San Diego . . . filled with the charm of its Spanish settlers, is a vacationer’s paradise. Sun, sand, beaches, mountains, and lakes are all at your fingertips. Known as a world-class destination, it’s no wonder they call it “America’s Finest City.”
By the numbers
Population: 1.25 million
Elevation: 62 feet / 18.9 meters
Time Zone: GMT -8; Pacific Standard Time
Average Annual Precipitation: 10.34 inches / 26.3 centimetres
Average January Temperature: 58°F/14°C
Average JulyTemperature: 71°F/22°C
Did you know?
From San Diego, you can walk across the border to Mexico!
Ever heard of a Zambian Sable Antelope? Well, the world-famous San Diego Zoo has one!
San Diego is located at the very southern end of California on the Pacific Coast, about 13 miles (21 kilometres) from the border with Mexico.
Semi-tropical San Diego, with its mean temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius), Mediterranean-like white-washed stucco buildings and strong cultural influences from sunny Mexico, is as close to visiting a foreign country as visitors may get and yet, is as American as apple pie.
The heart of this bustling city lies at the foot of the harbour just minutes by car from San Diego International Airport, where most travellers debark. Yet, modern San Diego has become much more than just a harbourside city. Spanning from the North County beach areas to the South Bay cities along the Mexican border, San Diego is one of the top ten largest cities in the United States. While all these areas fall under the San Diego umbrella, each individual community maintains its own personality, geography and identity. Truly, in San Diego’s case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Less than 3 miles (4.8 kilometres) from the airport is downtown proper. This thriving commercial area with its active waterfront is a bustling, colourful combination of major hotels, convention facilities, restaurants, nightclubs and shopping venues. Its focal point is Horton Plaza, an architectural masterpiece that holds trendy shops, lively restaurants, a theatre and even an ice rink during the holiday season. Just east of Horton Plaza is the Gaslamp District, a 16-block source of civic pride. Once slated for destruction, this area has been reclaimed by the people of San Diego thanks to the 1970s Redevelopment Plan. Where once dilapidated warehouses and run-down Victorian houses stood, and where no one dared to enter after dark, the Gaslamp District has now become the pulse of the city.
Due west of the city proper is the Embarcadero, a fun daytime location where visitors can take in leisurely views of the bay, hop aboard a harbour cruise or enjoy seafood at its finest. For shopping, visit Seaport Village, a 14-acre (5.6 -hectare) shopping and dining complex designed to emulate early California-style architecture.
No visit to San Diego would be complete without a trip to Balboa Park. Home to the world-famous San Diego Zoo, the park is much more than a beautiful place to see exotic animals. Gardens and grounds in Balboa Park were established as a city park for the people in 1868. In preparation for hosting the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, a celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal, founding fathers, architects and master gardeners collaborated to create the fine Spanish Colonial Revival-style buildings and gardens that still grace the grounds today. Additional buildings were raised on the site in the early 1930s, this time incorporating the look and feel of the Mayan civilization and California’s early indigenous peoples. Within the confines of the park, visitors can enjoy scores of museums and art galleries including the Museum of Man, San Diego Museum of Art, Timken Museum of Art and Spreckel’s Organ Pavilion.
For a taste of what San Diego was like in its earliest years, take in the sights and sounds of this colourful settlement, now preserved as a state historic park. Famous as the first European settlement in California, this area is also well known for its glorious year-round gardens, mouth-watering Mexican dishes, lilting Mariachi music and free-flowing margaritas. Be sure to spend a little time browsing through Bazaar del Mundo, truly a marketplace of the world.
Within easy walking distance from the center of Old Town is the Presidio, a must-see while in San Diego. This structure, now a historic landmark, is where Junipero Serra established the first of the Spanish missions in California.
A short drive up the coast takes visitors to La Jolla (“the jewel” in Spanish), and truly a jewel it is. Despite its dense population, the people of this affluent city have somehow managed to maintain its beautiful natural setting. Cliffs along the main streets overlook the beaches and coves along the Pacific Ocean, tropical vegetation creeps and climbs across red-tiled roofs and verandas, and sunsets at La Jolla Shores are simply spectacular. Beyond breathtaking oceanfront scenery, this seaside community is home to the Birch Aquarium, which features the largest oceanographic display in the United States.
Travel a few miles further north along the coastal drive to reach Del Mar, another fine beach community. Famous for its racetrack, founded by Bing Crosby and fellow Hollywood cronies during the 1940s, this seaside town offers as much to families as it does to racing aficionados. Beaches here are clean and family friendly. Boutiques and open-air restaurants line the main street, giving it a Riviera-like quality. Just north of this city, visitors can find the renown Carlsbad Flower Fields and LEGOLAND California, great for those with young children in tow.
Moving inland, the city of Escondido is a quieter, more rural version of San Diego, replete with avocado and livestock ranches, vineyards and granite-strewn hillsides. The community hosts the San Diego Zoo’s 2,200-acre (890-hectare) Wild Animal Park, an extension of the city’s world-famous zoo providing visitors a look at animals in the wild.
Visitors would be remiss if they never traveled south from the city proper into the area referred to as the South Bay. The main city in this area is Chula Vista, home to one of San Diego’s greatest music and entertainment venues, the Mattress Firm Amphitheatre. This entertainment complex provides state-of-the-art acoustics, VIP tables complete with cocktail table service, stadium seating and picnic seating on grassy knolls.
While each district of San Diego has an original flair, the various sections blend seamlessly into a thriving, cosmopolitan city. From the North County beaches to the downtown shopping districts, San Diego’s first-class attractions consistently please tourists and locals alike.
Dining and drinking
San Diego is striving to become the culinary capital of California, with its wide assortment of restaurants and bars offering an array of cuisine to suit any taste. Known for fresh Mexican dishes and exceptional seafood, San Diego has some of the best dining in all of Southern California. The city offers outdoor patio dining and breathtaking ocean views year round.
Featuring over 16 square blocks of restaurants, bars and nightclubs, the historical Gaslamp Quarter is affectionately known as the entertainment hub of San Diego. Catch a glimpse of local street entertainers, watch the crowds or simply hang out with friends in this popular downtown district, which is frequently compared to the French Quarter of New Orleans.
Numerous dining choices exist within the Gaslamp Quarter. For delicious seafood, try Blue Point Coastal Cuisine, an elegantly appointed restaurant. Meanwhile, Irish delicacies are offered at The Field, while desserts such as chocolates, ice cream floats and shakes are found at the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain & Chocolate Shop.
Popular bars also hold a prominent spot in the Gaslamp District. Visit The Tipsy Crow and enjoy the upscale ambiance of this tri-level club.
For those who desire a dining experience without all the hustle and bustle of the Gaslamp Quarter, visit the outlying sections of downtown. Harbor Drive is home to Anthony’s Star of the Sea, a traditional seafood restaurant appealing to a mature clientele.
Old Town is where San Diego began. Romance and charm fill the air and dozens of historical buildings, transformed into shops and restaurants, line the streets. Enter the Bazaar del Mundo and dine at one of the festive eateries. Stroll down San Diego Avenue and experience the wonder of a real fiesta at the Old Town Mexican Cafe, where servers are dressed in traditional garb and tortillas are made fresh, right before your eyes. Meanwhile, Cafe Coyote Bar and Grill boasts an incredible selection of tequila.
San Diego’s beach towns feature an abundance of bars and restaurants catering to a young crowd. In downtown Pacific Beach, the eponymous street features the Californian restaurant World Famous, serving delicious surf ‘n’ turf cuisine with superb views. Costa Brava, a tapas-serving gem, is where you can enjoy excellent Spanish small plates and a good evening tipple.
A few miles shy of East San Diego lies one of the city’s oldest and most charming communities, University Heights. There’s never a shortage of places to satisfy the palate here. If it’s coffee and live music you crave, Twiggs Tea and Coffee on Park Boulevard is always a good bet. With their decadent desserts and relaxing atmosphere, you’ll never want to leave. If you prefer beer to tea, the world-famous Toronado boasts dozens and dozens of draft offerings, and even more in the bottle. Tried-and-true dive bar more your speed? Then head over to the Live Wire, a popular spot locals love raving about. Walk a block down and satisfy those hunger pangs at Harar Ethiopian Restaurant, a great place to munch on savoury East African dishes without burning a hole in your pocket.
Mission and Fashion Valley
Beyond downtown San Diego, popular eateries are also splashed throughout an area of town known to locals as “The Valley.” Or if you’re in a mood for just delicious seafood fare head to King’s Fish House. Other choices include Tex-Mex specialist On the Border, Gordon Biersch, and Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza & Grill.
Across San Diego Bay and just minutes from downtown is Coronado Island, a conservative community with dozens of fine dining choices. Take the ferry from Harbor Drive and disembark right in front of Peohe’s, a tropical paradise famous for its Crunchy Coconut Shrimp platter. Just next door to Peohe’s, Bay Beach Cafe is an ideal spot for a traditional dinner. Travel further to the interior of the island and dine in royal elegance at The Crown Room, located in the historic Hotel del Coronado.
Just north of San Diego, the city of La Jolla is affectionately known as “the jewel” of the Pacific shoreline. In this city, tourists find world-class restaurants with memorable ocean views. Magnificent, yet traditional, California style culinary creations are served at George’s At The Cove. This renowned seaside restaurant has a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, French restaurants are common in this city of love and fantasy, including the The Marine Room.
Just north of La Jolla, the seaside community of Del Mar continually draws locals and tourists with its upscale dining venues. Il Fornaio (meaning “The Baker”) serves delectable Italian feasts. Pacifica Del Mar accents the “foods of the sea” with innovative seasonings and spices.
Regardless of the restaurant you choose there are many palate-pleasing treasures to be found in San Diego, so bring an appetite and explore the culinary creations of this seaside city.
Although San Diego may be better known for sun, sand and surf, the city actually boasts a vibrant and flourishing arts and entertainment scene. From world-class theatres and magnificent museums to cool cafes and hole-in-the-wall nightclubs, there is something here for every entertainment taste.
If you should tire of admiring San Diego’s magnificent natural scenery, the city has a number of art museums that offer eye-candy of a different kind. Balboa Park offers many of these treasures, including the San Diego Museum of Art, which offers an impressive collection of Renaissance, Dutch, Spanish Baroque, Impressionist, Southeast Asian and Contemporary Californian works. Also located at Balboa Park, the Timken Museum of Art showcases an extensive collection of Russian icons and 14th-century religious paintings, while the Mingei International Museum has a delightful collection of pottery, textiles, ceremonial and daily-use objects from around the globe. The work of some of the world’s best photographers is displayed at the Museum of Photographic Arts. Meanwhile, Spanish Village Art Center offers visitors a chance to watch painters, glassblowers, sculptors and woodcarvers at work. Those with more modern sensibilities may prefer the Museum of Contemporary Art, headquartered in La Jolla with a smaller branch downtown.
San Diego boasts a remarkably healthy theatre scene with not one, but two Tony-award-winning theatres. The consistently excellent La Jolla Playhouse often originates innovative and provocative dramas and musicals. Meanwhile, the oldest professional theatre in California, Old Globe Theatre, performs classic, Shakespearean and contemporary works on three stages in Balboa Park. In addition, several smaller companies, such as the San Diego Repertory Theatre and the Lamb’s Players Theatre, stage year-round performances of contemporary works.
With giant multiplexes like the AMC Mission Valley 20, San Diego’s cinemas offer plenty of mass, if not exactly highbrow, fare. Meanwhile, independent, art-house and foreign films are shown at the Hillcrest Cinema or the Ken Cinema, the latter specializing in revivals and cutting-edge independent film.
First-time visitors to San Diego are often surprised by the variety of museums found here. The Museum of Man is an anthropological museum focusing on Native American, Southwestern, Mexican and South American cultures. In addition, the Junipero Serra Museum houses Native American and Spanish artifacts from the early days of the missionaries. Those not easily spooked should brave the Thomas Whaley Museum in Old Town, known for being haunted, a fact authenticated by no less than the United States Department of Commerce. Caveat Emptor, of course.
With a nod to San Diego’s once prominent status as a commercial seaport, the delightful San Diego Maritime Museum offers visitors a chance to tour three historic vessels. Furthermore, the Birch Aquarium boasts the largest oceanographic exhibit in the country.
Nature lovers can indulge themselves at the San Diego Natural History Museum, which highlights the desert ecology of Southern California and Mexico. Meanwhile, science and technology buffs will enjoy the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center & Space Theater, which showcases a 3D tour of the ocean depths, rainforests and even outer space, all courtesy of IMAX.
Options for classical music fanatics range from large-scale concerts by the San Diego Symphony at Copley Symphony Hall to more intimate recitals by the San Diego Chamber Orchestra. The San Diego Opera season runs from January-May and consists of five operas performed at the Civic Theatre.
For those with slightly less rarefied musical tastes, San Diego offers an array of choices in rock, pop, jazz, folk, country, blues, hip-hop and alternative music. Serious rockers head to the ultra-sleek Mattress Firm Amphitheatre, which seats up to 20,500 and has become a “must-play” venue for top musicians. The Viejas Arena also hosts big-name concerts. Smaller venues for upbeat tunes include Humphrey’s By The Bay.
As far as baseball goes, the San Diego Padres have been the pride of the city. Playing in the National Football League AFC Western Conference, the San Diego Chargers have had a checkered record, but still manage to draw fans to SDCCU Stadium between August and December.
Other prime spectator sports include horse racing and golf. From late June to early September, San Diegans place bets on their favorite thoroughbreds at the Del Mar Racetrack. This venue attracts some of the best jockeys and horses in the country. Meanwhile, the world’s top golfers also visit San Diego several times each year at the Mercedes Championship at the La Costa Resort & Spa in January, and the Buick Invitational at the Torrey Pines Golf Course in February.
From beachfront parties to hipster hangouts, San Diego is as much fun after dark as it is during the day. North Park with its contemporary galleries, trendy shops and craft cocktails and beer draws a youthful crowd while those looking for authentic Mexican cuisine should head to Barrio Logan known for its colourful Chicano murals. The LGBTQ community finds a home in lively Hillcrest where the annual Pride Parade takes place. Among the city’s favorite watering holes, the Belly Up Tavern with its line up of live music and the Gaslamp Quarter’s many eclectic venues like Bang Bang promise a fun evening out.
Whether your preference is for trendy nightclubs or traditional theatre performances, San Diego has entertainment venues to please all tastes. Add sunny skies and ocean views to these top-notch attractions and it is no wonder why San Diego draws countless tourists every year.
As if the glorious weather alone were not enough of a reason, San Diego boasts several world-renowned attractions that keep tourists coming to this California metropolis. From sunny Balboa Park to the historic sites of the Gaslamp Quarter and the Old Town, a tour of San Diego is filled with possibilities.
The 1,200-acre Balboa Park is the cultural and tourist center of San Diego with numerous museums and theatres, a sporting complex, beautiful gardens, an open-air pipe organ, and the San Diego Zooon its premises. It also houses the Museum of Man, an anthropological museum documenting the Southwestern and Mexican cultures. Next to the museum is the venerable Old Globe Theatre and the San Diego Museum of Art and the Timken Museum of Art.
The world’s oldest floating merchant ship, the Star of India is located in the dock at the corner of Ash Street and North Harbor Drive. The ship is part of the San Diego Maritime Museum, while the San Diego Aerospace Museum is not far away. Also located along the Embarcadero is the New England-style Seaport Village.
Slightly east of Seaport Village, the historic Gaslamp Quarter, highlighted by gas street lamps and Victorian-style buildings, draws countless tourists and locals. Westfield Horton Plaza is a sprawling outdoor mall in this area. The San Diego Convention Center and PETCO Park sit on the waterfront, right around the corner from the Edgewater Grill.
After visiting the downtown San Diego attractions, take the ferry from Broadway Pier or drive across the arching, 2.2 mile-long (3.5-mile) San Diego-Coronado Bridge to Coronado Island, a beautiful resort community boasting some of the most exclusive homes, boutiques and restaurants in San Diego. If you take the ferry, you will disembark at the Ferry Landing Marketplace. From here catch a shuttle bus that will take you to the town’s main tourist drag, Orange Avenue, where you’ll find the Coronado Historical Association Museum of History and Art. Up the road is the Coronado Brewing Company, a popular pub and restaurant.
A slice of historic life has been preserved and re-created in the Old Town neighbourhood at the Old Town State Historic Park, a kind of dusty Mexican theme park complete with restored haciendas, costumed characters and serenading mariachis. Start your visit at the Seeley Stables where volunteers give free daily tours. The haunted Thomas Whaley Museum is a must-see attraction in Old Town, as is the Presidio Park and the Presidio/Junipero Serra Museum. With historic museums, affluent boutiques, adventurous water sports and breathtaking ocean views, San Diego boasts a variety of sites for any tourist. So, choose a tour that piques your interest and enjoy the first-class attractions offered by this bustling city.
Walkabout International (+1 619 231 7463)
Gaslamp Quarter Walking Tours (+1 619 233 4692)
San Diego Scenic Tours (+1 858 273 8687 / http://www.sandiegoscenictours.com)
Tour Coupes (+1 619 232 6873 / http://www.tourcoupes.com)
Day Tripper Tours (+1 619 299 5777 / http://www.daytripper.com)
Panorama Balloon Tours (+1 760 271 3467 / +1 800 455 3592 / http://www.gohotair.com) Balloon Flights LLC (+1 858 756 6967 / +1 800 558 5828)
Bike Tours San Diego (+1 619 238 2444 / http://www.bike-tours.com)
San Diego Bike and Kayak Tours (+1 858 454 1010 / http://www.sandiegobikeandkayaktours.com/downtown_bike_tour_san_diego.html)
Desert Jeep Tours (+1 888 295 3377 / http://www.desertjeeptours.com)
Old Town Trolley (+1 619 298 8687 /http://www.trolleytours.com/)
“It’s the most beautiful place in the world to me and I had rather have the affection and friendly greetings of the people of San Diego than all the rulers of the world.”
So said Alonzo Horton, founder of what would become downtown San Diego, on the occasion of his 95th birthday. Most likely, San Diego residents would heartily echo his sentiments today. This beautiful, geographically-diverse region in Southern California is truly a wonderful sight to behold. But it is the people who have persevered through boom and bust to build this city, now one of the top ten largest in the United States.
Archaeologists have determined that the first inhabitants of this area settled here more than 20,000 years ago, in the area now known as Rancho Santa Fe. By 7000 BC, descendants of these earlier peoples had migrated to the sandy shores of La Jolla and the riverbed of Mission Valley.
The simple life of these native peoples was forever altered when the Spanish Conquistadors overtook the Aztec civilization. The conquest for gold, land and religion brought Spanish explorers and religious leaders to the area.
While looking for a Northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed into San Diego Bay in 1542 and came ashore in Point Loma. In honor of the feast day on which he landed, Cabrillo dubbed the area San Miguel, now represented by the Cabrillo National Monument. For nearly 60 years, the land named by Cabrillo remained the quiet domain of the local inhabitants who continued to live their simple lives. And nothing much changed that way of life, even after Sebastian Vizcaino arrived from Mexico in 1602 and renamed the area San Diego de Alcala, in honor of his vessel, San Diego, and the Catholic saint of the same name.
In 1768, expeditions were organized from Baja (lower) California into Alta (upper) California in order to establish territorial rights along the California coast. Secondarily, the Catholic church decided to establish a series of missions along a northernly advance from which to convert the native peoples. By 1769, a contingent of soldiers and Franciscan Brothers established a military camp on Presidio Hill. That summer, Father Junipero Serra would found the first California Mission on that site. The Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala would later be moved to its current location in Mission Valley.
Around the time of Mexico’s war to win independence from Spain, a thriving settlement of 600 people was established in Old Town. By 1821, Mexico earned its independence, and within four years San Diego was named the official capital of both upper and lower Baja.
In 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico to gain rights to the western lands and within two years, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo was signed ending the war and setting the countries’ current borders. San Diego became the southernmost city in the United States.
By the mid-1800s, San Diego became an official county and acquired one of its most influential residents, William Heath Davis. He was so enchanted by the city that he purchased 160 acres by the bay and determined to build a fine city. For a while, his vision soared. Land parcels were sold and businesses moved in. Then disaster struck. A series of floods and then a fire put an end to his dream. But his own home, the William Heath Davis House, is still the oldest surviving structure in San Diego.
In 1867, a newcomer arrived in San Diego after hearing of its beauty at a lecture. Alonzo Erastus Horton renewed Davis’ dream. With the purchase of 800 acres at 33 cents an acre, he spent $50,000 to build a wharf at the end of Fifth Avenue. Before long, he would also build his “Horton Hotel” at the site where the current US Grant Hotel stands today. At the dedication of the hotel, he also set aside half a city block as a plaza for his guests with the stipulation that it would revert to city ownership upon his death. Today, this half city block is the site of Horton Plaza.
The beginnings of culture in San Diego seem to stem directly from its entrenchment in promoting the Panama-California Exposition of 1915. Since 1868, Balboa Park has existed, but it was not until plans for the Expo took shape that the city would have one of its most distinctive attractions. Construction began in 1911 on the buildings which would commemorate the completion of the Panama Canal. Sugar magnate John D. Spreckels presented the Organ Pavilion to the people of San Diego and this organ is still played on Sunday afternoons.
Perhaps by accident, San Diegans acquired yet another world-famous attraction: the San Diego Zoo, during preparations for the 1915 Expo. Animals being imported for display during the Expo were quarantined by Dr. Harry Wegeforth. His efforts to garner public support for a zoo led to the plans for the facility to be a showcase in newly-developed Balboa Park.
By 1960, San Diego’s population topped one million people and tourism had become the city’s third most important industry. Investments in the city’s economy flourished with the establishment of the Salk Institute, SeaWorld, the San Diego Stadium (now Qualcomm Stadium) and the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge.
From its humble beginnings as an abundant natural resource for indigenous peoples to a modern, bustling city, San Diego has witnessed both times of prosperity and decline. Through it all, the breathtaking natural beauty continues to attract people from all around the world. Yet, the true wonder of this city lies in its people, a truly divergent group who continue to look toward the future with hope, expectations, and genuine love for San Diego.
Getting there and getting around
From the Airport
Bus: There is public transportation to and from the airport via bus on Flyer Route no. 992.
Shuttle: There are also a number of taxis and shuttle services that offer airport transit including:
Airport Shuttle (+1 619 234 4403) Yellow Cab (+1 619 234 6161 / http://www.driveu.com ) San Diego Cab (+1 619 226 8294)
Alamo (+1 800 327 9633 / http://www.alamo.com)
Avis (+1 800 831 2847 / http://www.avis.com)
Enterprise (1+ 800 736 8227 / http://www.enterprise.com/car_rental/home.do)
Flexcar (+1 619 262 3539 / http://www.flexcar.com/undergrad)
Budget (+1 800 527 0700 / http://www.budget.com)
Hertz (+1 800 654 3131 / http://www.hertz.com)
Thrifty (+1 800 367 2277 / http://www.thrifty.com)
Another attractive ground transportation option is Flexcar, which operates in certain U.S. cities. This new breed of rental car allows you to rent on an hourly basis rather than a daily basis. Be sure to register online before your trip. Flexcar (+1 877 353 9227 / http://www.flexcar.com)
San Diego is serviced by Greyhound (+1 800 231 2222 / http://www.greyhound.com) bus lines which provide transportation to destinations throughout America.
Amtrak (+1 800 872 7245 / http://www.amtrak.com) offers frequent services to San Diego.
San Diego is accessible by I-5, I-15, and US 15.
The Metropolitan Transit System (MTS, 1+ 619 238 0100 / http://www.sdcommute.com) offers a comprehensive system of buses, trolleys, light rail trains, and commuter trains to destinations throughout San Diego.
N.B. If traveling overseas, take the safety precaution of registering your trip at https://travelregistration.state.gov and for helpful, practical advice about traveling technicalities and safety standards check out http://travel.state.gov/