San Diego has always been my family’s U.S. “home base” since we moved away from my hometown to Saudi Arabia when I was young. We returned at least once a year, often for a few weeks at a time, and eventually I moved back to San Diego for university. I met my future husband during those years and, in time, we were road-tripping across the country to live in Boston while he did his MBA. Years later, I’m back in San Diego with Little T to meet up with my family. Mr. G hasn’t been able to join us on the last two trips due to work but we hope he’ll be coming with us for the next visit!
The least expensive option at the time was to fly with Virgin Atlantic to Los Angeles (half the cost of flying direct to San Diego with British Airways, although there often isn’t such a big difference in price) and drive about two hours to San Diego. My goal was to arrive in Los Angeles in the early afternoon to avoid rush hour traffic and get to San Diego for an early dinner and settle in for a good night’s rest. I chose a flight leaving London Heathrow at 10am to arrive at LAX just before 2pm, while for the return flight, I chose a flight leaving LAX at 5:30pm, which gave us the morning in San Diego and plenty of time to make our way up to Los Angeles. It was a very foggy day in London when we left but Virgin Atlantic got us to LAX right on time!
I always rent with Avis when we’re in the States through the British Airways Executive Club where I’ve been finding some good deals and sales, or I use Avios points towards the rental. This time around, I rented the Avis car when there was a sale, to pick up and drop off from LAX. That all went smoothly but I ended up pretty disappointed with the customer service at the LAX Avis. After a long journey and at least a two hour drive still ahead of us to San Diego, I was ready to hit the road, but long story short, it was a frustratingly long 45 minutes waiting around to have a car seat brought over and installed.
Once on our way, I thought Little T would take a nap since it was well past bedtime London time, but he was wide awake and rather cranky until – no exaggeration – we were five minutes away from reaching our destination. When I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw him fast asleep, I exited the freeway a bit early at Mission Bay to take a breather after an exhausting journey, watching the final moments of the beautiful sunset and appreciating being back in one of my favorite places.
Where We Stayed
I redeemed SPG Starpoints towards most of our 8 night stay at the Sheraton Mission Valley, which is just off the Interstate-8 and a short drive from the beaches. Overall, we had a comfortable stay at the hotel, and I remember the night staff (Dave and Manuel) in particular were very welcoming and helpful. I would have preferred a room with one king size bed but there weren’t any available for the full stay.
I always appreciate it when hotels make efforts to reduce their environmental footprint, and the Sheraton’s “Make the Green Choice” program is a good example, offering guests the opportunity to save water, electricity and cleaning products by simply foregoing full housekeeping for up to three days. In exchange, for each night guests opt in, they receive 500 Starpoints or a $5 food and beverage voucher. I opted in for three nights (every other night) during our stay.
The area of Mission Valley is a convenient area to stay in with easy access to downtown San Diego, loads of accommodation options, three major shopping malls and plenty of restaurants, but the drawback is that the area can get very crowded and busy. At rush hour, the freeways that criss-cross Mission Valley come to a standstill, so you need to either be familiar with the back roads to avoid the freeway or time your day well to avoid traffic.
Mission Valley has its positives, mainly being a convenient location and a shopping and entertainment center, but next time around I’ll be looking at staying in a quieter area, most likely in nearby Mission Bay which is where we were the previous year.
What We Did
Jet lag had us up bright and early each day, but Little T struggled to stay awake from the late afternoon and sometimes was fast asleep in his stroller by 6pm or even earlier. So I tried to make the most out of the mornings. Aside from a couple of stormy days, we lucked out with good weather, even enjoying some sunshine at the beach here and there!
I’ve mentioned before that I’m fascinated with marine life and bringing Little T to the Birch Aquarium at Scripps in La Jolla was high on my list. It’s a great place to visit, with several hands-on displays for children, an outdoor tide-pool with gorgeous ocean views and stunning exhibits of Pacific marine life. The two-story, 70,000 gallon kelp forest tank shown below houses a wide array of local marine life, including giant sea bass, leopard sharks, eels and garibaldi damselfish. The tank is completely open on top so it’s illuminated 100% by sunlight. More about our visit to the Birch Aquarium in this post.
With heavy rain on the forecast over the next couple of days, I made plans to visit a museum at Balboa Park. In addition to stunning gardens and the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park features 15 major museums, covering art and photography, science, air and space, autos and motorcycles, sports, local history, anthropology and natural history.
There’s also the famous Balboa Park Botanial Building, which is the only known conservatory made with no glass and one of the world’s largest wood lath structures. It was built for the First World’s Fair: the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and the beautiful scene shown below with the lily pond in the foreground is one of the most photographed in Balboa Park.
We ended up going to the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center. There was a special promotion for local residents to enter the museum free so it was absolutely packed with school groups and families. We waited over half an hour to get into Kid City, which is a space designed for kids 5 and under to discover chutes, tracks and moving objects and explore the working world.
Little T had a good time and it certainly kept him busy but to be honest, I don’t think the play area was worth the $18 ticket I paid (children under 3 enter for free) since there wasn’t much else we could do in the rest of the museum.
That said, we enjoyed the morning, had a delicious lunch at The Prado and lucked out with the weather – the torrential rain didn’t start until we were on our way out.
Mr. G and I used to live in Pacific Beach, a beach community between Mission Bay and Mission Beach to the south and La Jolla to the north. I felt nostalgic visiting the area and passing by familiar spots – along with discovering new ones like the brilliant Fanuel Street playground that’s right on Mission Bay. There’s free parking, public toilets and a large grass park perfect for picnics or playing sports.
After some fun at the playground, we sat by the pier on the main beach, made sandcastles and watched the sunset before dinner at my old favorite taco shop, Cotija’s on Garnet Avenue.
La Jolla is another one of our favorite places and on a beautiful sunny day, we headed over for a walk along Coast Boulevard at La Jolla Cove. The views there are stunning! I wanted to show Little T the seals and sea lions that come to the area. Oftentimes, the seals can be seen sunbathing on Children’s Beach (shown below with the sea wall)…
Or over on the large rocks offshore, which is where we saw them on the day we visited.
I’ve zoomed in for a closer look at the seals sunbathing on the rock. I think they were a bit too far away for Little T, he was much more interested in the sea birds around us or the plants along the path.
We also spent a day at beautiful Coronado Island, which is right across the bay from downtown. I’ve always loved driving across the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, with its stunning views of the San Diego skyline.
Before lunch, we watched the ferry boats and huge Navy ships pass by in front of the Ferry Landing Marketplace…
And then we spent the afternoon playing on the expansive beach in front of the historic Hotel del Coronado.
We also spent some time at Mission Beach, an excellent spot for water sports and outdoor activities and the closest beach to Mission Valley. You’ll find the famous amusement park, Belmont Park, that was built in 1925, along with a wide boardwalk lined with shops and restaurants and, nearby, the large grassy Mission Bay Park. There’s a large free parking lot, that of course fills up quickly during busy times like weekends or holidays, but it’s fairly easy to find parking during the weekday mornings.
The night before leaving, we came back to Mission Beach to watch one last beach sunset before getting ready to make our way back home.
Where We Ate
You’ll quickly notice a theme: I love Mexican food. Being on the border, San Diego has many fantastic Mexican restaurants and I was determined to try some new places during our trip. The one place that I didn’t manage to go to was Las Cuatro Milpas, next time!
These restaurants were the highlights of our trip;
The Prado at Balboa Park: We ate well at this lovely, very family friendly restaurant. I had the grilled chile-lime marinated steak tacos with charro beans, Spanish rice, cabbage slaw, flour tortillas and extra avocado.
And Little T had the kid’s fish taco with rice and charro beans, plus a cup of berries. This was one of his favorite meals during our trip when he was often very picky.
Taco Stand, La Jolla: We came here after our walk at La Jolla Cove and I ordered pollo asado tacos and the tacos al pastor. I’d highly recommend the tacos al pastor, which are made with marinated pork cooked on a vertical rotisserie spit and served with pineapple, cilantro, onions and cilantro sauce. I had mine topped with guacamole but would opt out of the cilantro sauce next time, just a personal preference, they were still absolutely delicious.
Lil’ Piggy’s Bar-B-Q, Coronado: This was a great BBQ place at the Coronado Ferry Landing Marketplace. Our waitress was lovely, patiently taking my order while I wrangled the little one, and she brought over a doodle pad that Little T enjoyed while we waited for our meal.
I ordered a pulled pork sandwich with baked beans and curly fries to share with Little T.
And from the kid’s menu, Little T had BBQ pulled pork and corn on the cob, two of his favorite foods so this was another win for him during the trip.
Cafe Coyote, Old Town: Little T fell asleep while we were on the way to this restaurant, so this was a time when I had a quick lunch while he dozed in the stroller. Cafe Coyote make everything from scratch on their premises every day and since Old Town was pretty close to our hotel in Mission Valley, I was interested in trying out their food. For a starter I had a tortilla soup, simple but very tasty.
And the main reason why I was here was for some tamales, a bit difficult to see in this photo. I ordered one “Verdes” pork tamale with tomatillo sauce, and one “Santa Fe”, made with black beans and chiles with tomatillo sauce. The Santa Fe was my favorite and the tastier of the two.
Where We Bought Essentials
The two places I shopped for our essentials and groceries were Target and Trader Joe’s, and both were a quick drive away from the Sheraton. I’d recommend shopping in the morning if possible, Target and grocery stores are open from 7am/8am, and definitely avoid the evenings, especially over the weekend!
The Mission Valley Target is a two story store with pretty much everything you could possibly need during your stay: toiletries, baby and toddler supplies, groceries, even clothes, toys and books. I find that Target has a good selection of organic and natural baby products, from nappies to skincare (i.e. The Honest Company), that I normally struggle to find at grocery stores like Ralph’s or Von’s. Target’s grocery section is limited but convenient for healthy snacks, milk and juice. Aside from fresh fruit or other food that I’d prefer to buy at a grocery store, this Target was a great place to stock up on essentials once or twice during the trip. For a quick stop, however, this store is just too massive and spread out, with the baby/toddler supplies upstairs and the groceries/toiletries/household items all downstairs.
Trader Joe’s is one of my favorite grocery stores and it was great having one nearby at the Westfield Mission Valley shopping centre. We were up pretty early each day so we usually had breakfast in our hotel room and Trader Joe’s was where I bought fresh fruit, bagels, almond butter, yogurt and cream cheese, along with some of their scrumptious snacks and pies! The pre-made salads and sandwiches/wraps are also delicious and good value.
Overall, we had a great time catching up with my family and squeezing in some beach time and sight-seeing here and there. San Diego is a city with so much to offer and I’ve only covered a small area here, there’s a lot to see in the North County too. If you’re looking for a great destination for families, San Diego is an excellent place to explore, with natural beauty, plenty to see and do, many outdoor activities and mild weather year round.
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