San Diego is a vacationer’s paradise, complete with idyllic year-round temperatures and 70 mi of pristine coastline. Recognized as one of the nation’s leading family destinations, with SeaWorld, LEGOLAND, and the Zoo, San Diego is equally attractive to those in search of art, culture, world-class shopping, and culinary exploration. San Diego’s many neighborhoods offer diverse adventures: from the tony boutiques in La Jolla to the culinary delights in the northern suburb of Del Mar; from the authentic European charm of Little Italy to the nouveau-chic of the downtown Gaslamp Quarter, each community adds flavor and flair to San Diego’s personality.
Approximately two and a half hours south of Los Angeles, San Diego County is nestled between Mexico to the south, wine country to the north, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. One of the city’s many highlights is the 1,200-acre Balboa Park, the country’s largest urban cultural park, home to 15 museums, the Globe Theater, and the San Diego Zoo. Nature abounds throughout the city: Bougainvilleas cover hillsides in La Jolla, spreading magenta blankets over whitewashed adobe walls. Downtown is a vision in purple when the jacaranda trees that line the streets bloom in spring, spreading vivid, shady canopies.
While public transportation is available, most tourists prefer to use private or rental cars to traverse the excellent freeway system that crisscrosses the county. Interstate 5 runs a direct north-south route through the coastal communities from Orange County in the north to the Mexican border. If you have time, the parallel Pacific Coast Highway offers a more leisurely route along San Diego’s breathtaking coastline. Interstates 805 and 15 are the main inland arteries. Interstate 8 is the main east-west route. Routes 163, 52, and 94 serve as connectors.
A 59-mi scenic drive over much of central San Diego begins at the foot of Broadway. Signs with a white seagull on a yellow-and-blue background direct the way through the Embarcadero to Harbor and Shelter Islands, Point Loma, Cabrillo Monument, Mission Bay, Old Town, Balboa Park, Mount Soledad, and La Jolla.
Public transportation has improved a great deal in the past decade: the San Diego Trolley, which runs as far south as San Ysidro, has expanded in the north from Old Town to beyond Mission San Diego and San Diego State University. Commuter Coaster trains run frequently between downtown San Diego and Oceanside, with convenient stops in Del Mar, Encinitas, Carlsbad, and other charming coastal towns. In 2008 the Sprinter commuter train began operating the East-West route between Escondido and Oceanside along Highway 78. The bus system covers almost all of the county, with Fashion Valley shopping center, Old Town, and downtown as the three major bus transfer points. Old Town Trolley Tours has a hop-on, hop-off route of popular spots around the city, taking two and a half hours if you ride continuously and five hours if you plan to explore.
San Diego Restaurant Reviews
San Diego’s status as a vacationer’s paradise and its growth into the eighth-largest city in the United States have made it a magnet for restaurateurs and chefs from around the globe. The city now takes for granted cuisines such as Cambodian, Ethiopian, Afghan, and Laotian. But a good deal of the new talent also is homegrown, and it’s not unusual for local cooks to attend leading culinary academies and return home fired by the desire to remake San Diego cuisine. The county’s growing corps of innovative and cutting-edge chefs (many based in the northern suburbs) includes William Bradley of Addison at the Grand Del Mar, Jeff Jackson at A.R. Valentien, and Carl Schroeder at Market Restaurant + Bar. The leading point of view is that a region this blessed with gorgeous locally grown vegetables, fruits, herbs, and seafood should make a culinary statement.
Downtown is always an obvious for great dining. The über-trendy Gaslamp Quarter delights visitors looking for not just good food, but a good (if not rowdy) time as well. Near the waterfront on the upper western edge of downtown, the gentrified Little Italy district has become a center for affordable, traditional, and contemporary Italian fare. The area offers surprises, too, such as an authentic English pub, a fine Argentine-Italian steak house, and a jazz supper club. Adjacent to the Gaslamp, diverse and trendy restaurants and cafés thrive in the East Village neighborhood, an urban-feeling area of luxury condos to the north and east of PETCO Park.
San Diego’s neighboring enclaves share a sense of energy, fueled by a collective caffeine high acquired in the coffeehouses that the city is known for. The uptown neighborhoods centered by Hillcrest—an urbane district with a San Francisco flavor—are marked by increasing culinary sophistication. Mission Valley, the heart of the city’s shopping district, abounds with big restaurants of varying quality. And scenic La Jolla, with many of San Diego’s most expensive restaurants, offers some of the best dining in the city. In Chula Vista you’ll find authentic Mexican fare, while Coronado—the peninsula city across San Diego Bay—has both casual, neighborhood-style eateries and extravagant hotel dining rooms with dramatic water views. Great cooking blossoms beyond the city’s official borders; to the north, Del Mar’s, Solana Beach’s, and Rancho Santa Fe’s elegant surroundings have attracted good cuisine.
San Diego Hotel Reviews
“When I look at San Diego, it feels like Miami did years ago, with the vitality and anticipation to take off,” said Rande Gerber, famous bar and lounge designer responsible for both bars at the new Hard Rock San Diego. And he’s right. This ain’t just your family-friendly San Diego any more. Seen for years as the home of SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo, the city’s new class of boutique hotels is gaining attention from the hip jet-set crowd. Features like see-through showers at the Ivy, Sunday afternoon rehab pool parties at the Hard Rock Hotel, and the edgy Italian chic Pininfarina design at the Keating now mingling with kiddie pools and ho-hum chains. Facing this sexy hotel boom, classic hotels are upping the ante by adding sleek modern decor and such amenities as spas, flat-screen TVs, and wireless Internet service.
San Diego is divided into many different enclaves, so to avoid sitting in traffic, figure out first what you want to see and do. If you want to luxuriate by the water, choose a hotel in La Jolla, Coronado, Mission Beach, or Pacific Beach. La Jolla, home to historic landmark hotels such as the Grande Colonial and La Valencia, offers many romantic and upscale ocean-view hotels and some of the area’s best restaurants and specialty shopping. But it’s easy to find a water view in any price range: surfers make themselves at home at Tower 23 and Diamond Head Inn in Pacific Beach. If you’re arriving by boat or plan to do some sportfishing, check out the hotels located near marinas in Shelter Island, Point Loma, or Coronado.
Mission Valley and downtown are ideal for business travelers; there are plenty of well-known chain hotels with conference space, modern business centers, and executive floors. When the work is done, join the trendsetters flocking to downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter for the mix of expense account-worthy restaurants and boutique-style hotels. Here, your hotel is as much a place to rest your head as it isn’t; settle in at the stylish Ivy Hotel or the pool-topped Hotel Solamar if you want to be in the middle of the action.
And of course, San Diego is still as much a playground for families as for hipsters; choose a hotel in Mission Beach, historic Old Town, or Mission Valley, areas that offer good-value accommodations with extras like sleeper sofas, and are close to the Zoo and SeaWorld.
San Diego Nightlife
Years ago, San Diego scraped by on its daytime offerings. Fun after sundown consisted of neighborhood dives and a scattering of dance clubs and live music venues. That sleepy beach town vibe is as long gone as the red light district that once thrived where the tourist-friendly, nightlife-packed Gaslamp Quarter now stands.
Downtown is the obvious neighborhood for party animals of all breeds. Its streets are lined with sleek lounges, massive nightclubs, and quirky dive bars. The Gaslamp Quarter is the main event, with the most bars and clubs located on its 16-block stretch. The late-night commotion is spreading to East Village, the area surrounding PETCO Park, where new bars seem to crop up every other weekend. A few neighborhoods on the outskirts of downtown—Golden Hill and North and South Park, in particular—offer plenty of hip underground treasures for intrepid visitors.
The beach areas tend to cater to the casual and collegiate, though certain haunts have their share of former flower children and grizzled bikers. Hillcrest is the heart of San Diego’s gay community, and home to loads of gay-popular bars. Coffeehouses are another important element of San Diego nightlife culture, especially for the under-21 set. Singer Jewel got her start in local coffee shops, and plenty of other acts have launched to fame from an active area music scene, including pop-punkers Blink-182, Grammy-winning gospel group Nickel Creek, and 2009 American Idol finalist Adam Lambert.
Locals rely on alt-weeklies like the Reader and San Diego CityBeat,as well as glossy monthlies like San Diegoand Riviera magazines for nightlife info. You can’t buy booze after 2 AM, which means last call is around 1:40. Smoking is only allowed outside, and even then it can be tricky. And be sure to hail a taxi if you’ve tied one on—drunk driving laws in California are stringent.
San Diego Shopping
San Diego’s retail venues are as diverse as the city’s vibrant neighborhoods. From La Jolla’s tony boutiques to the outlet malls at San Ysidro, you’ll find stores that appeal to every taste and budget. Trendsetters will have no trouble finding must-have handbags and designer apparel at the world-class Fashion Valley mall in Mission Valley, a haven for luxury brands such as Hermès, Jimmy Choo, and Carolina Herrera. The upscale mall with more than 200 retailers is anchored by six department stores including Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and Saks Fifth Avenue. La Jolla’s chic boutiques offer a more intimate shopping experience along with some of the classiest clothes, jewelry, and footwear in the county.
Into kitschy gifts and souvenirs? Seaport Village has an abundance of quirky shops that won’t disappoint, plus you’ll be able to enjoy the coastal breezes while you shop for that Coronado Bridge snow globe. The Gaslamp Quarter, downtown’s trendy hot spot, is where you’ll find independent shops selling urban apparel, unique home decor, and vintage treasures. If you can’t find it in the boutiques, head for Westfield Horton Plaza, the downtown mall boasting more than 120 stores and 22 eateries. Nearby Little Italy is the place to find contemporary art and home decor.
The beach towns have the best swimwear and sandals, and Uptown is known for its mélange of funky bookstores, offbeat gift shops, and nostalgic collectibles. Old Town is a must for pottery, ceramics, jewelry, and handcrafted baskets.