They say that no place in the country has better weather than San Diego with its year-round sunshine and tendency never to get too hot or too cold. But that's just one of the reasons that tourists flock to San Diego as part of their California vacations and getaways. The city is actually several different tourist attractions in one.
The beach crowd will find no better California beaches than those found from Carlsbad on down to the Mexican border. Those looking for theme parks and attractions will find Seaworld, Legoland, the San Diego Zoo and the Wild Animal Park much to their liking. Visitors who enjoy exclusive shopping will love the charming seaside village of La Jolla. Then there's the nightlife and fine restaurants downtown. Throw in some historic sites and access to the Mexican border and you have quite a mix for anyone seeking a varied and rewarding vacation.
We won't try to cover everything here, there are just too many amazing things to do in San Diego but take a look at some of the San Diego-area attractions we enjoy the most:
It would be hard to find a more vibrant and varied getaway than a trip to the San Diego waterfront - in one quick overnight stay we saw sea life in the wild, toured historic ships, enjoyed "living history" re-enactments, dined in one of the state's most trendy entertainment districts, luxuriated in a top-of-the-line downtown hotel and marveled at some of the most powerful ships and airplanes of the U.S. Navy.
If you don't have much time to spend, but want to pack your getaway with memorable experiences, the San Diego waterfront should be right at the top of your list.
Of course most people will spend more than a night once they've driven down to California's southern-most city and this area will offer up more than enough fascinating experiences to last for an extended vacation. The consistently sunny weather and beaches, as well as a great selection of San Diego hotels, usually are enough to convince most vacationers this is a good place to be.
But a "quickie" to San Diego also has its rewards and may be more in line with the dwindling vacation allowances we see today as companies push harder for productivity. If it's just a short time that you have available, a great place to target is the San Diego waterfront and Gaslamp District - it's all within close proximity and the area offers a high concentration of fun visitor attractions that, for the most part, are cheap and easy.
Walking through the Gaslamp District, we quickly came upon dozens of dining opportunities - literally all types of cuisine, each restaurant offering a twist to bring people in the door. Options here run the gamut from the messy ribs at Dick's Last Resort to the impeccable presentations offered at George's on Fifth, from exquisite Persian cuisine at Bandar to the bar food at Moose McGillycuddy's. Sidewalk cafes are big in the Gaslamp District - even on this Thursday night the streets were alive with groups of party people, X and Y generation couples and even many families. The best place to observe all of this was from our table right out on the sidewalk, where we enjoyed scrumptious Mexican food prepared by La Fiesta.
Fashion boutiques, trendy stores and, yes, a few tacky tourist shops are interspersed between the restaurants and nightclubs. Many of the ornate historical buildings have been refurbished and, just to keep things interesting, the merchants in the Gaslamp District bring out re-enactors dressed in period garb to help explain the history of the Gaslamp District. As we strolled through the Gaslamp Quarter, groups of costumed re-enactors were positioned on several of the street corners where each of the actors assumed the role of a historic San Diego citizen. Staying in character, the re-enactors then dispensed a good measure of local history while staging a kind of mini-play for fascinated visitors.
The energy of the Gaslamp Quarter is undeniable and staying in a downtown hotel allows the visitor to take full advantage of the nightlife - no worries about driving home, no concern about even driving from club to club. The Gaslamp Quarter is all right there within easy walking distance and, even late at night, seems remarkably safe for visitors.
Following our restful night's sleep, the next morning's activities began with a visit to the San Diego Maritime Museum down on the waterfront. The Omni is several blocks from this part of the waterfront so we drove - but parking on the waterfront is plentiful and reasonably priced. For those interested in things nautical, this part of the waterfront will make you feel like a kid in a candy store. Among other historic vessels on display, the Maritime Museum includes a 1962 Soviet submarine, the 1863-vintage Star of India - one of the world's oldest working ships - the 1898 steam ferry Berkeley, and the H.M.S. Surprise, a replica of an 18th Century Royal Navy frigate that was used in the filming of the movie Master and Commander - the Far Side of the World.
Visitors can stroll through each of these ships and view historic displays, photos and information panels that help give one a sense of how everyday life really was on board one of these historic vessels. The submarine is cramped beyond imagination and actually requires some physical dexterity just to walk through it. The H.M.S. Surprise features many exhibits relating the ship to its use in the movie and will be especially entertaining for anyone who has seen Master and Commander. With the largest interior space, the Berkeley offers even more variety of exhibits based on the history of maritime activity and how these vessels do what they do. The Star of India can be toured at the dock and, periodically, the ship will take visitors sailing.
Maritime history of another sort is featured in the new USS Midway museum, also located along this general part of the waterfront. Just visiting an aircraft carrier, for one thing, is a treat unto itself. But in the Midway's case, there is a 47-year history that is good to keep in the back of your mind as you get a real sense of what it's like to live and work on an aircraft carrier.
With Big Sister San Diego just 35 miles to the south, the young and developing Carlsbad probably always will be hidden a bit in her sister's shadow - but vacationers from all over California are now beginning to discover Carlsbad's many charms.
It's a trade-off, of course. Come to Carlsbad and you eliminate the traffic and congestion of the city, the freeways, the constant "be-on-alert" driving and hassle you always experience in a big city. But then you also eliminate the Gaslamp District, Old Town, the Zoo, Coronado and a large selection of San Diego hotels.
The answer for many people now is to enjoy the best of both. Base your operations in Carlsbad - which all by itself offers a host of activities - and then take the short drive down Interstate 5 when you're ready to spend the day and/or evening enjoying the city.
About 4,000 hotel rooms have been built in Carlsbad - second only to San Diego in San Diego County - and a tourism infrastructure has sprouted right along with the accommodations. In recent years, the city has added the Legoland theme park, major-league upscale shopping at Carlsbad Company Stores, the Museum of Making Music and top resorts such as the Four Seasons Aviara and the Grand Pacific Palisades Resort and Hotel.
Oh, and let's not forget the water: "We've got a great little North Coast up here," says Frankie Laney, public relations director for the Carlsbad Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The San Diego North Coast is probably the premiere destination in San Diego County."
An endless blue horizon awaits the visitor to Carlsbad - a stretch of beach that allows you to walk unobstructed from Oceanside to well south of Carlsbad. It's not the heavy-duty surfing scene of Orange County, but there are plenty of surfers, families and young people enjoying the Carlsbad sunshine on just about any given day. It's no wonder that Carlsbad vacation packages are selling like those proverbial hotcakes - this is what California beach vacations are all about.
Years ago when we lived in Seattle, our realtor gave us our first clue that Carlsbad was up-and-coming. WHEN she learned we were moving to California she happily recounted the previous month she had spent in a beach house in Carlsbad - a place we had never even heard about. She told us to be on the lookout for a good buy on a beach house because, she said, she was planning on coming to Carlsbad to stay.
Well, as most real estate buyers would suspect, that "good buy" proved pretty hard to find in the real estate run-up of the past few years, and our realtor friend now must be content just to visit Carlsbad. But content she is - which also describes the feeling most people get when they plan a weekend or vacation in Carlsbad.
If "enchanting seaside village" is a cliché, then the very first time it was used had to be while describing the Southern California jewel of La Jolla. We remember precisely our first impression of the panoramic ocean views, swaying palm trees and hillside mansions - it's Hawaii without the five-hour flight.
This was decades ago and we had just returned from our first real long-distance travel experience - an unforgettable, eye-opening journey to Hawaii that exposed a couple of soggy Pacific Northwest college students to bright sunshine and warm saltwater that we never even knew existed. The very next month we were taking a Southern California vacation when we came upon La Jolla and it was, as Yogi would say, déjà vu all over again.
To be sure, the water in Southern California was prettier than it was warm. And there weren't too many native Hawaiians - although Hawaii doesn't seem to have many either. WHAT La Jolla did have was the views and that bright sunshine, and we were determined that someday we would come back and live there.
We did eventually live and work there, if only for a brief time, and this special coastal haven delivered on all its promises. The "Village," as the locals call Girard Avenue and the community surrounding it, is a gourmet blend of those spices that make life so enjoyable - fine dining, world-class shopping, countless outdoor activities, surf, sand, incredible views and, of course, almost-constant sunshine.
Nowadays, the local home values have priced out the average mortal and, if you're living there, you've either done very well for yourself or had the good fortune to grow up in a family that bought local real estate back when local land prices were reasonable - probably sometime just after statehood. But there are two groups of people who are living in the Village temporarily: the renters and the tourists. The renters plunk down several thousand each month for the barest of digs; the tourists stay only briefly but much more economically.
Which is why it's great to be a tourist in La Jolla. With a choice of several tasteful hotels and spa resorts - and, yes, some are quite reasonably priced - visitors can pretend they're living the lifestyle for a few days and still go home with money in their pockets.
It all begins with watching the people parade down on Gerard Avenue. Plan to have a gourmet sandwich down at one of several cafes and then plop yourself at an outside table. Leading the parade is a 20-something bombshell dressed in a spaghetti-strapped halter and capris, dragging along a five-inch poodle that is decidedly disinterested in being part of this parade. Next up: a 30-something clean-cut guy wearing lumberjack boots up to his ankles, his pants squished into the boot tops, and his long-sleeve shirt well down over his belt buckle. It must be new La Jolla fashion because his stylish 20-something model-like girlfriend doesn't seem the least bit embarrassed to walk beside him. Then along comes two 30-something men, dressed almost identically in turtlenecks, expensive sports jackets and shades, surely sweltering in the mid-day sun but cool in their own minds. And on it goes all during lunch, making it almost worth the nine bucks it cost for the sandwich.
You might even see celebrities in this neck of the woods. We came upon Geena Davis and her kids one time, while beautiful people such as Cindy Crawford have actually bought houses in the Village. Barbra Streisand is said to have bought her wedding ring down at Bowers Jewelers. Movie and TV filming are common and the longtime series Silk Stalkings used the local scenery quite often to depict the glitzy glamour of Southern California.
Think zoo and you think of San Diego. Think of San Diego and you think of the San Diego Zoo. For decades, this world-famous zoo has been attracting visitors from all over the world - and its popularity is as great as ever.
Yet many people don't realize that the San Diego Zoo is just one part of an amazing collection of fascinating attractions and museums that, together, comprise Balboa Park. While you might allow several hours for your visit to the San Diego Zoo, you could literally come back several different days to enjoy the 15 museums located on this picturesque piece of Southern California real estate.
The park has become a cultural centerpiece for a city that combines majestic seascapes with a cosmopolitan downtown - and, oh, did we mention the weather? Reputed to have the best climate in the country, San Diego boasts hundreds of blue-sky 65-to-75-degree days every year.
And so, much more often than not, the sun casts a warm glow over Balboa Park, illuminating the park's stunning combination of historic architecture and lush landscaping. Many of the park's buildings were the result of two expositions - the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition and the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition. Everywhere you go in the park you are reminded of the ornate, almost palace-like designs common in the first part of the 20th Century.
While we had enjoyed many visits to the San Diego Zoo during many San Diego vacations, the focus of our most recent visit was the OTHER side of the park - the part that houses the museums, gardens and many other attractions. Our advice to anyone visiting the park is plan plenty of time for your visit. And be prepared for a little walking.
If you're looking for all the excitement of a state-quality fair and a great beach getaway to boot, consider visiting Del Mar between mid-June and July 4. That's when the San Diego County Fair comes to town with its top-drawer big-name entertainment and enough exhibits, fair food and displays to keep you busy for days.
Or, if you want a quieter experience, just wait a little while.
Technically it only has about 4,500 residents, but the beach town known as Del Mar has just the right combination of legend, lore and beach access to draw literally millions of visitors each year. Despite the onslaught, this distinctive little burg still registers high on the charm scale.
It's the kind of place where prospective residents are sure to ask about the zip code of any home they might buy - if it isn't 92014, well, that just won't do. With the median price home in Del Mar now over a million dollars, the city bestows upon its new residents a certain status that you just don't find in most 'burbs.
Chalk that up to Bing Crosby who, along with his buddy Pat O'Brien and Paramount Studios opened the Del Mar Race Track back in 1937. Soon the stars were coming south from Los Angeles to enjoy big-time thoroughbred racing "where the surf meets the turf." Just a few blocks from the ocean, the track became an icon not only for Del Mar, but for San Diego County, which to this day uses the 350-acre track facilities to host a plethora if events including the annual San Diego County Fair.
Nowadays, race season is 43 days long, from mid-July to early September. People come into town during that time and book short-term apartments fetching astronomical prices just so they can take part in the racing action. Meanwhile, those who have no interest in horse racing whatsoever still find Del Mar's beaches and upscale shopping an irresistible draw. The restaurants here are trendy and cater to a young, hip crowd of San Diego professionals - or at least professionally beautiful people - who drive their Beamers and Mercedes 20 minutes north from San Diego to be in the center of the action.
This all makes for world-class people-watching and, with the city's European-inspired architecture, makes visiting this tiny town a less expensive substitute for that trip to the Mediterranean. Whether you're on the beach or browsing the pricey shops in the Del Mar Plaza, the Pacific sunset from most locations in Del Mar is well worth the price of admission.
Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway
OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Yosemite National Park, Idyllwild, Julian and Sequoia National Park.