Sweet sunshine, a picture-perfect harbor and mile upon mile of shoreline make San Diego one of North America’s most beautiful cities. The host of two Super Bowls is sophisticated and professional, let laid back and friendly enough to be right at home in Southern California.
San Diego is a small town in a big city’s body. It’s the seventh-largest city in the U.S., yet it has the mentally of Mayberry. Credit the sunshine and the coastline. How can anyone be anything but upbeat when the weather and scenery is always so nice?
This site is an overall guide to the city – what it’s like, how to get around, where to stay and more. For details on dining, restaurants, sightseeing and nightlife, just click on the links at left or in this text. But for now, sit back and enjoy the best virtual tour of this super-scenic city.
Arrival and Orientation
San Diego is located two hours south of Los Angeles and less than a half-hour from the Baja, Mexican border. The airport – Lindbergh Field – is so close to downtown, people often get wide-eyed on approach because the planes come in at almost eye-level to the buildings. It is both compact – San Diego Bay, Coronado, Balboa Park and Old Town are within minutes of downtown – and spread out. It would take a month to see all of San Diego, as it runs from Mexico to the North County beach towns of Cardiff by the Sea and Encinitas.
For those on a short schedule, downtown is where to hang. It’s the city’s heartbeat, pulsating with the dining, drinking and shopping spots of the Gaslamp Quarter. It’s an easy walk to the massive Convention Center and shopping-heavy Seaport Village. Coronado is across the big bride that serves as the skyline backdrop. Balboa Park is just east of downtown and the beach cities are to the north.
The main areas of San Diego are briefly described below; individual guides have links:
• Gaslamp Quarter/Downtown. The heartbeat of San Diego’s city scene. Restaurants, bars, clubs, pubs, shops and the new Petco Park baseball stadiu fill a 16 1/2-block area of downtown. It’s the place to stay and a good place to play.
• Pacific Beach. Where the party meets the Pacific. A classic California beach town where surfing is the passion and bars are the pastime.
• Del Mar, La Jolla and North County. Gorgeous seaside scenery, from the dramatic cliffs of La Jolla to the flat open spaces of Cardiff-by-the-Sea and Encinitas. This is one of the California’s most spectacular areas, and that’s saying something. The upscale towns of La Jolla and Del Mar give way to the more casual setting of places like Solana Beach for sunning, swimming surfing, shopping, dining, horse racing, and some pretty good pubclubbing. Only here can one find one of San Diego’s best restaurants in the vicinity of one of the World’s Great Dive Bars, the Kraken.
• Old Town. Old Town is the original San Diego community – indeed, the birthplace of California – that today is mostly Mexican shops and restaurants.
• Coronado, Point Loma. We’ve put these beautiful areas under our Sightseeing and Activities Guide.
Where to Stay
San Diego has hotels all over town. Some offer spectacular views of the bay or the beaches while most others are in a concentrated in two main areas. The most conveniently located accommodations are downtown.
We strongly urge staying downtown. It’s convenient to attractions and steps from the restaurants and bars in the Gaslamp. No hassles of parking, cabs or traffic, day or night. Hotels in the Gaslamp Quarter rannge from high luxury (Pendry, Hard Rock, Hyatt) to modest chains (Day’s Inn) and a few botique hotels (Ace).
Most of the city’s medium-priced chains are located at the appropriately-named Hotel Circle, about 15 minutes (without traffic) from downtown at the I-5/I-8 interchange..There are more hotels such as the cool Wayfarer in Pacific Beach – including old motels and cottates right on the pier and all types of accommodations in La Jolla, Del Mar and other North County cities. These are best for those spending the majority of their time in those areas.
Getting Around Town
Stay downtown as we recommend and a car will only be needed for excursions. But what excursions! One of the great things to do in San Diego is to jump in the car and drive around (for more activities, see our sightseeing guide).
The main North/South freeway is I-5. It ends at the U.S./Mexico border. Interstate 8 runs East/West and heads to the beaches. There are other freeways – the 805 also runs North/South, farther inland from “the 5” for instance, but these are the main roads. Downtown is off the Civic Center exit. Harbor Drive runs along the downtown harbor and to the airport.
Rush-hour traffic can be brutal, especially at the 5/805 interchange in North County. Instead of getting frustrated, entertain yourself by listening to the radio. XTRA (FM 91.1) is the hip, alternative/modern rock station and KGB – yes, the KGB that originally sponsored the San Diego Chicken at Padres games – plays classic rock at 101.5. If you’re a sports fan and it’s 4 p.m., tune into “Hacksaw’s Headlines” at XTRA-AM 690 for the Best 15 Minutes in Radio. Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton puts timely topics on the table and has no-holds-barred opinions.
San Diego does have good public transportation. Buses run to Old Town, Mission Valley, Mexico, Coronado and Balboa Park. The very cool trolley system goes to Mexico and Old Town, Mission Valley and kind of to Mission Beach/Pacific Beach and La Jolla (tranfer to the 8, 9 or 30 bus at Old Town). The cost is $2.50 or just $6 per day.
There are dramatic coastlines in and around San Diego. Some, like the beach cities of PB, Mission Beach and Ocean Beach, are flat and ocean access is easy. Other spots, such as Point Loma and La Jolla, have cliffs that drop dramatically into the sea. Coronado, the Beverly Hills of San Diego, has spectacular sand with the world-famous Hotel Del Coronado as a backdrop.
Water sports are abundant but the water is often cold. It drops to the high 50s in the winter, though the summer months are comfortable without a wetsuit.
The People and The Social Scene
Notice all the smiles – they are everywhere. People in San Diego are universally friendly, giving it the hospitality charm of the Midwest.
There are distinct social scenes, perhaps more here than anywhere except Los Angeles. Or San Francisco (what, is this a California thing?). First, there is the club crowd and those who spend much of their going-out activity in the Gaslamp. But it’s not a surper-serious club scene, people just going out having a good time. At the beach, it’s really casual. As it should be, frankly.
San Diego is a military town. It is a major West Coast port for the U.S. Navy and home to the elite Navy Seals. The Marine Corps also have a training center and Camp Pendleton is just to the North. Quite a few military personnel can be seen “on patrol” in the Gaslamp.
It’s less half-hour or say away by car or about 40 mintues on the city’s trolley. Tijuana has tons of bars, restaurants and stores lining Avenida Revolucion with a reputation for rowdiness, especially among the college-age crowd. Rosarito– where much of Titanic was filmed – and Ensenada are just down the coast.
One word describes it all: Perfect. But don’t be fooled by all those palm trees. This isn’t Tahiti or Florida. All of Southern California is a desert and when the sun goes down, so does the temperature. Pack long-sleeve shirts, a light jacket and a sweatshirt. At night, you’ll need them.
San Diego is GMT -8.
When to Go
It’s Endless Summer, right?
Well, almost. The prime months are in the Spring and Summer, although Fall and Winter are pleasant, as well. The “rainy” season runs from mid-January through March, although rainy days are generally more rare than whale sightings.
The beaches are most crowded in the typical summer months, and the longer days make it a much more active time. In February, the PGA Tour visits Torrey Pines, and the Del Mar Fairgrounds, where the turf meets the surf, hosts horse racing from July to September. The city’s biggest event for visitors is Comic-Con, started here at the San Diego Comic Book Convention, that now brings in some 100,000 people to the city the third weekend of July.
Next Stop On The San Diego Party Bus: The Gaslamp Quarter