San Diego, California
San Diego is a vacationer's paradise, complete with idyllic year-round temperatures and 70 miles of pristine coastline. Recognized as one of the nation's leading family destinations, with SeaWorld, LEGOLAND, and the San Diego Zoo, San Diego is equally attractive to those in search of art, culture, world-class shopping, and culinary exploration. San Diego's many neighborhoods offer diverse adventures: from the tony boutiques in La Jolla to the culinary delights in the northern suburb of Del Mar; from the authentic European charm of Little Italy to the nouveau-chic of the downtown Gaslamp Quarter, each community adds flavor and flair to San Diego's personality. California's entire coastline enchants, but the state's southernmost region stands apart when it comes to sand, surf, and sea. Step out of the car and onto the beach to immediately savor its allure: smell the fresh salty air, feel the plush sand at your feet, hear waves breaking enticingly from the shore, and take in the breathtaking vistas. San Diego's sandstone bluffs offer spectacular views of the Pacific as a palette of blues and greens: there are distant indigo depths, emerald coves closer to shore, and finally, the mint-green swirls of the foamy surf. On land, the beach is silvery brown, etched with wisps of darker, charcoal-color sand and flecked with fool's gold. San Diego's beaches have a different vibe from their northern counterparts in neighboring Orange County and glitzy Los Angeles farther up the coast. San Diego is more laid-back and less of a scene. Cyclists on cruiser bikes whiz by as surfers saunter toward the waves and sunbathers bronze under the sun, be it July or November. Whether you're seeking a safe place to take the kids or a hot spot to work on your tan, you'll find a beach that's just right for you. La Jolla Shores and Mission Bay both have gentle waves and shallow waters that provide safer swimming for kids; whereas the high swells at Black's and Tourmaline attract surfers worldwide. If you're looking for dramatic ocean views, Torrey Pines State Beach and Sunset Cliffs provide a desertlike chaparral backdrop, with craggy cliffs overlooking the ocean below. Beaches farther south in Coronado and Silver Strand have longer stretches of sand that are perfect for a contemplative stroll or a brisk jog. Then there are those secluded, sandy enclaves that you may happen upon on a scenic drive down Highway 101.
San Diego's proximity to Mexico makes it an attractive destination for anything wrapped in a tortilla, but there's so much more. While most of the top restaurants offer seasonal California fare, San Diego also boasts excellent ethnic cuisines available at all prices.
As elsewhere in the United States, the San Diego dining scene has moved toward using sustainable, locally sourced meat, seafood, and produce—and providing good value. This emphasis on affordability is often presented as early or late-night dining specials, but also extends to the wine lists, where smart sommeliers are offering more wines from value regions like France's Loire and Languedoc, and countries like Chile and South Africa.
Downtown is packed with restaurants, but many can be touristy, so it's a good to be selective. The übertrendy Gaslamp Quarter delights visitors looking for innovative concepts that also have nightlife appeal, while the gentrified Little Italy district has become a center for affordable Italian fare as well as surprises like English pubs and supper clubs with live music. Modern restaurants and cafés thrive in the East Village, amid the luxury condos near PETCO Park. Bankers Hill, just west of Balboa Park, is one of the hottest food destinations in the city, and most spots also have interesting cocktails.
The Uptown neighborhoods centered by Hillcrest—an urbane district with San Francisco flavor—are a mix of bars and independent restaurants. North Park, in particular, has a happening restaurant scene, with just about everything kind of cuisine you can think of, and laidback prices to boot. Mission Valley, a central area with many hotels and shopping malls, abounds with casual, family-friendly fare. And scenic La Jolla offers some of the best fine dining in the city.
Ethnic cuisine remains popular in the Gaslamp Quarter, Hillcrest, and Convoy Street in Kearney Mesa, which is a hub for Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese fare. In Chula Vista you'll find authentic Mexican food, while Coronado—the peninsula city across San Diego Bay—has beachy neighborhood eateries and extravagant hotel dining rooms with dramatic water views.
In San Diego, you could plan a luxurious vacation, staying at a hotel with 350-thread-count sheets, wall-mounted flat screens, and panoramic Pacific views. But with some flexibility—maybe opting for a partial-view room with standard TVs—it's possible to experience the city's beauty at half the price.
Any local will tell you two things about San Diego: No. 1, the weather really is perfect; and No. 2, the area's neighborhoods and beach communities offer great diversity, from lively urban vacations to laid-back beachfront escapes. In action-packed downtown, luxury hotels battle it out by offering the nicest perks, including outdoor infinity pools, in-room iPod docks, chauffeured rides in SUVs, and passes to the hotels' hip weekend parties. There are also hostels and some budget-friendly options in and near Little Italy.
You'll need a car if you stay outside downtown, but the coastal communities are rich with lodging options. Across the bridge, Coronado's hotels and resorts offer access to a stretch of glistening white sand that's often recognized as one of the best beaches in the country. La Jolla offers many romantic, upscale ocean-view hotels and some of the area's best restaurants and specialty shopping. But it's easy to find a water view in any price range: surfers make themselves at home at the casual inns and budget stays of Pacific Beach. If you're planning to fish, check out hotels located near the marinas in Shelter Island, Point Loma, or Coronado.
For families, Uptown, Mission Valley, and Old Town are close to SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo, offering good-value accommodations with extras like sleeper sofas and video games. Mission Valley is ideal for business travelers; there are plenty of well-known chain hotels with conference space, modern business centers, and kitchenettes for extended stays.
When your work (or sightseeing) is done, join the trendsetters flocking to downtown's Gaslamp Quarter for its hip restaurants and rooftop hotel bars that rival L.A.'s stylish scenes.
A couple of decades ago, San Diego scraped by on its superb daytime offerings. When the city's smattering of neighborhood dives and dance clubs got stale, locals fled town for late-night benders in L.A. or Las Vegas. Those sleepy-after-dark days are over; San Diego now sizzles when the sun goes down. Of particular interest to beer lovers, the city has become internationally acclaimed for dozens of breweries, beer pubs, and festivals.
The most obvious destination for visitors is the Gaslamp Quarter, a 16-block former red-light district gone glam. The debauchery is slightly more modest these days—or at least legal, anyway. Between the Gaslamp and neighboring East Village, there's truly something for everyone, from secretive speakeasies to big, bangin' dance clubs and chic rooftop lounges to grimy dives. If you're staying in the Gaslamp, it's the perfect place to party. Some of the hotels even have their own happening scenes. If you're driving from elsewhere, prepare to pay. Your best options: parking lots (prices start at $20) or valet (at some restaurants and clubs). If you don't mind a long trek—in other words, leave the stilettos at home—you can usually score spots 10 or more blocks from the action. Meters are free after 6 pm.
The epicenter of gay culture is Hillcrest, where you'll find bars and clubs catering primarily to the LGBT crowd—though everyone is welcome. East of Hillcrest is North Park, where hip twenty- and thirtysomethings hang out at edgy scenester hotspots (though locals complain that upscale new arrivals on the nightlife scene are ruining the underground vibe). Nearby South Park and University Heights also have a few cool offerings. A cab from downtown to any of these 'hoods costs about $15.
Pacific Beach tends to draw college kids who don't know when to say when, while Ocean and Mission beaches pull laid-back surfers and their cohort. La Jolla, for the most part, is a snooze if you're in the mood to booze late at night.
Californians love their independent cafés and coffeehouses. San Diego's got plenty, especially in the Hillcrest and North Park neighborhoods in Uptown. Many offer tasty fare (from light pastries to full meals) alongside every possible caffeinated concoction. Some offer terrific live entertainment, too. And, if a coffee buzz isn't the kind you're looking for, a handful also serve wine and beer. Hookah (also known as shisha) lounges are another popular bar alternative.
There are also nightlife destinations outside of town, in North County: Belly Up, in Solana Beach, has a killer sound system and attracts some big national names. The cover can be steep depending on the performer, but the laid-back vibe and strong drinks almost always attract a crowd.
San Diego's retail venues are as diverse as the city's vibrant neighborhoods. From La Jolla's tony boutiques to the outlet malls at San Ysidro, you'll find stores that appeal to every taste and budget. Enjoy near-perfect weather year-round as you explore shops along the scenic waterfront. Whether you're on a mission to find the perfect souvenir, or browsing for a sharp outfit to wear out on the town, you'll find much to offer in every area of the city.
Into kitschy gifts and souvenirs? Downtown's Seaport Village has an abundance of quirky shops that won't disappoint, plus you'll be able to enjoy the coastal breezes while you shop for that Coronado Bridge snow globe.
The Gaslamp Quarter, downtown's trendy hot spot, is where you'll find independent shops selling urban apparel, unique home decor items, and vintage treasures. If you can't find it in the boutiques, head for Westfield Horton Plaza, the downtown mall with more than 130 stores and 26 eateries. Nearby, Little Italy is the place to find contemporary art, clothing from local designers, and home decor items.
Old Town is a must for pottery, ceramics, jewelry, and handcrafted baskets. Uptown is known for its mélange of funky bookstores, offbeat gift shops, and nostalgic collectibles, and the beach towns have the best swimwear and sandals. La Jolla's chic boutiques offer a more intimate shopping experience along with some of the classiest clothes, jewelry, and shoes in the county.
Trendsetters will have no trouble finding must-have handbags and designer apparel at the world-class Fashion Valley mall in Mission Valley, a haven for luxury brands such as Hermès, Jimmy Choo, and Carolina Herrera.
Most malls have free parking in a lot or garage, and parking is not usually a problem. Westfield Horton Plaza and some of the shops in the Gaslamp Quarter offer validated parking or valet parking.