Discovering San Diego
You can spend weeks taking in all the theme parks, museums, beaches and green spaces of the big bay city, but we hit the streets to get to know a few of San Diego’s many neighbourhoods.
Point Loma, the historic site where California was first discovered in the mid-1500s by Portuguese explorer Juan Cabrillo, is a great spot to begin a visit to San Diego.
Check out the Cabrillo National Monument. Then, sit on a bench, relax, look back toward the city and take in the spectacular view. With the mountains to the west, the Mexican border to the south and the ocean all around, you get an excellent feel for San Diego.
First Spanish, then Mexican, the city became part of the United States in the 1850s. Spanish influence can be seen in the architecture around town, and it can be tasted in the many Mexican restaurants.
Head to Old Town, considered the birthplace of California, for a glimpse of the original Mexican village of El Pueblo de San Diego. Original and reconstructed buildings that harken back to the early 1800s and the hot, dusty street set the scene.
Stroll through the museums and shops, but be sure to stop at one of the many authentic Mexican restaurants. The staff must be among the thousands of Mexicans who cross from Tijuana daily to earn American dollars in the US.
Coyote Cafe serves the best carnitas with traditional sides – and margaritas too. The tortillas are made curb-side by a duo of traditionally dressed ladies. If you don’t have time to stop for a meal, pick up some fresh tortillas to go.
Across town, the historic Gaslamp Quarter, formerly known as New Town, is a good spot for a nightcap. The area combines new builds and older Victorian-style architecture, including the Grant Hotel, built by Ulysees S. Grant Jr. as a tribute to his famous father. Full of bars, restaurants and theatres, the warm climate means the buzz of nighttime activity spills out onto the sidewalks year-round.
San Diego has a vibrant history tied to the Tuna industry. Little Italy is home to the families of those who made their living from the sea when the city was the tuna capital of the world. This hip, trendy neighbourhood is full of great shops, bars, breweries and some of the best restaurants. Saturday is Little Italy Mercado, a.k.a. market day. Make sure you visit on an empty stomach.
San Diego is home to the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. You might not spot the uniformed personnel coming and going around town, but you can’t miss the USS Midway moored in the harbour.
A testament to the largess of the current base and naval operations in the area, the enormous, decommissioned aircraft carrier operates as a museum. It is home to 29 restored aircraft and is well worth checking out. Explore the many decks and operations rooms, and make sure to stop for a chat with one of the many retired vets. They enhance any visit by parlaying their first-hand experiences serving on the ship.
From the top deck of the Midway, look down over the side to the park below and the 25-foot sculpture replica of the famous iconic photo of a sailor embracing a nurse in New York at the end of WWII.
A hundred metres down the waterfront floats a collection of boats known as The Maritime Museum of San Diego. It is an open-air, or more accurately open-water, collection of boats and submarines. From a replica of explorer Cabrillo’s ship, the San Salvador, to the steel-haul merchant ship named the Star of India that made 21 trips around the world and was used to haul almost everything, including humans, during the exodus from Ireland during the 1800s, the ships tell the maritime history of San Diego.
The submarines are particularly cool. Life aboard must have been an underwater experiment in claustrophobia. For an added fee, take a tour of the bay on the retired pilot boat.
Continuing the naval theme, visit Liberty Station naval training station. Reborn as an arts district, the Spanish colonial-style buildings all open onto the enormous central lawn that was once the parade grounds. You can easily spend a day here.
Taste your way around the trendy Liberty Public Market or grab a meal or a drink from one of the many vendors and sit down to enjoy it on the patio before strolling through this 100-acre space that has been re-purposed as artist studios, dance studios, galleries, museums, office space, restaurants and even a brewery. There is a real buzz here.
A highlight was the Japanese Americans & The Impact of Internment exhibition at the New Americans Museum and, believe it or not, the Quilt Museum. These are not your gran’s handiworks; they are full-fledged works of art. The first Friday of the month, Liberty Station (5-9 p.m.) features open studio performances.
The city on the bay has ceded most of the prime waterfront real estate to the U.S. military, but what the downtown area is lacking in beach frontage, it makes up for in arts, culture, parks, entertainment and more breweries than you shake a stick at — reason enough to get to know San Diego.
Where We Stayed
The Kona Kai Resort & Spa on Shelter Island is the perfect place to stay away from the city’s hustle Kona Kai Resort & Spa on Shelter Island is the ideal place to stay. Formerly a private club favoured by the likes of Bobby Kennedy, it has been recently renovated and expanded to 170 rooms, all of which have a beachy-chic vibe.
Enjoy a great breakfast at the Vessel Restaurant while you gaze at the rows of luxury boats moored in the marina. Afterwards, rent a stand-up paddle-board and paddle around the slips or visit Spa Terre for a message on their exclusive alpha-quartz heated sand bed. Sit by one of the beach fire pits at night and make s’mores. There is no swimming at the beach, but the resort has a beautiful pool, chair service, and a funky tiki bar. There is also a new, adults-only pool. The Kona Kai offers cruiser bikes you can check out and take for a spin around the peninsula.
A Meal to Remember
Firmly high-end with a fresh, quirky delivery, Born and Raised Steakhouse in Little Italy has wow factor. The panelled interior with brass light fixtures is reminiscent of an Art Deco luxury liner. Still, the hip-hop artists framed on the walls keep it in the current decade, as do the tuxedo-clad waiters sporting Converse running shoes. Service is excellent, outdone only by the food. The steak was by far the best I have ever eaten, and the combination of anchovy oil, hot pepper flakes and parmesan elevated broccoli to edible art. The prime rib was so tender it melted in your mouth.
Header image: James Blank