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.
7. The whole enchilada
Salazar's is an old-school gem with orange cushions, statues of mustachioed men in sombreros, and a jukebox loaded with country and mariachi. Most servers and patrons will be speaking Spanish. Combo platters, under $10, are a mix of chiles rellenos, tamales, enchiladas, rice, beans, and soup. 1502 Market St., 619/238-9674.
8. Good enough for 11 presidents
Despite hosting European royalty and 11 U.S. presidents since its 1888 opening, the Hotel del Coronado and its trademark red-shingled turrets are best known as the backdrop for Billy Wilder's hilarious film Some Like It Hot, starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe. With rates rarely dropping below $300, staying over might be a stretch, but anyone can explore the grand old property. In the lower level of the Victorian Building, there are exhibits on the construction of the buildings, on films that were shot there, and about the ghost of Kate Morgan, who supposedly haunts the property. Stores, ice-cream parlors, restaurants, coffee shops, and snack bars are plentiful, but be warned: A hot dog costs $8.50. 1500 Orange Ave., 800/468-3533, hoteldel.com.
9. Reuse, recycle, resell
It seems like every neighborhood in San Diego County has a secondhand store--or an entire block of them, as in Ocean Beach. Options there include the 18,000-square-foot Newport Avenue Antique Center, which hosts dozens of vendors under the same roof, and the pickings are varied enough to keep amateurs and serious collectors alike interested (4864 Newport Ave., 619/222-8686). Castoffs tend to come from the immediate surroundings, meaning that Ocean Beach, a funky neighborhood favored by artists, bikers, and hippies, is big on eclectic, vintage items, while ritzy areas like La Jolla and Del Mar are where to go for fur coats, fancy jewelry, and designer clothing. Kobey's Swap Meet, on the other hand, is an assortment of people trying to empty their attics (3350 Sports Arena Blvd., 619/523-2700, kobeyswap.com, Fri.-Sun., entry $1).
10. Icarus who?
On a bluff overlooking the Pacific, Torrey Pines Gliderport is one of the world's premier locations for hang gliding and paragliding. Novices are welcomed; 90 percent of them opt for a tandem paraglide, a ride with an instructor who does all the work. The Gliderport is particularly proud of its wide spectrum of clients: Instructors teach in nine languages, taking into the air kids as young as 5 and seniors well into their 90s, as well as hundreds of paraplegics each year. "Way up in the sky, the views go on forever, and the sound of the wind is the only thing you hear," says flight director David Jebb. "Everyone comes back from the ride elated." Sitting back and watching people defy gravity in such a gorgeous setting can easily fill an afternoon. 2800 Torrey Pines Scenic Dr., 858/452-9858, flytorrey.com, tandem paraglide $150.
11. Two-minute thrills
The Giant Dipper, a rickety wooden roller coaster built in 1925, zips down hills and around turns, giving riders blurry views of water on both sides (the Pacific Ocean on one side, Mission Bay on the other). It's just one of the arcades, carousels, and other old-time carnival rides that make up Belmont Park in Mission Beach. 3190 Mission Blvd., 858/488-1549, giantdipper.com, Giant Dipper $6.
12. Zen and the art of koi ponds
People have been coming to California to find themselves for decades. Back in the day, some of the Beatles meditated at the Self-Realization Fellowship, studying the teachings of founder Paramahansa Yogananda. (The name of Swami's Beach, the popular surf spot down the hill, is an unofficial homage.) People still use the grounds for retreats, and the koi ponds and ocean views of its Meditation Gardens remain free to the public (215 K St., Encinitas, 760/753-1811, yogananda-srf.org). For mellowing out closer to downtown, try the ponds, paths, and teahouse at the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park (2215 Pan American Rd. E., 619/232-2721, niwa.org, $3).
13. Big Kahuna breakfasts
By mid-morning, there are lines out the door at Pipes Cafe, a surf-themed breakfast spot by the ocean in low-key Cardiff-by-the-Sea (just Cardiff to locals). Inside, surf posters line the walls and boards hang from the ceiling, and there's always a video playing of an epic surfing session at some exotic locale. Surfer girls and guys of all ages, yoga types, and sunbaked retirees gather on the wooden deck for fresh muffins, Hawaiian coffee, pancakes, and breakfast burritos. Cute touch: The sign on the door says "Gone Surfing" when Pipes is closed. 121 Liverpool Dr., Cardiff-by-the-Sea, pipescafe.com, egg burrito $4.
14. Old Town's old inn
Within Old Town, up the hill from the restored mid-1800s village, Heritage Park B&B Inn is itself a renovated 1889 mansion with 12 antique-filled rooms. Besides enjoying afternoon tea and cookies on the veranda, guests can relax while watching the old movies shown nightly. 2470 Heritage Park Row, 800/995-2470, heritageparkinn.com, from $140.
15. Free brew with Shamu
After chasing the kids around at SeaWorld, even the most patient guardian will be ready for a refreshing drink. Luckily, the theme park's corporate owner, Anheuser-Busch, uses the venue to showcase merchandise. At the Hospitality Center, located between the main entrance and Polar Bear Plaza, visitors 21 and up are welcome to two complimentary seven-ounce samples of whatever beers are fresh on tap, including Bud, Rolling Rock, and a changing roster of seasonal (and less familiar) ales and stouts. 800/257-4268, seaworld.com.
The local Mexican-bakery delicacy is a flaky empanada filled with sweet gooey jelly in flavors like pumpkin, apricot, guava, and strawberry. One of the best such spots, Panchita's Bakery, in a strip mall a few minutes' drive east of downtown, sells the treats for 75¢ apiece. Each patron grabs a circular metal tray from the counter and uses tongs to load up at the shelves brimming with all sorts of pastries and breads. 2519 C St., 619/232-6662.
17. The freshest thing in town
That's the motto at Point Loma Seafoods, a no-frills market and restaurant where the dining area consists of concrete outdoor tables overlooking the marina. The inside has the appearance of a New York deli, but the guys in splattered aprons serve fish tacos, sushi, and squid instead of pastrami and corned beef. The food is delicious--and cheap, since you're not paying extra for atmosphere. 2805 Emerson St., Point Loma, 619/223-1109, plsf.com, fish sandwich $6.50.
18. Peaceful sunsets
For a world-class sunset, go to the place named for it, Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. From high atop craggy rocks, the ocean and sky seem endless, and the light is extra dramatic. Don't leave without walking along Sunset Cliffs Boulevard and checking out the five-foot-high peace sign, 40 feet above the sea on a rock, near Froude Street. The artwork appeared mysteriously last spring, and while it's illegal, people like it so much that no one has taken it down. "The goal was to make the piece 'organic' to the surroundings, as if it had sprung from the ocean," the anonymous artist says at peacerocks.info. "Mostly, it was intended to reflect whatever peaceful insights and wishes each viewer projected upon it."
19. Watch for signs
San Diego is a sprawling city of neighborhoods, most of which have prominent signs arched over the main street that make it clear whether you're in Little Italy, North Park, the Gaslamp Quarter, Hillcrest, or elsewhere.
20. Bridges from the past
West of Balboa Park, in Hillcrest, two pedestrian bridges provide lovely treetop views. The bridges--a 236-foot wooden trestle at Quince Street and Third Avenue, and this wiggly, 375-foot suspension bridge at Spruce Street near First Avenue--opened in 1905 and 1912, respectively, to connect isolated, hilly neighborhoods to trolley lines.
21. Suite park-front lodging
After a 2006, $3 million renovation, Park Manor Suites hotel should be on visitors' radar. Small groups in particular like the simple, spacious rooms, which range from 525-square-foot studios to 1,100-square-foot two-bedroom units. (None have air-conditioning, however.) Breakfast in the 1926 building--named a historic site by San Diego in 1991--is served on the top floor, with views of downtown, the bay, and, right across the street, Balboa Park. 525 Spruce St., 800/874-2649, parkmanorsuites.com, from $109.
22. Flights of Fanta
Cecil Ogles has been making model airplanes for more than 60 years and flying real ones for almost as long. Two decades ago, he began crafting airplanes, helicopters, and blimps out of aluminum cans and created a business: RecycleFlyers. Like many Navy veterans, Ogles lives in Coronado. On holiday weekends, he's a fixture on main thoroughfare Orange Avenue, near Sixth Street; he can also sometimes be found at Balboa Park, on Presidents Way. (Call or e-mail him to find out his schedule.) Sporting a stiff baseball cap and skin that's absorbed too much sun, Ogles sits behind a dozen or so Dr. Pepper, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Tecate, and Mug Root Beer planes with propellers spinning in the breeze to attract business. "Some of the planes are harder to plan and build than others," says Ogles. "The trick is to get the labels to line up just right." 619/435-0849, recycleflyers.com, $34-$200.
23. Even commuting is a pleasure
The Coaster, San Diego's commuter train line, is a surprising treat. Departing the north county town of Oceanside, the extraordinarily clean double-deckers chug south toward downtown San Diego, and at times they run close enough to the Pacific Ocean that passengers can spot surfers in wet suits squinting into the sun. More than a few commuters have been known to get off the train and call in sick after being tempted by the waves rolling in at Del Mar or Solana Beach. 760/966-6500, gonctd.com.
24. Its worst 'hood is now red-hot
Back in the late 1800s, San Diego's Stingaree district was a wild place--even the legendary gunslinger Wyatt Earp lived there. Later, it went through a seedy, urban-jungle phase. In recent years, the Gaslamp Quarter, as it's been renamed, has taken a swift turn upscale, with an influx of cigar bars, swanky nightclubs, upscale hotels, and fine restaurants. Weekdays after work and all day on weekends, locals and tourists pack the main drag, Fifth Avenue, to eat, imbibe, shop, and socialize. The neighborhood isn't only a place to carouse: The downtown population has nearly doubled since 2000, and cranes and new condos around every corner reveal a hot real estate market. We like the revitalized Gaslamp Quarter so much, we dedicated an entire story to the neighborhood in February 2007. You can find it at our website, BudgetTravelOnline.com.
25. Ray at Night
On the second Saturday of every month, the stores and restaurants located along narrow Ray Street in North Park keep their doors open late into the evening for what's known as the Ray at Night art walk. Galleries participate, of course, but so do many coffee shops, bars, and yoga studios, which stage artists' exhibits in a friendly atmosphere. Impromptu jazz sessions, buskers' performances, and poetry slams draw crowds of spectators to a parking lot on Ray.rayatnightartwalk.com.