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San Diego calls itself “America's Finest City,” a difficult slogan to live up to, but one you'll likely agree with if for no other reason than the city's marvelous weather. This is sunny Southern California at its best; the region centered about downtown very rarely sees temperatures above 80 in summer and below 40 in winter—courtesy of prevailing Pacific Ocean breezes—and only about 10 inches of annual rainfall.
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So, what about the claim of being “America's Finest City”? San Diegans might be accused of excessive pride if they didn't have Mother Nature on their side.
In DepthSan Diego's greatest asset, perhaps, is its dependable sunshine. If you visit between spring and fall, there's no need to pack an overcoat or obsessively check online weather forecasts. With the exception of June's typically overcast days (known as “June gloom”), the climate ranges from mild to warm, perfect weather for the active outdoor lifestyle San Diegans enjoy. Surfers shred and bash off the lip at Pacific Beach. Kayakers and snorkelers explore the coves of La Jolla. Inland, hikers trek though the badlands at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Lovers of the outdoors are drawn to Mission Bay—marshlands north of the airport that were dredged and beautified in the 1940s, '50s and '60s—just as four UCLA graduates were when they chose the area for the site of their new marine zoological park, SeaWorld, opened in 1964. While the now-cloned theme park is best known for its animal habitats and thrill rides, one of the original's most charming features is Bayside Skyride, a simple gondola ride over scenic Mission Bay.
Of course, “America's Finest City” is much more than a playground for vacationing families and the bronzed and the beautiful. As the home of several military installations, this mecca for the laid-back and unhurried also radiates a deep-rooted sense of patriotism. Historic ships like the USS Midway, permanently docked on San Diego Bay, draw veterans and active-duty personnel alike. While strolling the Embarcadero, stop to admire (or imitate!) the kissing figures of “Unconditional Surrender,” a 25-foot-tall statue celebrating the end of World War II, before posing for a photo at the adjacent memorial to preeminent USO performer Bob Hope.
Located at the center of San Diego is Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, which offers an Americanized taste of Mexico for those reluctant to visit the neighboring Mexican border town of Tijuana. Its wealth of well-preserved historic buildings gives you a good feel for the San Diego of the mid-to-late 1800s. But, while Old Town offers a great SoCal history lesson through museum exhibits and reenactments, most visitors reminiscing about their trip will remember the area for its festive Mexican restaurants (complete with sidewalk tortilla stands) and shops selling everything from leather belts to colorful Day of the Dead tchotchkes.
Old Town would've remained the hub of the city if not for Alonzo Horton, a developer who purchased some 1,000 acres of land fronting the harbor. He snapped up land and practically gave it away to anyone who promised to build on it. Speculators did, and Horton is credited with the birth of “New Town,” or modern San Diego.
In the 1870s Victorian-style commercial buildings sprouted up along 4th and 5th avenues, just a few blocks inland from the waterfront; many of them have been preserved in the city's 16.5-block Gaslamp Quarter. The buildings, some of which housed brothels up until the 1970s, are now home to restaurants, bars and shops. As you walk 5th Avenue, look up. The best Victorian architecture adorns the upper floors.
When the Santa Fe Railroad arrived in 1884, so did the first tourists. Many stayed at the Hotel del Coronado, the red-and-white Victorian resort still standing on the shores of Coronado. Famed for its fairytale architecture and its appearance in the Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe comedy classic, “Some Like It Hot,” “The Del” is definitely worth a visit, if only for a fancy cocktail at its Babcock & Story Bar, named for the hotel's founders.
As San Diego grew, the city put on two world's fairs. The lasting legacy of the Panama-California Exposition (1915) and the California-Pacific International Exposition (1935-36) was the development of Balboa Park, an urban oasis of serene parkland, landscaped gardens and pathways. Many of the Spanish Colonial Revival and Moorish-style buildings constructed for the two expositions now house museums, performance venues and art galleries. Balboa Park also lays claim to the world-famous San Diego Zoo, where bamboo-munching panda parents Bai Yun and Gao Gao live with son Xiao Liwu, whose name—selected in a public vote—means “little gift.”
By CarInterstate 5, originating at the Canadian border and ending at the Mexico border, and I-15, entering California southwest of Las Vegas and extending to San Diego, are the major north-south routes. I-5 comes down through Los Angeles, then heads for the coast; nearing San Diego it bisects the University of California San Diego campus at La Jolla, skirts Mission Bay Park and passes Old Town before entering the city center.
I-15 comes inland through Las Vegas and San Bernardino County, continuing south through Escondido, Poway and other northeastern suburbs, then bypasses downtown San Diego and terminates at I-5 just south of the city proper. SR 163 (Cabrillo Freeway) leaves I-15 at the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, swings southwestward through Balboa Park, interchanges with I-5 and finally becomes 10th Avenue in the heart of San Diego.
From the south the main route is I-5, which begins at the Mexican border, passes along the east side of San Diego Bay, then heads for the downtown area.
I-805 is the north-south bypass. It leaves I-5 north of La Jolla and rejoins I-5 near San Ysidro, just north of the Mexican border customs stations.
From points east, I-8 enters California at the Colorado River just west of Yuma, Ariz. The Interstate roughly parallels the Mexican border to the town of Boulevard. From there it arcs northwestward across the San Diego Mountains, cresting at more than 4,000 feet before descending into the eastern suburbs. After crossing the major north-south freeways, I-8 comes to an end at Ocean Beach, a short distance northwest of downtown San Diego.
Street SystemCentral San Diego is laid out in a basic grid pattern. Street numbering commences from north-south 1st Avenue. East-west streets are both lettered and named; they proceed alphabetically northward beginning with Ash Street.
Generally the most convenient way to get around San Diego is by car. Most major attractions and shopping areas are within easy freeway access. Main thoroughfares, which include Pacific Highway, Harbor and Mission Bay drives, Nimitz and El Cajon boulevards, University Avenue, Friars Road and Market Street, also are easy travel routes.
Speed limits are usually 35 mph on streets and 65 mph on freeways. It is important to maintain freeway speed limits; drivers moving at dangerously slow speeds will be ticketed. Right turns on red and U-turns at intersections are both legal unless otherwise posted. Pedestrians crossing the street at intersections or in crosswalks always have the right-of-way.
ParkingSan Diego has metered on-street parking downtown in addition to many lots and garages. Metered parking costs up to $1.50 per hour, normally with a 2-hour limit. Most meters accept only credit cards; some accept coins and pre-paid parking meter debit cards. Garage rates range from $5 to $20 a day. There are large lots along lower Broadway and Market Street, Harbor Drive and Pacific Highway, within walking distance of the Embarcadero and its many attractions. Some hotels and stores provide free parking for their guests and customers.
Parking in other parts of this spread-out city is rarely a problem. SeaWorld San Diego, the Cabrillo National Monument and Balboa Park all have ample parking areas, although it might be difficult to find a space near Balboa Park on a busy day. If the Balboa lots are full, check for street parking along Sixth Avenue and enter the park via the pedestrian bridge. Old Town's free parking areas also can fill up quickly. A space is harder to come by in La Jolla, where street parking is scarce.
Public TransportationSan Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) serves the area from Oceanside to the Mexican border.
One-way bus fare ranges from $2.25 to $5. Some transfers may require an upgrade fee.
The San Diego Trolley provides daily service on three lines that operate from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. The Blue Line (also unofficially called the Tijuana Trolley) runs from downtown at America Plaza through National City and Chula Vista to San Ysidro, some 100 feet from the border. The Orange Line runs from the Santa Fe Depot downtown through Lemon Grove and La Mesa to El Cajon. The Green Line runs from Santee to Old Town and then south to 12th Street and Imperial Avenue. The familiar red trolleys run every 7 to 15 minutes during the day and every 30 minutes during late-night and early morning hours. Frequency varies according to line. Service hours vary by line and by day of the week, but may start as early as 4 a.m. and run until after 2 a.m. One-way fare is $2.50; $5 for a day pass. Trolley tickets must be purchased before boarding from machines at the trolley stops. For information phone (619) 685-4900.
The Transit Store, downtown on Broadway at 1st Avenue, sells money-saving passes and other multi-ride tickets for buses and trolleys. It also provides maps, schedules and brochures Mon.-Fri. 9-5. For further information phone (619) 234-1060.
The Regional Transit Information Office, (619) 233-3004, can provide additional assistance, or for recorded public transit information phone (619) 685-4900. For the hearing-impaired phone TTY (619) 234-5005 or TTY (888) 722-4889 in northern San Diego County.
About the City
Sales TaxState and county sales taxes total 7.75 percent in San Diego. A lodging tax, called a transient occupancy tax, of 10.5 to 12.5 percent also is levied along with a 10.5 percent (11 percent at the airport) rental car tax.
Whom To Call
Police (non-emergency)(619) 531-2000
HospitalsAlvarado Hospital, (619) 287-3270; Scripps Mercy Hospital, (619) 294-8111; Sharp Memorial Hospital, (858) 939-3400; University of California-San Diego Medical Center, (858) 657-7000.
Where To Look and Listen
NewspapersThe major daily in San Diego is the morning San Diego Union-Tribune. The weekly San Diego Reader, available free throughout the region, provides good coverage of the arts and entertainment scene along with in-depth feature stories of local interest.
RadioSan Diego radio stations KOGO (600 AM), KFMB (760 AM) and KCBQ (1170 AM) are all talk stations; KPBS (89.5 FM) is a member of National Public Radio.
Air TravelSan Diego International Airport (SAN) off Harbor Drive is served by major domestic and foreign carriers. If you hail a cab, expect to pay approximately $15 (including tip) for the 10-minute ride to the downtown area. The Metropolitan Transit System's bus #992 provides frequent service to downtown for $2.25; phone (619) 233-3004 or (619) 685-4900. Airport shuttles charge around $10 for a ride to the downtown hotels.
Rental CarsSan Diego County is served by major rental car agencies. Hertz, at the airport, offers discounts to AAA members; phone (619) 220-5222 or (800) 654-3080.
Rail ServiceAmtrak, (800) 872-7245, rolls from the historic Santa Fe Depot at C Street and Kettner Boulevard, north of Seaport Village in downtown San Diego. Amtrak provides daily service, including several departures to Los Angeles. The Coaster is a commuter rail service from Oceanside to downtown San Diego; phone (619) 233-3004.
BusesGreyhound Lines Inc., (619) 515-1100 or (800) 231-2222, has a depot at 1313 National Ave. Greyhound buses and Five Star Tours' eight-passenger shuttles, (619) 232-5040, offer service to downtown Tijuana, Mexico; reservations are required 24 hours in advance.
TaxisLocal taxis are metered. Cab companies include Orange, (619) 223-5555; San Diego Dispatch, (800) 368-2947; USA, (619) 231-1144; and Yellow, (619) 444-4444. Base fare is around $2.80, with a rate of approximately $3 for each additional mile. Limousine service is available throughout the area averaging about $75 an hour.
Public TransportationTransportation by bus and trolley is available in San Diego.
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EssentialsWander along the Embarcadero, downtown San Diego's waterfront. Public art installations, military memorials and marine attractions line the pedestrian-friendly area. For lunch, take a break at local landmark Seaport Village (849 W. Harbor Dr.), a bustling shopping center with a handful of eateries boasting gorgeous views of the bay.
Step aboard a retired naval aircraft carrier chock-full of restored planes and let the “Top Gun” quotes fly. Opened in 2004 as The USS Midway Museum (910 N. Harbor Dr.), the 69,000-ton ship has enough interactive exhibits to keep you busy for hours. Climb into an F-14 fighter jet on the flight deck or practice aerial spins in a flight simulator in the hangar bay.
Hop aboard the San Diego-Coronado Ferry (990 N. Harbor Dr.) for a scenic 15-minute ride to Coronado, the peninsula separating San Diego Bay from the Pacific Ocean. If you'd rather drive, the San Diego-Coronado Bridge stretches more than 2 miles across the water and soars 200 feet into the air, providing passengers with a wonderful vantage point from which to survey the city, the bay and Coronado .
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Take in the spectacular views from Cabrillo National Monument (1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr.) on Point Loma. The monument commemorating Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo's 1543 exploration of the area is an interesting historical backdrop to panoramic views of San Diego. Gray whales migrating offshore lure crowds of watchers to the monument in winter.
Drive up to La Jolla , home to breathtaking beaches frequented by sea lions, harbor seals, seagulls and pelicans. Nestled between picturesque sandstone cliffs, La Jolla Cove (off Coast Boulevard) attracts snorkelers and scuba divers. At low tide, you won't need any special equipment to peer into area tidal pools, where crabs, snails and other sea creatures dwell.
Rest up for an evening on the town in the historic Gaslamp Quarter, hub of San Diego's nightlife scene. Crowded with sidewalk cafés and nightclubs, this 16.5-block vintage business district adjoins Westfield Horton Plaza (324 Horton Plaza), a five-story shopping and entertainment complex with an eye-catching jumble of balconies, stairs and walkways.
Stroll through Old Town San Diego State Historic Park (4002 Wallace St.). The area encompasses a collection of structures—including five original adobes—at the site of California's first permanent settlement. Many of the buildings house Mexican-themed restaurants and shops that will satisfy your craving for south-of-the-border cuisine, art and handicrafts.
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Ascend above the treetops aboard the Skyfari Aerial Tram at the San Diego Zoo (2920 Zoo Dr.), a world-class Balboa Park facility where more than 4,000 animals crawl, gallop, slither, fly and swing from limb to limb. But skip the 35-minute guided bus tour in favor of the Kangaroo Express Bus; both options offer a narrated trip aboard a double-decker bus, but the latter allows you to hop on and off at five different zoo locations.
Top Picks for Kids
Under 13The more than 4,000 chirping, howling, growling and roaring inhabitants of the San Diego Zoo (2920 Zoo Dr.) promise a full day of education and fun. Highlights include the Outback exhibit, where elevated walkways give young visitors a closer look at cuddly, eucalyptus-munching koalas, and Elephant Odyssey, which offers a behind-the-scenes peek at the facility's animal husbandry area.
At LEGOLAND California Resort (1 LEGOLAND Dr. in Carlsbad ), little ones will feel like Godzilla as they walk through Miniland USA, where Mt. Rushmore, the New York City skyline and scenes from “Star Wars” movies are constructed entirely of LEGO blocks.
Belmont Park (3146 Mission Blvd.) is a great place to spend the afternoon with youngsters. The beachfront amusement park is crowded with laser tag, midway games, bumper cars, a Tilt-a-Whirl and other pay-as-you-go activities.
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While in La Jolla, stop at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (2300 Expedition Way). Wee ones can touch sea stars, hermit crabs and sea cucumbers at the Preuss Tide-Pool Plaza before expending some energy in the Boundless Energy exhibit's outdoor play area.
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All AgesThrill rides like Journey to Atlantis and the steel roller coaster Manta at SeaWorld San Diego (500 SeaWorld Dr.) will be a hit with older kids while aquarium displays and interactive encounters with marine life are sure to fascinate the littlest members of your group. Live shows, such as Cirque Electrique and a comedy skit with lovable California sea lions Clyde and Seamore, provide plenty of additional family-friendly entertainment.
Museums, gardens and miniature railroads, oh my! There are a million things to do and see in Balboa Park (1549 El Prado). Grab a map from the visitors center and navigate your way around the urban cultural park to the San Diego Air & Space Museum (2001 Pan American Plaza), the San Diego Model Railroad Museum (1649 El Prado) and other kid-pleasing points of interest.
Even the pickiest of eaters will drool over Mexican dishes at Casa Guadalajara (4105 Taylor St.), at the north entrance of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park . The portion sizes are massive, so sharing a few combination plates is a good option—especially since saving room for desserts like deep fried ice cream, sopaipillas and churros is a definite must. A roving mariachi band adds to the festive atmosphere most nights.
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As you might expect, most of the museums at Balboa Park contain gift shops crowded with souvenirs—from silly gag items to top-notch educational teaching tools. You should be able to find something for everyone on your list at the urban cultural park, whether you're looking to wow a couple of grade-schoolers (choose from dinosaur replicas, games and puzzles at the San Diego Natural History Museum ) or a persnickety father-in-law (try the Marston House for Arts and Crafts furnishings and architectural publications).
More than 200 artisans, including sculptors, photographers and glassblowers, showcase and—for the right price—part with their creations at the Spanish Village Art Center . One-of-a-kind keepsakes also can be purchased at the United Nations International Gift Shop , where beautiful handwoven baskets and Russian nesting dolls are on display alongside other treasures from African, Asian, European and Latin American countries.
Plush pandas for the kiddos are big sellers at the San Diego Zoo , but some of the retail outlets at the popular attraction also sell glam goods like handmade jewelry and elegant handbags. Before exiting the zoo, do some last-minute browsing at the San Diego Zoo Store. On Front Street near the main entrance, it boasts fun animal-themed commodities like sloth socks and owl memo pads as well as a large assortment of crafts from around the world.
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Sky-high rents have forced out many of the independent shops, but some doggedly hang on. Bubbles Boutique (226 5th Ave.) carries handcrafted bath products, casual women’s clothing and cutesy gift items. San Diego Trading Company (376 5th Ave.) is the place to procure a San Diego Padres cap or an “Old Guys Rule” T-shirt.
Distinguished by its multicolored architecture, Westfield Horton Plaza is adjacent to the Gaslamp Quarter at 324 Horton Plaza (between Broadway, G Street and 1st and 4th avenues). The open-air complex has an eight-screen cinema, a comedy club, a theater and, if you're actually looking to shop, Macy's. While first-timers will likely find the odd layout of the asymmetrical structure somewhat difficult to navigate, the mall is worth a bit of exploration, even if it's only to take advantage of the upper deck views of downtown San Diego. Besides, the parking garage at Westfield Horton Plaza offers 3 hours of free parking (with validation), so this is an easy place to stash your rental car.
Fronting the harbor, Seaport Village sits southwest of the Gaslamp Quarter at the southern end of the Embarcadero. Street performers liven things up year-round; plus, a busker festival is held at the waterside marketplace in March.
While you can certainly pick up your run-of-the-mill San Diego-emblazoned souvenirs while strolling through Seaport Village, some stores do peddle more distinctive keepsakes.
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HillcrestIn the bohemian-hipster enclave of Hillcrest, independently owned stores keep style-conscious locals looking their best. A dizzying selection of fedoras, berets and caps garners plenty of repeat business at the Village Hat Shop (3821 4th Ave.), founded in 1980.
Music memorabilia covers the walls of Record City (3757 6th Ave.), and if you're a serious collector, you could easily spend a few hours digging through the store's impressive collection of hard-to-find vinyl. Take your time poking through the well-organized $1 bins—you might very well stumble across a few gems. Those on the hunt for pristine first editions hit pay dirt in the back of Footnote Books (1627 University Ave.), which stuffs an amazing number of general interest tomes into its tiny space.
The Hillcrest neighborhood also is home to one of the city's most popular farmers markets. Held every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., the Hillcrest Farmers Market brings 175 vendors to Normal Street (between Lincoln and University avenues). Take a morning stroll through the temporary tent village, enjoying free samples and live entertainment along the way. Balboa Park is nearby, so if the mood strikes you, pick up a few goodies then head due south for an impromptu picnic.
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Ocean BeachKnown as the Haight-Ashbury of San Diego in the 1960s, Ocean Beach retains a laid-back vibe, with today's “OB” businesses catering to the neighborhood's large population of surfers, college kids and aspiring hippies. The center of the action is the Newport Avenue Shopping District (along Newport Avenue between Sunset Cliffs Boulevard and Abbott Street). In addition to head shops and tattoo parlors, you'll find funky stores filled with everything you need to fit in around these parts—from surf and skate equipment to tie-dye sarongs, flip-flops and itsy-bitsy bikinis.
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Some of San Diego’s best antique wheeling-and-dealing also happens along OB's main commercial stretch. Private collectors and interior designers frequent the Ocean Beach Antique Mall (4926 Newport Ave.) and the Newport Avenue Antique Center (4864 Newport Ave.), both solid spots for those on the hunt for Asian antiquities, fine art prints, collectible dolls, period furniture and other vintage items. If you're into the Parisian chic look, don't miss Vignettes Antiques (4828 Newport Ave.), a treasure-crammed Ocean Beach Antique District staple that also carries vintage Chanel jewelry.
Old TownMany of the original and reconstructed buildings at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park house gift shops, and some showrooms intermingle sale items like colorful pottery and other handcrafted items with artifacts and interpretive displays.
A bust of Jose Antonio Aguirre, a 19th-century merchant, stands outside the entrance to Old Town Market (4010 Twiggs St.). In this reconstruction of Aguirre's former home, multiple dealers peddle wares like dreamcatchers, sterling silver jewelry, sombreros, decorative painted tiles and Baja hoodies.
Another interesting retail store/museum is Racine & Laramie Tobacconist (2737 San Diego Ave.), which is crammed with smoking paraphernalia, including antique pipes and lighters. Historical candle-making demonstrations draw crowds to Toby's Candle & Soap Shop (2645 San Diego Ave.), a purveyor of exquisitely carved ribbon candles, wax figurines, and bath products like moisturizing body creams and exfoliating scrubs.
Located in the Alvarado House on Calhoun Street, RUST General Store re-creates the ambiance of a 19th-century retail shop through its costumed staff members and an inventory inspired by the 1800s. Products range from licorice and chocolate cordials to pickled quail eggs and glass-bottled sodas. The old-timey business also encompasses a bistro that serves delicious cookies, pressed sandwiches and Bavarian sausages.
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Lovers of the culinary arts will have a field day poking around several Fiesta de Reyes stores. Fiesta Cocina deals in colorful Talavera pottery, fun-and-flirty aprons, and traditional Mexican spices and herbs. Temecula Olive Oil Co. sells high-quality oils made from California olives. If you'd rather let someone else do the cooking, stop by La Panaderia for a warm, sugary churro or Old Town House of Jerky & Root Beer for some—well, you can probably figure that one out.
Teen shoppers shouldn't miss Tienda de Reyes , also in Fiesta de Reyes. Funky displays show off everything from T-shirts stamped with funny messages (“I Hate Tacos...Said No Juan Ever”) to locally made Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) artwork.
Many of the vendors on the outskirts of the state historic park trade in your typical junky T-shirts and souvenir coffee mugs, but if that's just what you're looking for, then San Diego Avenue (between Twiggs and Conde streets) has plenty of it. Also in this neck of the woods is the Whaley House museum gift shop (2476 San Diego Ave.), which stocks reproductions of classic toys and games, steampunk pocket watches, ghost hunting kits and more.
Bazaar Del Mundo , adjacent to the state historic park at 4133 Taylor St., houses a small collection of shops selling Mexican folk art, crafts and jewelry. Merchandise is priced for the tourist trade (translation: a tad high) and quality ranges from surprisingly good to mass-market mediocrity.
Other AreasThe San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge connects San Diego to affluent Coronado, but if you choose to take the ferry over, you'll get dropped off at a waterfront shopping and dining village with an easy-to-remember name: Coronado Ferry Landing (1201 1st St.). Many of the vendors sell your usual overpriced tchotchkes, but awesome views of the San Diego city skyline and weekend entertainment are two big pluses at the small outdoor marketplace.
The rest of Coronado's shopping scene consists primarily of independent business owners pushing a variety of costly indulgences. Looking for class-act nautical kitchenware, a trendy beach bag or comfortably chic sailing attire? Orange Avenue's hoity-toity boutiques and the Shops at The Del (at the Hotel del Coronado, Curio Collection by Hilton , 1500 Orange Ave.) have you covered.
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Bibliophiles will enjoy perusing the impressive selection of hardcovers and paperbacks at Adams Avenue Bookstore (3502 Adams Ave.). A couple of friendly felines roam the used bookstore, which first opened its doors in 1965. If you're a fan of vintage commodities, you'll also find some thrift, consignment and antique shops mixed in among other locally owned businesses along Adams Avenue. Mostly dotted by ethnic restaurants, pubs, tattoo parlors and urban coffeehouses, the busy commercial thoroughfare stretches across the University Heights, Normal Heights and Kensington neighborhoods.
San Diego bargain hunters have traditionally been lured to the Mexican border city of Tijuana and its free port status. But ongoing violence related to drug-trafficking has put a major dent in Tijuana tourism. Still, those who do venture south of the border will find even better deals than usual.
For those who’d rather stay in the U.S.A., Las Americas Premium Outlets , an open-air shopping center just shy of the international border crossing, has rock-bottom prices on name-brand merchandise. The factory outlet mall at 4211 Camino de la Plaza is home to more than 120 retailers, including Banana Republic, Nike and Old Navy. Heading south on I-5, Camino de la Plaza is the last exit before the border crossing. If you're nervous about missing the exit, a pretty similar outlet experience can be had by heading north on I-5 to Carlsbad Premium Outlets , at 5620 Paseo Del Norte in Carlsbad.
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Downtown/GaslampThe heart of downtown San Diego is the Gaslamp Quarter, a pedestrian-friendly historic area that also happens to be the city’s busiest nightlife district. The greatest concentration of Gaslamp bars are on 4th and 5th avenues, south of C Street, but plenty of places peddling in after-hours fun can be found on the surrounding streets and throughout downtown.
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Kitty-corner from The Tipsy Crow is Analog (801 5th Ave.), a hipster haven boasting Instagram-worthy, music-themed decor (a selfie in front of the Wall-O-Cassette Tapes is a must). The laid-back happenings here range from karaoke to deejayed dance parties, so be sure to check the event calendar before you go; phone (619) 233-1183.
A block north at 901 5th Ave., Vin De Syrah is a whimsical subterranean space incorporating elements of both a turn-of-the-20th-century Parisian brasserie and a NYC Meatpacking District basement lounge. The urbane setting (plush booths, chandeliers and ivy-covered walls) kicks social hour up a notch, as does the sophisticated menu, which features fine wines, high-end bourbons and house-made sangria. Phone (619) 234-4166.
If you're looking for live music, House of Blues (1055 5th Ave.) packs ‘em in with a lineup of quality bands playing everything from punk to funk; phone (619) 299-2583. You also can hear bands play at another familiar chain, the Hard Rock Cafe (801 4th Ave.), Monday through Friday evenings; phone (619) 615-7625. Stomp your feet in time to the beat at Tin Roof (401 G St.), a Southern-style bar/eatery with Nashville roots and no cover charge; phone (619) 230-8606. More intimate jam sessions take place at Upstart Crow Bookstore & Coffeehouse , at waterfront Seaport Village, every Saturday night at 7. The cozy hangout also hosts Shakespeare readings and an open mic poetry night every month; phone (619) 232-4855.
Tapas, sangria and salsa rhythms fill the bill at Café Sevilla (353 5th Ave.), a hip Spanish restaurant and nightclub that offers live entertainment most days. The most popular event is the Saturday night dinner show with live Flamenco music and dancing; phone (619) 233-5979.
LED strips are embedded in the walls of the posh main room at OMNIA (454 6th Ave.), the San Diego counterpart to a similarly lavish establishment in Las Vegas (at Caesars Palace). If you need a little respite from the insanity going on inside the over-the-top dance club, get some air on the slightly less boisterous rooftop terrace, which offers a garden-like setting and views of the Gaslamp district. Phone (619) 544-9500.
Just a few blocks south at 207 5th Ave. is the Hard Rock Hotel San Diego , home to 207 , a modish lounge with a small dance floor that gets pretty cramped on weekends. At FLOAT , the Hard Rock's outdoor rooftop space, you'll find poolside cabanas, fire pits and DJs spinning amid a sea of beautiful people. Phone (619) 702-3000.
Another popular open-air venue is nearby ALTITUDE Sky Lounge , on the 23rd floor of the San Diego Marriott Gaslamp Quarter on K Street. The rooftop bar, prized for its breathtaking panorama of downtown San Diego, doesn't charge a cover, taking some of the sting out of the high-priced cocktails. The bird's-eye view directly into Petco Park brings in boisterous crowds during Padres home games, when the atmosphere is decidedly more casual; phone (619) 696-0234.
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Sports fans also can kick back and quaff a brew at Gaslamp Tavern (868 5th Ave.), which has a dozen big screens showing NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL action; phone (619) 239-3339. Located above Gaslamp Tavern on the third floor of the building is Quad AleHouse , a manly tasting room with a rotating selection of craft beers on tap.
Little ItalyIn Little Italy, nightlife mainly revolves around restaurant bars. While there are plenty of spots that serve Italian fare, the district also shelters several hip gastropubs.
Beer connoisseurs will want to make a pit stop at local brewer Ballast Point 's Little Italy location on India Street. Offering indoor and outdoor seating, the tasting room also serves shareable small plates and apps, like Bavarian-style pretzels and beer-braised mussels. Phone (619) 255-7213. At Princess Pub & Grille , also India Street, you can knock back a cold one, play darts and fill up on decent pub grub amid British tavern decor; phone (619) 702-3021.
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Once Little Italy has satisfied your hunger (and Extraordinary Desserts has gotten you sufficiently jacked up on sugar), hit the Casbah (2501 Kettner Blvd.), a small, dark and divey live music venue that draws the indie rock faithful with up-and-coming bands several nights a week; phone (619) 232-4355.
Pacific BeachA neighborhood within the San Diego city limits, Pacific Beach has long been the stomping ground of carefree “dudes” and “brahs.” PB Shore Club , just across from the beach at 4343 Ocean Blvd., celebrates the surfer lifestyle with cool surf decor, killer ocean views and late-night fish tacos. Just take it from us and go easy on the Red Bull Vodka Slushies, or you'll be tweeting #brainfreeze in no time. Phone (858) 272-7873.
Also inspired by those who live and breathe the “salt life,” The Duck Dive (4650 Mission Blvd.) is named after a key surfing technique (surfers “duck dive” under oncoming waves). A restaurant by day, this PB staple gets pretty crazy on the weekends, when local DJs play thumping house music until the wee hours; phone (858) 273-3825.
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Other AreasBoasting a hexagonal hallway entryway, walnut paneling and a dramatic bar chandelier made out of stainless steel tubing, Starlite (3175 India St.) is one of the most architecturally stunning nightspots in San Diego. But atmosphere isn’t the only thing this swank establishment has going for it. Late-night eats are prepared using only the freshest local and sustainably sourced ingredients, while artisanal cocktails feature house-made syrups and bitters. Phone (619) 358-9766.
A cruise aboard the Bahia Belle (998 W. Mission Bay Dr.) is a great evening option for those traveling with kids. Live entertainment is offered aboard the Mississippi-style sternwheeler, which traverses Mission Bay from late April through November. The lineup varies each evening, and performers range from DJs to local bands. Reservations aren’t necessary, but check the schedule in advance to find out which cruise times are designated as family hours. Of course, the “real” party starts after the last family hour trip, when all would-be passengers must be 21 or older to board. Phone (858) 488-0551 for more information.
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At the La Jolla outpost of L.A.’s legendary The Comedy Store (916 Pearl St.), local comics perform most weeknights. The big names usually pack the joint on weekends; phone (858) 454-9176.
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Performing ArtsSan Diego has become a major city in terms of its varied cultural offerings. The San Diego Concourse on 1st Avenue between A and C streets contains the City Administration Building, exhibit halls, the 2,900-seat San Diego Civic Theatre (home to Broadway San Diego and San Diego Opera), and the 4,300-seat Golden Hall. The theater and hall are venues for ballets, operas, plays, musicals and concerts.
Jacobs Music Center houses Copley Symphony Hall, a converted 1929 movie house at 7th and B streets. The hall is now home to the San Diego Symphony and is the cornerstone of Symphony Towers, which also contains a hotel and shopping arcade. A free 1-hour guided tour of the center, including Copley Symphony Hall, is offered one Wednesday a month at noon; phone (619) 615-3955.
ArtsTix, a public service of the San Diego Performing Arts League, sells discounted performance-day tickets for many theaters throughout the county. The box office is downtown at Broadway and 3rd Avenue in Horton Plaza Park; phone (858) 381-5595 Tues.-Sat. 10-5 (also Sun., in season).
San Diego Convention Center, located along the bay at 111 W. Harbor Dr., has a futuristic architectural style with a roof line suggesting huge sails. The sprawling 650,000-square-foot complex has exhibit halls along with an open-air covered pavilion and an amphitheater; phone (619) 525-5000.
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Visiting companies performing ballet, modern dance, jazz, tap and other dance styles appear at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido and at the 800-seat Mandeville Auditorium, on the campus of the University of California at San Diego. For schedule and ticket information phone (800) 988-4253 (California Center for the Arts, Escondido), or (858) 534-8497 (UCSD box office).
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Northwest of downtown on Shelter Island, Humphreys Concerts by The Bay, 2241 Shelter Island Dr., attracts big-name national touring acts to its 1,400-seat outdoor performance venue from May through October. Recent headliners include Tony Bennett, Steely Dan and The Moody Blues; phone (800) 745-3000 for ticket information.
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TheaterThe San Diego theater scene is thriving thanks to acclaimed stages and traveling Broadway hits augmented by a healthy crop of emerging experimental and ethnic companies. Balboa Park's The Old Globe consists of three facilities: the Tony Award-winning 580-seat Old Globe Theatre; the 250-seat Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, offering theater in the round; and the 605-seat, outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre. Contemporary and classic plays and musicals are presented throughout the year, with Shakespeare receiving top billing in the summer. Phone (619) 234-5623. In the Gaslamp Quarter, the Balboa Theatre hosts Broadway and comedy performances; phone (619) 570-1100.
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The San Diego Repertory Theatre emphasizes ethnically diverse plays. The company takes the stage at the Lyceum Theatre, in the downtown Westfield Horton Plaza complex. The Lyceum houses both the 545-seat Stage Theatre and the more intimate 270-seat Space Theatre. Phone (619) 544-1000.
The Coronado Playhouse, 1835 Strand Way, stages cabaret-style musicals; phone (619) 435-4856. The Welk Resort Theatre in Escondido entertains guests with Broadway hits; phone (760) 749-3448 or (888) 802-7469. Mystery Café, 505 Kalmia St., presents interactive dinner theater; phone (619) 460-2200.
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Sports & RecSan Diego's spectator sports are many and varied. Outdoor sports draw nearly as many visitors to the city as the sightseeing attractions. Petco Park, located at 100 Park Blvd. in downtown, is home to the San Diego Padres and Valley View Casino Center, 3500 Sports Arena Blvd. in the Point Loma neighborhood, plays host to special sports events.
Because of its mild climate, San Diego also is a haven for year-round recreation. The various Community Park and Recreation Divisions can provide more information: Community Parks II (which covers the Inland Division), (619) 525-8222; Community Parks I (which covers community parks and recreation centers), (619) 221-8901; and Developed Regional Parks (which covers coastal beaches and regional parks), (619) 235-1169.
BaseballWin or lose, the San Diego Padres can boast one of the most attractive settings of any Major League Baseball stadium—steps from the waterfront amid the always-popular Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego, where Petco Park opened in 2004. The Padres play April through September; phone (619) 795-5000.
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Horse RacingFounded by Bing Crosby and Pat O'Brien in 1937, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, 20 miles north of town, is a great place to enjoy a horse race. This palatial facility at the Del Mar fairgrounds attracts the nation's top jockeys and steeds. The racing season is July through September. Satellite wagering is available in the off-season. Phone (858) 755-1141 for information or (877) 538-7238 for tickets.
Note: Policies concerning admittance of children to pari-mutuel betting facilities vary. Phone for information.
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Coronado's wide streets also are ideal for bicyclists. Bikes & Beyond offers rentals at Coronado's Ferry Landing Marketplace; phone (619) 435-7180. Bicycles can accompany passengers on the San Diego-Coronado Ferry. Mission Bay Park is a bicyclist's haven. Visitors can rent bikes from Cheap Rentals at 3689 Mission Blvd. on Mission Beach; phone (858) 488-9070.
FishingAnglers can enjoy many varieties of the sport: deep-sea, surf, pier, bay, shell and freshwater. Bottom-feeding fish are attracted by offshore kelp beds, and nearby Mexican waters contain barracuda, bass, bonito and yellowtail. Pier fishing does not require a license; try your luck from the public piers at Shelter Island, Ocean Beach and Imperial Beach. Fishing charters depart from Point Loma and Quivira Basin at Mission Bay Park.
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The following courses offer at least 18 holes and are open to the public all year: Balboa Park Municipal Golf Course, 2600 Golf Course Dr., (619) 235-1184; Boulder Oaks Golf Club, 10333 Meadow Glen Way E. in Escondido, (760) 749-1620; Castle Creek Country Club, 8797 Circle R Dr. in Escondido, (760) 749-2422; Coronado Municipal Golf Course, 2000 Visalia Row in Coronado, (619) 522-6590; Eagle Crest Golf Club, 2492 Old Ranch Rd. in Escondido, (760) 737-9762; Eastlake Country Club, 2375 Clubhouse Dr. in Chula Vista, (619) 482-5757; Mission Bay Golf Course and Practice Center, 2702 N. Mission Bay Dr., (858) 581-7880; Mission Trails Golf Course, 7380 Golfcrest Pl., (619) 460-5400; and Torrey Pines Municipal Golf Course, 11480 N. Torrey Pines Rd. in La Jolla, (858) 581-7171.
HikingHikers take advantage of the varied terrain north and east of the city. The hiking trails at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, just north of La Jolla, have ocean views. Mission Trails Regional Park, 8 miles northeast of downtown at 1 Father Junípero Serra Tr., covers nearly 5,800 acres of rugged hills and valleys. The visitor and interpretive center, (619) 668-3281, contains exhibits that relate to the park's flora, fauna and history. Free hiking trail maps also are available. The visitor center is open daily 9-5; closed Jan. 1, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Horseback RidingClubs offer horse rentals and riding facilities, and there are several horse rental agencies throughout the area. Within the Otay Sweetwater Wildlife Refuge, Bright Valley Farm, 12310 Campo Rd. in Spring Valley, boasts thousands of acres of open space crisscrossed with riding trails; phone (619) 670-1861.
Sweetwater Summit Regional Park, south of San Diego and east of the town of Bonita, has about 70 acres for equestrian campers; day-use corrals are available as well. Miles of trails follow the Sweetwater River and Reservoir; phone (619) 472-7572. Meanwhile, Border Field State Park, bounded by the Mexican border on the south and Pacific Ocean on the west, has the only beach in Southern California where horseback riding is allowed; phone (619) 575-3613.
Jogging and Walking
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KayakingFor those who just cannot make up their minds how to spend their energy, Hike Bike Kayak , 2222 Avenida del la Playa in La Jolla, offers many choices of day-long activities; phone (858) 551-9510 or (866) 425-2925.
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Water SportsMiles of shoreline and two large, protected bays provide ideal settings for all types of water sports. Swimming opportunities include the ocean, Mission Bay and public pools. Ocean swimming is best June through September. The more popular beaches have lifeguards on duty daily.
Boating is a favorite pastime; hundreds of pleasure boats dot the ocean and bays daily. The major boating centers are Shelter and Harbor islands, Glorietta Bay and Mission Bay marinas. Rental and launching facilities for paddle and fishing boats, sailboats and powerboats are available at these areas.
Scuba divers favor La Jolla Cove and San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park. For a recorded update about weather and diving conditions phone (619) 221-8824. To arrange a boat excursion try Ocean Enterprises; phone (858) 565-6054.
Surfing is an all-year activity, but wet suits are advised during all but the summer months. Among the popular surfing beaches are Imperial Beach, Mission Beach, Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach Park, Sunset Cliffs, Tourmaline Surfing Park and Windansea Park. Several more fine breaks dot the county coastline north of San Diego all the way to Oceanside.
Water skiing conditions are excellent on the calm waters of the bays. San Diego Bay has restricted areas due to naval and commercial traffic, but water skiing is permitted within Glorietta Bay. Skiing is permitted in certain sections of Mission Bay from dawn to dusk.
In addition to playing on and in the water, San Diegans also soar above it. Near Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is the Torrey Pines Gliderport, (858) 452-9858, at 2800 Torrey Pines Scenic Dr. (Note: The gliderport is not accessible from the entrance to the reserve.) Here paragliders and a few hang gliders patiently wait for just the right gust of wind to send them sailing over the Pacific. On favorable weather days the cliff tops are lined with gliders sporting their colorful paraphernalia, and the view of the aerial acrobatics is superb.
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Boat ToursSince much of San Diego's activity centers on its harbor, a cruise provides an excellent perspective of the city.
Bus and Trolley ToursOld Town Trolley Tours
Driving ToursA 59-mile scenic drive is marked at frequent intervals by blue and gold signs with a white seagull. The drive begins at Broadway Pier, although it can be joined at any point. It takes in the Embarcadero, Shelter and Harbor islands, Point Loma, Mission Bay, La Jolla, Old Town and Balboa Park. The loop can be driven in about 3 hours, but time should be allowed for sightseeing. Avoid driving during rush hours.
Food ToursBite San Diego
Plane ToursSan Diego Air Tours
Segway ToursAnother Side of San Diego Tours
Walking ToursGuided walking tours of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park are offered free of charge. The 1-hour tours depart the Robinson-Rose Visitor Information Center, 4002 Wallace St., daily at 11 and 2. For more information, phone (619) 220-5422.
A stroll around downtown's Gaslamp Quarter, bounded by Broadway, 4th Ave., 6th Ave. and Harbor Dr., provides an overview of the city's architectural and commercial history. Many buildings in this 16.5-block, 38-acre area have been restored to their original beauty. Surrounded by gas lamps and brick sidewalks, the Victorian craftsmanship evident in the historic district blends with an abundance of restaurants, antique shops and galleries to create a romantic ambience. For more information about the area, phone the Gaslamp Quarter Association at (619) 233-5227.
The Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation maintains an office in the 1850 Davis-Horton House at 4th and Island aves. The historical foundation offers a variety of guided walking tours, including Gaslamp architectural tours and evening ghost tours. The Gaslamp Walking Tour departs from the Davis-Horton House Sat. at 11, year-round, and Thurs. at 1, in summer. The cost is $20; $15 (ages 65+ and active military with ID); $10 (students with ID); free (ages 0-7). Reservations are strongly recommended. Phone (619) 233-4692.
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AAA. Photo by AAA associate Maria White for AAA
San Diego in 3 DaysThree days is barely enough time to get to know any major destination. But AAA travel editors suggest these activities to make the most of your time in San Diego.
Day 1: MorningYou can't go wrong beginning your San Diego sojourn at the world-renowned San Diego Zoo , in urban San Diego's picturesque cultural hub, Balboa Park . If you've missed breakfast, stop by the San Diego Zoo Sandwich Company just inside the zoo entrance where you'll have a perfect view of the Flamingo Lagoon while you fortify yourself for the day's activities with eggs and toast.
Double-decker “Kangaroo Express” buses offer transportation to five stops throughout the park, something to keep in mind should you poop out on the zoo's far side. The Skyfari Aerial Tram offers another way to get around, and the bird's-eye view can't be beat.
The aerial tram drops you off near the Polar Bear Plunge, a highlight on the opposite side of the zoo from the entrance. An underwater window reveals that the bears are surprisingly graceful swimmers. Elephant Odyssey compares its resident elephants, jaguars and California condors with replicas of their extinct relatives that roamed the area during the Pleistocene. The Scripps Aviary boasts a tropical theme with waterfalls and lush foliage providing a habitat for more than 100 colorful African birds.
Day 1: Afternoon
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Exhibits you should try to visit: the Ituri Forest (hippos, okapis and otters), Tiger River (tigers, tapirs and freshwater crocodiles) and the Giant Panda Research Station. If you have kids, then the Children's Zoo near the entrance is a must.
As difficult as it might be, try not to linger too long among the zoo's exhibits because you'll want to see a bit of surrounding Balboa Park, an expansive jewel within sprawling San Diego just a few minutes from downtown. This all-purpose city park houses not only the zoo but most of San Diego's big museums, as well as theaters, hiking and biking trails, sports facilities and formal gardens.
After having walked along paths bordered by dense walls of vegetation, you might find it hard to believe that the area was once dry scrubland. Transforming a windswept mesa into a landscaped showplace and cultural focal point didn't happen overnight. The park got its start more than a century ago and only approached its current character after serving as the site of two world's fairs: the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition. Balboa Park's signature buildings—its ornate Spanish Colonial Revival facades, its colorful, tile-inlaid fountains and charming arcades—were built for these events, and although many of them were temporary plaster and wood structures, San Diegan's found them too beautiful to simply tear down after the exposition crowds had departed. Many were rebuilt of more durable materials as the park was developed.
The California Building, housing the San Diego Museum of Man , is the park's chief landmark by virtue of its elaborate 200-foot-tall tower and multihued tile dome. When visitors describe the setting as “romantic,” this is the image they usually have in mind. Stroll along El Prado, the main east-west thoroughfare of the 1915 Exposition, from the graceful arches of the Cabrillo Bridge at the park's western entrance through the grand gateway formed by one wing of the California Building and past the Alcazar Garden; House of Charm (containing the Mingei International Museum and San Diego Art Institute ); Plaza de Panama with its statue of the Spanish hero, El Cid; House of Hospitality (a visitors center); Timken Museum of Art ; Casa de Balboa ( Museum of Photographic Arts and San Diego History Center & Library ); Casa del Prado (containing a theater); and the Botanical Building with its photogenic reflecting pool. You'll end up giving your shutter button a workout as every few steps seems to yield a new vista begging to be preserved in a snapshot.
Day 1: Evening
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Day 2: MorningIt might not have the whimsical buildings and lush gardens of Balboa Park, but downtown San Diego, far from being just a workaday central business district, has a lot to offer out-of-towners, too. Here you'll find the San Diego Convention Center, Petco Park (home of the Padres), the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) Downtown , the historic Gaslamp Quarter, shopping centers, restaurants and the boat- and ship-crowded waterfront known as the Embarcadero, home to two of San Diego's best museums.
The Maritime Museum of San Diego is a diverse collection of historic ships beautifully restored and maintained. The largest is the Berkeley, a more than 100-year-old steam ferry that in its heyday carried survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to safety. Glass cases filled with sundry nautical antiques and photos recount different eras of San Diego's maritime history. Did you know that San Diego was once one of the largest tuna fishing ports in the world and that it's the largest U.S. naval port on the Pacific? You will, after checking out the exhibits here.
The prettiest ship in the collection is the Star of India, a sailing ship launched from the Isle of Man in the British Isles in 1863. Exhibits and hands-on displays on board give you an idea of what it was like to work on a wind-powered vessel back when the Star of India's iron hull was cutting-edge technology. Among the other sundry ships in the museum's collection: a 1904 luxury steam yacht and the H.M.S. Surprise, a Royal Navy frigate replica you might have seen in the Russell Crowe movie, “Master and Commander.” For an additional fee, you can cruise the harbor aboard a 1914 pilot boat or take turns manning the helm during a harbor excursion on the tall ship Californian, a replica of an 1847 schooner.
Dwarfing all of the maritime museum's vessels combined and bigger even than the cruise ships docking at the nearby terminal, the USS Midway, a few blocks south of the maritime museum, was the largest ship in the world when it was built in 1945. After serving her country for nearly 50 years, this behemoth is now The USS Midway Museum and you can spend hours exploring its decks with the help of an audio tour guide. You'll see a couple dozen restored aircraft and all sorts of exhibits about naval aviation as well.
Day 2: AfternoonFor lunch, walk over to The Fish Market next to the USS Midway. This local landmark has a prime location on the bay with great views, especially from Top of the Market , which is the full-service restaurant on the second floor. Downstairs is The Fish Market, the casual counterpart to the restaurant upstairs, and like the name suggests, the fish is market fresh. Although particulars on the menu change according to what's in season, you can expect an extensive selection of raw shellfish, seafood cocktails, sashimi and sushi as well as smoked and mesquite-grilled fish. The sushi and the fish and chips are done especially well.
Spend the rest of the afternoon shopping and enjoying the scenery at Seaport Village right next door to the Fish Market. The theme here is “quaint seaside village” with many shops imitating ramshackle bait shops and lighthouses. Some might find Seaport Village tries a little too hard to be cute, but mixed in among the souvenir vendors catering to tourists are some interesting little specialty shops selling everything from hot sauces to imported Scandinavian sweaters and jewelry. There are more than 50 stores in all along with several eateries and cafés, and Seaport Village makes the most of its waterfront location with fountains, trees and a walkway along the bay offering splendid views of Coronado and the Coronado Bay Bridge. There's also a Looff carousel, horse-drawn carriage rides and on the weekends, street performers.
If Seaport Village only whets your appetite for more shopping, walk just a few blocks east to Westfield Horton Plaza , a multilevel, open-air mall that's one part traditional shopping center and one part carnival funhouse. A maze of walkways and terraces here connects a jumble of stores (more than 100), with stairs and escalators leading up and down to the various floors. Unwary shoppers tend to get lost, but if you approach it with the right frame of mind, wandering through its network of corridors can be fun. Head to the top floor for a great view of the whimsical complex and the rest of downtown.
Since you're in the neighborhood, check out San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter, bordering Westfield Horton Plaza on the east. Signs arching over the street proclaim this district to be the “Historic Heart of San Diego.” Beautifully restored Victorian-era commercial buildings, brick sidewalks and streets lined by old-fashioned, wrought-iron lamp posts with white globe lights give you a taste of what life was like here in the 19th century. You'll find several shops and restaurants in the district, but this place really starts hopping after dark when all the bars and nightclubs open for business.
Day 2: EveningFollow the setting sun to Coronado , an exclusive island enclave (actually it's virtually an island but technically a peninsula). You have two options to get there: the San Diego-Coronado Ferry departs from the dock at Broadway and Harbor Drive near the USS Midway; crossing takes about 15 minutes and you'll have a nice perspective of the city. But if you want a truly breathtaking panorama of San Diego and its surroundings, take the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge, a graceful ribbon of concrete that soars 200 feet above the bay allowing huge U.S. Navy ships to pass underneath and providing stunning views to drivers.
Coronado is home to two naval bases, a few high-end resorts and some very well-heeled homeowners, so the atmosphere here is generally upscale. It's the inviting beaches that first attracted visitors here, and with visitors came hotels and, in 1888, the grande dame of Coronado, the Hotel del Coronado, Curio Collection by Hilton . This rambling Victorian masterpiece, with its iconic towers, whitewashed walls and high-pitched red roofs, set the standard for luxury in San Diego and continues to do so today. From the swaying palms and lush landscaping to the rich dark wood interiors, “The Del,” as it is fondly called by locals, is a landmark you shouldn't miss. And if you time it right, sipping a cocktail overlooking the beach at sunset will be a highlight of your trip.
Cap off this day of sightseeing with dinner at the Del's Sheerwater Restaurant , which offers indoor seating as well as a large outdoor terrace with ocean views. Evenings in San Diego can get chilly, but don't let that dissuade you from dining al fresco; the Sheerwater has plenty of fireplaces and strategically placed heaters to take the nip out of the air. The fare is California Coastal, appropriately enough, with seasonal seafood dishes including house specialties cioppino, a fish stew made with tomatoes, and fish and chips. You'll also find steaks, burgers and pasta on the menu.
Day 3: MorningDrive out to Cabrillo National Monument on Point Loma, the spit of land separating San Diego Bay from the Pacific. The views from the point are spectacular, encompassing the city and the entire harbor as well as a sweeping expanse of the Pacific that includes migration routes used by Pacific gray whales in winter. Make sure your camera battery is charged because this is one of San Diego's most scenic views.
A 14-foot sandstone statue near the parking lot honors Portuguese explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who was the first European to step onto what would eventually become the West Coast of the United States. Paved pathways lead to overlooks, a lighthouse, a military exhibit and a visitors center with displays about Cabrillo as well as general park information. The Bayside Trail on the park's east side meanders through native coastal scrub, and a road branching off near the main parking lot leads down to a rocky shore with tide pools on the park's Pacific side.
Day 3: AfternoonFor lunch visit Humphreys SoCal Dining & Music on Shelter Island, about a 5-mile drive north of Point Loma along the coast of San Diego Bay. You'll have great views of a sailboat-crowded marina and the fine houses on Point Loma, and the dishes are beautifully presented and combine a variety of carefully chosen flavors to excellent effect. If you happen to be passing through on a Sunday, try the Sunday brunch, which is so popular that you might not get in without having made reservations first. And if you do have brunch there, one word of advice: you might want to watch how much of the unlimited champagne you consume.
Continue north through the towns of Ocean Beach, Mission Beach and Pacific Beach to the tony seaside community of La Jolla . Palm fronds swaying in the sea breeze above red-tile roofs and gorgeous ocean views characterize La Jolla, and downtown is known for its beach resorts, fine dining and upscale boutiques as well as lovely little La Jolla Cove with its steep rock bluffs and sandy beach.
Enjoy the rest of the afternoon wandering among the marine exhibits at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography , north of downtown on the University of California, San Diego campus. There are more than 60 habitats represented here. Don't miss the huge Kelp Tank filled with schools of fish swimming among a swaying kelp tendrils or the Tropical Seas Gallery with its colorful live coral. The Shark Reef exhibit, home to an array of shark varieties, is equally fascinating, and the Tide-Pool Plaza acquaints visitors with this habitat common to California's coastline. You can even touch some of the marine critters that live in tide pools. An added bonus: The picture spot outside the aquarium from which you can see La Jolla Cove, Scripps Institute pier and the cliffs near the university campus.
Day 3: EveningCelebrate your third evening in San Diego with a sumptuous dinner in an equally sumptuous setting at George's At the Cove , part of George's at the Cove, which is tucked in among the boutiques and art galleries of downtown La Jolla. You'll have an amazing ocean view and the sleek, elegant décor and carefully designed lighting creates an aura of luxury you'll really enjoy. The menu changes daily, but be assured that the California cuisine is as sophisticated as the ambience. You'll need reservations, and should a table not be available, consider the rooftop Ocean Terrace upstairs. It's less pricey, more casual, the view is incredible and your chances of getting in without a reservation are better. George's Bar, the third dining room at George's at the Cove, serves from the same menu as the Ocean Terrace and has a balcony that also takes advantage of the building's primo location.
AttractionsIn a city with dozens of attractions, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time. Here are the highlights for this destination, as chosen by AAA editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”
At first glance you might think that the Spanish Colonial-style buildings in Balboa Park , a AAA GEM attraction, are remnants from the city's earliest days as a Franciscan mission and military fort, but the park's origins are far more recent. Originally called City Park, the 1,200-acre landscaped area was renamed in 1910 after a contest. Since it offered views of the Pacific, and since Vasco Núñez de Balboa was the first European to see Earth's largest ocean, the choice seemed natural.
Many of the buildings were constructed for the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition including the California Building, which you can't miss thanks to its 200-foot-high bell tower and multihued tile dome. This churchlike building has housed anthropology exhibits since the exposition's 1915 opening, but today the museum inside is called the San Diego Museum of Man and focuses on peoples of the western Americas.
Several museums line El Prado, Balboa Park's central pedestrian thoroughfare, and the connecting Plaza de Panama. Among these are the Mingei International Museum , an international folk art museum housed in the reconstructed mission-style House of Charm, and The San Diego Museum of Art , which contains the works of European old masters, 19th- and 20th-century American art and a comprehensive Asian collection behind its richly detailed façade—a facade complete with caravels, cherubs and busts of famous artists sculpted in relief.
Continuing to the eastern end of El Prado will bring you to two noteworthy science museums. The San Diego Natural History Museum is housed in a stately white building constructed in 1933 and expanded dramatically in 2001. In addition to the fossils and living specimens that you'd expect, the museum also has a 300-seat, giant-screen theater and hosts all sorts of changing exhibitions covering topics ranging from the human genome to the Dead Sea Scrolls to chocolate.
Facing the natural history museum on the opposite side of a plaza with a circular fountain is the Fleet Science Center , where the theme shifts to science, technology and most importantly, child-friendly “edutainment.” The center's interactive, hands-on exhibits—along with motion simulator rides and the world's first IMAX Dome Theater—are designed to engage visitors, particularly younger ones.
The list of Balboa Park's attractions is a long one and includes the Botanical Building , Japanese Friendship Garden , Marston House , Museum of Photographic Arts , San Diego Air & Space Museum , San Diego Art Institute , San Diego Automotive Museum , San Diego History Center & Library , San Diego Model Railroad Museum , Spanish Village Art Center , Spreckels Organ Pavilion and the Timken Museum of Art .
Obviously there's no way you could see everything in Balboa Park in just one visit, but you'll see more and save your feet if you take advantage of the free tram that stops at various points within the park. Whatever you do, make sure you set aside some time, preferably a full day, for the park's premiere tourist draw, the San Diego Zoo , a AAA GEM attraction. World-renowned for its huge collection of animals—more than 4,000—along with its conservation programs, the San Diego Zoo shows off its impressive menagerie in a setting lush with tropical and subtropical vegetation. Cageless enclosures simulate natural habitats and make it easier to view the various creatures on display. If you're pressed for time, make sure you at least stop by Panda Trek, where you might see a rare panda cub. You should also see Gorilla Tropics, where the apes' rainforest has been recreated with waterfalls and tropical trees and is continued within the adjacent Scripps Aviary, which is filled with hundreds of colorful African birds.
Let's say you've managed to hit Balboa Park's highpoints and are ready for more. Downtown San Diego, just a few minutes away, should be your next stop. On the Embarcadero—the city's waterfront along Harbor Drive roughly between Grape and Market streets—you'll come across the Maritime Museum of San Diego , a AAA GEM attraction. Don't look for a museum building; most of the museum's exhibits are aboard the Berkeley, a 289-foot steam ferry launched in 1898 that transported survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The 1863 Star of India—an iron hulled, three-masted sailing ship—is another nautical jewel in the museum's seafaring collection. Among the other historic ships and ship reconstructions you'll find here: a luxurious 1904 steam yacht, a 1902 sloop built in San Diego, the Californian, a replica of a 19th-century revenue cutter and the H.M.S. Surprise, a replica of Royal Navy frigate used in the movie “Master and Commander.”
A separate attraction docked nearby on the Embarcadero is the USS Midway, a 1945 aircraft carrier decommissioned in 1992 that now serves as home to The USS Midway Museum . MP3 audio tours of the huge ship—the largest in the world when it was built—cover the flight and hangar decks and describe the various aircraft on display including fighter jets (an F-14 Tomcat, an F/A-18 Hornet are two examples) and a Huey Gunship.
To experience the Embarcadero as well as other San Diego locales faster and more easily, climb aboard an air conditioned minibus with San Diego Scenic Tours . The company picks up guests at most area hotels for narrated half- and full-day tours that provide a wonderful introduction to the city's most beautiful districts including Balboa Park, the Gaslamp Quarter, Coronado and La Jolla Cove.
North of San Diego Bay and adjacent to the international airport is a Marine Corps Recruit Depot featuring the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Command Museum . Military history buffs will enjoy all the displays of equipment, weapons and personal memorabilia not to mention the insight that the audiovisual kiosks provide into Marine Corps life. One particularly interesting exhibit describes the role Navajo Code Talkers played in keeping military communications secure during World War II.
South and west of the depot, Point Loma shields the entrance to San Diego Bay from the Pacific Ocean. The point's high, rocky cliffs provide an extremely photogenic setting for Cabrillo National Monument , a AAA GEM attraction. A monument to Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, the first European to set foot on what would become the west coast of the United States, stands on an overlook commanding fantastic ocean views, and you can watch Pacific gray whales migrating offshore in winter. The 1855 Old Point Loma Lighthouse stands 422 feet above sea level; its squat, whitewashed walls and stubby central tower are a frequent subject of visitors' snapshots.
The monument also offers a panoramic view of San Diego, San Diego Bay and Coronado, the peninsula that forms the western side of the bay opposite downtown. The Coronado Museum of History and Art occupies a 1910 bank of commerce building. Galleries within describe local history, with special attention paid to the massive Hotel del Coronado, Curio Collection by Hilton , Coronado's landmark Victorian resort that stands presides over a lovely stretch of sandy beach just a few blocks away.
While the “Del,” as it is affectionately called, has been a San Diego landmark for more than a century, the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá , a AAA GEM attraction in Mission Valley, has been one for even longer. Originally founded by Father Junípero Serra farther west at Presidio Hill as the first of his chain of missions along the California coast, the current church building—distinguished by its red-tile roof, bright whitewashed exterior and picturesque three-tiered bell wall—was constructed at this site in 1813 and restored in 1931.
The Spanish Revival-style building currently standing atop Presidio Hill was built by the San Diego Historical Society in 1929 as a museum dedicated to Father Serra’s role in the state’s history. Open only to school groups, the museum overlooks Old Town San Diego State Historic Park , a AAA GEM attraction re-creating a 19th-century California settlement during the Mexican and early American periods. You can peek into a handful of historic adobe homes to see period tables decked out as if guests are expected for dinner, while other reconstructed buildings show off wagons and stage coaches. Tucked in among the arcaded porches and plazas landscaped with drought-hardy foliage are Mexican-themed restaurants and shops selling a spectrum of souvenirs.
West of Mission Valley in Mission Bay is SeaWorld San Diego , a AAA GEM attraction that combines theme park rides with educational marine-life shows and exhibits. Of course, Shamu the killer whale is the star of his own show, but other crowd-pleasing performers include sea lions, otters, dolphins and even trained cats and dogs. Sharks, penguins and manatees each have their special habitats designed to keep them comfortable while presenting them to great effect. Adding some variety to SeaWorld San Diego's animal-centered attractions are such water-oriented thrill rides as Journey to Atlantis and Shipwreck Rapids, where passengers are likely to get a little wet.
If SeaWorld San Diego fails to quench your thirst for knowledge about ocean life, then you need only travel 11 miles north to La Jolla and the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography , a AAA GEM attraction, to learn more. As the name implies, Birch Aquarium concentrates more on scientific exploration and less on thrill rides, but the variety of display tanks containing all sorts of strange and beautiful sea critters makes for a fascinating visit nonetheless. The outdoor Tide-Pool Plaza Discovery Center lets you touch a sampling of tide pool denizens including hermit crabs, barnacles and sea anemones. The views of the Pacific from the plaza are outstanding; the aquarium sits atop a seaside bluff.
Occupying another ocean view location is the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) La Jolla , where you'll find changing exhibitions of art executed in a variety of media and ranging from thought provoking to downright befuddling but never dull. The museum's permanent collection comprises more than 3,000 works produced since 1950 specializing in Pop art, minimalism, conceptual art and art from California and the San Diego metro area.
While Balboa Park's San Diego Zoo was created with human visitors in mind, San Diego Zoo Safari Park , a AAA GEM attraction 35 miles north of Balboa Park in Escondido, was designed to provide as much room as possible to its animal residents. The park's enormous field exhibits approximate the natural habitats of a host of exotic wildlife, which is great for the park's conservation efforts but makes getting around a real challenge. The park solves this problem with the Wgasa Bush Line Railway, an electric monorail on which you can enjoy a guided hour-long tour into the heart of the African and Asian field exhibits. During the journey you'll encounter herds of antelopes, Cape buffaloes, elephants, giraffes, rhinos and zebras—among other herd animals—in addition to lions and tigers. The park's walking trail is another way of getting a close look at the wildlife.
Twenty miles west in Carlsbad, you can get an even closer look at a diverse collection of animals at LEGOLAND California Resort , a AAA GEM attraction, only these are built of the popular snap-together plastic blocks for children. Along with all the famous landmarks and colorful critters painstakingly rendered in LEGOs, the pre-teen-oriented theme park has play areas for small kids and thrill rides for older children. One of the newest rides is Knights' Tournament, a bone-jangling journey at the end of a giant robotic arm that spins, flexes and twists like the arm of sword-wielding knight.
See all the AAA recommended attractions for this destination.
RestaurantsOur favorites include some of this destination's best restaurants—from fine dining to simple fare.
Opened in 1971 in a fully functional Harbor Island lighthouse known as Beacon #9, Tom Ham's Lighthouse offers sweeping views of San Diego Bay and the downtown skyline. For the best bang for your buck, make reservations for the longtime eatery’s Sunday brunch. For under $50, you can gorge on crab legs, peel-and-eat shrimp, scallops, smoked salmon and oysters—and those are just the seafood selections! The bountiful buffet also features made-to-order omelet and pasta stations, carved rosemary rib roast and unlimited mimosas.
Craftsman-style architecture, stained glass lanterns and plush booths create a cozy ambiance at AR Valentien . The urbane decor also includes artwork by the restaurant’s namesake, an early 20th-century California artist noted for his botanical watercolors. Emphasizing local ingredients, the menu changes seasonally at this elegant farm-to-table restaurant, the main fine-dining option at La Jolla’s renowned AAA Five Diamond golf resort, The Lodge at Torrey Pines .
Local food providers like Crows Pass Farm and Chino Farms supply Nine-Ten with some of the fresh ingredients needed to make “evolving California cuisine” a happy addiction for La Jolla residents. Located in The Grande Colonial hotel, the upscale restaurant has garnered acclaim for its artistically plated entrées and desserts—both of which are best enjoyed al fresco, while taking in the sights and sounds of busy Prospect Street.
Also on Prospect Street is George’s At the Cove , on the lower level of George’s at the Cove. Often heralded as one of the area’s best fine-dining restaurants, the establishment garners acclaim thanks to innovative modern American fare and a chic dining room with some seriously stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. If you can’t snag a reservation at California Modern, try George’s Bar, one level up, which offers a casual menu and the same awesome panorama of La Jolla Cove.
If you’re craving Mexican food, Old Town offers numerous options. Just outside the north entrance to Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is festive Casa Guadalajara , which boasts a beautiful courtyard and daily live musical entertainment. Strolling mariachis also can be found at another popular Old Town option, Cafe Coyote y Cantina . Many pedestrians who stop to watch fresh, handmade tortillas being slapped on the grill by the eatery's famed “tortilla ladies” are drawn inside for a meal or one of the cantina's massive margaritas, made with some of the finest tequilas on the market.
San Diego's Little Italy is home to Trattoria Fantastica/Cafe Zucchero , a popular café serving panini sandwiches, pizza, and a few pasta and risotto dishes. In the evening, the menu features entrées with chicken, veal and seafood. You must try one of the many desserts made daily on the premises, which include tempting cakes, marzipan creations, ice cream and gelato.
A sophisticated banquet experience plays out at Addison Restaurant , San Diego’s only AAA Five Diamond restaurant. Located inside Fairmont Grand Del Mar , a luxurious Five Diamond Rated resort in Carmel Valley, the warm, tastefully appointed main dining room overlooks the hotel’s Tom Fazio-designed golf course. For a guided culinary adventure, select the chef’s tasting menu, which showcases some of the restaurant’s best contemporary French dishes as well as seasonally inspired recipes.
At The Oceanaire Seafood Room in the historic Gaslamp Quarter, dark, rich interiors and nautical details evoke a 1930s ocean liner. Guests navigate a grand, winding staircase to the sprawling dining room filled with plush booths and tables. The oyster bar is very popular during the week thanks to its half-price oysters and shrimp cocktail, and traditional caviar service also is available.
Although businesses along the nearby Embarcadero—downtown's waterfront district—tend to cater to out-of-towners, both locals and tourists alike enjoy The Fish Market and Top of the Market . The Fish Market (downstairs) offers fresh fish takeout, while in the dining room upstairs (Top of the Market), an enormous menu printed daily lists more than a dozen fresh catches, all grilled over mesquite.
A wonderful place to enjoy Southern California's mild weather is the covered patio at Baci Ristorante , a San Diego institution since 1979. Conveniently located near Mission Valley, Mission Bay and La Jolla, it has three inviting, indoor dining areas with cozy seating, while its patio's golden colors create a soothing outdoor space infused with light. Here you can relish such tasty Northern Italian cuisine as broiled veal chops, sweet clams and mussels, osso buco and veal Marsala.
Old-school Bali Hai Restaurant , opened in the mid-1950s, is home to two quirky tiki icons, Mr. Bali Hai and “The Goof.” The swank Hawaiian-themed eatery also has more than 100 Polynesian artifacts on display inside. As you might expect, island drinks—like piña coladas, hurricanes and rum runners, garnished with pineapple wedges and other tropical fruits and served in fun tiki mugs—are big sellers here. Tip for boaters: If your stomach starts rumbling while you’re cruising around San Diego Bay, Bali Hai, located on the northeastern tip of Shelter Island, conveniently offers “Dock and Dine” service.
See all the AAA Diamond Rated restaurants for this destination.
EventsIn addition to its many cultural and historic landmarks, this destination hosts a number of outstanding festivals and events that may coincide with your visit.
San Diego celebrates St. Patrick's Day Parade and Festival in mid-March and then hosts the San Diego Crew Classic at Mission Bay in late March or early April.
Balboa Park with its lush landscaping and ornate Spanish Colonial-style buildings serves as a beautiful, not to mention appropriate, setting for EarthFair in mid-April. The more than 200 exhibitors promoting one aspect of environmentalism or another include wildlife preservation groups, organic farmers and advocates of alternative energy vehicles. Children's activities, music and earth-friendly food also are on EarthFair's program.
In early May, Old Town San Diego State Historic Park hosts Fiesta Cinco de Mayo , a celebration of Mexican history and culture among Old Town's restored adobes. The event, one of the city's most popular, showcases Mexican cuisine along with mariachis and activities for children. Live music and entertainment on seven stages round out the fiesta's schedule.
Head out to the Del Mar Fairgrounds in June or early July, and you'll find the traditional county fair is alive and well. The San Diego County Fair is one of the largest in the United States and even if a delicate constitution keeps you from climbing aboard the Skycoaster or the Tilt-a-Whirl, you can still sample an assortment of carnival food, win a stuffed animal by demonstrating your ring-toss prowess or sway to the music at one of the performance venues. And of course, what county fair would be complete without livestock exhibits?
During July's Comic-Con International: San Diego , more than 130,000 proud sci-fi geeks, anime fans and zombie film connoisseurs—most decked out in atypical daywear like gold bikinis and pleather cowls or slathered head to toe in body paint—descend on the San Diego Convention Center. For 4 days, the off-the-wall spectacle pretty much takes over the Gaslamp, with satellite activities (some of which are free and sponsored by media companies like NBC and Warner Bros.) also taking place in local hotels and public parks.
The Pride Music Festival began in 1974, when the Center for Social Services (now the San Diego LGBT Community Center) held a small, informal gay pride parade. Today, the San Diego Pride Parade, which begins at the Hillcrest Pride Flag (at University Avenue and Normal Street) and ends at Laurel Street, attracts more than 100,000 spectators. Several other activities, including a nighttime Hillcrest neighborhood block party, a 5K run and a 2-day music festival in Balboa Park, have been added to the event, which now takes place over 3 days in July.
In mid-September the roar of finely tuned engines heralds the start of San Diego Bayfair in Mission Bay. Called the “World Series of Powerboat Racing,” the 3-day regatta showcases the world's fastest hydroplanes, drag boats and tunnel hulls, among other classes of powerboats, and draws more than 75,000 racing fans each year.
If you can't get enough of screaming engines and blurring speed, you'll only need to wait a month: the MCAS Miramar Air Show takes to the skies for 3 days in late September or early October. Civilian pilots perform precision takeoffs and landings along with heart-stopping aerial stunts, but it's the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels that steal the show as they guide their signature blue-and-gold painted F/A-18 Hornets through a series of breathtaking choreographed formations. Groundside you'll get an up-close look at all sorts of aircraft ranging from the massive Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules to the Phantom Racer.
The Cabrillo Festival , held in late September or early October, commemorates Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo's landing at the site of present-day San Diego in 1542. Festivities include a flag-raising ceremony; Mexican, Native American, Spanish and Portuguese dances; and a re-enactment of the historic landing at Ballast Point.
Late November finds music lovers grooving to the sounds of nearly two dozen jazz, Dixieland and swing bands during the San Diego Jazz Fest & Swing Extravaganza . Held at the convention center of the Town & Country Resort Hotel , the festival's venues include both large concert rooms and more intimate spaces.
San Diego's snow-free climate might make it difficult to get into the holiday spirit, especially for transplants used to winter wonderlands, which is probably why Balboa Park December Nights is so popular. Held the first weekend in December, this family-oriented event draws around 325,000 people to Balboa Park with festive decorations, ethnic food from around the world, hands-on crafts lessons, bands and choral groups as well as free admission to many of the park's museums.
A few days later is Old Town Holiday in the Park & Las Posadas , a traditional reenactment of Mary and Joseph's search for shelter for the Christ child. The procession—with wise men, shepherds and even a donkey—begins in nearby Heritage Park.
SeaWorld San Diego also gets into the holiday spirit. From mid-November to early January, enjoy the festive lights and special shows at SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration .
Qualcomm Stadium hosts the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl , which includes the Port of San Diego Holiday Bowl Parade .
See all the AAA recommended events for this destination.
davebloggs007 / flickr
Attraction PassesThe Southern California CityPASS ticket booklets offer 28 percent savings at major Southern California attractions. The pass includes a Disney 3-Day Park Hopper® ticket, which covers admission to both Disneyland® Park and Disney California Adventure® Park; a 1-day ticket to LEGOLAND California Resort; and a 1-day ticket to SeaWorld San Diego. It costs $341; $311 (ages 3-9).
The Southern California CityPASS booklet is valid for 14 consecutive days starting with the first day of use. It is available online and from participating attractions. For information, phone (208) 787-4300 or (888) 330-5008.
AAA. Photo by AAA associate Maria White for AAA
Regional FareLike a carefree 1960s hippie on a quest of self-discovery, California has always bucked convention, blazed trails and set trends. And like a hippie, the state has adopted simplicity over complexity, diversity over similarity. Its cuisine, especially, reflects this credo. Simplicity appears in the form of unprocessed, fresh ingredients: a Mediterranean-type climate and long growing season produce abundant fruits and vegetables year-round. Diversity derives from a psychedelic mélange of creatively prepared, everyday ingredients such as chilies, cilantro, cumin, coriander, oregano, corn tortillas, avocados, olives and citrus fruits now so popular here and introduced by Spanish priests and early Mexican settlers. Later immigrants from Italy, China and Japan also contributed extensively to California cuisine: stuffed artichokes, stir-fried vegetables, and tempura immediately spring to mind. But to truly grasp California's progressive nature, let's talk about where the story begins; in San Diego, which calls itself “America's Finest City.”
Though San Diego was discovered in 1542 by Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, it wasn't until 1769 that the first permanent settlement was established by a group of Spanish colonizers led by a missionary Junipero Serra. Mission San Diego de Alcala was a primary link in a chain of 21 missions and essentially the birth of, and impetus for, California's continued growth. As Hilde Gabriel Lee explains in “Taste of the States: A Food History of America,” in addition to fruits and vegetables, every mission had a vineyard. Tomatoes were grown at a time when white settlers in the rest of North America still thought them to be poisonous. Today, this same bold approach endures and many of San Diego's growers have earned a reputation for quality specialty crops. The area's farmers markets are temples of locally grown treasures and every morning they attract dozens of the region's top culinary talent as well as chefs from California's most celebrated restaurants who are eager to ogle the fresh goods and be inspired. As a port city, San Diego consistently provides fresh fish and seafood such as swordfish and tuna.
Nothing stirs the soul more than a hand-tossed pizza crust topped with vibrant garden-fresh veggies and baked in a brick oven. Culinary vanguards such as Alice Waters, Deborah Madison and Wolfgang Puck realized early on that your dish is only as good as your ingredients. Accustomed to nature providing them with bountiful harvests and between the early 1970s and early 1980s, these chefs were part of a small group that spearheaded a culinary zeitgeist and established the state's role as the pacesetter for much of the nation's cuisine. With the emphasis always on fresh and local, chefs continue to experiment with disparate cooking styles and ingredients. Innovation and not conformity remains the name of the game. Examples of recipes that originated in California and have assimilated into the culinary mainstream are Caesar and Cobb salads, Cioppino (a fish stew), fish tacos and sourdough bread.
California's favorable climate has made the state a leader in the growing of unusual vegetables and fruits, such as feijoas, and that trend is not about to end anytime soon. As in the past, future chefs will continue to push the boundaries of culinary creativity. The Flower Child has come a long way from her humble beginnings and though she will never truly grow up, it is her adventurous spirit that continues to delight and surprise and ultimately endear her to us. Pay her a visit sometime, spread a blanket in a park and indulge in her bucolic pleasures. Tie-dyed T-shirts and bell-bottom pants optional!
Historic SceneryIt would be unfortunate indeed if your stay in San Diego had to be a short one, but at least you won't have to choose between visiting the city's most important historic sites and photographing its most picturesque. History and scenic beauty conveniently come together in California's second largest city; just drive out to Point Loma to see for yourself.
On September 28, 1542, Portuguese explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed past this rocky headland and into San Diego Bay, becoming the first European to visit what would become the West Coast of the United States. A 14-foot-tall sandstone statue of the explorer, part of Cabrillo National Monument , commands a breathtaking panorama of the surrounding area including downtown San Diego. From the statue's base you can also snap a great shot of Old Point Loma Lighthouse farther up the hill, and it's difficult to take a bad picture of nearby Sunset Cliffs , an area where churning Pacific waves have sculpted bluffs into shapes that artfully play with light and shadow.
More than 200 years later, in 1769, Gaspar de Portolá established a presidio or fort atop what is today Presidio Hill. An interstate runs along one side of the hill and only ruins of the fortress remain, but this historic site is now a lush, landscaped park overlooking a golf course and Old Town San Diego State Historic Park , and the whitewashed mission-style building housing the Serra Museum, with its tower and long arcade, makes a lovely centerpiece for photos of the presidio.
The museum honors Junípero Serra, a Franciscan friar who accompanied Portolá and established California's first mission, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá . A cross made of thousands of tiles from the presidio's ruins commemorates the site of Serra's first in a series of missions that eventually stretched north along the coast past San Francisco. San Diego de Alcalá was later moved 6 miles inland where you'll find it today, although the photogenic basilica there with its distinctive bell wall is an early 20th-century reconstruction of the mission as it looked in 1813.
By 1869 California had been admitted to the union, yet San Diego was still a small town of far less significance than its rivals to the north, San Francisco and Los Angeles. But in that year, a wealthy landowner and developer named Alonzo Horton arrived in San Diego determined to build a new city, not in the shadow of the presidio, but near the waterfront. The area became downtown San Diego, and during the 1870s, brick commercial buildings sprung up in a district known today for its meticulously restored Victorian-era architecture: the Gaslamp Quarter.
You'll get your best view of the quarter's elaborate architectural details during the day, but the district really comes alive after dark when the nightclubs and restaurants fill with people and the warm glow of period street lamps competes with the garish light of neon signs. Adjacent to the Gaslamp Quarter is Westfield Horton Plaza , a redevelopment project that opened to much fanfare in 1985. Named for San Diego's early booster, the multilevel complex painted a riot of bold colors combines restaurants, movie theaters and more than 120 stores with the fun and fanciful atmosphere of an amusement park.
The city reached another historic turning point in 1915 with the opening in Balboa Park of the Panama-California Exposition, a tribute to the Panama Canal's completion and San Diego's Latin heritage. The lovely Spanish Colonial Revival-style buildings designed for the exposition were joined 20 years later by several more built for a second exposition that were inspired by Native American, Mayan and Aztec designs. Pick a postcard at random at any San Diego gift shop and odds are it will show some lovely vista within Balboa Park: an elegant tower gilded by the setting sun, a splashing fountain bordered in colorful tiles or a courtyard crowded with tropical plants and lined with palm trees.
Whether you buy a postcard or take your own photos, you'll have all the evidence necessary to convince your friends and family back home that San Diego is one of America's most beautifully historic cities.
Travel TipsHigh temperatures along the coast are normally in the mid-60s in winter and the mid- to upper 70s in summer, with a daily range of 10 to 15 degrees. While temperatures are notably constant, there can be wide variations within short distances; inland locations run slightly cooler on winter nights and considerably warmer during the summer months.
May through October is essentially rainless; from November through March an average of about 1.5 inches of rain a month can be expected. Strong winds or storms occur infrequently, while snow and ice are practically unknown, except in the mountains to the east. The smog that plagues Los Angeles also is refreshingly absent here. Fog is prevalent along the coast during the fall and winter months, decreasing inland.
With few exceptions, San Diego is a casual place, so dress accordingly. Although the Pacific surf is bracing, keep a swimsuit handy just in case you have an impulse to take a dip. A sweater or lightweight jacket will prove handy for nighttime temperatures. Winter nights average about 50 and occasionally fall to 40; even summer evenings may seem chilly. Don't forget a pair of sunglasses and comfortable walking shoes.
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