Three Perfect Days: San Diego

When I was a loyal customer of United Airlines, back in the days before JetBlue, I would settle into my seat and immediately open the inflight magazine to the Three Perfect Days feature.  In those days I hadn’t traveled much, and the articles gave me the opportunity to vicariously be a tourist in New Orleans or Paris or Budapest.  Although at the time I wondered who could spend just three days in a city as exotic, or far away, as Buenos Aires or Singapore, I’ve since had Four Perfect Days in Paris, Two Perfect Days in Chicago, and even One Perfect Day in Lisbon.

Early this summer I had Three Perfect Days with my oldest daughter. I’d tried unsuccessfully over the past few years to extend a business trip and have her accompany me, but her school, high airfares, and other family obligations always got in the way.  In early June, however, I had to make a trip to San Diego and as she was already on summer break and airfare from the Bay Area was fairly reasonable, I made plans for us to fly down a few days early for a mini vacation together.

Vacationing with a teenager can be a bit of a challenge.

Me: What would you like to do in San Diego?

Her: I don’t know.

Me: Do you want to go to the zoo?

Her: No.

Me: Do you want to go to SeaWorld?

Her: No.

Me: Would you like to tour the USS Midway?

Her: No.

Me: Do you want to visit any colleges while we’re down there?

Her: No.

So without a plan we flew down to San Diego early one Saturday morning and we did, indeed, have three very perfect days.

DAY ONE / We touched down in San Diego around 9am and took the short cab ride to our hotel.  The 1. San Diego Marriott Marquis is a lovely hotel and also very, very expensive. It’s not an ideal hotel for a weekend in San Diego because of its location – far from pretty much everything – and cost, but it’s next to the convention center where I would be working all week. After checking in and dropping our bags in our room, we walked a few short blocks to the Gaslamp Quarter. A neighborhood that was rejuvenated with the construction of Petco Park, Gaslamp is an architectural mix of historical buildings and contemporary condos.  While it’s mostly a destination for tourists and post-college urban singles – boasting many bar/cafes with sidewalk seating – our first stop was 2. Urban Outfitters. Teen tried on a few outfits, but ultimately decided she didn’t want to spend $53 on a casual top no matter how adorable she looked in it.

Our stomachs were growling and I wanted a cup of good coffee, since I hadn’t had time for one at the airport in San Francisco. We found a coffeehouse on Yelp with good reviews just a few blocks away, but were surprised when we arrived at the building to find it’s now a yoga studio.  However, across the street we saw 3. Zanzibar Cafe which looked like exactly our kind of place. It was. The coffee was dark and delicious, the menu was full of healthy and yummy choices – many with fresh avocado!, and our waitress was friendly and helpful. Properly fueled, we did a little more window shopping and then decided it would be fun to get manicures.  Trusty Yelp led us to 4. Nail Care & Spa. Yes, that’s the actual name. No, I saw no evidence of a spa. It was fun advising each other on polish colors, and teen went for the full mani-pedi.

We had made dinner plans with a family member who lives nearby, so we headed back to the hotel to get ready, but first made a detour to wander through 5. Seaport Village. Teen got a henna tattoo on her wrist, we watched the fire eater, and then we made a quick stop at 6. Frosted Robin Cupcakes to pick up some treats we knew we would want later that night. We’re cupcake connoisseurs, and these were quite good, especially because they were not over-frosted.  There were many flavors to choose from, and we picked three.  If you ever encounter a Lavender cupcake, be sure to try it!

San Diego has a trolley system that doesn’t cover the entire city but was a very convenient (and affordable) way to go from our hotel to 7. Old Town San Diego. I have great memories of visiting this historic park as a kid, but for my California-born daughter, who has taken numerous school field trips to California missions, it was ho hum. We enjoyed a cold drink and guacamole on the patio of one Mexican restaurant, then had dinner with family at another, but found the food not any better than that from our local taqueria.

We had some adventure taking the trolley back to our hotel – mostly because of poor signage and not understanding how it worked.  We would continue to be trolley-impaired for the rest of our trip!

DAY TWO / This was our designated beach day and research the previous night had left us with three transportation options: rent a car for $75, take a cab for $45 each way, take two trolleys and a bus for under $10.  We chose the long ride and stepped off the bus at the south end of 1. Mission Beach. We walked up the lagoon side, then crossed mid-way to have brunch at 2. The Mission restaurant. Although there are three locations in San Diego, this is the flagship restaurant and predictably, the wait was long.  We had to wander on the boardwalk for a bit, but it was worth it when our food arrived.  Although the menu has many healthy options (soy chorizo), teen chose the fresh strawberry pancakes and I had chilaquiles. We may have eaten every bite. And licked our plates.  I can tell you that teen’s arm kept reaching across the table to spear a forkful of my chilaquiles. We spent the next couple hours strolling the boardwalk and watching surfers, skaters, and walkers before catching the bus-and-two-trolleys back to our hotel.

That evening we decided to visit 3. Little Italy. Billing itself as a “hip and historic urban neighborhood”, Little Italy was an easy trolley ride from our hotel and has so many good restaurants in just a few blocks that it’s hard to choose.  We enjoyed dinner at 4. Davanti Enoteca, where we ate al fresco on the narrow patio looking down at passers-by on the sidewalk.  Davanti is known for their “boards”, where the food is brought to the table on small wooden planks.  We enjoyed the Ligurian style foccacia with soft cheese, served with an oozy chunk of honeycomb. Of course, since we were in Little Italy and the night was young, we convinced ourselves that we needed gelato and Yelp directed us to 5. Pappalecco. There were a dozen gelato flavors, most with Italian labels so we had to ask for translation. There was also, to our happy surprise, a lovely selection of Italian pastries and tiny cookies.  Yes, we bought a few to take back to the hotel for late night snacking.

More trolley mishaps resulted in us transferring onto the trolley taking us back in the direction from which we came. So what should have been a 15 minute ride to the hotel ended up being closer to an hour.  But we had a lot of fun laughing about it.  This is a good time to note that we felt very safe in downtown San Diego – we spent a lot of time sitting alone at trolley stops and stations at night and never felt uncomfortable.

DAY THREE / When you travel with a teenager, you cannot be frustrated that the day begins no earlier than 10am and should plan accordingly. And she will not want to eat immediately when she wakes up, no matter how long you’ve been waiting for that first cup of coffee.

The hotel’s concierge had convinced me that we should do a harbor tour, after first suggesting the zoo, SeaWorld, the USS Midway, and shopping at Westfield Horton Plaza, and she even gave me a coupon. I insisted that we first grab a bite to eat, but we didn’t want to walk too far out of our way and we didn’t have much time before the mid-day cruise.  That’s how we found ourselves at 1. Cafe 222 for brunch. Although I was very tempted to order their famous Peanut Butter and Banana Stuffed French Toast, it sounded too decadent so I went with the Orange Pecan Pancakes instead.  I don’t know that that was a better choice, but it was chock full of nuts!  And yes, the coffee was strong and good. We then power walked over to 2. San Diego Harbor Excursion and bought tickets for the 1 hour tour that was about to leave. It’s not necessary to have any interest in San Diego’s military history or feign enthusiasm for the naval craft that the tour guide will point out.  It’s simply enough to be on the water.  We enjoyed the views of the beautiful Coronado Bridge and the breeze on our faces, and we were even lucky enough to see pelicans.

3PD SAN DIEGO / DAY ONE / 1. San Diego Marriot Marquis 333 West Harbor Drive; Tel: 619-234-1500 2. Urban Outfitters 665 Fifth Avenue; Tel: 619-231-0102
3. Zanzibar Cafe 707 G Street; Tel: 619-230-0125 4. Nail Care & Spa 809 F Street;
Tel: 619-232-7288
5. Seaport Village 849 West Harbor Drive; Tel: 619-235-4014
6. Frosted Robin Cupcakes 859 West Harbor Drive; Tel: 619-702-7188 7. Old Town San Diego Taylor Street at Congress Street; Tel: 619-220-5422
DAY TWO / 1. Mission Beach Mission Boulevard at West Mission Bay Drive
2. The Mission 3795 Mission Boulevard; Tel: 858-488-9060 3. Little Italy West Date Street and India Street  4. Davanti Enoteca 1655 India Street; Tel: 619-237-9606
5. Pappalecco 1602 State Street; Tel: 619-238-4590

DAY THREE /  1. Cafe 222 222 Island Avenue; Tel: 619-236-9902 2. San Diego Harbor Excursion 1050 North Harbor Drive; Tel: 619-234-4111

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4 Responses to Three Perfect Days: San Diego

  1. Great post. I have a 14 year old daughter. I’m so with you. I can never decide which is worse the “no” or “i don’t know”. You mostly just have to “do” and cross your fingers! They can be a lot of fun though still which usually makes up for the frustration. And when they actually hug you – well, it’s just the best.
    Will jot this itinerary down. We might be in CA next summer.

    • I know, and “do” is risky because you might have to endure complaining or, worse, moping. We live in the bay area, so if you want any free advice on what to see and do here, I have lots and my husband has more!

  2. I am truly dreading the day that my oldest doesn’t want to join the younger ones in some fun for the day. She’s 16 and it could happen at any time.

    • It may not happen! We have an 8 year age difference in this house, and although she typically does her own thing on the weekends, vacations are different. On our family vacation this summer she even took her sisters to see Brave, leaving her dad and me a couple of hours to ourselves to swim, read, and, um, nap. It’s nice to have time with her away from the little girls, though.

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