When I first visited San Diego in the early 1990s, it struck me as a big small town. And now after calling America’s Finest City home for thirteen years, it still feels that way. San Diego is a city, to be sure, but it’s an easy place to get around, even with the phenomenal growth and development taking place in Southern California. And it’s an especially great destination for travelers arriving or departing by cruise ship. The harbor along San Diego Bay offers a scenic and easy base for exploring the city, abundant activities and practically perfect weather!

san diego cruise ship terminal
The ocean-themed cruise ship terminal at the Port of San Diego.
star of india san diego
Sightseeing activities along the San Diego Harbor include The Star of India, the world’s oldest active sailing ship…
san diego harbor
…and the B39 Submarine, a diesel electric submarine from the Soviet Navy.

My Five Favorite Excursions from the Port of San Diego:

1. Walk to Little Italy.

little italy san diego

Little Italy truly lives up to its name. It’s little – just a few blocks along India Street – but it’s a great destination for food, shopping and relaxing. About a ten-minute walk from the Port, Little Italy starts getting busy by mid-morning, with restaurants and outdoor cafes filling up throughout the day and into the evening, especially on the weekends. On Saturday mornings, several streets are blocked off for the weekly farmer’s market. The neighborhood also hosts a variety of festivals, including the annual Chalk La Strada, where artists showcase their talents in chalk on Little Italy’s streets.

little italy art san diego
An artistic exterior facade in Little Italy.
little italy view of san diego bay
View of San Diego Bay from Little Italy.

The restaurant scene in Little Italy is one of San Diego’s busiest, continually changing and evolving. Here are three favorites that never disappoint:

~Bird Rock Coffee Roasters. 2295 Kettner Blvd.

bird rock coffee roaster

I’m not sure which is better – the wonderfully roasted coffee or the front-row seat for watching planes land! A short walk from Little Italy’s main drag, Bird Rock is an offshoot of the coffee roaster’s original location in La Jolla’s Bird Rock neighborhood. The Little Italy location offers the same delicious coffee selections with the added perk of seating by a wall of open windows that showcase up-close views of planes landing at nearby Lindbergh Field.

plane landing san diego

plane landing lindbergh field
Watching a Japan Airlines plane land at Lindbergh Field from our window at Bird Rock Coffee Roasters.

~Filippi’s Pizza Grotto. 1747 India Street.

filippis pizza little italy

A Little Italy institution since 1950, Filippi’s is about as delightfully old-fashioned as it gets, with red-and-white checkered tablecloths, Chianti bottles hanging from the ceiling and classic pizza and Italian fare. Filippi’s gets crowded – the never-ending line for dinner usually starts as early as 5:30 – and diners must pass through the Italian market at the front of the café before getting a table, which adds to the anticipation as well as the desire for dinner!

filippis deli counter little italy
The line for a table at Filipe’s Pizza Grotto winds past the deli counter…
filipes pizza grotto little italy
…and through the Italian market at the front of the café.

~Extraordinary Desserts. 1430 Union Street.

extraordinary desserts san diego

The display of delicious-looking pastries, cakes, cookies and tarts will have you drooling before you even get a table at Extraordinary Desserts. A mainstay of Little Italy for over ten years, the restaurant and patisserie is the vision of pastry chef and author Karen Krasne. Extraordinary Desserts’ main courses are pretty terrific as well, and the modern, beautifully designed space is a great place to dine.

extraordinary desserts cakes

extraordinary desserts
Extraordinary Desserts’ modern dining space also includes patio dining and a small retail shop.

2. Travel by Ferry to Coronado Island. 

coronado ferry
The ferry from San Diego arriving at Coronado Island.

The ferry to Coronado Island departs from Broadway Pier on Harbor Drive, every hour on the hour and returns hourly on the half-hour. The 15-minute journey drops passengers at the Coronado Ferry Landing, a waterfront area of shops and restaurants as well as bicycle and surrey rentals. The lovely Coronado Island is best known for its historic red-roofed Victorian hotel, the Hotel del Coronado, about a half-hour walk from the Ferry Landing or a quick ride by Uber, taxi or bike.  There are several restaurants at “the Del,” as locals call it, with a sandwich counter and coffee bar on the lower level. Also be sure to take a peek at the beautiful old elevator in the lobby.

coronado ferry landing
The Coronado Ferry Landing is a short walk to shops, restaurants and Coronado’s main street, Orange Avenue.
hotel del coronado san diego
Outside the main entrance of the Hotel del Coronado.

hotel del coronado sign

hotel del coronado dome

hotel del coronado elevator
The Del’s lobby features beautiful woodwork and this classic elevator.

3. Ride the Train from the Santa Fe Depot. 

santa fe depot

Even if you don’t have time for a train ride, the historic Santa Fe Depot at 1050 Kettner Blvd. is worth a visit. Built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, the Santa Fe Depot was designed in the Mission Revival style, highlighted by a stunning arched front entrance and twin domed campaniles. It’s a short walk from the Port and an interesting look at one of the city’s transportation hubs that includes the Coaster and Trolley lines as well as Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner.

santa fe depot san diego
Domed bell towers flank San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot.
santa fe depot interior
Interior waiting room of the Santa Fe Depot.
santa fe depot platform san diego
Santa Fe Depot’s palm tree-lined platform.

If you have a day, a trip on the Pacific Surfliner is a memorable journey. A window seat on the second deck offers gorgeous views starting in Del Mar, as the train hugs the Pacific Ocean on its way northward. Last spring, I rode the Surfliner to San Juan Capistrano to meet a friend and visit the city’s popular California Mission. I started in Solana Beach, a station a half-hour north of the Santa Fe Depot, and traveled about forty-five minutes. It was a wonderful, car-free day trip. Mission San Juan Capistrano is a block from the train station, and the surrounding area has numerous options for lunch and just wandering. (California Day Trip: On Swallows, The Surfliner & San Juan Capistrano.)

4. Visit the San Diego Zoo.

san diego zoo

We haven’t spent time at the San Diego Zoo since our children were young, but if you’re in town with your family, it’s sure be at the top of your list. The “World Famous” Balboa Park institution was a pioneer in open-air, cage-free habitats and today houses more than 3,700 animals of over 650 species. It will take about ten minutes by taxi or Uber to reach the Zoo from the Port. 

5. Take in a Padres Game or Take a Tour of  Petco Park.

petco park san diego

When Petco Park opened in 2004, it was heralded for its stunning architectural design and wonderfully intimate setting. With the historic landmark Western Metal Supply Company anchoring left field and surrounded by the downtown skyline, Petco Park is a beautiful and special place, the way baseball was meant to be viewed, as people like to say.

Petco also offers year-round tours, giving baseball fans a chance to visit the “backstage” areas including the press box and a locker room, and take a walk onto the field. We ran into an unexpected surprise while touring the park with friends last winter – the grassy field had been replaced with mounds of dirt for a monster truck racing event – but it was still a great day and didn’t dampen our experience. Petco Park is about an hour’s walk from the Port along Harbor Drive or a 15-minute ride by Uber or taxi. (Baseball Behind-the-Scenes: A Tour of Petco Park.)  

Petco Park Press Box
View of the Coronado Bridge through the Press Box door.

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