San Diego accommodations are as varied as the county's diverse topography. From beaches, to mountains, to desert, you'll find hip high-rises, spa- and golf-blessed resorts, and properties rife with history, as well as backpacker hostels and out-of-the-ordinary B&Bs. Note: This guide explores all the options within the city proper.
Downtown, Gaslamp Quarter & Little Italy
San Diego's downtown is an excellent place for travelers to stay. The nightlife and dining in the Gaslamp Quarter and shopping at Horton Plaza are close at hand; Balboa Park, Hillcrest, Old Town, and Coronado are less than 10 minutes away by car; and beaches aren't much farther. It's also the city's public transportation hub, and thus very convenient for car-free visitors.
Best For: Just about everything. There are museums, bars and nightclubs, fine dining, and shopping opportunities galore.
Drawbacks: The action goes on late and loud here, particularly on weekends, and some of the most popular nightspots are in hotels.
Hillcrest & Uptown
The gentrified historic neighborhoods north of downtown are something of a bargain; they're convenient to Balboa Park and offer easy access to the rest of town. Filled with casual and upscale restaurants, eclectic shops, and percolating nightlife, the area is also easy to navigate. All of the following accommodations cater to the mainstream market and attract a gay and lesbian clientele, as well. Note: All these properties can be reached via I-5.
Best For: Those who want to log time at the zoo and Balboa Park, yet still want to be within striking distance of the downtown action.
Drawbacks: It lacks the glitzy wattage of downtown's Gaslamp Quarter (which is also one of the neighborhood's strengths).
Old Town & Mission Valley
Old Town is a popular area for families because of its proximity to Old Town State Historic Park and other attractions that are within walking distance; SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo are within a 10-minute drive. Around the corner is Mission Valley, where you'll find the city's largest collection of hotels offering rooms under $100 a night. Mission Valley lacks much personality -- this is the spot for chain restaurants and shopping malls, not gardens or water views. But it caters to convention groups, families visiting the University of San Diego or San Diego State University, and leisure travelers drawn by the lower prices and competitive facilities. Note: All Old Town and Mission Valley hotels are reached from either I-5 or I-8.
Best For: Families looking for less expensive digs close by major attractions; the area is also a transportation hub.
Drawbacks: The style quotient drops considerably in the commuter corridor of Mission Valley.
Mission Bay & the Beaches Hotels
If the beach and aquatic activities are front-and-center on your San Diego agenda, this part of town may be just the ticket. Although the beach communities don't offer much in the way of cultural or upscale attractions, downtown and Balboa Park are only a 15-minute drive away. Some hotels are right on Mission Bay, San Diego's water playground; they're usually good choices for families. Ocean Beach is more neighborhood-oriented and easygoing, while Mission Beach and Pacific Beach provide a total immersion in the beach lifestyle -- they can be raucous at times, especially in summer. If you're looking for a more refined landing, head to La Jolla or Coronado. Note: All directions are provided from I-5.
Best For: Families looking for fun in the sun, or anyone with a penchant for outdoor recreation.
Drawbacks: The party almost never stops (or maybe that's a good thing).
La Jolla Hotels
"La Jolla" is thought by many to be misspelled Spanish for "the jewel," while others believe the name is derived from an indigenous word meaning "cave." One look at La Jolla's beautiful coastline and upscale downtown village, and you'll be firmly in the Spanish camp. Note: From I-5 N., use the La Jolla Parkway exit or from I-5 S., take the La Jolla Village Drive West exit, both of which merge with Torrey Pines Road.
Best For: Those who want it all -- style, luxury, fine dining, excellent shopping, sophisticated cultural attractions, and outdoor activities.
Drawbacks: All that good stuff is going to cost you; there's also not much in the way of nightlife here.
The "island" (really a peninsula) of Coronado is a great escape. It has quiet, architecturally rich streets; a small-town, Navy-oriented atmosphere; and one of the state's most beautiful and welcoming beaches. Coronado's resorts are especially popular with Southern California and Arizona families for weekend escapes. Although downtown San Diego is just a 10-minute drive or 15-minute ferry ride away, you may feel pleasantly isolated in Coronado, but it isn't your best choice if you're planning to spend lots of time in central parts of the city. Note: To reach the places listed here, take I-5 to the Coronado Bridge, and then follow individual directions.
Best For: Families and those who want some quality beach time without the raucous partying.
Drawbacks: Things get mighty quiet here after dark.
The indelible Hotel Del
San Diego's romantic Hotel del Coronado is an unmistakable landmark with a colorful past. When it opened in 1888, it was among the first buildings with Thomas Edison's new invention, electric light; the hotel's own electrical power plant supplied the entire city of Coronado until 1922. Author L. Frank Baum, a frequent guest, designed the Crown Room's original crown-shaped chandeliers. He wrote several of the books in his beloved Wizard of Oz series in Coronado, and some believe he modeled elements of the Emerald City after the Del.
The hotel has played host to royalty and celebrities as well. The first visiting monarch was Kalakaua, Hawaii's last king, who spent Christmas here in 1890. But the best-known royal guest was Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII, and then Duke of Windsor). He came to the hotel in April 1920, the first British royal to visit California. Of the many lavish social affairs held during his stay, at least two were attended by Wallis Simpson (then Navy wife Wallis Warfield). Though some like to speculate their love affair, which culminated in his abdication of the throne, might have begun right here, it's very unlikely it did. Her official introduction to him came 15 years later in London.
Author Henry James wrote in 1905 of "the charming sweetness and comfort of this spot"; and in 1927, Charles Lindbergh was honored here following his historic 33 1/2-hour solo flight across the Atlantic in his San Diego-built Spirit of St. Louis. Hollywood Golden Age stars including Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, and Esther Williams flocked to the Del; and the hotel has also hosted 11 U.S. presidents.
Perhaps most famously, director Billy Wilder filmed Some Like It Hot at the hotel with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon. The Stunt Man, starring Peter O'Toole, was also filmed here in 1980. And some guests have never left: The ghost of Kate Morgan, whose body was found in 1892, supposedly still roams the halls -- room 3327 has a reputation for being haunted. Visitors and guests intrigued by the Hotel Del's past can stroll through the lower-level History Gallery, a minimuseum of hotel memorabilia.
The Road to Wellness -- Healthful Havens
Health-conscious San Diego is home to a collection of some of the finest fitness spas in the country. These aren't pedicure-and-a-sauna resort spas, but places where you will engage in regimented mind-and-body workouts that just might change your life.
The Golden Door, 777 Deer Springs Rd., Escondido (tel. 800/424-0777 or 760/744-5777; www.goldendoor.com), is a Zen-influenced sanctuary in the North County where a maximum of 40 people engage in a weeklong program of massage, beauty treatments, and fitness activities like yoga, tennis, and hiking. Most weeks are same-sex, but co-ed stays are also available; a 4-to-1 ratio of staff (including a fitness guide, dietician, and esthetician) to guest helps explain the $7,495 price tag (some 3- and 4-day programs are also available). Accommodations and gourmet spa-cuisine meals, featuring products grown on-site, are included.
Rancho La Puerta, Carretera A Km 5, Tecate, Mexico (tel. 800/443-7565 or 858/764-5500; www.rancholapuerta.com), is located about an hour from San Diego, just across the border in Baja California. Opened in 1940, it lays claim to being the world's first fitness spa. This elegant, beautifully landscaped resort is set on some 3,000 acres and encompasses part of a mountain held sacred by the indigenous Kumeyaay people. Weeklong residences are encouraged, but a limited number of partial stays are available. More than 70 classes and activities are held each week. Rates start at $2,835 and include transportation from San Diego International Airport.
Cal-a-Vie, 29402 Spa Havens Way, Vista (tel. 866/772-4283 or 760/842-6831; www.cal-a-vie.com), sits on 200-plus acres in San Diego's North County, offering 3-, 4-, and 7-night packages. A maximum of 30 guests enjoy exceptional spa cuisine, fitness classes, hiking, lectures, and spa treatments; Cal-a-Vie also has its own 18-hole golf course. Three-night plans start at $4,195.
Chopra Center for Wellbeing, 2013 Costa del Mar Rd., Carlsbad (tel. 888/424-6772 or 760/494-1600; www.chopra.com), is located on the grounds of the La Costa Resort and Spa. Founded by holistic guru Deepak Chopra, the center has yoga and meditation classes daily (including a free group meditation held every day), spa treatments based on 5,000-year-old Ayurvedic principles, multi-day healing programs, and a gift store with books, jewelry, and more. An overnight stay is not required, but a special rate is offered.
Warner Springs Ranch, 31652 Hwy. 79, Warner Springs (tel. 760/782-4200; www.warnersprings.com), was established in 1844, but Spanish explorers and Native Americans had long known about the area's rejuvenating mineral springs. Located in the Cleveland National Forest, about 90 minutes from San Diego, the ranch features three large pools of hot mineral or fresh water; there's also an equestrian center, golfing, volleyball courts, and hiking and biking trails. Overnight accommodations and packages start at $105.
Bed & Breakfasts -- Travelers who seek bed-and-breakfast accommodations will be pleasantly surprised by the variety and affordability of San Diego B&Bs. Many B&Bs are traditional, reflecting the personality of an on-site innkeeper and offering as few as two guest rooms; others accommodate more guests in a slickly professional way. More than 10 B&Bs are part of the close-knit San Diego Bed & Breakfast Guild (tel. 619/523-1300; www.bandbguildsandiego.org), whose members work actively at keeping prices reasonable; many good B&Bs average $100 to $125 a night.
Hostels -- Those in search of rock-bottom prices should check into San Diego's collection of hostels. You should be prepared for shared dorm-style rooms, although private rooms are also found at most. Communal kitchens are also available at most hostels, and some offer inexpensive breakfasts or other meals. Reservations are a good idea any time of year, and overbooking is not uncommon. Hostel rates will also fluctuate according to the season and what local events are taking place.
USAHostels (tel. 800/438-8622 or 619/232-3100; www.usahostels.com) is in the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter at 726 Fifth Ave. in a historic building; private rooms start at $75, four-bed rooms are $32, and six-bed rooms run $29 per person (online reservations receive a discount). Also in the Gaslamp is Hostelling International -- SD Downtown (tel. 888/464-4872, ext. 156, or 619/525-1531; www.sandiegohostels.org), at 521 Market St. This facility has 4-, 6-, and 10-person rooms, with or without en suite bathrooms; and double, twin, and family-size private rooms, with or without bathroom. Reception is open 24 hours. Private rooms start at $106 and dorm rooms start at $39.
Hostelling International -- SD Point Loma is a 55-bed hostel (tel. 888/464-4872, ext. 157, or 619/223-4778), at 3790 Udall St., which is about 2 miles inland from Ocean Beach; rates start at $26 per person, and private rooms that sleep two start at $56. The Ocean Beach International Hostel, 4961 Newport Ave. (tel. 800/339-7263 or 619/223-7873; www.californiahostel.com), has more than 60 beds and is just 2 blocks from the beach. Bunk rates start at $19 per person, and they offer free pickup from the airport, train, or bus station. There's an extensive collection of DVDs for guests, complimentary breakfast, and free barbecues are held Tuesday and Friday. U.S. residents must show current student ID, proof of international travel within the last 6 months, or be a member of a hostelling organization in order to stay.
You can also embrace your inner beach bum at Banana Bungalow, 707 Reed Ave. (tel. 858/273-3060; www.bananabungalowsandiego.com). You won't get any closer to the beach than this -- it's right on the raucous Pacific Beach boardwalk. In summer, dorm rooms are $35 and private rooms are $120 for two people (add $15 for each additional person).
House-Swapping -- House-swapping is becoming a more popular and viable means of travel: you stay in their place, they stay in yours, and you both get an authentic and personal view of the area, the opposite of the escapist retreat that many hotels offer. Try HomeLink International (Homelink.org), the largest and oldest home-swapping organization, founded in 1953, with more than 13,000 listings worldwide ($119 for a yearly membership). HomeExchange.com ($48 for a 3-month membership) and InterVac.com ($119 for an annual membership) are also reliable. Many travelers find great housing swaps on Craigslist (www.craigslist.org), too, though the offerings cannot be vetted or vouched for; swap at your own risk.