Skyline in San Diego, California
Skyline in San Diego, California

by Lee Foster

San Diego ranks as one of California ‘s premier family vacation cities. From a lodging at Shelter Island , where the kids can be cooled off with swimming or thrilled with sailing, you can launch forth to the two guaranteed pleasers–the San Diego Zoo/Wild Animal Park and Sea World San Diego. Pace yourself by doing one per day. If you haven’t been to San Diego for a few years, be sure to allow in your itinerary a third day for the Wild Animal Park , north of the city in San Pasqual Valley.

This Mediterranean-style city faces the sea and has been shaped by it. San Diego has also been steeped in a leisurely Spanish influence. Travelers here seek out the beaches, the temperate climate, and the dependable sun. From a vantage point on Cabrillo Point, you can also see the sprawling naval fleet that makes San Diego harbor its home and contributes a measured pace to the city’s life. The proximity of Mexico adds a foreign allure. Trips to Mexico ‘s Tijuana for shopping or sports are popular with many travelers.

East of San Diego lies a high pine-covered mountain country, with Cuyamaca Rancho State Park a favored destination. Beyond that extends the forbidding desert. Without water from the Colorado River, San Diego would not survive.


Air flights land at San Diego International Airport (Lindbergh Field), which is near the downtown area. From there you may want to rent a car because San Diego ‘s coast, especially, is not too accessible by public transport. If driving to the region, you will arrive via Interstate 8 across the desert from the east or Interstate 5 along the coast from Los Angeles . Once you arrive, you’ll find San Diego relatively compact, moderately paced, and manageably free of rush hour nightmares, compared to its near neighbor to the north, Los Angeles .

If you plan to go only to Tijuana in Mexico , take the excellent public transit, called the San Diego Trolley, or one of the other public bus companies to cover the 16 miles to the border. By taking public transit to Mexico you forego the complexities of getting Mexican insurance for your car. But if you plan to go farther south in Mexico to Ensenada or San Felipe, take your own car. The San Diego-Mexico border is one of the busiest border crossing on earth, with some 60 million people shuttling back and forth each year.

For lodging in San Diego one of the choice locations is Shelter Island , which has several resort hotels, such as the Best Western Island Palms. The pleasure of Shelter Island is that you can watch as the entire parade of vessels goes in and out of San Diego ‘s narrow harbor. While walking along the waterfront at Shelter Island or gazing out from your room, you can see the cruise ships, military ships, and huge container ships make their way up and down the channel. Alternatively, most lodgings have the option of a marina view, if you want to see pleasure sailboats rather than the drama of ocean traffic. Shelter Island is typical of the entire region in its abundance of shoreline walking paths and occasional public art, such as the ” Pearl of the Pacific” sculpture at one end of the island.


To comprehend the story of San Diego , drive first to the lookout at Point Loma above San Diego Bay . With binoculars in hand, you can scan the coastline and harbor, just as Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo did in 1542. A monument honors Cabrillo as the first white man who had any contact with the land we now call California . The word California , incidentally, was coined by a 16th century Spanish novelist, Garcia Montalvo, who envisioned the place, with some accidental foresight, as a “terrestrial paradise.”

The Cabrillo National Monument celebrates the explorer’s discovery with a festival each September, including a reenactment of the landing of Cabrillo on Shelter Island . Be sure also to see the historic lighthouse here, first lit in 1855 and furnished with period artifacts. From this highpoint you can also watch the migration of California gray whales (December-March) as the leviathans move from their summer Arctic habitat to their winter abode in warm Scammons Lagoon and other lagoons of Baja, where the baby whales are born.


For two centuries after Cabrillo sighted the San Diego area, little exploration occurred. Then, worried about the Russians expanding their fur trade from the north and concerned with the uncertain intentions of the British, Spain decided to found a mission at San Diego .

After seeing the Cabrillo Monument at Point Loma, go to this mission in the Mission Valley part of the city at 10818 San Diego Mission Road . Mission San Diego de Alcala, founded in 1769, is a whitewashed adobe structure and small mu seum, a monument to the efforts of the indefatigable Franciscan, Junipero Serra, who set in motion the elaborate string of 21 missions that Spain founded along the California coast from 1769 to 1832.


Harbor tours are a special treat here, showing off the extensive San Diego Harbor . Hornblower and Harbor Excursions make one and two hour trips from the foot of Broadway at Harbor Drive and take the traveler past the Navy fleet, which is one of the largest assemblages of naval power in the world. On the civilian side of seafaring, San Diego hosts a large tuna fishing fleet.

Near where the harbor tours launch on the Embarcadero is the Maritime Museum , a cluster of five historic ships. The most famous of these is the fabled Star of India, the oldest active ship in the world, built in 1863 and still capable of ocean outings. The interior of the Star of India ship is a mu seum giving an informative look at the daily life of the workaday sailor in the 19th century, including a glimpse at the cramped bunk quarters, sea-biscuit kitchens, shipwright’s tools, and even the ship surgeon’s instruments. Within the ship it is easy to imagine what a self-contained world sailing once was, when voyages lasted for years.

After a harbor tour and a look at the Maritime Museum , consider proceeding to one of the acknowledged star attractions, such as the Zoo in Balboa Park and Sea World.

Balboa Park , a wide swatch of greenery, has been a dominant force in San Diego ‘s development since 1868. There is some truth to the notion that the city grew up around a park. The excellent Zoo here is one of the world’s largest collection of wild animals, more than 4,000 animals in all. This is one of the best of the old-style zoos, where the animals are on display in fairly confined areas. Take the double-decker bus ride around the Zoo to orient yourself, then walk back to see the animals up close. Much of the emphasis here is on captive breeding of animals, some of which are extinct in the wild. A Giant Panda Research Center witnessed birth of baby panda Hua Mei. The Ituri Forest , Rain Forest Aviary, Polar Bear Plunge, and Gorilla Tropics are prominent zoo attractions. They are also examples of how the zoo is moving toward more naturalists settings.

Allow yourself a full extra day to see the adjunct to this urban Zoo, the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park , which is in San Pasqual Valley, 35 minutes north of the city. This is the best of the new-style zoos, where the animals run relatively free. At Wild Animal Park the animals enjoy 1,800 acres of fenced but open land, and the people are caged. You see the animals by taking the 60-minute rail Skyfari Aerial Tram around the park. The captive breeding of endangered species, especially from Africa and Asia , proceeds effectively here.

Back at Balboa Park , besides the Zoo, you can easily spend a day just strolling. There are interesting specialized mu seums to see, such as those celebrating aerospace or natural history. The Museum of Man has a fine collection of North American Indian artifacts. The Old Globe Theatre keeps alive a year-round cycle of Shakespeare and modern plays. The Museum of Photographic Arts exhibits contemporary and historical photo images.

Balboa Park covers 1,400 acres, including many landscaped gardens with elaborate flower patterns and unusual trees. The Spanish-Moorish architectural style is a legacy of the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition here.

Since opening in 1964, Sea World has attracted over 50 million people to witness the killer whale, dolphin, and other sea-related displays here. Sha mu Stadium presents a large whale habitat, with improved prospects for research into whale social behavior and com mu nication.

The skill with which Sea World can create a suitable habitat for killer whales was acknowledged by the birth of a killer whale at their Florida facility in 1985. This was the first time a killer whale had been bred, born, and thrived in a zoological environment. A second killer whale was born at the San Diego Sea World in July 1991.

Over the years a substantial percentage of the visitors to Sea World have been repeat viewers (about 60 percent). The repeat visitors look for what’s new.

Aside from Sha mu Stadium, a Places of Learning Center shows all of the 50 states on a huge walk-through map.

Among exhibits is one on rare Commerson’s dolphins, an unusual species with disruptive coloration similar to killer whales. The shark exhibit, Penguin Encounter, and aquariums offer other extensive sea-related experiences. A dolphin and whale petting area is one of the most popular exhibits for children.

Skyline in San Diego, California
Skyline in San Diego, California

Near Balboa Park lies the oldest part of the original city of San Diego , now called Old Town State Historic Park . Guided walking tours can orient you to the six-block area. Buy the Guide to Old Town at the State Park Visitor Information Center . You get a feel here for the 1829-1869 period that combined Spanish, Mexican, and early American influences. Visit the Whaley House, the oldest two-story brick structure in southern California, and browse about the old wood-board streets and adobes, now housing open air markets, restaurants, and art galleries. The Casa de Estudillo is a handsomely restored adobe from 1827. The San Diego Union Museum , where the major city paper began, shows what San Diego looked like in the 1860s. The Junipero Serra Museum , nearby at 2727 Presidio Drive , offers a brief history of the city from 1562 to the present.

In the central downtown area mu ch renewal has occurred, including a cluster of shopping and dining establishments, called Seaport Village , at Kettner Boulevard and Harbor Drive . Three plazas here approximate Mexican, Early Californian, and Victorian villages. Look for the Victorian clock tower, the lighthouse, and the turn of the 20th century carousel. Fresh seafood or Mexican restaurants are San Diego ‘s distinctive culinary offerings.

Also downtown, the Westfield Shoppingtown Horton Plaza , focused on the 300 Block of Broadway, is a major urban restoration with shops and department stores. Such developments attracted people once again to the center of the city.

The founding of modern San Diego , which owed more to the railroad boom of the 1880s than the Franciscan fathers of the 1770s, received overdue attention with the gradual redevelopment of the Gaslamp Quarter, where the William Heath Davis House Museum and the Horton Grand Hotel await visitors.

Though San Diego began as an inland mission and pueblo in the 1700s and shifted to its seaside location as a surveyor’s vision in the 1850s, the main boom occurred in the 1880s around an area of town now called the Gaslamp Quarter National Historic District.

After several years of recent redevelopment, the Gaslamp area finally took shape, with enough components to make it a rewarding part of the travel experience here. San Diego ‘s population rose quickly in the 1880s when the railroads offered a $1 one-way fare west from Chicago .

Begin your visit to the Gaslamp Quarter with a stop at the small mu seum and orientation site known as the William Heath Davis house, Fourth and Island streets. This house, a Connecticut saltbox prefab brought around the Horn, is one of the oldest wooden structures in San Diego . Here you can get a walking tour map of the Gaslamp district.

Across from the Davis House is a major amenity in the Gaslamp Quarter, the Horton Grand Hotel, which re-creates two hotels from the 1880s. The two hotels are joined with an airy atrium. The facade of the hotel is instructive on the decor of the times.

Walk up and down Fourth and Fifth Streets to see the numerous small restaurants and shops. One good casual dining option would be the Tin Fish, where the fish tacos are a specialty. There are intriguing stores, such as the San Diego Hardware Company, where hard-to-find house restoration parts are available.

How quickly a city can decline and then become revitalized can be seen as one looks back to the 1963 protests of San Diego city fathers, who predicted correctly that the Mission Valley Shopping Center would kill San Diego’s downtown. The downtown has finally arisen from its ashes, mu ch to the delight of the traveler. Horton Plaza , the downtown mu lti-level shopping area, amounts to one of the more creative uses of urban space in America today.

For a picnic, a view of the skyline, and a patch of greenery, cross the railroad track at 5th Avenue and stroll in the Embarcadero Marina Park. At this park you get a feel for the commercial and pleasure boating so important to the San Diego economy and lifestyle.

Across a bridge west from San Diego lies the peninsula of Coronado , the Naval domain, but also home of the famous Hotel del Coronado, a monument to late 19th-century Victorian opulence. Elisha Babcock’s grand hotel, built in 1888, became, as he wished, “the talk of the Western World.” One of the largest wooden structures in the U.S. , the Hotel del Coronado is also among the most massive resort hotels on the U.S. Pacific Coast.

The venerable Del , lodging for presidents and princes, movie stars and millionaires, flourishes into its second century.

Far from passing into dowdy dowager status, the hotel enjoys high occupancy rates even in these egalitarian times.

A History Gallery timeline at the property dwells nostalgically on events that occurred here. A traveler glimpses photos of sea bass fishermen from 1905 with mammoth catches, a young Prince Edward of Wales chatting at a state dinner before going into the ballroom where he would meet a Coronado lady named Wallis Simpson, and Marilyn Monroe strolling on the beach while filming Some Like It Hot.

Anyone can visit the Del and enjoy the grounds without charge, strolling the famous white-sand beach, observing the central garden, perusing the large, dark wood lobby. Lunch at the Sheerwater or dinner at the Prince of Wales dining room is open to all. Sunday brunch is popular in the cavernous wood-ceilinged Crown Room.

It is possible to get over to Coronado on a ferry from downtown San Diego or on a water taxi from downtown or from Shelter Island . The Coronado landing is a festive place with shops and restaurants, such as Bay Beach Café, which serves up fresh fish and a dramatic skyline view of San Diego across the narrow bay.

While exploring in San Diego , another intriguing stop is the Sport Fishing Landing at America ‘s Cup Harbor , near Shelter Island . There you can see each morning and evening the charter fishing boats come in, sometimes with huge catches of albacore, yellowfin tuna, bluefin tuna, and yellowtail. If you want to take a sportfishing daytrip or overnight trip, this is the place to make the arrangements. The adjacent and casual Point Loma Seafood restaurant is well know for its quality, drawing patrons from a large area.


Excursions near the city, besides the Wild Animal Park mentioned earlier, could include a thorough exploration of Mission Bay Park and a back country drive to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park or the Palomar Observatory. The journey to Tijuana , for shopping or dining, offers a foreign adventure.

Mission Bay , a man-created coastal playground actually within San Diego , encompasses 27 scenic miles of shoreline, coves, islands, lagoons, and picnic areas. About three-fourths of the land is open to the public. This large aquatic playground offers many possibilities for the traveler, from renting a sailboat to fishing.

With a map from the Visitor Bureau, you can also easily follow by car a 59-mile scenic drive throughout the metro area, with the route marked by a seagull sign.

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, 40 miles east of San Diego, recalls an Indian name for “place where it rains.” The many high meadows here will surprise you if you think of San Diego’s back country as arid. Gently rolling grasslands with mixed pine and oak forests flourish. The most charming small town in the area, which boomed briefly as a gold-mining region, is Julian, with its fruit stands and down-home shops selling home-made jellies and crafts.

The Palomar Observatory, east from San Diego at 5,600 feet in the mountains, has the 200-inch Hale Telescope, one of the largest reflecting telescopes in the world. An adjacent interpretive mu seum describes the main issues in modern astronomy.

Tijuana, south to Mexico, flourishes as a center for buying Mexican crafts. Stop in at the Tijuana Cultural Center. All manner of silverwork, basketry, carvings, and textiles line the shops of Revolucion Avenue. The fast ball sport, called jai alai, can be seen in the evening at the Fronton, with avid betting over the outcome of games. Mexican restaurants offer the genius of a cuisine built on corn tortillas, refried beans, shredded beef and chicken, and such new-world delicacies as the tomato and avocado. Mexican beers, such as Dos Equis, have their passionate partisans among beer drinkers.



Contact the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, 401 B Street, Suite 1400, San Diego, CA 92101-4237; 619/236-1212;

The area all around the shoreline, including many recreational entities, is managed by the Port of San Diego.



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