San Diego, America’s Finest City

san diego

What makes this California city so special?

By Christine Soskins

Along the Pacific Coast highway in San Diego. Painting by Mary Helmreich, (
Along the Pacific Coast Highway in San Diego. Painting by Mary Helmreich, (

San Diego may be California’s second-largest city, but it’s also America’s finest city.

People flock to San Diego and are captivated by its amazing weather, laid back people, and abundance of activities. It’s not uncommon to meet people who visited recently who couldn’t resist and moved there shortly afterward.

Athletic Ways to Explore San Diego

San Diego’s perfect weather means exploring it actively is ideal. San Diego Bay teems with life and surprises. Aqua Adventures offers moonlight paddles, which, during the summer, close with watching Sea World’s fireworks from the water.

You can also rent a kayak hourly to explore on your own or join them for social paddles for $10.

The Hopper is a new bus service that takes visitors from Anaheim to San Diego and provides tours of the city's top attractions on a hop-on, hop off bus.
The Hopper is a new bus service that takes visitors from Anaheim to San Diego and provides tours of the city’s top attractions on a hop-on, hop-off bus.

California means surfing. For formal lessons, Surf Sessions holds weekend clinics (two hours each day). They are informative and focus on understanding how to read waves and surf independently.

Another option is to rent a surfboard and experiment on your own. Cheap Rentals rents boards and wetsuits in addition to bikes and other equipment.

When you wake up in San Diego, you can drive east and hit the mountains or west and hit the beach. Either way, you are guaranteed great hiking. Torrey Pines State Park in Del Mar has a number of trails promising stunning views of the ocean.

Once there, if you continue along the paved path to the end, the trails at the south end tend to be less crowded. For mountain hiking, Mission Trails Regional Park is an excellent option.

Cowles Mountain has demanding hikes and can be ascended from numerous points. If you have gear, there are some challenging rock-climbing routes in the park. The San Diego Natural History Museum offers free guided nature walks each weekend throughout the county.

San Diego has many wonderful neighborhoods and sites to see. map:
San Diego has many wonderful neighborhoods and sites to see. map:

While more expensive than a traditional tour, exploring San Diego County by llama is a distinctive experience worth investigating.

Leelin Llama Treks leads tours of wineries, gold mines and mountains. It’s a treat to have the llamas carry your pack for the day. In addition, they are social and thoughtful animals, and it’s easy to bond quickly with them.

San Diego Museums

Some San Diegans consider Balboa Park the Smithsonian of the West. While its collection of museums is not as impressive, it is very instructive and entertaining. The zoo is the gem of the park. Leave plenty of time to wander among the rare animals. A peacock might even strut down the path with you. The Fleet Science Center is also very informative. Other museums focus on natural history, sports, photography, and art. Each museum is free one Tuesday a month.

If Balboa Park is the Smithsonian, then Old Town is Williamsburg. Old Town consists of more than 20 buildings recreated to resemble the settlement around 1872. Be sure to attend one of the two free daily walking tours led by docents in period garb. Their enthusiasm is contagious. Demonstrations of adobe brick making and blacksmith techniques are also given.

North of the city itself, in Oceanside, is the California Surf Museum. Surfboards and profiles of famous surfers present the sport in a unique light. There is something surreal in combining education with what is considered the ultimate beach bum sport.

California’s first mission was established in San Diego in 1769. Mission San Diego de Alcala’s varied history includes periods as a fort and a school. Today, the mission serves as an active church and a museum. It’s a nice respite from the crowded tourist attractions.

The Wild Animal Park is about a half-hour outside of San Diego but worth the trip. Try to arrive early and jump on the first train ride around the park, while the animals are more in their element. During the summer, a “Roar and Snore” package is available, which includes camping in the park.

San Diego Neighborhoods

One of the best ways to gain a sense of San Diego is to roam its neighborhoods. Pacific Beach is surfer central. The main drags of Mission, Grand and Garnet are packed with surf shops, original restaurants and tons of bars. Many weekends, local surfing competitions are held. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly. Parking near the beach can be a hassle, so try to park a few blocks in.

Little Italy lies just north of downtown but is a world of its own. A large arch spans India Street, welcoming visitors. The Our Lady of the Rosary church is stunning. The latticework with grapes outside of homes reminds visitors of the legacy of prohibition. In October, the Chalk La Strada occurs, in which chalk street drawings take over a few blocks.

La Jolla, once the home of Theodore Geisel, aka “Dr. Seuss” is north of San Diego itself. It is upscale but laid-back. Lavish boutiques are adjacent to casual shops. At Children’s Pool, dozens of seals sunbathe on rocks and sand. Snorkeling at La Jolla Cove, which is the La Jolla Underwater Park, is a refreshing activity as well. The cliffs and wide view of the Pacific is breathtaking.

Other neighborhoods worth wandering about include Coronado, with its famous Hotel del Coronado, a National Historic Landmark, and the famous Gaslamp Quarter, downtown. Urban Safaris offers guided walking tours of a number of neighborhoods.

Dining Out

While San Diego isn’t known for its cuisine, there are a number of reasonable places to eat that are an experience in their own right. After working up an appetite wandering through Mission Beach, Luigi’s is the perfect place to satisfy hunger. It’s a small joint, but the pizza slices are more than a foot long. The atmosphere is relaxed, and the food is inexpensive.

For an excellent tapas bar, try Café Sevilla in the Gaslamp Quarter. A knight bearing the Spanish flag guards the door. After dinner, at 8 pm on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday nights head downstairs to their club. For $5 cover, you get an hour of dancing lessons, Salsa or Samba, followed by a live band.

Street drawing at chalk la Strada in San Diego. photo: Christine Soskins
Street drawing at chalk la Strada in San Diego. photo: Christine Soskins

A visit to San Diego would be incomplete without sampling authentic Mexican food. Casa Guadalajara in Old Town recalls the haciendas of Mexico. Birds bathe in the fountain on the patio, and singing musicians stroll between tables playing guitars. Portions are generous. Be sure to try the Pollo mole poblano.

If sweets are your passion, Café Zucchero in Little Italy is the place to go. The patio recreates an Italian alley, with laundry strung overhead. Complementing a comprehensive Italian menu is an extensive dessert case.

Islands is a regional chain that typifies southern California. The fare doesn’t extend much beyond burgers, fries, and salads, but it’s all delicious. Surfing videos complement the wait-staff in Hawaiian shirts.

PB Thai Café is in Pacific Beach. It carries reasonable lunch specials and is easily accessible from the beach.

Where to Stay

There are a few hostels in San Diego itself. The location at 5th and Market is conveniently located in the Gaslamp Quarter and public transportation is easily accessible ($18-$25/night). The hostel on Point Loma is a little cheaper ($15-$18/night), but less centrally located. Be sure to check out their website for specials and organized events.

The Banana Bungalow is just off of the beach in Pacific Beach ($16-$20/night). This is a great choice if surfing and beachcombing is your focus. There are a number of restaurants within walking distance.

If you’re planning on staying longer, the Vantaggio Suites has weekly rates (minimum of three weeks) starting at $215 for private rooms. It’s close to downtown but nestled in Little Italy.

The Hotel del Coronado is the place to stay if money isn’t a concern. Room rates begin at $210 and go up to $500. The hotel has hosted celebrities and is rumored to be haunted. Service is excellent and the rooms are well-appointed.

Money-Saving Tips

To save money on traditional tourist attractions, request a vacation planning kit from the San Diego Convention and Tourist Bureau online. Included is an extensive coupon book. Turn around time is slow, so request it a month or so before your trip.

In San Diego, pick up a copy of the Reader, available at most grocery stores. Not only does it list the week’s events, but it has a number of coupons in the dining section. The online version also has printable coupons.

If you like theater, check out the San Diego Performing Arts League’s site while you are in town. A day or two before the show, tickets are sold for up to 50% off.

Other Good Sites for San Diego Information:

The website for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Also offers local entertainment information.

Information on public transportation and schedules.

San Diego Vacations

Casa Guadalajara: (619) 295-5111 4105 Taylor Street, San Diego, CA 92110
Café Zucchero: (619) 531-1731 1731 India St San Diego, CA 92101
Islands: (Numerous Locations)

Downtown Hostel: (619) 525-1531 521 Market Street, San Diego CA 92101
Point Loma Hostel: (619) 223-4778 3790 Udall Street, San Diego, CA 92107
Vantaggio Suites: (619) 595-0111 1736 State Street, San Diego, CA 92101
Hotel Del Coronado: (800)HOTEL DEL 1500 Orange Ave., Coronado, CA 92118

Cost Saving Tips:
San Diego Convention and Visitor’s Bureau: (619) 236-1212 401 B St. Suite 1400, San Diego, CA 92101

Balboa Park: (619) 239-0512 1549 El Prado, Suite #1, San Diego, CA 92101
California Surf Museum: (760) 721-6876 223 North Coast Highway, Oceanside, CA 92054
Mission San Diego de Alcala: (619) 281-8449 10818 San Diego Mission Rd., San Diego, CA 92108

Pacific Beach:
Little Italy:
La Jolla:
Urban Safaris: 619-944-WALK(9255)

Websites for San Diego Activities:

Surf Sessions:(858) 481-1450
Torrey Pines State Park: / (858) 755-2063 Torrey Pines State Reserve,
California State Parks San Diego Coast District, 9609 Waples St. Suite 200, San Diego, CA 92121
Mission Trails Regional Park: (619) 668-3275 One Father Junipero Serra Trail, San Diego, CA 921189
San Diego Natural History Museum Hiking Information: / (619) 255-0210

Christine Soskins writes and lives in San Diego.

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