San Diego on a Dime

Traveling is probably one of my favorite pastimes. Unfortunately, an entry-level salary and a full time job prevent too many trips to sunny seasides or rocky cliffs. So what’s a tight-budgeted, time-conscious LA gal to do? Visit San Diego of course!

Only two hours away, San Diego offers everything the eager LA traveler could ever ask for – fewer people and less traffic. Parking is still unfortunate. Thank you California. I’m pretty sure the Golden State’s official pastime is circling the parking lot. That aside, San Diego actually offers more than enough to keep a 20-something occupied for an entire weekend. Now, this was only my second time in SD, so this is definitely a newbie’s guide to visiting. But if you haven’t been, here are the top five places you have to hit:

The Zoo (Duh!)

I know, I know, you’ve all heard of the zoo. It’s basically THE place to visit in San Diego. But it’s worth it. Tickets are only $42, and you can buy them here: Zoo Tickets. It’s a huge place and you will probably fall asleep in a cozy corner of the turtle exhibit before you see all of the animals. The Zoo is infinitely better than the other potential animal adventure – SeaWorld. I love all sea creatures, in fact, I used to dream of training Orca whales, but SeaWorld charges you a whopping $73 PLUS $14 for parking. The Zoo is a much more reasonable amount, and parking is FREE. My favorite four letter word. However, there are a few key things that you should remember to fully enjoy your zoo experience on a dime:

  1. Pack a Lunch – seriously, like any other theme park, the food is expensive and unappetizing. And if you’re truly going to travel on a dime, just say NO. We stopped by a Subway and got their “Buy 1, Get 1 Free before 9AM” deal. Add a diet soda (I’m a junkie) and a giant bottle of water, and we had lunch and hydration for 2 for under $10. SCORE!
  2. Go Early – Animals are more active in themorning.It’s cool, they just woke up, and they’rehungry. All of these things are conducive to a better animal viewing experience and a better bang for your 42 bucks. We decided to hit the apes and monkeys first, and I got some great shots before they settled into their afternoon naps. By the time we got around to the pandas, they were fast asleep in adorable, but not terribly exciting, balls of black and white fluff.
  3. Resist the Adorable Stuffed Animals – I know, it’s difficult. I myself find it difficult to tear myself away from the adoring eyes of that fake polar bear. But will your $20 really be well spent on stuffing and synthetic fur? That’s $20 you could have for later in our adventure. Trust me, you’ll be proud of yourself.

Gaslamp Quarter

This former red light district, that featured brothels and bars to distract sailors, is now a popular Victorian-themed hotspot, filled with restaurants, bars, and shopping. I know, this is also sort of a no brainer when visiting San Diego, BUT, without careful planning, you could end up spending a pretty penny on these 16 ½ blocks.

I made the mistake of going at night during my most recent venture to San Diego, but when I went the first time, we did it right – Saturday afternoon. All of the hip bars and restaurants were teeming with afternoon happy hour deals. For that extra $20 you saved on ignoring the pleading eyes of the stuffed platypus you could have a nice afternoon buzz going.

However, if this is your moment to splurge, the Gaslamp is filled with restaurants to try, but if you go on a weekend night, don’t drive. San Diego has a fantastic transit service ( that you could explore to get around, or, if you’re in a group and feeling fancy, share a cab. But on a Saturday night during an event weekend there was nowhere to park for less than $20.

Old Town

If you’re a history buff like me, you’ll get a kick out of this tourist spot/crumbling mission town. Most of the historic and historic-looking buildings have been converted into shops, but there are a number that have become mini museums. Tucked away in the general souvenir shop is an exhibit of artifacts from the old Spanish family who ran San Diego. Inside the bank is an entire exhibit to Wells Fargo, including a full size Wells Fargo carriage and a working telegraph (it only goes from one end of the room to the other). In the former stables, you’ll find old cars and carriages from the turn of the century.

For the frugal tourist, it’s a perfect spot because, if you actually stay to read all of the plaques and boards about the history, the area boasts hours of entertainment for minimal cost. You can not only tour the 20+ buildings with little historical tidbits without spending a dime, you can also stop into the candy shop for a free sample of fresh taffy. You can watch the taffy pulling machine for hours, as well as awkwardly staring at the people cutting and wrapping the stuff. With all the additional shops to browse and delicious food to enjoy (see below) Old Town is a spot not to be missed on your San Diego adventure. Check out the map and all the information here: Old Town San Diego.


When you’re down on the beach all day or schlepping up the many hills in the Zoo, you’ll probably start to crave something sweet. That’s exactly how we felt at the end of our Zoo excursion, but there was nothing fun or different offered at the many Zoo restaurants, so after we left, we pulled up our Yelp app and found us some delicious gelato at Pappalecco.

They must make it with magic dust or something. It’s just that good. Definitely make a stop there. I recommend the fondante (a dark chocolate brownie X 1,000), nutella, or stracciatella (cookies and cream). It was so good we went back the next day for seconds. And I almost packed a to-go pint in my mini cooler for thirds, but my waistline thought better of it.

Casa De Reyes

And finally we arrive at the deliciousness that Old Town is known for – Mexican food. That’s right,along with kitchy shops and historical buildings, you will find upwards of 20 Mexican restaurants to choose from. I have not been to many of them, so I’m in no place to compare one to the other, but I have walked by many:  they all smell delicious and they’re all packed, so that’s a good sign.

The restaurant we chose was based on where we could find parking (this is another area that’s crazy at night). Casa De Reyes is on the North side of Old Town, near the historical courtyard. The tables are in an open-air courtyard lined with small shops. There’s a small stage where a mariachi band was playing, so we could listen while we waited. The vibe and the delicious smells had me rating a 5 on Yelp before I had a bite of food. And yes, as we waited for our table, I was the one awkwardly dancing to the music while everyone else was calmly watching.

When we sat down, I opened the menu. I was craving the tang of a margarita, but not the sweetness, so I settled on the “La Siesta,” which turned out to be the best mixed drink I’ve had, EVER. Seriously. There will be a later post where I chronicle my adventures in trying to make my own version of this delicious beverage. It was tequila, soda, lime and cucumber and what must have been some more magic dust shaken off of an angry Mexican pixie.

The food was also delicious. My gigantic, fresh chicken tostada salad was incredibly filing and only $10.95. And the chips (aren’t free chips always the best part about Mexican food) were clearly homemade and dusted with chili powder.

Overall, it was a delightful little adventure, but I have to go back. Next on my list of things to do are: staying in the historic Old Town Cosmopolitan Hotel, visiting the aircraft carrier USS Midway museum, visiting the Zoo Safari Park up in Encino and snorkeling in La Jolla.  But those are adventures for another weekend.


~ by sarahjeanne on April 19, 2012.

One Response to “San Diego on a Dime”

  1. Wonderful & informative post, lovely blog 🙂

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