Not only is San Diego one of the most beautiful cities in the United States, it can also compete with any other city in the world. Famous for its pristine coastlines, constant sunshine and electric nightlife, this city offers no shortage of sights and attractions. Situated in the state of California, the “City by the Bay” has something for everyone because San Diego truly has it all.
Arguably the most colorful of San Diego’s attractions, Old Town dates back to the time of the arrival of the early Spaniards in California. Old Town San Diego has been designed to reflect the history of early California via daily shows, monthly festivities, artisan works, dining opportunities and a host of beautiful stores that give the area a festive air that you shouldn’t miss out on.
Meanwhile, visitors to San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter can expect to be dazzled by 21 blocks of sidewalk cafes, open air restaurants, microbreweries, resident artists, jazz clubs and late night dancing. Regarded as the historic heart of San Diego, the Gaslamp Quarter is worth a visit while in San Diego.
Lined with picturesque buildings, flowing fountains, plush lawns and over 25 museums, Balboa Park is regarded as the largest urban cultural park in the United States. The park is also home to theaters, carousels, shops and many more attractions worth a visit. Spend a day at Balboa Park, the definitive cultural hub of San Diego, and soak up the stunning setting as you explore the attractions it houses.
While it may be tempting to spend your entire vacation exploring, don’t forget to leave some time for a history lesson in America’s finest city. Head over to the Maritime Museum of San Diego, a well-regarded and highly interactive museum that shows off the maritime heritage of the city.
Your trip to San Diego will not be complete without spending some time at one of its numerous picturesque beaches. While the immaculate beaches to enjoy are many, the absolute must-see stretch of beach is found at Coronado Silver Strand.
Beach lovers will also delight at the wonderful natural offerings of Shell Beach in La Jolla; although there’s much more to La Jolla than its spectacular beaches. Go here to admire the beautiful town that’s ringed with blue waters, and which just happens to be one of the prettiest Oceanside towns in California.
San Diego’s coastal seat makes for an ideal destination for the adventurous at heart. Whether you are hiking along sandstone cliffs, or strolling through the frothy surf of dazzling beaches, you’ll find little reason to stray far from the natural wonders of this amazing American city. San Diego’s numerous and varied activities are designed to ensure that you don’t have the time to get bored during your visit.
1. Balboa Park
Situated in El Prado, Balboa Park is the largest cultural complex west of the Mississippi. Boasting a high concentration of cultural institutions within its boundaries, Balboa Park was originally built in 1915. Full of architectural grandeur, cultural treasures, stunning gardens, lush landscapes and award-winning performing arts, it will take you more than a day to see it all.
While the buildings at Balboa Park are beautiful enough to be regarded as attractions in themselves, the real draw here is the culture, science, history and arts that are enclosed within their walls. Among the attractions found in this magnificent cultural complex are 15 museums, 8 major gardens, a botanical building, outdoor gardens and a Tony Award-winning theater.
Balboa Park’s many museums cover every interest, from the Museum of Man to the Museum of Art. With over 15 museums, the park is one of the richest cultural areas in the western United States.
Highlights of the Balboa Park major gardens included the Botanical Building. This was the largest wood lath structure in the world when it was built in 1915. Today it is home to 2,100 permanent specimens of tropical plants. Also visit the Japanese Friendship Garden, and the Zoro Garden which is a sunken butterfly garden.
Palm Canyon is an oasis that contains 450 palms. The Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden was voted as one of the world’s top rose gardens. Desert Garden features 2.5 acres of drought-resistant plants and succulents from all around the world.
Visitors can also enjoy performance arts at Balboa Park. The Old Globe Theatre was the winner of the 1984 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre, and currently produces 14 works on 3 stages annually. Also visit the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre where you will find performers with lots of strings attached.
At the Starlight Bowl, you can enjoy performances by the Starlight Musical Theater during July and August. Also worth a peek is the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, one of the largest outdoor pipe organs in the world. It hosts year-round Sunday organ concerts, in addition to the annual Summer International Organ Festival.
If you plan on visiting more than two of the numerous attractions found here, consider getting the Balboa Park Passport which is available at any of the 13 attractions it can get you into. For an even better deal, plan your visit on the days that offer free admission into 2-5 locations each week.
2. Old Town
Most visitors to Old Town San Diego go for shopping at the numerous stores that stock nice handicrafts. Others go to enjoy a large platter of enchiladas and tacos, washed down with a margarita. But history buffs can also get their fix by poking around inside the historic buildings of Old Town, as they imagine life in early California.
As the first European settlement in what is now California, Old Town San Diego’s roots were founded when a Spanish mission was built there in 1769. But by the 1820s, the settlers had moved into Gaslamp Quarter, closer to the water, leaving their “old town” behind.
Nestled in the heart of San Diego, Old Town San Diego is centered on the oldest area of the first European settlement, and includes a state historic park and related historic sites situated outside the park.
The State Historic Park takes up 9 square blocks and preserves numerous historic structures, five of which were built of adobe bricks. These include the first schoolhouse in California, the first newspaper office in the state, a stable and a blacksmith shop.
The preserved buildings are each a small museum in themselves which provide a glimpse into San Diego life between the years 1821 and 1872. The historic buildings offer a good way of learning about the early history of California.
Old Town is where you get to learn about life during the Mexican and early American periods, as the cultures converged to transform San Diego from a Mexican pueblo into a European settlement. The historic plaza is a gathering ground for community events, fiesta, historical activities, living history programs, as well as numerous restaurants, museums and retail shops that surround the plaza.
A pleasant cultural experience awaits every visitor to Old Town San Diego, the birthplace of California. Here you can get a glimpse into early California through the 20 museums, art galleries, artisans and shops.
Visitors can also enjoy live entertainment from folkloric dancers, mariachis and artists. Fine or casual dining opportunities abound in the multiple regional and international cuisines available at this site that has the highest concentration of Mexican restaurants in the entire San Diego area.
Old Town offers a romantic and charming mix of whitewashed mud brick buildings with Spanish tile roofs; while the wooden storefronts resemble something straight out of an Old West town.
The shops found here today mostly sell Mexican-style pottery, tinwork and more. Go on a pleasant stroll here, while window shopping. You can also extend your route to outside the park and head down San Diego Avenue.
Another fun way of connecting with California’s past is via the Living History demonstrations of life during the 19th century. Fans of the paranormal can join in the Old Town ghost tours that begin from in front of Casa de Reyes during the evenings.
The park also hosts many celebrations of holidays and historic events. In December, visitors can attend Holiday in the Park, which features performance tours and recreations of the holidays in the 1860s. In addition to the specialty festivals which are held year-round at Old Town, the largest celebrations of Dia de los Muertos and Cinco de Mayo in the city of San Diego take place here.
At the edge of the State Historic Park is the Old Town Market which offers more shopping opportunities. Here you can enjoy a tour of a reconstructed 1853 adobe house, a restored convent dating from 1908, and a new theatre. There is also a museum full of archaeological finds. Another Old Town historic site in the area but situated outside the confines of the state park include the “haunted” Whaley House.
3. Gaslamp Quarter
With origins dating from the mid-19th century, Gaslamp Quarter is situated in downtown San Diego, near the Convention Center.
The attraction rises from blocks of Victorian-era buildings and modern skyscrapers that stand side by side, and houses over 100 of the finest restaurants, nightclubs, pubs and retail shops in San Diego. The District is a veritable playground rich in cultural offering that includes art galleries, concert venues, symphony halls, museums and theaters.
An area of great architectural charm, the Gaslamp Quarter has streets lined with original nineteenth-century buildings, along with others moved in from different parts of San Diego, all restored to their original exuberance. Restaurants, clubs and shops now occupy the former salons and brothels. Walk the streets and admire the historic buildings.
A random walk in Gaslamp Quarter will give you a sense of the place, allowing you to enjoy pleasant buildings, do some shopping, and enjoy a bite to eat. Visit the restaurants, night clubs and shops. Boutique shops offer interesting wares alongside souvenir vendors, with Horton Plaza comprising the local shopping center.
Visitors can easily spend an entire day in Gaslamp Quarter, shopping at one of the numerous retail stores at Horton Plaza. Lovers of the paranormal will enjoy the night-time ghost tour of the Gaslamp Quarter, which makes for a good alternative for those who wish to be out at night but don’t want to go clubbing. Also visit some of the museums and be thrilled by their interactive exhibits.
Dining options also abound with plenty of opportunities for al fresco dining on the sidewalks of this cosmopolitan and dynamic district. You can have your meal sky high on a rooftop lounge, or inside an intimate restaurant featuring ornate designs.
On a cool California evening, the Gaslamp Quarter transforms into a sophisticated playground under a sparkling night sky. This is when thousands of residents and tourists come out in style for a night of fine dining, live theater, craft cocktails, music and dancing. Enjoy a signature cocktail made by a creative mixologist at a rooftop bar or groove the night away at a happening night club.
There’s nothing like sipping a cold drink at an outdoor patio on a warm day. And you can do this from one of Gaslamp Quarter’s rooftop bars as you enjoy panoramic views of the downtown, Coronado Bridge and San Diego Bay.
4. Coronado Beach
There’s a quiet, laid-back simplicity to Coronado that visitors enjoy, in addition to its beautiful views of the downtown San Diego skyline. But it’s the white sandy beaches of Coronado that have consistently earned it many ratings as one of the top ten beaches in America.
Situated on the Coronado peninsula just across the Big Bay, across the bay from downtown San Diego, Coronado Beach is a great beach for every type of beach lover. With Downtown Coronado nearby, the beach offers gentle waves and lots of fine, clean sand. Its surroundings are also pretty with the interesting architecture of Hotel Del Coronado displayed beautifully on the oceanfront.
Coronado Beach is a lovely place to take a stroll. Take off your shoes and walk barefoot at the surf’s edge, or stay on the paved pathway close by, stopping to watch the sun set from one of the benches. To avoid the crowds, head over to north Coronado Beach which is less busy. The beach is ideal for simply roaming around and playing in the sand. You can also attend the fun evening bonfire on the beach.
The most popular section of Coronado Beach is situated around the Hotel Del Coronado. This must-see hotel is said to be the inspiration behind Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. The sprawling rusty red and white, Victorian-style seaside hotel was opened in 1888. Today a national historic landmark, the hotel has hosted many famous and infamous of the 20th century, and is also said to house a resident ghost!
The legendary hotel is an American treasure with more than 125 years of stories to tell. It is said that the founders of the hotel dreamed of creating a seaside resort that would be “the talk of the Western world” – and they did. Since then, the resort has become a living legend visited by dignitaries, celebrities and presidents.
Rated by USA Today as one of the top 10 hotels in the world, the Del Coronado continues to maintain its rich history while offering contemporary conveniences such as unique beachfront dining experiences, shopping, an award-winning spa, and various recreational activities. The spectacular setting of the hotel, its award-winning service and impeccable cuisine also deserve mention.
Consistently named one of the best in the world, the hotel features a number of amazing ocean view bars and restaurants and breathtaking Victorian architecture with its signature red turrets. You don’t have to stay at the hotel to enjoy it. Visitors can browse the historic photographs and exhibits or enjoy a nice meal on the terrace.
The Coronado Peninsula is also famous for the distinctive San Diego-Coronado Bridge that is worth a peek during your visit here.
But beyond its architectural marvels, Coronado’s island community offers visitors an experience that is worlds apart, with a charming quaintness typical of small towns, old-world mansions, elegant gardens, unique shopping experiences and dining options with spectacular ocean views. It’s no wonder that the region has been dubbed “The Crown City” after Coronado which is Spanish for “the crowned one”.