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San Diego Overview
California's oldest, second largest and southern-most big city, San Diego is one of the nation's most popular playgrounds. With more than 300 days of sunshine, it also boasts the best climate in the United States. Full of contrasts, the city mingles contemporary urban sensibilities with colonial Spanish architecture, sparkling ocean vistas to the west with barren, boulder-strewn hills to the east, and fine dining establishments with the newest of "nouvelle cuisine" standing side by side with tiny tortillerias.
Consider this: Vintage ships line the downtown waterfront next to the cruise docks, and a little red trolley can take you south of the border into Mexico. Or you can pet the orcas and dolphins at SeaWorld, take in a Padres game at the new downtown ballpark, relive the turn of the century in the Gaslamp District or simply sit and savor hot, homemade tortillas and Mexican food on the patio of almost any restaurant in historic Old Town.
Balboa Park, the largest urban cultural park in the nation, features "Spanish Colonial Revival" style buildings, designed and built for the Panama-California Exhibition in 1916-1917 to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal. The 1,074-acre park is home to art galleries, free botanical exhibits and 15 museums, including the Natural History Museum, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, and the world-renowned San Diego zoo, with more than 800 species of animals, some of them rare and endangered.
The best part of the above? It's all accessible by walking, public transportation or short cab rides from downtown and the cruise dock.
For those who choose to stay an extra few days and rent a car, day trips and excursions abound. There are more than 90 golf courses in San Diego County, plus 33 beaches. Take the kids to Legoland in Carlsbad, spend a day at the horse races in Del Mar, visit the wineries or indulge in a hot-air balloon ride in Temecula, try your hand at lady luck in one of the many Las Vegas-style gaming establishments within an hour's drive of the city, go on safari at the incredible Wild Animal Park in Escondido, or visit the nude beach in toney La Jolla.
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While you're in town, pick up sports memorabilia from local teams like the Padres or Chargers, or snag a souvenir from the San Diego zoo.
English is the primary language spoken.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The U.S. dollar is the currency used, and ATM's are readily available throughout the city.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at the B Street Cruise Ship Terminal, right in the heart of downtown.
Because the dock is in the middle of downtown, guests who visit San Diego as a port stop will have no problem quickly finding their way to enjoyable activities, shopping and dining. Horton Plaza, an upscale vertically-built urban shopping mall, is only a ten-minute walk away from the port, has a Nordstrom department store as its flagship, and is surrounded with little boutiques and fun restaurants. Anthony's Fish Grotto (1360 North Harbor Drive), a San Diego dining institution, is located directly adjacent to the cruise ships, right on the harbor, and is open for lunch and dinner. The best place for breakfast is Cafe 222 (222 Island Avenue), located between the ships and Horton Plaza, serving reasonably priced omelets, pancakes, waffles and frittatas with a great deal of funky attitude.
The downtown area is very compact and walk-able. For just-beyond attractions, there is trolley and bus service. Taxis are plentiful. Also check out bike cabbies that line up at the port. Rental car agencies are located in downtown San Diego as well as at the airport. To get to the North Coastal areas, there is the Coaster, a commuter train that leaves from downtown San Diego and returns several times a day and is inexpensive, fast and efficient.
Watch Out For
As you would in any large city, stay alert, and be careful when carrying wallets or purses and when wearing expensive jewelry.
For San Diego's "museum central" head to Balboa Park. The 1,200-acre park in the center of San Diego is home to some 15 museums. The San Diego Museum of Art and San Diego Natural History Museum are highlights, as well as art galleries, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, the San Diego Zoo (see below) and the historic Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Balboa Park also has glorious flora and fauna, particularly the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden and the Japanese Friendship Garden. There's a free tram (daily, from 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. summers; 10 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. winter) that offers stops throughout the park and to the parking lot. Info: www.balboapark.org.
The San Diego Zoo (2000 Zoo Drive) is world-famous and features a 100-acre tropical garden with 4,000 animals of 800 species. One of its distinctive attractions is its bioclimatic exhibits, which include the Polar Rim, Panda Canyon and Urban Jungle. There's a three-mile guided tour, children's petting zoo and a baby animal nursery. Info: www.sandiegozoo.org.
Seaport Village is located about a mile from the cruise dock and is filled with fun shops and boutiques in a Cape Cod-esque seaport setting. Look for the "brand new" old (1895) carousel featuring a full menagerie of animals including an elephant, a giraffe, camels, a dragon, galloping horses and more. Info: www.seaportvillage.com.
San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter, a 16 1/2-block urban neighborhood, is a showplace of restoration. Its big draws? 70 restaurants, 20 nightclubs, 40 shops, all clustered in a Victorian-era atmosphere. It's also a centerplace for big city events, from food and music festivals to Mardi Gras. Info: www.gaslamp.org.
Historic Missions. San Diego, the first city of California, has more than 20 missions. The most famous include Padre Junipero Serra's first mission in California, Mission San Diego de Alcala (Mission Valley, a 10-minute drive from downtown). Info: www.missionsandiego.com.
Hang out on San Diego's Mission Beach and Pacific Beach boardwalks (inline skates, surfboards and bicycles are available for rent). At Belmont Park, a mile south of Pacific Beach, you'll find the Giant Dipper, a wooden roller coaster built in the 1920s and still in operation.
SeaWorld San Diego (500 Seaworld Drive): Part theater, part marine life exhibition, SeaWorld has at least half a dozen major shows (Penguin Encounter, Shark Encounter and Wild Arctic, among others) and even, in summer, Cirque de la Mer, a whimsical circus-style performance that involves both marine life and humans and features athletics, acrobatics and special effects. Info: www.seaworld.com.
Petco Park (100 Park Boulevard, 619-795-5401): Baseball fans will love the new home of the San Diego Padres, located in the heart of downtown adjacent to the Gaslamp Quarter. Those arriving in season can take public transportation right to the ballpark from almost anywhere in the city, and enjoy the Boys of Summer at both day and night games when they are playing at home. Info: sandiego.padres.mlb.com.
Been There, Done That
For an alternative to the usual city tour, try Hike Bike Kayak Sports; the company offers half- and full-day tours aimed at all fitness levels and combines a bike ride around Mission Bay, a kayak paddle through Mission Bay, lunch and a hike at Torrey Pines State Reserve. They also offer a variety of other tours, including one focused on sea turtles. Info: www.hikebikekayak.com/.
For military buffs, there's another type of alternative tour: the Tour of Patriotism (a 2-hour and 40-minute tour on Tuesday mornings only at 9 a.m.), which emphasizes San Diego's historic military components and includes a 40-minute amphibious seal ride. This tour is organized by Old Town Trolley Tours, which offers a wide variety of city tours. Info: www.trolleytours.com.
At Legoland California (1 Legoland Drive, Carlsbad, open daily from Memorial Day - Labor Day, Thursday - Monday other times of the year), about a 30-minute drive from downtown, the 128-acre theme park is centered around -- what else -- legos! Geared for kids ages 2 - 12, there are interactive attractions and rides that are kid-powered. Info: www.lego.com/legoland/california.
San Diego Wild Animal Park (15500 San Pasquale Valley Road, Escondido) is a 2,200-acre preserve where some 3,000 animals roam as if they were in their native habitats of Africa and Asia. There's a narrated monorail tour and also lovely mountain trails for walkers. Info: www.sandiegozoo.org/wap/visitor_info.html.
La Jolla, the "Palm Beach" of this part of California, is known for luxury resorts catering to the rich and famous, gorgeous beaches and pricey shops that include Anne Taylor and Armani Exchange for clothing, several very upscale antique shops and at least two specialty cigar stores. Some of the best, most chi-chi restaurants look over the rocky bluffs to the sea, so if you plan a trip to the community, consider splurging on lunch at Tapenade or Nine-Ten, two of the finest (and priciest). If you're really adventurous, you can climb the rocks surrounding Black's Beach, which allows nude sunbathing. La Jolla is a 25-minute drive north of the cruise dock by cab. Info: www.lajollabythesea.com.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (just west of Borrego Springs) is a great way to experience the desert -- in perfect comfort. Spring is peak season for wildflowers and other blooming plants. You can arrange off-road adventures in four wheel drive jeeps through San Diego Outback Tours. Info: www.desertjeeptours.com.
Take a ride on a 1929 open cockpit biplane (the pilot flies from the back cockpit) via Barnstorming Adventures. You can also opt for a World War II Navy SNJ-4 or stunt rides in an airshow plane. Info: www.barnstorming.com.
During the winter months (December - March), numerous whale-watching services offer cruises and aerial tours; during the rest of the year they have harbor dinner cruises and other excursions. Try San Diego Harbor Excursions, which is allied with the Birch Aquarium. Info: www.sdhe.com/san-diego-whale-watching.html. Other operators include Hornblower Cruises (www.hornblower.com/whalewatching.asp?port=sd) and H&M Landing (www.hmlanding.com/whalewatch.html).
Head to Tijuana, Mexico. Just 17 miles south (remember, though, you'll have to cross the border and waits are common), for dog racing, jai alai exhibitions and festive outdoor shopping plazas. Also check out the Tijuana Cultural Center, which hosts a museum, performing arts theater, restaurant and shops. To get there, you can take the San Diego Trolley light rail, which runs from the city to the Mexican border. If you plan to drive your own car, beware: you must purchase special auto insurance to drive in Mexico (check with your insurer). Note: Rental car agencies do not permit renters to drive into Mexico.
Surfing: The North County beach cities (about 25-30 miles north of the cruise dock) of Solana Beach, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Encinitas and Leucadia are paradise for surfer dudes and dudettes. You can rent boards and take lessons or just go to any one of these beaches with a picnic and watch the semi-pros catch the waves. Leucadia Surf School (760-436-6592) boasts instructors with "college degrees and media credits who are local Leucadians;" they'll even answer questions in advance via e-mail. Info: www.leucadiasurfschool.com.
For a lovely, pastoral excursion after wandering around the city, why not step onto the Coronado Ferry for a trip to the little island located in San Diego Bay? The ferry departs from the foot of Broadway, adjacent to the cruise ship docks, every hour starting at 9:00 a.m. and returns every hour on the half-hour (www.sdhe.com/san-diego-bay-ferry.html). You're dropped off at the Ferry Landing Marketplace, where you can shop for trinkets, have a cold one and then wander down to the beach next to the pier. Or you can grab a cab and head for the historic Victorian Hotel del Coronado and sip a margarita on one of its breezy porches until it's time to head back to San Diego. For families, Glorietta Bay is listed as one of the top beaches in the world and has playgrounds, picnic areas and paddleboat rentals.
Little Italy: Indigo Grill (1536 India Street, 619-234-6802, Lunch 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. Monday - Friday, Dinner 5 - 10 p.m. Sunday - Thursday and 5 - 11 p.m. Friday - Saturday) which serves northwest and southwest fusion cuisine, is one of the city's hottest new restaurants.
The Gaslamp Quarter houses the city's largest concentration of eateries for all appetites, but some favorites include Lou & Mickey's (224 Fifth Street, 619-237-4900, dinner daily from 5 - 10 p.m.) and Acqua Al 2 Ristorante (322 5th Avenue, 619-230-0382, lunch 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. Monday - Friday, dinner daily from 5 - 10:30 p.m.)
Downtown: Star of the Sea (Harbor & Ash Streets, 619-232-7408, dinner only, Sunday - Thursday 5:30 - 10 p.m., Friday - Saturday 5:30 - 11 p.m.) is a San Diego standout -- romantic, great views, coastal cuisine.
Pacific Beach has numerous casual finds; try the Green Flash (701 Thomas Avenue, 858-270-7715, 8 a.m. - 10 p.m. daily) for fun beachy food -- ask to sit on the patio. Costa Brava (1653 Garnet Avenue, 858-273-1218, 11 a.m. - midnight daily) is known for its fabulous tapas.
Uptown: The Corvette Diner (3946 Fifth Avenue, 619-542-1001, Sunday - Thursday 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Friday - Saturday 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.) is a fun, moderate, 50s-esque diner; it's a great family joint. Hash House A Go Go (3628 Fifth Avenue, 619-298-4646, breakfast 7:30 - 11:30 a.m., lunch 11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m. and dinner 5 - 9 p.m. -- til 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday) is an amazing amalgam -- hip and trendy yet known for big plates and value prices.
Coronado: For romance, try Chez Loma (1132 Loma, 619-435-0661, daily 5 - 10 p.m., Sundays 10 a.m. - 2 p.m.), a French/Belgian restaurant in a cozy Victorian cottage. More casual? The Bay Beach Cafe (1201 1st Street, 619-435-4900, Monday - Friday: breakfast 7 - 10:30 a.m., lunch 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. and dinner 5 - 10:30 p.m.; Saturday/Sunday brunch 7 - 11:30 a.m., lunch noon - 4 p.m.) is easy going and has a great view.
Cafe 222, (222 Island Ave. 619-236-9902) located between the waterfront and Horton Plaza, serves downhome food with a California healthy twist. Chili, sandwiches and salads are on the menu as well as the Cafe's signature waffles and hotcakes. The owner, an actress and restaurant critic, seems to know how to keep folks happy...the restaurant wins awards and is the darling of the San Diego "it" crowd. It's inexpensive, too!
Anyone who loves baseball will enjoy dinner at McCormick & Schmick's (675 L Street), located in the new Omni Hotel (619-231-6664) at Petco Park, as much for the display of baseball memorabilia as for the dining experience. Guests of the restaurant can wander through the displays in the hotel lobby, too, where they will find Babe Ruth's American League 1932 contract with the New York Yankees, Willie Mays' autographed broken game baseball bat, and other items of interest.
For a fun, festive, interactive experience, try Casa del Pico (2754 Calhoun St., 619-296-3161) in the Bazaar del Mundo Marketplace in Old Town. Dine to the music of mariachis on a patio strung with lights, and watch the show. This is, of course, after you've gone shopping in the charming plaza, with 16 different boutiques featuring hand-crafted items. Info: www.bazaardelmundo.com.
Waterfront dining in San Diego is spectacular at any time of the year; you can sit on the outside patios in summer and behind walls of glass when it's chilly. Fresh seafood and brilliant sunsets mark Star of the Sea (Harbor Drive at Ash St., 619-232-7408), the upscale brother to Anthony's Fish Grotto next door. Again, this restaurant is just steps from the cruise ships, right along the harbor. Info: www.starofthesea.com.
Closest to Port: Holiday Inn San Diego-On The Bay (1355 N. Harbor, 619-232-3861) directly across from the cruise ship docks; if you request a harborside view and get up early enough, you can see your ship arrive into port. It's within walking distance to great restaurants and shopping, too.
Family-Oriented: Nothing can beat Paradise Point, (1404 Vacation Road, 1-800-344-2626) with its individual bungalows offering views of the lagoon, gardens or the bay. It's upscale but not pretentious, has loads of activities for kids, is right across the street from SeaWorld San Diego and is so pastoral you forget you're in the city.
Big Splurge: The illustrious Hotel del Coronado, (1500 Orange Avenue, Coronado, 619-435-6611) located across the bridge in Coronado, is easily San Diego's most famous hotel, known affectionately as "The Del." This national historic landmark, the oldest continually operating wooden-built hotel in the United States, sits on the beach and offers something for everyone (as long as your wallet's pretty thick); it's also a great family choice.
Located mid-city in the Gaslamp District, the Horton Grand (311 Island Avenue, 1-800-542-1886) is a Victorian-era wonderland with four-poster beds, hand-carved armoires, costumed attendants, liveried bellmen and afternoon tea just like in the olden days.
For Hipsters: W San Diego (421 West B Street, 619-231-8220) is located in the Columbia District of downtown San Diego, near Little Italy and just minutes from the Gaslamp Quarter. Chic and trendy, the hotel offers guests a 24-hour concierge at their beck and call and the Luxe Away Spa to get one ready for the rigors of cruising, or, post-cruise, to get guests ready to go home.
Golf Resorts: The Lodge at Torrey Pines (11480 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla; 858-453-4420), a Craftsman-style retreat in La Jolla, sits on the 18th fairway of the Rees Jones-designed South Course. Four Seasons Resort Aviara (7100 Four Seasons Point, Carlsbad, 760-603-6800) is located in Carlsbad, with stunning views over the Batiquitos Lagoon to the Pacific, and 18 challenging Arnold Palmer-designed holes of golf on a beautiful meandering course. Both resorts have extensive, elegant spas and multiple tennis courts with a variety of surfaces.
For travelers on a budget, the Old Town Inn (4444 Pacific Highway, 800-643-3025)offers clean, moderately priced rooms and a great location, just a block from Balboa Park. Among the freebies here are breakfast, parking and Wi-Fi.
Staying in Touch
Internet Cafe (800 Broadway near Horton Plaza) is the nearest to the B Street Pier.
Coronado Bicycling Tour: Guests age 12 and over can participate in this three and a half hour trip, which includes transportation to Coronado Island and bike and helmet rental for $36.
Old Town Trolley Tour: Narrated tour in an open-air trolley, lasting approximately two and a half hours. Includes highlights of San Diego's rich cultural history, Old Town, Balboa Park, and Coronado. Adults $25, children $15.
With more than 90 golf courses in the county, San Diego is a duffer's dream. The year-round fantastic weather also means you can reserve with confidence; it's rare that you'd miss your tee time because of rain, although early morning fog can be a problem if you're booking a course close to the sea. Two favorites include Mission Bay Golf Course, which was designed by Ted Robinson and boasts 18 holes of par-58 fun, is lit until 10 p.m. and is about 15 minutes from the cruise port by cab. Torrey Pines, created by William P. Bell and son William F. Bell and remodeled by Rees Jones, offers spectacular views of the ocean, canyons and coves. It's about 25 minutes from port.
For More Information
Call the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau at 619-232-3101
Cruise Critic Message Boards: United States
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: California
Image of Balboa Park apperas courtesy of James Blank/San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. Image of San Diego beach appears courtesy of David Falconer/San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. Image of gorilla appears courtesy of Georgeann Irvine/San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. Image of Gaslamp Quarter appears courtesy of Dale Frost/San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau.