12 Things You Learn in San Diego

I was shaken from my care-free happy daze by a loud siren. Not like an ambulance siren, the kind of siren that would go off during a zombie apocalypse. It dawned on me that the reality could actually be a lot more terrifying. Zombies can be out run, but a natural catastrophe is inescapable. Not just any disaster, the imminent “Big One” ready to shake California at any given moment. I waited for the ground to start trembling while simultaneously watching… an ambulance… drive by. Crisis adverted.

Lesson #1: San Diego sirens are different. They are also horrifying.

Come to think of it, San Diego in general is just a little… different. There’s this laid back, lively, beachy vibe you can’t find anywhere else in North America. I had expectations of stunning beaches, bikini girls on roller blades and frat boy surfer dudes. While some of the California clichés are all too true, the city seriously surprised me. Here are the highlights.

2. It’s kind of cold.

I didn’t actually look at the weather forecast prior to booking the trip. After all, San Diego doesn’t have seasons; it’s obviously just always summer! I was all set to spend a week on the beach basking in some much needed tropical sunshine. Well, while there is no “best time” to visit, there is certainly a time to NOT visit. The locals call it June gloom. Simply put, the desert heats up but the Pacific Ocean water stays cold resulting in a heavy fog, cloudy skies and low temperatures. Even if I wasn’t stuck in this beach dream-crushing overcast, San Diego almost always clocks in around 70 degrees- it’s really not that hot!

Ocean Beach, San Diego

3. How great the hostel life can be.

USA Hostels Ocean Beach ranks among the best hostels worldwide. The staff is phenomenal, the facilities are clean, the kitchen is stocked, daily activities are included and, well, the people are pretty cool too. Did I mention the location? Can you get any better than a block from the beach? Don’t let the hippie tye dye exterior turn you off, this is Ocean Beach after all.

USA Hostels Ocean Beach

4. How expensive the hostel life can be.

I paid more for a 6 bed mixed dorm than I did for a private hotel room in Little Italy. I stand by the above comment: USA Ocean Beach was worth every penny… every single 5000 pennies a night.

5. Some attractions are worth the hype.

In San Diego, where the options for fun things to do are virtually endless, the zoo was not top of my list. I had no interest overpaying to spend the day battling kids for a two second glance at a domesticated big cats bum. However, I kept being asked about my experience at the zoo, followed by an assuming, “oh, well then,when you are going?” Seriously, everyone goes to the zoo, and everyone should. Determined to judge for myself if it was worth the hype, I grabbed some discount tickets (check online!) and planned a day trip.

Do not make the critical mistake of missing the San Diego zoo. The park is in immaculate condition, boasting 100 acres of prime real estate and featuring more than 4,000 awesome animals. The staff rock; they not only knew their stuff, but were genuinely enthusiastic. The park is also crawling with passionate volunteers eager to assist. Your admission includes use of the Guided Bus Tour , the Kangaroo Express Bus which zips around the park (great for when you’re feeling a bit tired–it’s very hilly!), the Children’s Petting Zoo, a ride on the Skyfari Aerial Tram, and live shows. Exhausted, I ALMOST skipped the reptile house; turned out to be my favourite exhibit. Arrive early, pack a lunch and pace yourself for a long day. Don’t skip anything! Oh and kids or not, make a stop at the children’s petting zoo. Two words: pigmy goats.

6. Seals stink.

Seriously, these quirky dog-fish hybrids smell terrible. They also sound like baby goats. The most controversial San Diego attraction has to be the La Jolla Cove seals and sea lions. You can find them day in and day out invading the neighborhood Children’s Pool. You will also find a healthy mix of giddy tourists (guilty), rioting La Jolla residents and equally aggressive pro-seal advocates. The beach really was for kids (the human kind) prior to the seals taking it over! La Jolla Cove was top of my non-existent San Diego agenda and probably my favorite day trip. The photos do not do this place justice. Walk the stunning coastline, ogle the multi-million dollar homes, kayak the caves, or snorkel with the leopard sharks. FYI it’s pronounced La-Hoya; don’t be that silly Canadian putting a French accent on and asking the locals where to find La Joie-la. If you are staying in Ocean Beach, avoid a 2 hour bus ride and rent a bike for the afternoon. The costal bike path takes about an hour direct, but I highly recommend pit stops to explore Mission and Pacific beach along the way.

“Well Hello There” La Jolla Children’s Beach
Ocean Beach to Mission Beach bike path
La Jolla Cove, San Diego

7. One of the most popular San Diego day trips isn’t in San Diego. Or California. Or the USA.

The border to into Mexico is an easy car or trolley trip rendering San Diego tourists international in about an hour. It’s hard to resist adding an extra stamp to the passport when you are so close! Considering the trip for little bargain shopping, authentic Mexican cuisine, some sightseeing, and a lot of drinking?

After much debate, I decided to skip the Tijuana day trip. Sure, I wanted the adventure, the “I walked the border” story, and the Instagram… but I wanted an extra day in San Diego more. However, hostel “friends” did make the trip. Verdict? The reviews were mixed; some loved it and some weren’t so keen. Apparently there is an epic restaurants scene and wild nightlife. Cheap drinks and a legal age of only 18 make Tijuana quite the party scene. Heads up, the ones who loved Tijuana were also the first ones at Friday night’s foam party. TIP: Tijuana is nicknamed “the worlds most crossed border” for a reason. If travelling by car, you will likely need to budget a couple hours getting back into the US. Consider parking on our side of the border!

Friday night’s Foam Party, USA Hostel Ocean Beach

8. The sushi chefs don’t eat sushi

I love sushi; it’s delicious, healthy and fun to eat. I was pumped to see the plethora of cheap Japanese restaurants lining the streets. Unfortunately, I had an unwarranted learning experience after a few honest conversations with the very chefs that handle the fish. While I have spent years ignoring the warnings about parasites, my blissful ignorance came to an end as one (not very business savvy) chef actually showed me the worms. Apparently the the quality of sushi served has tanked over the last ten years and most fish is still sourced from Japan. Fukoshima is the elephant in the room among sushi chefs. Safe to say California marked the end of my California roll obsession.

Saying goodbye to sushi

9. You can get by without Spanish, but know your Maca, Acai and Spirulina.

I stepped out for breakfast to find every man, woman and child carrying around a colorful tub of …slush? What was it? Acai Bowls; super food, breakfast staple, artwork. Frozen acai (A-sigh-E) pulp is blended with fruits and your choice of coconut, soy, or almond milk. The creation is then beautifully topped with fruits, nuts, oats, granola, various spices, shredded coconut and honey. They taste incredible. A few additional San Diego discoveries included carrot hotdogs, seaweed wrapped burritos, and bar offerings of vodka infused green smoothies.

The stereotype is spot on; health fads are taken to a whole new level in SoCal. Green juice is a fridge staple, vegan was so 2016, and gluten might as well be rat poison. Organic, locally sourced, non-GMO is the only way to go. The San Diego Health and Fitness expo made for quite a steep learning curve. It’s actually awesome, if you have any interest in health trends you have to check this annual expo out. The exhibitors are all too eager to educate and you’re certain to leave with more samples than you can fit in your carryon.

You will see this sign. Everywhere.
Acai Bowl

10. I agree with the Beach Boys: I wish we all could be California Girls.

Beautiful people. Beautiful people everywhere. Do you like yoga? Muay Thai boxing? Kendo? Running? Surfing? Rock Climbing? If you can think of it, they’ve got it here. The outdoor lifestyle, year round mild weather and healthy diets make for San Diego super-humans.

11. Like it or not, you leave the cooking to the professionals in Little Italy

The Italian valet looked at me like an alien as he answered my question, “Grocery Store? In Little Italy, we do the cooking”. This was the start of a wonderful, guilt-free week of treating myself. What choice did I have? There literally are no grocery stores in the neighborhood. Little Italy is stuffed full of small independent restaurants, many rated among the best in the city. Don’t be surprised if you host also happens to be your server and chef. Bonus? Prices are completely reasonable; keep an eye out for the daily specials and consider negotiating. Side note, just outside of Little Italy, in the Gaslamp District, you can find Horton’s Plaza: a massive outdoor shopping plaza with two grocery stores. Don’t go, eat in Little Italy, however, do check out Gaslamp’s Friday night haunted walk. If you are not a total nerd like me, stick around to experience the city’s most lively nightlife scene.

12. This is what a slow day at Hodad’s Burger looks like.

One does not simply go to Ocean Beach and skip Hodaddies.

You would have to try really hard to not enjoy a week in ‘America’s Finest City’. San Diego dishes up a sunshine-filled, welcoming atmosphere accompanied by a breezy confidence without the arrogance. Between world famous attractions and a plethora of outdoor activities, there’s a little something for everyone.