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Spotlight: on San Diego

California’s vacation mecca entrances beach combers and history buffs alike

The storied history of San Diego is only part of its charm; taken with the multicultural legacy and cosmopolitan cultural attractions, this seaside destination satisfies visitors who seek a day at the beach, a stroll through a timeless shopping district or a jaunt to a museum.

Seemingly endless stretches of beach await adventurous visitors, and its two fantastic bays—Mission Bay and San Diego Bay—offer seemingly endless water recreation.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Historic Old Town

Start at the beginning. Visit Old Town San Diego State Historic Park in the heart of the city to experience the heritage of early San Diego. This neighborhood truly provides a connection to the past.

Learn about life in the Mexican and early American periods of 1821 to 1872. Even today, life moves more slowly in this part of San Diego, where the hustle and bustle of visitors is balanced with history and fiestas. Look into yesteryear and see how converging cultures transformed San Diego from a Mexican pueblo to an American settlement.

The core of restored original historic buildings is complemented by reconstructed sites, along with early 20th-century buildings designed in the same vein. The Historic Plaza remains a gathering place for community events and historic activity. Five original adobe buildings are part of the historic park, which includes museums, unique retail shops and several restaurants.

Equally significant in the development of San Diego is the city’s history as a military port and shipping hub. Located on San Diego Bay aboard the Berkley, a century-old steam ferry, the Maritime Museum of San Diego offers a look into the region’s seafaring past. Moored nearby are vintage ships that sailed the coast from the state’s early days all the way to the Cold War. Among the ships in the collection is a replica of the San Salvador, which sailed into San Diego Bay in 1542 and was captained by explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. Roam the museum’s galleries and marvel at the intricate models of famous ships. You can even take a tour of San Diego harbor in a vintage craft with a helpful guide at the helm.

See where faith and frontier came together in Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala, California’s first Mission Church. The mission was founded in 1769; today, it still serves an active congregation. Over the years, it has been renovated to resemble its 18th-century grandeur.

Balboa Park

You won’t be in San Diego long before you learn the directions to Balboa Park. These 1,200 acres were officially declared a park in 1868. But you won’t find meandering paths with strollers and parasols. Once a scrub mesa inhabited by rattlesnakes, the park was transformed into an elegant showcase of architecture, landscaping and culture. In 1915, San Diego used Balboa Park to put on the Panama-California Exposition, becoming the smallest city to attempt a world’s fair.

Balboa Park also boasts the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs. The grand instrument was donated to the park in 1914, and today guests enjoy weekly free concerts on Sundays. The organ houses 4,530 pipes ranging in size from as small as a pencil to as large as 32 feet tall.

The Botanical Building and Lily Pond in Balboa Park form a welcome oasis on sweltering days.  Here, more than 2,100 plants flourish, including ferns, orchids, palms and seasonal flower displays. Nearby is the San Diego Natural History Museum, with dozens of permanent displays and continuously rotating exhibits that showcase the earth’s biological and geological past and present.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Hit the Beach

San Diego’s celebrated coastline provides virtually unlimited entertainment and recreation, from surfing to shell collecting to exploring sandy beaches. Shell Beach Tide Pools, at the south end of Scripps Park in La Jolla, is a collection of tide pools that reveal their tiny inhabitants at extremely low tides; nearby Seal Rock Reserve is a popular spot for seals and sea lions to sun themselves, taking in as many fascinated stares from tourists as they do the afternoon rays.

The La Jolla Cove is the ideal spot for relaxing water recreation such as kayaking, snorkeling and diving. This calm stretch of water is also a protected home for leopard sharks, rays and yellowtail. Rent a kayak and explore the La Jolla Sea Caves within a 75-million-year-old sandstone cliff. Once used by smugglers to bring immigrants to America, most of the caves are only accessible from the water.

In the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park, four distinct habitats are visible here—rocky reefs, kelp beds, sand flats and underwater canyons—which are revealed more fully through snorkeling or scuba diving. Get an up-close look at more marine wildlife in Birch Aquarium, part of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Here, guests can get to know the residents of a tide pool through interactive exhibits, and watch aquarium staff feed the many residents, including a loggerhead sea turtle.

Further south, view the coastline from on high at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. Sunset Cliffs runs along Point Loma peninsula’s western shore and offers ocean views as well as glimpses of cliff formations, caves and an intertidal area.

Head out into the open ocean for a day of dolphin or whale watching with any of several tour companies. Gray whales, humpback and fin whales, and blue whales travel through these waters at different times during the year.

Slip a little shopping into your busy schedule at Seaport Village. This collection of shopping, dining and entertainment establishments satisfies a plethora of tastes and appetites. You’ll hear everything from classic rock and pop standards to traditional Greek music.

Little Italy is a source of cultural pride in San Diego. This community celebrates and preserves its heritage as an enclave that supports residents and businesses who make their home here.  Food, music and film are celebrated annually, and its landmark structures are well preserved.

The town’s center may have shifted, but the importance of the military never disappeared. San Diego boasts one of the largest concentrations of fighting forces on the globe. The city is the principal port of America’s Pacific Fleet.

Ship Ahoy!

If you’re interested in U.S. naval history, you can experience life aboard the USS Midway, anchored in the San Diego harbor. The largest ship in the world when she was put to sea in 1945, more than 225,000 sailors served on the aircraft carrier until it was decommissioned in 1991. The USS Midway is now the country’s most-visited naval ship museum, with 29 restored aircraft and two flight simulators to allow landlubbers a chance to “ride” in a fighter jet cockpit.

Across San Diego Bay is Coronado Island, the base for the North Island Naval Air Station and its elite corps of Navy SEALS. The Hotel del Coronado, playground of movie stars and the rich and famous, is also here. The island’s sparkling white sand beaches are perennially ranked among the finest in the nation. Just up the coast along Mission Bay is SeaWorld, a marine theme park filled with thrilling exhibits, shows and demonstrations of sea life.

Unlike other major cities that seem to be in a hurry to build bigger and gaudier office towers, a chunk of downtown San Diego still lingers in the late 1800s. These three- and four-story Victorian buildings are congregated in a 16-block area called the Gaslamp Quarter. This is where San Diego shops during the day and parties at night. Festivals and events are a staple of the Quarter, including Taste of Gaslamp, ShamROCK on St. Patrick’s Day, a Mardi Gras celebration and the Street Scene Music Festival.

A block away from the Gaslamp Quarter is Petco Park, home field to Major League Baseball’s San Diego Padres. Sculpted from native sandstone and stucco, the ballpark features a grassy slope beyond the left field wall where fans can watch big leaguers for a great price. On non-game days, it’s open as a public park.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Tasty Tacos

Can’t decide between San Diego’s many seafood and Mexican specialty restaurants for dinner? Seek out Oscar’s Mexican Seafood. It’s ranked as the No. 13 restaurant in the country in Yelp’s first-ever ranking of the best restaurants reviewed on its website. Oscar’s is a classic local hole-in-the-wall taco shop, and it would go unnoticed, if not for the crowds outside waiting for spicy shrimp and surf and turf tacos.

And never come to San Diego without your dog. North Ocean Beach, also known as Dog Beach, is the second largest leash-free beach in America, with 38 acres of sand. Hundreds of tail-wagging canines visit Dog Beach every week to frolic in sand and sun.

Off to the Races

Just north of San Diego on Interstate 5, Del Mar offers great horse racing action. Advertised as the place where “the surf meets the turf,” the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club caters of horse-racing enthusiasts just a short distance from the Pacific Ocean. Lay down your bets on a fast horse and watch the action as it circles the track.

For More Information

San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau
California Travel and Tourism Commission