|As if the glorious weather alone were not enough of
a draw, San Diego boasts several world-renowned attractions that keep
'em coming to this second largest city in California. For a visitor
staying downtown, a rental car is not necessary as many of the citys
more famous sights are clustered here and are accessible via public
transportation and the San Diego Trolley. Alternatively, you can take
the excellent Old Town Trolley Tour, a fully narrated tour that allows
you to get on and off at 8 major locations at your own convenience
including Old Town, Harbor Drive, Horton Plaza, Coronado, Balboa Park
and the Zoo. However, if you want to venture further afield to attractions
like the San Diego Wild Animal Park, Legoland, or even La Jolla and
the North County beach towns, renting a car is highly recommended.
Tour #1?Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo
With 14 museums, 4 theaters, a sporting complex, numerous gardens,
an open-air pipe organ, not to mention the worlds most famous zoo
on its premises, the 1200-acre Balboa Park is the cultural and tourist
center of San Diego. It is impossible to cover all of Balboa Parks
offerings in two days, let alone one. The zoo alone warrants at least
half a day, and the museums will demand as much. As always, let your
own interests (and obligations if you're traveling with children)
be your guide. Should you want to devote your time to museum hopping,
buy a museum pass that will grant you access to all of the parks museums.
Founded in 1868, Balboa Parks growth through the years into a
lush verdant oasis owes much to horticulturist Kate Sessions who
dedicated herself in 1892 to planting trees here in exchange for
renting space for her nursery. The official entrance to the park
is from the west on Laurel Street which turns into El Prado, a
tree-lined boulevard that is also the parks main pedestrian
mall. The ornate Spanish-Moorish style buildings along El Prado
date to the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, which
celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal.
Especially eye-catching is one of the first buildings to greet the
arriving visitor'the 200-ft high California Tower whose facade is
adorned with carved statues of famous Californians. The tower houses
the San Diego Museum of Man, an anthropological museum documenting
the Southwestern and Mexican cultures. Next to the Museum, the Simon
Edison Center for the Performing Arts houses the venerable Old Globe
Theatre Company. Catch a performance here if you can, even if you
have to come back in the evening.
Continuing east on El Prado, you'll soon come to the Plaza de Panama.
On the south side of the square is the House of Charm, home to the
delightful Mingei International Museum of Folk Art as well as the
San Diego Art Institute. To its east, the House of Hospitality functions
as the Balboa Park Visitors Center which dispenses maps and useful
information on park tours and events.
On the north side of the plaza is the ornate San Diego Museum of Art.
Inside the colonial-style building meant to resemble Spains University
of Salamanca is an impressive collection of Renaissance, Dutch, Impressionist,
Southeast Asian and Contemporary Californian art. If you're short
on time, its still worth taking a gander through the museum. If you
want to see some exquisite Russian icons, take a quick look in the
Timken Museum of Art just to its east.
North of the Timken the Botanical Building, built from redwood strips,
houses a variety of tropical plants. Continuing east on the north
side of El Prado, you'll come to the Casa del Prado and the Natural
History Museum, which marks the end of the walkway at the Plaza de
Balboa. The museum focuses on the desert ecology of the southwest
and also has an extensive collection of dinosaur and whale fossils.
The path between the Museum and the Casa del Prado leads north past
a carousel and the delightful Spanish Village Art Center consisting
of more than 30 red tile-roof cottages clustered together in the style
of a Spanish village. The Center functions as a kind of artists' colony
where visitors can observe glassblowers, painters, sculptors, photographers
and other artisans at work, and then purchase the very pieces created
just moments before.
As the premier attraction in the city, the top-notch San Diego Zoo
is home to more than 4000 species of rare and endangered animals,
many of them living in state-of-the-art natural habitats instead of
the usual steel cages. Check out the Gorilla Tropics, Elephant Mesa,
Tiger River, Hippo Beach and the Polar Bear Plunge. Observe okapi,
forest buffalo and otters in the Ituri Forest, a recreation of the
Central African rain forest. Baby panda Hua Meis recent birth has
only added to the hoopla surrounding the three resident giant pandas.
As the pandas are not always on display, check the viewing schedule
ahead of time to avoid disappointment. For those wanting the inside
scoop on the zoo and its offerings, there are a number of guided behind-the-scenes
tours, walking tours, tours in Spanish, and the Kangaroo bus tours
which allow visitors to get on and off at 8 different stops.
Just south of the Natural History Museum is the excellent Ruben H.
Fleet Science Center, worth a visit even if you're not a science buff.
The centers IMAX Theater and a range of fun interactive exhibits will
have you hooked in no time.
From the Science Center, head west on the south side of El Prado,
taking in the motley street entertainers who invariably gather along
the boulevard. The Casa de Balboa on your left houses the Museum of
Photographic Arts, the Railroad Museum and the San Diego Historical
Interest, time and energy permitting, head south from the Plaza de
Panama toward the Pan American Plaza. The buildings along this route
date to the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition. At the
Japanese Friendship Garden, take a load off in the Eastern-style garden
complete with koi pond and tea room. If you're here at the right time
(Sunday at 2pm or during summer evenings), you might even be able
to hear the lilting strains from the 4445 pipe-Spreckels Organ next
door in the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.
Anchoring the western end of the Pan American Plaza are three specialized
museums that bring in their own faithful fans: the San Diego Automotive
Museum, the San Diego Aerospace Museum, and the San Diego Hall of
Tour #2?Downtown, Coronado and the Gaslamp Quarter
Start your morning off on the Embarcadero at the corner of Ash Street
and North Harbor Drive. The hard-to-miss windjammer moored at the
dock is the 1863 Star of India, the worlds oldest floating merchant
ship that occasionally still makes short trips. The ship is part of
the Maritime Museum headquartered on the 1898 ferryboat Berkeley and
a must for nautical buffs.
Walk south along the waterfront, absorbing the sights, sounds
and smells of beautiful San Diego Bay. The presence here of
cruise ships, ferries, houseboats and even naval destroyers all
attest to San Diegos essentially maritime soul. With a slew of
marinas around its gorgeous bay, San Diego is a natural draw for
many sailors. Those without their own boats can hire from a
variety of yacht charters such as Set Sail Yacht Charters or
For many visitors, a harbor cruise has become almost de rigeur as
it offers not only spectacular views of the San Diego skyline, but
also close-ups of attractions around the Bay such as the Star of India,
other U.S. naval vessels, the Coronado Bridge and Point Loma. Narrated
daytime tours lasting one or two hours and evening dining cruises
are available through San Diego Harbor Excursion or Hornblower Cruises,
both of which can be found at Broadway Pier. Both outfits also offer
whale-watching cruises between mid-December and March when the California
Gray Whale migrates from the Arctic to the Baja Coast.
To reach Coronado, visitors can either take the Coronado ferry
from Broadway Pier or drive across the arching, 2.2 mile-long
San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge which offers some stunning birds
eye views of the harbor, downtown and Coronado. Opened in 1969,
this toll bridge now provides the easiest access into and out of
Coronado. Alternatively for those without a rental car, the Old
Town Trolley Tour and public buses make the same journey across
Located on a 4100-acre peninsula in San Diego Bay, Coronado is a beautiful
resort community boasting some of the most exclusive homes, boutiques
and restaurants in San Diego. If you take the ferry, you'll disembark
at the Ferry Landing Marketplace with its collection of quaint shops
and restaurants. From here catch a shuttle bus that will take you
to the towns main tourist drag, Orange Avenue, a street seemingly
transplanted from New England. Lined with clapboard houses, charming
restaurants and shops, Orange Avenue is anchored at its southern end
by the towns main attraction, the Hotel del Coronado. The eye-catching
Victorian-style "Del", as it is known to locals, was the
brainchild of Elisha Babcock Jr. who saw the potential of establishing
a world-class hotel on Coronados pristine beaches. Built in 1888,
the hotel has since hosted more than a dozen American presidents,
many more celebrities and movie stars, and has been featured in numerous
movies including 1959s 'Some Like It Hot.' Wander the grand lobby
and the various ballrooms to see how the other half used to live.
And don't miss the downstairs corridors, decorated with delightful
memorabilia from the hotels early days.
Across from the Del is another early building worth checking out,
the Glorietta Bay Inn. This hotel is the departure point for walking
tours of historical Coronado sponsored by the Coronado Historical
Association. Also included in the tour is the Meade House where L.
Frank Baum wrote The Wizard of Oz. For those who might like to tour
Coronado on two wheels, check out The Original Bike Cab Company or
Bike Tours San Diego, both of which also conduct bicycle and pedicab
tours throughout the city.
If you want to soak in some rays in addition to the atmosphere,
head to Coronado Beach just west of the Del or the Silver Strand
State Beach further south in the direction of Imperial Beach.
Otherwise, make your way back to the Ferry Landing Marketplace
for the return ferry to San Diego.
When you return to Broadway Pier, head south on the Embarcadero to
the New England-style Seaport Village, a waterfront spread encompassing
75 specialty shops, restaurants, a working 1890s Looff Carousel, and
lots of free entertainment from musicians, mimes and magicians.
From here, cross Harbor Drive and proceed east on Island Avenue. If
you're with children, they will certainly enjoy the Childrens Museum,
which has a range of interactive exhibits and organized activities
for the whole family.
Continue east on Island Avenue until you hit 4th Avenue. You'll
know you've arrived at the historic Gaslamp Quarter by the
tell-tale reproduction gas street lamps and Victorian-style
buildings that line the street. Covering 16 1/2 blocks between
4th Avenue and 6th Avenue, and between L Street and Broadway,
the Gaslamp Quarter was San Diegos commercial district in the
early 1800s but turned decidedly seedier in the early 1900s when
brothels, bars and betting parlors sprang up here. Redeveloped
in the 1980s, the area is now home to some of San Diegos finest
restaurants and liveliest nightclubs. The crowds that throng
here on any given night, but especially on weekends, are proof
positive that San Diegans like to party just as much as anyone
else, if not more so.
By day, though, you can tour the Quarter on foot, by trolley, pedicab
or horse-drawn carriage. The 150 year-old William Heath Davis House
at 410 Island Avenue was one of the first residences in town but today
houses the Gaslamp Quarter Foundation which conducts toursof the neighborhood
on Saturdays at 11 a.m. If you're here at any other time, you can
take a self-guided audio tour (call ahead for reservations) or glean
the history of the neighborhood just by walking around. Many of the
buildings have been restored to their original Victorian splendor
and wall plaques outside explain each buildings history. Especially
striking are the Horton Grand Hotel at 311 Island Avenue where Wyatt
Earp was said to have stayed; the Louis Bank of Commerce at 835 Fifth
Avenue, the first granite building in the city; and the Yuma Building
at 633 Fifth Avenue, one of the first brick buildings downtown.
If you have any energy left over, head to neighboring Horton Plaza,
downtowns main shopping and entertainment complex. Otherwise, simply
pull up a chair at an outdoor cafe and nurse your drink as you watch
the gas lamps slowly come on in the fading light. Soon enough you'll
catch your second wind. The night is still young after all. The Gaslamp
Tour #3?Old Town, Cabrillo National Monument and Sunset
The following tour takes in San Diegos early history from
discovery in 1542 to its Spanish missionary days in the late
18th Century. Although Cabrillo National Monument is accessible
by public bus, a rental car will save you a considerable amount
of time and hassle.
From the first Spanish arrivals in California in 1769 until the
1870s, Old Town was the center of San Diego. A slice of life in
those days has now been preserved and re-created at the Old Town
State Historic Park, a kind of dusty Mexican theme park complete
with restored haciendas, costumed characters and serenading
Start your visit at the Seeley Stables where volunteers give free
daily tours at 10:30am and 2pm. The restored adobes ringing the town
square include a courthouse, a school and the citys first drugstore,
as well as a typical residence of a well-to-do family. Other buildings
house a variety of tourist shops and restaurants, many of which are
clustered in the colorful and very busy Bazaar del Mundo.
Get away from the hordes by heading east on San Diego Avenue to the
corner of Harney Street. The Thomas Whaley Museum, the oldest brick
building in San Diego, is alas better known for the ghostly apparitions
that have been seen floating about the place. Even the US Department
of Commerce has authenticated this "haunt."
Head north on Harney Street to Heritage Park at the corner of Juan
Street. Often bypassed by tourists who think the Bazaar del Mundo
is all there is to Old Town, the park features a delightful collection
of Victorian buildings that have been relocated here and lovingly
restored. One such building is Southern Californias first synagogue.
Hungry? Head back and fortify yourself at any of the Mexican restaurants
in the Old Town Historic Park. When you're ready to move on, head
west on Juan Street and take a right onto Taylor Street. The road
leads uphill to Presidio Park, the site of the original Spanish presidio
and Californias first mission, the latter built here by Father Junipero
Serra. Today the Junipero Serra Museum stands where the Mission San
Diego de Alcala once used to.
Cabrillo National Monument
Go even further back in time when you leave Old Town for the Cabrillo
National Monument. Retrace your route and head south on Taylor Street,
which runs into Rosecrans Street. Heading south on Rosecrans, you'll
pass by Harbor Island and Shelter Island on your left, two strips
of land created from sand dredged from San Diego Bay, and home today
to high-rise hotels, seafood restaurants and rental boat slips. Follow
Canon Street to Catalina Boulevard, which takes you to the Cabrillo
National Monument Park at the tip of the Point Loma peninsula.
This southwestern-most point in the United States is where
Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first
European to land in California in 1542. Today the park has a
small museum and a statue commemorating the sailor. From the old
Point Loma Lighthouse, you'll have a birds eye view of the boats
sailing in and out of the bay. Wander the trails that lead down
to the tidal pools or to the Whale Overlook where you can catch
the enormous gray whales in their migration southward every
When you're ready to leave the park, head back up Catalina
Boulevard, passing the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery on the
way. A left on Hill Street will take you all the way to
beautiful Sunset Cliffs, one of the best spots in town to catch
those gorgeous Pacific sunsets. The dramatic 60-ft-high bluffs
have been shaped by years of erosion that continues to this day,
so be careful where you step. At low tide, its possible to
wander down to look at the tide pools.
Tour #4?La Jolla, Mount Soledad, La Jolla Village, Museum of
Contemporary Art, La Jolla Cove, Birch Aquarium and Torrey Pines
Whether you prefer the Spanish version of La Jollas origin (la
joya meaning "jewel") or the Native American version
(La Hoya meaning "the cave"), La Jolla certainly has
plenty of both caves and jewels. With some of the prettiest
bluffs and grottos along the coast, as well as some of the most
exclusive boutiques and jewelers around, this elegant resort
town has long attracted its share of gliterati, wealthy retirees
and moneyed professionals.
Begin your visit at La Jollas highest point, Mount Soledad, located
at the eastern end of Nautilus Street. Marked by a large white cross,
the top of the mountain offers visitors some superb panoramic views
of the whole city of San Diego. From here, descend into La Jolla Village
itself. Girard Avenue and Prospect Street are the main drags for shopping
and dining, but you'll also find plenty of charming boutiques, antique
shops, art galleries and cafes on Fay Avenue and Pearl Street.
When you have had enough of shopping, head to the Museum of Contemporary
Art at the southern end of Prospect Street. Designed in 1915 by the
architect Irving Gill, the mission-style museum building is as much
of an attraction as the works of art inside. The collection here comprises
post-1950 art including minimalist and avant-garde painting, sculpture
and photography. Also on the premises are a lovely landscaped garden
and the Sherwood Auditorium, which hosts a variety of film, theater
and music performances.
Modern art not your style? Head west onto Coast Boulevard toward
La Jolla Cove and some stunning views of the ocean. Pathways
lead down to the beach and if you look to the south, you may be
able to catch sea lions sunning themselves right alongside
sunbathers. Stroll north on the palm-lined promenade. The lush
patch of green that is the Ellen Browning Scripps Park is
perfect for a picnic or a lazy siesta. Better yet, head for the
north part of the Cove where a small beach fronts the Underwater
Marine Reserve. Marine life has been carefully preserved here,
making this area a prime spot for swimming, snorkeling and scuba
Back on dry land, head north on Torrey Pines Road to the Stephen Birch
Aquarium Museum. Often overshadowed by Sea World and the Zoo, the
aquarium is nevertheless impressive in its own right. Run by the world-renowned
Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the aquarium features 33 tanks
of marine life, a giant kelp forest, and a simulated submarine ride.
If sea-critters are not your thing, head north to the Torrey Pines
State Reserve where you can see up close the gnarled and very rare
Torrey Pine. Only at this park and on Santa Rosa Island 175 miles
away can you find these pines growing naturally. Marked trails lead
to bluffs that drop off dramatically, offering breathtaking ocean
Tour #5?Mission Bay, Sea World and Belmont Park
A unique aquatic playground sprawled over 4,600 acres, Mission
Bay is a monument to the active outdoor lifestyle for which San
Diego is justly famous. Here are facilities for swimming,
boating, fishing, sailing, volleyball, softball, cycling, kite
flying and jogging, topped by an 18-hole golf course. Outdoor
enthusiasts can spend days here and not exhaust the parks myriad
The most popular attraction around the bay, however, is Sea World
San Diego, a 150-acre marine park inhabited by penguins, seals, dolphins,
whales, manatees and other marine animals. The favorite exhibit by
far is the Shamu show where killer whales will entertain you with
a variety of astounding tricks. In the Shamu Backstage tour visitors
can observe trainers working with the whales behind the scenes. Other
popular exhibits include the Wild Arctic attraction, which takes you
to the North Pole, at least virtually, to view polar bears and penguins,
and the Shark Encounter, which brings visitors face to face with those
scary predators. Allow at least half a day to enjoy Sea Worlds highlights.
West of Sea World is Belmont Park, a free-admission amusement park
cum shopping and entertainment center catering to the young and the
young-at-heart. The most popular of the parks rides is the historic
wooden Giant Dipper Rollercoaster which dates to 1925 and which continues
to elicit screams from even the most intrepid of thrill-seekers. Another
attraction, The Plunge, is the largest swimming pool in Southern California.
Bumper cars, arcades, shops and oceanfront dining round out the parks
For those wanting a bit more adventure, The Original Bike Cab Company
offers a unique bike tour called the La Jolla Plunge which takes visitors
from the top of Mount Soledad in La Jolla down to the Giant Dipper
Heading west from Belmont Park will land you on Mission Beach, one
of the most popular beaches in San Diego. While surfers take to the
waves, joggers, cyclists, roller skaters, sunbathers and people-watchers
throng the boardwalk that leads all the way up to Pacific Beach.
Tour #6?North County
With a growing number of tourist attractions, North County is becoming
increasingly popular with tourists eager to discover new sights off
the beaten path. Heading north from San Diego, visitors can first
stop in Del Mar and enjoy the rarely crowded beach topped by beautiful
bluffs. Shopping and dining in this small town, which feels more like
a village, is heavily centered around the swanky Del Mar Plaza, home
to some excellent restaurants and fine shops. Also in Del Mar is the
Del Mar Fair Grounds and Race Track where you can catch some of the
countrys most competitive horseracing if you're in town between June
and September. Other events here include county fairs, musical performances
and the Festival of Lights in December.
Further north, the city of Carlsbad boasts a number of noteworthy
attractions, chief among them being Legoland California. Ideal for
families with children between 2 and 13, this 128-acre interactive
theme park features adventure rides, shows, restaurants, shopping,
and more Lego blocks than you can ever imagine. Right next door and
not to be missed, the Carlsbad Flower Fields are a riot of gorgeous
reds, yellows, oranges and pinks in March and April when thousands
of ranunculas are in bloom.
Want something more adventurous? Consider flying along the coast in
a vintage open-cockpit biplane. Outfits such as the Air Combat &
Biplane Adventures offer biplane tours guaranteed to take your breath
Moving inland to Escondido, the wildly popular San Diego Wild Animal
Park is a must-visit for anyone interested in the preservation of
endangered animals and plants. Spanning 2,200 acres, this ecological
reserve recreates the African and Asian habitats of many of the exotic
species that are found here. Options for touring the park include
a Photo Caravan tour that allows visitors into the enclosures to feed
the animals; a 50-minute, 5-mi Wgasa Bushline Monorail Ride; and the
Heart of Africa safari walk. During the summer, visitors can embark
on night safaris, or better yet, camp out in the park in specially
If you prefer something a little more genteel, a number of inland
wineries offer tours, tastings and some award-winning vintages. Of
note are the Thornton Winery and the Callaway Vineyard and Winery
in Temecula, and the Orfila Vineyards in Escondido.
Visitors to San Diego are often surprised at how close they are
to Mexico. In fact, the Mexican city of Tijuana, gateway to Baja
California, is just 18 miles (29 km) south of downtown San
Diego. Though hardly representative of all that Mexico has to
offer, Tijuana is nevertheless a convenient and popular
destination for many daytrippers, shopping fanatics, and those
just looking for a rollicking good time.
With a population of more than 2 million and growing by the day,
it must be said that Tijuana, or "TJ" as its commonly
called, is beset by many of the ills attending any fast-growing
city where demand for services far exceeds supply. Unemployment,
pollution, poverty, high crime rates, and a booming drug trade
are all a fact of life here but it is unlikely that you'll be
witness to much of it if you stick to the main tourist areas. As
always, mindfulness of your surroundings and belongings will go
a long way in preventing any mishaps.
For daytrippers, the cheapest and most convenient way to get to Tijuana
is by the San Diego Trolley which takes you right up to the San Ysidro
Border Crossing, the busiest in the United States. Simply cross the
border and follow the crowds across the walkways that lead into the
city. You can also take a shuttle or tour bus from the US side directly
to the main shopping district in Tijuana, or take a taxi once across
the border but be clear about the fare before you get in. Alternatively,
outfits such as Baja California Tours and Absolute Tours organize
guided tours to Tijuana and other Baja destinations. If you drive
your own car into Mexico, you must purchase Mexican vehicle insurance
either at the border or with your car rental company.
Once across the border, many visitors head directly for Avenida
Revolución, Tijuanas main tourist area that is chock a block
full of inexpensive shops and lively restaurants and bars.
Shopkeepers calling out to tourists hawk everything from painted
pottery and leather boots to tequila and tacky souvenirs. A
warren of lanes and bazaars branch off from the main road and
its worth browsing here if you're a serious shopper. Bargain
well and you'll likely go home with some great finds.
Also along Avenida Revolución is the El Palacio Frontón (Jai
Alai Palace), an interesting Moorish-style building where you
can watch and bet on jai alai games.
If its culture and history you're looking for, head for the
Centro Cultural (Cultural Center) on Paseo de los Héroes
parallel to the now-dry Tijuana River. This futuristic complex
regularly hosts exhibits on Mexican art, history and culture and
also features an OMNIMAX theater screening films about Mexico.
Right next door is the Plaza Rio Tijuana, the largest shopping
and entertainment complex in the area. Northwest of here, the
open-air Mexitlán exhibits miniature versions of the countrys
architectural and cultural treasures.
For those wishing to venture beyond Tijuana, the seaside towns
of Playas de Rosarito (18 miles south of Tijuana) and Ensenada
(65 miles south of Tijuana) also offer great shopping bargains,
delicious seafood and some wonderfully laid-back beaches.
Other Unique Attractions and Tours
For those who've always admired the sporting prowess of Olympic athletes,
the ARCO Olympic Training Center provides an up-close look at the
intense training that goes into the making of an Olympic champion.
Located in Chula Vista, the countrys first official multi-sport Olympic
training facility caters to athletes in 41 events including track
and field, cycling, rowing, soccer and tennis. Free tours are offered
Also in Chula Vista is the Knotts Soak City U.S.A.. With 16 waterslides,
speed slides and wave pools for the family, the park is an especially
popular and refreshing destination during the summer.