The cradle of California, San Diego became the first Spanish Franciscan settlement in 1769 when Father Junipero Serra established the Mission San Diego de Alcala. The Presidio, in what is now known as Old Town, was built soon after as the government center. Old Town is now a state historic park, retaining many of the original buildings, which function as museums, shops and restaurants. San Diego has a wealth of attractions for the visitor, including many features that appeal to the whole family. Add to this the appeal of several great side trips—into the desert to the east and to other resort communities and historic places to the north—and the southwestern corner of California becomes a tourist haven, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
Neighborhoods & Things to See and Do
Old Town: A walk through the historic quarter in the Mission Valley (north of downtown) takes you back to the days of Hispanic settlement in Southern California. The six blocks have been preserved as a living museum, filled with galleries, restored homes, period shops and restaurants serving early-California cuisine. The Bazaar del Mundo is a Mercado, a shopping area where you'll often see strolling mariachi musicians and dancers in costume. Many of the city's motels and hotels are located on Hotel Circle Drive, close to Old Town in the Mission Valley.
Balboa Park: Just north of the city's business district, this outstanding park is a legacy of the Panama-California Exposition of 1915. The 1200-acre civic park contains lovely gardens, 13 museums, the famed San Diego Zoo, art galleries, a science center and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, which features outdoor concerts on Sunday afternoons and on Monday evenings during summer months. The Edison Center for the Performing Arts contains three theaters devoted to music and drama. The park is one of the finest urban parks in the West, combining lush landscaping, period buildings, and many other family attractions.
Coronado: This curving spit of land is at the outer edge of San Diego Harbor and is a long-time resort and residential community. This is the home of the wonderful Hotel del Coronado, which has attracted the rich and famous since it opened in 1888.
Two more recent resort hotels have been added to the scene, which includes streets of boutiques and cafes, and a park where Sunday concerts are staged on the bandstand. Other amenities include a golf course, bicycle paths, three public beaches, marinas, camping and RV facilities.
Gaslamp Quarter: This 16-block downtown district preserves the Victorian era with restored buildings containing antique and crafts shops, restaurants, offices and other businesses that take advantage of the authentic atmosphere. A two-hour escorted walking tour departs each Sunday at 11 a.m. from the old William Heath Davis House on lsland Street, and features a walk down San Diego's 19th Century main street. This is a fascinating part of town to stay in period establishments and to eat in the Victorian style restaurants.
The Embarcadero: San Diego's harbor is a busy place with cruise ships, pleasure craft and ferries linking the downtown and Coronado. The San Diego Maritime Museum features several historic ships that are tied up along the waterfront, including the Star of India (a sailing ship), the steam ferry Berkeley, and Medea, a luxury yacht. As you tour Harbor Drive, you'll see seafood markets, shops and restaurants. Seaport Village recreates the harborside as it was 100 years ago with a collection of shops, cafes and restaurants.
La Jolla: This northern suburb on the ocean is the site of the university campus and the Scripps Oceanic Institute, which includes the Stephen Birch Aquarium & Museum. Outstanding features of La Jolla include the Mingei International Museum of Folk Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and many upscale fashion, art and craft boutiques; most are located on Prospect Street.
Torrey Pines Golf Course is one of the finest municipal links in the country. La Jolla Shores is a long flat beach, perfect for families and prized by surfers. La Jolla Cove (with its cliffside coastal walkway) and the Torrey Pines State Reserve feature parks, and bicycle and walking trails. There are many cozy B&B inns, along with luxury hotels and mid-range accommodations along the La Jolla coastline.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park: Operated by the same zoological society that operates the zoo in Balboa Park, this 2,150-acre nature preserve is located 30 miles north of the downtown area. The park houses more than 3,000 wild animals in realistic and expansive settings. A major attraction in the park is the Hidden Jungle, a large greenhouse exhibit that recreates a Central American rain forest habitat.
Sea World: Part of the action at Mission Bay (a man-made park, marina, beach and picnic oasis north of downtown via I-5) is Sea World, the marine attraction. A theme park version of the public aquarium, Sea World features a show with performing creatures including Shamu, the killer whale. Rocky Point Preserve is an impressive display of dolphins and sea otters in a natural setting that simulates a wilderness nature reserve. There are about a dozen rides for the kids, and about that many nature exhibits for everyone, plus the famous shows—some of which have audience participation.
Where to Eat
There are so many good, scenic seafood places in the San Diego area that we can only skim the surface here. Croce's Restaurant and Jazz Bar is an entertaining and well-run dining and entertainment complex at Fifth & F in the Gaslamp Quarter. The establishment is owned by the wife of the late singer-songwriter Jim Croce. Their son A.J. Croce has made several records and is often a featured performer. Croce’s restaurant adjoins the bar area and entry to the bar (for the music) is covered with buying a dinner entrée. If you’re just there for the music, there is a cover charge of from $5 to $10. For priority seating, call 619-233-4355.
Rancho el Nopal, Casa de Pica and the Old Town Mexican Cafe are all in the historic Old Town, serving Mexican food in a relaxed environment with indoor and outdoor dining in garden patios. Entertainment is often featured. All are in the $$ range.
Dobson's Bar & Restaurant has long been a top-ranked bar and grill at 956 Broadway Circle in the downtown area, serving fine continental cuisine ($$$). Call 619-231-6771 for reservations.
Cafe Pacifica is an excellent seafood restaurant in Old Town, at 2414 San Diego Ave. Call 619-291-6666 ($$$). For seafood with a shoreline ambience, try Tom Ham's Lighthouse, 2150 Harbor Island Drive (619-219-9110), or the nearby Boathouse Harbor Island at 2040 Harbor Island Drive (619-291-8011), which has a great view of San Diego Bay and serves seafood and pasta ($$ to $$$).
Anthony's chain of seafood restaurants has eight places in La Jolla, on the harbor, in Rancho Bernardo and in Chula Vista. Anthony's has been in the area in one form or another for almost 70 years ($$ to $$$). The downtown location on the bay is at 1360 N. Harbor Dr. (619-232-5103).
Top of the Market is located at 750 North Harbor Dr. (619-232-3474) with a scenic view of the harbor. There's a good California wine list as well as a range of seafood dishes ($$ to $$$).
For totally relaxed and informal seafood dining, try the Beach House, north of San Diego at 2530 S. Hwy. 101 in Cardiff by the Sea (760-753-1321). You can sit inside or outside, close to the ocean. There's an oyster bar, and the main dining room has a wide-ranging menu, which includes pasta, grilled seafood and a Sunday brunch ($$).
Where to Stay
If you have the money and the time to enjoy at least two days in the classic Southern California hotel, you should reserve a room in the Hotel del Coronado, 1500 Orange Ave., Coronado (800-468-3533). This superb old resort has it all: it's an historic landmark on the beach with its own fine dining room and other good restaurants nearby; tennis courts, spa, bike rentals all add to the relaxed resort life of Coronado ($$$).
Glorietta Bay Inn, across the street from the "Del" at 1630 Gloorietta Blvd. (619-435-3101), is another long-time resort operation. Part of the building is the former mansion of the Spreckels sugar fami1y. The hotel overlooks the bay ($$ to $$$).
Gaslamp Plaza Suites is a reconstructed landmark in the Gaslamp Quarter, with 65 units, one block from Horton Plaza at 520 E Street (800-443-8012). The hotel's location is close to the business district as well as Balboa Park and the Embarcadero ($$ to $$$).
There are two budget hotels, both called La Pensione, which are well-regarded, cheap and have been here for many years. One is at 1700 India St. (800-232-HOTEL), located in the Little Italy part of town, and some rooms have harbor views. La Pensione Hotel-Downtown is at 1546 Second Ave. (619-236-929), a short walk from Horton Plaza and Balboa Park. Both of the Pensione hotels are in the $ range.
There are several surprisingly inexpensive places to stay in La Jolla, including the Torrey Pines Inn, 11480 Torrey Pines Rd., (619-453- 4420 or 800-777-1700). It sits on the golf course beside the ocean. The rooms have ocean and golf course views and balconies ($$). Sea Lodge, at 8110 Camino del Oro, (619-459-8271), is more expensive with more facilities, including units on the beach, tennis courts, pool, restaurant and lounge ($$$).
State beach campgrounds include South Carlsbad, San Elijo and Silver Strand (south of Coronado). For reservations call 800-444-7275.
Campland on the Bay RV & Tent Resort, 2211 Pacific Beach Drive (858-581-4200 or toll-free at 800-4BAY-FUN) is located on Mission Bay, close to Marine World and other fun attractions. The resort has 600 tent and RV camping sites, a beach, marina, boat launch, café, laundry and store.
Mission Bay RV Resort is also close to Sea World at 2727 De Anza Bay Road (877-219-6900) with 259 RV sites with hookups but no tenting sites. Amenities include Cable TV, WiFi, boat launch, fishing, biking, showers and laundry, entrance by keycard. Pets are welcome.
The KOA is in Chula Vista, at 111 North 2nd Avenue (619-427-3601 or reserve at 800-562-9877. Although this KOA has tent and RV sites, the operation has tent5 cabins and several lodges that are a cut above the usual "Kamping Kabins," although those are here too.
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