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Where to Stay in San Diego: Best Areas and Hotels

Drenched in year-round sunshine, San Diego encompasses a cluster of lively urban neighborhoods and laid-back beach towns. The top attractions are scattered over a large area, so where you stay will depend on your interests and the reason for your visit. If you're here to see the main city sights, downtown makes a great base. If sun, sand, and sea are high on your list, you can stay northwest of the city at one of San Diego's salt-laced beach towns, such as Pacific Beach, Mission Beach, or Ocean Beach. For an upscale seaside escape, La Jolla is a great choice. And if your main aim is to show the kids a good time, the city offers a host of family-friendly resorts near SeaWorld and the attraction-packed Balboa Park, home to the San Diego Zoo, the Botanical Gardens, and an impressive lineup of museums. Whether you're on a budget or seeking a luxurious romantic weekend escape, the following guide will point you in the right direction.

Where to Stay for Sightseeing

San Diego Gaslamp Quarter
San Diego Gaslamp Quarter
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If this is your first visit to San Diego and you plan to see all the top attractions and soak up the city's vibe, downtown is the best place to stay. The top sightseeing areas in the city center include the Gaslamp Quarter and Horton Plaza, with their restaurants, shops, and lively entertainment venues. Other popular tourist areas, such as Coronado Island and Balboa Park, are just a short drive away.

If you're looking for a luxury property in the heart of downtown, the Omni San Diego Hotel, in the Gaslamp Quarter, offers spacious rooms; a fitness center; and a palm-lined heated pool and Jacuzzi. Sports fans will appreciate the pedestrian bridge connecting the hotel to Petco Park, where the San Diego Padres play. Also in the Gaslamp Quarter, and only a five-minute drive from Balboa Park, the Courtyard by Marriott San Diego Downtown occupies an elegant 1920s bank building with soaring ceilings and impressive architectural flourishes.

Old Town is another popular area to stay for sightseeing - especially if you're on a budget. This 12-acre state park was the site of the west coast's first Spanish settlement and offers a taste of old San Diego, with costumed heritage tours, museums, shops, art galleries, and restaurants. If you're watching your wallet, the family-run, pet-friendly Old Town Inn, with a lovely pool, is a little further out of town, but handy to both SeaWorld and Old Town. The rates include free parking and a continental breakfast, and a trolley across the street will whisk you to the city center in minutes.

Where to Stay for Luxury

La Valencia
La Valencia La Citta Vita
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Some of San Diego's most luxurious resorts lie north of the city in spectacular wilderness areas near La Jolla, an upscale coastal neighborhood about 14 miles northwest of downtown. La Jolla is a great place to surf, sunbathe, saunter around the designer boutiques, catch a play at the La Jolla Playhouse, or gaze at cutting-edge art in the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. It's also home to the Torrey Pines State Reserve, a wild and rugged coastal park, where you can hike more than eight miles of trails, spot migrating whales from the cliffs, and bask on the windswept beaches.

About a 20-minute drive from Torrey Pines State Reserve, in the Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve, the Fairmont Grand Del Mar has a championship golf course, luxury spa, multiple restaurants, and chic shops and evokes the elegance of a grand estate on the Italian or French Riviera. Also in a beautiful and isolated location, a little closer to the coast, The Lodge at Torrey Pines exudes rustic elegance. This craftsman-style lodge overlooks the Torrey Pines golf course, with the ocean glistening beyond, and is known for its attentive personal service, wonderful spa, and farm-to-table restaurant. If you're looking for luxury right on the ocean, within walking distance to shops and restaurants, La Jolla's rose-hued oceanfront La Valencia Hotel, also called "The Pink Lady," exudes old-world Mediterranean elegance and is known for its warm hospitality and stunning views of the sea.

Where to Stay for the Best Value

Hiking Path in Point Loma
Hiking Path in Point Loma
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San Diego is full of great-value, mid-range hotels. About six miles west of the city, on Point Loma, near where whale watching cruises and sportfishing charters depart, The Pearl Hotel is a hip boutique property with a mid-century vintage vibe, individually-themed rooms, and a lively social scene - the hotel screens weekly movies at the poolside lounge. The Pearl is handy to the airport as well as Shelter Island and its yacht-filled harbor. Hilton Garden Inn San Diego Del Mar, in Torrey Pines, makes a great base if you want to stay near Torrey Pines State Park, and if you prefer good-value accommodation closer to the coast, the pet-friendly Empress Hotel of La Jolla, has stylish, well-appointed rooms and offers a complimentary breakfast. It lies in a fabulous location a short stroll from the beach, near designer shops, galleries, and restaurants.

Where to Stay on a Budget

Pacific Beach
Pacific Beach Gary J. Wood
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Most of San Diego's budget properties lie out of the city center, but still handy to popular attractions. About seven miles north of downtown, just east of Old Town, Mission Valley is home to a string of affordable hotels, with most centered in an area called Hotel Circle. From here, you have easy access to Balboa Park, SeaWorld, and Fashion Valley Mall. Right on Hotel Circle in Mission Valley, the Kings Inn Hotel wraps around an inviting free-form pool. The hotel is older in style, but clean and comfortable. A few minutes' drive south, in the convenient Uptown District near Hillcrest, Sommerset Suites Hotel is popular for its heated outdoor pool and Jacuzzi, complimentary breakfast, and great location less than 10 minutes' drive north of Balboa Park. The suites come with full kitchens and private balconies.

If you're seeking budget accommodation near the beach, the Beach Haven Inn, in Pacific Beach, has a heated outdoor pool and Jacuzzi and offers excellent value, about one block back from the sea. The studios and suites, with fully-equipped kitchens, are great for extended stays.

Where to Stay for Couples

Hotel del Coronado
Hotel del Coronado
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For a romantic weekend escape, one of the best places to stay is Coronado Island, a peninsula connected to the city by a sliver of land called the Silver Strand. Though the island is only minutes by ferry or car from downtown San Diego, it feels relatively peaceful and far-removed from the city hubbub. Here, you can bike between the beaches or stroll around the charming shops on Orange Avenue. The Old Ferry landing offers wonderful views of the city and is home to a popular farmers market on Tuesday afternoons.

On the island's Coronado Beach, the famous Hotel del Coronado is a distinctive landmark and a popular weekend sanctuary for couples. Jutting off Coronado Island, on its own 15-acre peninsula, Loews Coronado Bay Resort pampers couples with its luxury Sea Spa, three heated pools, hot tub, and sauna. Many of the rooms have ocean views, and all feature plush beds and beachy decor in seaglass hues. One block back from the beach, the boutique Hotel Marisol Coronado sits on a quiet street, steps from the shops and restaurants in town. Guests can borrow beach cruiser bikes to explore the island.

In addition to the Coronado Island hotels, other great choices for couples seeking a romantic getaway are the luxurious Fairmont Grand Del Mar and The Lodge at Torrey Pines. Both are tucked away in tranquil natural areas north of San Diego city.

If you're on a budget, Point Loma is also home to some affordable coastal retreats for couples. As romantic as it sounds, but easy on the wallet, The Inn at Sunset Cliffs perches over a rocky shoreline, near Ocean Beach. Couples can fall asleep to the soothing slosh of waves breaking on the beach below.

Where to Stay for Families

SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego
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Families who plan to spend most of their time at SeaWorld should stay at Mission Bay, about 12 minutes by car from the famous marine park and only a few minutes' drive from Balboa Park. Overlooking the calm waters of Mission Bay, the pet-friendly Hilton San Diego Resort & Spa sits on an 18-acre palm-studded park, a short hop from the beach. Kids will never be bored here. Among the many recreational options are biking around the 28-mile boardwalk, multiple pools, water sports, tennis courts, and a seasonal kids' camp. Perfect for families on a budget, Holiday Inn Express San Diego Sea World lies right by its namesake park. Kids love the outdoor heated pool and complimentary breakfast with the hotel's signature cinnamon rolls.

East on Interstate 8 from Old Town is an area called Hotel Circle, where a cluster of affordable accommodation options lie close to all the family-friendly attractions without the high price tag of bayfront hotels or prime city-center properties. From here, you also have easy access to the Fashion Valley shopping mall. Popular options in this area are the Hampton Inn San Diego/Mission Valley and the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Hotel Circle - San Diego, between SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo.

A little further out, the moderately-priced Homewood Suites by Hilton San Diego-Del Mar, in Torrey Hills, is also popular with families. Legoland is about a 20-minute drive north, and family-friendly destinations, such as La Jolla, SeaWorld, San Diego Zoo, and Torrey Pines Reserve are a short drive away. This is an especially good option for families who want the option of cooking their own meals as the suites come with fully-equipped kitchens. Kids love the heated outdoor pool and whirlpool, and the rates include a complimentary shuttle within a five-mile radius during certain hours, a hot breakfast, and a light evening dinner Monday through Thursday.

Where to Stay near the Beach

San Diego beach
San Diego beach
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San Diego is famous for its beautiful sun-soaked beaches, and each has its own personality. Northwest of the city, about ten minutes by car from downtown, a busy three-mile long boardwalk runs north from lively Mission Beach to the popular surfing spot of Pacific Beach. Along the boardwalk, skaters, joggers, and walkers soak up the fresh sea air and linger at the beachfront restaurants and cafes, and at nearby Belmont Park, you can ride a 100-year-old roller coaster.

For true beachfront accommodation, Pacific Beach is a fantastic choice and offers a classic Southern California beach vibe. At the light-filled Tower23 Hotel, steps from the sand, you can fall asleep to the sound of the waves and wake up to sweeping ocean views in the sleek, modern rooms. Each room has a tempurpedic bed and a private patio or balcony. Also in Pacific Beach, at the far north end of the boardwalk, the family-friendly Pacific Terrace Hotel offers bikes, beach toys, and boogie boards for guests' use. A little further south from here, the Blue Sea Beach Hotel is a budget-friendly beachfront property, and most of the rooms have private balconies with gorgeous sea views. All of these hotels have sparkling oceanfront pools.

South of Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach buzzes with a hippy vibe and is a great place for a laid-back beach escape, with its surf shops, seafood restaurants, and antique stores. Locals love to cast a line off Ocean Beach Pier and walk their pooches on the nearby dog-friendly beach. A short stroll from Ocean Beach, The Inn at Sunset Cliffs is a popular budget property, where you can hear the waves breaking on the beach from your room.

For a more upscale beach getaway, head to La Jolla, about 14 miles northwest of town. Here, the Pantai Inn offers excellent value, with Balinese-inspired decor, in-room spa treatments, and an outdoor fire pit. Breakfast and parking are included in the rates.

If you want to stay by the beach but be a little closer to town, Coronado Island is only minutes away by ferry. It's home to Coronado Beach, a flat strip of white sand with typically calm waves. The historic Hotel del Coronado sits steps away from the shore here, with its distinctive conical red roofs and palm-studded grounds.

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