Los Angeles vs San Diego: Which City to Visit?


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Choosing between Los Angeles vs San Diego to visit when you’re planning a trip to California can be a difficult decision. Though the two cities lie only about 120 miles from each other, they couldn’t be more different. With distinct cultures and history, San Diego and Los Angeles make for incredible destinations in their own right, but which is the best place for you to visit?

Though both cities are famed for their great, year-round weather, laid back lifestyles, great food and wonderful beaches, they are also distinct cities with different things to offer visitors. One is known for Hollywood and stardom, the other for endless beaches and a quintessential So-Cal culture, both Los Angeles and San Diego are diverse and dynamic cities that are so worth visiting.

If you can only choose one to visit, however, we’re here to help you make the choice between San Diego or Los Angeles. In general, I would suggest San Diego if you’re looking for a family-friendly vacation if lots of diverse things to do. Alternatively, I would choose Los Angeles if you want to explore iconic sites, learn about Hollywood and dive into the diverse culinary scene.

Nevertheless, both cities offer a lot more than just that so read to find out if Los Angeles or San Diego is right for you.

Los Angeles

As the second-largest city in the United States, Los Angeles is known for many things. Beautiful beaches, Beverly Hills, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, food trucks and much much more. If you’re thinking about choosing to visit LA vs San Diego, here are the City of Angels’ merits:

Accessibility

LA is the largest city in California and the second-largest city in the United States. As such, there are numerous airports that make it easy to reach the city from virtually anywhere in the country and countless areas internationally. In fact, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is the second-highest traffic airport in the US and the fourth-highest in the entire world.

However, there are more airports than just LAX and if you’re flying in from elsewhere in the United States, it may make more sense to arrive in at either Long Beach or Burbank airports, both suburbs of greater LA. Unlike many major cities, none of these airports are too far from the city centre of Los Angles.

No matter how easy it is to technically get to Los Angeles, it actually isn’t that easy to get around the city without your own vehicle, which is why it is a great idea to rent a car while you’re there. We recommend using RentalCars.com so you can find the best price across all available companies. LA public transit exists, but it is thin and lacking and a headache to navigate if you’re not used to it.

If you do rent a car while in Los Angeles, keep in mind that the city (and much of Southern California) experience high amounts of traffic and you should expect drive times to take a little bit, even if you’re only going a short distance. LA drivers also have a reputation of being reckless and rude, so be sure to drive defensively in the city.

Downtown LA
Downtown LA

If you’re not keen on driving in Los Angeles, I would recommend planning on sticking to one neighbourhood to explore during your visit rather than trying to see a lot of different areas of the city. If you do the latter, you will likely waste a bunch of your time trying to navigate the poor public transit system or spending the majority of your travel budget on overpriced Uber or Lyft rides. An alternative option is to organise various day trips from wherever you’re staying.

All in all, in terms of accessibility, Los Angeles is easy to get to from virtually anywhere in the world, however, it is incredibly difficult to get around if you don’t have your own vehicle.

Affordability

Los Angeles is not an affordable city and you shouldn’t expect to save a bunch of money while visiting LA if you also want to take in some of the top sights and experiences. Nearly every aspect of travel in LA is expensive, however, it really isn’t more or less pricey than San Diego so it shouldn’t be a determining factor when deciding between the two cities.

Obviously, it is incredibly possible to spend top dollar in Los Angeles, however, there are ways that you can make your money stretch and get more bang for your buck. You can, for instance, prioritise free or cheap activities rather than expensive tours or museum entries. For food, there are countless food trucks and fast food taco stands that are quite affordable — much more than a traditional sit-down restaurant.

And for accommodation, opt to stay in an outer suburb — Pasadena, Glendale and Highland Park are great options — rather than in more expensive areas like Santa Monica or Hollywood.

Iconic Santa Monica Pier

Things to Do in Los Angeles

Though it is a sprawling metropolis that is known the world over, LA really isn’t the most tourist-friendly of cities. Sure, there are the iconic beaches and the Hollywood history and the various theme parks within easy reach of the city, however, the city itself doesn’t have the same kind of “attractions” that many other cities in the US do, which is very different to San Diego.

That being said, LA does have a lot to offer numerous different personality types. If you’re a lover of the outdoors, there are countless hikes in the hills surrounding the city that are sure to please. If you love the beach, Los Angeles has numerous fantastic beaches to visit — the Santa Monica Pier is world-famous as is the eccentric and vibrant Venice Boardwalk. If you’re really interested in exploring LA’s beach scene, consider heading to less-known beaches to tourists — like Redondo Beach or even beautiful Zuma Beach up in Malibu.

Obviously, LA is known for being the home of the film industry and you can walk around Hollywood taking in the Walk of Fame, the celebrity handprints in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and even take a bus tour that will drive you by celebrity’s houses.

If you’re interested in getting a bit off the beaten tourist path, consider exploring other neighbourhoods in Los Angeles that are a bit more hip and less filled with tourist kitsch. The downtown area of Pasadena, for instance, has numerous cool shops, cafes and restaurants. Hip Silver Lake is known as one of the most trendy areas of Los Angeles currently and is also worth exploring.

Of course, many people flock to Los Angeles to its proximity to famous theme parks. Universal Studios is located in LA proper, but keep in mind that Disneyland is actually located in Anaheim, a city in north Orange County, about an hour south of central Los Angeles. If you’re looking to get away in a different sense, then consider a day trip to Catalina Island, which is easily reached from the LA suburbs of Long Beach or San Pedro.

There are a lot of things to do in LA, but it can be really hard to actually do them without a vehicle or being on some sort of organised tour.

Avalon Bay from the hills on Catalina Island
Avalon Bay from the hills on Catalina Island

Cuisine

While you may think that the food scene and cuisine wouldn’t be too different when comparing Los Angeles vs San Diego, you would be mistaken. While you can get fantastic food in both cities, the culture behind and cuisines available are quite different.

One of my absolute favourite things about LA (which, I will admit, is not my favourite city in the world) is how incredible and diverse the food scene is in the city. Everything from taco trucks churning out authentic Mexican delights on the street corners to delicious Korean food coming out of unassuming strip-mall restaurants near South Central LA to high-end experimental dining available throughout the city. If you’re into food — Los Angeles is a fantastic place to visit.

LA has an incredibly diverse population and that directly translates to the food that is available there. There are countless inventive chefs but even more hard-working people cooking up their national delicacies with some of the best ingredients available.

Also, if you’re into food truck culture, LA is definitely the epicentre of this new global trend. And while you will certainly find some very cool and delicious hipster food trucks, some of the best are the ones churning out authentic tacos or other traditional street foods.

All in all, if you’re after a fantastic culinary destination that is incredibly diverse, Los Angeles is a great option.

California itinerary 10 days
Vibrant Venice Beach in Los Angeles

Where to Stay in Los Angeles

If you’ve decided that Los Angeles is the city for you in the great LA vs San Diego debate, then you’re going to need a place to stay while you’re visiting. These are some top choices:

Hollywood Inn Suites Hotel — Situated in the middle of Hollywood, this hotel is perfect for those looking for a comfortable and central place to stay in Los Angeles. They have a number of great rooms to choose from, a swimming pool on site, and a great staff to help make your stay perfect. Click here to see their latest prices

The NoMad Los Angeles — This cool hotel located in downtown LA is the perfect place to stay if you’re looking for a luxury experience in the City of Angels. They have a great, central location, countless chic rooms available, and a fantastic rooftop swimming pool commanding great views of the city. Click here to see their latest prices

Freehand Los Angeles — If you’re travelling solo or on a tight budget, then this hostel is a great choice for you. Located in cool downtown LA, they have a range of both dorm and private rooms available and great facilities. Click here to see their latest prices

Private Rental — If you’re looking for your own private place in Los Angeles, there are countless properties available such as this beach house in Santa Monica. Click here to browse the best private rentals in LA.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels in Los Angeles!

San Diego

Situated as far south in California that you can go before reaching Mexico, San Diego is a vibrant and diverse border city that is one of the best places to visit in the entire state. Boasting lovely beaches, great museums, delicious food and countless fun things to do, you really can’t go wrong with a visit to San Diego.

LA to San Diego drive
Downtown San Diego

Accessibility

Much like Los Angeles, the best way to reach San Diego is by air. The city has one small international airport (San Diego International Airport) that serves countless cities in the US but does not have nearly the amount of international routes as LAX does. The airport is conveniently located only about ten minutes driving from downtown San Diego, meaning that it’s easy to reach your accommodation if you’re staying close to the city centre.

Where Los Angeles has a pretty thin public transit system that can be hard to navigate, San Diego’s is slightly better and it isn’t absolutely necessary to rent a car when visiting the city (though it still is recommended as it can make getting around a lot easier). There is an extensive bus system in San Diego that is easy to navigate and their tram system (called the San Diego Trolley) has numerous lines that can take you all over the city and surrounding suburbs.

Downtown San Diego and its beach areas are also pretty accessible on foot and it is more viable to walk around here than it is in Los Angeles.

All in all, though it has fewer international air connections than LA, San Diego may be a better city for getting around without your own vehicle — though it is still recommended.

San Diego to Ensenada by Bus
Trolley Station at Civic Center in San Diego

Affordability

In the grand scheme of things, San Diego is probably no more or less expensive to visit for tourists than Los Angeles is, however, there are different areas where you could save money and you may find some things in San Diego to be a bit more affordable than some things in Los Angeles.

For instance, there is a bit more affordable accommodation available in San Diego and the fact that you can use public transit to get around on foot a bit more in San Diego is likely going to save you money.

Food and restaurant prices are about comparable in the two cities and there are always ways to cut costs on meals — taco trucks abound in San Diego, as well. However, in general, if cost is a major factor, it may be slightly easier to save money in San Diego, but neither city is significantly cheaper than the other.

Things to Do in San Diego

While I did say that the City of Angels was not the most “tourist-friendly” of cities to visit in Southern California, that is certainly not the case in San Diego. In fact, if you’re stuck debating whether to do a San Diego vs Los Angeles vacation and you’re looking for the perfect place to experience all that is quintessentially associated with “Southern California,” then San Diego is the right choice for you.

San Diego is the perfect family destination as there are countless things to do that will entertain people of all ages. Take the time to splash around on one of the city’s many incredible beaches — and make sure to explore the towns as well!

Ocean Beach is perfect for those looking for a more “local” vibe, Pacific Beach has a lovely stretch of sand and Mission Beach is packed with a fantastic boardwalk, lots of great restaurants, and a wonderful seaside amusement park — Belmont Park — complete with a classic wooden roller coaster, arcade games, and many other adrenaline-pumping rides.

LA to San Diego drive
Belmont Park in Mission Beach

Downtown San Diego is picturesque and walkable, the Maritime Museum allows you to tour classic wooden tall ships, Little Italy is filled with some of the best restaurants in the city and Seaport Village has lots of cool and interesting shops to explore.

If you want to venture further, make sure to head across the iconic bridge to Coronado Island. Visit the beautiful Hotel Del Coronado and play on the beautiful white sand beach. On a clear day, there are times you can even see the giant Mexican flag waving in Tijuana, just across the border.

You also cannot miss Balboa Park, which is filled with countless museums and also the world-famous San Diego Zoo, which does excellent conservation and research work and is known for its Giant Pandas!

If you’re interested in a change of scenery, you can also opt to go for a day trip south of the border to nearby Tijuana or even a bit further down to lovely Ensenada. If you’re not travelling with kids, there are options to take a tour from San Diego to the Valle de Guadelupe wine country.

And all of that is just barely scratching the surface of things to do in San Diego. In general, San Diego is filled with lots of things that are great for tourists whereas LA may be a better city to live in and get to know intimately, but not ideal for a short stay.

One day in Ensenada
Ensenada Harbour

Cuisine

There is one cuisine that jumps to mind when I think of San Diego and that is Mexican! While you can absolutely get world-class Mexican food in Los Angeles, San Diego’s proximity to the border means that it is just that much better.

There are countless taco and ceviche trucks littered throughout San Diego, divey Mexican restaurants filled with the smell of freshly made tortillas and even higher-end establishments serving inventive dishes inspired by traditional flavours.

San Diego isn’t just full of Mexican food, however, and there are myriad wonderful restaurants throughout the city that are worth sampling. You certainly will eat well on a trip to this beautiful city.

If you’re interested in craft beer, San Diego is the city for you, as well. Touted as the Craft Beer Capital of America, San Diego was on the forefront of this now international trend. Well-known breweries like Karl Strauss, Ballast Point, and Stone Brewing all hail from San Diego County and the city is full of seemingly thousands of nano and microbreweries that aren’t as well-known. So if you like experimental craft beer, San Diego is the place for you!

Where to Stay in San Diego

If San Diego is the city you’ve chosen to visit, then you’re likely going to need to find a great place to stay while you’re there. If you’re at a loss of where to rest your head, check out these suggestions:

Urban Boutique Hotel — A cute boutique hotel, this is the perfect place to stay in San Diego. Located in the Little Italy neighbourhood of downtown San Diego, this hotel is within a stone’s throw of everything the city has to offer. They have a range of rooms available perfect for all types of travellers. Click here to see their latest prices

Hotel Del Coronado — Arguably the most iconic hotel in the San Diego area, if you’re looking for a luxury stay then you cannot go wrong with the Hotel Del. Located on Coronado Island across the bridge from downtown San Diego, this hotel has countless great rooms available, world-class restaurants, beautiful swimming pools and is situated on one of the best beaches in San Diego. Click here to see their latest prices

California Dreams Hostel — Considered to be one of the top hostels in the city, this is the perfect place to stay if you’re on a budget in San Diego. Located in cool Pacific Beach not far from central San Diego, they have both dorm and private rooms available and fantastic facilities to make your stay a great one. Click here to see their latest prices 

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other hotels in San Diego!

The iconic Hotel Del Coronado
The iconic Hotel Del Coronado

Los Angeles vs San Diego: The Verdict

So should you visit LA or San Diego on your next vacation? As you can see, both cities are remarkably different despite their relative proximity and have a lot of distinct things to offer tourists.

Generally speaking, if you’re looking for a fun, easy and family-friendly holiday with limited hassle and lots of diverse things to do, then San Diego may be the best choice for you.

Alternatively, if you’re looking to dig deep into various neighbourhoods, enjoy Hollywood history and movie stars, or are interested in going on a culinary odyssey in one of America’s most culturally diverse cities, then consider heading to Los Angeles.

The fact of the matter is, whether you choose to visit Los Angeles or San Diego, you’re sure to fall in love with the dynamic culture, perfect weather, and laid back lifestyle of these Southern California cities.

Choosing between a Los Angeles vs San Diego vacation can seem like an impossible task, but when you take the time to realise how different each city is, making the decision on which is the best fit for you becomes a lot easier.

When travelling in the USA, it’s always a good idea to make sure you have a travel insurance policy so you’re covered for any unfortunate events! We like WorldNomads and always use them for our trips – click here to get a quote from WorldNomads 

Are you dring to choose between San Diego vs LA to visit? Have you been to either city? Let us know in the comments!

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Maggie is a co-founder and writer for The World Was Here First. When she’s not dreaming of far-away lands, Maggie enjoys drinking copious amounts of coffee, Harry Potter, and coaxing stray cats into her home.

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