Travel Guides

San Diego: Healthcare Employment Location Guide

Healthcare professionals (HCPs) starting their travel careers often ask where the best locations are to live and work as travel nurses or allied health professionals. While there are plenty of great choices to consider, I’m pretty sure that every traveler I’ve ever met wanted to go to San Diego at some point in time. And who wouldn’t?

Located a few hours south of Los Angeles and just over the U.S./Mexican border, San Diego is known for beautiful year-round weather, dry air, warm beaches and laid-back city life. It’s also known for its high cost of living, especially if you want to live on or near the beach. North of San Diego is the playground that is the great state of California, where in under three hours, you can be at a ski mountain or enjoying the gorgeous Malibu beaches. It’s no wonder many HCPs take an assignment at a San Diego hospital and end up staying permanently.

Major San Diego Hospitals

  • Scripps Hospitals: This San Diego healthcare system’s size and trauma level can vary, but work environments are reportedly great. Scripps Green Hospital is frequently mentioned among travelers as an especially wonderful place to work.
  • Kaiser Permanente Medical Center: Kaiser facilities are known for hiring travel HCPs in California and are a great place to start your travel nursing career because they accept first-time travel nurses. There are several medical centers, but two are central to San Diego and include a Level III trauma center. American Mobile Network (AMN) is the managed service provider for Kaiser facilities in California, meaning they have an exclusive contract with Kaiser. But, AMN has many sister companies or “sub-vendors” that help supplement Kaiser’s staffing needs.
  • Sharp HealthCare: Another regional healthcare organization that provides access to healthcare in many different types of neighborhoods. Sharp Memorial and Sharp Grossmont are the facilities that most frequently hire travelers.
  • UC San Diego Medical Center and Associate Facilities: UC San Diego Medical Center is a major teaching hospital in the city as the academic health system of the University of California, San Diego. The Medical Center is a Level I trauma center with 381 beds. The med center is known for advancing surgery, imaging, cancer treatment and cardiovascular care in the San Diego area.

Cost of Living in San Diego

San Diego’s high cost of living is renowned since it costs about 60% more to live here than the U.S. average, according to Sperling’s Best Places. Average housing costs in the area are nearly three times the national cost, with the median home price at a whopping $833,500. However, it’s not impossible to find something affordable if you’re willing to make a few compromises. Living on or near the beach will most likely cost you upwards of $2,500 per month for a studio apartment. Anything larger will run closer to at least $3,000, with limited square footage. The farther you get from the beach and the more the neighborhood is developed, the lower the cost of rent. As usual, rent always depends on amenities, the number of roommates and whether you have pets.

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Travel Nursing in San Diego

Pay at San Diego hospitals varies depending on specialty, trends in travel nursing, staffing shortages and facility needs. Typically, pay is higher in San Diego than in other U.S. locations due to the city’s higher cost of living. In fact, California ranked No. 1 on our list of Top 5 Highest Paying Staff RN Locations in 2023. Make sure you browse Vivian’s San Diego travel nursing jobs to get a great indication of the current pay range. You can also look up real-time salary data for staff and travel roles across any discipline, specialty and location using Vivian’s comprehensive Healthcare Salary Tool.

One word of advice, don’t work at any hospital that describes itself as a “prime location on the Mexican Border.” That’s a special kind of adventure that places you in a potentially risky location and could disappoint you professionally.

Average Nurse and Allied Health Pay Rates in San Diego

Vivian had nearly 1,000 postings for various staff and travel nursing or allied health jobs in San Diego in mid-June 2023. Positions included roles at top hospitals and healthcare facilities throughout the city. The following table displays the average and maximum pay for registered nurses (RNs) and allied health workers during this period.

Discipline Average Pay Rate Max Pay Rate
Staff Registered Nurse $50/hour $71/hour
Travel Registered Nurse $2,435/week $4,382/week
Staff Allied Health Professional $34/hour $100/hour
Travel Allied Health Professional $2,431/week $3,920/week

Top recruited RN specialties include PICU, telemetry, ICU, cath lab, ED, OR, CVPICU, med surg and Pediatric CVICU nursing. In-demand allied health professionals include ultrasound technologists, CT technologists, cardiovascular technologists, interventional radiology technologists, cath lab technologists and vascular interventional technicians.

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Top San Diego Neighborhoods

With nearly 1.4 million residents, San Diego has a wide range of neighborhoods and short-term accommodations from which to choose. Below are some top picks for travel HCPs based on amenities, location and housing options.

  1. Ocean Beach: This area offers quintessential San Diego living. Ocean Beach has surf-life vibes, walkable streets with enchanting shops, tasty food spots and plenty of beaches to go around. The beautiful Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is also just a short walk or ride away.
  2. Normal Heights: Deeper in the city and full of unique businesses, Normal Heights is a lively area known for outdoor events and concerts. Coffee shops, antique shops, hip bars and a cool atmosphere draw residents and visitors alike. Recommended for HCPs who like the social scene, this neighborhood offers more affordable accommodations that are closer to the beach.
  3. Little Italy: Close to the lively Gaslamp Quarter, this area is full of quaint old-school Italian neighborhoods with walkable streets that entice you with the smell of good cooking. A farmer’s market, patio dining and fun music venues add to the appeal. Little Italy’s prime location is close to the airport and many of San Diego’s attractions.
  4. La Jolla: The jewel of San Diego’s neighborhoods, this gorgeous area comes with prices to match. La Jolla features beautiful seaside cliffs, tide pools, seal watching and tropical scenery. The stunning coastline, combined with easy access to shopping, local eateries and over 1,000 acres of State Reserve land, makes the cost of living here tempting if you can swing it.
  5. North Park: Probably the most affordable location on this list, North Park is popular with students and young professionals. I have two friends who are travel nurses and paid around $1,500 per month for adorable Airbnbs in this neighborhood. They love to reminisce about their banana and lemon trees in the backyard. Locally-owned coffee hangouts, brunch spots and breweries are a part of the scene, and nightlife is chill and friendly.

Areas to Avoid Living: Basically, you want to stay north of Chula Vista and west of Interstate 5. Neighborhoods south of this area tend to have lower ratings the closer you get to the Mexican border, such as Oak Park and San Ysidro. The Gaslamp Quarter has tons of places for a fun night out, but if you like peace and quiet then you should avoid living in that area. The Mission Valley area has the highest crime rate in the city, with Lemon Grove, East Village and the downtown area also ranking as unsafe.

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San Diego Area Attractions

Sunset Cliffs: Go during sunset and you won’t be disappointed. And if you time it right, you can walk to the open ceiling rock. But the tide has to be a negative tide (-1 or more) for you to safely see this awesome piece of rock. Even then, the water may be knee-deep, so be prepared. Go down to the end of Luscomb’s Point and take the trail that the surfers use to access the water. Don’t attempt to navigate the slippery, steep, shady trail from the cove.

Balboa Park: Located closer to the city center, this greenspace is filled with elegant historical buildings, gardens and museums. It’s also adjacent to the famous San Diego Zoo. If you’re motivated to avoid weekend crowds, you can squeeze visits to both into one weekday if you get up early. There’s also a huge SeaWorld theme park and aquarium in Mission Bay Park that’s situated essentially on its own island.

Point Loma: If you have a car or know someone who does, this scenic drive ends at a gorgeous monument with an amazing view of the Pacific. During low tide, you can walk over to the tide pool area on the west side of the park. However, public transport no longer takes riders to this attraction.

Mission Beach: Take a stroll or go rollerblading on the boardwalk to experience the California lifestyle. Mission Beach is a great place to people-watch, make friends and get a nice tan. It offers three miles of fresh seafood, fried fair food, an amusement park, shops and fun in the sun.

Surf Lessons: San Diego is the perfect spot to take that first step towards becoming a surfing legend. Pacific Beach has an array of shops that offer lessons for all levels of surfers. It’s also a great spot to watch other surfers for a little while and plan your outing. The people who work in the surf shops are usually super friendly and helpful to beginners.

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Top San Diego Foodie Spots

There’s no shortage of scrumptious food to sample in San Diego. From fresh seafood to Mexican and fusion cuisines, San Diego offers it all. I’ve selected a few favorite spots for you to try when you have a day off and you’re ready to explore.

Tacos: I’ve heard from multiple people that Puesto Tacos is a favorite spot that travel nurses love to frequent. Locations are in La Jolla, Mission Valley and on West Harbor Drive. They have all sorts of tacos including fish, chicken, shrimp, lamb, braised short rib, mushroom and more. If you go to the La Jolla location, you can even walk over and see the seals before you eat. Locals also love Humberto’s, Azteca and Ed Fernandez for feeding their taco cravings. There’s even a local Taco Tour bus that takes you on a guided historical tour with stops for tacos!

Hipster Food: Herb and Wood is a lush yet cozy place in Little Italy with an ever-changing farm to table menu. Items like truffle-topped pizza, oxtail gnocchi, roasted chicken and a variety of vegan or vegetarian options make this a fantastic spot to enjoy a night of delicious food. The Smoking Goat, Garage Kitchen, Wormwood and Queenstown Public House are other popular spots.

Fine Dining: Treat yourself to an oceanside table and enjoy great food and views at one of the area’s amazing restaurants. There are plenty of places to dine in San Diego where you can pay much more for dinner and drinks, but Juniper & Ivy keeps coming up in conversations with my colleagues. Juniper & Ivy serves a menu that changes frequently from chefs who have an eye for beautiful and delectable plates. They serve dinner nightly, brunch on Sundays and have a lovely bar and lounge. Other top picks include A.R. Valentien, Eddie V’s Prime Seafood, Top of the Market and Fleming’s Steakhouse.

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Bars and Nightlife

The Gaslamp Quarter is recognized as the city’s prime spot for nightlife. This area can get loud, no doubt about it. But it’s worth it to have a view of the charming historical buildings preserved from the Victorian Era and the trendy vibes radiating from the rooftop bars and stylish lounges. Weekdays tend to be quieter than the weekends, but a good time is always had in this picturesque part of San Diego. There are 16 blocks to explore and discover hip nightclubs with DJs, live music, burlesque shows, jazz clubs and more. A lot of travel nurses come to this area to meet people and make friends.

Polite Provisions is a wonderful cocktail bar near the North Park area of San Diego. Their cocktail menu changes often and includes an eclectic mix of spirits, plus wine and some seriously good-looking microbrews. They also offer cocktail classes if you’re looking to learn the art.

Wonderland Ocean Pub is a waterfront pub in Ocean Beach with floor to ceiling windows that let you stare out at the Pacific. The food is plentiful and the drinks are flowing until at least midnight daily. Visit this pub to watch a sunset, have a drink with your travel nursing friends and catch the game on TV.

With a wide variety of options, San Diego nightlife can be as chill or as wild as you want it to be. If you’re willing to pay some cash, you can get into the trendy clubs but these nightlife hotspots usually require bottle service at the very least. There are also pool parties and club crawls for your entertainment.

Day Trips and Exploring

As mentioned above, San Diego is the southern entry to the natural wonder that is the state of California. There’s so much to do and see in this state, and a lot of it can be reached within a few hours drive of San Diego. Los Angeles is within 2.5 to 3 hours driving time from San Diego. You could easily explore L.A. for a day, see the Hollywood sign, check out Beverly Hills, shop on Melrose, etc., and return home that night. Try to leave before or after rush hour traffic or you may spend more time on the highway than seeing the sights. There’s also a bus or train option with a similar transport time that drops you off in the middle of downtown L.A.

Joshua Tree National Park is a nature reserve filled with small wonders. It’s worth the 3-hour journey to experience the Mojave desert landscape, cacti and rock climbing adventures. You can also find small Airbnbs near the park that are unique and fun for an overnight trip or weekend getaway.

Big Bear Mountain Ski Resort is a little over three hours away from San Diego and a lot of fun during the winter. With a trip to Big Bear, you can experience both snow and sand in one day. If you plan on making frequent wintertime trips to the ski resort, you can buy a pass before the season begins to save on lift tickets.

For a longer getaway, take a road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway. It starts north of San Diego in Dana Point and ends in northern California past San Francisco in Mendocino County. Obviously, you don’t need to drive the entire highway, but if you have a car and the time, I highly recommend making a visit south of San Francisco to Big Sur. Its rocky coastline and breathtaking cliffs are one of the highlights of visiting California.

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Getting Around San Diego

There are city buses, a light rail train system and trolleys that run through the central parts of San Diego, including the iconic red San Diego Trolley. The city’s PRONTO card lets you ride the San Diego Trolley, a bus or the Coaster train, which connects downtown San Diego and Old Town with coastal communities throughout the county.

To get out of the city, you must take a train or a car. You can reach Los Angeles by bus, but any place north of there such as Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo (both great to visit) are places I would recommend taking a car so you can explore at your leisure.

During the summer months, there’s also a waterfront shuttle in San Diego for the influx of tourists, where you can hop on and off for a few dollars all day. Pedicabs are another popular form of transportation along downtown’s waterfront and in the Gaslamp Quarter.

San Diego Weather 

The weather is always fine in San Diego! Hazy, cloudy mornings typically give way to clear afternoons and evening temps ideal for outdoor dining. The temperatures average between 60-75° F and the lowest average is just below 50° during the month of December. Summers are generally sunny and dry, with winter bringing the wetter months. Ocean water temperatures are highest during August.

If I were going to travel work in San Diego, I’d go during the off-season. Summer tends to be the busiest time for tourists, so it’s a more hectic pace than when school’s in session. A contract that runs April-June or September-December may be ideal for enjoying the area.

If San Diego sounds like your kind of city, you can get started by creating a free Vivian Health profile to apply for a travel position and take your healthcare career to exciting new places.

Rachel Norton BSN, RN

Rachel Norton became an RN in 2007 and has been part of the Vivian team since 2019. She has always worked in critical care, and spent the first 12 years of her career working in a surgical neuroscience trauma ICU. She's also worked as a flight nurse, started travel nursing in 2010 and continued working in the ICU until joining Vivian full-time in 2022. As a user researcher, Rachel advocates for healthcare workers to help bridge the gap between employee and employer expectations.

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