Where to Stay in San Diego First Time: 9 Best Areas

In this post, we will help you to find Where to stay in San Diego first time, the best areas to stay in San Diego for first-timers (along with a map and video), best hotels for all budgets and safest areas to stay in San Diego.

Settled in 1769, San Diego is the second-largest city in California and the 8th largest in the entire US. Despite that, a lot less is known about it than its neighbor, Los Angeles, which can make it challenging for first-time visitors to know where to stay.

San Diego is generally safe for visitors, but as in any big city, you should use common sense and be aware of surrounding, and avoid the areas close to the Mexican border. La Jolla, Poway, Del Mar, Encinitas, and Carlsbad are some of the safest neighborhoods in San Diego.

Where to stay in San Diego first time?

The best areas to stay in San Diego for first-time tourists are Downtown, Little Italy, Gaslamp Quarter, Old Town, Mission Beach, Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, La Jolla, and Point Loma. These are popular neighborhoods for visitors that provides a range of attractions and amenities.

Downtown is the overall best area in San Diego for the first visit. It is the heart of the city and it has a wide range of accommodations for all budgets and preferences. Staying here puts you in the middle of action, within walking distance to many bars, restaurants, and shops.

In downtown, you can find the famous Gaslamp Quarter and Little Italy. Gaslamp Quarter is a popular area known for its vibrant nightlife, dining, and entertainment options. Little Italy offers authentic Italian restaurants.

You can consider staying in Old Town area, which is the birthplace of California and offers historic sites, museums, and cultural experiences.

For those who want to stay next to the beach, you can book your accommodations at the areas of Mission Beach, Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, and La Jolla.

Downtown and Gaslamp Quarter are the best places to stay in San Diego without a car. They all have central locations with good public transport system. It’s only 10-minute cab ride from the airport. These neigborhoods also offers easy access to major tourist attractions and amenities.

💖 Best Area for first-time visitors:Downtown San Diego
💎 Best luxury hotel:Pendry San Diego
🏨 Best mid-range hotel:Hotel Indigo San Diego – Gaslamp Quarter
💰 Best budget hotel:Best Western Plus Bayside Inn

Map of areas and neighborhoods in San Diego for visitors:

Map of Best Areas to Stay in San Diego First Time
Map of Best Areas to Stay in San Diego First Time

9 Best areas to stay in San Diego for first-time tourists

1. Downtown San Diego

Where to Stay in San Diego: Downtown
Downtown San Diego

Downtown is the overall best area in San Diego for the first-time visitors. It is the most central location in the city, offering easy access to tourist attractions, restaurants, bars, and shops.

Downtown is where you can find the popular USS Midway Museum, Seaport Village, Gaslamp Quarter, and Embarcadero. Being able to walk to these attractions can save you time and money on transportation.

Bars, shops, restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs line streets throughout this central business district, offering all manner of styles and cuisines, available at a great range of prices.

For those who need a grander form of entertainment, you have the San Diego Opera, San Diego Symphony, and the San Diego Padres baseball team all hosting events on a regular basis.

Numerous historic districts and landmarks are scattered throughout downtown, adding some culture and understanding to your trip, while sites such as the Balboa Theatre are great options for those who love the arts.

Chinatown and Little Italy districts are some of the best in America, so it is also an ideal place to visit for anyone who is seeking some true diversity from their destination.

The same could also be said of some of its most prominent attractions, with everything from its historic waterfront, filled with museums, boats and amenities for the cruise ship industry, to a convention center and shopping plazas, making sure there isn’t anyone who feels left out.

You can also find the San Diego Comic Con, the largest, most famous comic convention in the world, drawing thousands of visitors from around the world each year. Other popular festivals are the Martin Luther King Jr Day Parade and the Parade Of Lights.

The downtown area is well-connected by public transportation, primarily the San Diego Trolley and buses, taking you to popular spots like Balboa Park and Old Town.

Downtown is often considered one of the best areas without a car due to its walkability, public transportation options, and the abundance of attractions within a relatively compact area

Stay in San Diego Downtown if you’re visiting San Diego for the first time; you’re coming to San Diego without a car; you like a great range of bars, shops, restaurants, and hotels;

Best Places to stay in San Diego Downtown first time:

Luxury ($$$): Pendry San Diego, 5-star hotel, located in the heart of Downtown San Diego, one of the best places to stay in San Diego for first-timers and travelers without a car. It has an outdoor swimming pool, private parking, a fitness centre and a restaurant.

Mid Range ($$): Hotel Indigo San Diego, 4-star hotel, located in the real heart of San Diego, ideal base for first-timers. The on-site restaurant, Phi Bar & Bistro offer stunning views of the city. You can find an on-site business centre and private parking if you drive a car.

Budget ($): Best Western Plus Bayside Inn, great 3-star hotel, one of the best places to stay in San Diego on a budget. It is centrally located in Downtown area, featuring a heated outdoor pool, private car parking, and rooms with a safety deposit box and coffee machine.

2. Little Italy

Little Italy is actually a district located within downtown, situated in its north-western corner. It earned its name as it was originally a predominantly Italian and Portuguese fishing village when it was settled.

The tuna industry was particularly thriving in this part of the city, with the “Tunaman’s Memorial” statue on Shelter Island and a sculpture dedicated to the cannery workers located in Barrio Logan paying homage to the neighbourhood’s roots.

While the population has become much more diverse in the years that have followed, there are still countless Italian restaurants located throughout the district, making the continued use of the name a logical decision.

The Italian Cultural Center Of San Diego and the Convivio Center & Little Italy Heritage Museum are also prominent features of the district, giving visitors a way to learn about the art, culture and history of the people who founded the area. 

This area is filled with plazas, street art, galleries, antique stores, and the Mercato street market, as well as numerous bars and restaurants with outdoor areas, it creates a feel more like a traditional European city, making it perhaps the most authentic “Little Italy” anywhere in America.

It is the location of numerous Italian food festivals, including the Little Italy Carnevale on the Saturday before Mardi Gras, where people wear Venetian masks and enjoy entertainment and open houses in the bars and shops.

In April, you have the largest art event on the west coast, ArtWalk, where more than 120,000 people come to purchase art, jewellery, paintings, photographs, and all manner of other items.

Then, just a few days later, you have Gran Fondo Colnago San Diego, where more than 3000 cyclists from around the world take part in rides of numerous lengths around the city.

There’s even a Christmas village and tree lighting ceremony every December, where they combine the European traditions with American twists, such as having Santa come riding in on a fire engine. Chances are, whenever you visit this part of the city, you are highly likely to get the chance to experience a fabulously unique occasion.

Little Italy is a great base for car-free travelers due to its pedestrian-friendly layout, central location, and a wide range of amenities within walking distance.

Stay in Little Italy if you want a central location; you are interested in Italian culture or cuisine; you are attending one of the many festivals that take place here.

Best Places to Stay in San Diego Little Italy:

Luxury ($$$):  Hotel Republic, great 4-star hotel located 11 minutes’ walk from Little Italy and a minute from Karl Strauss Brewing Company. It features a vibrant lounge, a 24-hour fitness centre, car parking, and on-site restaurant and contemporary art gallery.

Mid-range ($$): Homewood Suites by Hilton, 4-star hotel that has a year-round outdoor pool, on-site restaurant, and private car parking. All suites with a HD televisions, a separate living area, a fully equipped kitchen, a microwave, a stovetop, and a dishwasher.

Budget ($): La Pensione Hotel, 3-star family-friendly hotel, located in San Diego’s vibrant Little Italy district, a short stroll from the Maritime Museum of San Diego. A short drive by car from San Diego Zoo and the Coaster Santa Fe Rail Station.

3. Gaslamp Quarter

Gaslamp Quarter is a great area for first-timers, car-free travelers, and those who enjoy vibrant nightlife scene. It is an area in Downtown San Diego, offering easy access to many tourist attractions, restaurants and shops on foot and by public transportation.

The Gaslamp Quarter, or Gaslamp District as it is often referred to locally, covers 16 and a half blocks and is a historic district, listed on the National Register Of Historic Places. 

Originally called New Town, in relation to a part of the city we will look at shortly, its distinctive gas lamps were considered the symbol of the area and were incorporated into its name when it was redeveloped in the 1980’s.

4 new gas lamps were even installed at the intersection of Market Street and the 5th Avenue, at the heart of the district, to signify the change.

While there aren’t many famous historic attractions in the neighborhood, it earns its place as a historic district due to the fact that there are 94 historic buildings still in use in the district today, most of which feature distinctive Victorian architecture.

These historic buildings now house shops, bars, restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, meaning you can enjoy all of the amenities while enjoying the cultural stylings of your surroundings.

Many of the nightlife venues in the area are incredibly popular choices, even among those from outside the district. With everything from the clubs and bars to live music venues, you will be sure to find something to keep you entertained on an evening.

The Gaslamp Quarter is the home of a number of festivals throughout the year. Mardi Gras, Street Scene Music Festival, and a St. Patrick’s Day event known as Taste Of Gaslamp and ShamROCK are just a few of the options that could make your trip a totally unique experience if you time it right.

Gaslamp Quarter is also close to Petco Park, home to Major League Baseball’s San Diego Padres, the most popular sports team in the city. This makes it an ideal place to catch a game.

Stay in Gaslamp Quarter if Nightlife is a priority during your trip; you want a central location; you want to watch a baseball match at Petco Park; you want to be surrounded by historic architecture.

Best Places to Stay in San Diego in Gaslamp Quarter:

See more:

4. Old Town

Where to Stay in San Diego: Old Town
Old Town

Old Town and Mission Valley are located in the very centre of San Diego, in a wide river valley where the San Diego River runs from east to west, into the Pacific Ocean. 

The Mission Valley portion gets its name as it was the first Spanish settlement in California, with a history dating back as early as 1769, where Christian missions were built. The original mission of the city, San Diego De Alcala, still stands in its original location at the east end of mission valley, in Presidio Park, a destination that straddles both San Diego neighborhoods and is listed on the National Register Of Historic Places.

Presidio Park was also the site of the historic Royal Presidio Of San Diego Fort, which housed the first permanent European settlement in the western coast of the United States. Despite none of the original structures remaining, it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960.

The Junipero Serra Museum was built in the park in the Spanish Revival style to house and display the collections of the San Diego Historical Society. Great area to learn about the origins of the area and see some incredible historic locations first-hand.

You can visit the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, which is filled with historic structures, dating back to the 1800’s, giving you a clear view of what the city would once have looked like.

There are many houses, shops, schools, stables, barns, a blacksmith’s, courthouse, newspaper office and a hotel, all still decorated as they would’ve been when they were built.

Many now house exhibits and even the Wells Fargo History Museum, while souvenir shops and restaurants are present around the park, making it an absolutely wonderful place to spend a full day taking in the history of the area.

The Heritage County Park features buildings from different eras moved here from all over the city, to give a clear example of the city’s growth. The San Diego Sheriff’s Museum & Educational Centre contains exhibits relating to the history of local law enforcement.

You even have smaller attractions like the Whaley House Museum, Mormon Battalion Monument, McCoy House Museum, Robinson-Crusoe House, and Old Town Theater.

Old Town offers an incredible range of shopping opportunities, including sprawling complexes like Fashion Valley Mall, Hazard Center Mall, and Westfield Mission Valley as well as smaller shopping plazas, auto malls and the more than 100 speciality shops.

Here you will find a seemingly endless selection of hotels and motels, covering all budgets and tastes, ensuring guests from all backgrounds will be able to find something to suit them here.

Combined with the incredible collection of restaurants in the area, particularly in the Old Town neighborhood, it makes a fabulous option, no matter what you are looking for.

There are also 12 art galleries and even a number of festivals, such as the Old Town Art Festival, Fiesta Navidad, Día De Los Muertos and Cinco De Mayo. Old Town the ideal place to stay for those who visiting San Diego in december for a truly unique and festive destination.

Old Town is well-connected by public transportation. The Old Town Transit Center serves as a major hub for San Diego’s trolley and bus systems, allowing you to take the trolley to downtown, the Gaslamp Quarter, and even the Mexican border.

Old Town is great base for history buffs and car-free travelers. It has an unique combination of historical charm, convenient public transportation options, and proximity to various attractions.

Stay in Old Town – Mission Valley – Hotel Circle if you are interested in the history of the city; you want to do a lot of shopping; you are a fan of art; you’re traveling on a budget.

Best Places to Stay in San Diego Old town:

5. Mission Beach

Where to Stay in San Diego: Mission Beach

Mission Beach is located directly to the west of Old Town. Featuring a beach that stretches for 2 miles, it’s an incredibly popular destination for cycling, skateboarding, surfing, and sunbathing, as well as sports and games like frisbee, horseshoes, basketball and volleyball. It is even the original location of the over the line softball on the beach tournament.

For those who want to be even more active during their stay, you also have the Wave House Athletic Club, where you can enjoy a fitness centre that has weights, cardio machines, fitness and aqua classes, and even beach bootcamps. While not as famed as Muscle Beach up the coast in LA, it’s still ideal for anyone who wants to keep in shape while making the most of their beachfront location.

On an evening, you will also find a number of the most popular bars and nightlife options in San Diego located here. Options such as Draft, Guava Beach, The Beachcomber, The Coaster Saloon, The Pennant In South Mission, The Sandbar Sports Grill, Wave Bar, and countless others ensure you’ll never be short of places to eat, drink, dance and party your nights away.

You also have a number of more prominent attractions as well, which often draw in the tourists on their own. For starters, you have Belmont Park, an amusement park located right on the oceanfront.

Containing numerous exhilarating rides, like the Beach Buster, Crazy Submarine, FlowRider, Krazy Kars, Liberty Carousel, Tilt-A-Whirl, Vertical Plunge and The Chaos, its star attraction is the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster. A wooden structure standing 70 feet tall and built in 1925, it perfectly combines history, amusement and stunning views in a single, exciting experience.

However, the most famous attraction in the area has to be SeaWorld San Diego, one of the most famous aquariums in the world. They even have an Explorers Reef exhibit, where you actually have the opportunity to interact with some of the animals. 

As many people will know though, the most famous attraction in the park is the live shows. You combine this with the collection of rides that are also on offer and it makes SeaWorld San Diego an absolutely mind-blowing destination, that you are guaranteed to never forget.

Stay in Mission Beach if You love long, sprawling beaches, with plenty of activities, both on the sand and in the water; You’re traveling with family; You’re on bachelor or bachelorette party.

Best Places to stay in San Diego in Mission Beach:

6. Ocean Beach

Located immediately to the south of Mission Beach, you’ll find Ocean Beach. This area is ideal for beach lovers seeking a quieter stretch of beach, where they can spend their days lazing on the sand and soaking up the rays.

Surfing is a a popular in this area, adding a hippie feel to parts of the areas, with diners and vegan outlets offering opportunities for people interested in that way of living.

Accommodation in the area is largely made up of bungalows and apartments, with beautiful views over the water.

A selection of establishments that includes bars, restaurants, coffee houses, head shops, tattoo and piercing parlours, bike and surf shops, and even an international youth hostel ensure that there will always be plenty for you to do in the area.

You will find things like a dog beach, the Ocean Beach Canine Festival, the Ocean Beach Kite Festival, the Ocean Beach Street Fair & Chilli Cook Off, a jazz festival, and a Christmas parade.

Every Wednesday afternoon they even close off two blocks to host a massive farmers market, while the largest concrete pier in the world stretches out into the ocean just a few feet away.

Beyond the relaxed nature of the area though, it is also one that’s popular with history enthusiasts as well. Numerous San Diego Historic Landmarks are located in Ocean Beach, while the Ocean Beach Cottage Emerging District is filled with buildings dating back as far as the late 1800’s.

Stay in Ocean beach if you want a more relaxed, residential destination; you like local, family run businesses; you are interested in history; you are vegan or vegetarian; you are a fan of surfing.

Best Places to Stay in San Diego in Ocean beach:

7. Pacific Beach

Where to Stay in San Diego: Pacific Beach

Once a vibrant surfing town, full of youngsters and students, Pacific Beach has gradually developed a reputation as a more affluent area, with generally older residents.

Its beach stretches for over 3 miles, boasting beautiful golden sands and enough space that it never seems to get too busy, even at the more popular times of year. A boardwalk known as Ocean Boulevard stretches alongside it, filled with shops, bars, restaurants and hotels. It is filled daily by people walking, cycling, skating, rollerblading and shopping, creating a vibrant and inviting atmosphere for all to enjoy.

Further away from the main boardwalk, Garnet Avenue and Mission Boulevard form a slightly more exclusive part of the town, with designer clothing stores, gourmet restaurants and high-end bars offering more expensive alternatives to those you would find on Ocean Boulevard. You can also check in Crystal Pier, Tourmaline Beach, and North Pacific Beach.

Pacific Beach is a great for nightlife. Bars, restaurants and clubs that stay open till the early hours and cater primarily to a younger clientele are plentiful.

There is also a pleasant pier here too, so it’s a great place for a romantic evening, as you can catch an early meal and take a stroll to watch a stunning sunset.

There are a number of parks in the area to enjoy as well. The Kate Sessions Park & the Pacific Beach Recreation Centre boast lawns with ocean views, a children’s playground, and many more rugged areas used for mountain biking and hiking.

Fanuel Street Park has plenty of facilities for smaller children and toddlers, while there are plenty of large, open wetlands on the banks of Rose Creek as well.

Stay in Pacific Beach if you prioritize nightlife during your stay; you enjoy walking in parks; you want to stay in a more affluent neighborhood; you are traveling as a couple or with children; you like long, spacious beaches with a vibrant atmosphere.

Best Places to Stay in San Diego in Pacific Beach:

8. La Jolla

Where to Stay in San Diego: La Jolla

Located just to the north of Pacific Beach, La Jolla is one of the safest neighborhoods to stay in San Diego. it is the most affluent seaside community in San Diego with high-end hotels, boutique shopping, and fine restaurants.

La Jolla home of the University Of California San Diego. As you can imagine, It has helped it to develop a distinct student atmosphere, with bars, shops and restaurants all featuring a lively environment.

La Jolla is also home to Mount Soledad, an 822 ft high hill. Not just a great location for hikes to take in the stunning views, it also features a pair of stunning monuments; the Mount Soledad Cross and Mount Soledad Memorial, so you can enjoy a little art and culture while you’re up there as well.

As a former art colony, the Museum Of Contemporary Art San Diego and La Jolla Playhouse further the arts and cultural aspects on offer in the area. There’s even the La Jolla Historical Society, for those who really want to get to grips with the history of the area.

Perhaps you are more interested in life away from land, in which case the Birch Aquarium At Scripps or Scripps Institution Of Oceanography will have everything you need to keep you entertained.

The area has also earned a reputation as a regional shopping district, with everything from high-end department stores to boutiques and even major shopping malls. This makes it ideal for anyone who loves to spend plenty of time browsing through the shops while they are away.

Despite all this though, there will still be plenty of people who are simply after a trip spent enjoying nature and the great outdoors. In that case, the beautiful beaches, secluded coves, and even the Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve ensure this is a great destination, no matter what you’re looking for.

La Jolla is the perfect place to stay for anyone coming in January for the event or who just fancies seeing a world-famous sporting occasion: PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open, which takes place at the Torrey Pines Golf Course.

La Jolla is the best place to stay if you are traveling on a budget;you want to stay in a safe neighborhood.

Best Places to stay in la Jolla:

9. Point Loma

Where to Stay in San Diego: Point Loma

Point Loma is a seaside town located on a peninsula in the very south of the city. Often described as “where California began”, it features everything from national monuments and cemeteries to a university and major military bases.

Perhaps the most famous attraction in the neighborhood is the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. Located at the very southern tip of the peninsula, it was completed in 1854 and is often used as the icon to represent all of San Diego. Listed on the National Register Of Historic Places, it is a great place to mix culture, art, history and stunning views in a single trip.

Also, while we’re on the subject of the National Register Of Historic Places, the lighthouse isn’t the only attraction in the area to make the cut. The Cabrillo National Monument, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Historic District, Naval Training Center San Diego, and Rosecroft estate and gardens provide ample options for those who want to learn more about the area during their stay.

It is also recognized as the National Landmark Of Soaring by the National Soaring Museum, due to the many records that have been compiled around the area. Plaques denoting the accomplishments can be found near the aforementioned Cabrillo monument.

Due in part to its slightly more isolated location, it is a much quieter area, where you will often find a slightly more exclusive feel. This has led to it drawing a clientele that is looking for a much more sophisticated experience.

For starters, numerous yacht clubs and marinas are located around the bay, which makes it ideal for anyone travelling to the area by boat.  Then, you have the beautiful Sunset Cliffs, who earned their name due to the fabulous sunsets that can be witnessed from atop them.

Hotels and restaurants are plentiful in the area, so you won’t have to worry about finding a place to stay or eat. With various styles and cuisines available, you can enjoy a romantic trip, spending your evenings enjoying the sunset, dining in fine restaurants and staying in luxurious accommodation.

Stay Point Loma if you want a more exclusive or isolated destination; you want to view incredible sunsets; you are traveling by yacht; you’re looking for a romantic vacation or on a honeymoon.

Best places to stay in San Diego in Point Loma:

How to get around San Diego for first-time tourists?

The best way to get around San Diego is by car. You can rent a car in the city center or at the San Diego International Airport.

The airport is located just 10 minute drive by car from northwest of downtown San Diego. You can use taxi, ride-shares such as Lyft and Uber to get to the downtown area. Both services are affordable, reliable, and safe to get around.

If you don’t plan to hire a car, don’t worry, there are many ways to travel around including Buses, Trolleys, Trains, and FRED. The bus is the cheap and easy to get around, It is San Diego Metropolitan Transit System or MTS.

You can also have the red trolleys offer 3 different lines (blue, green, and orange) that serve Downtown San Diego, Old Town, Mission Valley, South Bay, East County, and the U.S. Border.

You can always travel by foot and by bike. San Diego is a very cyclist-friendly city. Many roads have bike lanes, and you can easily rent a bike at one of many rental companies throughout the city.

If you are searching for the best place to stay in San Diego without a car, look no futher than Downtown and Gaslamp Quarter. With its walkality and well-connected public transportation system, you can easily travel around without a car.

Where to stay in San Diego for the first time?

Downtown is the best place to stay in San Diego for the first time tourists. Booking hotel in this area, you will be in a central location, with plenty of things to do and see nearby. There are also a wide range of acommodation options that suit all budget.

What are the best areas to stay in San Diego?

Downtown, Little Italy, Gaslamp Quarter, Old Town, Mission Beach, Mission Bay Park, Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, La Jolla, and Point Loma are some of the best areas to stay in San Diego for tourists because they are the most popular neighborhoods in the city.

Where to Stay in San Diego Without a car?

Downtown and Gaslamp Quarter are the best areas to stay in San Diego without a car. They offer central locations and well-connected to public transportation, so you can easily get around on foot, by buses and trolleys, as well as rideshare services like Uber and Lyft.

Check out my virtual tour about the best places to stay in San Diego in this video:

See More:

In conclusion, Downtown, Little Italy, Gaslamp Quarter, Old Town, Mission Beach, Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, La Jolla, and Point Loma are the best places to stay in San Diego for tourists. They offers plenty of things to do and see for all visitors.

Overall, Downtown is the best area in San Diego for first-timers due to its central location and proximity to major attractions. If you stay here, you will be located in the middle of action, within walking distance to tourist attractions, shops, restaurants, and bars.

About Author: Linda Smith

I'm Linda Smith, the Hotel Expert, an experienced travel blogger who passionate about traveling. I'm here to share with you all my travel experiences and tips. I cover a wide range of travel topics, specializing in sharing information about the best areas, neighborhoods, and hotels in each city. I hope all these things will make your travel easier.

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