Clear blue sky over the La Jolla, San Diego coast

San Diego vs Los Angeles (Honestly Compared By a CA Local)

As a California local who lives smack dab in the middle of both LA and San Diego, I’m here to help you compare San Diego vs Los Angeles. 

These two major California cities each have their perks but if you’re limited on time and need to choose just one, you’ll find what you need in this local guide. Los Angeles and San Diego are two of the best places to visit in California and the decision won’t be easy, but that’s why I’m here to help highlight the best of each California town.

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Which is Better: San Diego or Los Angeles?

Los Angeles is best for budget travelers and families wanting to hit the main California tourist attractions. San Diego, on the other hand, is the better choice for surf enthusiasts and couples hoping for a romantic weekend escape. 

Los Angeles is a more touristic town than San Diego due to its Hollywood claim to fame, but both Los Angeles and San Diego offer a diversity of attractions. LA is great for city activities like exploring museums and catching live sports games, whereas San Diego is a California beach hub laden with some of the best surf spots in the state.

Advantages of San Diego 

  • Less crowded surf beaches
  • A fancier array of restaurants and accommodation
  • Warm weather
  • Lots of family-friendly activities
  • A clean city overall
  • A vibrant brewery scene
  • A bustling nightlife district
  • Laid-back lifestyle

Advantages of Los Angeles

  • Thousands of things to do
  • Southern California’s biggest city
  • A huge array of food choices are available
  • Los Angeles International Airport
  • Close proximity to the best beaches in Southern California 
  • Buzzing city life
  • More affordable accommodations
  • Rideshares are readily available
  • The potential to spot celebrities or famous movie sets

San Diego is Best For

Los Angeles is Best For

  • First-time travelers
  • Families with small children 
  • City slickers
  • Day trips
  • Foodies looking to try excellent cuisine
  • Budget travelers

San Diego versus Los Angeles Detailed Comparison 

Clear blue sky over a bike path at the Venice Beach
The bike path at Venice Beach

You really can’t go wrong visiting either San Diego or Los Angeles next time you’re in Southern California. LA is a much bigger metropolitan city with 9.83 million people inhabiting Los Angeles County as opposed to the 3.3 million in San Diego County. 

That being said, there are many more tourist attractions in Los Angeles than in San Diego, making it the perfect destination for first-time California visitors. San Diego may be smaller than LA, but it boasts a surf culture that’s larger than life. 

The below chart compares San Diego vs Los Angeles based on categories like accommodation, cost, beaches, crowds, and things to do:

Feature / CategorySan Diego Los Angeles🏆 Winner
AccommodationBeachy rental options, hotels right on the waterDiverse accommodations offered, from budget hotels to luxurious abodesLos Angeles
Cost & BudgetPrices tend to be overall more expensive hereYou’ll find it all: extremely cheap & extremely expensiveLos Angeles
BeachesTop California surf beaches & a prime beach cultureBeaches for surfing and beach towns for people-watchingSan Diego
CrowdsWeekend crowds, can find isolated beachesOne of the most crowded and busiest CA citiesSan Diego
Things to DoMostly beach activities, nightlife, and museumsThousands upon thousands of tourist attractions, the city never sleeps!Los Angeles
Family FriendlinessA safe city for families, Wildlife Safari Park, SD ZooActivities for the whole family, some vulnerable inner-city areasSan Diego
Getting AroundRideshares and car rentals are the way to go here!Public transportation & rideshares are widely availableLos Angeles
WeatherMostly warm year-round with some ocean overcastWarm most of the year, ocean overcastSan Diego
RestaurantsReally good Mexican food & seafoodThe culinary capital of CA, every ethnic cuisine available imaginableLos Angeles

San Diego vs Los Angeles: Which Has Better Accommodation Options?

🏆 Winner: Los Angeles

View of waterfront houses in San Diego, California
San Diego waterfront houses

🏡 Rentals – Both San Diego and Los Angeles have ample rental options. However, there are far more rentals available in Los Angeles due to the sheer size of the massive city. Most San Diego rentals are either affordable apartments, quaint coastal cottages, or extravagant abodes right on the waterfront.

🏨 Budget Accommodation – Los Angeles has the most diverse array of budget accommodations, from budget hotels to 2-star motels and hostels. San Diego has cheap motels but most accommodation options are over $100 in the coastal city. 

🏩 Boutiques – San Diego takes the cake for cute boutiques right on the water. The sweet sea breeze and cottage-like accommodations make San Diego one of my favorite places to stay in a boutique.

🛎️ Luxury Accommodation – San Diego accommodations are overall more expensive but Los Angeles offers more luxurious accommodation options. If 5-star places to stay are your forte, Los Angeles is the place for you!

📚 Compare Your With Travel Lemming’s Local Guides: Where to Stay in Los Angeles, Where to Stay in San Diego

🏆 Winner: Los Angeles

San Diego vs Los Angeles: Which Is Cheaper?

🏆 Winner: Los Angeles

Tacos served in Los Angeles, California
Tacos are one of the most popular and budget-friendly foods in LA

🏖️ San Diego – San Diego’s reputation as an expensive city is a myth at best. Of course, you have to know where to look. Venture outside of the busy La Jolla area to find major budget-friendly deals on everything from food to accommodation, parking, tours, and more! For an even cheaper San Diego trip, travel with friends or family and split the cost of everything.

🌆 Los Angeles – Los Angeles has one of the biggest price gaps out of any U.S. city, and which LA neighborhood you choose to stay in will determine how much you spend. Stay outside of Beverly Hills to save on accommodation and eat from street vendors to save big time on food.

🏆 Winner: Los Angeles

👇 Watch my Youtube video on how to do LA on a budget:

San Diego vs Los Angeles: Where Are the Better Beaches?

View of a tent near a beach and the Oceanside Beach Pier from afar
The Oceanside Beach Pier

🏄 Surfing – San Diego’s proximity to the beach makes it a top choice for surfing. La Jolla, Trestles, and Oceanside are the top surf beaches in San Diego. Los Angeles also has top surf beaches like Huntington, San Clemente, Seal Beach, and Bolsa Chica.

🐋 Wildlife – Whale watching is one of the coolest things to do at a California beach. Whales can be spotted migrating along the Pacific Coast in the winter, making whale-watching tours a popular activity in both towns. San Diego has more seals, however, and wins this round for having better wildlife-spotting beaches. 

🌊 Kayaking – There are more options for kayaking at SD County beaches simply because there are more established beaches in SD County than in LA County. I do love kayaking around Catalina Island, however, an LA County island paradise.

👙 Sunbathing – I prefer sunbathing at the more remote beaches in San Diego. There are simply too many people at busy LA beaches like Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach. Try Black’s Beach and Torrey Pines State Beach in San Diego instead to sunbathe in peace.

📚 Compare Your With Travel Lemming’s Local Guides: Best LA Beaches; Best San Diego Beaches

🏆 Winner: San Diego

San Diego vs Los Angeles: Which Has Fewer Crowds?

View of people during the celebration of Dia de Los Muertos
A packed Dia de Los Muertos celebration in Olvera Street, Downtown Los Angeles

👨‍👩‍👧‍👧 San Diego – While San Diego boasts a large population compared to other small towns in California, it by no means measures up to the bulk of people living in LA. San Diego has the best of both worlds – large metropolitan areas like Downtown San Diego and smaller, quieter suburbs and beaches.

👨‍👩‍👧‍👧 Los Angeles – As the biggest city in California, Los Angeles experiences its fair share of tourists, especially in the summer. Traffic can be a headache around places like the Hollywood Sign and West Hollywood at this time. It’s also rare to encounter an LA County beach without heavy tourist crowds sunbathing on the beach in the summertime.

🏆 Winner: San Diego

San Diego vs Los Angeles: Which Has More Things to Do?

A Maya exhibit displayed in California Science Center
An ancient Maya exhibit at the California Science Center

⛰️ Outdoor Activities – LA County offers some of the coolest hikes in California like Mount Baldy and the Bridge to nowhere. Top national forests like the San Bernardino and San Jacinto National Forests are also but a short drive from LA. 

San Diego offers some fun hikes but is more focused on beachy outdoor activities like paddleboarding at Mission Beach or sunbathing on Coronado Beach. 

🏄 Surfing – The cool surf spots in California number in the hundreds. You’ll find top surf beaches in both San Diego and Los Angeles, bringing the winner of the surfing category to a tie. In LA, the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach is especially internationally-known.

Meanwhile in San Diego, La Jolla and Ocean Beach offer surfing options galore. Although they do experience a fair share of summer crowds, they never get as crowded as some popular LA beaches. 

🎨 Museums – It seems as if there’s a museum around every corner in Los Angeles. From art and music museums to sports halls and natural history museums, LA has it all! Some of my favorite Los Angeles museums include the La Brea Tar Pits, MOCA, LACMA, and the Natural History Museum.

Museums in San Diego, however, are few and far between compared to the “City of Angels.” Some top ones include Balboa Park, the Maritime Museum of San Diego, and the San Diego Museum of Art in the downtown area.

🎢 Theme Parks – Cool California theme parks are spread out throughout the state. The most popular theme parks, however, are located in Southern California near Los Angeles. Tourists travel from near and far to visit the magic of the original Disneyland, located in LA County.

Knott’s Berry Farm, Universal Studios Hollywood, and Six Flags Magic Mountain are also all situated near LA. San Diego boasts Sea World and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

📚 Compare Your With Travel Lemming’s Local Guides: Things to Do in LA; Things to Do in San Diego

🏆 Winner: Los Angeles

Los Angeles or San Diego: Which Is Better for Families?

View of a family watching dolphins in Sea World
A family admiring the dolphins at Sea World

👪 San Diego – The sunny beach neighborhoods of San Diego experience a much lower crime rate than Los Angeles beach towns like Santa Monica and Venice Beach. The most family-friendly areas in San Diego are along the waterfront and near Balboa Park. There isn’t as much for kids to do in Downtown San Diego so I advise sticking to the coast.

👪 Los Angeles – With any big city comes a higher possibility of danger. While there certainly are safe family-friendly places in Los Angeles like Beverly Hills and Griffith Park, LA tends to be more dangerous for small children overall. This is especially true in the evening almost everywhere in the big city. Don’t walk with children in areas like South Central and Skid Row.

🏆 Winner: San Diego

San Diego or Los Angeles: Which Offers More Transportation Options?

View at the Los Angeles train station at night
A Los Angeles train station at night

🚌 Buses – Buses are publicly available in both San Diego and Los Angeles but are more frequent in LA. Most tourists and San Diego commuters take the San Diego trolley to get around.

The Metrolink buses in Los Angeles are taken by a large fraction of commuting LA workers and students. Many different lines run throughout the big city at all hours, making this an efficient way to get around LA.

🚆 Trains – I personally commute one hour via train to Los Angeles on my school days. I’ve never felt unsafe and have been taking the train for years. The train even runs between Los Angeles and San Diego, which is a perfect option if you don’t feel like renting a car during your trip to California.

🚗 Rideshares – Rideshares make commuting in major metropolitan spaces as easy as ever. Skip renting a car by simply taking an Uber or Lyft everywhere. Rideshares are easily attainable in both Los Angeles and San Diego, making your trip hassle-free. 

✈️ Airports – The Los Angeles International Airport, or LAX for short, is one of the biggest airports in California with the most arriving and departing flights. You will likely save money on your flight if flying into LA as opposed to the smaller San Diego International Airport, a factor that may sway your decision of which California town to visit.

🏆 Winner: Los Angeles

🚗 Want to Rent a Car? Get around more efficiently in both Los Angeles and San Diego by renting a car. Go where you want when you want with a car rental from Discover Cars, my go-to rental company in the U.S.

Los Angeles vs San Diego: Where’s the Best Weather?

Overlooking view of a beach in San Diego, California
A sunny San Diego beach day

🌼 Summer – It’s hard to beat the sun-soaked atmosphere of Southern California summer weather. Still, I recommend visiting San Diego in the summer due to the fact that it’s so close to the Mexican border. Bring your passport and hop on over for some fresh summer tacos and refreshing raspados (shaved ice and fruit).

🍂 Fall – I recommend spending fall near the Los Angeles forests to witness the vibrant fall foliage change color. Fall is also one of the best times to hike in LA because the excruciating summer temps have finally cooled down and the winter storms haven’t yet begun.

🌧️ Winter – Escape the “cold” of a California winter down by the San Diego beach. The sun still peaks through on most winter days and you’ll often find many San Diego locals still sunbathing on the beaches. Stay in a San Diego hotel right on the ocean or in an affordable hostel to spend as much time as possible away from the miserable cold of the big city in the winter.

🌼 Spring – I love spending the spring hiking in the forests of Southern California witnessing the springtime wildflower blooms. I don’t love the air quality of Los Angeles city smog, however, and prefer the smog-less trails of San Diego during this time. 

🏆 Winner: San Diego

🛏️ Looking for Budget Accommodation? Here are some of the top San Diego hostels. 

Los Angeles or San Diego: Which Has Better Restaurants?

A morning sweets served in Baker's Bench Chinatown
Some early morning sweets from Chinatown

🍽️ San Diego – San Diego has its fair share of great restaurants. This coastal town is mostly known for its world-famous, delicious Mexican food, cool San Diego breweries, and seafood, given its coastal location right on the Mexican border. You’ll find restaurants with fresh handmade tortillas in Old Town San Diego and the best lobster dinner downtown.

🍽️ Los Angeles – Los Angeles is the culinary capital of California. You’ll find food from every different ethnic background in the big city, from cheap street food to more luxurious dining options. Keep an open mind when exploring top LA restaurants, and an even emptier stomach. El Tepeyac and Phillipe the Original are some of my favorite LA restaurants.

🏆 Winner: Los Angeles

Final Verdict – San Diego or Los Angeles?

Los Angeles is the better choice for your first time in California. There are more tourist attractions, more affordable accommodations, a wide variety of food, and a unique LA culture not found elsewhere in the state. LA is also the better option for sports fans, business people, and budget travelers.

San Diego is the better choice for travelers who don’t like big crowds. SD is no small town but receives far fewer tourists than nearby Los Angeles, and the traffic isn’t as bad. The San Diego beaches are also cleaner and quieter and this is the perfect place to have a romantic weekend getaway.

FAQs About LA vs San Diego

Is Los Angeles different from San Diego?

Los Angeles has a completely different vibe from San Diego. It’s more city-oriented with tons of skyscrapers, museums, businesses, sports arenas, and local housing. San Diego, on the other hand, is more laid back and has less of a big-city feel.

Is San Diego more expensive than LA?

San Diego is overall more expensive to visit than LA. The cost of living in Los Angeles is slightly more than San Diego but affordable places to live can still be found on the outskirts of town. Accommodation, food, and transport are more expensive for tourists in San Diego.

Does San Diego or Los Angeles have better beaches?

San Diego County has cleaner beaches than Los Angeles County. They’re also less crowded, making the waves easier to pick up for surfers. Los Angeles has top surf beaches but they tend to be overpopulated due to the sheer number of LA tourists each summer.

Is it worth going to San Diego?

A trip to San Diego is definitely worth all the hype. Old Town has charming architecture and delicious food, the San Diego Safari Park is a fun excursion your child is sure to remember, and the beaches are some of the most scenic in the whole state.


You made it to the end of my San Diego vs Los Angeles guide! Let me know in the comments which you enjoyed more on your travels, LA or SD?

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