After a cultured cheap weekend break in Florence, we crossed over the Atlantic to San Diego. Forget LA – with its uninterrupted sunshine, world class museums, vibrant downtown and waterfront setting, San Diego is the real place for California Dreamin’. Here’s what Lauren Smith did on a weekend city break…
One of the first Spanish settlements, San Diego is the birthplace of California, and has all the ingredients for a perfect city break – glorious beaches, cheap San Diego hostels and hip nightlife in the historic Gaslamp Quarter. It just might live up to its modest title of ‘America’s Finest City’…
Leave the car at home: San Diego is one of those unique American cities that you can explore almost entirely without a car. Many of the neighbourhoods are easily walkable, and the excellent Trolley and Bus system will take you to most of the city’s main sites – even over the border to Tijuana, Mexico, if you fancy it. Get an unlimited Bus and Trolley pass for 2 days for around $9. Stay in Lucky D’s hostel and you’re right in the city center, plus you’ll get loads of freebies, from a waffle breakfast and three evening meals a week to a pub crawl around the nearby Gaslamp Quarter.
Hit the Park: San Diego is famous for its Zoo, but if you aren’t a fan of cuddly creatures, the surrounding Balboa Park is one of the city’s top attractions. A beautiful urban park-cum-cultural center, this huge complex is home to the city’s best museums, acres of scenic gardens and a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London (that regularly hosts productions). Spend a morning wandering around and take your pick from whatever museum takes your fancy – my favourites are the San Diego Museum of Man, and the excellent galleries, the Museum of Art (with 12,000 pieces of art!) and the Museum of Photographic Arts. The Automotive Museum and Champion Sports Museum kept my Dad happy! There are endless gardens to choose from, but I liked the Botanical Building and Lily Ponds, and Alcazar Gardens, inspired by the Alcazar palace in Seville, Spain. The impressive Prado building (a glorious Spanish colonial hall) is also worth a look.
Garden Party: For a cheap and healthy lunch in Balboa Park, head to the Tea Pavilion in the Japanese Friendship Garden. Surrounded by the zen-like calm of lanterns, waterfalls and a koi pond, the Tea Pavilion serves surprisngly cheap Japanese fast food – tofu noodle salads, huge bowls of ramen, sushi and great miso soup, with a huge selection of teas. There’s also some tasty sandwiches and snacks if you fancy something else.
Embark for the Embarcadero: The Embarcadero is the historic bayfront area of San Diego, and the harbour is now lined with art displays, nautical museums and historic ships to entertain visitors. Stroll along the walkways and watch ships depart for Mexico, visit the three restored vintage ships at the Maritime Museum, or the Aircraft Carrier Musuem on the USS Midway. If naval history isn’t your bag, just look at all the crazy sculptures along the waterfront, and relax on the grassy lawns of the Marina Park, with great views of the harbour and Coronado Bridge. I love the giant sculpture of a sailor kissing his girlfriend before he departs to sea!
Light Up the Gaslamp Quarter: This historic neighbourhood was the ‘new town’ built in 1867, but by the 1970s it had become dilapidated. The quaint Victorian, Italianate and Renaissance buildings (and wrought iron Gaslamps that gave the district its name) have now been restored, the seedy residents moved out, and the Gaslamp is now the hippest and most vibrant part of the city. Today the area is packed with cool shops and hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs drawing a young and lively crowd. Check out some of the historic buildings, like the Balboa Theatre and the Old City Hall, and then browse some of the shops. Being by the sea, fish is a must try in San Diego – the Tin Fish is a great value ‘neighbourhood fish joint’ serving freshly caught seafood. Follow your dinner with a bar crawl – El Dorado Cocktail Bar is a cool local dive bar, and smacks of East Village chic, with cheap drinks and a vintage jukebox. The Whiskey Girl is your typical American Sports Bar with loud music and a happy hour. Most of the clubs in ‘Gastown’ guarantee a wild night out, but On Broadway, Envy or Stingaree are always popular.
Get Egg On Your Face: Recover from the night before with a lazy brunch at The Broken Yolk Cafe – this San Diego institution feeds the city’s hung over hipsters with huge portions of yummy breakfasts, with a pleasant outdoor eating area. There are more than 20 omelettes on the menu, plated up with fresh fruit and a load of sides, or you can choose from a range of brunch classics, from French Toast to Hueveros Ranchos. If you can’t stomach a whole 4-egg omelette, they are more than happy to let you share.
On a Mission: Discover San Diego’s Spanish heritage at California’s oldest Mission, San Diego de Alcala. Founded in 1769 to convert Native American Indians, today the Mission’s peaceful gardens, buildings and cemetary are perfect for a sleepy Sunday morning stroll.
Some Like It Hot: If the weather’s good, make like Marylin Monroe and take the ferry to Coronado, the setting for the classic comedy ‘Some Like It Hot’. Regular Ferries leave from Broadway Pier in San Diego to Coronado and costs $3 each way. Coronado itself has a village-like feel, a picturesque sliver of land overlooking the bay and the ocean, covered with charming mansions, shops and eateries, and flanked by the iconic Coronado Hotel on the beach. Once you get to Coronado visit the famous hotel, a historic landmark (and where the film was set), and check out the fascinating photo gallery. Then you can gawk at the impressive mansions on Ocean Boulevard, explore the kooky shops and galleries on Orange Avenue, and hit the beach! Silver Strand State Beach is an endless stretch of sand, perfect for clam digging and beachcombing. Refresh with a DIY Ice Cream at the Moo Time Creamery – simply pick a flavour, several toppings and sauces, and watch the ice cream ‘rolled’ together and created on the spot!
Top Tacos: San Diego’s hispanic heritage is hard to ignore, and the proximity to the Mexican border means that San Diego is home to some of the best Mexican food in California. The city is famous for its fish tacos in particular – a comforting combo of corn tortillas, guacamole, white sauce, salsa, shredded cabbage, and grilled or fried fish. You can get them in fast food chains like Wahoos, but why not enjoy one in the original heart of the city – the Old Town State Historic Park. Much of the center was destroyed in a fire in 1872, but many of the Spanish colonial buildings have been restored into museums and exhibitions on San Diego’s pioneer families. Wander along San Diego Avenue past the touristy souvenir shops to the Old Town Mexican Cafe and Cantina, home to the famous ‘Tortilla Ladies of Old Town’- queues form to watch the Mexican women rolling out the flour and corn tortillas by hand. The vibe may be touristy, but the fish tacos are second to none, and the atmosphere is electric.
Why stop at just one weekend in Southern California? Keep the good times rolling and head up the coast with The Hostel Hopper – a door to door hostel shuttle between LA and San Diego.