San Diego is a fabulous Southern California town for a beach and so much more. Although I always choose destinations with a beach feature so I can relax on the shore if I want, this trip lured me toward some days off the beach, onto the water, and touring the city's plethora of other attractions.
Public transportation provides an easy way for visitors to figure out how to get almost anywhere. People are friendly, the weather inviting year-round, and the food really good. Culture, sports, history, art, and architecture lend so many dimensions that a week’s visit is too short to touch it all. You could easily spend full days exploring the history and art of the city, which come alive with dozens of museums, 15 of those being easily accessible in Balboa Park, the largest urban park in the country. One of my favorite sections was the Spanish Village Art Center, where dozens of artists work daily in studios hosted by the center. On my next visit, I will want to see a ballet, the symphony, and a play. Or you could feed a passion for railroads, cars, sports, anthropology, science…you get the idea…it’s all here.
You can't go to San Diego without visiting its famous zoo, also in Balboa Park. It's another full day away from the beach. New at the zoo this season are an adorable tiny elephant, a bear cub, a rhino calf, a giraffe, three Sumatran tiger cubs—these are just a few of the treats in the enormous animal park.
In winter, gray whales can often be seen in the waters off San Diego on their yearly migration to the warm waters off Mexico; try to catch sight of them on a whale watching cruise. Unfortunately, the majestic mammals did not make an appearance for my camera, but the views from a few hours on the high seas was time well spent, and an amazing pelican swooped in to pose on the ship’s deck.
The county’s largest annual event is the San Diego County Fair, a 22-day music festival underway now and running until July 5. Notable artists include such big names as Clint Black, Smokey Robinson, and many more.
The Gaslamp Quarter is San Diego's shopping, dining, and entertainment district. A walking tour is the only way to really learn about the neighborhood's history, architecture, and the legends of Wyatt Earp. Old Town San Diego, the oldest European settlement in what is now California, is also small and walkable and also rich with architectural detail and history. Find neat shops filled with handicrafts, or just go and enjoy a heaping platter of enchiladas.
The Sofia Hotel, in the center of downtown, is a quick walk from the Gaslamp or the bay. A renovated historic hotel, it provides affordable comfort in a super convenient location. It was given top honors by Expedia for the past two years, recognizing guest satisfaction. The US Grant, also downtown and near the Gaslamp, uses American Indian art touches in the renovated luxury hotel, built in 1910. Staying here really does make you feel like you've traveled to a different century. Loews Coronado Bay Resort and Spa, on a private peninsula within the bay a few miles from downtown and across the street from the state beach, is upscale and my favorite lodging for quick beach access.
Like in any big city, deciding where to eat is a major undertaking, but of course seafood from the Pacific is a local specialty. I’m gearing up for Restaurant Week in September when 180 of the best will offer discounted prix fixe menus, and it’s a fine opportunity to sample new cuisine. In the meantime, let me whet your appetite with a few of my favorites:
The Marine Room in La Jolla, a frequent upscale dining choice of celebrities and many of our friends, features spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean as well as classic French cuisine. It was recently recognized by locals as "Most Romantic", with the chef and service also commended. Another scenic and delectable choice is 1500 Ocean at the Hotel del Coronado. The bouillabaisse at The Fishery, a market at the beach as well as a restaurant, is a standout. The locally caught swordfish at Red Marlin is beautifully prepared.
In the Gaslamp quarter, go for the signature tacos at Quarter Kitchen if you like caviar (yup, they're upscale). Check out Croce’s Restaurant and Jazz Bar, owned by the late singer Jim Croce's wife, for salmon or tuna specialties and nightly live music. Go to Bella Luna for the trio crème brulee dessert.
In Old Town, I love the tortilla soup, shrimp burrito, and fried ice cream at the casual and comfortable Cafe Coyote for lunch, and any of the Mexican sea bass recipes at the award-winning El Agave for dinner.
PHOTOS: Orangutans at the zoo (courtesy, San Diego Zoo). Below: Balboa Park (Liz Mitchell)
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