San Diego: A Local’s Love Letter
Fun in the Sun, California Dreamin’ San Diego Style
By Noreen Kompanik
We love San Diego. And though it happens to be our home town, we think it’s quite a special place–both for those who
live here and those who come to visit.
We arrived in San Diego as a Navy family nearly 20 years ago. My husband promised me that once I set foot here, I would never want to leave. He was right!
Why San Diego?
Why is it such a special place? San Diego is renowned for its Mediterranean-like climate, stunning beaches, and world-class attractions.
With its rich history, cultural treasures, and award-winning Pacific Ocean views, “America’s Finest City” is a moniker that rings true for us still today.
San Diego is an ideal travel destination at any time of the year. A local surfer friend perhaps says it best “it’s the place of the endless summer.”
With an average temperature of 72-degrees and 266-days of sunshine, it’s easy to see why visitors flock here.
June Gloom May Gray
Sun worshipers however may want to avoid our “May Gray” and “June Gloom” months. These are our most overcast times of the year when warm weather from the desert meets cool air of the Pacific Ocean resulting in a marine layer that can last into late morning or even the entire day.
Surprisingly enough, our three hottest months are August through October.
But no matter when you choose to come, you can pack casual, throw in a bathing suit, flip flops, sunglasses, a sweatshirt for cool coastal evenings, and you’re ready for a memorable Southern California vacation San Diego style.
Get the Card
When friends and family come to visit, they want to see the sites, so we always recommend the Go San Diego Card digital pass that provides admission to 40 top area attractions. These passes are available from one to seven days and can save some big bucks. And you even get to choose the attractions.
That being said, as locals, here are some of our top recommendations.
Hitting the Beach in San Diego
Seventy miles of picturesque coastline make beach-going a popular activity, and this is possibly San Diego’s biggest attraction. Every beach has its unique attitude, character, and favorite fans. What they all have in common is phenomenally mild weather and great sand.
Coronado, one of our very favorites, is renowned for its long wide sandy beaches with sparkling sand, relaxing vibe, and elaborate sandcastles.
Fronting the 1888 iconic “Hotel Del,” Coronado Beach has consistently been voted one of America’s best, and we love it.
La Jolla Shores is known as “The Jewel” of San Diego due to its wave action, attracting year-round surf lovers.
A sandy slice of paradise along historic Highway 101, Del Mar sports dramatic cliffs, coastal bluffs, and good surf action. This is our preferred place to pack a picnic basket, spread a blanket on the grassy oceanfront knoll, and toast the sunset.
Some of the best ocean swells in San Diego attract surfers and onlookers to Black’s Beach in La Jolla, better known to the rest of the world as San Diego’s nude beach. Clothing is optional here. Surfers, nudists, and curious onlookers have to be highly motivated, for it takes a bit of a hike to climb down to this secluded spot, as we well know. But everyone has to go there at least once–to say you did.
Sunset and Ocean Beach along the Point Loma peninsula provide dramatic ocean views and stunning sunsets. We love Mission Beach for its spectacular fishing pier, but even more so for its promenade ideal for beach cruiser biking.
Exploring San Diego’s Embarcadero
A testament to the region’s colorful maritime and military history, the San Diego Embarcadero is my husband’s favorite. This downtown stretch along San Diego Bay showcases historic ships and vessels, museums, the port and cruise ship terminal, and a charming Seaport Village.
The Star of India is the queen of the waterfront. Built more than 150 years ago, this tall ship hails as the world’s oldest functional merchant sailing ship. With her wooden decks and towering masts, she harkens back to the days of high sea adventure, and she is beautiful.
HMS Surprise, too
If you’ve seen the movies Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean, you may recognize the HMS Surprise, a replica of the 1750 British frigate featured in these flicks. With its cannons and crows’ nests, it brings out the swashbuckling pirate in each of us. Make sure to climb aboard. You’ll love it!
Other maritime museum vessels include a Russian diesel submarine, an 1898 steam ferry, and a San Salvador replica commemorating Portuguese captain Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s 1542 discovery of San Diego Bay. For one general admission price of $20, you can spend as much time as you want to visit all ships, with a short historic bay cruise included. It’s so worth it!
Ask the Sailors
The USS Midway was America’s longest-serving aircraft carrier. Now a maritime treasure and museum of Naval aviation, this impressive ship features Naval aircraft and tours led by experienced docents who served onboard and tell personal tales of their time at sea.
But plan to spend the best part of a day here as you’ll be intrigued by the massive vessel and the “old salts” who share their stories.
Spending a Day on the San Diego Bay
There’s no better way to experience San Diego Bay than on a Hornblower Cruise. This two-hour 13-mile trip provides close up views of the harbor, Coronado Bay Bridge, and our Navy ships. Guides point out over 50 San Diego landmarks and the marine life that inhabits our waters.
Hornblower also offers dolphin and whale-watching cruises beginning in December. If you’re here during that time, you have to do it. Each year, more than 20,000 gray whales make a 10,000-mile round-trip journey from Alaska to Baja,
Mexico where females birth their calves. Along the migration path, San Diego is an ideal place to see this parade of giants. And we can’t get enough of those pods of playful dolphins who love to ride the boat’s bow-wave.
Sun on your face, and wind in your hair. Sailing is a popular San Diego pastime for both locals and visitors. Thankfully, there’s a myriad of choices from private and group sails to half or full-day excursions. Our favorite time to be on the water is around sunset. It’s relaxing, invigorating, and truly magical.
Kayaking the Caves in La Jolla
Ocean kayaking to the caves in La Jolla is a whole different experience. This venture includes paddling through La Jolla Ecological Reserve’s kelp forest filled with fascinating marine life. Barking sea lions, basking harbor seals, and gracefully cruising leopard sharks were our constant companions as we navigated the cool waters of the bay heading to the caves.
The La Jolla Caves have piqued the interest of curious onlookers since 1902 when the first of seven caves were discovered. Access to the caves is permitted only by guided tour, both to protect the caves, as well as kayakers from the dangerous swells that occur at high tide. Expert guides from Bike & Kayak Tours led our group of intrepid paddlers along the 75-million-year-old sandstone sea cliff and into the caves. Exploring a cave by kayak is unforgettable.
Paragliding Over Paradise
For a true exhilarating aerial experience, paragliding gives thrill-seekers a bird’s eye view of our picturesque region, providing a sense of awe-inspiring freedom.
Located on the steep sea cliffs of La Jolla where Charles Lindbergh took his first maiden flight, the Torrey Pines Gliderport services aviators of varying experience. Novice fliers can also enjoy the thrill of paragliding, flying in tandem with a certified instructor.
Even with my fear of heights, being with a more experienced flyer who talked me through it made all the difference. Views of the Pacific, Torrey Pine cliffs, and the city of La Jolla were impressive. And yes, I’d do it again.
Hiking San Diego Trails
San Diego is an ideal hiking destination and we’re fortunate to have trails to meet the needs of hikers of every level.
Because of its spectacular ocean vistas, one of our favorites is Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Well-maintained wilderness paths lead to breathtaking views of the Pacific from cliffs overlooking miles of coastal beach.
Surrounded by stunning sandstone formations, the Reserve offers multiple winding trails of varying lengths and difficulties lined with indigenous Torrey Pines, desert succulents, and colorful wildflowers.
Sunset Cliffs may be the most relaxing and enchanting urban hike in San Diego. Showcasing the vast beauty of the coastline with 1.5-miles of sea cliffs and tide pools, this hike is thoroughly enjoyable, and a family favorite.
Nature abounds here. Those heading to the cliffs in the late afternoon are likely to spot bottlenose dolphins and seals splashing along the rocks. Not to mention, sunsets here are among San Diego’s finest.
The Beauty of Balboa Park
Believe it or not, the nation’s largest urban cultural park is located in the heart of downtown San Diego. Covering 1,200 acres, Balboa Park is home to 16 museums in addition to theatres, cultural exhibits, and hiking and biking trails. The park also features numerous gardens and a botanical building housing over 2,000 different tropical plants.
One of our favorite aspects of the park is the elaborate Spanish-colonial architecture of its many buildings designed and built for the 1915 Panama-California Exhibition.
Discovering the World-Famous San Diego Zoo
Simply put, there’s no other zoo like it. The world-famous San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park provides an unforgettable experience for zoological and botanical lovers.
It’s also a renowned conservation organization committed to preserving endangered wildlife species around the world.
You’ll need an entire day to explore its tropical grounds with multi-leveled exhibits, it covers 1,800-acres! The park features more than 3,500 animals and several live animal shows. Our favorites? The koalas, polar bears, gorillas, red pandas, and leopards.
Upon entering the park, take the 35-minute narrated bus tram. It’s a good way to get the lay of the land in the massive rambling zoo. This is something we do each time we visit, as there’s always something new. The Skyfari aerial tram not only transports riders from one side of the park to the other, but it also provides a bird’s eye view of the zoo, Balboa Park, and the San Diego waterfront.
If time permits, the zoo’s sprawling sister facility just 30 minutes away to the north is equally extraordinary. San Diego Zoo Safari Park offers up-close opportunities to experience wild nature at its best. The huge preserve features animals from Africa and Asia roaming freely over vast expanses of land as they would in their native habitats.
Upon arrival, take the African Safari Tram for an informative guided tour and expedition before the heat of the day. This is the best way to see giraffes, rhinos, antelope, gazelles, and other beautiful species “in the wild.”
A Walk Back in Time in Old Town
There’s no better way to discover San Diego’s heritage than visiting Old Town State Park, the birthplace of California. “This is where history lives and the fiesta lasts forever,” says one of the park guides.
Old Town features 17 museums, historical sites, and living history programs. Here visitors can learn about San Diego’s first settlement and explore original structures from the 1800s while enjoying an atmosphere of food, folklore, and fun.
Bazaar del Mundo serves as the entranceway to Old Town while capturing the warmth of Old Mexico in an intimate setting with artisan boutiques and amazing Mexican restaurants.
A lively place to celebrate the music and dance of Mexico with mariachi bands and musical performances is Fiesta de Reyes. It’s our favorite watering hole in Old Town filled with fountains, international shops, and authentic Mexican restaurants. You can’t leave without having a margarita– Old Town’s favorite libation!
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, drink the wild air.” That’s exactly what San Diego offers.
Noreen Kompanik is a San Diego, California-based freelance journalist who writes about destination travel, luxury travel, wine, coffee, sustainable living, and history. Her favorite quote is by Ibn Bhuta: “Traveling ―it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” Some of Noreen’s articles can be found on her website.