The first European settlement on the West Coast, now America’s eighth-largest city, San Diego no longer chooses to be defined solely by 70 miles (112 kilometers) of beaches, supreme weather, a forward-leaning zoo, or its naval history.
Though denizens still cling to a pair of flip-flops, in the past decade the city’s economy has been boosted by biotech and telecom industries—the influx of high-paying jobs produced an incursion of talent and fresh perspective, allowing the city to blossom culturally, with money filtering into the arts and helping the dining scene flourish. Downtown’s revitalization has been most dramatic, originating in the Gaslamp Quarter, followed by a new ballpark in 2004 and block after block of restaurants, hotels, and condos, turning the city into a major convention destination. But the city’s finest asset, its outdoor recreation areas, thrive close by and are a top attraction for those who invest the time to discover them.
San Diego Must-Dos
The nation’s largest urban cultural park includes the San Diego Zoo (see below), the Old Globe, 13 major museums, unique gardens, and fanciful architecture that originated with Expos in 1915 and 1935. Highlights include Mingei International Museum, Museum of Photographic Arts, and San Diego Air & Space Museum. Fee for most museums. Tel. +1 619 239 0512.www.balboapark.org
More than 30 beaches—some miles long—line the city’s coastline from Imperial Beach to La Jolla. Noteworthy are Coronado Shores, Pacific Beach, and La Jolla’s Cove, a postcard-perfect pocket of sand. “La Jolla Shores is one of the best for families, with kayaks for rent and surfing lessons.”—Debbie K. Hardin, author, Great Destinations: San Diego and Tijuana. Tel. +1 619 221 8824. www.sandiego.gov/lifeguards
Birch Aquarium at Scripps
Based at the pioneering Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the aquarium has more than 60 marine life tanks, including a giant kelp forest habitat, ghostly moon jellies, and an array of seahorse species. 2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla; tel. +1 858 534 3474; fee. www.aquarium.ucsd.edu
Cabrillo National Monument
“Views, views everywhere: naval vessels, cruise ships, sailboats, and military aircraft, and in winter, whales.”—Marael Johnson, author, National Geographic San Diego guidebook. Point Loma, the prominent peninsula protecting San Diego Bay, is home to an 1855 lighthouse, short nature trails, and tide pools. Parking fee. 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive, Point Loma; tel. +1 619 557 5450.www.nps.gov/cabr
Sixteen and a half blocks of late-19th- and early-20th-century architecture downtown, restored in the past two decades. The area is easier to explore by day; evenings the streets fill with convention-goers who revel in the thicket of restaurants and nightclubs. Docent-led walking tours Saturday at 11 a.m. (fee); tel. +1 619 233 4692. www.gaslampquarter.org
Museum of Contemporary Art
“The programming is top rate, with an emphasis on how the predicament of the border is addressed.”—Roman de Salvo, San Diego sculptor. Popular TNT—Thursday Night Thing—lures downtown visitors for artist talks, interactive pieces, DJ lessons, and live music, the first Thursday every month. 1001 Kettner Boulevard, downtown; tel. +1 619 234 1001; fee. Original location at 700 Prospect Street, La Jolla has more extensive gallery space; tel. +1 858 454 3541. www.mcasd.org
Old Town State Historic Park
The birthplace of San Diego became known as “Old Town” when today’s downtown was developed. The park encompasses buildings of the mid-1800s, focusing on the settlement’s original ties to Mexico. The striking Serra Museum just up the hill is the site of California’s first mission. Free guided tours daily at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. 4002 Wallace Street, Old Town; tel. +1 619 220 5422.
“It feels both old-fashioned and new.”—Maribeth Mellin, author, Access San Diego. The Padres’ 42,000-seat ballpark opened to raves in 2004, partly for its incorporation of historic buildings into the stadium. The Major League Baseball (MLB) season runs April through September. 100 Park Boulevard, downtown; tel. +1 619 795 5000; fee. sandiego.padres.mlb.com
San Diego Wild Animal Park
Thirty-five miles (56 kilometers) north of downtown, this 1,800-acre (730-hectare) offshoot of the San Diego Zoo is known for vast multi species enclosures, allowing rhinos to mingle with giraffe, etc. Tram tour of larger enclosures, walking trails through other exhibits. 15500 San Pasqual Valley Road, Escondido; tel. +1 760 747 8702; fee. www.sandiegozoo.org/wap
San Diego Zoo
World-renown 100-acre (40-hectare) facility in Balboa Park, with a botanical collection that rivals the animals. Bus tours skirt most enclosures quickly; exploring on foot reveals animal behaviors in more depth. “I like the Zoo late in the day as the crowds thin out and the animals are getting more active.”—Maribeth Mellin, author, Access San Diego. 2920 Zoo Drive; tel. +1 619 234 3153; fee. www.sandiegozoo.org
SeaWorld San Diego
Original branch of the marine-theme amusement park. The “Shamu” orca show in a seven-million-gallon pool-stadium is impressive, as is the heavy dose of patriotism and souvenir peddling that is sold hand-in-hand. 500 SeaWorld Drive, Mission Beach; tel. +1 619 226 3901; fee. www.seaworld.com
Torrey Pines State Reserve
Two-thousand-acre (809-hectare) state park dedicated to America’s rarest, most constrained pine species, a twisted beauty that clings precariously to 300-foot-high (91-meter-high) coastal bluffs above isolated beachfront. “Fabulous short hikes that give people a chance to see what San Diego looked like before all the irrigation was put in.”—Debbie K. Hardin. Coastal Highway 101, 12500 North Torrey Pines Road, between La Jolla and Del Mar; tel. +1 858 755 2063; fee. www.torreypine.org