San Diego County:
From sun-kissed shoreline to inland desertscapes, wide open spaces meet urban culture and history

Christine Delsol and Maribeth Mellin


California has no shortage of beach towns, but San Diego is its only “beach city,” with the state’s second-largest population but also 70 miles of scenic coastline and an ideal climate (averaging 70 degrees) in which to enjoy them. Those sands, a wealth of outdoor recreation and family-oriented attractions are the city’s primary lure, but San Diego takes the “city” part seriously, too. Arts and intellectual pursuits enjoy deep support here, and writers, artists, musicians and scientists find inspiration while surfing at La Jolla Shores or jogging in Mission Bay Park. The Tony-winning Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse frequently send plays to Broadway. Scientific landmarks include the Salk Institute and Scripps Institute of Oceanography, magnets for some of the world’s brightest minds.

Downtown’s diversions alone could easily fill a week. Something is always going on in the Gaslamp Quarter, Little Italy and East Village, neighborhoods packed with restaurants, clubs and shops. The Embarcadero traces San Diego Bay’s edge, offering access to the USS Midway aircraft carrier turned museum; the Maritime Museum with its venerable Star of India’s tall sails and new San Salvador, a replica of Spanish explorers’ ships; the expansive Waterfront Park; and the sail-like rooftop of the San Diego Convention Center.

Cruise ships berth at the foot of Broadway, the main artery into downtown, and passengers into San Diego International Airport fly over high-rise business towers to land at the northern edge of downtown. Just a couple of blocks from the Embarcadero, the Santa Fe Depot also funnels Amtrak passengers into the city center. Hotels of every description and hip-quotient are scattered throughout the city’s core, making it one of the region’s most desirable places to stay while exploring the county.

A Bridge to Coronado

The swooping San Diego-Coronado Bridge connects downtown to Coronado, a genteel city with an active Navy base. Its “island” actually is a peninsula tethered to the mainland by the Silver Strand, a narrow strip of road and sand running past quiet lagoons and pristine beaches to the southern part of the county. Whether you arrive by bridge or by ferry, Coronado promises serenity by one of the world’s loveliest beaches—named America’s best by Dr. Beach in 2012—after the rigors of urban exploring. The Victorian confection called the Hotel del Coronado commands this broad sweep of impeccable white sand. Coronado’s beguiling simple pleasures include shopping and dining on Orange Avenue, skimming the water through the Coronado Cays in a gondola, visiting the Coronado Museum of History & Art, ogling the San Diego skyline from Tidelands Park and, on the other side of the bridge, teeing off at the stellar Coronado Municipal Golf Course on Glorietta Bay.

Balboa Park

San Diego’s century-old cultural heart occupies 1,200 acres of hills and canyons just east of downtown. It hosts 16 museums and The Old Globe theater, winner of multiple Tony Awards. Its most famous tenant, the justly renowned San Diego Zoo, celebrates its Centennial in 2016 with a huge new Africa Rocks exhibit. Gourmet restaurants and gorgeous Victorian mansions line quiet streets in nearby neighborhoods such as Bankers Hill, Hillcrest and Mission Hills.

Beach Towns

The coast between the Mexican border (18 miles south of downtown) and Oceanside is lined with beach towns. Each has a unique character, from Ocean Beach’s hippie holdover vibe to classy La Jolla’s Mediterranean village atmosphere. Beloved by surfers and escapists with sufficient wherewithal, a series of small communities line the coast north of La Jolla’s pristine Torrey Pines State Reserve.

City & Town

Prescient developers and preservationists have given San Diego an exciting, cosmopolitan downtown with several hip neighborhoods, beginning with the historic Gaslamp Quarter in the 1980s. Its picturesque streets are packed with classy restaurants and clubs in restored 19th-century Victorian, Baroque and Frontier buildings. Petco Park, downtown’s exceptional baseball stadium and sometime concert venue, spurred development of the burgeoning East Village neighborhood filled with trendy condo complexes, boutiques, cafés and a stunning Central Library. Little Italy, a few blocks north of downtown’s core, managed to hold on to some venerable pizza parlors, bakeries and bars while evolving from a simple Italian community into a desirable urban neighborhood of modernist condo complexes, trendy shops and gourmet restaurants helmed by some of the region’s top chefs.

As the hub of San Diego’s nightlife scene, the entire downtown now pulses with energy day and night. The city has become one of the nation’s top craft beer meccas, with more than 90 breweries with a huge collection of awards.

The urban core continues uptown through such established neighborhoods as Bankers Hill and Hillcrest, the lively heart of the LGBT community. A brand-new neighborhood continues to evolve on the site of the former Naval Training Center, now called Liberty Station. The mixed-use project already has completed the Point Loma residential area, along with stores, office space, galleries and educational facilities. The capstone, occupying the base’s Spanish Colonial-style former commissary building, is the new Liberty Public Market, next to the existing Stone Brewery and Restaurant.

The Great Outdoors

Surfers, swimmers, boaters and anglers all play in and on the Pacific Ocean, from Mission Beach’s boardwalk and Belmont Park’s historic Giant Dipper roller coaster to La Jolla Shores’ mile-long beach with kayaking, diving, surfing and swimming areas. Electric orange Garibaldi and other exotic fish—including curious but harmless leopard sharks in late summer—draw snorkelers to La Jolla Cove, and harbor seals have taken charge of the nearby Children’s Pool.

East and north of the city center, the landscape abruptly gives way to rolling foothills and canyons. Lakes and reservoirs offer freshwater fishing and tranquility. The vast Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, home of “California’s Grand Canyon” at Fonts Point, provides hiking trails through palm canyons and fields of cacti, and puts on dazzling spring wildflower displays.

Heritage & Culture

Explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, long claimed by Portugal but now believed to have been Spanish, discovered San Diego Bay in 1542 but sailed on north, leaving the Kumeyaay Indians to their warm, bountiful home. San Diego County’s 18 tribes represent the largest concentration in the country, and more than half benefit today from casinos in the east and north county areas.

Cabrillo’s brief but momentous stay is commemorated at Cabrillo National Monument at the tip of Point Loma overlooking the bay. European settlers who returned in 1769 built a fort and mission church at Presidio Hill, a gorgeous swath of lawns above Old Town State Historic Park, which contains many of San Diego’s oldest buildings. Today’s downtown evolved in a burst of development in 1867, producing the historic homes that give the vibrant Gaslamp Quarter its character.

Family Fun

Adults and children alike relish the San Diego Zoo and its separate Safari Park, LEGOLAND California and SeaWorld San Diego. Downtown’s New Children’s Museum is an eco-friendly playground for all ages, with multicultural, bilingual exhibits that make learning fun, and its adjacent one-acre park allows kids to burn energy. Teens flock to fighter planes and flight simulators at the USS Midway Museum; the aircraft carrier is the most-visited ship museum in the world. Top choices for inexpensive entertainment: Bicycling at Mission Bay and Coronado, fishing off piers in Imperial Beach and Ocean Beach, stargazing from Mount Palomar and spotting spring wildflowers in the Anza-Borrego Desert.

Big Bear Lake