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Travel to the edge of America and you end up in San Diego, wedged between the Anza-Borrego Desert, the Mexican border, the Pacific Ocean, and the Orange County/Los Angeles sprawl. The nation's sixth-largest city is tucked so far down in the southwest corner of the map it often escapes attention and is rarely mentioned in the national news, almost as if it exists only as a backdrop for major events.
San Diegans hosted the 1988 Super Bowl, showing off palm trees and tans to football fans on the East Coast huddled between their fireplaces and TV sets. Sailors watched the best boats from all over the world flap their sails in San Diego's winds during the 1992 and 199S America's Cup races. Alcoholics Anonymous assembled more than 60,000 members from all over the world for a convention here in 1995, and the Republican Party chose San Diego for its 1996 Republican National Convention. Conventioneers love San Diego, and with good reason. The city is so mellow, pretty, and laid-back that stress just melts away. There's never been an earthquake as intense as those in LA and San Francisco just a few tremors to remind locals of their faults. And San Diego escapes the flooding, fires, and tension that plague other parts of Southern California. Nothing dramatic happens here, which drives some of San Diego's 2.6 million residents to distraction. But it drives others to create great science, art, theater, and literature. There's a reason Dr. Seuss and Dr. Salk both took up residence here.
San Diego's history is lightly buried under its modern facade. The beachfront lawns, cascades of bougainvillea,and sky-high palms all came from elsewhere. The region's original Kumeyaay residents lived in a brown landscape of rocks, chaparral, and sand. In 1769 Spanish explorers and missionaries chose San Diego's Presidio Hill for their first fort and Franciscan mission in what was then known as Alta California. The early settlers built their first homes and shops at the base of the hill in what is now called Old Town. The developers of the mid-1800s moved their centers of commerce to the shores of San Diego, laying the foundation for today's downtown. By the late 1800s San Diego's first building boom was on, to be followed every few decades by another.
San Diego's first big national attention-getter was the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition, designed to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. The exposition's greatest effect on the city was an architectural one. Several of San Diego's most significant buildings were built during that era, from the Spanish-Moorish palaces in Balboa Park to the Spanish-Colonial-style Santa Fe Depot downtown. Stroll through the park on a Sunday morning, or better yet on a weekday in late afternoon, and enjoy the sights. It's one of the city's greatest attractions, so old (by San Diego standards) that it seems almost natural.
But ultimately, San Diego's heart is at the beach. Grab a pair of in-line skates and cruise the Mission Beach Boardwalk, or sip a cappuccino by La Jolla Cove. Build a bonfire on Coronado's Silver Strand; ride the waves on a boogie board in Ocean Beach. Once the sand gets between your toes you'll be hooked.
For culture and culinary thrills, visit the village of La Jolla's tony galleries and trendy cafes. Do as the locals do and order a glass of white wine and seared ahi at George's Cafe overlooking the cove, or cruise Prospect Street in a limo. For more exciting nightlife head downtown, where the white sails of the San Diego Convention Center glow against a neon-laced skyline. Take your chances on getting a table at Fio's, Croce's, or one of the many other cafes in the Gaslamp Quarter, where shops and cafes stay open past midnight.
Got a few more days? Drive to the Cleveland National Forest and ride mountain bikes through Julian. Pose beside a blossoming ocotillo cactus in the Anza-Borrego Desert; go sleigh-riding on Mount Laguna. And don't forget to cross the border into Tijuana for a taste of Mexico.