San Diego has been like a second home to me for pretty much my entire life. With a population of 1.3 million, it’s the second largest city in California and attracts more than 30 million visitors every year. Renowned for its idyllic Mediterranean climate, pristine sandy beaches and first-class attractions, it’s the perfect year-round travel destination. It really lives up to its nickname, “America’s Finest City.” In no particular order, here’s my list of the top ten best places to visit when you’re in sunny San Diego.
The world-famous San Diego Zoo houses over four thousand animals, many of them rare and endangered species. The zoo pioneered the concept of “cage-less” exhibits, with the animals out in open air, but behind deep moats. This allows visitors to see the animals in as natural of a setting as possible. The zoo is enormous and features more than 700,000 exotic plants from around the world too. Visitors can walk the grounds, take a bus tour or ride high overhead on an aerial gondola called the “Skyfari” for a bird’s eye view of the park.
The most famous attraction at SeaWorld is definitely Shamu the killer whale. Visitors can also see dolphins, sharks, sea turtles, polar bears, seals, penguins, walruses and many other marine animals on exhibit too. There are frequent animal performances, several rides, a fun play area for kids called the Sesame Street Bay of Play and a 320-foot (98m) observation tower, which affords spectacular views of Mission Bay and all of San Diego.
Built in 1914 for the Panama-California Exposition, Balboa Park is the largest urban cultural park in the United States. With 1200 acres of gardens and eucalyptus groves, fifteen museums, several theaters and recreation facilities, you could easily spend an entire day there. Many of the park’s cultural attractions line El Prado, a long promenade running through the center of the park. The eye-catching Spanish colonial buildings, including the California Tower (pictured above) are historic landmarks.
Enjoying an idyllic location just across the bay from downtown San Diego, Coronado sits on a narrow peninsula and offers some of the best beaches in the city, if not the country. Don’t miss out on the quintessential American beach hotel, the Hotel del Coronado. Built back in 1888, the Hotel Del is a Victorian architectural marvel. Known the world over for its unsurpassed luxury, you never know who will be staying under its distinctive red turreted roofs. You can reach Coronado by ferry from downtown or by driving across iconic Coronado Bridge.
5) The San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Formerly known as the Wild Animal Park, the San Diego Zoo’s sister park offers visitors a truly unique experience. Wild animals like giraffes, antelopes, buffalo, gazelles, rhinos, lions and cheetahs live out in the open, savannah-like terrain where they can roam free. Guests ride in special trams around the park, simulating the feel of an actual African safari. The Safari Park is located in Escondido, about thirty-five miles north of downtown.
6) San Diego Harbor Cruise
One of the best ways to see San Diego is from the water. Taking a cruise around the San Diego Bay offers unrivaled views of the downtown skyline, Point Loma, the Coronado Bridge and even some of the military’s historic ships like the USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Midway. The journey is relaxing, the sea air fresh. Make sure to bring a sweater or windbreaker, as it can be cool on the water.
7) Hit the beach!
San Diego enjoys miles and miles of picturesque beaches, each offering something different for every type of visitor. Whether you like swimming, surfing, snorkeling or just relaxing and catching some rays, the beach is undoubtedly one of San Diego’s biggest draws. Here, the beach is a way of life and nothing beats watching the sun slowly dip into the Pacific every evening.
Often called California’s Côte d’Azur, La Jolla’s scenic coastline offers unmatched natural beauty—from white sand beaches lined with palm trees to sandstone cliffs dropping to the sea. Tony downtown La Jolla offers a variety of gorgeous hotels, art galleries, jewelers and cafés. The name La Jolla is an adaptation of the Spanish word la joya, which means, “the jewel.” And it’s no wonder; La Jolla truly is a jewel by the sea.
Young kids will love Legoland, a theme park based on the beloved, colorful interlocking plastic bricks. The park is split into nine major sections—The Beginning, Dino Island, Duplo, Village Green, Fun Town, Castle Hill, Miniland USA, Pirate Shores, Imagination Zone and Land of Adventure. Adults will especially enjoy Miniland, where artists have recreated some of the world’s great cities entirely out of Legos.
10) The Gaslamp Quarter
The Gaslamp Quarter is the historic heart of downtown San Diego. Extending from Broadway to Harbor Drive, and from 4th to 6th Avenue, the Gaslamp covers 16½ city blocks. It includes ninety-four historic buildings, most of which were constructed in the Victorian Era of the late nineteenth century. Visitors and locals alike are drawn to the dynamic district’s many shops, cafés, restaurants, bars and popular nightclubs.* All photos by Michael Figueiredo, with the exception of LEGOLAND California (from wikicommons.)