San Diego

There’s no pressure in San Diego to do anything other than enjoy yourself. The work-hard, play-hard ethic may be prevalent, but the accent is strongly on the second part. Indeed, the city with its easily navigable central area, scenic bay, 42 miles of beaches and plentiful parks and museums, is hard not to like from the moment you arrive.

Always vibrant and active, downtown San Diego is the best place to start exploring. Since the late 1970’s, several blocks of Twenties architecture have been stylishly renovated, while the sleek modern bank buildings symbolize the city’s growing economic significance on the Pacific Rim. South of Broadway, the Gaslamp District, once the heart of frontier San Diego, is now filled with smart streets lined with classy cafes, antique stores, art galleries and, yes, gas lamps albeit powered by electricity.

Across San Diego Bay, the isthmus of Coronado is a well-scrubbed resort community with a major naval station occupying its western end, accessible from downtown via the San Diego Bay ferry ($2 each way). Further out from downtown you’ll find Balboa Park’s large collection of museums; the state historical park at Old Town San Diego; the increasingly lively neighborhood of Hillcrest; and La Jolla, an elegant beach community at the city’s northern end.


What sets San Diego apart from its fellow California cities isn’t just the magnificent weather. Sure, the balmy breezes, perfect temperatures and seemingly limitless sunshine are the envy of most other cities. But while others have been able to comfortably define themselves San Francisco as cosmopolitan, Los Angeles as a New World City San Diego is a place in search of definition. While the U. S. Navy’s imprint on San Diego is still strong, it’s not a place where dress uniforms are required. And while the city’s generally pretty relaxed, the circles of power can be small and clubby. San Diegans are aghast when they gaze upon the colossus to the north and its problems of sprawl and soullessness. While San Francisco might be envied for its cultural sophistication, its social landscape just too loopy. San Diego wants the muscle of LA without the mess and the swank of San Francisco without the zaniness. Thus, the city’s quest for a middle Way. With a quietly burgeoning downtown, emerging biotech and high-tech industries and a (slowly) growing realization of the city’s potential as an international hub.

As the largest city on the U. S.-Mexico border with the busiest land border crossing in the world, San Diego stands to benefit the most from the historic North American Free Trade Agreement (NaftA). The city is also in transition to a newer economy, following the brutal shakeouts in the defense and aerospace industries that long were the backbone of the economy here.

Brainy nests like The Salk Institute and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have helped hatch a flock of high-tech and biotech companies centered in the Sorrento Valley north of downtown.

But the transition is far from complete. Optimism over NaftA is shadowed by a perception of Mexico as not an economic partner but a purveyor of illegal immigrants and drug running. A pronounced fiscal conservatism dogs proposals for new public projects, from libraries to mass transit. All of this makes for an interesting civic conversation about what the city is now and what it will be tomorrow.

If you get tired of the talk, just head outside. The ample beaches, bike lanes and running paths are prominent threads in the civic fabric. And unlike the city, the weather won’t be changing soon.

History & Culture

Although human occupation of the San Diego area goes a long way back, very few sites in the county are genuinely older than a century. The area’s long period of Native American habitation left very few tangible remains and despite an abundance of Spanish place names and mission-style architecture, only half a dozen structures in the county actually date from the periods of Spanish and Mexican rule. Juan Rodrguez Cabrillo’s expedition made the first European contact with California in 1542 and during that visit his ships sat out a storm in the San Diego Bay. The next European to lay eyes on San Diego was Sebastin Vizcano, who entered the bay in 1602 on the feast day of San Diego de Alcal and named the place accordingly. When the Spanish finally decided to occupy alta California, Father Junpero Serra founded the first of the California missions on the hill now known as the Presidio. Other missions were later established in the San Diego area, including San Luis Rey Francia in 1798 and the asistencias (satellite missions) of San Antonio de Pala (1815) and Santa Ysabel (1818). after the breakup of the missions in 1833, San Diego remained a ramshackle village with only a few hundred residents.

The 1849 Gold Rush bypassed San Diego, as did the first rail link to Southern California. Eventually, several foresighted financiers recognized the city’s potential as a port and in 1867 San Francisco speculator and businessman Alonzo E Horton acquired 960 acres of waterfront land and promoted it as ‘New Town.’ It was not the first such attempt, but this time the new subdivision really took off, especially after an 1872 fire devastated much of the original settlement.

The discovery of gold in the hills east of San Diego gave birth to a frenetic mining boom, but it was played out by 1874 the town of Julian is one of the few surviving gold mining settlements. In the years following the gold bust, the population fell by half to 2000 and despite the efforts of the city’s boosters, San Diego never did acquire an industrial base during the 19th century. The main economic activity was in real estate speculation, which went through several cycles of boom and bust.

after San Francisco hosted 1914 the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Diego not to be ignored held one of its own, the Panama-California Exposition, which ran for most of 1915 and 1916. In an effort to foster a distinctive image, the exposition buildings were consciously designed with a romantic Spanish-Mexican style. Developers, architects and the public took to this fashion with enthusiasm and today the town’s Mediterranean style, mission architecture and Spanish street names derive more from this than from its actual heritage as a small and remote colonial outpost.

With the arrival in the 1920’s and 1930’s of the aviation and maritime industries, San Diego’s economy finally got its jumpstart. Steady revenue from naval and military bases helped San Diego weather the Great Depression, along with WPA projects like San Diego State University and the race track at Del Mar. And in 1935, as the Depression waned, San Diego staged its second big event, the California-Pacific Exposition, which saw even more Hispanic architecture appear in Balboa Park.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the headquarters of the US Pacific Fleet was moved to San Diego. The boom in wartime activity transformed the city vast tracts of instant housing appeared; public spaces were turned into training camps, storage depots and hospitals; and the population doubled in a few years. The city’s wartime role and the associated publicity more than anything else put San Diego on the American map. Post-war, the naval and military presence provided an expanding core of activity, employing up to a quarter of the workforce.

The climate and the seafront location have been the other major factors in the city’s growth. A revitalized downtown area and recreation facilities like mission Bay have helped attract visitors, who now contribute a big slice of the county’s income. Education and research (especially in biotechnology) are also major activities, while the San Diego Padres baseball team and the San Diego Chargers football team have both had brushes with championships in recent years.


Gaslamp Quarter
Years ago, this colorful downtown neighborhood was home to San Diego’s most profitable businesses saloons, gambling joints, bordellos and opium dens. By the 1960’s, it had declined to a skid row of flophouses and bars. When developers finally moved in, locals and the Gaslamp Quarter Council saved the area from demolition and a 16 block area was designated a National Historic District. Now, restaurants, bars and galleries occupy restored buildings dating back to the 1870’s and wrought iron street lamps in the style of 19th century gas lamps give the area its historic flavor. The most enjoyable time to visit is on a warm evening, when people throng the streets and crowd the sidewalk tables.

San Diego’s original docks are a remarkably clean and attractive area. It never developed as a major commercial port but retains plenty of nautical ambiance due to the old ships moored at the Maritime Museum, the re-created seafront architecture of Seaport Village and the San Diego Convention Center. There’s a public fishing pier and an open-air amphitheater where free summer concerts are held in the Embarcadero Marina Park.

Balboa Park
This huge park on the northeastern edge of downtown San Diego is a major civic asset, boasting areas of greenery, museums, theaters, a zoo and an abundance of sports facilities. Many of the buildings are Spanish Colonial, thanks to the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition held here. They were so popular that many were retained or rebuilt in more durable concrete after the show.

San Diego Zoo
One of San Diego’s biggest attractions, this superb zoo has a worldwide reputation, a colorful history and an enlightened zoo management program. It hosts more than 3000 animals in beautifully landscaped grounds in the northern part of Balboa Park, northeast of downtown. The zoo also runs an 1800 acre free-range Wild Animal Park, 32 miles north of the city in Escondido. The zoo and associated park breed endangered species in captivity for re-introduction into their natural habitats. Its successes include the Arabian oryx, Bali starling and Californian condor. This is a wonderful institution; anyone remotely interested in the natural world should set aside a full day to explore it.

Old Town
This area was the site of the first civilian Spanish settlement in California, known as the Pueblo de San Diego. A plaza was laid out here in the 1820’s and within 10 years it was surrounded by huts and whitewashed villas. It remained the center of San Diego until 1872, when the city’s focus moved to the current downtown area. In 1968, Old Town became a State Historic Park, archaeological work was undertaken, the few surviving original buildings were restored and ruined structures were rebuilt. The area is now a touristy pedestrian precinct, but the open plaza with its shady trees is a pleasant place for a stroll. Old Town is 2.5 miles northwest of downtown.

Hotel del Coronado
This San Diego institution is in the seaside suburb of Coronado, just across the bay from downtown San Diego. It’s a quirky timber building with a facade replete with conical towers, cupolas, turrets, balconies and dormer windows. Its cavernous public spaces reflect the architects’ experience designing railway depots, though the acres of polished wood give the interior a warm old-fashioned ambiance. Opened in 1888, the hotel was where parts of the 1959 Marilyn Monroe movie Some Like It Hot were filmed. Coronado is joined to the mainland by a spectacular 2 mile bridge and also by a long narrow sand spit that runs south to Imperial Beach. A ferry runs to Coronado from San Diego’s Broadway Pier.

Undoubtedly one of San Diego’s best known and most popular attractions, SeaWorld opened in Mission Bay in 1964 and Shamu, its resident killer whale, has become an unofficial symbol of the city. SeaWorld is very commercial, very entertaining and slightly educational. There are plenty of whales, sharks, dolphins and penguins on display and special animal performances. Expect steep entry prices and long queues for some shows and exhibits at peak times. The marine park is 5 miles northwest of downtown.

La Jolla
This status-conscious seaside suburb, 12 miles northwest of downtown, is blessed with a consistent unadorned Mediterranean style of architecture, comprising arches, colonnades, red-tile roofs and pale stucco and has a rugged, invigorating coastline, with pretty coves and excellent surf beaches. Highlights of this swanky neighborhood include the Museum of Contemporary Art, the superb displays in the Stephen Birch Aquarium-Museum and the nearby Torrey Pines State Reserve, home to the last mainland stands of the Torrey pine and some superb viewpoints out over the ocean. For a worthwhile 360 view of the suburb, drive to the top of modest Soledad Mountain, east of La Jolla.


Whatever your pleasure gentle, flat surfaces or more challenging hills and terrain you’ll find it somewhere around town. Designated bike paths are clearly marked on many San Diego streets and great off-road trails are located throughout the county. One of the best street rides is along the coast, from mission Beach north to La Jolla. It hugs the shoreline for most of the way, but when it does veer inland for a block or two, you’ll be treated to a peek at some magnificent homes. For mountain bikers, the Iron Mountain Trail in East County is a moderately difficult favorite. Trailheads are located on California Highway 67 at Poway Road and California Highway 67 at Ellie Lane.

Surfing is the San Diego sport and it occasionally seems that every Tom, Dick and Moondoggie is queuing up behind you to pick up the next wave. The best breaks, going from south to north, are at Imperial Beach, Coronado, Point Loma, Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, Bird Rock, Windansea, La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores. Point Loma’s reef breaks are the least accessible and therefore the least crowded. Autumn generally offers the best opportunity to find strong swells and offshore Santa Ana winds.

The good news is that San Diego has some excellent locations for scuba diving. The bad news is that you must be a certified diver in order to get your tanks filled and legally dive. If you’re in town for a week or so, you can get certified in as little as four days and then be able to discover and explore the fascinating underwater world.

However, even though the intrepid diver can find lots of interest in local waters, most scuba divers head elsewhere. The reason is that the water tends to be cold most of the year and a consistent surge can keep things murky underwater. Sometimes visibility is limited to a foot or less. So many head for Catalina Island or Mexico, where the water is warmer and clearer. For those who insist on testing the waters locally, here’s where to point your snorkel.

Once you’re a certified diver, the best spots for diving are La Jolla Underwater Ecological Reserve and the kelp beds off Point Loma. You’re likely to see California’s state fish, the tiny but brilliantly colored orange Garibaldi, as well as huge Manta Rays and countless varieties of large fish. Keep in mind that if you’re diving in the ecological reserve, it’s prohibited to remove anything even a shell. And since the Garibaldi is a state fish, harming one little scale on its tiny body can get you a night in jail and a hefty fine. Look, but don’t touch.

Boat diving is also popular here; you can choose from half- and full-day trips to the Coronado Islands in Mexico or trips around local waters. Safety is a big issue with scuba diving, so always remember what you’ve been taught: Dive with a buddy and observe all the safety rules your instructor has pounded into your head.

To the East of San Diego there are ear-to-ear boulders. Once thought to be without climbing value, these boulder packs have long been in isolation, their privacy protected by this misconception as well as the hundreds of yards of dense chaparral which must be negotiated before any evaluation can be made. No amount of inspection from afar can determine whether a given rock is priceless or worthless. In this area, nothing can be written off without inspection. This has spurred exploratory probes into rocks which had been dismissed, mostly with positive results.

A by-product of this new determination to find out what’s really out there is a willingness to plunge and grumble through brush-barriers once considered impenetrable. While it certainly is possible to thrash oneself without gain, this happens far less often than one would expect. The best advice regarding the boulderfields is to find ’em, get to ’em and jump on ’em.

In The Area

The gold lotus domes of the Self Realization Fellowship, founded by Yogi Paramahansa Yoganada in 1937, are conspicuous on the coastal bluff at Encinitas. Live-in retreats are available for those in need of spiritual renewal, but if you just need a quick refresher the meditation gardens are open to the public. The beach below the bluff is called Swami’s and it has one of the best big breaks for experienced surfers. Commercial flower farms occupy the range inland and in spring they coat the hills in spectacular bands of brilliant color. Encinitas’ Quail Botanical Gardens have a large collection of California native plants and flora from Central America and Australia. Encinitas is approximately 22 miles north of San Diego, just off Interstate 5.

Mission San Luis Rey Francia
This was the largest California mission and the most successful in recruiting Indian converts. Founded in 1798, it was known as the ‘king of the missions,’ since at one time some 3000 neophytes lived and worked here. after the Mexican government secularized the missions, San Luis fell into ruin. It has been beautifully rebuilt, but the adobe walls of the church, dating from 1811, are the only original parts remaining. The church contains displays on work and life in the mission and some unique religious artifacts. The mission is just northeast of Oceanside, a coastal town approximately 30 miles north of San Diego.

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
Delightful for the variety of its landscapes, Cuyamaca Rancho is a lush, cool contrast to the dry coastal areas nearby. Though less spectacular than other California parks, its 33 sq miles embrace meadows with spring wildflowers and forests of oalaska, willow, sycamore and pine. Wild animals include deer, raccoon and bobcat, plus plenty of bird life. A popular 3.5 mile hike climbs the 6500 foot Cuyamaca Pealaska, which provides panoramic views.

There are several campgrounds in the park and most of the well-defined hiking trails are open to mountain bikes and horses. Highway 79 runs through the center of the park, which can be approached from the south via Descanso on Interstate 8, or from the north via the old goldmining town of Julian. Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is roughly 50 miles east of San Diego.

Anza-Borrego Desert
Most of eastern San Diego County, which otherwise consists largely of sleepy suburban communities, is taken up by the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert, much of it a state park. Some of it can be covered by car, although four-wheel drive vehicles are necessary for the more obscure and most interesting routes. During the fiercely hot summer, Anza-Borrego is best left to the lizards. But between March and May, when the desert blooms, octillo, poppies and other wild flowers paint a memorable and fragrant, picture.

Historical reminders in the desert span Native American tribes, the first white trailfinders and Gold Rush times. The only substantial settlement is Borrego Springs, home to the state park visitor center (760-767-5311), which has details of canyon walks, some with free but waterless campsites. Camping is also available at the Borrego Palm Canyon campsite, near the visitor center.

Tijuana, Mexico
As border towns go, Tijuana isabout as close to the archetype as you can get, with its gaudy souvenir shops, noisy bars and sleazy backstreets. Visiting Tijuana is a real eye-opener, largely because of the shocking contrast between the two sides of the border. You’ll immediately notice potholes in the sidewalk, poverty of the street peddlers and chaotic atmosphere, especially compared with orderly, affluent San Diego. Though more respectable than years past, Tijuana has never really overcome the ‘sin city’ image it acquired during Prohibition.

It still attracts young Americans, who can legally get drunk at 18 instead of waiting to reach 21 at home. Tijuana is located a stone’s throw from San Diego’s southern suburbs and the two cities are so interdependent they can almost be viewed as a single urban area. Approximately 70% of Tijuana’s economy is based on ‘frontier transactions’ like tourism and another chunk comes from factories assembling products for the US market. Meanwhile, San Diego promotes the city as if it were a tourist attraction of its own.

It is, much to the surprise of many daytrippers, one of the wealthiest cities in Mexico. The best way to get to Tijuana to drive to San Ysidro, the in the day parking lot and walk across the border. An alternative is to take San Diego’s southern trolley to the San Ysidro border and walk into Tijuana. The border crossing is open 24 hours. US dollars are accepted and preferred.

When To Go

With it’s near perfect year-round climate, any time is a good time to visit San Diego. If you want to indulge in watersports and bake on the beach, it’s best to come between May and October, when average daily highs range from 70 to 85F. Even in the coolest months (December and January), daily high temperatures still hover in the high 60’s F. Although surfing is almost always good, the best conditions are from September to November, with strong swells and offshore Santa Ana winds.

If you come for the Gray whales, they head south past Point Loma from mid December to late February and return on their way north in March.

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