Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to 24 hours in San Diego. Usually on this blog, I begin my posts by explaining my preconceived notions of each destination. Then I go on to explain how the place I visited either defied or lived up to said expectations.
But for my 24 hours in San Diego, I can do no such thing. San Diego is the rare city that I had absolutely no opinion of before I visited. “Um, it’s in Southern California? And it’s not Los Angeles?” is probably all I could have mustered. Little did I know how many delights San Diego would have in store for me.
Join me for 24 hours in San Diego the world’s greatest zoo, outstanding tequila, ghosts, a pointless walk down a highway, and smoke for dinner. Tony Bennett might have left his heart in San Francisco, but there’s a chance I left mine in San Diego. (PS. People need to write more songs about San Diego.)
24 Hours in San Diego
Where to Stay
Are you looking for a place to stay during your 24 hours in San Diego? Would you like for it to be a place with a great location, a friendly staff at a 24 hour desk, and a free breakfast every morning? Why wouldn’t you be? Then you should book a room at the Urban Boutique Hotel! You won’t regret it!
24 Hours in San Diego
What to Pack?
You’ll need comfy shoes for all the walking we’re going to do today. If it’s summertime, I love my special pink Birkenstocks. These aren’t your grandpappy’s Birkenstocks anymore. They come in every shade, and I always get compliments on my electric magenta shoes.
SD is usually sunny, so don’t forget the sunscreen. My favorite is the Neutrogena spray bottle because it’s so easy to apply. And as a solo traveler, I can actually use it myself on my own back. I just put it in my purse and re-apply throughout the day.
Finally, since we’re going to be out all day, you’ll want a battery for your cell phone. I always use the Anker charger. It’s light enough to fit in even a small purse. Plus the Anker lasts for several full charges of a phone, so I’ll never run out of juice!
24 Hours in San Diego
Morning: San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo‘s website claims that it is the number one zoo in the world. I don’t really know how you measure greatest of zoos, but the San Diego Zoo is impressive by any measure. It is the most visited zoo in the United States. It’s located in the gorgeous Balboa Zoo, so you are surrounded by lush foliage as you walk with the animals and talk with the animals. Finally, the animals in the San Diego Zoo live in open-air habitats, so this is as close as you’re going to get to seeing them in the wild.
24 Hour Tip
The San Diego Zoo is, to use a technical term, hella expensive. If we had more time in San Diego, I’d suggest spending all day here. But since our time is limited, and we have somewhere else to be this afternoon, arrive at the San Diego Zoo when it opens at 9 AM. That way, you’ll get your money’s worth. And now that that’s out of the way, I’d like to share with you…
three fun facts: san diego zoo
1) Why Are Zebras Hilarious?
The zebra is a gorgeous and majestic creation, Internet Stranger! They need lots of physical space to be happy, so the zoo limits the number of zebra that can live there. The signage at the zoo told me they eat grasses. I don’t think I needed the San Diego Zoo to tell me that zebras were herbivores! The thought of a fish-eating zebra is strangely terrifying. Sadly, the Grevy’s zebra is endangered because of anthrax. There’s nothing funny about that! What horrible person would mail anthrax to zebra???
But there is one fun fact about zebra that greatly amuses me. Apparently zebra are very fond of black and white stripes. If you show the zebra some black and white stripes, it will go try to cozy up to it. That seems rather vain of you zebras! So vain, they probably think this song is about them.
2) Why Are Elephants Hilarious?
The elephant is a magnificent beast, Internet Stranger! Some elephants are African elephants, and some are Asian elephants. You can tell the difference between them because African elephants have bigger ears. The San Diego Zoo is home to two Asian elephants and two African elephants. Unfortunately, African elephants are at risk because of poachers after their ivory. Very few things in this world are sadder than elephants poachers.
But if you’re looking for a funner fact about elephants, try this on for size. They poop 300 pounds a day. That’s more than 2 times my whole body weight! Do they do anything but poop at that rate? Is every entry on an elephant’s diary just “Yup. Still pooping”?
3) Why Are Koala Hilarious?
The Koala is a mighty and ferocious beast, Internet Stranger! The San Diego Zoo is home to the largest koala breeding program outside of Australia. They have a plethora of koalas, many of whom are given Aboriginal names. My favorite is Cambee, which is Aboriginal for blankets. I wonder if she earned that name for being super snuggly.
I saw the koalas from the bus ride that goes all around the San Diego Zoo. (The bus tour was included with the price of my ticket.) Our guide said that one of the koalas is very friendly and likes to pose for pictures. She’s like the Chris Hemsworth of koalas. That’s better than being the Russell Crowe of koalas because then you’d just end up throwing phones at all the tourists.
24 Hours in San Diego
Afternoon: Old Town Tequila and Tortillas Tour
With such a limited amount of time in San Diego (I had two full days altogether) I wanted to make the most of it. That meant focusing on the most popular attractions in the city. And certainly San Diego’s Old Town is a must-visit for anyone interested in the history of SD. After all, it is where the first Spanish settlement in California, led by Father Junipero Serra, was located. That’s why “they” call Old Town the birthplace of California.
Fortunately, there is an afternoon tour of Old Town run by my favorite day trip company, Urban Adventures. Our guide Jennifer was as sunny as the weather. But unlike the weather, she was full of many cheerful facts about the history of San Diego. I don’t want to divulge everything that happened on the tour, just pique your curiosity with…
approximately top 5: old town san diego edition
One thing Old Town is famous for is its Mexican craft shops and restaurants. The tour promises a tortilla tasting and a tequila tasting, but the tortillas come at the beginning of the tour and the tequilas at the end. And since I spent all morning watching animals pose and poop at the zoo, I was getting snacky. We got to sample two kinds of tortillas: one corn and one flour. Both were freshly made in Old Town. I usually love corn tortillas and hate the flavorless flour kind. But these flour tortillas were actually delicious enough for me to enjoy eating by themselves. Maybe I’ve just been encountering the wrong kind of flour tortillas over on the East Coast.
Even better, we got to see a little adobe oven, where they could have baked the corn dough back in olden times. I’m sure glad our tortillas weren’t cooked in this oven, though. It doesn’t look like it’s been cleaned since the 19th century.
2) Plaza Viejo
Plaza Viejo, which I think literally means Old Plaza, is one of the most historically significant places in already Very Historical Old Town. It’s where the American flag was first raised in California back in 1846, during the Mexican-American War. Nowadays, the Plaza Viejo is the center of the Old Town San Diego Historic State Park. All of the little museums and historic buildings are centered around the Plaza Viejo, so even I could not get lost.
I found San Diego’s Old Town kind of like Colonial Williamsburg, but cheaper because the entry is free. The focus of all the exhibits is on the period in the 19th century when San Diego was part of the Mexican colonies. So you won’t see recreations of the Spanish colonial period or the time after California became a state. But you can go inside some of the buildings and see what life would have been like in this neighborhood back in the first half of the 19th century.
I feel like oysters, a biscuit, some olives, and a pear is not a well-rounded meal, but who am I to judge? And it’s funny to see a historic recreation of one person’s dinner anyway. If a museum dedicated to Single Girl Living in New York City ever existed, and they recreated my dinner from tonight, it would be a bowl of Greek yogurt with honey mixed in, a shot of Cognac, and some chocolate I bought in Portland two months ago. So if oysters and biscuits are your thing, Mexican colonists, I say live large.
3) Estudillo House
Old Town has been a popular tourist attraction for many years. Jennifer said that there was a very popular book called Ramona written in 1884. It was partially set in Old Town San Diego. Apparently this book was like the Twilight of its day only with fewer vampires and werewolves. (Maybe zero vampires and werewolves.) People wandered all over Southern California trying to recreate Ramona’s steps. And of course, they offered business opportunities for anyone in the tourist business bright enough to seize on this moment.
The Estudillo House was owned by an enterprising gentleman named John D. Spreckles who wasn’t going to let an opportunity like this go to waste. He started calling this home Ramona’s Marriage House, though it’s certainly not specified in the book where Ramona gets married. Apparently this didn’t bother Ramona’s many fans, who descended on the Estudillo House en masse. The moral of this story is: never let the truth get in the way of a good story if you want to make some money.
Enough of the history, it’s time for some tequila! And with a name like El Agave Tequileria, you know the tequila is going to be good. They even have their own tequila museum on the premises. We got to choose whatever flavor of margarita we wanted, or for a small price upgrade, we could do a tasting flight.
I opted for the refreshing watermelon margarita, and I do not regret that decision for one secret. Just look at that flawless color! It tasted even better than it looked. But one gentleman in our group, a skydiving instructor from OKC, opted for the tasting flight, and he was very pleased with himself. The moral of this story is: tequila is delicious.
Chase the whole thing down with a spicy-sweet taco al pastor and you’re good to go! That’s just science.
5) The Whaley House
Jennifer took us around The Whaley House on the tour and explained its history, but it’s not possible to go inside during the tour. However, I strongly recommend buying a ticket for the Whaley House after the Old Town tour is over. There’s plenty of time; you just buy your ticket in the gift shop next to the house itself. Remember, we’re trying to make the most of our 24 hours in San Diego. Leave no haunted house unturned!
That’s right, the Whaley House is sometimes called the most haunted house in the United States. There was an accused thief charmingly named Yankee Jim, who was hanged from wagon on the house’s grounds. Ever since, it’s said that Yankee Jim’s ghost haunts the building. He’s probably saying, “Stop calling me Yankee Jim! It’s not dignified!” or something. Many ghost hunters have come by to make Yankee Jim’s acquaintance, including the one and only Regis Philbin, who claimed to have felt the ghost’s presence. I bet Yankee Jim was just trying to commiserate because Reeg is almost as silly a nickname as Yankee Jim.
24 Hours in San Diego
Evening: Dinner at Juniper and Ivy
Now that we’ve spent our afternoon of our 24 hours in San Diego slugging down tequila, meeting ghosts, and committing fraud against unsuspecting Ramona fans, it’s time to class it up for dinner. Juniper and Ivy is one of the coolest restaurants in San Diego, according to me, a person who has spent only three nights and two days in San Diego. It’s one of the restaurants of Top Chef All Star Richard Blais.
Juniper and Ivy is one of those local-ingredient using restaurants with a menu that changes every night that I can’t get enough of. I don’t care if this kind of restaurant is also popular with hipsters. Even a stopped hipster is right twice a day.
24 Hour Tip
I thought Juniper and Ivy was within walking distance of Old Town. It isn’t, unless you like endless, horrible, ugly walks by the side of a road. The only sight of interest on the way was El Indio, which was on Diner’s, Drive-Ins, and Dives.
24 Hour Treat: Buttermilk Biscuit
Since it was my first time at Juniper and Ivy, I stuck to all their most famous dishes. That meant getting my own personal serving of piping hot buttermilk biscuit. Look at that giant pat of butter sticking out of the bread! Butter on top of buttermilk is true decadence. Truly, all bread should be served this way. Butter makes everything better is one of my mottoes in life.
24 Hour Treat: Oysters and Pearls
This is certainly the flashiest dish on the menu. I felt like maybe David Copperfield was going to pop out of the dish with all the smoke twirling around the oysters. But the reason for the smoke is that the oysters are served with pearls of horseradish that have been scientifically frozen with liquid nitrogen. This keeps the oysters pleasingly chilled and adds a powerful burst of flavor when you bite into the horseradish pearls.
The main course was housemade pasta served with singing prawns. I mean, the prawns were dead, so they couldn’t actually sing to me. But they were so fresh, and they still had their faces on, so it felt like their ghosts could have chimed in on “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with Yankee Jim, if they’d be so inclined. Getting this quality of fresh pasta and fresher seafood is why you come to a restaurant like Juniper and Ivy.
24 Hour Treat: Chocolate Yodel
So I know I was just joking about singing prawns, but this dessert won’t actually yodel for you, no matter how many times you ask. I was sitting at the dessert chef’s counter all evening, so I watched her put together a billion of these beauties. By dessert time, I was dying to get my hands on one.
There’s basically every different kind of chocolate a person could wish for in this dish. You have a chocolate crust on the outside. Then it’s filled with different pieces of chocolate cake and chocolate crumbles. Finally, the waiter pours hot chocolate over the whole thing until it’s ready to melt in your mouth. At this point, I’m sure you’re drooling through your screen ready to eat this yodel. But whatever you’re imagining, the real deal tastes even better.
That’s a Perfect 24 Hours in San Diego!
What would you do with 24 hours in San Diego? Are you ready to start booking your hotel in San Diego? Does Yankee Jim like his nickname after all? And how mad are you that I got to eat the yodel and you didn’t? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in San Diego. If you have time for another 24 hours in San Diego, try this itinerary.