Defined by its relationship with the ocean, San Diego is a city that serves as a major shipbuilding centre, a US Naval stronghold and a Californian surf town. But after spending a week in a place dubbed ‘America’s finest city’, San Diego, above all else, seems to be a marine paradise: a place where seal pups frolick on the beach at your feet; where you can swim through sea caves and float face-to-face with bright orange garibaldi fish; and the spot I watched the last of 20,000 gray whales migrate south for the winter.
Often overlooked in favour of other, flashier Californian cities, San Diego is made up of 100 neighbourhoods flanked by 70 miles of coast, the mountains and the Mexico border.
Unlike Los Angeles to the north, there’s a refreshing lack of pretension. This is a town that’s more preoccupied with fish tacos than fine dining, a city that’s more into its craft beer than its cocktails. Despite tourism playing a major part in San Diego’s economy, there’s still a sense of genuine hospitality: locals know they have it good here, and they’re happy to share the best of the city with visitors.
Just don’t mistake the city’s relaxed feel for a lack of sophistication. San Diego has more PHDs per capita than any other city in America, and it’s an important research hub for the biotech industry and a number of academic institutions.
Rapid gentrification is occurring in many neighbourhoods, too, and the transformation of Downtown continues with the construction of the new 12-acre County Administration Centre Waterfront Park by Union Station.
Looking for culture? San Diego’s love of art is seen in areas as diverse as La Jolla and Barrio Logan, while Balboa Park, enjoying its 100th anniversary this year, forms a cosmopolitan corridor of museums, galleries and cultural institutions easily accessible from Downtown.
To experience the best of the city, do as the locals do and take advantage of San Diego’s year-round warm climate to hike through Torrey Pines State Reserve, bike out to Point Loma and swim, paddle or play at one of the 33 beaches that line the coast.
And while the city is an obvious choice for those who love the outdoors, San Diego is also a top family destination, thanks to attractions such as Legoland California Resort and the museums of Balboa Park. Oh, and did I mention the perfect weather?
What to see & do
Old Town San Diego: You have to appreciate the dedication of a historic state park whose staff operate entirely in period costume. The location of the first permanent Spanish settlement in California, San Diego’s kitsch Old Town offers a highly enjoyable history, dining and shopping experience.
Whale-watching: Working with Birch Aquarium, Flagship Cruises runs daily whale-watching trips from October to April. The three- to four-hour scenic cruises wind past Point Loma, as well as allowing a good sneaky peek at the city’s Naval bases and military tech as you cross the harbour.
Trolley tour: Highly recommended, Old Town Trolley Tours offers the perfect first-day introduction to San Diego. The hop-on, hop-off tour loops through 11 stops, including Coronado, Old Town, Balboa Park, the Gaslamp Quarter and Little Italy, with the enthusiastic conductors giving an amusing commentary on the city.
La Jolla: Nicknamed the Beverly Hills of San Diego, the city’s ritziest suburb is also home to a pristine marine environment. At low tide, explore La Jolla’s exposed tidal pools, surf, snorkel with sea lions at La Jolla Cove or take a kayak tour to explore the caves.
Coronado: This picturesque, historic resort town and Naval base is located on a peninsula connected to the mainland by a 10-mile isthmus called the Silver Strand. Take the ferry here, then hire a bike and ignore the buzz of helicopters overhead as you explore the shops and gorgeous residential homes along Orange Avenue.
Balboa Park: Set over 1,200 acres in the centre of the city, Balboa is home to 15 engaging museums, galleries, performance spaces, a zoo and exquisite gardens. Free concerts are held in the organ pavilion each Sunday at 2pm.
Outlet malls: San Diego is home to a number of outlet malls selling reduced-price US brand-name clothes. The biggest is Las Americas Premium Outlets, located on the river across the border from Mexico and flanked by two additional shopping plazas.
Seaport Village: Near Downtown by the marina, quirky Seaport Village has everything from a Harley-Davidson dealership to a magic shop and a wooden toy store — all complemented by an eclectic mix of restaurants and bars.
Like a local
Farmers’ markets: Staying true to the SoCal lifestyle, San Diego is fiercely loyal to its farmers’ markets. Over 6,500 farms are located in the county, with many selling the best seasonal produce and snacks direct to locals at their weekday market. For a list of farmers’ markets, visit sandiego.org
Carnita’s Snack Shack: In San Diego everyone has their own taco place, but most will no doubt have something good to say about this North Park hole-in-the-wall joint. The rustic, pork-centric cuisine is locally and ethically sourced and the place stays open until late.
Where to eat
Puesto: With branches in La Jolla and Downtown, Puesto’s award-winning locally-sourced Mexican street food includes a lobster taco.
Juniper and Ivy: Located in Little Italy in a stylish dining room, Juniper and Ivy describes its fare as ‘left coast’ American-style cookery. Flourishes aside, the restaurant offers creative cuisine with hints of molecular gastronomy, including the much lauded Carne Cruda Asada Toas (raw cubes of beef on toast with cotija cheese, jalapeno and lightly fried quail eggs).
Brewhop brewery tours: Brewhop organises tailored tours of local microbreweries. They include transport and tastings of craft beers such as Green Flash, Stone and The Lost Abbey.
Panama 66: Panama 66 is located in an open-air nook in the corner of the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park. The quirky bar serves up a dozen local craft beers on tap, plus wine, along with live music on weekends.
Where to stay
HI – San Diego: Located in the thick of Downtown’s Gaslamp quarter, HI – San Diego is a fantastic budget option. Staff are helpful, there’s a great kitchen, lounge area and free breakfast each morning. Noisy, but recommended.
Scripps Inn: Watch the sun go down from the Scripps Inn, a gorgeous 14-room guesthouse in La Jolla. Rooms are tastefully appointed with oversized living areas. Breakfast is provided at reception and the Inn is just footsteps from the ocean and La Jolla village.
Hotel del Coronado: One of America’s most historic hotels, ‘The Del’ has featured in films, hosted presidents and even has its own ghost. Rooms are spacious with easy beach access, although you’ll need a map to navigate the grounds.
British Airways flies direct from Heathrow. Alternatively, American Airlines, British Airways, Delta Air Lines, Air New Zealand, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic fly from Heathrow to LA. Connect by train on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner.
Average flight time: 11h15m.
It’s best explored by car or taxi. The Trolley (light railway) loops the centre and heads down to the Mexican border, while the bus network is good but it can be slow.
When to go
San Diego has 300 days of sun and an average temperature of 21C.
Need to know
Visas: Apply for an ESTA for $14 (£9).
Currency: US dollar ($). £1 = $1.49.
International Dial code: 00 1 619.
Time Difference: GMT -8.
How to do it
British Airways Holidays has five nights at Hotel del Coronado including flights from £1,604 per person, twin share.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)