1. San Diego
San Diego is my favorite city in the United States for it’s perfect weather, friendly people, laid back atmosphere, and outdoor activities. Healthy eating, priority on wellness, live music, and plenty of hipster restaurants and coffee shops. Both a tourist destination and a great place to live…if you can afford it.
See & Do
- Downtown Gaslamp Quarter. Shops, restaurants, nightlife. Home to the famous annual San Diego Comic Con (though I heard rumblings of it moving due to size and popularity).
- San Diego Zoo & Safari Park. The greatest zoo in the world (in my opinion). These are actually two separate things, the zoo is in San Diego’s Balboa Park, while the Safari Park is out in Escondido. Both are fabulous and well worth the money with an incredible diversity of animals and conservation/education programs. I’m torn on zoos (should we have them), but I think San Diego does a great job taking care of their animals and educating others to help conservation efforts. Expect to spend a full day (like 4-8 hours) at each place!
- Balboa Park. Biggest park in San Diego with some basic hiking trails and tons of museums.
- USS Midway. Old battleship, one of the biggest I’ve ever seen, with fighter jets on the deck. Can tour inside.
- Sunset Cliffs. Check it out during sunset.
- Old Town San Diego Historic Park. Old mission area with shops and Mexican food, plus tea, spices, and sarsaparilla.
- Neighborhoods. Hillcrest (LGBT friendly), University Heights (college friendly), North Park (hipster friendly), Normal Heights (chill) all are up and coming neighborhoods outside the downtown area if you want some music, theater, or nightlife other than the Gaslamp. South Park and Kensington are also cool, a bit more upscale.
- Pacific Beach & Ocean Beach. Full of young people, beach culture, and nightlife. There’s even a small carnival. Sea World is in neighboring Mission Bay.
- La Jolla. Beautiful, ritzy area with seaside cliffs, surfers, sea lions, shopping, art galleries, restaurants. A little something for everyone.
- Saigon Trail. This hidden gem of a secret(ish) trail is super cool. Follow interlocking trails from a hillside upscale neighborhood into a slot canyon and repel down (not far) onto a black sands, nude friendly beach along the ocean. Walk up the beach to a set of stairs leading to a parking lot just behind a bar and place you can interact with birds of prey and go hangliding.
- Torrey Pines State Reserve. Excellent hiking trails leading to stunning seaside cliff views.
- Point Loma. Nice area along the beach, art galleries, old barracks, Liberty Public Market for some lunch or dinner.
- Coronado. Beach resort style town showcasing the famous Coronado Hotel just across the massive bridge from downtown San Diego.
- Annie’s Canyon. Fun little hike just off the coastal highway with a slot canyon and hummingbirds.
- Mt Soledad. Veterans memorial with great views of the city.
- Mission Trails Regional Park. Nice hiking with rolling hills and a stream.
- Del Mar Fairgrounds. Massive race track, which I generally don’t seek out or condone, BUT over the summer they have free concerts with admission to the race track (if you get there before the last race). Otherwise it’s $20. I saw a few great 90s/2000s bands one summer.
- Carlsbad. About 45 mins from San Diego, neat little town, home of Legoland theme park.
Food & Drink
- El Pescador Fish Market. Local La Jolla staple with fresh fish daily. Amazing. Not really a restaurant, but you can order and sit or take away. Fish lover’s paradise with a wonderful fresh selection daily!
- La Dolce Vita Ristorante. Classical Italian food, like you would get in Italy.
- Convoy Street. Asian center with tons of cuisines from Chinese to Japanese to Korean and more. Best area to find dim sum and dumplings. I like Dumpling Inn & Shanghai Saloon for dumplings and China Max for dim sum. A Bowl was a really interesting find. Zion Market has both grocery shopping and mall like food stalls.
- Swami’s. Excellent breakfast, huge selection, including healthy eats.
- Snooze A.M. Eatery. Great breakfast.
- Meraki Cafe. Good healthy food.
- DAO Fu. Very good Asian cuisine.
- Elijah’s Restaurant. Jewish style delicatessen with sandwiches and other things.
- Seaport Village. Right near USS Midway, has a few restaurants. Don’t miss the jail!
- Shabumi. Japanese style shabu shabu!
- Mad Monk Tea. Free tea tasting, tea for sale, advanced appointment required except on Saturdays.
- Shakespeare Tea Shoppe. English style tea and snacks.
- Lestats. Well known coffee shop. Believe they have live music and possibly other live events as well.
- Noble Experiment. Secret speakeasy.
2. San Luis Obispo
Roughly halfway between San Francisco sits the very cool city of San Luis Obispo, or “SLO” as the locals refer to it. Great chill small town near the coast, good food, nice parks, nearby attractions, including the Madonna Inn and Hearst Castle (one of the mansions owned by media mogul William Randolph Hearst). Also worth driving through are the smaller towns of Cambria, Morro Bay and Pismo Beach.
See & Do
- Downtown. Small, walkable downtown area.
- Morro Bay. Beach and bay.
- Cambria. Small neighboring town. In October there are funny, clever scarecrows throughout the town, really cool.
- Pismo Beach. Nice beach town, exceptional New England clam chowder (you’ll have to wait in line for possibly up to an hour on a busy day).
- Hearst Castle. Massive mansion, one of several, about an hour north in San Simeon. Great stop, plan at least a few hours.
3. Joshua Tree National Park
You’ve probably heard stories of people driving out to Joshua Tree from L.A. to drop acid, trip on mushrooms or any other number of illicit activities from the movies. The town of Joshua Tree which sits nestled right by the park, is very artsy and very small, but very cool. The sky is open and the valley of boulders and joshua trees make this a very unique and interesting destination. Though dry and dirt filled, the various hiking trails and bouldering make for a wonderful adult playground. A couple of my favorites include Skull Rock, Hidden Valley, Keys View, Ryan Ranch/Mountain, Hall of Horrors, Cap Rock. There are several sites for camping, including Black Rock Campground bewteen the town and the park. Just be mindful that it’s very hot in the summer and can get quite cool in the evenings later in the year.
4. Los Angeles
While I generally try to avoid L.A. at all costs if I’m ever driving through due to traffic, there are some really great places to visit in this huge metropolitan city with a long history. There’s Hollywood of course, Disneyland, Universal Studios, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Malibu, and a ton more. I personally find L.A. a bit overwhelming, but if you can find niches and neighborhoods to explore, are able to avoid the traffic, and stay clear of some of the more insane people, this sunny beachy destination offers anything you’d find in a major city and then some.
See & Do
- Santa Monica. My favorite area. Check out the pier.
- Venice Beach. Also called muscle beach, made popular by outdoor gyms and crazy people. Definitely worth a stroll down the boardwalk.
- Laguna Beach. Pretty cliffside on the ocean.
- Hollywood & Beverly Hills. The Hollywood sign is in Griffith Park. Check out the La Brea tar pits.
- Malibu. Where the rich people live, surfers go, and hikers explore.
- Huntingdon & Newport Beach. College beach town, tons of nightlife and surfing.
- Long Beach. Another popular beach.
- Universal Studios. Studio sets, definitely worth a tour if it’s your first time.
- Disneyland. Not as a cool as Disney World, but a good substitute.
- The Price is Right. Not sure if this is still a thing, but I was in the audience during a taping for one of the shows back when Bob Barker was still doing it. Fun fact: my crotch was televised when the tiny old lady next to me was called up as a contestant (she was only about as tall as my torso). It was literally an all day experience, waking up at 4am and spending around 6 hours from start to finish to get there, get tickets, and get in for a 1 hour episode. Then we went to my first Brazilian steakhouse for all you can eat various types of meat. We spent a solid 2 hours there. It was great, but I was so full, I didn’t eat meat for a month after that. Of course now, I’m significantly less of a meat eater.
5. Palm Springs
Palm Springs is essentially a spa resort town where people from LA go to escape the hustle and bustle. It maintains a 50s or 60s Hollywood charm, featuring great food, nightlife, is gay friendly, and has nearby hiking. I didn’t actually like this place at first, but after a third visit where I actually got out and explored the strip (Indian Canyon Rd and Palm Canyon Rd), it grew on me. It’s both fanciful and quirky. Quite fun, especially around Halloween and Pride. Mornings and evenings cool down where afternoons are best spent indoors or by the pool. There is a wonderful hidden gem of a hotel in neighboring Desert Hot Springs which has a handful of rooms boasting private tubs that deliver mineral hot springs water directly. Pretty cool to have in the comfort and privacy of your own room. The rooms are huge and also great for working remotely. There is also a large pool, outdoor hot tubs, a salt room, cold room, sauna, yoga studio, various services, and their own healthy cafe. Truly a great place for wellness and relaxation. You will also find Palm Desert just to the East, though I have not been there myself.