Sunny San Diego may be synonymous with a justifiably famous zoo, but there’s far more going on in this city that manages to be both action-packed and laid back. Visitors are handsomely rewarded with plentiful beaches that hold appeal for avid surfers and sandcastle builders, acres of green golf courses, and bays that are a boater’s dream. The landscape’s also dotted with boutique hotels, great independent restaurants serving up seasonal fare, and above-average places to shop. And when it comes to family fun, the zoo is just one of many worthy attractions in something-for-everyone Balboa Park.
5…See the ocean, be the ball
A gorgeous coast line provides a scenic and dramatic backdrop to the chi-chi community called La Jolla, named for a tribe of Native Americans that once lived in the area. It’s the place to gaze at the ocean or picnic on the grass, shop, and eat well. The Children’s Beach has become a haven for a colony of seals who sun themselves and bob in the ocean to the delight of tourists from around the globe. Chains like Armani Exchange and Banana Republic coexist with independent boutiques like clothing and shoe favorite Let’s Go (7863 Girard Ave., 858-459-2337). And if you need a breather from shopping, try a winning combo: Grab a cocktail and eyefuls of the Pacific at La Sala Bar at the historic La Valencia Hotel (1132 Prospect St. 858-454-0771) then head to the 5-6:30 happy hour at Sushi on the Rock (1025 Prospect St. 858-459-3028) for a deals on a Barrio Roll (batter-fried white fish, avocado, and tomato salsa).
Want to work on your golf swing while in La Jolla? Splurge on a round at Torrey Pines (877-581-7171), where Tiger Woods won the 2008 U.S. Open (we'll have to see if he wins another.) Fees, higher for visitors, also vary by season and course.
4…Light it up in the Gaslamp Quarter
Named after the gas-powered lights that used to illuminate this area, the Gaslamp Quarter is a downtown hub for restaurants, night spots, and hotels from boring to boutique. The neighborhood is fronted by the bay, so it’s a natural departure point for marine activities. Visit one of the historic ships operated by the Maritime Museum of San Diego (1492 N. Harbor Drive, 619-234-1953, adult admission $12 & up) such as the Star of India, the world’s oldest active ship, or a diesel-powered B-39 sub. Hornblower Yachts head out into the bay for everything from one-hour bay cruises to whale watching to dinner and dancing. Press on into the East Village near Petco Park stadium for an urbane mix of shops like Venissimo Cheese (871 G St., 619-358-9081) and independent eateries like Cafe Chloe (721 Ninth Ave. 619-232-3242).
Boutique hotels with rooftop pool bars help drive the city’s party scene. Check out the Hotel Solamar (435 Sixth Ave. 619-819-9500) which serves creative cocktails and seasonal American fare while The Ivy - soon to be renamed the Andaz San Diego - (600 F St., 619-814-1000) is a $100 million project with leather corseted columns and a wild night club called Envy that often rules the night.
3…Drive the bridge or sail the bay to Coronodo
Coronado is often called an island, but actually it’s a long isthmus sticking off the southern edge of San Diego. A drive over the Coronado Bridge offers majestic views of the distinctive red roof of Victorian-era Hotel Del Coronado on your way to Coronado and equally magnificent views of San Diego proper on the return trip. Or, grab a jacket and hop the San Diego Bay Ferry (1050 N Harbor Drive, 619-234-4111) that leaves from 1050 N. Harbor Drive or the south end of the San Diego Convention Center. It costs just $3.25 each way and drops you at the foot of Coronado’s Ferry Landing Plaza, filled with shops and restaurants. If it happens to be Tuesday afternoon, from 2:30 to 6 p.m. you can sample strawberries, guavas, and tangerines at the Farmer’s Market in the plaza’s parking lot. Cross the street and enjoy a cup of tea, a sandwich stuffed with brie and ham or a slice of house-made lemon tart at Tartine (1106 First St. 619-435-4323).
Touristy as it is, the Hotel Del Coronado (1500 Orange Ave., 619-435-6611) is fun to tour at least once. Grab a cone (about $5) from the local brand Moo-Time Creamery in the hotel and then head out to walk along one of the most spacious and serene beaches in all of San Diego.
2…See it all in Balboa Park
No trip to San Diego would be complete, and perhaps not even possible, without encountering at least one of the attractions in Balboa Park, in the heart of the city. Built in 1915 for the Panama-California Exposition, the park teems with impressive Spanish Colonial buildings with fanciful flourishes and secret gardens and pathways that wind through wooded patches. The park is also lousy with museums; gaze at old masters at the San Diego Museum of Art ($12), soar at the Aerospace Museum ($15) or grimace at all the mummies in the Museum of Man ($10). Kids will appreciate the colorful Nikki de St. Phalle tile sculptures, as climbing on them is permitted.
The San Diego Zoo (adult admission $37) is everything everyone says it is, home to playful pandas, a unique elephant habitat, and special tours allowing visitors to “meet” exotic animals. When you’re hungry for lunch -- and you will be after walking even part of the zoo - head over to Cucina Urbana (505 Laurel St. 619-239-2222), a rustic California Italian-style restaurant a block from the park. Try the ricotta gnocchi with sage and brown butter ($11), a thin pizza topped with pears, gorgonzola and caramelized onions ($13) or whole roasted trout ($18.50) - nothing here is over $20. If you’re into planning ahead, make a dinner reservation here and watch the room fill up with a who’s who of San Diego.
1…Shamu and a brew
OK, please squelch the desire to roll your eyes at the mention of the words “SeaWorld.” While it seems like kiddie entertainment at its finest -- and it is – adults see the appeal, too. Where else can you see a bunch of two-ton killer whales moon walking on their tails across a giant pool? Just to keep things lively, the slowly-grinding tram (which offers a great view of the bay and the city) takes you to Shipwreck Rapids - a poor man’s Pirates of the Caribbean - and Journey to Atlantis which ends in a 60-foot plunge. Grown-ups should also note that while Anheuser Busch did away with SeaWorld’s beer sampling garden, a variety of beers are sold in the park’s restaurants.