By: Genevieve Shaw Brown
People in San Diego are obsessed with the weather. Everywhere you go, you'll hear discussion of the forecast, even though there's really not much to discuss. Sure, the city will see the odd day of rain here and there, but if you take a look at the 10-day forecast, chances are it will look something like this: Monday, 70 degrees and sunny; Tuesday, 70 degrees and sunny; Wednesday, 70 degrees and sunny. You start to expect the weatherperson to just point at the little suns lined up across the television screen and say, "we're in for another perfect day."
And though the temptation to laze the day away on a sandy beach is ever-present, do yourself a favor and balance your beach time with sightseeing. If you have three days, be sure to visit the pandas at the San Diego Zoo, hit up a few museums in Balboa Park, visit Old Town, and stroll around the Gaslamp Quarter after dark. If you have five days, do all that plus take a ferry to Coronado (just a quick hop across San Diego Bay), head to SeaWorld and say hello to Shamu, and take the trolley to the Mexican border to make it a two-nation vacation. If you have a week, give in to temptation and spend lots of time on the beach and take a day trip to beautiful La Jolla. With so much to see and do, a trip to San Diego can be as action-packed or as tranquil as you want – and no matter when you go or what you do, you can always count on the weather being, well, perfect.
San Diego is a sprawling city, and you'll often find yourself traveling quite a distance between the city's top attractions. While many visitors do rent a car, you can also get around most everywhere by public transport: the San Diego Trolley runs on three lines – Orange, Blue, and Green – and the fare (usually no more than $3) is contingent on distance traveled. That said, Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo do lie outside the trolley system, but can be reached by bus instead. San Diego Commute (www.sdcommute.com) is an excellent resource for public transit information.
To get oriented while seeing some of the city's major attractions along the way, take an Old Town Trolley Tour (Old Town; daily 9am-4pm, until 5pm in summer; 619/298-8687; $27; www.historictours.com); the hop on/hop off tour visits nearly all of the city's top sights. One way to save on admission prices during your visit is with the Go San Diego Card (www.GoSanDiegoCard.com; $55+) that covers access to over 35 attractions over one or more days; the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau (www.sandiego.org) also posts discounts that can save you some cash.
Balboa Park & the San Diego Zoo
Balboa Park (www.balboapark.org), the largest cultural park in the United States, encompasses 1200 acres, 15 museums, several performing arts venues, and a number of lush gardens. Located just east of downtown San Diego, you could easily spend several days just exploring this massive expanse and your first stop should definitely be the Visitors Center (1549 El Prado; daily 9.30am-4.30pm; 619/239-0512; www.balboapark.org/info), where you can pick up a map, join one of the regular tours (free), and purchase the Passport to Balboa Park ($59), a one-day pass that covers admission to 13 on-site attractions and the Zoo.
Standouts among the park's many fine museums include the Museum of San Diego History (1649 El Prado; daily 10am-5pm; 619/232-6203; $5; www.sandiegohistory.org), which details the city's history through artifacts, photographs, and art; the San Diego Model Railroad Museum (1649 El Prado; Tues-Fri 11am-4pm, Sat-Sun 11am-5pm; 619/696-0199; $6; www.sdmrm.org) which, at 27,000 square feet, ranks as the largest museum of its kind in the world and is a must for anyone with even a mild interest in model trains; the San Diego Museum of Art (1450 El Prado; Tues-Sun 10am-6pm, Thursdays until 9pm; 619/232-7931; $10; www.sdmart.org), the region's oldest and largest art museum; and the Timken Museum of Art (1500 El Prado; Tues-Sat 10am-4.30pm, Sun 1.30pm-4.30pm, closed in Sept; 619/239-5548; free; www.timkenmuseum.org), widely regarded as one of the country's finest small art museums, with a collection strong on American and European works, including Rembrandt's celebrated Saint Bartholomew painting (his only work on view in San Diego) and a large collection of Russian art.
Cultural institutions aside, the park also showcases eight gardens. Our favorites include the Japanese Friendship Garden (Balboa Park location 28; Tues-Sun 10am-4pm; 619/232-2721; $3; www.niwa.org), where two perfectly-manicured acres are laced with secluded paths, lush gardens, and a koi pond, and the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden (Balboa Park location 38; 9.30am-4.30pm; free; www.balboapark.org), a three-acre stunner, particularly during April and May, when its 200+ species of roses are in full bloom.
Other Balboa Park highlights include the Sunday afternoon summer concerts at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion (Balboa Park location 18; June–Sept Sun 2pm; 619/702-8138; free; www.serve.com/sosorgan); the year-long San Diego Youth Symphony Saturday concerts (Casa del Prado; Sat 9.45am, 2pm, & 4pm; free; www.sdys.org); the productions of the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre (2130 Pan American Place; Wed-Fri 10 &11.30am, Sat-Sun 11am, 1pm, & 2.30pm; 619/685-5990; $5; www.balboaparkpuppets.com); and the internationally-acclaimed Old Globe (Balboa Park location 6; Mon noon-6pm, Tue-Sun noon-8.30; 619/234-5623; www.theoldglobe.org), whose three stages put on everything from Broadway-style productions to Shakespearian performances.
No trip to San Diego would be complete without a visit to the world-famous San Diego Zoo (Zoo Dr. in Balboa Park; daily 9am-4pm; $32; www.sandiegozoo.org) which, for many, is a destination unto itself. You needn't be a child to enjoy this world-class establishment that's home to 4000 rare and endangered animals, either. Easily the most popular exhibit is the Giant Pandas Research Station, where you can watch the antics of the zoo's six resident pandas.
Old Town & Heritage Park Victorian Village
For a living museum of sorts, head to the part of San Diego known as Old Town, a State Historic Park encompassing six square blocks just west of downtown. This historic district was the site of California's first Spanish settlement, in 1769, and claims to be state's birthplace. Today it's home to several Mexican restaurants, restored adobe homes, specialty shops, a weekly artisan market, and several small museums that afford a glimpse back to when this area was the heart of San Diego. You'll also find seven Victorian homes – Italianate, Queen Anne, and others – spread over three acres in the Heritage Park Victorian Village just north of Old Town; each was moved here after WWII, when the expansion of downtown threatened their survival. Orient yourself at the Robinson-Rose House (4002 Wallace St.; daily 10am-5pm; 619/220-5422), the area's onetime commercial center and modern-day park headquarters.
Moving from one historic site to another, San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter may rank as a landmark district today, but in the late 1800s, it was home to the city's houses of ill repute – over 120 of them in fact. You'd certainly never know it from walking the quarter's now-charming streets: the area is perfectly delightful, and chock-full of restaurants, shops, galleries, and drinking establishments, thanks to the 1980s redevelopment projects that revitalized much of San Diego. Though some of the buildings that date to its less glorious years are still around, you'll find just as many reproductions made to look authentic; the same goes for the gaslamps that give the area its name (they're powered by electricity nowadays). The oldest building in the area is the William Heath Davis House Museum (410 Island Ave.; Tue-Sat 10am-6pm, Sun 9am-3pm; 619/233-4692, $5, www.gaslampquarter.org); time your visit for Saturday when the museum also runs a walking tour that provides an entertaining look at the area's colorful history.
San Diegans take the beach and all beach-related activities pretty seriously, and you can bet that with over 70 miles of sand, there's a beach in San Diego that's perfectly suited to your needs. From surf teeming with, well, surfers, to family-friendly spits of sand, San Diego has it all.
Start in Coronado, a peninsula just a bridge or boat ride away from downtown that's trimmed with wide beaches perfect for families and those looking for less scene and more sand. Coronado Central Beach and Silver Strand State Beach are the two top beaches on this bit of real-estate; both have fire pits, restrooms, and lifeguards.
Back across the Bay in San Diego, heading from south to north, you'll find the mile-long Ocean Beach, with its public fishing pier, restaurants, and dog run; South Mission Beach, the city's widest beach, popular with volleyball players and staffed by lifeguards year-round; Mission Beach, San Diego's most popular stretch, complete with boardwalk, beach rentals, shops, and restaurants; and the Mission Bay Beaches whose 27 miles of shoreline are favored by sailors, rowers, and waterskiers for its gentle surf. In the northernmost reaches, the one-mile-long North Pacific Beach ends at La Jolla and is framed by 75-foot-high cliffs with a hilltop walking path affording beautiful views; Tourmaline Surfing Park is also found here. In La Jolla proper, the Children's Pool is a great place to spot seals and sea lions frolicking on the shore, but not swim (its name notwithstanding); to do that, head to La Jolla Cove, a tiny, picturesque spit of sand just north of here with an adjacent picnic area, and La Jolla Shores. Finally, if you're willing to put in the effort, Blacks Beach is a two-mile-long, often near-deserted stretch of sand situated at the foot of two huge cliffs.
For many visitors, a Shamu sighting at SeaWorld (SeaWorld Dr.; hours vary by season; 800/257-4268; $56; www.seaworld.com) is the reason to visit San Diego. This whale of a park, occupying 22 acres along Mission Bay, is built for fun, with "water coaster" rides like Journey to Atlantis and Shipwreck Rapids meant to excite, and dolphin feeding, shark encounters, and polar-bear viewings meant to educate. Of course, these attractions often take second place to Believe, the daily water show starring Shamu and his trainers.
If you didn't get enough of the animals at the San Diego Zoo (see above), the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park (15500 San Pasqual Valley Rd., Escondido; daily 9am-4pm; $28.50; www.sandiegozoo.org/wap), about 35 miles north of the city, lets visitors see animals in their "natural" surroundings, complete with exhibits like Heart of Africa (think giraffes, cheetahs, and warthogs) and the Kilimanjaro Safari Walk, a two-mile trail that wends through botanical gardens home to elephants, lions, and tigers.
Seeing as San Diego is, year after year, one of the United States' most popular vacation spots, it's no surprise that there are plenty of properties to consider when you're ready to book a room. Hotels are on the expensive side, but don't let that deter you – you'll find a hotel (or motel or inn) that will suit your budget and your tastes. To help get you started in your search we've outlined our favorites in each price category below.
On the luxury end of things, the Hotel del Coronado (1500 Orange Ave., Coronado; 619/435-6611; www.hoteldel.com), on a peninsula just across the bay from downtown, is undisputedely the best place to stay, its oceanfront setting and expansive beach making it a favorite of couples and families alike; this National Historic Landmark (built in 1888) also has a rich history, including providing the backdrop to the Marilyn Monroe movie Some Like it Hot and serving as a crash pad for ten US Presidents. Near Balboa Park, The Britt Scripps Inn (406 Maple St.; 888/881-1991; www.brittscripps.com) occupies a Queen Anne-Victorian style mansion; its nine rooms are decked out in period pieces, including antique furniture and lavish linens, but add on modern amenities like complimentary internet access and flat-screen televisions. For posh digs in a hot location, check into the W San Diego (421 West B St.; 619/398-3100; www.starwoodhotles.com) for a beach-cabana feel right downtown; the modern rooms are complemented by a pool, gym, spa, and rooftop beach bar (appropriately named Beach), complete with heated sand and a fire pit.
More moderately-priced lodging is also easy to come by in San Diego – if you dig the sandy location of the Hotel del Coronado (above) but don't like the price, stay across the street at El Cordova Hotel (1351 Orange Ave.; 619/435-4131; www.elcordovahotel.com), where 40 Spanish-style rooms are within walking distance of the beach and there's a pool side barbecue for guests' use. For accommodations in the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter, the boutique Bristol Hotel (1055 First Ave.; 619/232-6141; www.thebristolhotelsandiego.com) has 102 brightly-colored and modern rooms, all with free internet access. The Holiday Inn San Diego on the Bay (1355 North Harbor Dr.; 619/232-3861; www.ichotelsgroup.com) has a waterfront location just a short walk from the Gaslamp Quarter and downtown and clean and spacious rooms, some of them with stellar water views and/or balconies; a pool, gym, and three on-site restaurants round out the offerings.
Budget-priced hotels are harder to come by, but La Pensione Hotel (606 W. Date St.; 619/236-8000; www.lapensionehotel.com) offers 75 clean, but small, rooms outfitted with microwaves, refrigerators, and TVs in a downtown location near several major attractions. The younger set and die-hard beach bums might like the hostel-style rooms at Banana Bungalow (707 Reed Ave.; 858/273-3060; www.bananabungalow.com) in the Mission Beach neighborhood; granted, the place does have a dorm-like party atmosphere, but you'll love its beachfront location.
Like you might expect of any major city, San Diego's restaurant scene runs the gamut, with a plethora of choices in every price and cuisine category. The city boasts great Mexican food in particular and sampling it, whether it be at an upscale restaurant in the Gaslamp like Candelas (416 3rd Ave.; 619/702-4455; www.candelas-sd.com), at a tried-and-true favorite in Old Town like the Old Town Mexican Café (2849 San Diego Ave.; 619/297-4330; www.oldtownmexcafe.com), or by eating your way through the variety of tacos at Mamá Testa (1417 A University Ave.; 619/298-8226; www.mamatestataqueria.com), should be as much a part of visiting San Diego as anything else on your "to-do" list.
But there's more to the gastronomy of this town than Mexican food. If you're looking for a high-end dining establishment, there's no shortage in the city limits, and if you enjoy your meal with a view we recommend two great ones: Bertrand at Mister A's (2550 Fifth Ave., 12th floor; 619/239-1377; www.bertrandatmisteras.com) offers fantastic city views through floor-to-ceiling windows in its 12th-floor location and is the perfect place for a special-occasion dinner; feast on a mostly American menu of Kobe steak, macaroni and cheese with white and black truffle oil, and Maine lobster strudel. The sea views take center stage in La Jolla at George's on the Cove (1250 Prospect Ave.; 858/454-4244; www.georgesatthecove.com), which offers a formal dining room with breathtaking Pacific vistas in an elegant setting; the same views can also be enjoyed in a more casual setting at George's on the Cove Ocean Terrace Bistro or the Pacific View Bar, both at the same location. For some of the best people-watching in the city, Trattoria La Strada (702 Fifth Ave.; 619/239-3400; www.trattorialastrada.com) serves up Italian classics on one of the busiest corners in the Gaslamp Quarter.
Moderately-priced restaurants abound as well, but there is a certain delight in finding a restaurant that offers a great value to its customers. Antico Toscano (1288 University Ave.; 619/298-2768; www.anticotoscano.com), an Italian restaurant in the Hillcrest neighborhood, does just that, striking a balance of price and quality that's hard to beat – try the homemade pastas. Red Pearl Kitchen (440 J St.; 619/231-1100; www.redpearlkitchen.com) is a relative newcomer to the San Diego dining scene, but this sleek Gaslamp Quarter spot's family-style Asian-fusion was an instant hit. The Mission Hills neighborhood is the spot for great barbecue; try Phil's BBQ (4030 Goldfinch St.; closed Mondays; 619/688-0559; www.philsbbq.com) for a fun, casual meal of great ribs and BBQ chicken.
For budget eats, the Ocean Beach neighborhood offers up a wine store and restaurant combination that no self-respecting oenophile should miss: The 3rd Corner (2265 Bacon St.; closed Mondays; 619/223-2700; www.the3rdcorner.com) has a menu mostly consisting predominantly of small plates (think artisan cheese plates, pate samplers, and salads) and over 1000 bottles of wine; stroll the aisles, pick your wine, and drink it with your meal in a wine-cellar setting (a $5 corkage fee applies). After a day at Pacific Beach, check out Bub's Dive Bar & Grill (1030 Garnet Ave.; 858/270-7269) and don't let the name or peanut-shell covered floor deter you: this is a real local favorite. The popular Sammy's Woodfired Pizza (www.sammyspizza.com) has several locations in the city; the one in the Gaslamp Quarter (770 Fourth Ave.; 619/230-8888) is great for a casual meal after a day of sightseeing; pizzas toppings range from standard (Margherita) to unusual (arugula and pear).
As with most everywhere, the bars and clubs that rule San Diego's roost one day may be deemed lame (at best) the next. The upside, though, is that there are enough comings and goings of hot new places in San Diego that you'll have a new place to party at on each visit. The free weekly San Diego Reader (www.sdreader.com) is readily available at bookstores and cafes and includes comprehensive listings of the goings-on around town; PartySanDiego (www.partysandiego.com) lists area concerts, parties, and special events by date.
Whatever the current hot spot, you can bet there will always be action in the Gaslamp Quarter, where it's easy enough to wander from bar to bar until you find one suited to your needs; we especially recommend The Bitter End (770 Fifth Ave.; 619/338-9300) for its all-in-one approach: you'll find an underground dance club, a main level bar with pool table, and an upstairs lounge in its three-floor setting, plus happy-hour specials. If you like to keep it simple, Whiskey Girl (600 Fifth Ave.; 619/ 236-1616) is an ultra-casual pub and sports bar serving up inexpensive mixed drinks and drafts. At the opposite end of the drinking spectrum is Stingaree (454 Sixth Ave.; 619/544-9500), a hot spot attracting A-listers and those who wish they were with three levels dedicated to the three D's – dining, drinking, and dancing – head to the rooftop for fire pits, cabana seating, and bottle service.
Nearby, the similarly-themed-but-slightly-more-relaxed Beach at the W Hotel (421 West B St.: 619/231-8220) is a fourth-floor rooftop bar with a heated sand floor, fire pit, bottle service, and three cabanas available to rent. If you prefer your bars with sandy floors to actually be at the beach, the South Mission neighborhood (near South Mission Beach) boasts the Beachcomber (2901 Mission Blvd.; 858/488-2644) complete with noisy college kids, flip-flops, surfer dudes, and the ladies who love them. But if beach bars are your thing, head to Garnet Avenue in the Pacific Beach neighborhood – some of the best beach bars in San Diego are on this strip.
You'll never lack for a place to dole out your dollars here – San Diego has shopping aplenty. You'll find stores similar to those in any other part of the country, but in true San Diego form, even the "mall" is an open-air plaza. Tijuana is a haven for bargain hunters, but if you want designer duds and don't mind paying retail, head straight for the upscale shops in La Jolla.
Horton Plaza (324 Horton Plaza) is San Diego's downtown open-air mall, and its 196 stores are the type you're likely to see in Any Mall, USA. Still, shopping here is a reliable and pleasant experience, and does feature a few upscale stores like Nordstrom and Louis Vuitton. Seaport Village (near the Gaslamp Quarter) is the place to go for San Diego-themed knickknacks like t-shirts, Christmas tree ornaments, and beach gear.
For everything high-end – from art to shoes – La Jolla is the place to go. Girard and Prospect Streets are two of the best for strolling and window shopping, or, if your pockets are deep enough, buying. Fans of African art must pop into Africa and Beyond (1250 Prospect St.; 858/454-9983) where wooden sculptures, ceremonial masks, and other treasures take center stage. Clothes horses will see all the names that comfort them – Banana Republic, the Gap, A/X Armani Exchange – but the tinier boutique shops many hold the duds that'll have everyone asking "Where'd you get that?" when you get home. Check out Elizabeth's Closet (1261 Prospect St.; 858/459-4673) for hip and casual urban clothes like t-shirts and jeans – if you're a big, athletically built guy, you will love this place, as the owner caters specifically to these body types. Guys and gals alike love Jep (7501 La Jolla Blvd.; 858/551-0600; www.jepboutique.com) which carries all the latest and forever-changing styles fashionistas crave.
Tijuana is known for selling inexpensive silver, leather goods, and cigars, but you better have a sharp eye if you are planning any major purchases – these goods are often fake (especially the cigars) or of poor quality. But if you are in the market for a sombrero, beach blanket, or some other inexpensive item, shop away. And while we don't advocate this, many people find that they can buy their prescription drugs for much cheaper than in the U.S. Avenida Revolucion is an eight-block long shopping district filled with vendors, underground mini-malls, and shops selling everything from Mexican tiles to clothes to perfume. There are also many places to stop for a taco or cerveza along the way.
Though you could easily keep busy with all that San Diego has to offer, two great day trips are just a stone's throw away and easily add depth to your Southern California vacation. But be prepared: Decidedly different experiences await in beautiful, elegant La Jolla and less-elegant-but-super-fun Tijuana, just over the Mexico border. Do both if you have time.
Despite being just 15 minutes from downtown San Diego, La Jolla often seems a world away. One of the country's most affluent areas, it boasts as much upscale shopping, fine dining, and cultural pastimes as you'd expect of a major city, but packs it all into a single community. Golfers already know the area thanks to its world-class Torrey Pines Golf Course (11480 North Torrey Pines Rd.; 800/985-4653; www.torreypinesgolfcourse.com), a public course that will play host to the 2008 US Open – look for some of the most challenging holes and scenic surroundings in the United States. Nearby Torrey Pines State Reserve is a haven for nature lovers, with over eight miles of trails, miles of lovely beaches, guided nature walks, and dolphin and whale viewing platforms; winter is the best season to spot California Gray Whales migrating through the surrounding waters. Those in need of a little retail therapy will love the exclusive boutiques and high-end designer-name stores that line Prospect Street and, when your shoes can do no more walking, relax and grab a casual bite with dramatic Pacific views at George's on the Cove Ocean Terrace Bistro (1250 Prospect St.; 858/454-4244; www.georgesatthecove.com), where shrimp tacos and skirt-steak sandwiches are but two menu favorites.
Making a run for the border couldn't be easier – simply take the San Diego Trolley (www.sdcommute.com) to the San Ysidro stop and walk over the border into Mexico (note that travelers may be required to show their passport as early as January 1, 2008). Chances are you're coming here to drink – and there is no shortage of bars to help you do just that. We recommend El Torito Pub (879 Ave. Revolucion, Tijuana; 52/6685-0023), a lively bar with outdoor seating along Tijauna's main drag. If you want to impress your Mexican bartender, order your tequila completo – it will arrive with sangrita, a tomato-based palate cleanser meant for sipping. Yes, sipping tequila is the appropriate way to drink it – you don't lick it, slam it, suck it back as you might have thought.
When To Go
There is, quite simply, no bad time to go to San Diego. When it's 30 degrees and snowing at home, San Diego will be 75 and sunny; when it's 100 degrees where you live, it will also be about 75 and sunny in San Diego. The trick is to avoid the crowds – the high season is the summer months – the busiest and most crowded time with everyone from families to cruisers making the most of their vacation time. The low season runs from November through February, and you'll find these days to be the coldest weather (mid-60s) and the lowest hotel prices – the water may also be too cold for swimming. The best bang for your buck comes in the months of March, April, and May, when you can hit the beaches and attractions without throngs of (other) tourists around.
November - February
Best bang for your buck
March - May
All air travelers visiting the city will arrive at San Diego International Airport. It is serviced by every major domestic carrier and several discount airlines including Midwest (www.midwestairlines.com), JetBlue (www.jetblue.com), Frontier (www.frontierairlines.com), and Southwest (www.swa.com). Catch a non-stop flight to San Diego from virtually every major city in the country; count on flying time of five hours from New York, under four hours from Chicago, and under one hour from Los Angeles. All major rental car companies are at the airport, advance reservations are recommend.
Amtrak (www.amtrak.com) services San Diego via the Pacific Surfliner Line. You train will arrive at the Old Town Train Station (4005 Taylor St.) or in downtown San Diego at the Santa Fe Depot (1050 Kettner Blvd.). Greyhound bus service is also available for travel to San Diego, you will arrive at the downtown Greyhound Station (120 W. Broadway).
Booking air and hotel together (and other trip essentials such as airport transfers, car rentals, and even tours and activities) can save a bundle of cash – online travel discounters such as Orbitz (www.orbitz.com), Expedia (www.expedia.com), and Travelocity (www.travelocity.com) are a good place to start your search. Be sure to keep an eye on our San Diego page (www.shermanstravel.com/destination/san_diego) for all the latest bargains!
Getting into San Diego
The airport is only about 10 minutes from downtown San Diego, and a taxi costs about $10 from downtown. Public transportation is available from the airport to downtown San Diego on the Metro Bus. Pick up Flyer Route 922 at Terminals 1 and 2.