A hiker on the cliffs in San Diego
Stuart Bak

Best Walks in San Diego

It would require several weeks with a detailed map and a good pair of walking boots to even scratch the surface of the hundreds of awe-inspiring walking opportunities in San Diego. The landscape of this sprawling metropolis is a vast pot-pourri of canyons, mountains, beaches, wild nature reserves and quirky neighborhood villages. Lace up your boots and get ready to explore this fascinating city with our taster guide to some of the best walks in San Diego.

A Stroll Through Old San Diego

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Its heady hybrid of Mexican, Spanish and American influences make San Diego’s atmospheric Old Town a great place to start your exploration of the city and its rich, multicultural heritage. Here, after all, is where it all began. Grab your camera and get ready for a real flavor of the Old West, complete with prickly cacti, swaying palms and a plethora of original and recreation buildings, including the red-brick courthouse and – gulp – spooky Whaley House, purported to be one of the most haunted buildings in America.

Amble through the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park to pretty Plaza de Las Armas, where you’ll find the 18th-century Spanish El Capitan cannon and a number of highly Instagrammable 19th-century adobe buildings. Pause awhile to watch traditional horse-drawn carriages rumbling past the blacksmith shop; if you time it right you might even catch one of the regular living history demonstrations that are held here. There’s also a colorful Mexican market with cute boutiques, unique souvenirs and oodles of authentic taquerias. Tuck in to a spicy fish taco or two to give you the energy you need to hoof it up the hill to Presidio Park, where San Diego’s original fort and mission were established in 1769. The pristine white tower of the Junípero Serra Museum boasts far-reaching views across the park’s perfectly manicured lawns to the Old Town and the ocean below.

Take a Walk on the Wild Side

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Some of the best walking trails in San Diego can be found in Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, just a few miles north of Downtown in La Jolla. If it’s sweeping coastal views, skyscraping cacti, colorful wildflowers and otherworldly rock and sandstone formations you’re looking for, you’ve come to the right place.

There are eight miles of marked trails over nearly 2,000 acres here on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific. Take the Broken Hill Trail Loop for an unchallenging three-mile loop that passes a grove of the native trees from which the reserve takes its name. These unusual endangered pines are so rare that they’re only found here and in one other place in California. Walk the route down to the stunning beach, one of the finest in the area, or continue on to Broken Hill itself for cracking sunset sea views.

At less than a mile, the Guy Fleming Trail is the park’s easiest, with some incredible views that belie its relatively short length. Here, too, you can see the famous Torrey pines up close and enjoy views of Los Peñasquitos Marsh, La Jolla and, on clear days, as far out as the Santa Catalina Islands. Keep your eyes peeled for gray whales migrating along this stretch of coast from December to April.

Walk San Diego’s Museum Mile

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Located just north of Downtown, Balboa Park is a huge tract of urban parkland that covers some 1,200 acres. Inside, you’ll find everything from world-class museums to Japanese gardens, theaters and cafés, as well as walking trails galore. You could spend hours if not days exploring it – indeed, there’s probably enough here to fill an entire vacation!

For an easy walk that packs a serious punch, enter from Sixth Avenue, joining the broad El Prado boulevard, where many of Balboa Park’s biggest attractions can be found. Take time to admire the wild cocktail of architectural styles along its length, from the shaded cloisters and garlanded columns of Casa del Prado to the California Building’s intoxicating blend of Baroque, Rococo, Gothic and Churrigueresque styles, complete with playful tiled dome and striking three-story belltower.

Nearby, statues of masters Velázquez, Murillo and Zurbarán gaze out from above the elaborate entrance to the San Diego Museum of Art, a Spanish Renaissance-style confection that houses a huge collection of fine works by its stone sentries, as well as significant pieces by Goya, El Greco, Monet, Canaletto, O’Keeffe and many more.

Head south from El Prado to find inner peace in the zen-like solitude of the Japanese Friendship Garden. Then onwards to the ornate Spreckels Organ Pavilion, home of the planet’s largest outdoor organ. Timed just right, you might even catch one of the free recitals that boom out every Sunday afternoon around 2PM.

Urban Exploration in North Park

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If you’re in the market for a nice walk in San Diego that also just happens to take in a bit of local history, a few brewery taprooms and a spot of urban art along the way, then look no further than North Park, a hip and happening ‘hood that hugs the northeast corner of Balboa Park.

Start by immersing yourself in San Diego heritage with a stroll through the neighborhood’s leafy streets. Head north from Balboa Park between Pershing Avenue and 28th Street and it won’t be long before you stumble upon a traditional Craftsman’s house or two, modest bungalows with architectural hallmarks that include plain wooden exteriors and wide terracotta porches. Originally intended as an antidote to gratuitous Victorian opulence and ostentation, many of the homes here were built by Arts and Crafts pioneers David Owen Dryden and Edward F. Bryans in the early 20th Century.

Sightseeing can be thirsty work, can’t it? Good news! A short hop east to 30th Street is where you’ll find perhaps the highest concentration of brewery taprooms anywhere in San Diego – no mean feat here in the craft beer capital of the USA! Pause for some well-earned refreshment at the Belching Beaver, where you can also liven up your Instagram with a selfie in front of the Greetings from San Diego mural on the brewery wall. Then continue your odyssey through this achingly cool suburb, where the street art is as plentiful as the beer is strong. Look out for colorful pieces by local legends Kreashun and Madsteez. And no, you haven’t had too much hazy pale ale to drink: that really is a skateboarding donut on the wall over there. Fans of US rock royalty should complete the trail on Adams Avenue, where artist Travis Crosby’s tributes to Prince and Jimi Hendrix are a joy to behold.

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