Travel Guide to California

San Diego County

Beautiful beaches, sunshine and more

by maribeth mellin

California has no shortage of beach towns, but San Diego is its only “beach city,” where the state’s second-largest population enjoys 70 miles of scenic coastline and an average annual high temperature of  70-degrees. Outdoor fun and family-oriented attractions are the main lures, but San Diego takes the “city” part seriously, too. Artistic and intellectual pursuits enjoy deep support here. Writers, artists, musicians and scientists find inspiration while surfing at La Jolla Shores or jogging in Mission Bay Park. The Tony Award-winning Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse send plays to Broadway frequently. Scientific landmarks including the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Scripps Institution of Oceanography are magnets for some of the world’s brightest minds.

Downtown’s diversions alone could easily fill a week. New, exciting restaurants, clubs and shops pop up in trendy neighborhoods, creating a constant buzz. The Embarcadero, tracing San Diego Bay’s edge, offers access to the USS Midway aircraft carrier; the Maritime Museum with its landmark Star of India and newer San Salvador, a replica of Spanish explorers’ ships; the expansive Waterfront Park; and the San Diego Convention Center.

Cruise ships berth at the foot of Broadway and passengers into San Diego International Airport fly over high-rise towers to land just northwest of downtown. Hotels of every description and hip-quotient are scattered throughout the city’s core, making it a desirable place to stay.

A Bridge to Coronado

The swooping San Diego-Coronado Bridge connects downtown to Coronado, a genteel city with an active Navy base and one of the world’s loveliest beaches. Its “island” actually is a peninsula tethered to the mainland by the Silver Strand, a narrow strip of road and sand running past Navy installations and pristine beaches to the south county. The red turrets atop the Victorian Hotel del Coronado peek above the city’s modest skyline. Coronado’s pleasures include shopping and dining on Orange Avenue, visiting the Coronado Museum of History, ogling the San Diego skyline from Tidelands Park and teeing off at Coronado Municipal Golf Course.

Balboa Park

San Diego’s century-old cultural heart occupies 1,200 acres of hills and canyons just east of downtown. It hosts 18 museums and cultural institutions and The Old Globe theater, winner of multiple Tony Awards. Its most famous tenant, the San Diego Zoo, recently opened the Wildlife Explorers Basecamp with four unique habitats: Rainforest, Wild Woods, Marsh Meadows and Desert Dunes—featuring the wildlife that live in these areas.

insider's tip

San Diego is exceptionally pet friendly, even at the beach. Though dogs are banned from most public beaches, they can race from sand to sea at a few specific spots. Some say the section of the public beach beside the MISSION BAY JETTY in Ocean Beach was San Diego’s original dog playground, and it’s still one of the most popular in the county.  Nearby FIESTA ISLAND is beloved by dogs and their human companions for its great expanse of sand edging Mission Bay. You can count on finding lots of large, active canines here. The north end of CORONADO’S BEACH has signs showing the designated off-leash area. DEL MAR’S CITY BEACH, near the Del Mar Race Track, is open to canines from Labor Day until mid-June.

Beach Towns

The coast between the Mexican border (18 miles south of downtown) and Oceanside is lined with beach towns. Each has a unique character, from Ocean Beach’s hippie vibe to classy La Jolla’s Mediterranean ambience. Beloved by surfers and escapists with sufficient wherewithal, a series of small communities line the coast north of La Jolla’s Torrey Pines State Reserve.

City & Town

San Diego’s cosmopolitan downtown encompasses several hip neighborhoods. The historic Gaslamp Quarter’s picturesque streets are packed with classy restaurants and clubs in restored 19th-century Victor-ian, Baroque and Frontier buildings. Petco Park, downtown’s baseball stadium, anchors the East Village filled with condo complexes, cafés and the stunning Central Library. Little Italy managed to hold on to some venerable pizza parlors, bakeries and bars while evolving from a simple Italian community into an urban enclave with modernist condo complexes, trendy shops and gourmet restaurants helmed by top chefs. As the hub of San Diego’s sophisticated nightlife scene, the entire downtown now pulses with energy day and night.

The urban core continues uptown through Bankers Hill and Hillcrest, the lively heart of the LGBTQ+ community. Over the past decade, the former Naval Training Center, now called Liberty Station, has evolved into a mini-town with stores, offices, galleries, schools and the Liberty Public Market occupying the base’s Spanish Colonial-style former commissary building. Abundant open space makes Liberty Station the perfect spot for art shows, family gatherings and special events.

The Great Outdoors

Surfers, swimmers, boaters and anglers all play in and on the Pacific Ocean, from Im-perial Beach near the Mexican border north to Oceanside and the Marine base at Camp Pendleton. Snorkeling is especially good at La Jolla Cove, while surfers prefer Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach and dozens of small patches of sand with gnarly waves just offshore.

East and north of the city center, the landscape gives way to rolling foothills and canyons. Lakes and reservoirs offer freshwater fishing and tranquility. The vast Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, home of “California’s Grand Canyon” at Fonts Point, provides hiking trails through palm canyons, fields of cacti and dazzling wildflower displays.

Heritage & Culture

Explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo spotted San Diego Bay in 1542 but quickly sailed on north, leaving the Kumeyaay Indians to their warm, bountiful home. San Diego County’s 13 tribes represent the largest concentration in the country, and more than half benefit from casinos in east and north counties.

Cabrillo’s brief stay is commemorated at Cabrillo National Monument at the tip of Point Loma overlooking the bay. European settlers who returned in 1769 built a fort and mission church at Presidio Hill (now Presidio Park), a gorgeous swath of lawns above Old Town State Historic Park, which contains many of San Diego’s oldest buildings.

Family Fun

Adults and children alike relish the San Diego Zoo and its separate Safari Park, Legoland California and SeaWorld San Diego. Downtown’s New Children’s Museum is an eco-friendly playground for all ages, that makes learning fun. Its adjacent one-acre park allows kids to burn energy. Teens flock to fighter planes and flight simulators at the USS Midway Museum. Top choices for inexpensive entertainment: bicycling at Mission Bay and Coronado, fishing off piers in Imperial Beach and Ocean Beach and stargazing from Mount Palomar.

5 Must See, Do

MISSION BAY PARK With plenty of room for jogging, bicycling, boating, kite flying and countless other activities, this 4,235-acre aquatic and land park is centrally located along I-5 near the wildly popular communities of Mission Beach, Pacific Beach and Ocean Beach. Some areas have fire rings, playgrounds or picnic areas, while others are best for watercraft and swimming. Cruise along Mission Bay Drive for an overview and keep an eye out for crowds, as boat races, charity runs and other events are common. sandiego.gov/park-and-recreation/parks/regional/missionbay

LA JOLLA This upscale Mediterranean-style community lives up to its name (“The Jewel” in Spanish), with a postcard-ready setting, white sands, turquoise waters, sea caves (including Sunny Jim Cave, California’s only known land-access sea cave) and the Underwater Park teeming with pinnipeds, rays, scuttling lobsters and countless fish. It’s not just another pretty face, though; it hosts the Tony Award-winning La Jolla Playhouse, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (reopened in April after an extensive renovation and expansion), Murals of La Jolla and the Birch Aquarium—while also offering the “Rodeo Drive of San Diego,” named for Prospect Street’s stellar shops, galleries and restaurants. lajollabythesea.com

ANZA-BORREGO DESERT STATE PARK There aren’t many places where you can drive from the beach to the mountains and on to the desert in less than a day. San Diego County encompasses all three, including California’s largest state park. Traffic reaches rush-hour proportions during the spring cactus bloom, when the vast brown explodes with color. The park is fascinating any time of year, as is the town of Borrego Springs. parks.ca.gov

BALBOA PARK The country’s largest urban cultural park is a rambling landscape of museums, theaters, attractions, artists’ studios and gardens. The tiled California Tower, with its unobstructed 360-degree view of the park and city, has become a treasured landmark. balboapark.org

CABRILLO NATIONAL MONUMENT High above the tip of Point Loma, this sprawling park commemorates Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo and San Diego’s early history. It’s most popular for the panoramas of the boat-filled bay and sea, the mountains to the east and the hills of Tijuana to the south. It’s a great place to look for whales spouting offshore in winter.  nps.gov/cabr/index.htm



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