A city that bills itself as ‘America’s Finest City’ needs to live up to its name. Happily, San Diego has a plenty going for it. It’s perhaps the most chilled-out city in the nation, with a surf and beach vibe that even permeates the busiest urban streets.
The beaches themselves are a sensation, blessed with soft sand and sunny for most of the year – take your pick from dozens of them. When the sun goes down, the place is still alive with dining, nightlife and a sense of fun that never wanes.
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More info: https://www.balboapark.org/
To see all of Balboa Park would take a day but to do it justice might take even longer. It’s not just the size – 1,200 acres – but also the contents, with over a dozen museums among the gardens. For horticulture enthusiasts, the Rose Garden, Palm Canyon and Alcazar Garden are highlights, while buildings draw influence from Spain. The Zoo is here but so is the wonderful Old Globe Theater and museums covering sports, air and space, photographs, railroads and much more. Stuck for something to do with your family in San Diego? The answer almost certainly lies in Balboa Park.
More info: https://zoo.sandiegozoo.org/
This truly deserves the praise it gets as one of the world’s premier zoos. The habitats are as close to the animals’ natural ones as possible, with animal welfare and conservation at the heart of the work here. Take your time to saunter between the Reptile House with its huge Komodo dragons and the koalas of the Outback. The giant pandas of Panda Canyon are incredibly popular, while the animal nursery and its new arrivals turns the cuteness factor up to 11. If you or the kids are tired of walking, get a top-down view of the park as you traverse it on the Skyfari aerial tram.
With around 70 miles of coastline, San Diego has a lot of sand for you to get between your toes. The numerous beaches all have their own appeal, but Mission and Pacific are two of the standouts, connecting together and stretching for miles. It’s a massive hit with surfers, but also with sunbathers and the skaters who dash along the boardwalk. If you want to try the waves, you can rent or buy all the equipment here, while the boardwalk is also lined with stores, restaurants and cafes, perfect for a lazy day out.
More info: https://www.gaslamp.org/
An area of San Diego that’s over 150 years old, the Gaslamp Quarter covers 16 blocks of the city with charming Victorian buildings but is in no way stuck in the past. Instead, it’s a constantly vibrant neighborhood which hosts the annual Mardi Gras in addition to numerous other events and celebrations. It’s great to explore by day but comes into its own as the city’s nightlife hub, with people spilling out of the restaurants and cafes onto the street as the lights come on.
More info: https://www.belmontpark.com/
Belmont Park separates Mission and Pacific beaches, meaning you can combine a relaxing day on either of them with vintage rides and classic amusements. It has been open since 1925, as has its iconic Giant Dipper coaster, recently restored. A ride on it, with unforgettable views of the beach and ocean, are a must. If you want something gentler, there’s rides for all ages, including a handsome carousel, and perfect beachside snacks such as tacos and hot dogs on sticks.
If you’ve worked up an appetite, Liberty Public Market is the place to satisfy it. This one-time navy training building is now a gourmet lover’s dream without a chain in sight. It’s all independent and artisan, open seven days a week, and with enough variety for all the family to find something to enjoy. Perhaps pillowy bao buns or gorgeously Gallic crepes, maybe Texas BBQ or hot chicken served Nashville style. Taste the globe or go for a classic smashed burger washed down with a sinful cake shake.
More info: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=663
This free attraction is an eye-opening introduction to the very birth of California. On the site of Cali’s very first European settlement, when the Spanish landed, it’s a cluster of houses and shops from the 19th century, sensitively restored. It’s a fine way to learn about local and state history, with interesting architecture and museums. Make sure you see the adobe Casa de Estudillo, try the Mexican food and visit Whaley House which is considered officially haunted.
More info: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=657
This unspoiled and ruggedly beautiful area is what California will have looked like when the first European settlers arrived. It’s a protected area that covers 1,750 acres, with thousands of the rare Torrey Pines peppering the landscape. It’s a hit with hikers who explore the many trails – some of them challenging – but also nature lovers eager for a glimpse of raccoons, bobcats and more. The beach, edged by the majestic sandstone cliffs, is a must-visit.
More info: https://www.mlb.com/padres
There’s something particularly nostalgic about baseball stadiums that are a living, breathing part of the city they represent. No driving out to the middle of nowhere here, Petco Park is very much a part of San Diego. Built in 2004 of brick, it’s on the edge of the Gaslamp District, and during lulls in play you can admire the skyline beyond. With San Diego’s famously good weather and the exceptional food at the stadium, let’s all go to the ballpark.
If the surf vibe of Mission Beach isn’t for you, head to Coronado, a family favorite that is more peaceful and frequently cited as one of the best beaches in the country. There’s plenty of space to stretch out, great facilities and the water is calmer and more swimmable here. As an added bonus, drop by the Hotel del Coronado, a celebrated hotel that’s on the register of National Historic Landmarks. This is where the Marilyn Monroe classic Some Like it Hot took place, so drop by to see if some of the tangible glamor rubs off on you.