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Destination Guide

 
 
As if the glorious weather alone were not enough of a draw, San Diego boasts several world-renowned attractions that keep 'em coming to this second largest city in California. For a visitor staying downtown, a rental car is not necessary as many of the citys more famous sights are clustered here and are accessible via public transportation and the San Diego Trolley. Alternatively, you can take the excellent Old Town Trolley Tour, a fully narrated tour that allows you to get on and off at 8 major locations at your own convenience including Old Town, Harbor Drive, Horton Plaza, Coronado, Balboa Park and the Zoo. However, if you want to venture further afield to attractions like the San Diego Wild Animal Park, Legoland, or even La Jolla and the North County beach towns, renting a car is highly recommended.


Tour #1?Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo
With 14 museums, 4 theaters, a sporting complex, numerous gardens, an open-air pipe organ, not to mention the worlds most famous zoo on its premises, the 1200-acre Balboa Park is the cultural and tourist center of San Diego. It is impossible to cover all of Balboa Parks offerings in two days, let alone one. The zoo alone warrants at least half a day, and the museums will demand as much. As always, let your own interests (and obligations if you're traveling with children) be your guide. Should you want to devote your time to museum hopping, buy a museum pass that will grant you access to all of the parks museums.

Founded in 1868, Balboa Parks growth through the years into a lush verdant oasis owes much to horticulturist Kate Sessions who dedicated herself in 1892 to planting trees here in exchange for renting space for her nursery. The official entrance to the park is from the west on Laurel Street which turns into El Prado, a tree-lined boulevard that is also the parks main pedestrian mall. The ornate Spanish-Moorish style buildings along El Prado date to the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal.

Especially eye-catching is one of the first buildings to greet the arriving visitor'the 200-ft high California Tower whose facade is adorned with carved statues of famous Californians. The tower houses the San Diego Museum of Man, an anthropological museum documenting the Southwestern and Mexican cultures. Next to the Museum, the Simon Edison Center for the Performing Arts houses the venerable Old Globe Theatre Company. Catch a performance here if you can, even if you have to come back in the evening.

Continuing east on El Prado, you'll soon come to the Plaza de Panama. On the south side of the square is the House of Charm, home to the delightful Mingei International Museum of Folk Art as well as the San Diego Art Institute. To its east, the House of Hospitality functions as the Balboa Park Visitors Center which dispenses maps and useful information on park tours and events.

On the north side of the plaza is the ornate San Diego Museum of Art. Inside the colonial-style building meant to resemble Spains University of Salamanca is an impressive collection of Renaissance, Dutch, Impressionist, Southeast Asian and Contemporary Californian art. If you're short on time, its still worth taking a gander through the museum. If you want to see some exquisite Russian icons, take a quick look in the Timken Museum of Art just to its east.

North of the Timken the Botanical Building, built from redwood strips, houses a variety of tropical plants. Continuing east on the north side of El Prado, you'll come to the Casa del Prado and the Natural History Museum, which marks the end of the walkway at the Plaza de Balboa. The museum focuses on the desert ecology of the southwest and also has an extensive collection of dinosaur and whale fossils. The path between the Museum and the Casa del Prado leads north past a carousel and the delightful Spanish Village Art Center consisting of more than 30 red tile-roof cottages clustered together in the style of a Spanish village. The Center functions as a kind of artists' colony where visitors can observe glassblowers, painters, sculptors, photographers and other artisans at work, and then purchase the very pieces created just moments before.

As the premier attraction in the city, the top-notch San Diego Zoo is home to more than 4000 species of rare and endangered animals, many of them living in state-of-the-art natural habitats instead of the usual steel cages. Check out the Gorilla Tropics, Elephant Mesa, Tiger River, Hippo Beach and the Polar Bear Plunge. Observe okapi, forest buffalo and otters in the Ituri Forest, a recreation of the Central African rain forest. Baby panda Hua Meis recent birth has only added to the hoopla surrounding the three resident giant pandas. As the pandas are not always on display, check the viewing schedule ahead of time to avoid disappointment. For those wanting the inside scoop on the zoo and its offerings, there are a number of guided behind-the-scenes tours, walking tours, tours in Spanish, and the Kangaroo bus tours which allow visitors to get on and off at 8 different stops.

Just south of the Natural History Museum is the excellent Ruben H. Fleet Science Center, worth a visit even if you're not a science buff. The centers IMAX Theater and a range of fun interactive exhibits will have you hooked in no time.

From the Science Center, head west on the south side of El Prado, taking in the motley street entertainers who invariably gather along the boulevard. The Casa de Balboa on your left houses the Museum of Photographic Arts, the Railroad Museum and the San Diego Historical Society.

Interest, time and energy permitting, head south from the Plaza de Panama toward the Pan American Plaza. The buildings along this route date to the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition. At the Japanese Friendship Garden, take a load off in the Eastern-style garden complete with koi pond and tea room. If you're here at the right time (Sunday at 2pm or during summer evenings), you might even be able to hear the lilting strains from the 4445 pipe-Spreckels Organ next door in the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

Anchoring the western end of the Pan American Plaza are three specialized museums that bring in their own faithful fans: the San Diego Automotive Museum, the San Diego Aerospace Museum, and the San Diego Hall of Champions.


Tour #2?Downtown, Coronado and the Gaslamp Quarter
Start your morning off on the Embarcadero at the corner of Ash Street and North Harbor Drive. The hard-to-miss windjammer moored at the dock is the 1863 Star of India, the worlds oldest floating merchant ship that occasionally still makes short trips. The ship is part of the Maritime Museum headquartered on the 1898 ferryboat Berkeley and a must for nautical buffs.

Walk south along the waterfront, absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of beautiful San Diego Bay. The presence here of cruise ships, ferries, houseboats and even naval destroyers all attest to San Diegos essentially maritime soul. With a slew of marinas around its gorgeous bay, San Diego is a natural draw for many sailors. Those without their own boats can hire from a variety of yacht charters such as Set Sail Yacht Charters or Charter Connection.

For many visitors, a harbor cruise has become almost de rigeur as it offers not only spectacular views of the San Diego skyline, but also close-ups of attractions around the Bay such as the Star of India, other U.S. naval vessels, the Coronado Bridge and Point Loma. Narrated daytime tours lasting one or two hours and evening dining cruises are available through San Diego Harbor Excursion or Hornblower Cruises, both of which can be found at Broadway Pier. Both outfits also offer whale-watching cruises between mid-December and March when the California Gray Whale migrates from the Arctic to the Baja Coast.

To reach Coronado, visitors can either take the Coronado ferry from Broadway Pier or drive across the arching, 2.2 mile-long San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge which offers some stunning birds eye views of the harbor, downtown and Coronado. Opened in 1969, this toll bridge now provides the easiest access into and out of Coronado. Alternatively for those without a rental car, the Old Town Trolley Tour and public buses make the same journey across the bridge.

Coronado
Located on a 4100-acre peninsula in San Diego Bay, Coronado is a beautiful resort community boasting some of the most exclusive homes, boutiques and restaurants in San Diego. If you take the ferry, you'll disembark at the Ferry Landing Marketplace with its collection of quaint shops and restaurants. From here catch a shuttle bus that will take you to the towns main tourist drag, Orange Avenue, a street seemingly transplanted from New England. Lined with clapboard houses, charming restaurants and shops, Orange Avenue is anchored at its southern end by the towns main attraction, the Hotel del Coronado. The eye-catching Victorian-style "Del", as it is known to locals, was the brainchild of Elisha Babcock Jr. who saw the potential of establishing a world-class hotel on Coronados pristine beaches. Built in 1888, the hotel has since hosted more than a dozen American presidents, many more celebrities and movie stars, and has been featured in numerous movies including 1959s 'Some Like It Hot.' Wander the grand lobby and the various ballrooms to see how the other half used to live. And don't miss the downstairs corridors, decorated with delightful memorabilia from the hotels early days.

Across from the Del is another early building worth checking out, the Glorietta Bay Inn. This hotel is the departure point for walking tours of historical Coronado sponsored by the Coronado Historical Association. Also included in the tour is the Meade House where L. Frank Baum wrote The Wizard of Oz. For those who might like to tour Coronado on two wheels, check out The Original Bike Cab Company or Bike Tours San Diego, both of which also conduct bicycle and pedicab tours throughout the city.

If you want to soak in some rays in addition to the atmosphere, head to Coronado Beach just west of the Del or the Silver Strand State Beach further south in the direction of Imperial Beach. Otherwise, make your way back to the Ferry Landing Marketplace for the return ferry to San Diego.

Downtown
When you return to Broadway Pier, head south on the Embarcadero to the New England-style Seaport Village, a waterfront spread encompassing 75 specialty shops, restaurants, a working 1890s Looff Carousel, and lots of free entertainment from musicians, mimes and magicians.

From here, cross Harbor Drive and proceed east on Island Avenue. If you're with children, they will certainly enjoy the Childrens Museum, which has a range of interactive exhibits and organized activities for the whole family.

Gaslamp Quarter
Continue east on Island Avenue until you hit 4th Avenue. You'll know you've arrived at the historic Gaslamp Quarter by the tell-tale reproduction gas street lamps and Victorian-style buildings that line the street. Covering 16 1/2 blocks between 4th Avenue and 6th Avenue, and between L Street and Broadway, the Gaslamp Quarter was San Diegos commercial district in the early 1800s but turned decidedly seedier in the early 1900s when brothels, bars and betting parlors sprang up here. Redeveloped in the 1980s, the area is now home to some of San Diegos finest restaurants and liveliest nightclubs. The crowds that throng here on any given night, but especially on weekends, are proof positive that San Diegans like to party just as much as anyone else, if not more so.

By day, though, you can tour the Quarter on foot, by trolley, pedicab or horse-drawn carriage. The 150 year-old William Heath Davis House at 410 Island Avenue was one of the first residences in town but today houses the Gaslamp Quarter Foundation which conducts toursof the neighborhood on Saturdays at 11 a.m. If you're here at any other time, you can take a self-guided audio tour (call ahead for reservations) or glean the history of the neighborhood just by walking around. Many of the buildings have been restored to their original Victorian splendor and wall plaques outside explain each buildings history. Especially striking are the Horton Grand Hotel at 311 Island Avenue where Wyatt Earp was said to have stayed; the Louis Bank of Commerce at 835 Fifth Avenue, the first granite building in the city; and the Yuma Building at 633 Fifth Avenue, one of the first brick buildings downtown.

If you have any energy left over, head to neighboring Horton Plaza, downtowns main shopping and entertainment complex. Otherwise, simply pull up a chair at an outdoor cafe and nurse your drink as you watch the gas lamps slowly come on in the fading light. Soon enough you'll catch your second wind. The night is still young after all. The Gaslamp Quarter awaits.


Tour #3?Old Town, Cabrillo National Monument and Sunset Cliffs
The following tour takes in San Diegos early history from discovery in 1542 to its Spanish missionary days in the late 18th Century. Although Cabrillo National Monument is accessible by public bus, a rental car will save you a considerable amount of time and hassle.

Old Town
From the first Spanish arrivals in California in 1769 until the 1870s, Old Town was the center of San Diego. A slice of life in those days has now been preserved and re-created at the Old Town State Historic Park, a kind of dusty Mexican theme park complete with restored haciendas, costumed characters and serenading mariachis.

Start your visit at the Seeley Stables where volunteers give free daily tours at 10:30am and 2pm. The restored adobes ringing the town square include a courthouse, a school and the citys first drugstore, as well as a typical residence of a well-to-do family. Other buildings house a variety of tourist shops and restaurants, many of which are clustered in the colorful and very busy Bazaar del Mundo.

Get away from the hordes by heading east on San Diego Avenue to the corner of Harney Street. The Thomas Whaley Museum, the oldest brick building in San Diego, is alas better known for the ghostly apparitions that have been seen floating about the place. Even the US Department of Commerce has authenticated this "haunt."

Head north on Harney Street to Heritage Park at the corner of Juan Street. Often bypassed by tourists who think the Bazaar del Mundo is all there is to Old Town, the park features a delightful collection of Victorian buildings that have been relocated here and lovingly restored. One such building is Southern Californias first synagogue.

Hungry? Head back and fortify yourself at any of the Mexican restaurants in the Old Town Historic Park. When you're ready to move on, head west on Juan Street and take a right onto Taylor Street. The road leads uphill to Presidio Park, the site of the original Spanish presidio and Californias first mission, the latter built here by Father Junipero Serra. Today the Junipero Serra Museum stands where the Mission San Diego de Alcala once used to.

Cabrillo National Monument
Go even further back in time when you leave Old Town for the Cabrillo National Monument. Retrace your route and head south on Taylor Street, which runs into Rosecrans Street. Heading south on Rosecrans, you'll pass by Harbor Island and Shelter Island on your left, two strips of land created from sand dredged from San Diego Bay, and home today to high-rise hotels, seafood restaurants and rental boat slips. Follow Canon Street to Catalina Boulevard, which takes you to the Cabrillo National Monument Park at the tip of the Point Loma peninsula.

This southwestern-most point in the United States is where Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to land in California in 1542. Today the park has a small museum and a statue commemorating the sailor. From the old Point Loma Lighthouse, you'll have a birds eye view of the boats sailing in and out of the bay. Wander the trails that lead down to the tidal pools or to the Whale Overlook where you can catch the enormous gray whales in their migration southward every winter.

Sunset Cliffs
When you're ready to leave the park, head back up Catalina Boulevard, passing the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery on the way. A left on Hill Street will take you all the way to beautiful Sunset Cliffs, one of the best spots in town to catch those gorgeous Pacific sunsets. The dramatic 60-ft-high bluffs have been shaped by years of erosion that continues to this day, so be careful where you step. At low tide, its possible to wander down to look at the tide pools.


Tour #4?La Jolla, Mount Soledad, La Jolla Village, Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla Cove, Birch Aquarium and Torrey Pines State Reserve
Whether you prefer the Spanish version of La Jollas origin (la joya meaning "jewel") or the Native American version (La Hoya meaning "the cave"), La Jolla certainly has plenty of both caves and jewels. With some of the prettiest bluffs and grottos along the coast, as well as some of the most exclusive boutiques and jewelers around, this elegant resort town has long attracted its share of gliterati, wealthy retirees and moneyed professionals.

Begin your visit at La Jollas highest point, Mount Soledad, located at the eastern end of Nautilus Street. Marked by a large white cross, the top of the mountain offers visitors some superb panoramic views of the whole city of San Diego. From here, descend into La Jolla Village itself. Girard Avenue and Prospect Street are the main drags for shopping and dining, but you'll also find plenty of charming boutiques, antique shops, art galleries and cafes on Fay Avenue and Pearl Street.

When you have had enough of shopping, head to the Museum of Contemporary Art at the southern end of Prospect Street. Designed in 1915 by the architect Irving Gill, the mission-style museum building is as much of an attraction as the works of art inside. The collection here comprises post-1950 art including minimalist and avant-garde painting, sculpture and photography. Also on the premises are a lovely landscaped garden and the Sherwood Auditorium, which hosts a variety of film, theater and music performances.

Modern art not your style? Head west onto Coast Boulevard toward La Jolla Cove and some stunning views of the ocean. Pathways lead down to the beach and if you look to the south, you may be able to catch sea lions sunning themselves right alongside sunbathers. Stroll north on the palm-lined promenade. The lush patch of green that is the Ellen Browning Scripps Park is perfect for a picnic or a lazy siesta. Better yet, head for the north part of the Cove where a small beach fronts the Underwater Marine Reserve. Marine life has been carefully preserved here, making this area a prime spot for swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving.

Back on dry land, head north on Torrey Pines Road to the Stephen Birch Aquarium Museum. Often overshadowed by Sea World and the Zoo, the aquarium is nevertheless impressive in its own right. Run by the world-renowned Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the aquarium features 33 tanks of marine life, a giant kelp forest, and a simulated submarine ride.

If sea-critters are not your thing, head north to the Torrey Pines State Reserve where you can see up close the gnarled and very rare Torrey Pine. Only at this park and on Santa Rosa Island 175 miles away can you find these pines growing naturally. Marked trails lead to bluffs that drop off dramatically, offering breathtaking ocean views.


Tour #5?Mission Bay, Sea World and Belmont Park
A unique aquatic playground sprawled over 4,600 acres, Mission Bay is a monument to the active outdoor lifestyle for which San Diego is justly famous. Here are facilities for swimming, boating, fishing, sailing, volleyball, softball, cycling, kite flying and jogging, topped by an 18-hole golf course. Outdoor enthusiasts can spend days here and not exhaust the parks myriad offerings.

The most popular attraction around the bay, however, is Sea World San Diego, a 150-acre marine park inhabited by penguins, seals, dolphins, whales, manatees and other marine animals. The favorite exhibit by far is the Shamu show where killer whales will entertain you with a variety of astounding tricks. In the Shamu Backstage tour visitors can observe trainers working with the whales behind the scenes. Other popular exhibits include the Wild Arctic attraction, which takes you to the North Pole, at least virtually, to view polar bears and penguins, and the Shark Encounter, which brings visitors face to face with those scary predators. Allow at least half a day to enjoy Sea Worlds highlights.

West of Sea World is Belmont Park, a free-admission amusement park cum shopping and entertainment center catering to the young and the young-at-heart. The most popular of the parks rides is the historic wooden Giant Dipper Rollercoaster which dates to 1925 and which continues to elicit screams from even the most intrepid of thrill-seekers. Another attraction, The Plunge, is the largest swimming pool in Southern California. Bumper cars, arcades, shops and oceanfront dining round out the parks many attractions.

For those wanting a bit more adventure, The Original Bike Cab Company offers a unique bike tour called the La Jolla Plunge which takes visitors from the top of Mount Soledad in La Jolla down to the Giant Dipper rollercoaster.

Heading west from Belmont Park will land you on Mission Beach, one of the most popular beaches in San Diego. While surfers take to the waves, joggers, cyclists, roller skaters, sunbathers and people-watchers throng the boardwalk that leads all the way up to Pacific Beach.


Tour #6?North County
With a growing number of tourist attractions, North County is becoming increasingly popular with tourists eager to discover new sights off the beaten path. Heading north from San Diego, visitors can first stop in Del Mar and enjoy the rarely crowded beach topped by beautiful bluffs. Shopping and dining in this small town, which feels more like a village, is heavily centered around the swanky Del Mar Plaza, home to some excellent restaurants and fine shops. Also in Del Mar is the Del Mar Fair Grounds and Race Track where you can catch some of the countrys most competitive horseracing if you're in town between June and September. Other events here include county fairs, musical performances and the Festival of Lights in December.

Further north, the city of Carlsbad boasts a number of noteworthy attractions, chief among them being Legoland California. Ideal for families with children between 2 and 13, this 128-acre interactive theme park features adventure rides, shows, restaurants, shopping, and more Lego blocks than you can ever imagine. Right next door and not to be missed, the Carlsbad Flower Fields are a riot of gorgeous reds, yellows, oranges and pinks in March and April when thousands of ranunculas are in bloom.

Want something more adventurous? Consider flying along the coast in a vintage open-cockpit biplane. Outfits such as the Air Combat & Biplane Adventures offer biplane tours guaranteed to take your breath away.

Moving inland to Escondido, the wildly popular San Diego Wild Animal Park is a must-visit for anyone interested in the preservation of endangered animals and plants. Spanning 2,200 acres, this ecological reserve recreates the African and Asian habitats of many of the exotic species that are found here. Options for touring the park include a Photo Caravan tour that allows visitors into the enclosures to feed the animals; a 50-minute, 5-mi Wgasa Bushline Monorail Ride; and the Heart of Africa safari walk. During the summer, visitors can embark on night safaris, or better yet, camp out in the park in specially designated areas.

If you prefer something a little more genteel, a number of inland wineries offer tours, tastings and some award-winning vintages. Of note are the Thornton Winery and the Callaway Vineyard and Winery in Temecula, and the Orfila Vineyards in Escondido.


Tour #7?Tijuana
Visitors to San Diego are often surprised at how close they are to Mexico. In fact, the Mexican city of Tijuana, gateway to Baja California, is just 18 miles (29 km) south of downtown San Diego. Though hardly representative of all that Mexico has to offer, Tijuana is nevertheless a convenient and popular destination for many daytrippers, shopping fanatics, and those just looking for a rollicking good time.

With a population of more than 2 million and growing by the day, it must be said that Tijuana, or "TJ" as its commonly called, is beset by many of the ills attending any fast-growing city where demand for services far exceeds supply. Unemployment, pollution, poverty, high crime rates, and a booming drug trade are all a fact of life here but it is unlikely that you'll be witness to much of it if you stick to the main tourist areas. As always, mindfulness of your surroundings and belongings will go a long way in preventing any mishaps.

For daytrippers, the cheapest and most convenient way to get to Tijuana is by the San Diego Trolley which takes you right up to the San Ysidro Border Crossing, the busiest in the United States. Simply cross the border and follow the crowds across the walkways that lead into the city. You can also take a shuttle or tour bus from the US side directly to the main shopping district in Tijuana, or take a taxi once across the border but be clear about the fare before you get in. Alternatively, outfits such as Baja California Tours and Absolute Tours organize guided tours to Tijuana and other Baja destinations. If you drive your own car into Mexico, you must purchase Mexican vehicle insurance either at the border or with your car rental company.

Once across the border, many visitors head directly for Avenida Revolución, Tijuanas main tourist area that is chock a block full of inexpensive shops and lively restaurants and bars. Shopkeepers calling out to tourists hawk everything from painted pottery and leather boots to tequila and tacky souvenirs. A warren of lanes and bazaars branch off from the main road and its worth browsing here if you're a serious shopper. Bargain well and you'll likely go home with some great finds.

Also along Avenida Revolución is the El Palacio Frontón (Jai Alai Palace), an interesting Moorish-style building where you can watch and bet on jai alai games.

If its culture and history you're looking for, head for the Centro Cultural (Cultural Center) on Paseo de los Héroes parallel to the now-dry Tijuana River. This futuristic complex regularly hosts exhibits on Mexican art, history and culture and also features an OMNIMAX theater screening films about Mexico. Right next door is the Plaza Rio Tijuana, the largest shopping and entertainment complex in the area. Northwest of here, the open-air Mexitlán exhibits miniature versions of the countrys architectural and cultural treasures.

For those wishing to venture beyond Tijuana, the seaside towns of Playas de Rosarito (18 miles south of Tijuana) and Ensenada (65 miles south of Tijuana) also offer great shopping bargains, delicious seafood and some wonderfully laid-back beaches.


Other Unique Attractions and Tours
For those who've always admired the sporting prowess of Olympic athletes, the ARCO Olympic Training Center provides an up-close look at the intense training that goes into the making of an Olympic champion. Located in Chula Vista, the countrys first official multi-sport Olympic training facility caters to athletes in 41 events including track and field, cycling, rowing, soccer and tennis. Free tours are offered daily.

Also in Chula Vista is the Knotts Soak City U.S.A.. With 16 waterslides, speed slides and wave pools for the family, the park is an especially popular and refreshing destination during the summer.

Sharon Owyang