Endless coastline, charming historical districts, abundant greenspace, unique nightlife, and top-rated school districts: There’s a lot to love about living in San Diego. Throw in picture-perfect year-round weather and it’s easy to understand why you might want to relocate here. If that’s your dream, this neighborhood guide will give you a head start on researching your move to San Diego.

First, a quick glance at San Diego:

  • San Diego is located on the southwestern tip of California, strategically positioned on the U.S.-Mexico border and the Pacific Rim, making it a major gateway for international trade and tourism. 
  • With 1.4 million residents in 2019, San Diego is the second largest city in California after Los Angeles. 
  • Reaching beyond the city’s borders, San Diego County overall is home to about 3.3 million residents, making it the fifth largest in the U.S. 
  • The city has a unique geography, with hills and mesas separated by valleys and canyons — all along the deepwater San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean which provide 70 miles of coastline.

Now that we’ve covered the basic facts, let’s dive into exploring the best places to live in San Diego. With more than 100 colorful and distinctive neighborhoods, San Diego offers more than enough choices to fit diverse needs and personalities. Prices, on the other hand, may be a challenge, with a typical San Diego home valued at $782,000, a 15.8% increase over the year prior as of March, 2021, according to Zillow. But you can still find more affordable options if you’re patient and willing to settle for a smaller home or condominium that’s inland, away from the pricier coastal neighborhoods. 

For the purposes of this guide, we’re going to focus on three main areas of San Diego:

Now let’s get going!

Downtown San Diego Neighborhoods 

The urban neighborhoods in and around downtown San Diego are the heart of the city’s business, arts, and entertainment communities. The area has undergone 20 years of redevelopment that’s transformed downtown into a vibrant place to live, work and play. With just about 35,000 residents, San Diego’s downtown is much less densely populated than comparable cities like Seattle, Portland, Denver, and Las Vegas. For now, that means its hilly streets and greenspaces are more walkable and less crowded. However, ambitious plans for commercial and residential projects are expected to more than double the urban center’s population to about 90,000 by the year 2030. Ready to get in ahead of the big wave? Let’s take a look at three favorite downtown San Diego neighborhoods:

Map of Little Italy in San Diego

map of Little Italy neighborhood in San Diego

Little Italy in San Diego

If you want to get as much downtown action as you can, look to historic Little Italy: a close-knit community teeming with unique restaurants, cultural events, and year-round street festivals. Here you’ll find a waterfront view, live music, a gourmet farmer’s market, and even an Italian-style piazza — complete with a three-tiered fountain to light up the evening crowds. It’s a quaint and purposefully explorable area, and easy to access by trolley from virtually anywhere else downtown.

Little Italy offers diverse living options across historic and new construction. And despite being one of San Diego’s buzziest downtown neighborhoods, Little Italy is surprisingly affordable, boasting a typical home value of $553k (around $100k less than the city’s average) and plenty of rental options in the $1.5k-$3k range. That being said, start your apartment search early to find the best selection; Little Italy doesn’t have as many rental options as other areas of downtown.    

East Village, San Diego’s Biggest Downtown Neighborhood 

Spanning 130 blocks from 7th Avenue just outside the downtown core to 17th Street and the five freeway (I-5), East Village has transformed from a gritty warehouse district to a thriving mixed-use urban community with about 40,000 residents (and growing), according to the non-profit East Village Association

The 2004 opening of Petco Park, home of baseball’s San Diego Padres, ignited the area’s revitalization, bringing an abundance of restaurants, cafes, rooftop bars, boutiques, and live music venues to make it a thriving urban enclave.

Housing in East Village consists mostly of apartments, luxury condos, and converted warehouses, with tons of new residential and greenspace development staged for the coming decade. The typical home value is around $553k, with a 1-bedroom unit priced around $300k and many luxury 2-bedrooms hovering around $1m and above. RentCafe lists the average rent in East Village at $2,364 per month, slightly above San Diego’s overall average of $2,200.

Looking to live near work and ditch your car? Getting around East Village’s grid system is safe and easy with the city’s public bus and trolley lines, and plenty of areas are accessible by foot or bike. 

Highlights in Hillcrest  

If you’re looking for San Diego’s LGBTQIA+ scene, head a few miles north of downtown to Uptown Hillcrest. Start at the Pride flag and walk either direction down University Avenue. You’ll soon be pleasantly lost among coffee houses, bars, boutiques, and bookshops (and perhaps the iconic Hillcrest Brewing Co.) in this diverse and welcoming neighborhood.  

If you find you’re destined to live in Hillcrest, start your house-hunting as soon as possible, because this market is H-O-T. Plan to shop close to the city’s median real-estate prices: about $730k for an attached townhome and upwards of $1m for a 2-bedroom luxury condo, with some lower-priced listings in the $300s. Looking to rent? You’re in luck. The typical rent for a 1-bedroom unit in Hillcrest is just below $2,000 a month — slightly below the city’s overall average.

Moving from another state? Get these 14 tips about moving costs and things you need to know about living in California before you arrive in the “Golden State.”

Coastal Neighborhoods of San Diego 

If you love the idea of living in San Diego but want to embrace the beach life, take yourself on a tour of the city’s many coastal neighborhoods. We recommend starting with Pacific Beach and La Jolla as two distinct sides of the San Diego coin: one a bit more laidback and eclectic and the other more upscale and mature. 

map of Pacific Beach neighborhood in San Diego

Pacific Beach — Close to Downtown San Diego 

Often named one of the liveliest places to live in San Diego, Pacific Beach offers a unique mix of waterfront, urban, and suburban living amenities for all manner of beachgoers, vacationers, young professionals, and happy retirees. The typical home price in Pacific Beach is high — around $1m for a 2- or 3-bedroom home — while rentals mostly range from $2k to $3k a month. But residents find the dividends are worth it, from a fun atmosphere and low crime rates to its close-knit community vibe and best-in-city access to San Diego Bay. 

Despite its party reputation, Pacific Beach (affectionately dubbed “PB” by locals), attracts plenty of families. Look beyond the buskers and sunbathers and you’re sure to discover a mellower side of this funky beach town — from pleasant picnic spots to protected swim areas, local eats to luxe day spas — and miles of bike paths in between.

You may be wondering about the commuting situation in Pacific Beach, especially if you don’t plan to spend all your time biking the boardwalk or surfing Crystal Pier. The traffic isn’t always ideal, but you can get from PB to downtown like so: Take a fairly direct bus line south and get off at any number of stops downtown; or drive 15 minutes (outside of peak traffic hours) on I-5. (FYI, if you drive every day, you’ll definitely need to make a parking plan.)

Windansea Beach in La Jolla
Windansea Beach in La Jolla
(Source: Visit San Diego via Facebook)

La Jolla — The Jewel of San Diego

A bit up the coast from Pacific Beach, it’s easy to see why this Mediterranean-style village is considered San Diego’s jewel. With world-renowned beaches and towering, rocky cliffs forming a dramatic backdrop, this A+ rated community features award-winning schools, ritzy streets, and a vibrant dining and cultural scene. Here, the typical home value is a lofty $1.9m for a 2- or 3-bedroom, making it one of the most expensive and sought-after places to live in the U.S. While the area is mostly made up of single-family homes, the average rent in La Jolla is around $2,400 a month.

Besides its seven miles of coastline and gorgeous scenery, La Jolla packs a powerful economic punch as home to the University of California San Diego, one of the top research universities on the planet. This has attracted biotech giants like Scripps Research and Pfizer, whose La Jolla operations have been instrumental in developing one of the leading vaccines to fight COVID-19.  

North County San Diego Neighborhoods

Looking for a SoCal vibe that’s away from the hustle and bustle? You might want to consider North County, a mix of family-friendly coastal and inland neighborhoods about 25 miles north of downtown San Diego. Here are three North County coastal favorites:

Moonlight State Beach in Encinitas
Moonlight State Beach in Encinitas
(Source: Encinitas 101 Main Street Association via Facebook)

Encinitas: A Classic California Surf Town

An unspoiled reminder of the historic Highway 101 beach culture, Encinitas’ Swami Beach inspired the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” hit. While the beach is still one of San Diego’s prime surf spots, the city is now home to about 60,000 residents, including families who appreciate its top-rated schools, eclectic cafes and coffeehouses, and focus on outdoor living.

Looking at living half an hour north of San Diego in Encinitas? It’s a great spot, but pricey. The typical home value here is about $1.4m, with the lower prices coming inland, as one would expect. The average rent here is about $2,150 per month, but you can shop a variety of cute cottages and modern condos with easy access to the beach.  

Leucadia: The Funky Part of Encinitas

On the north end of Encinitas, Leucadia is a rustic beach community marked by its longstanding surf culture, highly walkable neighborhoods, and quaint dining and arts scene. Secluded beaches and gorgeous sunsets draw plenty of vacationers year-round, and the eclectic locals labor to “Keep Leucadia Funky” through a steady output of folksy art. That 1960s beach-bum culture aside, funky Leucadia has certainly proved to be a hot SoCal commodity.    

Looking to rent or buy in Leucadia? Plan to work another posh housing market. Luxury homes here list in the millions, while condo and townhome rentals are in the $2k-$3k range. You can also snag a variety of house rentals anywhere from $2k to $40k (that’s not a typo!) a month. 

Carlsbad Village: A Happy Place 

In 2017, Carlsbad, CA, popped up on National Geographic’s list of “Happiest Places” in the U.S., which probably came as no surprise to longtime fans of this prime stretch of West Coast living. Proximity to water, access to high-paying jobs, and a lifestyle culture combine to make Carlsbad a sweet spot for health and longevity. 

Here’s what to expect in Carlsbad: an array of high-end amenities and luxury shopping centers, a historic enclave of mineral spas and retreats, tons of golf courses, topnotch schools, and easy access to museums, parks, and entertainment. It’s also home to several corporate headquarters and high-end industries, thus supporting a unique job market with pipelines to both LA and San Diego economies. Add an abundance of hiking trails, beachfront, and great weather; it’s no wonder families choose to play the long game in Carlsbad.  

If you’re looking to buy in Carlsbad, you’ll find most of your selection in recently developed subdivisions. (Think backyard pools and long driveways.) The market for historic homes is highly competitive, occasionally surfacing with a stunning Mission Revival or sundrenched Victorian — all too quickly snatched up. The typical home value in Carlsbad is just over $1m, with average rent about $2,400 for about 1,000 square feet.

a couple is in the middle of packing for their move to one of the many San Diego neighborhoods

Planning Your Move to San Diego

With every relocation, it’s never too early to map out your timeline, budget costs, and vet the moving companies you’re going to trust to get all your personal belongings to your new home safe, sound, and on time. Whether you’re moving across the country or just leaving Los Angeles for more peaceful surroundings, consider choosing a solution like PODS moving and storage containers that give you maximum flexibility. From making it easy to change dates on a dime to having convenient built-in storage if you end up with time between homes, PODS is all about reducing the hassle and stress of moving so your first view of the Pacific Ocean will be that much sweeter. Cheers to SoCal living!

Amelia England is a content writer and regular contributor to the PODS blog. Between college, grad school, and seasonal adventures, she has downsized and relocated over 25 times.

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