Popular San Diego Shore Excursions
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 daily 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. June to September; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. after Labor Dayy) 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.
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.