Consistently warm and sunny and with seventy miles of world class beaches and activities, San Diego is a vacation destination with something to please everyone. California’s oldest and second largest city is located 120 miles south of Los Angeles but only twenty miles north of Tijuana, Mexico and as such attracts visitors from around the world to experience the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld, USS Midway aircraft carrier, Balboa Park, and nearby building-block themed amusement park Legoland.
San Diego has a rugged topography, encompassing roughly two hundred steep canyons that serve as greenbelts to separate more populated areas set upon mesas. The Kumeyaay people migrated to the area of today’s San Diego around the year 1000 AD and lived in a village named Cosoy that sat where Old Town exists today. The first west coast site visited by Europeans, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo claimed the bay and surrounding land for Spain in 1542 under the name San Miguel, the first step towards the later settlement of Alta California. The first European settlement in California was established in 1769, in the form of a presidio (military post) and Mission San Diego de Alcala, having been renamed in honor of Spanish monk Diego de Alcala de Henares. By 1846, San Diego was declared a pueblo and incorporated in 1850, but dissolved just two years later.
A new city was set out three miles south, promoted for its healing climate, and prospered with the arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad in 1885. Twenty-two square mile San Diego Bay is deep and sheltered, leading to development of both international shipping industries and considerable military facilities.
San Diego has hosted two World’s Fairs, both in 1,200 acre Balboa Park, in 1915 and 1935. Set aside in 1835, centrally located Balboa is one of the country’s oldest parks. This is where you’ll find the famous San Diego Zoo, but also over a dozen museums, art galleries, gardens, and several fine examples of Spanish Colonial Architecture- some remaining from those fair days. Of the most notable, the museums in the park include the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, the San Diego Air and Space Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Museum of Us (formerly the Museum of Man), MOPA (Museums of Photographic Arts), the San Diego Automotive Museum, and the San Diego Natural History Museum.
Gardens range in focus from those that display cacti and native plants to the Japanese Friendship Garden and a childrens’ ethnobotany garden while other park attractions include a carousel, archery range, and sports complex. Downtown San Diego is just across the freeway, with popular districts such as the Victorian era Gaslamp Quarter- a great destination for nightlife- and lively, pedestrian friendly Little Italy. Down on the bayfront, you’ll find a large assortment of historic vessels at the Maritime Museum, the USS Midway- the world’s most visited naval ship museum, and shopping within Seaport Village.
Old Town and its collection of 1820-1870 buildings including five originals made of adobe is preserved through Old Town State Historic Park, California’s most visited state park. A schoolhouse, blacksmithy, newspaper office, smoke shop,and carriage stable are among the heritage structures preserved within the park.
Nearby is the 1856 Greek Revival styled Whaley House, considered a mansion in its time, and also the site of the city’s first theater (in an upstairs bedroom), the second county courthouse (in three other bedrooms), and a general store. Just across the freeway from Old Town is 4,000 acre man-made Mission Bay and its most known attraction, the first location of SeaWorld, opened in 1964 by four University of California grads and operating under a strict mission as a marine mammal focused park.
The bay development is the home of vintage amusements at 1925 Belmont Park and serves as a popular spot for assorted watersports (jetskiing, wakeboarding, sailing) and shoreside activities (jogging, cycling, skateboarding), and for embarking on a variety of harbor cruises, such as those dedicated to whale watching. A former Naval training center, neighboring Liberty Station opened in 2013 as a public market and artisan food hall. Overlooking Old Town and serving today as a Catholic church, California’s first mission, Mission Bascilia de Alcala, is open to visitors and contains a museum with artifacts found on site.
San Diego is at its heart about the beach, and there are over thirty tempting stretches of sand in the city. Mission Beach and Pacific Beach are favorites for people watching and busy activity, Ocean Beach has a marked counterculture vibe, Del Mar is well regarded for both surfers and families, and famous Coronado with its sparkling sands (due to mica flakes) frequently places high on national ‘top beaches’ lists.
For a more wild and rugged experience just south of town, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve sits at the base of 300 foot cliffs and offers peaceful hiking trails through native pine forests and dramatic eroded sandstone formations. At the southern tip of the arcing Point Loma Peninsula that circles the harbor, Cabrillo National Monument memorializes the initial landing here in 1542. Affording views of the city skyline and the Pacific Ocean, the park contains an easily accessed tidepool discovery trail and the 1855 Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which now serves as a museum. Also located on the peninsula is Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, its rocky landscape popular with surfers, kayakers, hikers, and families.
On the northern coast of the city, the upscale La Jolla “’the jewel’) area has a trendy shopping district and since 2010, has cultivated sixteen commissioned mural locations. La Jolla Cove and nearby Seal Rock provide a chance to see both Pacific harbor seals and California sea lions as they ‘haul-out’ onto the shore to rest. Nestled in the interior canyons, the largest municipal park in California, Mission Trails Regional Park, offers sixty miles of trails including the trek up nearly 1,600 foot Cowles Mountain, the highest point in the city.