Set along a huge Pacific Ocean harbor at the southwestern corner of the country just a few miles from the Mexican border, San Diego embodies the Southern California ideal. Around the turn of the 20th century, it rivaled Los Angeles as a boomtown based on wild real estate speculation, but while LA continued to expand by leaps and bounds, San Diego grew comparatively slowly. Instead of Hollywood glamour, San Diego’s economy has long been based on the U.S. Navy, as evidenced by the massive former USS Midway moored right downtown. (San Diego successfully mixed its military and Hollywood influences in the movie Top Gun.) Despite a metropolitan population of more than 3 million people, San Diego still feels small and anything but urban.

The main things to see in San Diego are in Balboa Park, a lushly landscaped 1,200-acre spread on downtown’s northeast edge, which was largely laid out and constructed as part of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal. The many grand buildings, all built in gorgeous Spanish Revival style by architect Bertram Goodhue, have been preserved in marvelous condition and now house sundry museums, ranging from automobiles to fine art to a functioning replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

Balboa Park is also home to the San Diego Zoo (619/231-1515, daily, $52 adults), one of the largest and most popular in the world with over 3,500 animals kept in settings that simulate their natural habitats. You can see koalas and komodo dragons, panda bears and polar bears, plus gorillas and giraffes. You name it, if it’s anywhere outside in the wild, it’ll be here amid the zoo’s lushly landscaped 100 acres.

The San Diego Padres (619/795-5000) play at popular retromodern Petco Park, right downtown in the Gaslamp Quarter.

Practicalities

The city of San Diego bends diagonally around its natural harbor, which makes orientation occasionally confusing. The main airport, Lindbergh Field, is on the waterfront just northwest of downtown—and has one of the swiftest final approaches of any urban American airport. Because it is small and relatively compact, San Diego is easy to get around. Downtown is walkable, and on a bike you could see most everything in a day. Buses operated by San Diego Metropolitan Transit (619/557-4555) fan out from downtown, while the light rail San Diego Trolley runs south from downtown to the Mexican border.

Though you may feel the need to duck when planes land at nearby Lindbergh Field, for breakfast try the Hob Nob Hill (2271 1st Ave., 619/239-8176), a classic 1940s coffee shop with great pecan waffles. For more all-American fare, head west to Ocean Beach, where Hodad’s (5010 Newport Ave., 619/224-4623), a great old burger joint, awaits you. San Diego’s Old Town historic park holds some good old-school Mexican places, like the Old Town Mexican Café (2489 San Diego Ave., 619/297-4330). In Balboa Park, soak up San Diego’s Spanish Revival splendor while enjoying a meal at The Prado (619/557-9441) in the original House of Hospitality.

Places to stay are generally modern, clean, and comfortable, though rates vary with seasons (and conventions). For top-of-the-line accommodations, or just to appreciate the historic architecture, head to the wonderful old Hotel del Coronado (1500 Orange Ave., 619/435-6611, $289 and up), across the bridge from downtown on Coronado Island. Rising up in turreted glory, this fabulously grand Victorian-era resort hotel still caters, as it always has, to the four-star trade. It has been seen in many movies, including the great Peter O’Toole flick The Stunt Man. It’s also where England’s King Edward VIII is rumored to have first met the femme fatale who inspired him to give up his throne: Wallis Simpson, whose first husband was first commanding officer of the local Navy base. The cheapest beds are at the HI San Diego Downtown (521 Market St., 619/525-1531 or 855/213-0582, $45 and up per person), in the historic downtown Gaslamp Quarter. For more comfort and character, try The Sofia Hotel (150 W. Broadway, 619/234-9200, $139 and up), a restored 1920s hotel. For surfer-friendly (and pet-friendly) accommodations near Ocean Beach and Point Loma, try the Ocean Villa Inn (5142 W. Point Loma Blvd., 619/224-3481, $99 and up).

Travel map of San Diego
San Diego
Travel map of Downtown San Diego
Downtown San Diego
Travel map of San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter
San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter
Travel map of San Diego's Balboa Park
San Diego’s Balboa Park
Map of Pacific Coast through Southern California.
Map of Pacific Coast through Southern California.