Imagine a place where the sun is always shining, the air is fresh, and the ocean breezes delight the senses. Then, add in historic buildings and sites juxtaposed with the most modern and advanced technology, skyscrapers, and luxury homes. The smells of varied cuisine make your mouth water as you pass by everything from fish shacks to Michelin-starred restaurants. Maseratis and Lamborghinis share the road with pedal carts, and ocean sunsets take your breath away. That place is known as San Diego, California.
San Diego is the 2nd largest city in California, behind only Los Angeles in size. Named after the Catholic Saint Didacus, also known as Diego de Alcala, San Diego was “discovered” in 1602 by Sebastian Vizcaino when his ship the San Diego entered what is now Mission Bay. The land had been inhabited by the Kumeyaay tribes for thousands of years prior to the land’s ‘discovery’ by the Europeans, but the Spanish influence had such a pervasive impact on the area that even the native peoples are now known as the San Dieguito people, and many mistakenly believe that the city got its name from them.
The area known as San Diego was under Spanish control for over 200 years. In 1821, the Mexicans won their freedom from Spain and the San Diego area became part of Mexico. It would only remain under Mexican control for just over 25 years; however, as the conclusion of the Mexican-American War would see it become part of the California Territory and the first European settlement in the new land. San Diego is quite fittingly referred to as “The Birth Place of California”.
In the early 1900s, San Diego was still a relatively small city despite its great climate and prime location. The construction of the Panama Canal would change that forever. San Diego would be the first major port that ships would come to when traveling west through the Panama Canal and north up California’s coast. In 1915, San Diego won the honor of hosting the World’s Fair. The fair “coincidentally” coincided with the opening of the Panama Canal and was titled the Panama-California exposition. The fair was a success and San Diego grew. The city held a second World’s Fair in 1935, which was also a success and was instrumental in the city growing into the world powerhouse it is today.
When To Go:
San Diego can be safely visited all year round. It is truly a city with beautiful weather and a mild climate every month of the year. December to February are the wettest months, though the rainfall is usually minimal. Along the coastal areas the marine layer can be thick from May-July leading to what the locals call the June Gloom. Only a few miles inland, however, the sun will be shining brightly.
Things to do
and places to see in San Diego…
in San Diego is the largest urban cultural park in the country, one of the oldest parks in the United States, and is constantly ranked as one of the top parks in the world. Balboa Park covers more than 1,200 acres with 65 miles of hiking trails, miles of Pacific Ocean beaches, many specialized gardens, and 15 major museums. The park has a visitors’ center which provides information about the park, discount coupons, and free tours.
The park can trace its history to 1835, but it was not officially established and named until 1868. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1977. The name comes from the first European to reach the Pacific Ocean by land across the Americas, Vasco Balboa.
The park was the site of the World’s Fair in both 1915 and 1935. Because of the importance of these fairs to San Diego, the park was enhanced and beautified to no small degree. From buildings to transportation systems, the park was transformed from grasslands into groves of exotic trees, thematic gardens, and iconic displays. Most of the original buildings are now meticulously crafted replicas, but the history of the World’s Fairs can still be seen.
Balboa Park is home to 15 major museums including the San Diego Museum of Art, the San Diego Air and Space Museum, the Timken Museum of Art; and it also houses the San Diego Zoo.
Among the park’s highlights are the Spreckles Organ Pavilion featuring the 2nd largest outdoor organ in the world- you can hear it played during the many free concerts, the 65-miles of GPS-codes, numbered and rated hiking and running trails, and the beautiful sea-side pavilions where you can watch the dramatic sunsets over the Pacific Ocean.
is a museum housed in an actual US Navy Aircraft Carrier. In fact, the USS Midway served in the US Navy for 47 years, was the largest ship in the world from 1945 to 1955, and is now the only remaining ship of its kind in the world. More than just a museum, the longest serving aircraft carrier in the entire 20th century, the USS Midway is a memorial to the men and women who served the United States at home and around the world.
At over 1,000 feet long, almost 100 yards wide, and more than 20 stories tall, the USS Midway is truly enormous. Just the flight deck takes up more than 4-acres. In addition to the sheer size of the ship, you will marvel at the size of the anchor chain (1,800 feet) with each link weighing 156 pounds, the vast cavernous interiors, and yet the small, cramped, shared bunk spaces of the enlisted crew.
Guided and unguided tours are available to take you through the ship. You can sit in the captain’s or executive officer’s chair in the varied briefing rooms, see what officers’ quarters looked like compared to the bunks of the enlisted men, see the size of a galley the put out over 10,000 meals each day, and even visit the ship’s prison.
On the flight deck are many of the planes and helicopters that flew off the Midway through the years including Panthers and Skyraiders from the Korean War, Phantoms from the Vietnam War, and A-6 Intruders and FA-18 Hornets from Desert Storm along with so many more. Many of the aircraft can be explored. You can even sit in the cockpit.
In the ship’s interior, there are also cockpit displays that you can sit in, flight simulators to test your skills, movies to watch, a café, snack carts, and many interactive exhibits.
San Diego Zoo
Animals from the 1915 World’ Fair in Balboa Park were moved to a new facility following the fair and the
San Diego Zoo
was born. Through the years, quite a few updates and advancements were made at the zoo, and many of them were quite revolutionary. For example, the idea of cageless exhibits was introduced here, and in 1922 the first zoological lion exhibit without bars opened. Today, many of the exhibits are cageless which provides the animals a much better life.
The zoo has amphibians, birds, mammals, reptiles and arthropods. There are also many habitat displays. From the habitats of Australia to Africa and the Arctic to Malaysia the zoo brings together all of the standard zoo animals and many special ones such as polar bears, giant pandas, and koalas. The zoo also houses the Center for the Reproduction of Endangered Species so visitors have the chance to see endangered species that are not found in many other places, if any at all, on earth. Some of the animals are the last of their kind, and the zoo is their last chance to come back from the brink of extinction.
The zoo’s most famous exhibit is Panda Trek with the giant pandas. San Diego has one of the few zoos in the world with giant pandas and is perhaps the top facility when it comes to success in breeding these highly endangered species in captivity. So far, the San Diego Zoo has bred and raised six giant pandas. Each has been released back into the wild in China when it was old enough in hopes of developing a sustained giant panda population in its native land.
The San Diego Zoo also has the world’s second largest koala population on earth, second only to Australia. A highlight of the exhibit is the only known albino koala in captivity. The arctic exhibit brings together more than 30 arctic animals including the deadly polar bear.
You have several options to get around the zoo. The park is easily walked, but there is also a bus that takes you to about 75 percent of the exhibits. For a treat, you may want to try the Skyfari and get an aerial view of the park from a gondola that soars way above the zoo.
is San Diego’s historic district and is famed for its entertainment. The area can trace its roots to the 1800s when it was created as a European-American alternative to the more Latino-American Old Town San Diego (the Old Town at that time was still the center of San Diego). The area got its name for the many gas lamps that were hung as streetlights along the roadways. The ‘entertainment’ of the district was definitely of an adult nature for most of its existence, and only recently has there been an attempt to make it more family-friendly.
The Gaslamp District is still a favorite place for locals and visitors alike to spend an evening with an adult beverage or to watch sports with friends. Walking the streets, you can enjoy many of the historic landmarks and Victorian-styled buildings, but there are not a lot of options for children.
SeaWorld San Diego
San Diego is the first of three SeaWorld theme parks in the United States. The others are in Orlando, Florida, and San Antonio, Texas. The parks feature shows with Killer Whales, dolphins, and sea lions, as well as many other animal exhibits and thrill rides centered on water that often leave riders soaked. The main rides in San Diego are Journey to Atlantis, the Wild Arctic Ride, Shipwreck Rapids and Riptide Rescue.
SeaWorld’s first Orca came from Seattle in the 1960s and was named Shamu. Shamu was such as hit that today every one of SeaWorld’s 24 Orcas are called Shamu when they are performing. Of the 24 SeaWorld orcas, 11 of them are in San Diego.
The Shamu shows are famed for their Soak Zone where guests are drenched by the splashing from the many-ton killer whales. If the trainer doesn’t think the routines got the guests wet enough, the orcas are trained to flip water into the stands with their tails until everyone is sufficiently wet. You can sit high enough up in the stands not to get soaked if you so desire.
Shows with Beluga and Pilot Whales, walruses, dolphins and otters are also quite popular and should not be missed. There are also exhibits with sharks and rays, birds, and polar bears. The best time to see most of the exhibits is during feeding times, especially the sea lions and bat rays.
In addition to the rides and shows that come with your ticket, there are some add-on adventures of which you may want to take advantage. These special offers let you get close to the animals and ask questions of the trainers. Most of them include feeding the animals and interacting with them up close. A few of these specials include: The Dolphin Interaction and Dolphin Encounter Programs, The Animal Spotlight Program, The Penguins-Up Close adventure, and the Eat with Shamu and Breakfast with Shamu opportunities.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
has 1,800 acres hosting 3,000 animals and over 3,500 varieties of plants. Many of the animals in the park are endangered.
The park was initially started as a breeding program for the San Diego Zoo and then branched into conservationism. It has achieved word-famous status as an endangered species rescue and revitalization center. Several species including the California condor have been brought back from the brink of extinction due largely to the efforts of the park. Sadly, many animals in the park still represent some of the only ones of their species left on the planet.
The park has also received notoriety for its open, cageless exhibits and natural habitats which provide a better life for the animals housed there.
The main exhibits in the park are divided into thematic habitats. They are: the African Plains, the Asian Savanna, Condor Ridge, Tiger Territory, Elephant Valley, African Outpost, and the Gorilla Forest. It cannot be stressed enough that these habitats do not feature animals in cages, but consist of entire groups of animals in their natural habitat interacting with other native animals just as they would in the wild.
The park has one of the last 6 northern white rhinos left in the world, and provides what may be most people’s only chance to view an actual California condor, the largest land-dwelling bird in North America.
You can watch an entire herd of elephants or giraffes, a pride of lions, cheetahs racing at truly amazing speeds, tigers, antelope, and literally hundreds of other animals from a number of vantage points. The park is designed to be walked, but there are also other options. A tram is available and included in general ticket prices. For a small fee, you can rent a Segway, or sail high above the park in a hot air balloon. You can even take part in a real ‘safari’ and head out into the animal habitats in a safari vehicle to get right next to the animals. Perhaps the most sought after viewing; however, is so much more than just a viewing medium: a zip line lets you literally “zip” above the park and gets your adrenaline pumping while you see the animals from a truly unique viewpoint.
The island that is really a peninsula,
is a delightful getaway a short distance into the bay from San Diego. It is connected to San Diego by the award-winning engineering marvel known as the Coronado Bridge. With its white sand beaches and perfect weather, the island has been one of the top beaches in the world for nearly 100 years.
Beyond laying on the beach, Coronado offers shopping, fine dining, and spectacular views of the San Diego skyline. The island itself is gorgeous and should be toured. It is small enough to be walked, but bikes and Segways are also quite popular. In addition to the well-maintained city streets, there are 15 miles of bike paths that lead you along the stunning coastline. The island is particularly beautiful in spring and early summer when the island’s countless flowers are in bloom.
Perhaps the most famous draw of the island is the Hotel Del Coronado, a cheery red and white Victorian beach house that has housed the world’s power-elite since its establishment in 1888. From hollywood royalty to British royalty and every US President since the hotel was built – the Del has slept them all.
The Del Coronado was the largest hotel in the world for many years and was rated as one of the top 10 hotels in the world to stay at when it was in its prime. Best of all, it is said that the hotel is haunted.
You do not need to stay at the hotel to walk through its historic halls and gardens, snack and dine, or simply enjoy the art, architecture, and photographs.
The North Island U. S. Naval Air Station and the U. S. Navy SEALS Center is also on Coronado island so you will get to see many military aircraft coming and going, and there are usually some pretty massive ships docked nearby. If you are a fan of military aircraft or naval ships, you will love Coronado.
While you can get to Coronado Island by ferry, water taxi, or trolly, driving across the Coronado Bridge is special. The bridge almost did not get built because the navy insisted that all of its ships be able to pass under it and that it not block the ships if their was an accident with the bridge. It wasn’t until the 1950s that an acceptable plan was put together. The result was a curved architectural masterpiece that had over 20 stories of clearance between the bridge and water. The Coronado Bridge was also the longest box-girder bridge in the world until a bridge over the Yangtze River was built in 2008. There are no other bridges like it around, and it is worthwhile to have the unique experience of crossing it on your way to or from Coronado.