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A Vacation to San Diego Has Something for Everyone

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By Bobby L. Hickman

What do you think of when you hear the words “San Diego”? The famous zoo? Seaworld? The Padres and Chargers? The naval station? The nearby Mexican border town of Tijuana? Those are common answers – but California’s second-largest city offers much more, including wineries, cuisine, culture, beachfront accommodations and lots of history.

History and the waterfront

San Diego was the first permanent European settlement on the West Coast, dating back to California’s earliest mission in 1769. The city began in the area now known as Old Town San Diego, which is preserved as a historic state park. The park features thirty-seven historical adobe and wood buildings that reflect early Mexican and American history in the area. The twelve-block Old Town community next to the park includes restaurants with local cuisine, art galleries, crafts shops and specialty stores. This is also the starting point for Old Town Trolley Tours, which provides a two-hour trip of points of interest throughout the San Diego area.

Over time, the city’s commercial center moved from Old Town a few miles west to the harbor on San Diego Bay. The bay now houses thriving port facilities and Naval Station San Diego – the largest U.S. Navy facility on the West Coast and homeport for the Pacific Fleet. Several area attractions also reflect the region’s seafaring history, including the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum and the San Diego Maritime Museum. The bustling waterfront can be seen from land, by taking a harbor cruise, or by signing up with SEAL Tours of San Diego for an amphibious trip on land and sea. The SEAL departs from Seaport Village, a fourteen-acre bayside venue with fifty-four shops, thirteen casual dining spots and four fine restaurants directly across the water from the naval yard.

The flight deck of the USS MidwayThe flight deck of the USS Midway.
The Marietta, one of Harbor Excursion Tours' whale watching vessels.The Marietta, one of Harbor Excursion Tours’ whale watching vessels.

Beginning in the fall every year the Eastern Pacific gray whale makes its southbound migration from northern Alaska to the warm waters off Baja California in Mexico, to give birth to their calves. Between December and March these leviathans pass right by San Diego and offer residents and visitors alike the opportunity to see them in their natural habitat, embarking on the longest known mammal migration in the world. A vibrant whale watching industry offers an abundance of tours during early winter, as well as other nature tours year round.

Smaller boats get up close and personal with a gray whale and her calf.Smaller boats get up close and personal with a gray whale and her calf.

Downtown and the Gaslamp Quarter

Downtown San Diego offers more inviting choices a few blocks from the bay. The Gaslamp Quarter – listed on the National Register of Historic Places – is a revitalized sixteen-block neighborhood. The quarter was known in the late 1800s as “Stingaree,” a disreputable district that drew sailors, gamblers and gangsters. Now the turn-of-the-century commercial buildings have been restored to house boutiques, galleries, pubs, sidewalk cafes and clubs. Nearby, Horton Plaza provides national department and specialty stores in an upscale mall setting.

The Gaslamp Quarter is home to the finest dining selections in San Diego. Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar’s contemporary American fare draws locals and tourists alike to Fifth Avenue. The restaurant is filled with photographs and memorabilia related to singer Jim Croce, late husband of owner Ingrid Croce. For aged meats, fresh seafood and premium wines, visit Greystone the Steakhouse for casual elegance that reflects cultural influences from Europe and the Pacific Rim. Also downtown is the sophisticated Grant Grill and Lounge, a dining legend at the historic US Grant Hotel on Broadway.

The easiest way to get around downtown – and anywhere in the country’s eighth largest city – is the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System. SDMTS combines light rail, trolleys and buses to serve three million residents in San Diego County. Three light rail lines connect in the downtown area, linking regions stretching from Old Town and Sanatee to the Mexican border near Tijuana. SDMTS bus service goes as far as Camp Pendleton at the northern end of the county.

The North County wine region, the surrounding towns and a famous historic hotel

The North County is also home to one of the best grape-growing regions in the U.S. While Northern California’s wineries may be better known, the wineries some forty-five minutes north of San Diego provide a range of options. Bernardo, Falkner and Fallbrook wineries and Orfila Vineyards provide tours and tasting rooms. If you prefer not to drive, take a guided winery tour with Destination Temecula. Or you can discover the local wines downtown by visiting the San Diego Wine & Culinary Center on Harbor Drive.

A beautiful stretch of sand in La Jolla.Beautiful stretch of sand in La Jolla.
An oceanfront stroll in Pacific Beach is the beginning or end to a perfect day.An oceanfront stroll in Pacific Beach is the beginning or end to a perfect day.

The metropolitan San Diego area includes a number of communities, each with its own distinctive local color. While North County has a Southern California flavor, Carlsbad retains the aura of a sleepy seaside town. La Jolla – backing up to Mt. Soledad and surrounded on three sides by the Pacific – has a Mediterranean feel. Surfers and thoroughbred horses dominate in Del Mar. Point Loma is an eclectic mix of multi-million-dollar mansions and seedy nightspots. Pacific Beach is a hip neighborhood with a carnival atmosphere. And Hillcrest provides affordable housing near the business district.

Immediately across the bay from San Diego is the “Crowned City” of Coronado, home to the legendary Hotel del Coronado. A classic beachfront resort since 1888, the hotel’s iconic red turrets and Victorian structures combine modern luxury in a fairy-tale setting. Families and couples alike find plenty of activities at “The Del”, which has been ranked the top American wedding destination and one of the top 10 resorts in the world. The peninsula also offers Coronado Beach – consistently rated among the top U.S. beaches – surfing, sailing, cycling and simply relaxing at the unique shops and bistros around Orange Avenue.

Parks, animals and amusements for every age

In Hillcrest, Balboa Park is the largest urban culture center in the United States. The park covers 1,200 acres and features gardens with hundreds of plants from around the world. The park’s Moorish-style buildings were originally erected for the 1915-1916 Panamerican

A room at the Hotel Del Coronado.An oceanfront room at the Hotel del Coronado.

Exposition. Balboa also contains several performing arts centers, including the Old Globe Theater, modeled after Shakespeare’s London venue and is home to fifteen museums that spotlight the arts, science and history. (Throughout 2009, the San Diego Air & Space Museum is hosting an exhibition tracing Leonardo DaVinci’s influence on modern technologies.) Kids enjoy the hand-carved animals at the 1910 Balboa Park Carousel and the miniature railroad, which takes a half-mile trip through four acres of parkland.

One of the over 4,000 residents of the San Diego Zoo.One of the over 4,000 residents of the San Diego Zoo.

However, Balboa Park is best known as the home of the world-renown San Diego Zoo. The zoo contains more than four thousand animals spread across one hundred acres. A bus tour is the easiest way to see the residents. The zoo also operates a 1,800-acre wildlife preserve in San Pasqual Valley that showcases animals from Africa and Asia in their natural habitats.

Aquatic animals are also featured at the San Diego area’s two major amusement parks, SeaWorld and LEGOLAND California. Shamu, the killer whale, still headlines at the show at SeaWorld in Mission Bay, where aquariums, rides for kids of all ages and fireworks continue to thrill. LEGOLAND is geared to children up to age twelve. The 120-acre park provides more than fifty rides, shows and attractions in a setting filled with the colorful LEGO toy building blocks. LEGOLAND has also added an aquarium to its list of attractions.

If you prefer a more active vacation, San Diego offers plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation. Water sports center around Mission Bay Park, 4,600 acres with fifteen miles of beaches and twenty-seven miles of shoreline. Activities here include swimming, fishing, sailing, waterskiing and kayaking. Opportunities for hiking, biking and jogging also abound from Mission Bay to Balboa Park and along the Pacific coast.

The beloved Shamu and friends are still entertaining crowds at SeaWorld every day.The beloved Shamu and friends are still entertaining crowds at SeaWorld every day.

For shoppers, one of the most popular draws – and the city’s most unique market experience – is Kobey’s Swap Meet on Sports Arena Boulevard. Kobey’s is the third largest outdoor market on the West Coast, attracting thirty thousand bargain hunters and one thousand sellers each week. Shoppers browse through the garage sales and stalls in search of clothing, gifts, antiques and unusual treasures.

Overall, San Diego offers a cosmopolitan blend of cultural, recreational and historic experiences in a temperate climate marked by dry summers and cool, wet winters. The geographic mixture of mountains, canyons, deserts and ocean provide a variety of experiences and opportunities for tourists at any time of year.

If You Go


Old Town Trolley Tours

San Diego Metropolitan Transit System


Hotel Del Coronado
1500 Orange Ave
Coronado, CA 92118

The US Grant Hotel
326 Broadway
San Diego, CA 92101
1.866.837.4270 Reservations
1.800.237.5029 Hotel Information


Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar
802 Fifth Avenue
San Diego, CA 92101

10:00 am to 2:30 pm for Breakfast & Lunch
5:30 pm to midnight Monday-Friday
5:30pm to midnight on weekends.
Live Music Nightly

Grant Grill and Lounge
326 Broadway
San Diego, CA 92101

The Lounge Happy Hour
Daily from 4 pm – 7 pm

Greystone the Steakhouse
658 5th Ave.
San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 232-0225


Balboa Park
1549 El Prado
San Diego, CA 92101
9:30 am – 4:30 pm daily (expanded hours in the summer)

Destination Temecula
Wine Tours & Experiences
28475 Old Town Front Street
Suite F
Temecula, CA 92590

Harbor Excursion Tours
1050 North Harbor Drive
San Diego, California 92101
Toll Free: 1-800-44-CRUISE
Whale watching cruises available from December until March, other nature cruises available year round.

Kobey’s Swap Meet
3500 Sports Arena Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92110
619.226.0650 24 hour info

Hours of Operation:
Every Fri. through Sun. 7 am – 3 pm
Admission: 50¢ Fri., $1 Sat. & Sun.
Children 11 & under FREE

LEGOLAND California
Carlsbad, CA 92008

Maritime Museum of San Diego
1492 North Harbor Drive
San Diego, CA 92101

San Diego Wine & Culinary Center
200 Harbor Drive
Suite 120
San Diego, CA 92101

San Diego Zoo
2920 Zoo Drive
Balboa Park
San Diego, CA 92101

Open every day, all year, including all major holidays.
Through June 26 – 9 am to 6 pm
June 27 – Sept. 7 – 9 am to 9 pm
Sept. 8 – Oct. 4 – 9 am to 6 pm
Oct. 5 – Dec. 18 – 9 am to 5 pm
Call or visit website for holiday and winter hours.

SEAL Tours
Seaport Village
500 Kettner Boulevard
San Diego, CA 92101

Seaport Village
Kettner Boulevard & West Harbor Drive
San Diego, CA 92101

500 Sea World Drive
San Diego, CA 92109
1.619-226-3901 International calls

USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum
910 N. Harbor Drive
San Diego, CA 92101


City of San Diego

Old Town San Diego
3985 Harney St.
San Diego, CA 92110

Top Photo: An evening shot of the historic Gaslamp District of San Diego.

Bobby L. Hickman is an Atlanta area freelance writer who specializes in travel and business journalism. He regularly contributes to several local magazines, an international news service and various Web sites. To contact him, visit www.blhickmaninc.com.

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