San Diego is a beautiful city, but it’s also a big city. That means you’ve got a lot of options if you’re relocating to the area. Fortunately, you’re not alone to sort through those options - as a longtime resident and San Diego Real Estate Agent, I’m here to guide you along the way.
As far as the best place to live in San Diego, Young professionals and urbanites love areas like La Jolla, Encinitas, and Uptown, while families typically settle in Del Mar, Torrey Hills, or Carmel Valley. In the guide below, we’ll look at the best places to live in San Diego from several angles.
Living in San Diego: The Basics
In 2021, U.S. News and World Report ranked San Diego as the #1 most fun place to live in the United States. Notably, the city’s restaurants and beaches were a large factor, along with the attractions, activities, nightlife and shopping, and others.
I can tell you that this rating is absolutely correct. One of the reasons I love San Diego is because it’s got this laid-back, fun vibe and there’s not a lot of stress or “hustle” like you see in other cities (I’m looking at you, L.A. and San Francisco).
There are 1.4 million residents in San Diego proper and around 3.3 million in the greater metropolitan area, so it’s not like it’s not busy. It’s just a different kind of busy, and when almost every road leads to the beach, it’s easy to wash your worries away.
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San Diego Neighborhoods
San Diego has a neighborhood for almost every type of resident, including many family-friendly communities, young and hip areas, and upscale neighborhoods alike. When you are moving to the area, you’ll have to compare the options to see what best suits your tastes.
Some of the best San Diego neighborhoods, in no particular order, include those listed below.
The Downtown Gaslamp District
This is one of the most unique neighborhoods, in my opinion. It’s not like your typical downtown, by a long shot. There is a lot of culture down here, along with vibrant nightlife and plenty of upscale dining. You’ll also find yourself close to downtown businesses for easy commuting.
The historic charm is what draws many to this area, including tourists who want to see the best of the city. While being a local has its perks, you’ll need to be prepared for the influx of out-of-towners during the busy season.
Living in downtown San Diego gives you access to beautiful architecture, a diverse array of amenities, and public transit so that you don’t have to worry about the hassle and expense of parking. This neighborhood has everything from charming cafes to trendy piano bars, offering options for everyone.
The Gaslamp District is also close to the rest of downtown San Diego, including East Village and Little Italy. You can explore the waterfront and San Diego Bay, immerse yourself in arts and culture, and be part of the urban charm that the city is known for.
La Jolla is the quintessential San Diego neighborhood. Situated on the beach, this community features upscale residential living with plentiful amenities. It is home to plenty of coastline and laid-back vibes, and you’ll also find the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) here.
La Jolla offers stunning natural beauty and plenty of culture and atmosphere. There are high-end dining options and art galleries aplenty, with an environment that is sophisticated, lively, and ideal for all types of people.
Plus, La Jolla also has plenty of open space and outdoor activities to enjoy. It’s one of the safest communities in San Diego and offers a tight-knit community with a comfortable lifestyle for those who can afford it.
Del Mar is another desirable neighborhood, situated north of the city. It’s widely regarded as one of the best communities in Southern California, for several reasons. Like La Jolla, it’s home to stunning coastlines and plenty of beaches. This also means plenty of outdoor activities abound.
Del Mar also has a strong community and a sense of local pride that you don’t find all over San Diego. It’s home to the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which hosts the annual San Diego County Fair. The Del Mar Racetrack is also a fun time for locals and visitors.
This community features upscale dining and boutiques for residents. There are art galleries and plenty of cultural attractions, and nightlife for all types of interests.
As far as living here goes, Del Mar residents enjoy top safety and low crime rates. There are also excellent schools at all grade levels, including both public and private options. It is a great community for families and those who want to be part of a family-friendly coastal neighborhood.
One of the most vibrant neighborhoods in the city, Hillcrest is located northwest of downtown and Balboa Park. It’s always abuzz with activities, events, and experiences.
This upscale community provides an inclusive living experience so that residents don’t have to drive out of the city for what they need. There is a sense of community here and the safety is high, with lower crime rates than many other areas of San Diego.
This community is all about trendy spots. There are bars, restaurants, cafés, and plenty of art galleries and museums. There are also boutique shops and a farmer’s market, and you’ll be just a short walk from Balboa Park. This community has quality schools and educational opportunities, as well.
For inclusivity and a vibrant community, Hillcrest should be on your list. Be mindful that the cost of living here is slightly higher than in other downtown areas, so you may need to budget a little more accordingly.
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Mission Hills is one of the most affluent neighborhoods in San Diego. It’s bordered by Mission Valley and Mission Beach, which are also upscale communities. Here, you will find shopping malls, chain restaurants, and all the “typical” outdoor attractions and recreation.
This upscale area is popular among young couples and families, although it is one of the most expensive areas in which to live. While the average rent in San Diego ranges from $2,000 to $2,800, the Mission neighborhoods can cost as much as $3,000 or more for a one-bedroom apartment.
Mission Hills offers some of the most luxurious homes in the area, nestled in the hills and surrounded by natural beauty. This area is ideal for those who want a slice of secluded life within the confines of the city, and it is easily accessible to all major freeways.
As expected, the schools and safety in Mission Hills are top rate. Many people live in gated communities, have security systems, or have private access to their lavish homes.
Whether it’s Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, Mission Beach, Solana Beach, Imperial Beach, or any of the others, San Diego is home to plenty of beach communities of all sizes and types. You can find middle-class neighborhoods, affluent communities, and everything in between.
San Diego is known for its laid-back lifestyle and these communities are the exact place to find it. Plus, you can enjoy beautiful views of the ocean when you choose to live in these communities, and you’ll still be just minutes from all that the city has to offer.
The beach communities do see more tourists than other areas of the city, but that’s a trade-off for many. Plus, it also means that there’s a whole industry of work available for those who want to cater to the tourist industry.
One of the growing neighborhoods in San Diego is Encinitas. This coastal city has been popular with locals for a long time, but it is growing in demand with all that it offers. This coastal city features plenty of great beaches and that laid-back surfer lifestyle, with breathtaking views and outdoor activities galore.
Encinitas has a thriving culture that focuses on wellness and natural living, with organic markets, yoga, wellness centers, and other amenities. The downtown area is charming and filled with unique shops, eateries, and attractions, and you will find live music and plenty of entertainment, as well.
Encinitas really has it all, offering highly-rated public and private schools for children of all ages. This is a neighborhood with a strong sense of community and it offers a family-friendly environment that’s in the middle of many natural attractions.
North Park is located to the northeast of downtown. This is a diverse, trendy community that offers urban convenience with a residential feel. The community has a range of cultural backgrounds and is very inclusive and welcoming, which is what draws in those who come here to live.
North Park has plenty of street art and galleries alike, as well as what is essentially a foodie’s paradise. The neighborhood is known for its craft breweries, trendy bars, and farm-to-table dining options. There is something for everyone here.
North Park is where you’ll find Balboa Park, one of the biggest attractions in the city. That means you’re within a short walk of thousands of acres of green space, the San Diego Zoo, and dozens of museums. It offers a central location and is ideal for young professionals and families alike.
This is one of the most expensive places to live in San Diego’s inland area, but it’s often regarded as the best. Carmel Valley offers an upscale environment with lavish, comfortable homes and plenty of suburban amenities. Excellent schools are also found here, making it a great choice for families.
Carmel Valley is actually noted for its education system, ranking higher than many San Diego communities for both public and private education. It is a safe community with a low crime rate and it offers a unique balance of urban and country-style living.
The city is home to plenty of shopping centers, restaurants, and other amenities, including entertainment of all kinds. Outdoor activities are plentiful, with parks, walking trails, and rec centers to be found everywhere you turn. Plus, you’re just minutes from the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.
From the central location to the premium schools and amenities, those with a higher income may love the Carmel Valley neighborhood. It’s convenient to the rest of the city and offers safety, top schools, and upscale accommodations and amenities for a relaxing, comfortable life.
This is another family-friendly community, offering top schools and low crime rates. Residents get a sense of belonging here in this tight-knit neighborhood that features quality education for all ages. The community prioritizes personal growth and academic success.
This community is also home to plenty of outdoor recreation, including golf courses, nature preserves, tennis courts, community and rec centers, and more. You’ll find parks and open spaces with plenty of options for outdoor enjoyment.
The area also has plenty of amenities and shops for families, as well as restaurants, cafes, and everything else that people need. Rancho Bernardo is probably one of the best communities for families in the San Diego area.
San Diego Schools
If you’re moving to the area with family or for education, you’ll be happy to know that San Diego is also home to some of the best schools in the area, offering top-rated options throughout dozens of neighborhoods.
Primary and Secondary Schools
In San Diego, the San Diego Unified School District is responsible for maintaining the public education system. This district offers schools for all ages, including:
- 113 primary schools
- 23 junior high schools
- 28 secondary schools (high school)
- 45 charter schools
The city is also home to over 100 private schools and there are nearly 300 private school options throughout greater San Diego County.
Schools in San Diego are highly rated throughout much of the city, with top-ranking schools found in:
- Del Mar
- Solana Beach
- Torrey Pines
- University City
- Mission Hills
Colleges and Universities
San Diego is home to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), which is also one of the biggest employers in the city. There are dozens of other public and private colleges and universities, along with close to a dozen community colleges and trade schools in San Diego proper.
San Diego County is home to even more post-secondary options, including popular schools like San Diego State University and Azusa Pacific University. Most college students are found in La Jolla, North and South Park, and the various beach communities (Pacific Beach, Mission Beach, Ocean Beach, etc.).
Choosing Your Community: Evaluate the Options
So, now that you’ve seen the different neighborhoods in San Diego and all they have to offer, which do you think best suits your needs? Perhaps you’re still not quite sure, or you’ve got a few ideas and want to narrow it down. Here’s what to consider.
Obviously, if the exact location of your move is important, that needs to be first on the list. Perhaps you’re moving for a job in Encinitas, for example, and want to be close. Maybe you’ve got a new gig downtown but you want to live in the suburbs and commute.
Think about where you need to be in San Diego, as well as where you want to be. When choosing locations, aside from work and school, factors to keep in mind include:
- Proximity to attractions and amenities
- Safety and crime rates
- Affordability and cost of living
- Commuting and transportation
Affordability and Budget
This is another big concern on your list. San Diego is expensive, but it’s more affordable than other cities in California. Expect to spend between $2,000 and $3,000 on rent, or around $750,000 to $900,000 on purchasing a home, depending on which neighborhood you settle into.
One way to narrow down the budget range by neighborhood when you’re planning to move to San Diego is to ask an expert. With my professional real estate expertise and firsthand knowledge of the city, I can help you find the perfect neighborhood at the perfect price.
San Diego is a relatively safe city in general. Many of the suburbs are revered for their safety and low crime rates. There is more crime in the urban areas, as you would expect, but even that is lower than in many cities.
Make sure that you research crime rates and statistics in the cities that you consider before you move. Check for things like security patrols, neighborhood watches, gated communities, police presence, and so forth.
Best Places to Live in San Diego For…
We’ve covered a lot of information in a short time, but we’re not done yet. In addition to exploring the different neighborhoods and communities, it’s also important to look at which areas are best for certain types of new residents. So, if you’re getting ready to move to San Diego (or even thinking about it), here’s what to know.
Best Neighborhoods for Families
San Diego is home to a lot of family-friendly communities. Several of the ones listed above tout their family-oriented nature, safety, and great schools. You can enjoy a wonderful life and great education for your children if you choose communities like:
- La Jolla
- Carmel Valley
- Mission Hills
- Rancho Bernardo
- Torrey Pines
- Del Mar and Del Mar Mesa
- Solana Beach
These communities are all noted for their low crime rates, current family populations, and available schools and educational opportunities. They also offer convenience and amenities for all needs.
You will find different classes of neighborhoods here - upscale families will end up in Carmel Valley or Mission Hills while middle-class families may find themselves in Encinitas, Solana Beach, or Poway.
Best Neighborhoods for Young Professionals
Young professionals, both single and coupled, are also flocking to San Diego as their new place to call home. With a vibrant city scene and plenty of trendy neighborhoods, it’s easy to see why. Those who come to the city to start their lives should look at:
- Downtown San Diego
- The Gaslamp District
- North Park and South Park
- Ocean Beach
- Pacific Beach
- University City
- Mission Bay/Mission Beach
Check out what the different neighborhoods are like and get a sense of what they have to offer. Look at culture, nightlife, amenities, and other attractions that might draw you in. Finally, pay attention to access to public transit and commuting so that you don’t have to worry about getting around, no matter where you end up.
Best Neighborhoods for Upscale Living
San Diego is also home to tons of upscale communities. If you are looking for a more affluent, high-end lifestyle in the city, you’ll want to head to Mission Hills and the surrounding areas.
The best upscale communities in San Diego are:
- Mission Hills
- Bankers Hill
- La Jolla
- Torrey Pines
- Point Loma
- Del Mar Mesa
- Carmel Valley
If you want to go a bit further out, you can enjoy the lavish life in Rancho Santa Fe, one of the most prestigious communities in San Diego County.
These communities feature multi-million dollar homes, gated communities, upscale amenities and bespoke services, and everything else you’d expect. You’ll also find some of the best public and private schools in these neighborhoods.
Best Neighborhoods for College Students
As I mentioned earlier, La Jolla is a Mecca for college students coming to San Diego, thanks to UCSD. However, those who aren’t looking for an affluent community have other options, as well. College students in the San Diego area usually check out communities like:
- Pacific Beach
- Ocean Beach
- North Park
- Mission Beach/Mission Bay
- Gaslamp District
These neighborhoods will have varying costs of living and amenities, but they offer a mixture of everything. If you’re living downtown or in the city neighborhoods, you might want to skip a car so you’re not paying for parking. After all, the city has a good transit system that can get you where you need to go.
As you’ll notice, a lot of the neighborhoods on the list above overlap, which isn’t surprising to someone like me. That’s one of the unique things that I love about this city. While it has distinct neighborhoods and communities, they also run together to create this greater city that functions like a bunch of small towns all woven carefully together. No matter where you decide to live, you’re sure to be pleased with your options.
Things to Do in San Diego
Residents aren’t necessarily looking at tourist attractions, but if you haven’t seen them yet, you should check as many out as you can. Visit the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park or head out to the San Diego Safari Zoo, which will get you up close and personal with African wildlife.
You can find plenty of parks, outdoor spaces, and recreation centers in the San Diego area, along with an abundance of water sports and beach activities. In fact, you could settle in a beach community and choose to live the beach life every single day. It’s no wonder people in this city are less stressed!
San Diego is also home to dozens of museums and cultural attractions, including almost 20 in Balboa Park alone. You’ll enjoy exploring plenty of culture while you’re getting to know your new city. Plus, you can find places to take friends and family when they visit.
If you’re looking for an equal balance of creature comforts and natural beauty, San Diego really has the perfect balance. It’s tucked away in Southern California just 20 miles from the Mexican border and most who visit never want to leave. If you decide to call this city home, you’ll fall in love every single day.
Plus, with so many things to see and do, you’ll never get bored:
- Balboa Bark
- USS Midway Museum
- San Diego Zoo
- Torrey Pines State Park
- La Jolla Cove
- Del Mar Racetrack
- Whaley House Museum
- Little Italy
- Shelter Island
- Fleet Science Center
- San Diego Natural History Museum
Water Sports and Beaches
San Diego is home to 70 miles of coastline, much of which is in the form of accessible public and private beaches. Water sports abound here, including surfing, boating, and more. Plus, relaxing on the beach can become an everyday activity when you decide to settle in one of the many oceanfront communities of San Diego.
You can enjoy:
- Jet skiing
- Swimming with sharks, dolphins, and other marine life
- Yacht rentals and cruising
- Beach sports and games
- Hiking and biking
- And so much more!
If you’re an outdoors person, San Diego is the city for you.
How to Choose Your New Neighborhood
So now that you’ve got more insight into the different options for moving to San Diego, it’s time to narrow things down and start thinking about where you want to end up. Are you dreaming of the beach life with that laid-back vibe? Perhaps you’re interested in the vibrant scene of downtown neighborhoods like Hillcrest and the Gaslamp District. In any case, several factors will help you make your decision.
Location: Where do you need to be in San Diego? Do you have a job that you’ll be commuting to? Perhaps you want to be near certain attractions or destinations. Each neighborhood is situated around the city in its own unique spot, so think about what would be most appealing for your needs.
School and Work: Are you going to be commuting and sending kids to school? If so, the neighborhood that you choose should be one with top-rated schools that also has easy freeway access so that you can get to work.
People and Atmosphere: The communities throughout San Diego all have their own unique atmosphere and ambiance. Take the time to consider which best matches your own personal vibe or the type of neighborhood you’d like to call home. If you like vibrant, urban living, downtown could be great, for example.
Safety: Although San Diego is a relatively safe city, you still need to look at crime statistics to ensure you choose a good neighborhood with low crime rates. If you choose an upscale neighborhood like Mission Hills or Carmel Valley, you’ll notice that theft and other property crimes are usually the most common, with little instance of violent crime in many of the areas listed above.
San Diego is a great city that truly has something for just about everyone. There’s not one place that is the “best” to live in the city. There is so much to choose from, though, that you should have no trouble finding your new home.
What’s your pick? Does one of the areas we discussed sound like your perfect location, or are you going to explore other areas of the city? Whatever you choose, you’re sure to have more fun and less stress when you make San Diego your new home.