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See San Diego by Bus, Train and Trolley
by Jaimie Hall-Bruzenak

San Diego offers visitors a wide range of attractions and activities, and the moderate climate means few rainy days. Even better, San Diego's mass transit system is so easy to use that there's no need to drive your vehicle or hassle with parking. Native San Diegan Jaimie Hall Bruzenak tells you how to enjoy the city by bus, train and trolley.

San Diego Skyline

San Diego skyline from the Bay from the San Diego Bay Ferry

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Photo by George Bruzenak


San Diego is a visitor's dream. You can see many of its major attractions without driving your own vehicle. You don't even have to pay to stay at a hotel in town. You can stay on the outskirts of San Diego and easily get to much that the city has to offer by public transportation. San Diego Trolley lines whisk you in from La Mesa or El Cajon to the east or from National City or Chula Vista to the south. Or you can stay in one of the northern beach towns and ride Amtrak or the Coaster commuter train into the city. Once you're downtown, the area's famous bays and beaches, the harbor, Balboa Park, northern beach towns and even Mexico are a short ride - or even only a walk - away.

Along the bay
San Diego has a beautiful waterfront and bay. Taking the trolley downtown to the Santa Fe Depot (Blue and Red lines) or to American Plaza station (Orange line) will put you within two blocks of the Embarcadero. As you walk along Harbor Drive, you'll see ships from the Naval Air Station North Island in the bay. Highlights are the Maritime Museum, with its seven historic ships, and the USS Midway Museum at Navy Pier, where you can board and explore a decommissioned aircraft carrier. You'll also find harbor cruises and excursions leaving from the Embarcadero. Seaport Village, a shopping center, is a short walk or pedicab ride south from there.

For a more active day, load your bikes on the trolley and bike along the waterfront on the San Diego side. Or take the San Diego Bay Ferry at the Broadway pier to Coronado for walking or biking. On the ferry, enjoy the San Diego skyline and the naval ships, then, if you don't have your own, rent bicycles at the Coronado Ferry Landing and bike along the bay. The bike path continues south nine miles along the Silver Strand to Imperial Beach. Tunnels permit access to the ocean side. A donut shop is located at 7th Street and Palm in Imperial Beach, if you need sustenance!

Returning, come through town by the famous Hotel del Coronado and down Orange Avenue, the main street back to Ferry Landing. The Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) Bus 904 at the landing will take you down Orange or to the Hotel del Coronado as well.

Public transportation in San Diego. San Diego's Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) includes trolley, bus and Coaster service. Use the trip planner to get detailed information on routes and times for weekdays and weekends.

Bicycles. You can take your bicycle on the MTS trolley, bus and Coaster. Download the brochure beforehand. The number of bikes per bus or car is limited. Don't forget bike locks.

San Diego Trolley. Three lines converge in downtown San Diego: Orange, Green and Blue. An all-day $5 regional day pass is the best deal, and transfers to most bus lines are included. On Saturdays and Sundays, two children 12 and under may ride free with any paying passenger 18 or older. Check the Web site for other discounts and special fares.

Buses. From the trolley you can take buses to Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo. From downtown, take Bus 7.

Coaster. The Coaster runs Monday through Saturday between the Santa Fe Depot in San Diego and the transit center in Oceanside, with stops in several beach towns. A round-trip ticket costs a maximum of $12, and there are discounts for seniors, children and trolley riders. The Coaster does not run on Sundays.

Amtrak. Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner runs from the Santa Fe Depot in San Diego north to San Luis Obispo, with stops in Old Town, Solana Beach, Oceanside, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano. Adult fare is $15 one-way to San Juan Capistrano.

San Diego Bay Ferry. The ferry to Coronado departs from the Broadway Pier on the hour, every hour from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and departs the Coronado Ferry Landing on the half-hour until 10:30 p.m.

Other resources

"Disability Accessible Travel in San Diego", a travel guide from the San Diego Tourism Authority providing resources and information on accessible hotels, tours, lift transportation, attractions and more.

Bike rentals in Coronado. The most convenient is Holland's Bikes and Beyond in the Ferry Landing Shops at the ferry landing in Coronado; (619) 435-7180.

San Juan Capistrano and the northern beach towns
Amtrak and the Coaster serve towns along the coast north of San Diego. The tracks follow right along the ocean at some points. Amtrak continues north of Oceanside through Camp Pendleton, the only undeveloped section of coast between San Diego and Los Angeles. Each town has some appeal. Check the schedule to plan your trip.

San Juan Capistrano is a fun destination. Pick up a copy of the walking tour of the historic downtown at the information kiosk at the train station. Mission San Juan Capistrano, a short walk from the train depot, is one of 21 California missions founded by Father Junípero Serra. It's best known for the swallows that return each year on St. Joseph's Day, Mar. 19. Enjoy the lovely grounds and discover more about its history through interpretive signs and exhibits. You'll find shops and restaurants all within a short walk of the train depot along Camino Capistrano Street and across the tracks in Los Rios Historic District. My sister, a Californian who visits the town frequently, recommends the nearby historic El Adobe restaurant on Camino Capistrano for excellent Mexican food. You can also eat right at the depot.

Amtrak stops at San Clemente Pier on the ocean if you'd like to relax at the beach. From the Carlsbad Village Station of the Coaster, it is a 20-minute bus ride to Legoland on MTS Bus 321 (Monday through Friday only).

San Diego's Spanish heritage
A short trolley ride from downtown on the Red or Blue line takes you to the Old Town section of San Diego, the site of the original settlement. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park encompasses several blocks surrounding Plaza de las Armas; the visitor center and interpretive center are at the northwest end. Some buildings are maintained as museums, while others house shops. Look to the northeast and you'll see the domed tower of the Junípero Serra Museum in Presidio Park on top of the hill. A short walk takes you to the mission-style building, built in 1929 by businessman George Marston. Located on the site of the original mission and presidio, or fort, it commemorates San Diego's early history and was the first home of the San Diego Historical Society. The views from the tower are worth the hike.

Adjacent to Old Town, Heritage Park Victorian Village showcases six restored Victorian houses and the first synagogue in San Diego. Between the state park and Presidio Park is my favorite Mexican restaurant, Casa Guadalajara. Patio seating is pleasant, the food delicious and the margaritas are excellent! The Bazaar del Mundo, a colorful shopping area, is next door.

The Green line of the trolley will take you east to San Diego's Mission San Diego de Alcala. The first of Serra's missions in California, it was built in Old Town in 1769 and later moved six miles to the east. It's about a block walk from the Mission San Diego stop.

South to the border
The Blue line of the trolley runs south from San Diego to Tijuana. As you approach the border you can see the mass of ramshackle dwellings on the Mexico side. Even from this vantage point you can appreciate the contrast in living conditions on the two sides of the border. From the trolley stop you can walk across the border and take a taxi to Avenida Revolución, the heart of Tijuana's shopping district, then walk around the downtown. It's about a 10-minute taxi ride. Start with the block between 3rd and 4th Streets. Don't forget to negotiate the fare and bargain with the shopkeepers. That's half the fun!

If you want to see a little of Mexico, I recommend a bus tour that takes you across the border to Ensenada or Rosarita, two coastal towns on the Baja peninsula. You can see the beauty of its coast and a much different picture of life in Mexico than you can in border towns. Several companies offer day trips. Five Star Tours is one.

Before visiting, check the State Department travel advisories, including any specific ones for Baja California state, and consult the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's information on travel to Mexico. For the requirements to re-enter the United States, see their information about the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.
(updated to current as of May, 2020 by Tom Herbertson)


View San Diego, California in a larger map


Balboa Park
A visit to San Diego would not be complete without a visit to Balboa Park. Land was set aside for the park in 1868. The oldest buildings are Spanish Renaissance-style buildings constructed for the 1915 Exposition, the first of two World's Fairs to be held in San Diego. From downtown, take MTS Bus 7. If you have bicycles, you can load them on the bus bike carrier. Or explore using the free tram in the park, which leaves from the bus stop at Park and Presidents Way. The visitors center is located in the House of Hospitality, one of the tram stops.

Balboa Park's San Diego Zoo is world-famous. If you decide to visit the zoo, I recommend arriving as early as you can and taking the guided bus tour to get an overview of the whole zoo. Then go back and see the areas that appeal to you with the time and energy you have remaining.

Purchasing a Balboa Park Explorer Pass is a good deal if you plan more than one visit. Admission to 13 of the 15 museums is included and it is good for seven days. A zoo admission can be added. Besides museums, there is a lovely arboretum and an international village. Check the events calendar for Shakespeare performances, puppet shows, the Starlight Theater, free Sunday concerts in the Organ Pavilion and other offerings.

This taste of San Diego will probably leave you wanting more. Whenever I come back for a visit, these places are the first on my list. Taking advantage of public transportation makes exploring San Diego an adventure - a bit of an urban challenge that I love to share, especially with my grandchildren.

Jaimie Hall-Bruzenak

(Updated July 21, 2023, RTA)


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