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San Diego Overview
California's second largest city, San Diego is located at the foot of the state's scenic coastline, where it enjoys more than 300 days of sunshine a year. The metropolitan area is an inviting mix of city chic and beach casual, with plenty of recreational opportunities ranging from sailing across a sparking bay to hiking in the Cuyamaca Mountains.
San Diego is home to diverse nationalities, including Pacific Islanders, Asians, Hispanics, Middle Easterners and Europeans. It is most heavily influenced by its Spanish and Mexican roots. Visitors will discover this as they explore Balboa Park, munch tacos and take note of Spanish street names.
Shaped by canyons, flat lands and rolling hills, the city's numerous neighborhoods have distinct ethnic and cultural identities. Many of the most dynamic, including Old Town, Point Loma, Hillcrest and North Park, are within eight miles of the cruise terminal. Equally close is funky Ocean Beach, one of the last authentic California beach towns. Several other popular destinations -- like the Gaslamp Quarter and Little Italy -- are an easy walk from the port.
Just a few miles from the bay is Balboa Park, the nation's largest urban cultural park, home to the Old Globe Theater and world-renowned San Diego Zoo. A city-wide celebration is planned for 2015 to mark the centennial of the Panama-California Exposition when many of the park's Spanish Colonial Revival-style buildings were constructed.
For those who arrive or depart and have time on their hands, day trips abound. Take the kids to SeaWorld to pet dolphins or to colorful Legoland in Carlsbad. Enjoy a round of golf at world-famous Torrey Pines followed by a gourmet dinner overlooking the sea in La Jolla. Bet on the ponies during the summer racing season in Del Mar. Less than an hour's drive from the city, taste wine in Temecula's wine country, or camp overnight with lions, tigers and giraffes at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido.
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San Diego is a microbrewery capital, drawing beer lovers from all over the world to quaff hand-crafted suds. At Stone Brewing's World Bistro & Gardens at Point Loma's Liberty Station, grab apparel for men, women and even infants with Stone's Arrogant Bastard Ale logo. Suit-case stuffers like beer towels, openers, coasters and even dog collars are for sale too.
Next to the cruise terminal is the historic USS Midway Museum. The aircraft carrier is now a naval and aviation museum where military buffs can buy a Midway ball cap, T-shirts emblazoned with "The Kiss" photo, and souvenir coins made from arrest wire used to help stop planes landing on the flight deck.
English is spoken everywhere, including in the tourist-friendly areas of Baja, Mexico.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the U.S. dollar, and ATMs are readily available throughout the city and just off the cruise terminal.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at the B Street Cruise Ship Terminal in San Diego harbor at the bayside entrance to downtown. It's a 20-minute walk to the bustling Gaslamp Quarter and 15 minutes to trendy Little Italy or the novelty shops at Seaport Village.
There are no cafes, gift shops, ATMs or visitor information booths inside the cruise ship terminal; however, just outside the terminal is the International Visitors Center where multilingual staff and volunteers have information on activities, attractions, lodging and dining options, as well as maps and discounted tickets. The center is open seven days a week.
Taxis and airport shuttles will be plentiful at the port, airport or at downtown hotels. The port offers a list of shuttle services you can arrange in advance.
On Foot: From the port, it is a short walk to harbor attractions, the Gaslamp Quarter and Little Italy. If you're feeling adventurous, licensed pedicabs lined up at the port and around downtown can be fun transportation along the harbor and into the Gaslamp Quarter. Make sure the fee is agreed to in advance.
By Bus: The hop-on, hop-off (HOHO) Old Town Trolley is an efficient way to see highlights of downtown, Coronado, Balboa Park, Little Italy and Old Town. Along the way, drivers entertain with colorful history (and some tall tales). There are several pick-up stops downtown and free shuttle service to the trolley from select hotels.
City bus service in San Diego is fairly complicated and slow and not recommended for visitors, unless they want to see some of the city's diverse residential areas.
By Car: Taxis are plentiful, but expensive; so for longer visits, a rental car might be a better option. The city's network of freeways is fairly easy to navigate, but avoid the rush hours of 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
By Rail: For just-beyond attractions like Old Town and Mission Valley, there is a light-rail service from several downtown stops. The Coaster commuter train from downtown to Oceanside is no-hassle transportation to north county beach cities, including Encinitas and Carlsbad Village where the station stops are convenient to beaches, restaurants and shops.
During the summer horse racing season, there's a Pony Express train to Del Mar. The train leaves from the historic Santa Fe Depot near the port on Kettner Boulevard several times daily. Roundtrip fare is $8 to $11 depending on the destination.
Watch Out For
Trips to Tijuana or other nearby Mexican beach towns can be problematic, especially on ship departure days. Border crossings are long and unpredictable, and violence and crime, plus rising prices for everything from tequila to sombreros, act to deter even savvy locals from making the trip.
There are many reasons why Balboa Park is world famous. The 1,200-acre park in the center of the city is home to the San Diego Zoo, Museum of Man, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego Natural History Museum, Museum of Photographic Arts and 14 other museums. Enjoy theater on the Old Globe's three stages and free concerts at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Balboa Park also has eight glorious gardens, ranging from the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden to the Japanese Friendship Garden. Learn about architectural, ranger-led, historical and horticultural tours at the Visitor's Center in the House of Hospitality (open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily). A free Balboa Park Trolley (9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in summer; 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in winter) stops throughout the park and various public parking lots.
For a long time, San Diego was famous mostly for its zoo. Still a top attraction, the San Diego Zoo draws millions of visitors to view pandas, rhinos, tigers, elephants and so much more. Miles of trails wind through the zoo's lush 100 acres perched on the north side of Balboa Park, so a map and good walking shoes are essential. The best way to begin a visit is to get oriented with the entertaining 35-minute guided bus tour. An Express Bus also lets you hop-on and hop-off at five popular stops around the zoo. There's a lot to see, so plan on at least a four-hour visit. (2920 Zoo Drive; open daily, hours vary)
Located on 190 acres on the shores of Mission Bay Park, SeaWorld San Diego attracts more than 150 million visitors annually. Since opening in 1964, it has become San Diego's leading paid tourist attraction and one of the most popular marine-life parks in the world. The park offers guests a number of up-close and personal experiences with dolphins, beluga whales and penguins. The theme park also entertains with wet-and-wild thrill rides and shows featuring a cast of marine animals including, of course, Shamu and friends. (500 Sea World Drive; 800-257-4268; hours vary)
Within easy walking distance of the port are the Gaslamp Quarter and Little Italy, the dining and nightlife centers of the city. It's hard to believe they were sketchy destinations years ago, but in recent decades, both have blossomed into a modern urban entertainment centers with dozens of restaurants, outdoor cafes and trendy shops. Both have their own charm and character; enjoy the Gaslamp's beautifully restored Victorian buildings, and savor Little Italy's historic and authentic Italian atmosphere. Frequent entertainment events and festivals pack streets in both neighborhoods throughout the year. If you happen to be in port on a Saturday, the Little Italy Mercato farmer's market is one of the city's best, drawing customers, including chefs, from around the county.
The Embarcadero, downtown's bayside district, which includes the cruise port, is home to the Maritime Museum of San Diego and the USS Midway Museum. The Maritime Museum (1492 N. Harbor Drive; 619-234-9153; open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily) offers a renowned collection of historic ships including the magnificent Star of India, the oldest (1863) active sailing ship in the world. It's hard to miss the USS Midway Museum, just south of the cruise terminal (910 N. Harbor Drive; 619-544-9600; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily). In the few years since the hulking WWII-era air craft carrier permanently docked in the city, it has become one of the region's top attractions. Vets and non-vets will enjoy the 60-plus exhibits and 30 restored aircraft parked on the flight deck and in the hanger bays.
Been There, Done That
Get the adrenaline flowing as you serve as a crew member on the 1992 racing yacht Stars & Stripes USA-11 made famous by Dennis Conner -- even though he didn't win -- during the America's Cup held in San Diego. Trim the sails and take the helm as the yacht speeds around San Diego Bay. You'll pay about $100 per person for a three-hour sail.
During the winter months, numerous whale-watching services offer cruises and aerial tours out to the ocean where the giant mammals can be spotted on their annual migration south. Seas can be rough, so dress warmly and bring seasickness medication. During other times of the year, these companies offer harbor excursions with views of San Diego Bay landmarks, the nation's largest naval fleet and harbor.
Kayaking is the sport for ocean-lovers who would rather sit, than swim. Ocean Experience kayak tours introduce students to the fundamentals of kayaking while gliding past the scenic San Diego coastline. Kayak clinics are offered every Saturday and Sunday for two hours starting at 9 a.m. Cost is $70, with all equipment provided.
Legoland California in Carlsbad, about 45 minutes from downtown San Diego, delights all ages with its interactive attractions constructed from the colored building blocks. The 128-acre theme park also offers rides and shows. (1 Legoland Drive; 760-918-5346; open daily but closed Tuesday and Wednesday during select seasons)
Best for Surfing: In funky Ocean Beach, the long stretch of sandy beach from Sunset Cliffs Natural Park north to the jetty offers prime surfing. Smaller breaks north of the pier are ideal for beginners, while larger waves off Sunset Cliffs can give experienced surfers a great ride. Before paddling out, check the daily rip currents report posted at the lifeguard station north of the pier.
Best for Families: With lifeguards, wide swaths of sand and tame waves, Coronado and La Jolla Shores represent the best of San Diego's many family-friendly beach spots.
Coronado visitors frolic on long, broad beaches. The immaculate white sand beach is bordered by mansions, shops, restaurants and bars. The historic Hotel del Coronado's 1500 Ocean restaurant offers fine dining steps from the Pacific.
Twenty-five minutes north of downtown is La Jolla Shores, an expansive beach and grassy park that abut wealthy La Jolla village, which features upscale dining and retail sites. Near the beach, small boutiques sell sun wear and beach gear. Casual dining to fit most any budget also can be enjoyed.
Best for Nature-Lovers: Torrey Pines State Beach north of La Jolla gives nature lovers the option of enjoying sun and sand au natural. This popular destination includes views of the nearby Torrey Pines Glider Port where hang-gliders swoop above stunning sandstone cliffs. Extensive hiking trails climb to ocean vistas before wending back to the shore that includes secluded Black's Beach where it's perfectly legal to soak up sun in the buff. The northern section of beach, near the parking areas parallel to the highway, are just fine for those who would rather not experience their fellow sunbathers or themselves sans suits.
Many San Diego restaurants celebrate farm-to-table cuisine, drawing from the area's abundant specialty growers and fishing enterprises. Mexican food abounds, too; it seems there's a taco shop on every commercial block in this city where fish tacos were made famous. A boom of craft brewers have made San Diego a mecca for beer lovers from around the world who travel there to sample acclaimed neighborhood gastropubs.
The Fish Market and Top of the Market will satisfy seafood cravings. These popular seafood restaurants owned by the same company are a few blocks south of the cruise terminal; they occupy a large waterfront building with stunning views across the bay to Coronado. Go casual downstairs or find fine dining upstairs. The restaurant has its own fishing fleet, so you know the catch is fresh and local. No wonder the clam chowder and cioppino are menu favorites. (750 N. Harbor Drive, between Kettner Boulevard and G Street; 619-234-4867; open 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday to Saturday)
Since celebrity chef Brian Malarkey opened Searsucker in 2010, this flag-ship restaurant has become the Gaslamp's best for food and high-energy atmosphere. You'll be in the middle of the action while savoring Malarkey's upscale down-home fare like duck fat fries and a two-patty burger with secret sauce. If you prefer a quiet place to chat and dine, this isn't for you. The restaurant also serves one of the best lobster rolls east of Nantucket. (611 5th Avenue, between Market and G streets; 619-233-7327; lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Saturday, Sunday brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday and Sunday and 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday to Saturday)
Bertrand at Mister A's, the venerable hilltop fine-dining restaurant with stunning city and bay views, has served up celebratory fine dining for decades. Rejuvenated in decor and cuisine, it offers an extensive menu of traditional dishes with a contemporary twist -- like their signature king and blue crab salad or the irresistible Snicker Bar Mousse. The decor and setting is upscale, but the professional staff keeps the experience friendly and relaxed. The nightly happy hour is one of the city's best; so is the new brunch. Tip: Park for free on the street after 6 p.m.; there's no validation for the underground garage. (2550 5th Avenue, 12th Floor, between Laurel and Maple streets; 619-239-1377; open 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday to Sunday)
A North Park gem, Carnitas' Snack Shack offers a dining experience that is quintessential San Diego. Chef Hanis Cavin has single-handedly created a new category of gourmet cuisine based on the humble hog. The place is tiny; a walk-up window often has a long line of hungry fans eager to devour a plate of carnitas tacos or a triple-threat pork sandwich. A small but delightful patio in the back fills up quickly.
(2632 University Avenue, between Pershing Avenue and Villa Terrace; 619-294-7675; open noon to midnight Wednesday to Monday, closed Tuesday)
It's hard to top Tom Ham's Lighthouse restaurant's incredible view across the bay to the downtown skyline. A remodel added al fresco dining and a new seafood-focused menu (lobster bouillabaisse, paella, etc.) by Chef Lance Repp. The family-owned institution also serves a popular Sunday seafood brunch. Make reservations to get outdoor tables, and don't leave without trying the banana peanut butter pie topped with bacon-infused toffee. (2150 Harbor Island Drive; 619-291-9110; open 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday to Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday)
Judging by lines out the door at the 60,000-square foot monument to beer and good food, Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens at Liberty Station is a crowd pleaser. Dishes on the limited all-day and brunch menu, ranging from bison short ribs to barbecue duck tacos and chicken tikka masala, are designed to be paired with Stone's artisan brews. Decor -- tumbling water, granite walls and boulders -- provides a wow, whether dining inside or out. It's family friendly, too; kids are welcome. Reservations recommended. Tip: Some dishes are spicy hot; ask your server for ones that suit your heat tolerance. (2816 Historic Decatur Road, suite 116; 619-269-2100; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday)
Family Friendly Near the Cruise Terminal: Embassy Suites offers free cooked-to-order breakfasts and appetizers and beverages at the complimentary evening reception. Every room is a two-room suite at this hotel located across the street from the USS Midway Museum and Seaport Village shopping and dining. A five-minute walk takes you into the Gaslamp Quarter and its lively restaurant and shopping scene. (601 Pacific Highway)
High-Rise Luxury: Omni San Diego Hotel is tall, sleek and centrally located between East Village and the Gaslamp Quarter, with a host of restaurants within a few blocks. Dining options include McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant. An elevated walkway carries you directly into Petco Park, home of MLB's Padres, and the San Diego Trolley stops in front of the hotel. (675 L Street)
Trendy Downtown Boutique: Hotel Solamar is a hip modern hotel near the Gaslamp Quarter. It's part of the Kimpton Hotels, which are known for hosted afternoon happy hours. The hotel has a large rooftop pool deck and lounge overlooking downtown and is the home of Jsix, one of the best New American cuisine restaurants in the Gaslamp Quarter. (435 6th Avenue)
Affordable in Old Town: Old Town Inn is within easy walking distance of historic Old Town, which features restaurants, shops and museums. It's about five minutes by car to the cruise terminal (depending on traffic). Just across the street is the Old Town Transit Station where frequent trolleys transport you to downtown San Diego. They also stop at the Santa Fe Train Depot; from there it's about a five-minute walk to the cruise terminal. (4444 Pacific Highway)
Budget by the Bay: The family-owned Dolphin Motel in Point Loma has been a favorite of sport fisherman for decades and has a great reputation for low rates, comfort and cleanliness. It's located in Point Loma, just west of San Diego International Airport and about four miles from the cruise terminal. Point Loma Seafoods, a local favorite casual seafood dining spot, is across the street. (2912 Garrison Street)
Best for First-Timers: Cruise lines offer some form of a four- to five-hour San Diego Highlights shore excursion. Most of the itineraries are similar, with motor coach tours beginning at the cruise ship terminal and wending through the Gaslamp Quarter, across the bridge to Coronado Island and the iconic Hotel del Coronado built in 1889. The tony beach communities of La Jolla, Old Town and Balboa Park are other destinations generally included in these tours.
Best Land and Sea: Four-hour San Diego by Land and Sea tours are a fun and non-strenuous way to explore the city and its busy harbor. After visits to the Gaslamp Quarter and Old Town, buses return to the Embarcadero for a two-hour narrated tour of San Diego Bay aboard one of the large harbor cruise boats. Enjoy sandwiches, snacks and beverages as you cruise past the blue Coronado Brides and historic Naval Air Station North Island and its giant aircraft carriers.
Best for Zoo Lovers: Cruise lines offer visits to the San Diego Zoo, located near Balboa Park, or San Diego Zoo Safari Park in North County. While tours usually don't include meals, both parks offer many dining choices -- from fancy sit-down restaurants to hotdog and popcorn push-carts. If you're on a budget, consider taking a cab to the zoo or renting a car for the day to visit Safari Park. You'll get the same experience for about half the price or less.
For More Information
Call the San Diego Tourism Authority
Cruise Critic Message Boards: North American Homeports
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: California Travel Guide
--by Ron and Mary James, Cruise Critic contributors
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.