San Diego is exactly what you expect from exciting and exotic California – greenery, parks, tall palms, long beaches and, of course, sunshine. It was my first visit to the city and within minutes of arriving, I’d already decided I liked it!
But don’t take my word for it. I asked homeware boutique owner Cindy Matherly what it’s really like to live in San Diego. “It’s a little, big city, with pockets of charm,” she responded, without pause. Cyndi’s North Park store Geographie is stocked with tasteful, upcycled, handmade home decorations and gifts, many with a map or road-trip theme. She told me that she had travelled widely – her dad was in the armed forces – and she’d chosen San Diego to settle down. I’d been in the Southern Californian city for less than 12 hours, but I could see why Cindy was a fan.
San Diego offers so many activities and experiences. Within a two-hour drive you can be in the mountains, forests, dry arid desert, basking on Baywatch-quality beaches or even sipping tequila in Tijuana, Mexico. But for the best of San Diego you don’t need to go far. Just head for its distinctive suburbs and districts.
Most visitors go straight to the city centre or downtown. It’s known as the Gaslamp Quarter and it’s ok. It’s where the big bars and chain restaurants are. If Americans have stag and hen dos, it’s where they’d head. Similarly the Old Town, a reconstruction of the original 1820s San Diego, clearly works for the hordes of cruise ship passengers who want a quick shore excursion.
But just three miles, or a ten-minutes drive from downtown is North Park. This community was laid out in the Edwardian era and fans of architecture might be interested in touring the suburb’s streets to see 1930s Arts and Crafts style homes or wood shingle California bungalows with their enclosed porches. This low-rise, part-residential suburb is filled with unique boutiques like Cyndi’s shop, vintage clothes stores and craft breweries. In September 2012, the influential magazine Forbes described the area as America’s 13th best hipster neighbourhood. “North Park is an eclectic and wonderful neighbourhood,” Cyndi added.
You know when you’ve arrived. The suburb’s name is announced on a massive, 1950s-style sign standing high above the central reservation on the main street. It’s cool not contrived. North Park is interesting and very arty. The utility junction boxes have been brightly decorated with paintings of Caribbean seascapes or sharks. There’s street art on walls at the end of blocks too.
North Park has been revitalised. Café owner Cheryl Dagostar told me that 25 years ago no tourist would have ventured in. “I bought my house here in 1993 and everybody asked why I was buying in this neighbourhood, because it was really sketchy. I didn’t want to go out after 6pm. There were muggings, graffiti and a gang element. But over the past ten years the neighbourhood has done a 180-degree turn. Now, there are all these different nationalities and restaurants. We are known as the beer capital of San Diego with lots of breweries, lots of pizza places,” said Cheryl.
Cindy told me that most of the district’s restaurants are not chains. “They are small mom-and-pop restaurants that put their heart and soul into the meals. You really taste the love here in North Park.” It’s true. I had one of the best pizza’s I’ve ever eaten in North Park.
I liked the quirkiness of the food offer too. Cheryl owns a rock ‘n’ roll themed café, called The Classic Rock Sandwich Shoppe. The former English teacher is passionate about what Americans term the British invasion – the years of US record chart dominance by UK bands like the Rolling Stones and The Beatles in the late 60s and early 70s. She’s filled her walls with album memorabilia and her menu with artists’ names.
“We have a smattering of Manfred Mann, Gerry and the Pacemakers and David Bowie. All of them are represented on my walls. If they have their photo on the wall there is either a sandwich named after them or it is coming,” she told me. Cheryl has 75 rock-themed sandwiches. “The Beatlemaniac is our number one bestseller. And Harrison Heaven is up there too. We also have the Ringo wrap. Some of the young people come in and say ‘you’ll never be able to have 75 musicians featured’ and I say ‘oh, honey there’s plenty of musicians left from the 60s and 70s.’ And I love them all!”
Staying with food, as you might expect. there are lots of Mexican meals on offer in the city. San Diego is just 18 miles from Tijuana, across the border. San Diego seems obsessed with tacos and there’s fierce competition. The internet is full of local top ten taco lists. You could spend your entire holiday reading reviews. There are high-end places selling the filled corn or wheat tortillas for $15 or more. But you can get just as good, if not better, from a food cart at a fraction of the cost.
I headed to the seaside suburb of Ocean Beach for a huge and delicious spicy shrimp taco, packed with seafood, cheese, avocado and lettuce, for $5.60. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Mike’s Tacos is just a tiny, brick building – basically a kitchen with a street-side patio hemmed in by a wooden fence. You couldn’t get better value for money. Across the way from Mike’s there’s a surf beach dominated by a very long, unattractive concrete pier. Ocean Beach’s main drag runs at right angles from the seafront.
Along its length there are tall, spindly palm trees shooting up around 100 feet on either side of the road. Some twist and turn and look like a strong gust could snap them in half. Some of the shops are filled with seaside tat and there are plenty of cheap bars, but also some hippy hangouts. There’s a hostel with a stained glass, multi-coloured CND logo on the roof and exterior walls that look like they’ve been tie-dyed. I liked Hodads, a small brick burger bar decorated entirely with car stickers. Ocean Beach has character.
If you drive south for twenty minutes you end up on a long, thin peninsular, jutting out into the sea. Cabrillo National Monument is a public park and one of the city’s most visited attractions. The headland acts as a long arm, protecting San Diego’s horseshoe-shaped harbour from the ocean. It’s 400 feet up, so there are good views and on a clear day you can see mountains to the north over 100 miles away.
On your right side is the Pacific and to your left you can look down towards the city and the huge US naval station. It is a busy base and throughout my stay helicopters buzzed overhead and in the distance.
I met with ranger Andrea Compton, from the National Monument. “San Diego still has a strong military presence,” she explained. “At the beginning of the late 18th century the military realised this was a key location. If you could station a gun or a fort across the harbour then you could control what went in. We started to see military installations here that continued through the First and Second World Wars. We often announce which Navy ships are coming in and out over the loudspeakers.”
Cabrillo National Monument is named after a navigator who came from either Spain or Portugal – nobody is sure which one. “Cabrillo was the first European explorer to encounter California, the western part of North America,” said Andrea.
Just a few hundreds yards from the visitor centre, on a plateau, is a short, squat, cream-painted lighthouse and keeper’s cottage. “The lighthouse was built in the mid-1800s,” Andrea said. “The people of San Diego would come up here to the lighthouse and enjoy the view, the same view that draws people in today. Locals pushed for a national park site and it was granted in 1913. But the lighthouse only worked for 40 years. It’s often in the fog so they built a new light at the entrance to the harbour.”
You can explore the headland but I’d stick to the path. Signs warn of snakes! It probably means that most people actually observe the ‘keep off the grass’ notices, which is a first. There are tidepools below the headland and I was fascinated to learn that the wildlife is different on either side of the 600m wide point. “We actually have different species on our west side, facing the ocean, than we do have on the east side facing the bay. In California, habitats change quickly as you move inland. This is a pretty rare habitat and it’s important for us to protect it,” said Andrea.
Across the bay I could see the beach-fronted island that would be my next suburb stop. You reach Coronado by driving across a two-mile long bridge. I headed to the seafront for one of the must-see sites in San Diego – the Hotel del Coronado. It is huge! It’s a 680-room, seven-floored, white wooden structure with red roofs and a number of turrets and towers also capped in red. The hotel was a record breaker when it opened in 1888 – it was the largest resort in the world.
Hollywood stars were regulars and included Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. The hotel was also featured in her film Some Like it Hot. Edward, Prince of Wales, was said to have met Wallis Simpson at a function in the hotel, too.
Cheryl told me that Frank L Baum, who wrote the Wizard of Oz, penned a number of his books there. She said its position on the sands makes it really special. “Coronado Beach is by far the most beautiful beach that we have. It’s really long and wide with white sand. It’s just gorgeous.” The travel channel says this beach is the fifth best in America and it obviously attracts the money. The Coronado suburb is very expensive and elite. It’s filled with multi-million dollar mansions with beuatifully-manicured grounds.
Thirty minutes north of Cabrillo National Monument is another posh area – the swanky seaside community of La Jolla. Big homes and high-end apartments line the road that winds for seven miles at the top of beaches, coves and the rocky foreshore. The suburb offers some high-end designer shopping as well as the Californian obsession with keeping fit. I found one street where nearly every business was fitness-related. There were at least a dozen gyms and posh workout spaces offering various trendy varieties of yoga, pilates and kickboxing. You obviously need that Baywatch body for the beach here!
I’d come to La Jolla for a free attraction. If you head to the seafront you can watch sea lions and seals basking on the rocks in the coves below. You can see them, hear them and smell them from the cliff top promenade, a few hundred feet away.
San Diego is a diverse, inclusive, warm and welcoming city and Cheryl puts that down to the fact that the city receives an average of almost 3,000 hours of sunshine each year. “I think that the sun really helps. It changes people’s temperament. Bad weather tends to put people in a less-than-joyful mood.”
Cyndi confirmed that the weather means people are warmer here. “That’s one of the things I noticed first in San Diego. Everybody’s really happy here in North Park. What’s going on? Are they on some kind of happy pill? No it’s the sunshine and the people themselves are very warm and very friendly.”
With San Diegans being so hospitable you’d be surprised that some locals said I should leave the country. Ginger Porcello, director of the San Diego Art Institute, said I should make the short trip to Mexico to see and experience the cultural differences on the other side of that ‘wall.’ And if you want to avoid massive queues, she has a suggestion. “Park at the border on the American side and then walk across. Once you’ve crossed there are lots of walkable spots, restaurants and galleries. To walk back across the border can take up to two hours but it depends on the time of day that you go. If you cross the border in the middle of the day on a weekday, it’s really not that bad. The weekends can be a little busy.”
Ginger says there’s a strong Mexican influence in San Diego’s art. “Barrio Logan is a really great neighbourhood for emerging artists, particularly Chicano arts. A largely Mexican-American group practises that type of art. It takes its name from Chicano Park, where there are tons of murals.”
The San Diego Art Institute is one of many attractions in the city’s expansive green heart, Balboa Park. It is 1,200 acres of planned green space with mature trees and more towering palms and is one of the oldest parks in the US. Specialist botanic areas include a desert garden, a Japanese Friendship Garden, lily pond and Australian as well as Californian native flora and fauna zones. There are beautiful flowerbeds spilling Californian colour all over the paths.
A pedestrianized boulevard runs from a central piazza, past water features and fountains. You can stroll in the shade through long colonnades either side of the pathway. At the heart of the park are many imposing and grand buildings designed in a Spanish Colonial style. The tallest structure is the 200-foot tower at the Museum of Man, which plays a carillon every fifteen minutes. Next door to that you’ll find a beautiful museum crowned with an ornate blue and gold dome.
This quarter gives San Diego the look of a grand European capital. You can walk around the park or, if you’re wilting in the California sun, there’s a free circular tram tour and a trolley bus. You could also take the short ride around the park in a miniature train. Or try a less well-known mode of transport – an electriquette. The two-person, battery-powered wicker cars were introduced in 1915.
There are more attractions in the park. At certain times, the world’s largest outdoor organ is played. And there are seventeen museums on offer, each devoted to a different topic including cars, photographic arts, model railways, Spanish art, aerospace or science.
But the biggest attraction for most visitors is the world famous San Diego Zoo. The 100-acre facility is home to 650 species and subspecies and around 3,000 animals. I asked Zoo Ambassador Rick Schwartz which of the animals seems to interest visitors the most. “I’d have to say it is a tie between the big cats, the primates and the pandas. People get their maps out and ask me ‘how do I get to the orang-utans or the gorillas or the pandas?’
The zoo also contains over 700,000 species of plants including an impressive orchid collection. They offer botanic walks around the site. The zoo’s gardens are well established because they were founded over a century ago. “San Diego was one of the first big ports that ships would hit on the West Coast. So we had access to captains who would barter and trade for plant life,” said Rick. “Plants from around the world have been living in San Diego for 100 years.”
“We also like to house our animals with the flora and fauna that you would find them with in the wild. As you walk around the zoo, keep your eyes open. When you are at the koalas you’ll see plants that you will only see in Australia. When you see gorillas you’ll see African foliage.”
One good way to see the zoo is to take the narrated bus tour, which lasts about 35 minutes. You get to see a lot because the bus is open-sided. If you’re tight on time you can get a quick overview of around 70% of the zoo. The queues get longer as the day draws on so it’s best to take the first tour at 10am.
The bus stops to point out individual animals and our driver did a good job of informing the passengers about the animals’ origin and characteristics. I enjoyed watching the polar bears haul themselves out of their icy water following a swim. There are giraffes and elephants too.
The zoo is very spread out with paths through valleys and canyons. It can be disorientating so Rick suggests visiting the website before you arrive to decide what you want to see. “There are lots of paths and hills so plan your day, wear comfortable shoes and take sunscreen. People don’t realise that, even when it is overcast, it is easy to get sunburnt in San Diego!”
Once you’ve seen a bear, how about a beer? “San Diego is pretty much Beer Town USA, really. It’s number one,” said Tory Gaustav, sales manager for the North Park-based Mike Hess Brewery, one of the most successful of the city’s new craft brewers. Tory told me that craft beer plays an important role in local life. “There are currently 140 brewers employing between five and ten people each. Some employ up to 500 people.”
When you think of San Diego you might just assume it’s a city destination, but many Americans will come here on holiday purely for sunbathing and beach activities. A good base is the seaside suburb of Mission Bay, with its laid-back surf town feel. Wooden houses pack its narrow streets, which are only wide enough for single-file, one-way traffic. That’s really unusual for The States.
And food choices are plentiful and affordable. Mission Bay is built around a saltwater lagoon – a massive aquatic park covering 17 km². It includes the world-famous SeaWorld and also Belmont Park, with its rollercoasters and theme park rides. You can also golf or ride the waves with a surfboard. This is California after all.
Mission Bay is a resort area but it’s still closely connected to the city and its amenities. You’re only about ten minutes from the city centre and the airport. Stephanie Chavez’s company operates two resort properties that back onto Mission Bay, the Bahia Resort Hotel, where I stayed and the Catamaran Hotel.
The two properties are on either side of the lagoon and are linked by a Mississippi-style paddleboat, which ferries people across. A sunset ride is a must for guests. The trip is free if you’re staying there.
The Catamaran Hotel has a South Pacific feel. As you walk in, you experience a 14-foot waterfall. And as you walk around you’ll see tiki torches, tropical plants, ponds and there are even five talking parrots on the property. One of them, Cornell, could be on Britain’s Got Talent with his impressions. To find out more visit EvansHotels.com.
If your holidays are a headache because everyone in your party has different interests, I think San Diego could provide the perfect solution. Its diverse districts offer everything you’ll need, from culture to kayaking, craft beers to polar bears and plenty of sand and warm sunshine. “When I first visited San Diego, I was immediately sad when I had to leave,” Stephanie told me. “So I know that anybody visiting from the UK will have that same feeling. You have such a good feeling when you get here. The sun is out, the weather is nice and people are super-friendly. The food is good too. It’s just the great San Diego life.”
A number of major airlines offer daily, non-stop flights from Heathrow to San Diego from £360 one way. The flight takes just over eleven hours.