The College Student’s Guide to San Diego

In August 2013, I packed up my parents’ car, jumped on the I-5, and drove over 400 miles from a wine country town in Northern California to UC San Diego. When I pulled up to the unloading curb, I knew little about San Diego other than from the pictures I had seen on Google and a couple of family road trips over the years. Now that I’ve navigated the city on foot, on bus, and online for four years, here’s what I wish I’d known when I arrived that first fall day.


Free Activities

No matter which college you attend here, you won’t have to go far to find a great time. At UCSD, you’re within walking distance of a beach day at Black’s, Scripps, or La Jolla Shores. At USD, you’re a quick bike ride away from Mission Bay, and at Point Loma Nazarene, you can walk down to the beach on Sunset Cliffs (Young Hall is situated right on the cliff). Take advantage of all the free things to do—many of which also keep you healthy and active. Bonfires on the beach, hiking Cowles Mountain, walking along OB Pier, watching the sunset from Torrey Pines Gliderport, free summer movies at Villa La Jolla Neighborhood Park and Point Loma Community Park—these are just a few of the many ways to have a fun day even on a tight budget.



No car? No need to fret. There are several options for finding your way around San Diego. Most colleges offer free or discounted bus and trolley passes, which make it easier and cheaper to get around the city. Bikes and boards are another great option—but be sure to know your terrain. Beach cruisers are great for flatter surfaces, but try riding that sucker up the Gilman Drive hill at UCSD and you won’t be loving it anymore. If your college has a lot of hills or you plan on biking longer distances, opt for a more commuter-friendly bike. Uber, Lyft, and traditional taxi services are also available. Some colleges even offer promo codes for free or discounted rides, so ask around.


Student Discounts

One of my biggest regrets is not having discovered all the perks of my student ID until my last year. Several grocery stores, restaurants, adventure tours, museums, movie theaters, and more offer student discounts all around San Diego, and they often don’t publicize it. When you’re going somewhere for the first time, check out their website and see if they offer student discounts.

Here are a few:


  • Birch Aquarium—$3.50 off
  • AMC Fashion Valley—10% off
  • San Diego Museum of Art—$7 off
  • Museum of Contemporary Art—50% off
  • Padres games—College nights at Petco Park
  • San Diego Zoo/Safari Park—10%


  • Caroline’s Seaside Cafe—10% off
  • Garden Fresh—10% off
  • Woodstock’s—$6 off
  • Bristol Farms—10% off


Where to Buy Groceries

Once I moved off campus, I ended up spending the next year experimenting in the grocery store scene. Ralphs, Vons, Trader Joe’s, Sprouts, Whole Foods, Bristol Farms… the list goes on and it was really overwhelming as a young college kid looking for cheap groceries. After comparing prices, portions, and variety, Trader Joe’s is the winner in my book. It’s become my go-to store. It’s easy, quick, and offers products in smaller portions, which is especially convenient when you’re only shopping for one. Plus, they’re still selling their iconic "Two-Buck Chuck" wine (although it’s closer to a "Three-Buck Chuck" these days). Unless you must have specific name-brand items on your grocery list, Trader Joe’s is the place to go.


Where to Find Free Wi-Fi and Good Study Vibes

  • Brick & Bell, La Jolla (two locations)
  • Meraki Cafe, University Heights
  • Young Hickory, North Park
  • Krakatoa, South Park
  • Lestat’s, Hillcrest, University Heights, Normal Heights
  • Te Mana Cafe, Ocean Beach
  • Swell Coffee Co., Del Mar, Mission Beach


What I’ve Learned (Outside the Classroom)

  • Taco Tuesday is pretty much a religious holiday
  • Sunscreen is not a suggestion
  • We put fries in our burritos—aka the California burrito
  • San Diego is a hub of arts and culture—explore!
  • Boards are everywhere—surfboards, long boards, penny boards…
  • We don’t have a professional football team
  • Don’t be deceived; San Diego sunsets are actually more spectacular when there are some clouds out. January is an awesome month for Instagram.
  • The weather is all it’s cracked up to be
  • Most neighborhoods have their own weekly farmers’ market
  • Pacific Beach is the party place to be for college students

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