13 Of The Best Songs About San Diego: America’s Finest City Playlist

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Written by Laura Macmillan
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San Francisco and Los Angeles get so much press, and many people have written about them in books and songs. But what about San Diego? The city is a wonderful place to visit. There’s excellent surfing, lots of sun, and mostly a laid-back population.

It’s not surprising that artists have written about this place, too, often focusing on surfing. However, there are many other aspects to America’s Finest City (that’s a nickname for the area, not a statement of opinion).

Here are 13 of the best songs about San Diego. Some don’t lavish praise on the place, as even the brightest spot still has shadows, but they paint a great picture.

Related: Check out our list of California songs here.

1. “Surfin’ USA” by The Beach Boys

San Diego is a lovely town known for its world-famous zoo, but it’s also a heck of a surf town.

While Brian Wilson and the rest of the Beach Boys never call out San Diego by name, they do list off a number of great places to surf in San Diego and it’s the only town that gets multiple shout-outs.

Del Mar and the Trestles are two spots in north San Diego, and Swami’s is a cafe San Diego surfers hit up often, and the surfing in the south part of San Diego happens at San Onofre.

If you’ve never been to California or never surfed or both, these can seem like inside baseball references, but that may be the point. Surfers are notoriously insular, so they may not want you to know all the good spots.

2. “Thirty More Miles to San Diego” by Dean Martin

There’s a genre of songs in which a man has been away from his girl for a time. Maybe he’s off at war, on the road with a band, or perhaps just off trying to “find himself.” No, he’s trying to get back home before she moves on and forgets about him.

Dean Martin’s “Thirty More Miles to San Diego” is part of that canon. Our narrator, a truck driver, is just outside of San Diego, almost home after a long time away. He wonders if his girl has packed her bags or if, even worse, she’s already gone.

3. “Balboa Park” by Bruce Springsteen

From The Boss’s 1995 album “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” “Balboa Park” is a dark, downer of a song that reminds us that even in the most beautiful places, a dark underbelly lurks.

The whole album is full of darkness— songs about shady people and people’s questionable choices. In the past, San Diego’s Balboa Park was a popular place among Latin American immigrants who had no place to sleep. 

In the song, Springsteen starts his poetic lyrics focussing on a protagonist who has slept in the park. He used to be a drug mule and is now a male prostitute. As the song progresses, he and his friends spiral downward until one of them dies in a hit-and-run. 

It’s not the cheeriest song, but it’s gritty and real. What else would you expect from Bruce Springsteen?

4. “My Town” by Buck-O-Nine

San Diego-based ska band Buck-O-Nine brings us a song that does what pretty much every ska song does: makes you feel pretty good. You can’t help but tap your foot to this one, which seems like one of the pillars of ska.

While “My Town” doesn’t specifically reference San Diego, mentions of surfing, ambient reggae music in the neighborhood, and the ocean, coupled with our knowledge that San Diego is home to these guys makes it hard not to connect the song to the City in Motion.

5. “They Go To San Diego” by Mel Torme and the Mel-Tones

The Velvet Fog sings the praises of San Diego in this ditty with a post-war feel. It starts with a bossa nova feel before opening up to a big swing. 

The lyrics, cleverly written with witty rhymes (“archipelago” and “San Diego”? That’s gold), tell of several different people— dignitaries, widows, new lovers— who all head for the coast.

Torme makes a point of listing other possible destinations, like Minnesota, spots in Europe, and Tierra del Fuego, that might make suitable spots for the different characters. The overarching point of the song is that the decision is a no-brainer. 

Why would you go anywhere when you have the option of going to San Diego?

6. “San Diego” by The Starlight Mints

Admittedly, this is a weird song. Lyrically, anyway. Someone will need to explain what a “lipstick portable” is. Since the song came out in 2003, it’s not a tiny smartphone charger.

Anyway, while it’s not exactly a love song to the city, it does mention the iconic palm trees and the ocean. 

The Starlight Mints imbue most of their songs with a grittiness that makes them vibrate more than just through the speakers, and “San Diego” fits that description. And it’s a fun listen.

7. “Tell ‘Em I’m Surfin’” by Jan & Dean 

Another surfing song? Of course. This is a list of songs about San Diego, so we’re not going to find many tunes about baking.

The lyric about being out and wind and sea are actually about Windandsea Beach, a popular San Diego surf spot. Sure, the lyrics also mention Malibu, but be honest: you associate surfing with San Diego more than Malibu.

“Tell ‘Em I’m Surfin’” contains the wholesome naivete of so many surfing songs from Jan & Dean’s catalog (and other bands), so it’s a nice throwback to listen to in a world where so many albums come with Parental Advisory stickers.

8. “Pretty Girl From San Diego” by The Avett Brothers

The Avett Brothers don’t sing about the city in the song but about the girl from San Diego who loves him. Not a typical love song, “Pretty Girl From San Diego” tells of the titular girl who loves the narrator. His response? He wants to love her back.

It would seem he can’t bring himself to do it, no matter the music he hears or the feelings he has for the pretty girl. 

9. “Get ‘Em Outta Here” by Sprung Monkey

These San Diego rockers have made a niche market out of getting their songs into episodic television shows, but this ode to the band’s hometown calls out the haters and other unpleasantness of everyday life.

The implication is that if you could get the tweakers, the harassing cops, posers, and other irritants outta here, San Diego would be even lovelier than it already is.

This 1998 hit has a rousing call-and-response chorus that begs to be shouted. Live, this song is probably tons of fun.

10. “Rosalita” by Bruce Springsteen

“Rosalita” is that rare love song that isn’t slow and schmaltzy. Springsteen himself admits that the song is autobiographical, telling the story of the love he had for a girl whose parents disapproved, but he soldiers on.

When, in the song, he gets a record deal, he proves to everyone that they were wrong about him.

The San Diego connection comes later in the song (the fifth and final verse), and it’s only mentioned in passing. However, in the song, the city serves as the couple’s Shangri-La— if we can just get there, I know where we can go listen to music and be happy.

11. “San Diego” by My So-Called Friend

This tune from a little-known but up-and-coming Boston band tells of a guy who’s lost his girl. She left him behind, headed for the West Coast, having told him simply, “I’m gone.” Her last words to him were that she was going to San Diego.

In the wake of her departure, he imagines her on Beacon Street, living a life without him. He idly wonders if he should follow her out there but never makes a decision, which might give us a clue as to why she left in the first place.

My So-Called Friend’s sound echoes that of their Boston compatriot’s Letters to Cleo, meaning there’s a specific Boston sound— guitar power pop with singable melodies and interesting chords. Since the release of “San Diego,” the group has changed its name to Shanghai Thrills.

12. “Earthquakes & Sharks” by Brandston

Our narrator has a pretty bad time in the Plymouth of the West. He gets warned about the natural dangers of San Diego and its surrounding areas but goes anyway.

By his own account, he wasn’t warned until after he’d been attacked by a shark and had a stroke. In the aftermath, he gets his warning from a girl in a dream, but he doesn’t heed it.

So he then faces killer bees, oppressive heat, and earthquakes, among other misfortunes. But this isn’t a song about staying away from San Diego. It’s upbeat and tongue-in-cheek (what song with the word “chupacabra” in the chorus isn’t?).

Besides, natural threats exist everywhere, and that doesn’t mean the city they happen in is a bad place. 

13. “The San Diego Chargers Anthem” by P.O.D.

This song has to appear on a list of this sort. It’s about a football team, that team’s home city, and it’s more than just “our football team is good and we want them to win.”

The heavy guitars and menacing beat are somewhat at odds with the fact that the song is about a team that plays a game, but then again, football is kind of violent.

P.O.D. makes sure to mention how much they hate the Raiders, too, and that’s pretty darn San Diego of them.

Summing Up Our List Of San Diego Songs

With so many songs about San Diego (and so very many of them simply called “San Diego”), we couldn’t include them all, but our list represents a wide array of styles and genres.

But, which songs do you think we missed that deserve a place on this list? Let us know and we’ll add them in!

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Laura has over 12 years experience teaching both classical and jazz saxophone and clarinet. She now resides in California where she works as a session and live performer.