25 Reasons We Love San Diego
The city--long popular with Californians for its fresh, funky flavor--has revitalized its downtown without losing its soul.
1. Starry nightcaps
Downtown, and specifically in the popular Gaslamp Quarter, there are a handful of fantastic rooftop bars where you can kick back with a cocktail in the open air. J6 Bar, which attracts people who fancy themselves trendsetters, is the sleek fourth-floor lounge and pool area of the Hotel Solamar (616 J St., 619/531-8744, jsixsandiego.com); Altitude Skybar, 22 floors up atop the Marriott, brings in a mixed crowd of tourists and locals (660 K St., 619/446-6086, altitudeskybar.com).
2. The wild life
The San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park, a half hour north in Escondido, sprawls over 1,800 acres, giving rhinos, elephants, and other creatures huge areas to graze. For an up close encounter, sign up in advance for a Photo Caravan tour ($90) and ride in a canopy-covered truck onto the plains, where giraffes have been known to go nose-to-nose with guests. The main San Diego Zoo is equally world famous, with polar bears, pandas, gorillas, hippos, and tigers. After a few hours at either zoo, plop down at one of the 25¢ foot-massage chairs. Note: Before buying tickets to the zoos or SeaWorld, ask about passes that cover admission to several attractions. The Zoo/Passport to Balboa Park Combo, valid for a week, includes 13 museums and the main zoo; adults pay $59. Another pass covers both zoos and SeaWorld ($107). Most can be bought on the spot, but you'll skip lines by purchasing in advance online. 619/231-1515, sandiegozoo.org.
3. The guy to follow
For a hike that's both rewarding and easy, make your way to Torrey Pines State Reserve. The Guy Fleming Trail, named for a longtime nature guide and activist, is a six-tenths-of-a-mile loop that skirts along sheer cliffs overlooking the ocean. At the north end of the trail, a bench offers a view that on clear days extends as far as Santa Catalina island. Tip: An hour before sunset, the admission price is cut in half. 12600 N. Torrey Pines Rd., 858/755-2063, parks.ca.gov, $8.
4. Best Mexican outside Mexico
Considering its proximity to the border--a $2.50, 45-minute trolley ride from downtown--there's little surprise that San Diego has excellent Mexican food. In Old Town, where every restaurant rolls out tortillas by hand, the staff of Casa Guadalajara dress in colorful touristy getups, but the food is so good that locals pack the bar for free appetizers during happy hour and stick around for dinner in the courtyard (4105 Taylor St., 619/295-5111, casaguadalajara.com). Next to each other in a quiet stretch of Solana Beach, two family-run competitors are both worth the hour-long weekend waits: Tony's Jacal, where the bar is decorated with horse-racing memorabilia in tribute to nearby Del Mar racetrack (621 Valley Ave., 858/755-2274, tonysjacal.com), and Fidel's, a labyrinthine building with cozy wooden booths (607 Valley Ave., 858/755-5292).
5. The fan factory
Opened in 2004, the Petco Park baseball stadium has brought in record attendance and served as the cornerstone for the revitalization of downtown. The Padres' ballpark is a home run for many reasons, including decorative waterfalls, lots of bougainvillea, and menus with tacos from local favorite Rubio's. Two spots for spectators make the place really special: the Western Metal Supply building, a factory that was slated for demolition before architects incorporated it into the design (one corner serves as the left-field foul pole), is now suites that are usually snagged by corporations, so it helps to have an in; and Park at the Park, where for $5 fans can watch from a Wiffle ball field and picnic area. 619/795-5000, padres.mlb.com.
6. The sealed-off beach
In 1931, a new concrete barrier in La Jolla created a wave-free area for kids. These days, Children's Pool is the exclusive domain of seals. Humans, while discouraged from swimming, can picnic in the adjacent park. Also, two beaches--both known as Dog Beach--allow dogs to play off-leash. One is in Ocean Beach (dogbeachsandiego.org); the other, in Del Mar, allows dogs to roam leash-free from October to May.