Playing Local Tourist: Finding Unique Things To Do in San Diego

Explore unique things to do in San Diego, as well as popular tourist attractions.

I remember the first time I visited San Diego. It was 2014, and as my then-boyfriend and I exited the airport, my eventual Mother-in-Law greeted us with “Welcome to Paradise.”

I looked up at the swaying palm fronds, soaked in the sunshine and thought “Hmmm. He has family in Paradise. I think I’ll keep him.”

Since then I’ve been back many times. I have kept him, and it is still Paradise, but there’s more to this Southern California city than just its temperate climate and my amazing in-laws.

There’s an ocean to the west, mountains to the east, and a booming city in between. There’s a Midwestern friendliness, without the frostbite. There’s history and a fierce hometown pride that goes beyond the transient nature of a tourist destination.

Unfortunately, despite our yearly trek, we hadn’t been able to see a whole lot of the surrounding area. With the exception of that first visit, each return has been to participate as a vendor in the Travel & Adventure Show. While we love sharing The Local Tourist at the show, it leaves little time for sightseeing in San Diego, especially in 2017 when it was the halfway point of our month-long road trip. (Have you heard? I wrote a book about it.)

When you’re in Paradise, failure to explore is just wrong, so this time we vowed to add some play into the mix and be Local Tourists in San Diego for a couple of days.

We flew into LAX on a Wednesday night and picked up our ride for the week, a brand-spanking new Toyota C-HR. Chris, as we dubbed her, (CHRis – get it?) was a showstopping, head-turning slick piece of work that just screamed DRIVE ME. I’M FUN.

CHRis, a 2018 Toyota C-HR

So we did. The next morning we grabbed Jim’s parents and the four of us set out for an epic day of sightseeing in San Diego County.

Unique Things To Do In San Diego

Queen Califia’s Magical Circle

Our first stop was a captivating and delightful place hidden in Escondido. To call Queen Califia’s Magical Circle an art installation would be like calling Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia a church.

Both are accurate descriptions, but each is woefully inadequate at conveying the impact.

Queen Califia's Magical Circle

Located five minutes from I-15 in Kit Carson Park, the sculpture garden was created by artist Niki de Saint Phalle as a love letter to the people of San Diego. Consisting of nine sculptures surrounded by a 400-foot snake wall and a black, white, and mirror-tiled maze, the experience is captivating.

At every turn we saw something new. A volunteer docent answered questions about the artist and the piece itself, including details about the individually hand-cut glass, ceramic, and stone mosaics that decorate the sculpture. It’s a small space, but even the 45 minutes we allowed wasn’t enough.

Close-up of hand-cut mosaics in Queen Califia's Magical Circle

(This is where having locals in the family comes in handy – we can go back!)

Although we could have spent more time at this unique San Diego attraction, the garden closed at noon, so we piled back into Chris for our next destination.

Metal Artist Ricardo Breceda

We left Escondido and headed north to Temecula. Our eventual destination was Borrego Springs, famous for its giant metal sculptures, but Jim’s dad had a special treat for us. He knew where the artist worked.

On the way we stopped at the obligatory-for-tourists lunch at In-N-Out for a cheeseburger and fries, animal-style, which was more appropriate than I realized at the time.

In-N-Out Fries, animal-style

From Temecula we drove east on CA-79 to Aguanga. We were on two-lane roads, winding through scrub brush and juniper, and I was transported to our journey from the year before. I felt free as Chris grabbed the asphalt, taking each curve confidently. It was hard not to speed.

We pulled past a cowboy standing sentinel atop a washed-out hill, past a stagecoach drawn by wild horses and a snake curling and hissing at the sky, past dinosaurs skulking near the treeline. We parked in the lot rutted by rainwater from the day before and I laughed with glee.

Metal Artist Ricardo Breceda's Dinosaurs

This was amazing! Behind a fence guarded by two rearing horses was row upon row of sculptures. Large, small, still, mobile, it was a collection of fancy and a showcase of skill.

To the right, back several yards from the entrance, artist Ricardo Breceda hunched over his next piece. Occasional sparks flew as he soldered and warped, his face protected by a full shield.

From peacocks to ponies, we walked up one row and down the other, amazed at the sheer diversity of creatures created by one man.

Ricardo Breceda Serpent Sculpture
Ricardo Breceda Sculptures

The afternoon was waning, though, so we thanked Mr. Breceda and left, on our way to see his work in the wild.

Borrego Springs, California

Confession: if my in-laws hadn’t been in the car, I would have taken the curves from Aguanga to Borrego Springs with, shall we say, a little more daring. I’m no Danica Patrick, but I did grow up in Indiana (and was even an Indianapolis 500 Princess), and I have a bit of a thing for cars that can handle curves.

Yet, because I love my family and don’t want them to ban me from behind the wheel, I did not put Chris through her paces.

I did, however, make them wait while I pulled over at an overlook as we approached the valley town. In the distance we could barely, barely see the Salton Sea. Jim and I had now viewed this dying lake from all four cardinal directions.

Borrego Springs and Salton Sea off of CA-79

The curves tightened as I raced (gently) the afternoon sun. The shadows grew fingers that stretched across the barren landscape. We entered Borrego Springs, ricocheted around Christmas Circle, and found a cluster of silent creatures the color of rust.

Borrego Springs Camel Sculpture by Ricardo Breceda
Borrego Springs Tortoise Sculpture by Ricardo Breceda
Borrego Springs Elephant Sculpture by Ricardo Breceda

The sun set quickly, so we raced to see one more beast before making the drive back through the mountains.

Borrego Springs Serpent Sculpture by Ricardo Breceda

By the time we left Borrego Springs, the sun had set and we took the two lanes back towards Temecula in the black. There were no lights to mark the way. In San Diego County, the lane centers were lined with bright reflectors; once we crossed into Riverside County, those disappeared.

We made it, though, and after a delicious dinner at Peony Chinese Cuisine, a favorite of Jim’s parents for more than a decade, we returned home, sated.

Peony Chinese Cuisine

The next few days were all about the Travel & Adventure Show. But before we left, we wanted to be as touristy as tourists can be. So, we took a trolley tour.

Old Town Trolley Tour

Jim’s parents had shown us some local secrets during our first day of touring; on the second day, all of us played tourists. The majority of the day was spent on the Old Town Trolley. This hop-on, hop-off tour runs a circuit of San Diego with stops at its most popular neighborhoods and attractions.

Old Town Trolley Tour

We drove Chris to Balboa Park and left her in the parking lot by the San Diego Air & Space Museum. The next several hours were spent trundling from one stop to the next as the driver provided entertaining commentary about San Diego’s past and present.

Even though they’ve been locals for twenty-odd years, my in-laws were amazed at the amount of information they learned about their home. 

We hopped off in Little Italy and walked up and down the block. While we were too early to get a slice, we did get some incredible ice cream.

Little Italy San Diego

We hopped back on and next took a tour of Old Town, walking the ancient El Camino Real to visit the El Campo Santo Cemetery, followed by a brief glimpse inside the Mormon Battalion Historic Site.

El Camino Real Guidepost Bell
Grave at El Campo Santo Cemetery
Old Town San Diego Mormon Battalion Historic Site

Then it was back on the trolley. Our next stop was across the bay on Coronado Island and we hopped off in front of McP’s Irish Pub and Grill. This Midwesterner needed to walk on sand.

Coronado Beach

By this time most of our allotted time was up, so we returned to Balboa Park and grabbed lunch at the Tea Pavilion next to the Japanese Friendship Garden. It’s the second time we’ve all eaten there, and even though the visits were years apart, we were still impressed by the affordability, the quantity, and the quality of the food.

Chicken Teriyaki at Tea Pavilion Balboa Park

Great. Now I want chicken teriyaki.

Want to take an Old Town Trolley Tour? Get tickets here.

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia

The drive to Mission San Luis Rey de Francia was about an hour north, and we were thankful for Chris’ comfortable seats and individual climate controls. The sun was sinking to the west as we navigated the pre-rush hour rush, hoping we could make it to the church on time. 

The Mission was the eighteenth, and the largest, of the twenty-one California missions. This National Historic Landmark was founded in 1798 and named after France’s King Louis IX, earning it the nickname “King of the Missions.” Like all of the California missions, San Luis Rey has a museum and gift shop, and mass is still held every week.

Historic Mission Church at Mission San Luis Rey

One of the unique features of this particular mission is the lavanderia. Located down the slope from the mission, you can see the aqueducts and stone pools where the mission members bathed and washed their clothes.

Lavanderia at Old Mission San Luis Rey

We left the Mission for a quiet night in before departing the next morning. The two hour drive to LAX seemed like half that as we turned up a local radio station and sang along (I sang. Jim grimaced.), thankful traffic was not the dreaded parking lot we expected. It had been an exhilarating week, filled with some business and a lot of pleasure.

Being a Local Tourist sure is fun.

Meet Chris

Toyota C-HR at Ricardo Breceda's workshop

Are you curious about Chris, our companion for the week? This Toyota C-HR is a subcompact crossover and is a delight to drive, especially on those windy Southern California roads. While it’s a bit cramped in the backseat, Jim and I were quite comfortable in the front (sorry Mom & Dad!). The seats had lumbar support as well as heaters, which we, surprisingly, did use a couple of times on chilly mornings.

You can design your own colors, and I can tell you the Radiant Green Mica body with white roof was a literal head-turner. People pointed and asked us questions all week. “What is that? How much is it?” The answer to the last one? MSRP for the model and color we drove, which was the XLE Premium, was $26,004.

Thanks, Toyota, for loaning this stunner to us for the week!

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