As if all that sunshine isn’t enough, here’s a waterfront city brushed by perfect breezes, the light just right, the beer perfectly hoppy after a day of wave-and-water fun. Whether you’re standup paddling on Mission Bay, kayaking into sea caverns along La Jolla’s idyllic shores, savouring a sweet shave ice in Balboa Park, or dining and dancing after dark in the lively Gaslamp Quarter, you’ll find yourself smiling in San Diego.
Mission Bay and San Diego Bay trim the edge of the city like sparkling gems. Dozens of outfitters can get you out amidst the blue via every imaginable conveyance; kayak, stand-up paddleboard, motorized watercraft, sail boat, or kite board. For a more novel approach, board the Bahia Belle, a Mississippi riverboat, snuggle aboard a romantic Venetian gondola, or try jet-packing to skim across the water like James Bond.
Cruise in style too. Hornblower and Flagship Cruises let you get a millionaire’s view of the bay on scenic tours, as well as dinner and brunch cruises.
You can have fun on land here, too. Mission Beach, the narrow strip of land between Mission Bay and the Pacific, is a chock-o-block assemblage of surf shops, t-shirt joints, and funky beach bars, and there’s a 3-mile/4.8-km oceanfront boardwalk that rivals Venice Beach for people watching. At Belmont Park, classic amusement rides include the Big Dipper wooden roller coaster. Mission Bay also has 27 miles/43 kilometres of water’s-edge pathways, perfect for strolling and biking.
From pandas and koala bears at its iconic zoo, to a remarkable collection of museums and gardens, this oasis in the heart of the city has been a vibrant part of San Diego culture for a hundred years. First and foremost, Balboa Park is a horticultural marvel: the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden alone has more than 130 varieties of roses (learn more about it and the rest of the park’s greenery on free, 1-hour Offshoot Tours, offered on Saturday morning).
Museums abound; local favourites include the Museum of Man, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego Natural History Museum, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, and the San Diego Air & Space Museum. Culture reigns supreme too: The Old Globe Theatre hosts its famed Shakespeare Festival each summer; live bands and outdoor film screenings abound.
All this, plus one of the world’s finest zoos. Over 3,700 animals from 650 species—many of them extremely rare— are showcased at the San Diego Zoo, with naturalised exhibits covered roughly 100 acres/40 hectares. Get a special look at the zoo’s three giant pandas by signing up for “Early Morning with Pandas,” visiting the panda viewing area before it officially opens for the day. Check the Balboa Park website for special events, and for ticketing deals bundling zoo and museum visits.
Little Italy, North Park, South Park, East Village; San Diego’s diverse neighborhoods are filled with personality—and local finds. These pedestrian-friendly enclaves are the epicenter of San Diego’s burgeoning culinary movement, progressive art scene, and craft beer boom. Start your own sampling in North Park, the neighborhood bordering Balboa Park’s northeast side. Along 30th Street and University Avenue, enjoy farm-to-table cuisine and boutique wines at Urban Solace, or wing it at local favorite Carnitas’ Snack Shop (the menu changes daily depending on fresh produce and other ingredients available that day).
Hip art abounds in North Park; on the second Saturday of each month (called “Ray at Night”), join the cool crowds along Ray Street for gallery hopping and live music. In the East Village, locals savor gourmet burgers at Neighborhood; in South Park (east of Balboa Park), find whimsical clothes and jewelry at Junc.Life Boutique, or enjoy a Hawaiian shave ice at Daily Scoop on Juniper. Food, craft beer, boutique shopping, and live music are all part of historic Gaslamp Quarter, the part of town that tends to keep things hopping ‘til the wee hours. Little Italy, known for (you guessed it), Italian eateries, also has trendy-chic shops housed in bungalows, as well as plenty of sidewalk cafés and pizzerias along India Street. And if you’re hankering for handmade, still-warm tortillas, head straight for Old Town, site of California’s first Spanish settlement, with restored adobes now housing shops and restaurants.
Microbrewing has caught on big time in San Diego, with more than 85 craft breweries throughout the region. The tidal wave began with innovative brewers like Stone Brewing Company and Karl Strauss. Now, it’s craft-y all over San Diego—in pubs, restaurants, and in the breweries themselves (many offer tours). And in a growing trend, San Diego’s chefs are starting to design beer-pairing menus or foods featuring local brews. Some breweries now offer their own eateries (Stone Brewing’s World Bistro & Gardens is a stellar example).
San Diego’s brews and brewers haven’t gone unnoticed, earning international recognition. (Yes, there is a World Beer Cup; no, you cannot be a judge). AleSmith Brewing Company and Ballast Point Brewing Company are two microbreweries that have been lauded. And you don’t have to go to a brewery to taste these world-class beers: many eateries, such as Hamilton's Tavern in South Park, offer an array of local brews.
La Jolla is (so many) different things to different people. Posh shopping? Browse the boutiques along Girard Avenue. At La Jolla Shores, surfing, snorkeling and white sand beaches with made-for-sunset fire pits (and an adjacent park playground for the kids). Kayaking? Explore the sea caves; like everything else in La Jolla, placed in perfect proximity (La Jolla Kayak will take you there). Broadway quality productions? The La Jolla Playhouse. World-class art (with an equivalent view)? The La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Kid-friendly aquarium? Birch Aquarium, affiliated with the world renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is one of the best. Hiking to the wind-whisper of Torrey Pines among 2,000 acres of ocean front preserve? Golfing among the same whisper? Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and Torrey Pines Golf Course. A place to hang after the sun goes down? How about next to the fireplace at Mustangs & Burros at the Estancia La Jolla Hotel, or the famed Marine Room right on the beach at La Jolla Shores? And don’t leave, because you have to start the next day with buttermilk pancakes and coffee and a bluff-top view at Caroline’s Seaside Café.
With the Pacific Ocean and San Diego Bay at its doorstep, San Diego defines waterfront dining. Travel the coast to get a taste—literally—of what the region has to offer along the edge of the sea.
Start in La Jolla with brunch at Brockton Villa—the Crab Ipanema Benedict egg dish won’t disappoint. Casual lunch? Anthony’s Fish Grotto (downtown) serves creamy, chock-full clam chowder and crunch-perfect fish and chips. Also downtown on the Embarcadero, there’s Sally’s Seafood on the Water and The Fish Market, two more places to try for fresh catch of the day with waterfront views. Across San Diego Bay, head to Harbor Island and Tom Ham’s Lighthouse (yes, it’s really housed in a lighthouse). Nearby, Island Prime makes the most of the view with floor-to-ceiling windows and an over-the-water patio. If you want tunes, try Humphrey’s Restaurant on Shelter Island; it presents quality live music in its outdoor amphitheatre. Slip away to peaceful Coronado, and relax at Mistral at Loews Coronado Bay Resort.
Like an island getaway a stone’s throw from the city, the appealing island community feels like a private enclave wrapped with perfect beaches, including ultra-family-friendly Coronado Beach. Besides those soft sands, the island’s crown jewel is the Hotel Del Coronado, built in 1888 and topped by russet red, castle-like turrets. Explore the lobby and grounds on your own, or join a guided tour offered by the Coronado Historical Association; docents share tidbits on the Del’s remarkable history and guest list (including Marilyn Monroe, who starred—alongside the hotel—in the 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot). The Del also serves a sumptuous Sunday brunch, and the Babcock & Story bar is fine for sipping a craft beer with views of the Pacific.
The diminutive island, reached by the arching Coronado Bridge, is easy to explore by bike. Rent one from Holland’s Bicycles to pedal past elegant oceanfront mansions and tended gardens, or visit Orange Avenue, lined with shops, restaurants, galleries, and theatres. More shops and art galleries are located at Ferry Landing, and restaurants like Candelas on the Bay and Peohe’s have expansive views of San Diego’s downtown skyline across San Diego Bay.
Travel tip: Traffic on the San Diego-Coronado Bridge can get thick, especially on summer weekends. Flagship Cruises will ferry you from Ferry Landing, across the Bay to Seaport Village. Water taxis are available too.
Charged by his native Spain to explore new worlds, Spaniard explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo stepped ashore at this tip of land in 1542, making him the first European to set foot on the West Coast. Short films and ranger talks offer interesting insights into Cabrillo and his history, and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse has been restored to reflect what lighthouse life was like in the 1800s.
But locals (and sage visitors) also know that this tip-of-land perch offers astounding views of San Diego and the seething Pacific. Hiking trails twist through 660 acres/267 hectares of coastal habitat, so it’s easy to strike out on your own for even more panoramic beauty. The 2.5-mile/4-km Bayside Trail looks out to San Diego Bay, and the easy Coastal Tidepool Trail takes you to some of the best tidepooling in California (look, but don’t touch). Look for the coastal defense systems the city put in place in World War II to fend off the Japanese Navy. From mid-December to late March, the bluffs are a great place to watch migrating Pacific gray whales. If you forget binoculars, a limited number are available at the visitors center.
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Most kids love boats, so you can imagine how excited they get about a really, really big boat. The U.S.S. Midway Museum is just that: a retired aircraft carrier that is now permanently docked and open to visitors along the downtown waterfront. The deck of the enormous ship is covered with naval aircraft from World War II through Operation Desert Storm—not just for looking at but for climbing inside and exploring, too. Other interactive exhibits include you-are-there-style recordings of real conversations between military pilots and a chance to ride in a flight simulator.
Also on the downtown waterfront, the Maritime Museum of San Diego is fittingly housed within one of the finest collections of historic ships in the world, including the awe-inspiring sailing ships Star of India and HMS Surprise (floating star of the films Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean 4). Coolest of all, some of the ships go sailing and whale watching, with you aboard; including a 75-minute tour of San Diego Bay aboard an aptly named, Vietnam War-era Swift Boat.
In summer (Memorial Day to Labor Day), a few dollars allows you an all-day ride on the Big Bay Shuttle, with eight stops along the bay front from Harbor Island to the South Embarcadero (downtown); you get on, you get off, where and when you want. Along the downtown waterfront and in the Gaslamp Quarter, you’ll find pedicabs and horse-drawn carriages. Downtown you can also look for the iconic bright red trolley; the San Diego Trolley plies to and from key locations in the city and also heads for places like Old Town and Mission Valley. Water is no obstacle. From downtown’s Broadway Pier, 15 minutes on Flagship Cruises’ ferry sees you to Coronado Island. And have some fun with your transport. GoCar Tours-San Diego has a fleet of three-wheel, convertible mini-cars for two—each complete with a GPS-guided tour of downtown San Diego and adjoining neighborhoods. And honestly, much of San Diego – neighborhoods like North Park and Little Italy -- is easily explored on foot, and once you put your foot down -- the Gaslamp Quarter alone has over 100 restaurants, bars and nightclubs -- you may not want to go anywhere else.