California’s oldest, second largest and southern-most big city, San Diego is one of the nation’s most popular playgrounds. With more than 250 days of sunshine per year, it also boasts one of the best climates in the United States. The city mingles contemporary urban sensibilities with colonial Spanish architecture, sparkling ocean vistas to the west with barren, boulder-strewn hills to the east, and fine dining establishments with the newest of “nouvelle cuisine” standing side by side with tiny tortillerias.
You can take in a Padres game downtown, relive the turn of the century in the Gaslamp Quarter or simply sit and savor hot, homemade tortillas and Mexican food on the patio of almost any restaurant in historic Old Town.
Balboa Park, the largest urban cultural park in the nation, features Spanish Colonial Revival buildings, designed and built for the Panama-California Exposition in 1916 – 1917 to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal. The 1,200-acre park is home to performing arts venues, gardens and more than 15 museums, including the Natural History Museum, the Fleet Science Center and the world-renowned San Diego Zoo, with more than 800 species of animals, some of them rare and endangered.
Outside of town, day trips and excursions abound, from beaches to golf courses. Take the kids to LEGOLAND in Carlsbad, spend a day at the horse races in Del Mar, visit the wineries or indulge in a hot-air balloon ride in Temecula, try your hand with Lady Luck in one of the many Las Vegas-style gaming establishments within an hour’s drive of the city or go on safari at the incredible San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, or visit the nude beach in tony La Jolla.
San Diego Attractions
For San Diego’s “museum central,” head to Balboa Park. The 1,200-acre park in the center of San Diego is home to 17 museums and numerous other attractions. The San Diego Museum of Art and San Diego Natural History Museum are highlights, as well as art galleries, the Fleet Science Center, the San Diego Zoo (see below) and the historic Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Balboa Park also has glorious flora and fauna, particularly the Rose Garden and the Japanese Friendship Garden. A free tram runs daily throughout the park.
The San Diego Zoo is world-famous and features more than 4,000 animals of some 800 species. Fun areas include the Outback, Elephant Odyssey and a children’s petting zoo.
Seaport Village is filled with fun shops and boutiques in a Cape Cod-esque seaport setting. Look for the historic carousel, which dates back to 1895.
San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, a 16.5-block urban neighborhood, is a showplace of restoration. Big draws include dozens of restaurants, art galleries and shops, all clustered in a Victorian-era atmosphere. It’s also a centerplace for big city events, from music festivals to Mardi Gras.
San Diego, the first city of California, has more than 20 historic missions. The most famous is Padre Junipero Serra’s first mission in California, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala.
Hang out on San Diego’s Mission Beach and Pacific Beach boardwalks (inline skates, surfboards and bicycles are available for rent). At Belmont Park, a mile south of Pacific Beach, you’ll find the Giant Dipper, a wooden roller coaster built in the 1920s and still in operation.
Baseball fans will love Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres, located in the heart of downtown adjacent to the Gaslamp Quarter. Those arriving in season can take public transportation right to the ballpark from almost anywhere in the city, and enjoy the Boys of Summer at both day and night games when they are playing at home.
For an alternative to the usual city tour, try Hike Bike Kayak Sports; the company offers half- and full-day tours aimed at all fitness levels.
At LEGOLAND California, about a 30-minute drive from downtown, the 128-acre theme park is centered on — what else — LEGOS! Geared toward kids ages 2 – 12, the park offers interactive attractions and kid-powered rides.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park is a 1,800-acre preserve where some 3,000 animals roam as if they were in their native habitats. There are a variety of safari experiences available, from a Flightline Sarfari (a zipline that gives you a bird’s-eye view) to a Caravan Safari, in which you travel by truck through a couple of field enclosures.
La Jolla, the “Palm Beach” of this part of California, is known for luxury resorts catering to the rich and famous, gorgeous beaches, and pricey shops. Some of the best, most chi-chi restaurants look over the rocky bluffs to the sea, so if you plan a trip to the community, consider splurging on lunch at Tapenade or Nine-Ten, two of the finest (and priciest). If you’re really adventurous, you can climb the rocks surrounding Black’s Beach, which allows nude sunbathing.
Take a ride on a 1920s open cockpit biplane with San Diego Air Tours. Time in the air ranges from 20 to 60 minutes.
Numerous whale-watching services offer cruises and aerial tours, particularly during the winter months (December through April). Try Hornblower Cruises & Events, Flagship Cruises & Events or Adventure R.I.B. Rides.
Head to Tijuana, Mexico, just 17 miles south (remember, though, you’ll have to cross the border and waiting is common), for dog racing, jai alai exhibitions and festive outdoor shopping plazas. Also check out the Tijuana Cultural Center, which hosts a museum, IMAX theater, cafe and shops. To get there, you can take the San Diego Trolley light rail, which runs from the city to the Mexican border. If you plan to drive your own car, beware: You must purchase special auto insurance to drive in Mexico (check with your insurer). Note that many rental car agencies do not permit renters to drive into Mexico.
Surfing: The North County beach cities (about 25 – 30 miles north of San Diego) of Solana Beach, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Encinitas and Leucadia are paradise for surfer dudes and dudettes. You can rent boards and take lessons or just go to any one of these beaches with a picnic and watch the semi-pros catch the waves. Leucadia Surf School offers small-group and private surfing lessons.
For a lovely, pastoral excursion after wandering around the city, why not step onto the Coronado Ferry for a trip to the little island located in San Diego Bay? The ferry departs from Broadway Pier or the Convention Center and drops you off at the Ferry Landing Marketplace, where you can shop for trinkets, have a cold one and then wander down to the beach next to the pier. Or you can grab a cab and head for the historic Victorian Hotel del Coronado and sip a margarita on one of its breezy porches until it’s time to head back to San Diego. For families, Glorietta Bay is listed as one of the top beaches in the world and has playgrounds, picnic areas and kayak rentals.
With more than 90 courses in the county, San Diego is a duffer’s dream. The year-round fantastic weather also means you can reserve with confidence; it’s rare that you’d miss your tee time because of rain, although early morning fog can be a problem if you’re booking a course close to the sea. A few of our favorite courses include the beautiful Torrey Pines, which has hosted the U.S. Open; Carmel Mountain Ranch Country Club, which has challenging greens and mountain views; and the Mission Bay Golf Course, an inexpensive municipal course that’s the only one in the area to offer night golf.
San Diego Restaurants
San Diego’s bustling dining scene includes a wide variety of ethnic restaurants, but the specialties here are fresh seafood, Italian food and California cuisine (which is distinguished by local ingredients and the creative fusion of different culinary traditions). The Gaslamp Quarter is one of the most popular neighborhoods for foodies of all tastes, while Little Italy is the spot to go for heaping helpings of pasta. Some restaurants offer “early bird specials” if you’re willing to dine at 5 or 6 p.m.
Our favorite place for breakfast is Cafe 222, located between the waterfront and Horton Plaza, serving egg scrambles, pancakes, waffles and eggs Benedict with a great deal of funky attitude.
Indigo Grill, which serves creative Latin fusion cuisine, is one of Little Italy’s hottest restaurants.
The Gaslamp Quarter houses the city’s largest concentration of eateries for all appetites, but some favorites include Lou & Mickey’s (steaks and seafood) and La Puerta (Mexican).
Pacific Beach has numerous casual finds; try Costa Brava for its fabulous tapas.
The Corvette Diner is a fun, 50s-esque diner; it’s a great family joint. The menu includes whimiscally named dishes such as the Garbage Plate (an appetizer with slides, onion rings, potato skins and more) and the Say Cheese (breaded mozzarella).
Hash House A Go Go is hip, trendy and known for its massive portions. Prepare to wait in line.
Anyone who loves baseball will enjoy dinner at McCormick & Schmick’s, located in the Omni Hotel at Petco Park, as much for the display of baseball memorabilia as for the dining experience. Guests of the restaurant can wander through the displays in the hotel lobby.
Shopping in San Diego
San Diego is well suited to shoppers of all tastes and budgets, from the fashionable boutiques of La Jolla to the thriving antique district in Ocean Beach. The Gaslamp Quarter serves up some of the best shopping in the downtown district — along with a serving of Victorian charm. If you’re seeking something more modern, the San Diego area also has a number of large shopping malls.
Seeking unique collectibles or that perfect vintage armoire to finish off your family room? Head to the Ocean Beach Antique District, where you’ll find hundreds of antique dealers just a block from the Pacific Ocean.
Luxe La Jolla is the place for jewelry stores, art galleries and upscale clothing boutiques like Ralph Lauren and Chico’s.
The Gaslamp Quarter is home to big-name brands like Urban Outfitters and Skechers, but there are a few quirky, independent boutiques here as well.
Hillcrest, home to San Diego’s LGBT community, is also home to some of the city’s hippest urban boutiques; used books, retro clothes and unique housewares are among the specialties here.
Westfield Horton Plaza, an upscale urban shopping mall only a 10-minute walk away from the waterfront, has a Macy’s department store as its flagship and includes plenty of familiar brands.