco shop burger” to the menu. It’s topped with avocado, bacon, and pico de gallo, which packs a little extra acidity and sweetness into each bite. The "secret" burger is only available on the weekends, so if you go during the week, you’ll be stuck with the regular menu, condemned to eat the best tacos in the city.

2196 Logan Ave, San Diego, CA 92113


Where to Stay
The Cosmopolitan Hotel

San Diego offers plenty of luxe accommodations, but its most interesting hotel is without a doubt The Cosmopolitan. What was once a traditional adobe residence that dates back to the 1830s has been transformed into a swank Victorian-style complex complete with a historic saloon.

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Forbidden Caverns, ready for its closeup.

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Diego Rivera's mural sprawls across a light-flooded room in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

7 Mechanical Marvels in Michigan

Michigan is famous for its steep, sweeping sand dunes, freckling of lakes, and unique fossils—but across the state, you'll find slews of automated wonders, past and present. From old animatronic toys to the ruins of early assembly lines, here are seven places to be dazzled by industry. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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Who doesn't love an old tree?

11 Wholesome Spots in Nevada

Here at Atlas Obscura, we have a fondness for the forbidden, a hunger for the hidden, a gusto for the grim. (You get the point.) But it wouldn’t be so intrepid to simply highlight Nevada’s underbelly, would it? There’s more to the state than extraterrestrial-themed brothels and nuclear bomb test sites. Kids and grandparents might enjoy enormous Ferris wheels, unusual geysers, or pristine parklands. Even Nevada—home to Sin City—has a family-friendly side. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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All aboard for a plate of pancakes.

7 Places to Glimpse Maine's Rich Railroad History

Maine is widely known for its mottled red crustaceans and stony-faced lighthouses, as well as bucolic towns and the top-notch hiking outside of them. But before all that, Maine was all about one thing: trains. As America industrialized in the 19th century, there was an insatiable demand to build and a hunger for lumber. Maine had plenty of it, and the state’s rivers became swollen with the fallen bodies of pine and spruce, much of which was hauled by rail. Trains did the heavy lifting to coastal hubs including Bangor and Ellsworth, and by 1924, there was enough railroad mileage in Maine to get from London’s King's Cross station to Mosul, Iraq. Over the years, some of the old cars were fashioned into eateries, but many were simply abandoned in the woods. Now, relics of Maine’s railroad history are scattered in museums, restaurants, and more. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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At Glacier Gardens, the tree canopies are flowers in bloom.

11 Places Where Alaska Bursts Into Color

Picture Alaska. You might see in your mind's eye the granite and stark white snowcaps of Denali National Park, or the dark seas that surround 6,000-plus miles of coastline, or the muted olive of its tundra in the summer. But as anyone who's been there knows, the country's largest, most sparsely populated state can absolutely burst with color, from the luminous green of the Northern Lights, to the deep aqua of its glaciers, to the flourish of wildflowers fed by its long summer days. Here are some places to see the full spectrum of The Last Frontier. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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Workers assess the exterior of the Washington Monument after an earthquake in 2011.

9 Places in D.C. That You're Probably Never Allowed to Go

The District of Columbia is home to a number of places that you need to flash the right ID to access. From restricted rooftops to government storage facilities and underground tunnels, the city is filled with places that are off-limits to the average visitor. What’s more, many of them are hidden within popular tourist destinations and densely populated neighborhoods—so you might catch a glimpse of them, but never get any closer. These are a few of our favorite restricted spots in D.C., and the stories behind them. As the pandemic continues, we hope this virtual trip helps you explore America’s wonders. If you do choose to venture out, please follow all guidelines, maintain social distance, and wear a mask.

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2 Perfect Days in Pensacola

If you thought Pensacola, Florida—with its powder-white sand beaches, near-perfect weather, and fresh seafood—was just a place to soak up the sun, think again. In fact, the city and beach of the same name is the site of the first European settlement in the continental United States. Established by Spanish explorer Tristán de Luna in 1559, it was christened Panzacola, a name of Native American origin and the precursor to the city’s modern name. The destination is also the birthplace of U.S. naval aviation and is still home to a naval air station and the thousands of service members stationed there, as well as the Blue Angels, the flight squadron famous for their death-defying fighter plane stunts. This delightful coastal city is an ideal, if somewhat quirky, blend of historical sites (on land and underwater) and activities to get your adrenaline flowing.

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Taste of Tucson

The people of Tucson have been eating off the land for 4,100 years. From grains to livestock to produce introduced by missionaries in the 1600s, this UNESCO City of Gastronomy is home to some of the oldest farmland in North America. What once was old is new again in The Old Pueblo where ancient flavors are found in nearly every dish — trendy to traditional.

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North Iceland’s Untamed Coast

Any travel enthusiast would be hard-pressed to open any social media channel and not see photos of Iceland, with its jaw-dropping peaks, natural hot springs, pure glaciers, northern lights and snow-covered landscapes. But the island nation’s appeal goes well beyond the well-worn paths of Reykjavik, the Golden Circle and the southern region's countryside. Travel to the untamed north along the Arctic Coast Way to discover otherworldly beauty—sans crowds—around every bend.

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Look closely and wander widely: Parliament Square is full of charm.

Hidden Edinburgh

Crowds clog Edinburgh's Royal Mile, the main artery between Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. The road is dotted with stores selling Nessie trinkets and lined with bagpipers and street performers pulling off dazzling tricks. But look beyond the tartan tourist traps, and you’ll discover tucked-away gardens, remnants of the city’s medieval past, and much more.

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Hidden Haight-Ashbury

In 1967, 100,000 artists, activists, and hippies gathered in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood for the Summer of Love. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix played free concerts for fields of college dropouts, and San Francisco established itself as a countercultural capital. More than 50 years later, in a city increasingly known for Twitter and tech rather than art and activism, travelers who come on a pilgrimage are often disappointed to find expensive, skin-deep psychedelia. But if you know where to look, you’ll find a walk down Haight Street to be wonderfully weird, full of historic links to hippiedom and modern takes on the vibe.

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The Many Flavors of NYC’s Five Boroughs

More than eight million diverse individuals call New York City home, and many of them share their heritage through food. Whether it’s a billiards hall that serves stellar Bhutanese fare or a mosque where Malian vendors sell snacks for just a few hours each Friday, the city offers a vast culinary landscape for those willing to explore it. Venture beyond the flashy hotspots with months-long waiting lists and you’ll find New York’s true flavor lies within the small restaurants and stands rooted in its thriving immigrant communities.

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Musical instruments in the courtyard of SecondLine Arts and Antiques in New Orleans' French Quarter.

Hidden French Quarter

It may be famous for Mardi Gras, but New Orleans has subtle, surprising wonders on tap all year long—even in the touristy French Quarter. Around every cobblestoned corner, you’ll find historic ephemera, bits of Creole culture, environmentalism, and no shortage of spooky stories, whenever you happen to visit.

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art

From the street, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is hard to miss: The institution’s two-million-square-foot main building, at 1000 Fifth Avenue, spans four New York City blocks and stretches into Central Park. Inside the galleries, you’ll find thousands of objects spanning 5,000 years of world history. With so many treasures under one roof, it's inevitable that some fascinating pieces are tucked into the museum's lonelier nooks and crannies, hiding in plain sight. The next time you spend a day at the museum, keep an eye out for these overlooked wonders.

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The RV/MH Hall of Fame.

Motown to Music City Road Trip

Detroit and Nashville are synonymous with two all-American music genres. It’s no surprise that visitors flock to these cities each year to get a feel for the places where artists such as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross &amp; the Supremes, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton began their careers. A (relatively) straight, north to south route connects the two cities, as does musical heritage. Load up the RV, make sure your speaker system is in tip-top shape, and create a playlist filled with old-school Motown and Country hits. If you're not driving on the trip down south, you should be dancing.

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The East Texas Bayou.

Gulf Coast Road Trip

The terrain along the Gulf of Mexico is sometimes called the “Third Coast,” but for an offbeat road trip, it’s second to none. Starting in Houston and ending in Pensacola Bay, this journey takes you through some of America’s most diverse landscapes. You’ll cross Cajun swamps, drive along sparkling white sand beaches, and even spend some time in the Big Easy. Take an RV and camp along the way to truly immerse yourself in this wondrous region. The world’s largest gulf, it turns out, holds some of America’s best-kept secrets.

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Coachella Valley Preserve.

Hidden Coachella Valley

The Coachella Valley and its environs boom in the spring, when tens of thousands of music lovers flock to catch their favorite artists perform in front of a dramatic, mountainous backdrop. But this region stays wonderfully weird all year long. If the festival drew you to the area and you only have a day to explore, choose a direction: Either head north, toward Joshua Tree and Landers, or southeast to the Salton Sea and nearby oases for a blissful respite. If you can spare a couple of days, lucky you—go forth and see it all.

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A view of L.A. from the top of Highland Park.

Highland Park

Los Angeles’ Highland Park is a diverse, eclectic neighborhood that Native Americans and Latinx communities have inhabited for centuries. Celebrated for its history, art scene, ethnic diversity, and cuisine, Highland Park is filled with surprising delights that more and more people are discovering every day. Exploring the neighborhood's nooks and crannies is one of the most rewarding ways to spend a day in L.A.

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The heart of Venice.

Venice

Once referred to as “The Coney Island of the Pacific,” L.A.’s beachfront neighborhood of Venice has long been a popular tourist destination. Its colorful characters, quirky architecture, and carnivalesque atmosphere are well-known the world over. But take a moment to look past the kitsch, and you’ll discover a place where artistic ingenuity thrives more than a century after Abbot Kinney endeavored to bring a grandiose version of Venice to America. The bohemian beehive has always attracted artists and performers, and everyone is welcome to enjoy the show.

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Artist Colette Miller's tribute to the City of Angels.

L.A.’s Downtown Arts District

The 1970s brought a wave of artists into this former industrial area in Downtown Los Angeles. They sparked a fuse of creative imagination that burned for years. Up-and-coming creators took advantage of the then-low rents and built a foundation for the creative mecca that exists here today. In its infancy, L.A.’s Downtown Arts District came to life behind-the-scenes, with artists mostly working in closed studios. Today, the art has spilled onto the streets in the form of colorful murals, attractive gallery spaces, and stylish storefronts. But the curious explorer can still find literal and figurative traces of the ‘70s. In addition to the more historic spots that remain, a creative, entrepreneurial spirit abounds.

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The Whitehall Banqueting House is full of topsy-turvy views.

Hidden Trafalgar Square

Wedged between Charing Cross and Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square is known for the throngs of people flocking to its famous attractions. Weave around the tourists on the National Gallery stairs and dodge the crowds clogging the street corners. Instead, duck down dreamy alleys and pop into unique, overlooked museums and shops. There, a secret side of this busy area waits to reveal itself.

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An elevator shaft in Tribeca opens to reveal a museum of small wonders.

Secrets of NYC’s Five Boroughs

Few cities on Earth are as well-trodden as New York–but as any intrepid traveler knows, the more you explore a place, the more wonders you find. You may not be able to discover all of these spots in a single trip, but that could be a good thing. No matter how many times you return, the city that never sleeps never ceases to surprise. Visit NYCGo to uncover more of the city’s secret spots.

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Plenty of sweet treats are on offer at Pastelería Ideal

Mexico City's Centro Histórico

Anchored by the Zócalo plaza and the architectural splendor of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City's historic center rightfully draws scores of visitors from around the world. If you look, smell, and taste carefully, you’ll also find a universe of culinary offerings that tells stories of immigration, adaptation, and imagination. With the help of Culinary Backstreets, we assembled a primer on eating and drinking your way through the district.

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View of the Hollywood Sign from Babylon Court

Hidden Hollywood

Hollywood Boulevard is world-famous—for the Oscars and the Walk of Fame, for schlocky souvenir shops and crowded tour buses. But beyond the terrazzo stars and the occasional celebrity sighting, there’s plenty left to discover. Here’s how to make Hollywood’s acquaintance, whether you’re a visitor or a local who keeps a practiced distance from these busy, saturated blocks. Look closer and you'll find a neighborhood full of nature, history, and wonder.

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A subway entrance in Times Square.

Hidden Times Square

There's the Times Square you know, full of blazing billboards, selfie sticks, and costumed characters. Then there's the less familiar one, beyond the lights—the nooks and crannies that most visitors to Midtown Manhattan overlook. They're not obvious, but surprises can still be found along this world-famous stretch of real estate.

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Upper Hoh Road, Olympic National Park, Oregon.

Summer Radio Road-Trip

Follow along on our 2,200-mile adventure with NPR's 'All Things Considered.'

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Amsterdam

Forge your own path in this tourist magnet, toward places that are less crowded but no less wondrous.

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Buenos Aires

Find faded grandeur and vibrant street life in Argentina's largest city.

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Chicago

Just when you thought you knew the Windy City, it finds new ways to surprise you.

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Detroit

Find secret vistas, labyrinthine bookstores, and eclectic public art.

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The dome of Estrela Basilica in Lisbon.

Lisbon

In the homeland of explorers, your best bet is to keep looking.

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Miami

Go beyond the beaches in the continental United States’ only truly tropical city.

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Queens

New York City's most diverse borough is also its most rewarding.

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Savannah

Find surprises around every corner in a U.S. city that embraces history like no other.

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