A Trip to San Diego, California

For a laid-back sun-soaked coastal vacation, you can’t go wrong with a trip to San Diego. Here’s one insider’s take on what to see and do —and how to plan your getaway from Springfield.

by Sony Hocklander

May 2024

Mission Bay, San Diego sunset
Photo by Sony HocklanderCatch a sunrise at Mission Bay for a view unlike any other.

With a sparkling blue sea, amazing sunsets, historic parks, dozens of attractions and a vibrant beach culture, San Diego is a great place to visit for a west coast vacation. Admittedly, I’m biased. While I’m a proud Ozarker and Midwesterner, I lived in San Diego until age 12 and my brother has lived there his entire adult life. That’s why my family returns there often. Over the years we’ve developed a vacation playlist of favorite things to see and do at  our three favorite beach areas, plus more fun activities we’ve enjoyed. Perhaps you’ll enjoy them too.

Mission Beach, San Diego
Photo by Sony HocklanderPacific-Mission Beach features wide sandy beaches and endless shorelines to walk along.

Pacific-Mission Beach

The best place to experience Southern California beach culture is the Pacific-Mission beach neighborhoods that include Mission Bay. It’s the first place I lived when my father was stationed in San Diego and it's where my brother lived for years. We brought our kids here on vacations when they were young and it’s where we stay now.

Why? We simply enjoy the beach town vibe. The Mission-Pacific beaches and Mission Bay attract myriad people of all ages and backgrounds. This beach area offers plenty of nightlife for those who want that but you can easily avoid it if you don’t. Here’s what we like to do best.

Hang Out on the Beach

It goes without saying you’ll spend time on the wide sandy beach, but which one? It’s hard to tell where Mission Beach ends and Pacific Beach begins. Both have periodic lifeguard stations and you may find a beach volleyball game or two going. Once you’re settled, enjoy the waves, building sandcastles and walking the shoreline. (Tip: sections of beach closest to parking will be most crowded.)

Stroll the Oceanside Boardwalk

The centerpiece three-mile multi-use concrete boardwalk attracts dog-walkers, families, skaters, bike-riders, runners, locals and vacationers. It stretches between the southern Mission Beach Jetty and ends north of Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach (“PB” to locals). In between, you’ll pass lots of beach homes, rentals and occasional cafes, bars and beach shops, especially near Belmont Park and Crystal Pier. We love early morning walks to Woody’s, an open-air coffee and breakfast spot to sip, nosh, people-watch and enjoy the great sea view (they serve lunch and dinner too). We recently discovered the Olive Baking Company, a charming bakery just off of the boardwalk that serves incredible cinnamon rolls. For a great ocean view at a nice casual restaurant, plan lunch or dinner at World Famous in PB.

Cycling on Mission Bay, San Diego
Photo by Sony HocklanderBike along the boardwalk at Mission Bay for picturesque views.

Rent a Bike

Riding the entire length of the boardwalk and around Mission Bay is a must-do every trip.

Visit Crystal Pier

You can actually stay in cottages on the Pacific Beach pier, which is also a hotel. And a walk to the pier’s end offers a scenic view of the shore and local surfers. Nearby, dining, bars and shops attract visitors day and night. Looking for a casual lunch? Taco Surf Taco Shop touts the city’s best tacos (we agree) and sports historic area photos on its walls.

Where to Stay

We typically stay in a rental house or condo near Mission and Pacific beaches, or around Mission Bay. If you prefer a quieter environment, rent nearest Mission Bay or several blocks away from concentrated restaurant bar areas. Roughly five miles north of Pacific Beach, La Jolla makes another good—albeit pricier—area to stay. If you prefer a hotel, a few to try near beach or bay areas include.

Stock photo of a seal
Photo courtesy Shutterstock

Sea Lions & Harbor Seals: What’s the Difference?

La Jolla is home to a plethora of harbor seals and sea lions lounging on beaches and rocks along the rugged coast. Seals tend to favor hauling out on beach areas while sea lions favor rocks. Sea lions are larger, have visible ear flaps and are more social than seals. Sea lions tend to hang out near La Jolla Cove while seals have adopted the Children’s Pool beach.

Play at Belmont Park

The nearly 100-year-old amusement park on the boardwalk is packed with rides, arcades, shops and food. The centerpiece of Belmont Park is the Giant Dipper Rollercoaster.

Enjoy Mission Bay

We love to stroll or ride around Mission Bay, just east of Mission Boulevard. It’s also where we catch a sunrise or watch summer fireworks from nearby Sea World. Mission Bay, bordered by pretty homes and several hotels, has picturesque views, calm bayshore beaches and playgrounds. You can also rent kayaks and more.

The La Jolla Coast, California
Photo by Sony HocklanderThe La Jolla Coast stretches seven miles and is home to sandstone bluffs and secluded beaches.

La Jolla

Ah, La Jolla—known as the jewel of San Diego. We always spend at least one full day in this beautiful coastal village that stretches seven miles. With tall sandstone bluffs, secluded beaches and rocky outcroppings, it’s home to seals, sea lions, birds, colorful marine life and lots of things to do. While La Jolla is an upscale area to shop, dine and stay, we most love exploring its coastal beauty.

Snorkel, Dive or Swim at La Jolla Cove

This small protected crescent beach is at the base of a bluff on the north end of Coast Boulevard. With a protected marine population, it’s a great place to snorkel and swim, or depending on the tide, explore its small cave and tide pools. (Snorkel gear can be rented nearby.)

Picnic in Ellen Browning Scripps Park

The gorgeous grassy park along Coast Boulevard starts at the top of La Jolla Cove and is one of the most scenic overlook spots in San Diego. From the park’s north end, watch sea lions frolic on Point La Jolla and Boomer Beach.

Stroll the Scenic Coast

The best way to see La Jolla’s rugged coastline and visit pocket beaches and tide pools is to walk the paved path from La Jolla Cove / Scripps Park to the Children’s Pool. If you have time, continue to the Tide Pools south of Cuvier Park.

Visit the Children’s Pool

This unique protected beach with a narrow sea wall built in the 1930s was originally planned for families. But eventually San Diego harbor seals took over. Now it’s best known for watching seals, which are protected at the beach between December and mid-May during pupping season. After that, humans are allowed to share the beach but are cautioned against swimming in the area.

Visit Sunny Jim’s Cave and the Cave Store

La Jolla is known for seven sea caves, six of which are accessible only by water. But Sunny Jim’s—a cave that resembles a profiled face—can be reached via 145 steps and a $10 fee through an old bootlegger’s tunnel from the 1905 Cave Store near La Jolla Cove. On our last visit we were serenaded by a friendly sea lion, a common cave visitor.

Hike the Coastal Trail

This .6-mile (one-way) historic trail established in 1860 starts just behind The Cave Store. It features panoramic clifftop vistas, an observation platform at Goldfish Point and more opportunities to view marine life.

Beyond the Beach

San Diego offers plenty of things to to do for families, couples and friend groups. Some of our personal favorites.

Old Town San Diego

Old Town is the site of California’s first European settlement. We love to visit for Mexican fare and shopping at the Old Town Market (yes, a little touristy). Over the years we’ve visited historic buildings including the site of the first mission, the first schoolhouse and the Whaley House (supposedly the most haunted house in the United States).

Balboa Park Museums and San Diego Zoo

Located in Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo ( is considered one of our nation’s best. In addition, the historic park is home to more than a dozen museums, performing arts, walking trails and gardens, dining and the summer season carousel.

Hotel Del Coronado

Coronado is an island beach community we usually visit for half a day or longer. It has a distinct island feel and there’s a historic vibe with little shops and dining establishments. But we center our visits around the historic red-roofed Hotel Del Coronado. The hotel and resort built in 1888 once hosted Hollywood royalty and was the scene for several old films. We’ve never stayed there but the hotel welcomes visitors and you’ll find lots of historic displays. Plus you can dine and drink at resort restaurants and bars or spend time on the nearby world class beach.

Sea World

A marine-themed amusement park in Mission Bay, Sea World features rides, shows and marine life displays.

Gaslamp District

The heart of downtown San Diego, the Gaslamp District is bursting with places to stay, dine and shop with a walkable footprint.

Maritime Museum of San Diego

A fleet of historic ships in the San Diego harbor make up the Maritime Museum of San Diego. Its centerpiece is the Star of India, the world’s oldest sailing ship.

USS Midway Museum

If you’ve wondered what an aircraft carrier looks like, from sleeping quarters to the flight deck, the USS Midway Museum is a must-see.

Seaport Village

This festive harbor view collection of shops and dining includes the Seaport Village Historic Carousel. Try the Edgewater Bar & Grill for dining with a view.

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

A 68-acre natural park on the Point Loma Peninsula, Sunset Cliffs features a natural surface trail with crowd-pleasing sunsets.

Cabrillo National Monument and Tide Pools

The national monument features a small museum and lookout, a two-mile bayside trail, a lighthouse and tide pools nearby.

Swim at La Jolla Shores

We’ve spread blankets at this one-mile crescent beach for decades. The beautiful stretch of sandy shoreline includes lifeguards and a grassy palm tree-shaded park.

Kayak to Sea Caves

Book a guided kayak tour to paddle from La Jolla Shores to the protected marine reserve and along the seven sea caves near La Jolla Cove.

Shop and Dine

La Jolla offers plenty of upscale retail shops and boutiques and you won’t go hungry with its many area restaurants. We’ve enjoyed lunch with a sea view at Brockton Villa.

Torrey Pines State Beach
Photo by Sony HocklanderTorrey Pines State Beach is a must-see spot backdropped by tall sandstone cliffs and perfect beaches.

Torrey Pines

North of La Jolla, Torrey Pines State Beach is another go-to spot on our vaca playlist. Pack a picnic and stay the day at this state preserve beach and park. What makes it unique: Much of the beach is backdropped by tall sandstone cliffs. (This beach is not deep so plan your visit when it’s not high tide.) There are two primary paid parking lots, north and south. The south lot (our go-to) also provides access to the clifftop visitors center and trails. Once you arrive, consider these activities.

Enjoy the Beach

While the state park beach is 4.5 miles long between Del Mar and the sandstone cliffs at Torrey Pines Mesa, we like the area just south of the parking where the cliffs start.

Walk South to “Flat Rock.”

The picturesque wide flat rock is separated from sandstone cliffs by a sea-worn slot. When the tide is out, visitors can also pass the rock to a tide pool area beyond.

Hike Torrey Pines State Natural Preserve Trails

Near the visitors center at the top of the cliffs, six trails lead hikers through the reserve. The Beach Trail descends 300 feet to the shore, with steps at the end. (Tip: At high tide, this section of beach is impassable.) On our last trip, we hiked up the Beach Trail about halfway for views, then returned to the beach and back to our blanket.

When to Visit

San Diego weather is moderate year round with an average temperature of 72 degrees. The warmest months are June through November. June through October has the best beach temps. We like to visit between late July and September—avoiding July 4 visitors and the potential for “Gray May” and “June Gloom” (when it's warm but cloudier).

Get There

There are no direct flights from Springfield to San Diego but you could fly Allegiant to Los Angeles and rent a car from there (three-hour drive). Or book a direct flight on Southwest Airlines out of the Kansas City or St. Louis airport.

Beach Parking

Summers in San Diego are heavenly—except for beach parking, your biggest challenge, especially on weekends and holidays. For a day at the beach, go early, park, and walk somewhere to get breakfast if you’re not quite ready to lay out a blanket.