See the Urban Side of San Diego

1. Where to Stay

One of the newly renovated "Argento Collection" rooms at La Pensione. Photo: La Pensione

Stay near the energetic North Park neighborhood at the Lafayette Hotel & Swim Club, which used to be a celebrity crash pad for the likes of Bob Hope and Ava Gardner when it opened in the forties. Today, the hotel’s central, not-quite-Olympic-size pool is the summertime hipster hang, hosting food-truck-catered daytime pool parties with live bands. Despite an ongoing $4 million renovation, accommodations are fairly basic, but the poolside rooms remain the most coveted.

Get a little European flair at La Pensione (from $99), a modest spot that gives you access to the walkable Little Italy arts district. The hotel is in the midst of a $2 million makeover, and 15 of its 68 compact rooms now feature ostrich leather headboards, Italian linens, and rain showerheads. Ask for an “Argento Collection” room, preferably #317 or #320: They have the best balconies for sipping wine and people-watching.

Go nostalgic at the Pearl Hotel (from $79), whose owners took a rundown motor lodge and transformed it into a paragon of mid-century cool in 2007. Inside, you’ll find shag rugs in the lounge, vintage table lamps in the guestrooms, and mod furniture throughout. Wednesday night movies around the pool are a favorite among locals.

2. Where to Eat

The Mexico City–inspired El Take It Easy is known for its farm-to-table tapas and unique cocktails.Photo: El Take It Easy

Be wowed by the design at Starlite, an urbane take on a hunting lodge with a stunning sculptural chandelier that rains tiny points of light onto the sunken bar below. The organic menu—think grilled local octopus ($10) and a caramelized onion and Gruyere cheeseburger on buttery brioche ($13)—holds its own, as does the drink list, which features hard-to-find whiskeys and the signature Starlite Mule, served in a copper mug ($9).

Get lively at El Take It Easy, a Mexico City–inspired “gastrocantina” in North Park with shareable farm-to-table tapas and a cocktail list heavy with rare ingredients like sotol and prickly pear cactus fruit. Menus change often, but the dishes are always original, from grass-fed beef-cheek chimichangas ($7.50) to chocolate crème pie with mescal whipped cream ($6.50).

See how locals prefer their upscale burgers ($10–$11) at Neighborhood, which has a reputation for being a bit snobby about its condiments. You won’t find ketchup here, but there’s always béarnaise, and the craft beer list is long and well selected. Ask your server about getting a seat at Noble Experiment, a speakeasy hidden in a back room behind a fake wall of kegs.

3. What to Do

The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego often highlights the West Coast art scene.Photo: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

Explore the facilities at Stone Brewing Co., home of the “Bastard” line of brawny ales, in Escondido, about a 40-minute drive from the city center. Tours, conducted hourly on weekends, are free and last about 45 minutes; show up early as they fill up quickly. You can grab a bite in the on-site bistro while you wait.

Visit the Barrio Logan arts district east of downtown, where rents are still cheap enough to let upstart gallerists make art spaces out of defunct glass factories and Mexican bakeries. Start in Chicano Park, where residents in the seventies painted huge colorful murals on freeway overpasses to protest the construction of a Highway Patrol station on the site of the neighborhood park. Today, the Roots Factory—a politically minded guerrilla arts collective—is heir to that activist spirit.

Check out the “Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface” exhibition (through January 22) at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. The show, part of the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time initiative, focusing on the West Coast art scene, features thirteen artists (including Bruce Nauman, Peter Alexander, and De Wain Valentine) whose minimalist work set the tone for SoCal art-making in the sixities and seventies.

4. Insider’s Tip

Good bars, indie boutiques, and quality restaurants comprise much of 30th Street. Photo: Courtesy of Brett Shoaf

Home to dozens of good bars, indie boutiques, and quality restaurants, 30th Street is the going-out destination of choice for uptowners any day of the week. But the best time to see the street in action is on the 30th day of the month, during a dine-around event called 30th on 30th. To encourage people to tapas-crawl the length of the strip, many 30th Street restaurants and bars offer small plates and drinks for a few bucks apiece. You might score a beef cheek slider with smoked tomato jam at comfort-food spot Urban Solace or a pint of 30th Street Pale Ale from Toronado. The precise hours that specific specials are offered vary from place to place, but it’s a safe bet that you’ll find some good action from about 5 or 6 p.m. until the food runs out.

5. Oddball Day

Turista Libre takes visitors on an alternative tour of Tijuana’s lesser-known destinations.Photo: Turista Libre

Pack your passport for a trip to Tijuana, where a cultural and gastronomic renaissance is underway just fifteen miles south of San Diego. Prep for the crossing with a Mexican-inspired breakfast of chilaquiles ($8) or tamales and eggs ($8) at the Mission Cafe. The blue line trolley takes you right to the border from downtown San Diego, and cabs on the other side are cheap and plentiful. (If you don’t want to navigate the city on your own, get in touch with Turista Libre, an alternative tour outfit that takes gringos to see the city’s quirkier destinations.) Once you’re on el otro lado, spend the morning shopping for clothes made by local designers at Doratto and Boutique Chandelier, then break for lunch at Caesar’s, where the ubiquitous salad was invented in the twenties, but you can also order beef Wellington ($15) or bone marrow ($6). Next, peruse contemporary art at La Casa del Túnel Art Center, located in the shadow of the border fence. (The house was discovered to be the gateway to a smuggling tunnel before being reborn in 2009 as a gallery.) By night, splurge on beef tongue tiradito ($7.20) and local Guadalupe Valley wines at sleek Mision 19, followed by drinks at La Mezcalera, which serves 24 types of mezcal ($2–$4) and sides of chapulines (fried grasshoppers; $1). Dance to the D.J. set in the back room or head across the street to grab a beer at El Dandy Del Sur (Calle 6a 2030; 664 688 0052), a classic old-man dive recently commandeered by stylish young tijuanenses. Leave ample time to cross back over the border; waits typically run 60–90 minutes or more.

6. Links

Rely on San Diego CityBeat, the city’s alt-weekly, for tons of event listings and arts coverage.

San Diego: Dialed In features comprehensive live music listings and local music news.

The discerning crew at Sezio keeps a well-curated calendar of art openings, house concerts, and other under-the-radar events.

San Diego Beer Blog tracks craft beer’s every move, from announcing seasonal releases to reviewing local brews.

Culture Lust is the arts blog of local NPR affiliate KPBS, with timely coverage of visual and performing arts news.

See the Urban Side of San Diego