San Diego Travel Guide


San Diego, California, is sunny and mild—not just in weather, but in personality, as well. This is a place where the people are friendly and the sun shines more than 300 days a year. To top it off, San Diego is blessed with considerable natural beauty: broad, gorgeous beaches on its west side, creviced canyons in the east, and sweet-smelling tropical flowers everywhere.

A quintessential U.S. Navy town, San Diego has also boomed in recent years. The trendy downtown and Gaslamp Quarter, plus such nearby attractions as Balboa Park, continue to pull in locals and tourists alike.

North of downtown San Diego, in La Jolla, prestigious research institutes with names such as Salk and Scripps attract top researchers, while the glorious beaches draw surfers and sun-worshippers in droves. Unfortunately, this growth has brought traffic—San Diego highway congestion can rival Los Angeles during morning and evening rush hours.

The greater San Diego area is actually a series of individual towns, each with its own personality. La Jolla is San Diego's answer to Beverly Hills. Coronado, a pristine stretch of land connected to downtown by the Coronado Bay Bridge, has the palatial Hotel del Coronado and broad avenues running past Victorian homes; it is also home to several aircraft carriers.

Then there are San Diego's beaches: Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, La Jolla Beach, La Jolla Shores, Del Mar and many more.


The heart of downtown San Diego lies 16 mi/26 km north of the U.S.-Mexico border. The 16-block historic Gaslamp Quarter and the multilevel, postmodern Horton Plaza shopping complex mark the city center, with the San Diego Convention Center, PETCO Park, Embarcadero and Seaport Village all within walking distance.

San Diego Bay, Coronado and the Pacific Ocean stretch to the west. The massive Balboa Park, full of museums and attractions, occupies a huge area northeast of downtown. North of downtown are historic Old Town, gay-friendly Hillcrest, the recreational paradise of Mission Bay and the upscale seaside community of La Jolla (la-HOY-yuh), actually a part of the city of San Diego.

Farther north are Del Mar (home of the county's horse racetrack and fairgrounds), the low-key beach cities with coastal North County's downtown villages, inland North County with its rolling hills and the Marine Corps' sprawling Camp Pendleton. To the south is San Ysidro, the southernmost neighborhood of San Diego, and immediately south of that is the border with Mexico.

Interstates 5 and 15, running north and south, and Interstate 8, running east and west, are the city's major arteries. Highway 163, connecting with both I-5 and I-8 and running from downtown to the northeast, makes Balboa Park and Mission Valley easily accessible. East-west Highway 52 serves as a connector route from Santee to La Jolla. Highway 125 runs north and south, relieving traffic from South Bay to East County. Highway 56 is the east-west connector between I-5 and I-15, providing convenient access between the inland communities and the coast. (Locals often put "the" in front of the highway number when speaking; for example, "the 5 to the 15.")


According to anthropologists, humans first settled along the San Diego coast as early as 20,000 years ago and moved east into the desert areas about 12,000 years ago. When the first Europeans, led by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, landed on the Point Loma section of San Diego Bay in 1542, several hunting-gathering tribes had already inhabited the area for thousands of years.

In 1769, Father Junipero Serra built a mission at the top of Presidio Hill, overlooking San Diego Bay, to convert the Kumeyaay people, a small hunting-and-gathering society, to Christianity. The mission was moved in 1774 to its present site near a Diegueno village. As the site of California's first Spanish mission, San Diego played an important role in the state's history.

Some of the adobe and wood buildings at the bottom of Presidio Hill, in what is now Old Town, date from the 1800s. Most of the settlers built homes there in the 1820s and '30s. As Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, the area is now a tourist district that houses restaurants, museums and shops.

In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain, and a few years later, San Diego became the unofficial capital of Alta and Baja California. It was governed under Mexico for about 25 years, until California came under U.S. jurisdiction after the Mexican-American War in 1850.

The city grew at a snail's pace for almost two centuries (notwithstanding a minor gold boom 1872-74) until 1907, when the U.S. Navy established a base, boosting San Diego's fortunes. By the 1930s it had grown sufficiently large enough to have hosted two world's fairs, leaving the legacy of Balboa Park and popularizing both the Mission and Spanish-revival styles in the area.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. Pacific Fleet moved its headquarters to San Diego. Military bases began to pop up, and industry and scientific research centers followed.

The city's downtown had declined after the 1960s, but the construction of Horton Plaza and a revitalization of the Gaslamp Quarter in the 1980s breathed new life to the area. Gentrification spread from downtown to Little Italy and Hillcrest, then extended to Balboa Park, North Park and City Heights in the 1990s. Today, San Diego is the eighth-largest city in the U.S. and the second-largest in California.


San Diego's zoo is world-famous, and SeaWorld and LEGOLAND are also top visitor attractions. Plan to see them all, but don't forget that there are many other sightseeing experiences in this hospitable city.

San Diego's showplace is Balboa Park. It has been called the "Smithsonian of the West" because it is the largest museum complex west of the Mississippi. In addition to the zoo, it contains more than a dozen museums.

Many of them, including the Museum of Man and the San Diego Museum of Art, are housed in elaborate Spanish-colonial buildings. The park's Fleet Science Center also warrants a visit (see one of its IMAX films), as do the San Diego Air & Space Museum and Natural History Museum.

The park is also the site of the Old Globe Theatre, which has offered world premieres of Broadway-bound musicals such as Into the Woods, The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

The Park-to-Bay Link bridge creates a walking or driving path from the park to San Diego Bay.

There are other attractions to visit outside of Balboa Park, as well. Walk through the Gaslamp Quarter downtown—a 16-block National Historic District with beautifully restored Victorian buildings (some dating from the 1860s) that house more than 100 retailers and another 100 restaurants and nightclubs.

At the northern edge of central San Diego is the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, near the site of California's first European settlement. It has several restored structures and museums (including a working blacksmith), as well as restaurants featuring margaritas and mariachis, galleries and shops.

Northeast in Escondido is the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, where visitors can observe free-ranging animals from around the world in their large, expansive enclosures. Up-close encounters, such as a photo caravan safari and an overnight "Roar & Snore" campout within the park are also available through special arrangement and for a fee.

The Southern California CityPass offers admission to four major area theme parks, including SeaWorld. This is a good option for those planning to visit both Los Angeles and San Diego on the same trip. If purchasing the CityPass online, admission to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park or the San Diego Zoo can be added. (Phone: 888-330-5008.

Other San Diego activities include harbor excursion boat rides, some of the best beaches in California, Broadway-quality theater, historic walking tours and gardens galore.


Jazz—and rhythms ranging from bebop to blues—is the specialty of the Gaslamp Quarter. Country music still retains a degree of popularity with dance establishments scattered about Mission Valley and northern communities. Irish crooners, lively piano bars, tapas bars and flamenco are all within walking distance of downtown's hotels and the Convention Center. Most bars close between 1 and 2 am.


San Diego has plenty of sophisticated, creative restaurants emphasizing fresh fish and other seafood from the Pacific, abundant produce from the farmlands of Southern California and quality wines from around California. You'll also find Italian, Continental and nouvelle American restaurants. Mexican restaurants are popular in San Diego, and most locals are passionate about their favorites. Follow the crowds to Old Town for Mexican food.

The historic Gaslamp Quarter has dozens of small restaurants (many on Fourth and Fifth avenues) that range from sophisticated to funky. Waterfront locations, including Embarcadero, Coronado and La Jolla, are appropriate settings for several blue-ribbon seafood restaurants and California fusion dining. La Jolla is also the place for elegant dining with a view.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$30; $$$ = US$31-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.

Want to read the full San Diego travel42 Destination Guide?
Visit or call 1.866.566.8136 for a free trial.
Powered by Travel 24

From Our Partners

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI