A Guide to San Diego on a Budget
Not many places in the world have ‘it’, but I can tell you, San Diego is one of those destinations. What exactly do I mean by ‘it’? A place which has it all; beaches, nightlife, food, heritage, history and nature. Yes, cramming the previous into one city is possible. Few places in the world have it all, but San Diego does.
As the story goes, American cities are hardly known for being budget backpacker friendly destinations. Not surprisingly money conscious travellers tend to avoid the USA. Having come from Coachella, we knew how expensive things can get in the USA. Don’t get me wrong, even with the tightest of penny-pinching, your budget will be higher in San Diego than in Hanoi, Vietnam for instance. Having said that, with the right knowledge and know-how you can have a bank account friendly stay and keep the spending to a minimum in San Diego.
San Diego on a budget can be done, just stick to the following advice…
Where to Stay in San Diego
I would recommend selecting a hostel located in the Gaslamp Quarter. This is where the main action is in San Diego. You’ll be surrounded by restaurants, bars, shops and public transport.
USA Hostels San Diego – Located in the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter. USA Hostels covers your necessary amenities. They have a kitchen, lounge, washing facilities, WiFi daily events and even shuttles to the beach. Breakfast is also included in the price. A dorm bed costs $31.
Hostelling International San Diego Downtown – A non-profit hostel with a hipster vibe, located in the Gaslamp Quarter. Once again, this hostel covers your basic amenities; washing facilities, kitchen and WiFi. The price of a room will also cover your breakfast. A dorm bed costs $38.
Things to Do in San Diego
What can you do in San Diego on a budget? Well, the short and simple answer is, plenty! Just take a look at the following list…
Located a walking distance from the Gaslamp Quarter, Balboa Park is the perfect spot for a morning or afternoon stroll, taking in the beautiful scenery around you. Mediterranean inspired architectural gems are scattered across the park. Boasting a grand total of 17 museums, it’s not too hard to see why Balboa Park is one of the cultural hubs of San Diego. Even if you don’t step inside the museums, you will be sure to enjoy exploring the park and all of its scenery.
Cross the giant bridge from the mainland or catch the ferry to Coronado Island. Coronado Island is a playground for San Diego’s rich and famous.
As you approach the beach, you will set eyes on the famous Hotel Del Coronado, a grand set of buildings with bright red roofs. The hotel dominates the views from the beach, showing off all its grand assets like a peacock fanning its tail. The beach is a perfect accompaniment to the hotel. The pristine yellow sand for miles makes for a relaxed day lazing about in the sun.
San Diego Skyline Viewpoint
On the opposite side of Coronado Island to the beach, you will find the San Diego skyline viewpoint. The viewpoint couldn’t be set in a more perfect location. It’s a peaceful grassy area which goes right up to the water’s edge.
Standing right by the railings at the waters edge you will get expansive views of San Diego’s skyline. To the right is the monster bridge which connects Coronado Island to the mainland. Then, to the left is the San Diego Navy Base (which often has fighter jets and helicopters flying over you while you’re on Coronado Island).
Explore the Gaslamp Quarter
The Gaslamp Quarter is the beating heart of San Diego. By far the most lively area in the city. Take your pick from heritage buildings, shops, restaurants and bars. Oh and don’t forget, many of the bars offer $4 draft beers from 11am-4pm in the week, who could turn that down?
No trip to San Diego would be complete without a trip to the beach. Head to one of the three famous San Diego beaches, Pacific, Ocean and Mission Beach. Lively Mission Beach takes on the classic beach boardwalk look while having a lively bar and nightclub scene, which Pacific Beach also boasts. Ocean Beach offers a vibe perfect for families, where you can also bring your furry friends along, due to the dog-friendly nature of this beach.
La Jolla is a place for the outdoor and wildlife enthusiasts. Head to La Jolla cove and you will see what I mean. You will hear the sound of sea lions in the air, then as you head towards the racket of the crashing waves against the rocks, you will see the sea lions bathing in the sun. You will be sure to see plenty of sea lions lazing around and posing for pictures around the rocks of La Jolla Cove.
If you head a few hundred metres down the coast to seal rock, you will see the similar looking, but much more slothful seals. You’ll see the seals struggling to get around on dry land like a turtle on its back struggling to flip itself around.
Where to Eat in San Diego
Where is there to eat in San Diego on a budget? You’ll be surprised. The following list consists of a selection of the tastiest cheap eats in San Diego…
This place may give off the vibe that it’s ‘any old shop’ from the exterior. Yet, head inside and you will find a deli counter offering up the best sandwiches in San Diego. The menu is extensive so you will not find it difficult to find something you will enjoy. My recommendation is the ‘New Yorker’ (pastrami, corned beef, bacon, swiss cheese and mustard on toasted rye bread), costing 6.49 USD.
A laid-back pizza parlour, which serves up the famous pizza pie, by the slice or as a whole. If the generously filled pizza pie wasn’t enough, Berkeley Pizza also has a range of craft beers on tap. Don’t forget, if your stomach is rumbling enough for a whole pizza pie, make sure you call ahead to order, they take an hour to cook.
Serving up some of San Diego’s best burgers. Perfect if you fancy a humble hamburger. If can eat a hell of a lot of food (and if you have the cash) they actually – believe it or not – do an all you can eat offer for $99.25. You would have to eat at least 10 burgers though for it to be worth the price, but if you can, then why not!
A relaxed Mexican restaurant with a true American feel. The TVs play live baseball and the drinks machine has every drink under the sun.
The menu also contains Tex-Mex favourites. My recommendation, the California Burrito. Comfort food is the only way to describe this burrito. A California Burrito is a warm flour tortilla filled with meat, fries and gooey cheese, all for 7 USD. It’s like a big hug in a flour wrap.
As with many west coast American cities, the public transport is by no means at world class standards. San Diego’s public transport is no exception, the tram system is mainly aimed towards the 9-5 commuter and does not travel anywhere near any of the beaches.
There are a few options when it comes to travelling around the city. You can walk, which is an option for Balboa Park if you are staying in the Gaslamp Quarter. Other than walking ridiculous distances for the beaches, you can either catch several buses, rent a car, or catch an Uber. The most time saving and economical way to travel long distances in San Diego would be via Uber. My advice, round up people in your hostel going to the same destination as yourself and split the costs of the Uber.
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If you have any questions, feel free to ask me in the comments section.
Are you planning a trip to San Diego? Do you think you would enjoy the city following the previous ‘San Diego on a budget guide’? Do you have any other suggestions for things to enjoy while exploring San Diego on a budget?