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Doing what the others do — only differently
San Diego ranks with San Francisco and Los Angeles as one of California's most visited cities. Although balmy weather is one of Sunshine City's greatest drawing cards, people come for its many attractions as well. Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo, Sea World and Mission Bay Park are its major lures. However, there are dozens of other reasons to set your compass for San Diego, and this chapter focuses on both the obvious an the hidden lures of this sunbathed city.
As we mentioned in the introductory chapter, when we discuss attractions in San Diego, we include the contiguous communities of Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach and La Jolla, which are just up the coast and — in fact — part of metropolitan San Diego. We also include Coronado, which is a separate community.
A NOTE ABOUT OUR LISTINGS * Before we begin, we should point out that each Ten Best list starts with our personal favorite, followed by the next nine in alphabetical order. Thus, there are no losers in this book; only winners and runners up. (When items aren't directly related, our ten selections are listed in no particular order.)
PRICING: Since prices frequently change, we use dollar-sign price codes to indicate the approximate cost of adult admission to various attractions: $ = under $5; $$ = $5 to $9; $$$ = $10 to $14 ; $$$ = $15 to $19 = $$$$$ = $20 or more. And you already know that prices are almost always less for seniors and kids.
WHEN TO VISIT SAN DIEGO'S TEN BEST ATTRACTIONS
Every visitor to San Diego wants to see its main attractions. It's hardly necessary to compile a list suggesting that you go to Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo, that you pay your respects to Mission San Diego de Alcal, play in Mission Bay Park and say "Hi!" to Shamu at Sea World.
However, these places aren't much fun if you have to burrow through thick crowds, stand in long ticket queues and inhale diesel fumes from tour buses. We therefore take sightseeing a step further, not only selecting our Ten Best San Diego attractions, but suggesting the best times to go see them.
For starters, autumn is the best time to do just about anything here because the weather is wonderfully balmy and Sunshine City is almost unfailingly sunny. Tourists crowds are thinner since visiting kids have had to leave for school, taking their parents with them. Spring is fine as well, since the summer crowds haven't yet arrived and rainfall is relatively light here. Of course, all of you may not have a spring or autumn option, so we'll try to find other ways around the crowds by suggesting the best days to visit.
1. BALBOA PARK IN THE MIDDLE OF A WEEKDAY * The park Visitor Center is in the northwest corner of the House of Hospitality, off Plaza de Panama, across from the San Diego Museum of Art; (619) 239-0512. A seven-day "Passport" costing just over $20 provides admission to about ten of the park's museums and other attraction. With a value of more than $60, it's well worth the investment. Passports are available at the various museums and attractions that honor them. GETTING THERE: Take the Laurel Street exit from I-5 and go uphill, or go north on Fifth Avenue from downtown and turn right onto Laurel, which becomes El Prado (The Promenade) as it enters the park.
If we had time to visit only one attraction in San Diego, it would be Balboa Park, a 1,200-acre mecca of recreation, culture and critters occupying several lumpy mesas creased by wooded canyons. It is a park like no other in America, containing one of the world's largest zoos, most of San Diego's important museums and a fine collection of Spanish-Moorish buildings left over from two international exhibitions.
And the best time to visit this vast complex is midday on a weekday, to avoid both weekend crowds and the commuter traffic that swirls around this area in the early morning and late afternoon. (It doesn't go through the park itself, although getting here and away might be a chore during commute hours.) Of course, with so many attractions and appeals, a thorough visit to the park will require more than one weekday midday. Incidentally, Since Balboa Park is so large, a free tram hauls visitors from one area to the next, daily from 9 to 5:15. Pick up a park map marked with tram stops at the Visitor Center.
City founders set aside this wooded area northeast of downtown for a city park way back in 1868, although development was slow in coming. When San Diego hosted the Panama-California International Exposition in 1915 to celebrate completion of the Panama Canal, a large chunk of this city-owned land was selected for the site. Planners decided to save several of the elaborately detailed Spanish-Moorish exhibit buildings as a focal point for the park. More structures from the 1935-36 California-Pacific International Exposition, built with Depression era WPA labor, contributed to this architectural bounty. Most of these buildings remain today, restored to their intricate finery.
Balboa Park's many attractions appear elsewhere in this book under their own listings. Even without its specific lures, this is a grand place to spend the greater part of a day. Hike its many trails into pine and eucalyptus groves, stroll through one of the park's theme gardens, spread a picnic lunch in Pepper Grove or on a cool lawn, or simply find a place to relax and listen to the 100-bell carillon chime the time from the 200-foot California Tower.
If we could change one thing in Balboa Park, we'd close the entire length of El Prado to vehicle traffic. The section from Plaza de Panama east to Plaza de Balboa is a true promenade. However the segment from the west gate to Plaza de Panama is open to vehicles. And despite its pretty name, Plaza de Panama is — good grief! — a parking lot. C'mon city planners; you can do better than that!
2. BELMONT PARK IN MIDSUMMER * 3146 Mission Blvd.; Mission Beach; (619) 491-2988; roller coaster information (619) 488-1549; Plunge information (619) 488-3110. Most rides operate Sunday-Thursday 11 to 10 and Friday-Saturday 11 to 11 in summer, then Sunday-Thursday 11 to 5 and Friday-Saturday 11 to 9 the rest of the year. Grounds admission free; various prices for rides. GETTING THERE: Take I-8 west to Mission Bay Park and follow West Mission Bay Drive through the park to Mission Beach. Mission Bay Drive blends into Ventura Place beside the amusement center's parking lot.
We normally steer clear of popular attractions in summer. However, this is a summer kind of place. The only remaining beachside amusement park in southern California, Belmont Park is meant to be enjoyed on a warm sunny day, when you can play on the rides, then splash in the nearby surf. (Avoid it on summer weekends, however.)
Ready for a trip into the past? Climb aboard the all-wooden Giant Dipper roller coaster, and take a plunge in The Plunge, a 175-foot indoor pool where Esther Williams and Johnny Weismuller once plunged for the movie cameras. Or catch a ride on the old fashioned Tilt-a-Whirl or the antique carousel. If you'd like to return to the present, there's a large video game parlor called Prime Time and — good grief! — even a MacDonald's.
Ventura Place, the short street opposite Belmont Park's car lot, also resembles a beachside retreat from yesterday, with its shaved ice and hot dog parlors, swimsuit shops and even a tattoo parlor.
Belmont Park was built by San Diego benefactor and sugar magnate John D. Spreckels in 1925 as the New Mission Beach Amusement Center. Later closed and falling into ruin, it was given to the City of San Diego and renovated in the late 1980s. Its Giant Dipper is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
3. BIRCH AQUARIUM ON A SUMMER WEEKDAY * Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 2300 Exhibition Way, La Jolla; (858) 534-3474. Daily 9 to 5. MC/VISA, AMEX; $$ plus $ parking fee. GETTING THERE: Go north about nine miles on I-5 from the I-8 interchange and turn west onto La Jolla Village Drive, which becomes North Torrey Pines Road. About a mile from the freeway, turn left onto Expedition Way.
This fine aquarium and ocean science center is a popular draw for class field trips, so we usually avoid it on school days. So many students will have their little noses pressed to the display tanks that it may be hard to see the octopi and moray eels. On weekends, kids and parents crowd the place, so summer weekdays may be best.
Through the generosity of the Scripps newspaper publishing family, the San Diego Marine Biological Association established an institution in 1903 "to carry out a biological and hydrographic survey of the waters of the Pacific Ocean adjacent to the coast of southern California; (and) to build and maintain a public aquarium and museum."
Thus began one of the world's foremost marine biology labs, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, now operated by the University of California. Its Birch Aquarium is one of the oldest and most respected on the West Coast. Although it lacks some of the monumental exhibits of newer places such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, it is a fine facility, with a strong focus on the sea life of southern California and Baja California. Folks can admire multicolored fish and coral reefs in thirty aquarium exhibits, including a 70,000-gallon tank with an undulating kelp forest.
The excellent "Blue Planet" display focuses on the importance of water to life on earth — without which there would be none. Interactive exhibits chart wave movements and allow visitors to generate thunderstorms. Particularly fun is a simulated grocery shelf display sponsored by Von's Markets, where visitors can use scanners to read barcodes and learn the role that sea life plays in the production of our foods and other essentials.
4. CABRILLO NATIONAL MONUMENT ON A CLEAR DAY * 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive; (619) 557-5450. Daily 9 to 5:30; longer hours in summer; $$. GETTING THERE: The easiest approach is to follow Rosecrans Street (State Route 209) southwest to Point Loma; you can pick it up near the junctions of I-5 and I-8.
Remember that tired cliche about clear days and seeing forever? Cabrillo National Monument occupies the very tip of Point Loma, providing stellar vistas of San Diego Bay, the city skyline beyond and the green hillsides above. You can watch ship traffic enter the harbor, watch planes take off and land from North Island Naval Air Station and San Diego International Airport, and admire the detail of the San Diego skyline.
This also is one of California's most important historic sites. A graphic at the entrance to the interpretive center says it best: "Here we commemorate the bravery and determination of a handful of men of many nationalities who served the flag of Spain and the cross of Christianity in exploring the new word..."
On September 28, 1542, Portuguese navigator Juan Rodrguez Cabrillo, sailing under the Spanish flag, entered nearly landlocked San Diego Bay. He spent six days waiting out a storm and checking out the local Indians, then he continued northward. The museum chronicles the exploits of Cabrillo and other early navigators in the employ of Spain, who were the first outsiders to discover and explore the west coast of America.
This small national monument's other featured attraction is the old Point Loma Lighthouse, occupying a bluff above the museum and visitor center. It served only thirty-six years because it had a fatal flaw; sitting 433 feet above the sea, it often was shrouded in fog. A new lighthouse was built lower down on the point in 1891 and is still in use. Old Point Loma Light is now a museum, furnished as it would have been when Robert Israel and his wife Maria kept the light burning for ships seeking passage into San Diego Bay.
5. MISSION BAY PARK ON A SUNNY WEEKDAY * Northwest of downtown above the I-5 and I-8 junctions. Park headquarters is at 2581 Quivira Court; (619) 221-8900. GETTING THERE: Take the Mission Bay exit from I-5 and go toward the ocean or follow I-8 west and take West Mission Bay Drive northwest. To reach park headquarters, turn onto Quivira Way near the Hyatt Islandia, drive south away from the Hyatt and follow the road to its end.
Once a mosquito-ridden swampland so inhospitable that Juan Cabrillo called it False Bay, Mission Bay rivals Balboa Park as San Diego's most popular playground. It's so large that it is rarely congested, even on warm sunny days. It can get crowded on summer weekends, however. Mission Bay is home to Sea World and six major resort hotels; many are listed elsewhere in the book. However, its best attraction is its great aquatic outdoors — more than twenty-five miles of beaches, acres of lawns, several marinas and water sports areas and miles of walking and biking trails.
Mission Bay is so large and complex that it's easy to get lost. To help find your way about, pick up a map at park headquarters; copies are in a rack outside the entrance if the office is closed.
Reclamation of this swampland was started in the 1950s and when it was completed, old False Bay had been fashioned into a 4,600-acre recreation area, about half water and half land. Even with several resorts, marinas and Sea World, about seventy-five percent of the park is open space.
6. MISSION SAN DIEGO DE ALCALA DURING MASS * 10818 San Diego Mission Rd.; (619) 281-8449. Mission open daily 9 to 5; $. Sunday mass at 7, 8, 10, 11 and noon, and at 5:30; Saturday at 5:30 p.m. and daily at 7 a.m.and 5:30 p.m. GETTING THERE: Follow I-8 about seven miles east from San Diego and take the Mission Gorge Road exit (near the I-15 interchange). Pursue Mission Gorge north for about half a mile through a thick commercial area, then go left on Twain Avenue for another half mile; the mission is on your right.
Whether or not you're a Catholic, you'll get a better sense of the history and charm of this ancient church if you're here during mass, when the voice of the priest and the sounds of music mingle with echoes of the past. Sit beneath those great beam ceilings and imagine yourself in San Diego during its formative years, when this was a haven not for Catholic parishioners and curious tourists, but for frontier priests and "Kumeya'ay" Indians. However, there were no pews then; the native converts sat on reed mats on the floor.
Before or after mass, you can follow a self guiding tour — with a brochure — from the gift shop, past a typically spartan padre's cell, then through the church and into the gardens. A nicely done museum traces the mission's history from its founding through its glory days as an agricultural empire to the Mexican period when its lands were removed, and finally to American occupation and restoration.
Initially established atop Presidio Hill in 1769, the mission was moved to this site in 1774 to be closer to the Indians' agricultural fields — and to get them away from the sometimes pesky soldiers of the presidio. After the American conquest of California, it suffered the indignity of being used as a cavalry barracks from 1846 until 1862, then it was restored to the Catholic Church by order of President Lincoln. Some of the present structures date from 1813, although they've undergone considerable reconstruction and restoration. Mission San Diego has been a parish church since 1941.
7. OLD TOWN DURING CINCO DE MAYO * Old Town San Diego State Historic Park; (619) 220-5422. For Fiesta Cinco de Mayo information, call (619) 299-6055. Park visitor center and historic buildings open daily 10 to 5. Free walking tours daily from 10:30 to 2. Various hours for other Old Town facilities. GETTING THERE: Take the Old Town exit from I-5 or I-8 northwest of the city.
Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in Old Town with food and crafts booths, brightly costumed dancers and other Hispanic capers. Most festivities occur during the week that includes May 5, which is what "Cinco de Mayo" means. (The date commemorates the Battle of Puebla, when an outnumbered Mexican force defeated the invading armies of Napoleon III in 1862.)
Of course, the first week of May is a pretty narrow window for planning a San Diego trip. Actually, just about any time is fine for visiting here, except on weekends. It rivals Balboa Park and Sea World in popularity, and we found it rather crowded even on a cloudy January Sunday.
Old town is a multi-faceted place. The historic park, a traffic-free six square block area, has several exhibits in restored or reconstructed buildings. You'll find everything from adobe homes to the first office of the San Diego Union, dating from 1868. Filling one end of Old Town is Bazaar del Mundo, a wonderfully gaudy shopping complex. Interspersed among Old Town's historic structures are many specialty shops and Mexican restaurants, and others are on nearby streets.
Many of Old Town's features — notably its restaurants and shops — are covered elsewhere in this book. One of our favorite places is the Seeley Stables, a large barn that houses a fine collection of coaches and surreys from the town's earlier days. A second story display area tells the story of the American cowboy, whose roots are traced to the vaqueros of the Mexican Southwest. The stable also contains the state park information center, open daily 10 to 5.
The park's largest and most authentic exhibit is the courtyard style Casa de Estudillo with several rooms and workshops furnished to the early 1800s. If you're a longtime San Diego resident or a past visitor, you'll recall a time when it wasn't authentic at all. San Diego benefactor Adolph Spreckels bought the crumbling ruin in 1909 and had it converted into an inn, and it later became a curio shop and tourist trap. Until 1966, it was known as "Ramona's Marriage Place," based on Helen Hunt Jackson's novel "Ramona," about a seorita who falls in love with an Indian. Many tourists didn't realize that Seorita Ramona was a fictitious character and Ms. Jackson wrote her book in a New York hotel room. (To be fair, she did visit this area in the 1800s and her novel may have been based on some actual events.)
8. SAN DIEGO MARITIME MUSEUM ON A WEEKEND * 1306 N. Harbor Dr.; (619) 234-9153. Daily 8 to 8; $$. GETTING THERE: The three ships that comprise the maritime museum are at the San Diego waterfront alongside Harbor Drive, opposite downtown.
Why a weekend for the maritime museum? For one thing, this facility doesn't draw the heavy crowds of places like the San Diego Zoo, so weekends are usually fine. However, it can get chaotic on some weekdays when local schools conduct field trips. We don't begrudge the little darlings' desires to learn more about ships and sailing. However, it can get a bit hectic when they swarm — jabbering happily — up and down the gangways.
Three historic ships comprise this floating museum — the 1863 sailing bark "Star of India," the 1898 ferryboat "Berkeley" that once plied San Francisco Bay and the unusual steam Yacht "Medea," built in 1904. The "Star of India" is the star of the show, at least in longevity. This fine old sailing ship was acquired by a local group 1927, and it has been on display at the waterfront since 1948. The two other ships were added later. The main deck of the "Berkeley" is a museum devoted to sailing, with a special exhibit on yachting, since the World Cup race has been staged off San Diego. Her upper deck is relatively original, complete with rows of passenger seats and ornate woodwork. Also intact is the boiler room, with its huge steam engines, coal bins and a sooty mannequin "stoker." From the "Berkeley," you can take a gangway down to the "Medea" and peer into a restored turn-of-the-century dining salon, smoking lounge and other elegant oak-paneled accommodations.
The next door "Star of India" is one of the oldest completely restored sailing ships in America. Her small passenger and officers cabins have authentic turn-of-the-century furnishings and the cramped crew quarters — rough tiered bunks — look ready for occupancy. The grand old "Star" cruised all over the world and circled the globe twenty-two times. She hauled everything from lumber along the American coast to English immigrants bound for New Zealand.
9. SAN DIEGO ZOO DURING FEEDING TIME * 2920 Zoo Drive in Balboa Park; (619) 234-3153. Daily 9 to 9 in summer and 9 to 4 the rest of the year. MC/VISA, AMEX; general admission $$$$; combination ticket including admission plus tram tour, kids' zoo and sky tram $$$$$. Combo tickets also available for the San Diego Wild Animal Park. GETTING THERE: Take Park Boulevard into Balboa Park and follow signs.
When we suggest visiting the zoo during feeding time, we're referring to the animals', not yours. When you visit the zoo, check on meal times at the various animal enclosures. All of earth's creatures — including two-legged ones — are more active and more usually interesting at the dinner table. Signs out front also indicate when the rare pandas are on display; they usually come out during cool weather.
Covering more than a hundred acres, with 4,000 animals representing 800 different species, this is one of the world's most honored zoological parks. The San Diego Zoo is a pioneer in the development of realistic animal habitats without bars or cages. It's easy to lose yourself in the wonder of this place and pretend you're in a real rainforest, a tropical gorilla habitat or strolling alongside a hippo wallow. The Polar Bear Plunge is so realistic that you'll forget you're in semi-tropical San Diego. You can see eighty percent of the zoo's exhibits by hopping aboard a tram, although interaction among some of the animals and the tram drivers distracts from the reality of the settings. We like to stroll leisurely along the zoo's many paths and view the critters quietly, and preferably on a slow day, which means an off-season weekday. (The animals usually are more active on cooler days, so winter visits are just fine.)
In addition to housing one of the world's largest animal collections, the San Diego Zoo is famous for its research and conservation work. It has bred many rare and endangered species, including the California condor and the only copulating koalas outside of Australia. The zoo's current effort is to get two giant pandas on loan from China to mate, although "Shi Shi" and "Bai Yun" don't seem to like one another much.
10. SEA WORLD ADVENTURE PARK IN THE OFF-SEASON * In Mission Bay at 1720 South Shores Rd.; (619) 226-3815 or (619) 226-3901 for recorded information. Daily 10 to dusk; later evening hours in summer. MC/VISA, DISC; $$$$$. Admission includes all shows; parking and some rides are extra. GETTING THERE: Follow I-8 west from the I-5 interchange and take the Mission Bay exit north; Sea World comes up shortly on your right.
San Diego's most popular attraction gets very crowded in summer, so plan an off-season visit if possible. The critters there don't mind the cooler weather and they'll put on a fine show for you. If you must go in summer, plan on a weekday and get there early. You can beat the crowds by arriving when the gates open.
Sea World gained international note a couple of decades ago when its Shamu became the globe's first performing killer whale. Shamu is still there, leaping high out of the water and splashing the first seven rows of the seating section, although he's not the original. Like Betty Crocker, Shamu has become a trade name. He and other captive killer whales have done much to gain sympathy for these noble beasts by performing in aquatic parks and appearing in films such as "Free Willie". (Noted marine mammal illustrator Pieter Folkens, who we met on a wildlife cruise, once mused that — since killer whales eat dolphins — perhaps someone should do a movie version of "Flipper" and call it "Free Willie's Lunch.")
Although Shamu is Sea World's star, you can catch several other shows and view a good assortment of aquatic critters, including dolphins (safely out of Shamu's range), penguins, otters, walruses and hundreds of fish varieties in aquarium tanks. Recent additions to this aquatic park are manatees, those highly endangered sea cow type critters from the American South. Wild Arctic is another new exhibit, with polar bears, walruses, seals and other critters from the frozen far north. Sea World is highly respected as an aquatic research center, although the park has gotten a bit hokey. Among its exhibits are a motion simulator ride, "Mission: Bermuda Triangle," and a playland area called "Shamu's Happy Harbor."
THE TEN BEST MUSEUMS
Museum-hopping is easy in San Diego, since most of the city's cultural archives are in Balboa Park. Many are housed in those splendid Spanish-Moorish buildings left over from the international expositions of 1915 and 1936. Several museums have been improved and expanded in recent years, so if you haven't visited them for a while, expect to find some things new.
If you plan to see several museums in Balboa Park, buy a seven-day "Passport," which provides more than $60 worth of admissions for just over $20. It's available at any of the park's participating museums.
1. REUBEN H. FLEET SCIENCE CENTER * In Balboa Park; (619) 238-1233. Various hours for space theater showings; Science Center open daily at 9:30; closing times vary with the seasons. MC/VISA, DISC; $$; combination Science Center and Omnimax movie admission $$$. GETTING THERE: The Science Center is at the far eastern end of El Prado, on Plaza de Balboa.
Completely redone in 1999 and nearly doubled in size, the Fleet Science Center is easily San Diego's finest museum. Further, it's more than a science museum. In addition to many state-of-the-art interactive exhibits, it offers a planetarium and wide screen theater where Omnimax and Imax films are shown. Often, two are scheduled at a time, shown alternately shown during the day.
A really cute exhibit in the Science Center is called "About Faces," in which you capture your image on freeze-frame video and learn that it isn't really symmetrical. You can manipulate that old mug with some very comic results. And do you want to know how computers talk to you and to one another? Traveling light bars demonstrate how binary signals, which translate the alphabet into ASCII language, send messages back and forth. You can become an instant computer programmer and transmit "I love you" or "Pick up a loaf of bread on the way home" to your significant other. At another computer exhibit, you can access the internet, punch in "www.weather.com" and see how miserable things are back home while you frolic in sunny San Diego. One of the science center's most appealing attractions — particularly for kids — is SciTours, which takes visitors on a wild motion-simulator ride through space.
At the museum's gift shop, you can buy science-oriented stuff such as glow-in-the-dark night sky charts and real space food used by the astronauts; would you believe freeze-dried ice cream?
2. MINGEI INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM * In Balboa Park at 1439 El Prado; (619) 239-0003. Tuesday-Sunday 10 to 4; closed Monday; $$. GETTING THERE: Mingei is in the House of Charm on the southwest corner of Plaza de Panama.
Although located in one of El Prado's old Spanish colonial buildings, the Mingei is an airy, modern museum with several permanent exhibit halls around a second-floor mezzanine. The main floor, called the Rotunda Gallery, is used for changing shows. The focus of this fine museum is on international folk art and decorative items used in the daily lives of various ethnic groups. One of the larger exhibits depicts the art and culture of Indonesia and New Guinea, with multicolored masks, dolls, fertility symbols and shadow puppets. A Japanese collection features contemporary decorative bottles, bowls and jars.
Another major exhibit — unless it has been disassembled before you get there — displays the multicolored folk art and furniture of central Europe. Items include cheerful wedding bonnets and costumes, and — tee-hee — a marriage bed with elaborately painted headboards. (It looked too small for two people, but then...)
3. MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART * 700 Prospect St., La Jolla; (858) 454-3541. Tuesday-Saturday 10 to 5 (until 8 p.m. Wednesday), Sunday noon to 5; closed Monday. Also at 1001 Kettner Blvd., downtown San Diego; (619) 234-1001. Tuesday-Saturday 10 to 5 (until 8 p.m. Friday), Sunday noon to 5; closed Monday. $. GETTING THERE: The La Jolla museum is just up from La Jolla Cove in the downtown area, at Prospect and Draper. The San Diego branch is at Kettner near Broadway, across from the Santa Fe depot.
We have a theory that most modern artists are actually humorists who enjoy pulling the collective public leg, and that people attend their exhibits to prove they're enlightened about current cultural trends. And so, in this quite beautiful museum overlooking La Jolla Cove, art patrons nod solemnly at exhibits of a disassembled plastic Jesus, little squares in varying shades of beige, and a pair of boxing gloves hanging by duct tape from a draped rubber tarp. (This one, according to the artist, is making a racial statement about Blacks in the ring.) As we stared quizzically at an important exhibit by the late British artist Francis Bacon of "The Papal Tortures of 1953," a guide explained: "Notice how the yellows draw your eyes right to the soul of the painting." We stared at this blurry portrait of a screaming Pope, nodded in agreement, then moved on to a large metal sculpture of a two-headed half-man, half-woman sprouting from a TV set. That's what happens when you watch "The Simpsons" too often.
The museum's downtown extension is smaller, with equally curious art. Both have very nice selections of books on art and artists.
4. SAN DIEGO AUTOMOTIVE MUSEUM * 2080 Pan American Plaza in Balboa Park; (619) 231-2886. Daily 10 to 5:30 in summer and 10 to 4:30 the rest of the year. MC/VISA; $$. GETTING THERE: Go southwest from Plaza de Panama, past the Spreckels Organ Pavilion and you'll see the museum on your right.
Not large as auto museums go, the San Diego version nonetheless offers a very select display of yesterday vehicles. The first item you see may be the most impressive — a showroom quality 1954 Kaiser Darrin. Vehicles range from horseless carriages such as a topless 1909 International Harvester "Farm Wagon" to more contemporary rigs such as early Ford Mustangs and one of the first Datsun 240-Zs. Car buffs will drool over a really cool 1974 Lamborghini Countach 500-S. And dearie, you certainly can remember the 1957 Chevy Bel Air with a wrap-around windshield, and that really hot Chrysler 300.
The museum also has a nice collection of "woodies," popular during the Fifties and Sixties as surfer wagons, plus a large gathering of vintage motorcycles. And of course it has a "Back to the Future" type DeLorean. The museum's 1981 model is identical to the one used as an automotive time machine in the movie.
5. SAN DIEGO AEROSPACE MUSEUM * 2001 Pan American Plaza in Balboa Park; (619) 234-8291. Daily 10 to 4:30. MC/VISA; $$. GETTING THERE: It's next door to the Automotive Museum.
This rivals the Fleet Science center as the best museum in San Diego. Extensive and comprehensive, it traces the history of flight from early balloon ascents to the Wright Brothers' flight through the development of commercial and combat aviation and into the space race.
In front of this sleekly modern museum, you'll see what is perhaps the sexiest airplane ever built — the Lockheed A-12 Blackbird. Inside, you'll encounter a full-scale flyable replica of Charles A. Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis" and an extensive exhibit concerning his epic flight from New York to Paris. Why is San Diego so excited about Lucky Lindy? Because his aircraft was built about a mile from here, by the Ryan Aviation Company.
You'll next pass through the International Aerospace Hall of Fame honoring more than a hundred flight pioneers, from those who built them to those who flew them. And then your walk through aviation history begins. There's Wilbur and Orville, fiddling with their Kittyhawk Flyer; beyond are more planes of the early twentieth century, including rare items such as a flyable Japanese Zero and Russian MiG-15. Women fliers are honored, from Amelia Earhart to daredevil lady barnstormers. A special exhibit focuses on the Flying Tigers, volunteer American pilots who flew P-40 Tomahawks for China in the opening days of World War II. Coming full circle, literally and figuratively in this well laid out museum, you'll see space capsules, satellites and astronaut regalia.
This is a busy, delightfully cluttered place. Planes sit on the floor and hang from ceilings; exhibits cover the walls and spill into side rooms. With so many things to see, and so many videos to watch, you could spend most of a day here. It's one of the most comprehensive air museums in America, perhaps exceeded only by the Smithsonian and the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
6. SAN DIEGO MUSEUM OF ART * In Balboa Park at 1450 El Prado; (619) 232-7931. Tuesday-Sunday 10 to 4:30; $$. GETTING THERE: The museum is on the north side of Plaza de Panama.
Housed in one of the park's wonderfully filigreed Spanish-Moorish buildings, this is the art museum of San Diego. It hosts major traveling exhibits and contains the city's largest and most eclectic art assortment. Serious collections include works by early Spanish and Italian artists; French pre-impressionist and impressionist art, with Renoir, Monet, Degas, Matisse and the like; the works of early and contemporary American artists; and an extensive Asian art collection of figurines, vases, Chinese prints, screens, calligraphy and Buddha images. Particularly interesting is an exhibit of Japanese woodblock paintings that had been collected by Claude Monet, who was a great admirer of this art form.
In startling contrast to all of the above, step into a gallery of California art and stare quizzically at objects such as six two-by-fours thrust through an iron ring, two black bars on a white canvas, and multi-colored candles melting over a beat-up suitcase. If Van Gogh had found such an easy route to public acceptance of his art, perhaps he wouldn't have been so tortured and he'd have left this earth with both ears attached.
7. SAN DIEGO MUSEUM OF HISTORY * In Balboa Park at 1649 El Prado; (619) 232-6203. Tuesday-Sunday 10 to 4:30; $$. GETTING THERE: The museum is in Casa del Balboa about midway down El Prado.
Although it sits by the sea, San Diego has a desert climate. Thus, the city's story is the story of water, and it's effectively told in this museum. You're first greeted by a handsome 1866 Concord stagecoach that once operated in these parts, then you step into an exhibit entitled "Eden in the Desert," concerning the city's efforts to obtain water. A particularly ironic episode occurred when one Charles Hatfield was hired by the city for $10,000 to bring rain during a 1915 drought. He did whatever it is that rainmakers do, and the skies opened up, causing the worst flood in San Diego's history. City officials said they would pay him only if he accepted full responsibility for the flood damage; Mr. Hatfield left town penniless.
The museum focuses particularly on the city's development since California was admitted to the Union in 1850. It also mounts major traveling exhibits, including some that aren't related to local history. (When we last visited, we saw a display concerning one of America's great urban parks — not Balboa, but Central Park in New York City.) The museum is operated by the San Diego Historical Society.
8. SAN DIEGO MUSEUM OF MAN * 1350 El Prado; (619) 239-2001. Daily 10 to 4:30; $$. GETTING THERE: The museum is just inside Balboa Park's west gate in the California Building.
The most interesting exhibit at this fine anthropological museum consists of hairy and anatomically complete replicas of our ancestors. Oddly, this display is chronologically reversed, so walk to the far end and start back. You'll find replica bones of the famous three-million-year-old missing link Lucy, discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia. (Incidentally, her name came from "Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds", a song by the Beatles that the anthropologists played in camp the night after her discovery.) From here, following the exhibit toward its entrance, you'll encounter increasingly taller and more erect critters, ending with Cro-Magnon man of 20,000 years ago. Other than needing a shave and a haircut, he looks quite like us.
Another exhibit traces human conception, with actual videotapes of a female egg cell being fertilized by a rambunctious male sperm and then growing into a fetus. Other displays focus on native people of the Southwest and Mexico — how they lived before we outsiders came, and how we have disrupted their lives. In the "Life and Death on the Nile" exhibit concerning gods and mummies of ancient Egypt, you can feed a dollar bill into a machine and produce your own personal cartouche, spelling out your name phonetically in Egyptian hieroglyphics.
9. SAN DIEGO NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM * In Balboa Park at 1788 El Prado; (619) 232-3821. Daily 9:30 to 5:30 in summer and 9:30 to 4:30 the rest of the year; open until 6:30 on Thursdays; $$. GETTING THERE: The museum is at the far eastern end of El Prado, opposite the Fleet Science Center.
While not elaborate, this is an interesting and nicely done museum, featuring the flora, fauna and geology of San Diego County and neighboring Baja California. An exhibit on area gems and minerals is styled as a mining tunnel, with the usual glow-in-the-dark flourescent stuff. In the paleontology display, you'll likely be surprised to learn that walruses once hung out in San Diego County. The museum's best display is a life-sized diorama of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park with a stuffed bighorn sheep among the pretend rocks, and the nighttime lairs of an owl and a fox. If you have kids along, they'll like the creepy-crawly displays of both live and mounted bugs. The museum also mounts changing exhibits with specific natural history themes.
10. TIMKEN MUSEUM OF ART * 1500 El Prado in Balboa Park; (619) 239-5548. Tuesday-Saturday 10 to 4:30 and Sunday 1 to 4:30; closed Mondays and all of September; free. GETTING THERE: The Timken is immediately east of the San Diego Museum of Art.
One of the most attractive of the city's museums, this modern facility is a showplace of Italian marble with bronze accents and fabric walls. It was opened in 1965 as a gift to the city from two art-collecting spinster sisters, Anne and Amy Putnam, and Henry H. Timken of Timken roller bearing fame. Most of the art came from the Putnams and Timken financed the building. It displays selected works of several European masters and American artists, plus a really fine collection of Russian religious icons. Among the more recognized artists represented here are Peter Paul Reubens, Franois Boucher and Rembrandt. The museum's finest works are the icons — brilliantly painted altar screens and figurines of the Russian Orthodox Church.
THE TEN BEST THINGS TO DO IN SAN DIEGO
Blessed with a benign climate, San Diego is a city where people do things. This isn't couch potato country, folks!
1. GO WHALE WATCHING * H&M Landing, 2803 Emerson St.; (619) 222-1144. WEB SITE: www.hmlanding.com. Whale-watching season generally is from mid-December through March, with the best sightings from December through early February. GETTING THERE: Take the Rosecrans Street (Highway 209) exit from I-5 or I-8, follow it southwest through Point Loma and turn left on Emerson. H&M is at the sportfishing pier at Emerson and Scott.
Each winter, about 25,000 California gray whales make a dramatic 14,000-mile round trip cruise between the Bering Sea off Alaska and Baja California. They pass close to the coast in several places, particularly on their southward journey. One of these is Point Loma, and several local firms conduct two to three-hour whale watching trips from San Diego Bay. The senior member of this leviathan-spotting fleet is H&M Landing, which has been doing these trips for nearly half a century. It has been suggested that H&M invented whale watching. During peak season, whales are almost always spotted, since the boat captains are experienced in finding and tracking them. The whales don't seem to mind the attention.
The tracking experience is rather dramatic. The captain spots a glossy, barnacle-encrusted back in the distance and eases closer. The great whale often swims just off the bow, visible beneath the surface. Then it comes up for a breath of air, spouts water vapor with a great sigh, arches its back, flips its mighty fluke and gracefully slips beneath the sea. On a recent trip, our boat cruised within a few dozen yards of a forty-footer, which — with no sign of duress or distress — moved serenely along, diving and then reappearing every few minutes. The whale and the boat cruised together for nearly half an hour.
For the ultimate whale watching trip, book an eight to eleven-day voyage down the Baja Peninsula aboard the "Spirit of Adventure." This small expedition boat is operated by Mike Keating in cooperation with H&M. It enters Baja lagoons where the whales spend the winter, and guests scoot about in small skiffs, often getting close to reach out and touch these magnificent beasts. Whales are only part of the show. The groups walk among sea elephant colonies, swim with dolphins and porpoises and see tens of thousands of seabirds. Some trips cruise around the tip of Baja California and enter the Sea of Cortez. For information, contact H&M or "Spirit of Adventure" Charters, 1646 Willow St., San Diego, CA 92106; (619) 226-1729.
2. TAKE A SAN DIEGO BAY CRUISE * San Diego Harbor Excursions, 1050 N. Harbor Dr., (800) 442-7847 or (619) 234-4111; and Hornblower Cruises, 1066 N. Harbor Dr., (619) 686-8715. GETTING THERE: The two firms are side-by-side on the Embarcadero, below downtown, near the base of Broadway.
These two firms market essentially the same voyages on San Diego Bay — one and two-hour sightseeing trips and dinner cruises. Both also have whale-watching trips from mid-December through March. Prices are similar for the two firms — around $50 for a dinner cruise that includes dancing; about $12 for a one-hour sightseeing cruise and less than $20 for two hours, and about $20 for whale watching. San Diego Harbor Excursion also operates the Coronado ferry service, at $2 each way. The harbor cruises are quite pleasant and almost always flat calm. Since San Diego Bay is nearly landlocked, it takes a nasty storm to roil the waters. On the one-hour cruises, you'll loop the bayfront, passing assorted ships and cruising under Coronado Bridge and along the Coronado shoreline. On the two-hour cruise, add the U.S. Naval Submarine Base, the tip of Point Loma, North Island Naval Air Station, and Shelter and Harbor islands. The longer cruise is definitely worth the added cost. On both, the onboard narrator will tell you more about San Diego Bay than you probably ever wanted to know.
3. TOUR THE TOWN BY TROLLEY * Old Town Trolley Tours; (800) 868-7482 or (619) 298-TOUR. WEBSITE: www.historictours.com. Periodic departures from Old Town and eight other points in San Diego and Coronado; $$$$$.
Why a trolley tour instead of a comfortable air conditioned bus? What in heck is "transportainment" and what did Wyatt Earp have to do with San Diego? Curiosity drove us to take a ride around San Diego and Coronado on one of the propane-driven rubber-tired rigs of Old Town Trolley Tours. It's an interesting concept: These narrated historical trips cover about thirty miles and stop at nine different places. Passengers can hop on and off at will, taking a break between segments to do a bit of prowling on their own.
As the trolley clang-clangs along, the driver-guide points out places of interest and offers tidbits of history — such as the fact that Wyatt Earp spent some time in San Diego, and that Lindbergh Field was built in 1928, the year after Charles Lindbergh completed his epic New York to Paris solo flight. They play "history quiz" with the passengers (we won a souvenir coin for knowing who discovered the Pacific Ocean) and sometimes sing along with the trolley's recorded musical soundtrack. And that, folks, is "transportainment".
Incidentally, sit on the right side of the trolley, since you'll be closer to the bay when it ding-a-lings along the Embarcadero, and you'll get a better view of the San Diego skyline as it crosses the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge.
4. TAKE THE PLUNGE AT THE PLUNGE * Belmont Park, 3115 Ocean Front Walk (at Ventura Place); (619) 488-3110. Opens at 5 a.m., with various closing hours; $ per swim; other fees for special activities. GETTING THERE: Take I-8 west to Mission Bay Park and follow West Mission Bay Drive to Mission Beach; it becomes Ventura Place and ends at the Belmont Park car lot.
You can dive into history when you take a dip in The Plunge, the huge indoor swimming pool at Belmont Park that dates from 1925. One of the oldest and largest public indoor pools in America, it measures 175 by sixty feet, with several lap lanes and plenty of space for just splashing about. The Plunge has an extensive program of swimming lessons and aquatic workouts.
Never mind that there's a pervading smell of chlorine in the air; you're swimming in an historic landmark. When it was opened as part of John D. Spreckels Mission Beach Amusement Center, it was billed as the world's largest indoor saltwater pool. It has been the scene of Hollywood water spectaculars starring Esther Williams and Johnny Weismuller, and big bands once played for dancing on the mezzanines. Beginning to show its age in the 1930s and 1940s, it was given to the state and then the City of San Diego. It was converted to fresh water, then completely renovated in the late 1980s as part of the Belmont Amusement Park's restoration.
5. TAKE THE PALOMAR PLUNGE * Gravity Activated Sports, Inc., 16220 Highway 76, Pauma Valley; (800) 985-4GAS or (760) 742-2294. Reservations required; MC/VISA, AMEX. GETTING THERE: Pauma Valley is in northern San Diego County. Call about directions and/or hotel pickup.
Gravity Activated Sports, as the name implies, specializes in downhill bicycle trips in San Diego County. Participants are driven by van to a launch point, then they enjoy a gravitational ride downhill. Packages include bike rental and gear, lunch and a souvenir T-shirt. The firm's most popular outing starts with a tour of Palomar Observatory, followed by a 5,000-foot downhill glide to the base of Palomar Mountain. Among other trips are the Desert Descent through Montezuma Valley to Anza-Borrego Desert, a ten-mile Temecula Valley winery tour (mostly level; no gravity boost) and a nineteen-mile off-road ride for intermediate to advanced mountain bikers.
6. PLAY ON MISSION BAY * Mission Bay Park is northwest of downtown above the I-5/I-8 junctions. GETTING THERE: Take the Mission Bay exit from I-5 and go toward the ocean or follow I-8 west and take West Mission Bay Drive northwest.
There's no better place to play under San Diego's sun than at Mission Bay Park, that 4,600-acre aquatic playland with marinas, miles of beaches and lots of calm, warm water. In case you didn't bring the proper gear for a day of water play on Mission Bay, you can rent it. Here are some outlets: Seaforth Boat Rental near the Hyatt Islandia Hotel at 1641 Quivira Road (223-1681) rents paddleboats, jet skis, kayaks, motorboats and sailboats. Mission Bay Sportcenter at 1010 Santa Clara Place (488-1004) rents water sports equipment and offers instruction in kayaking, sailing, surfing, waterskiing and windsurfing. San Diego Sailing Center at 1010 Santa Clara Place (488-0651) has windsurfing and kayaking lessons and rentals. Windsport Kayak & Windsurfing Center at 844 W. Mission Bay Drive (488-4642) has rentals, sales and lessons for windsurfing, sea kayaks, body boards and paddle skis.
7. BIKE OR SKATE ALONG THE BEACH * Ocean Front Walk between Mission Beach and Pacific Beach. GETTING THERE: Drive through Mission Bay Park on West Mission Bay Drive; the route ends in Mission Bay at the corner of Mission Boulevard and Ventura Place.
An old-fashioned seaside boardwalk once connected Mission Beach to Pacific Beach, about three miles north. It's all paved now and formally called Ocean Front Walk, although some locals refer to it as the boardwalk or promenade. There are long stretches of sandy beach, volleyball courts and other play areas on one side, and beachfront homes, rentals and beach businesses on the other. It's a busy recreational thoroughfare, open to walkers, runners, cyclists, rollerbladers and rollerskaters. Joining this parade is a great way to get a workout.
Didn't bring your gear? Hamel's at Ocean Front Walk and Ventura Place in Mission Beach (488-5050) rents rollerblades and skates, bikes and beach accessories.
8. TAKE THE COASTER UP THE COAST * Coaster commuter train service; (619) 233-3004 in San Diego or (760) 722-6283 from coastal north county. WEB SITE: www.sdcommute.com. GETTING THERE: The Coaster leaves from the Amtrak station at the foot of Broadway in downtown San Diego.
The Coaster is a commuter train that calls on shoreside communities between San Diego and Oceanside. Although it's designed for commuters, this is a great scenic excursion as well, since the trains travel through attractive communities and — in many areas — right along the beach. The trains use double-deck commuter cars with comfortable, roomy seating.
You can reach the Coaster depot from just about anywhere in the city via the San Diego Trolley or Metropolitan Transit buses. The trolley links with the Coaster at its Santa Fe and Old Town stations. Old Town is handy, since there's ample free parking on an adjacent lot — although this tends to fill up later in the day.
Starting from the Amtrak station, the Coaster stops at Old Town and Sorrento Valley, and then the coastal communities of Solana Beach, Encinitas, Carlsbad (two stops) and Oceanside. It runs nine times daily in each direction on weekdays and four times on Saturdays. There is no service on Sunday.
9. CATCH THE "TIJUANA TROLLEY" * The San Diego Trolley's San Ysidro/Tijuana Blue Line. Trains run every fifteen minutes from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., then every thirty minutes until 1 a.m. For schedule information call (619) 233-3004 or (619) 685-4900 for automated touch-tone phone information.
If you plan to visit Tijuana during your San Diego stay, a relatively painless approach is aboard the San Diego Trolley. The train stops within a few feet of the international border and you can either walk across through a covered pedestrian facility, catch a bus for a dollar or a cab for about $5. For more on visiting Tijuana, see Chapter One, page 17, and Chapter Fifteen, page 214.
The "Tijuana Trolley" trip to from San Diego to San Ysidro isn't scenic, since the route travels mostly on back streets, passing clothes lines, junkyards and trailer courts. It parallels the I-5 corridor, taking you through the ordinary blue collar industrial towns of National City, Chula Vista and San Ysidro. However, the trolleys are comfortable since the trains move along well-maintained railbeds. And the trip is cheap; two dollars each way the last time we went. (If you drive down, you'll have to pay several dollars for parking on the California side, unless you plan to drive into Tijuana, which we don't recommend for brief visits.) This isn't rapid transit; the trolley makes several stops and takes about forty minutes. But what's the rush; aren't you on vacation?
10. CATCH A PADRES GAME * At Qualcomm Stadium; (619) 641-3131 for the stadium, (619) 283-4494 for the Padres and (619) 297-2373 for tickets by phone from Ticketmaster. The season runs from mid-April to early October. Day games start at 1:05; night games at 7:05. GETTING THERE: Qualcomm Stadium is at the junction of I-8 and I-805 north of downtown. A painless way to get there is aboard the San Diego Trolley; the Blue Line stops within walking distance of the ballpark.
Every sports fan knows that San Diego has two major league ball clubs — the baseball Padres and football Chargers. While Charger tickets are tough to get, game-day tickets usually are available for the Padres. And you can get better seats by calling in advance. Sales have been up in recent years after the Padres' brushes with the World Series, so advance tickets are a good idea.
The Padres became a major league team in 1969 after decades in the minors, and they won their first National League championship in 1984. They share Qualcomm Stadium with the Chargers. Built in 1967, the park originally was called Jack Murphy Stadium in honor of the highly respected San Diego Union sports editor who helped bring major league baseball to the city. Recently, a local firm called Qualcomm bought stadium sponsorship and poor old Jack's monument was given an ugly new name.
Incidentally, if you want to try your luck at getting San Diego Charger tickets, the number is (619) 280-2121.
San Diego is one of America's top tourist destinations, attracting more than fourteen million visitors a year. In fact, tourism is the city's third largest industry. Visitors are lured by its miles of beaches, island resorts, a splendid city park sheltering several museums and outstanding zoo, a fine Mexican community in its Old Town section, major league sports, good shopping, hundreds of restaurants and many cultural offerings.
One might say that the city offers too much for visitors. It would be impossible to sample all of its lures during a one or two week vacation, or during a brief convention visit. Who can take time to sort through this abundance and choose the very best of San Diego?
Fortunately, we can. We spent months canvassing this exciting city, seeking out the best attractions, the sandiest beaches, the best tamale ever to emerge from a corn husk, the trendiest shops and cutest cafs, the best places to hike and bike, even the best vista points and picture spots. Having accomplished this, we toured the rest of San Diego County to find its best attractions, its most scenic drives and tucked-away beaches.
After sifting through every corner of San Diego — city and county — we saved the very best, just for you.
Don and Betty Martin
Hanging out with a burrito in Old Town
Posted May 22, 2000
As A native San Diegan this is the best book for any tourist if you want to do some of the coolest travels in San Diego. This book mentions tourist traps and places not too dominated by tourists, plus it's a great buy!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.