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Destination Guide


Although San Diego may be better known for sun, sand and surf, the city actually boasts a vibrant and flourishing arts and entertainment scene. From world-class theaters and magnificent museums to cool cafes and hole-in-the-wall nightclubs, theres something here for every entertainment taste. Add to that the artistic and cross-cultural exchanges that have occurred with Mexico as a result of San Diegos position on the Mexican border, you get a truly eclectic and unique entertainment scene.

If you should tire of admiring San Diegos magnificent natural scenery, the city has a number of art museums that offer eye-candy of a different kind. In Balboa Park are at least five such treasures. The largest of these is the San Diego Museum of Art offering an impressive collection of Renaissance, Dutch, Spanish Baroque, Impressionist, Southeast Asian and Contemporary Californian works. Major traveling art shows are also mounted here. The smaller Timken Museum of Art showcases an extensive collection of Russian icons and 14th Century religious paintings while the Mingei International Museum of Folk Art has a delightful collection of pottery, textiles, ceremonial and daily-use objects from around the globe. The work of some of the worlds best photographers including Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier Bresson are on display at the Museum of Photographic Arts. To witness the actual process of creation, the Spanish Village Art Center offers visitors a chance to watch painters, glassblowers, sculptors and woodcarvers at work.

Those with more modern sensibilities would do well to head for the Museum of Contemporary Art headquartered in La Jolla with a smaller branch downtown. The works of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Cornell as well as a number of contemporary artists from San Diego and Tijuana are represented here. In addition to the museums, there are a plethora of smaller galleries in La Jolla and in the Gaslamp Quarter to satisfy even the most demanding of aesthetes.

San Diegos California Ballet Company performs both classical and contemporary works from the months of September through May in a number of locations including the Civic Theatre downtown, the California Center for the Arts in Escondido and the Poway Center for the Performing Arts.

With giant multiplexes like the Gaslamp Quarter 15 and the AMC Mission Valley 20, San Diegos cinemas offer plenty of mass, if not exactly highbrow, fare. Those tastes running more independent, art-house or foreign films can get their fix at the Cove, the Hillcrest Theaters or the Ken Cinema'the last specializing in revivals and cutting edge independent film. The Sherwood Auditorium in La Jolla also regularly screens classic and foreign films. Most importantly, it hosts the popular Festival of Animation from January through April.

First-time visitors to San Diego are often surprised by the variety of museums to be found here. The San Diego Museum of Man is an anthropological museum focusing on Native American, Southwestern, Mexican and South American cultures. For local history buffs, the Museum of San Diego has exhibits documenting the citys urban history after California became a state in 1850. Traveling further back in time, the Junipero Serra Museum houses Native American and Spanish artifacts from the early days of the missionaries. Those not easily spooked should brave the Thomas Whaley Museum in Old Town, the first two-story brick building in California, known today for being haunted, a fact authenticated by no less than the U.S. Department of Commerce. Caveat Emptor, of course.

With a nod to San Diegos once prominent status as a commercial seaport, the delightful Maritime Museum offers visitors a chance to tour three historic ships while taking in exhibits on San Diegos naval history and the history of the Americas Cup. Speaking of the ocean, don't forget the Stephen Birch Aquarium Museum which boasts the largest oceanographic exhibit in the country!

Nature lovers can indulge themselves at the San Diego Natural History Museum which highlights the desert ecology of Southern California and Mexico. The museum also houses an extensive collection of gems, dinosaur bones, whale fossils and live insects.

For the science and technology buff, don't miss the stellar Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Science Center where you can get a 3D tour of the ocean depths, rain forests and even outer space, all courtesy of IMAX. The range of interactive exhibits is most impressive. The San Diego Aerospace Museum and International Aerospace Hall of Fame charts local aviation history and also displays relics of over 60 American and foreign aircraft. The San Diego Automotive Museum and the San Diego Railroad Museum are also worth visiting if you have the interest and the time.

Options for classical music lovers range from large concerts by the San Diego Symphony at Copley Symphony Hall to more intimate recitals by the San Diego Chamber Orchestra. The latter also performs in a summer pops concert series. Perhaps even more prestigious is the La Jolla Chamber Music Society which holds year-round performances, often with world-renowned guests such as Yoyo Ma and Isaac Stern. The San Diego Opera season runs from January to May and consists of five operas performed at the Civic Theatre. Previous visiting international stars have included the likes of Ramon Vargas and Renee Fleming. The San Diego Civic Light Opera and the San Diego Master Chorale also hold regular performances around town.

For those with slightly less rarefied musical tastes, San Diego offers a mind-boggling array of choices in rock, pop, jazz, folk, country, blues, hip-hop and alternative music. Local bands often perform in clubs and coffeehouses in the Gaslamp Quarter, in La Jolla, and around Pacific Beach. Serious rockers head to the ultra-sleek Coors Amphitheater which seats up to 20,000 and has become a "must-play" venue for top musicians. The 14,000-seat San Diego Sports Arena and the Cox Arena also host big-name concerts. A 1500-seat performance venue called "4th and B" has developed a reputation for presenting some eclectic fare ranging from rock and country to hip-hop and reggae. You may occasionally even spy local girl Jewel performing in charity concerts here. In North County, similarly diverse fare from acclaimed artists such as John Lee Hooker and the Cowboy Junkies can be found at the always fun and acoustically superb Belly Up Tavern. For some lively toe-tappin' jazz or blues, you can't go wrong with Humphreys by the Bay or the The Juke Joint.

When the sun goes down, its time for San Diegans to get down to some serious fun. Bars and nightclubs such as The Bitter End and The Blue Tattoo cater to a hip urban crowd while dance clubs such as the groovy Ole Madrid or the salsa-hot Sevilla dare you to come in and strut your stuff. With one of the largest dance floors in San Diego, the E Street Alley is usually packed wall-to-wall with sweaty bodies gyrating to the latest mainstream hits. Like something more provocative? Lips Restaurant and Lounge has cross-dressers lip-synching like the best of divas. Or you can, literally, spend the night away at the Native American-operated Barona Casino or at the Viejas Casino and Turf Club. Both offer variations on Vegas-style gaming 24-hours a day.

Since winning baseballs National League Western Division title in 1998, the San Diego Padres have been the pride of the city. Add to that All-Star outfielder Tony Gwynns record-breaking hits (3067 and counting) and its no wonder that home team loyalty is at an all time high. Though the Padres play at Qualcomm Stadium between April and October, plans are underway for a new ballpark slated for completion in 2002. Playing in the National Football League AFC Western Conference, the San Diego Chargers have had a checkered record of late but still manage to draw fans to Qualcomm Stadium between August and December. Other prime spectator sports include horse racing and golf. From late June to early September, San Diegans flock to the Del Mar Racetrack to cheer and bet on their favorite thoroughbreds. This event attracts some of the best jockeys and horses in the country. The worlds top golfers also show up in San Diego several times a year including at the Mercedes Championship at the La Costa Resort and Spa in January, and the Buick Invitational at the Torrey Pines Municipal Golf Course in February.

Happily for San Diegans, there is an even greater selection of participant sports, most of them performed in the great outdoors. Golfers can choose from a dizzying number of courses and resorts, among them the Mt. Woodson Golf Club and the Rancho Bernado Inn and Country Club. Fishing fanatics can hook up with outfits like Islandia Sportfishing or H and M Landing which organize sportfishing trips off the coast of San Diego. Serious hikers head for the Torrey Pines State Reserve, Mission Trails Regional Parks, the Tijuana Estuary or the Cuyamaca Mountains. The Cuyamaca Mountains can also be explored on horseback through such companies as Holidays on Horseback. Indeed, whether its scuba-diving off the La Jolla coast (Ocean Enterprises and Blue Escape Dive and Charter organize dive trips and lessons) or ballooning over Temecula (Balloon Flights, LLC or Panorama Balloon Tours), you'll find something here for every sporting enthusiast.

San Diego boasts a remarkably healthy theater scene with not one, but two Tony-award winning theaters. The consistently excellent La Jolla Playhouse often originates innovative and provocative dramas and musicals. A number of them, including Big River and Tommy have wound up on Broadway and garnered Tonys to boot. Located on the campus of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), the theaters season runs from May-November. As the oldest professional theater in California, the Old Globe Theatre performs classic, Shakespearean but also contemporary and experimental works on three stages in Balboa Park during its regular season from January-June. The theater also puts on an annual outdoor Summer Shakespeare Festival from July September. In addition, a number of smaller companies such as the San Diego Repertory Theatre and the Lambs Players Theatre stage year-round performances of contemporary works. Whats more, national touring companies of Broadway shows often come through town, playing at the 3000-seat Civic Theatre or at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido. Recent productions have included The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, and Riverdance. On a smaller scale, a number of long-running shows such as Forever Plaid at the Old Town Theatre and Triple Espresso at the Horton Grand Theatre, attests to San Diegans' abiding interest in the theater.

With over 1,200 acres of museums, gardens, galleries, theaters, and of course the worlds largest zoo, Balboa Park is without a doubt the cultural center of the city. If you tire of looking at the Spanish-Moorish architecture along El Prado, the Parks main courtyard and walkway, you can always engage in the great game of people-watching: tourists, mimes, musicians, courting couples, everyones fair game. Or simply find a quiet spot on a patch of grass and enjoy this oasis of serenity before you head back into freeway traffic.

If, on the other hand, you're stimulated by lively street crowds, theres no trendier place than the historic Gaslamp Quarter downtown. Consisting of over 16 restored blocks of shops, theaters, bars, restaurants, outdoor cafes and dance clubs, this is the place to see and be seen. In September, a wildly popular weekend food and music festival known as San Diego Street Scene takes place here.

While the Gaslamp Quarters location may make it more popular with tourists, many locals do their people-watching in Hillcrest, located just north of Balboa Park. As the center of San Diegos gay community, Hillcrest is lively, not a little campy, and totally cool. Rows of coffeehouses, bars and bookstores provide plenty of opportunity to encounter an eclectic mix of studious students, yakking yuppies and flamboyant cross-dressers.

If you fancy something more laid-back, Pacific Beach (or P.B. as its known to locals) is the coolest of all beach towns. Here you can hang out with surfers, skaters and sun devotees on the beach or in any number of rockin' bars, clubs and coffeehouses.

Oozing sophistication just north of Pacific Beach is the town of La Jolla. With some of the finest dining, ritziest shopping and most expensive real estate in town, La Jolla brings out the super-chic and occasionally those who just aspire to be so.

Sharon Owyang