Ah, San Diego. Sprawling alongside the Pacific Ocean and adjacent to the Mexican border, San Diego is a city that is now as American as apple pie …
The eighth largest city in the United States, and the second largest in California, a State which joined the Union to become part of the United States following the American/Mexican War, in 1850. From 1821 to 1850, though, it was part of what is now Mexico.
Julian Cabrillo claimed the area for Spain in 1542, but the Native American Kumeyaay were already inhabiting the area, with the natural environment providing them with a fairly comfortable existence with the proximity of seafood as well as land resources which they utilized fully. Despite their existence, however, their only real encroachment on the land was from small fires they used for everyday activities.
The unspoiled area which Cabrillo claimed, then, lent itself well to the development which is seen today. San Diego has a population of some 1.3 million and has built its economy on natural assets such as its deep water harbor (providing a base for the Navy since 1901), and its mild year round climate which is what makes it so attractive to the 30 million people who annually make a visit to the region.
Don’t be misled by thinking that the lack of skyscrapers on the skyline signifies a lack of financial security here in California – San Diego’s international trade and manufacture boosts an economy already well placed with its military and defense related industries, together with tourism. And, actually, it is Civil Aviation rulings which account for the building heights. San Diego’s international airport is conveniently closer to the city than some airports you may have visited.
With the San Diego River running from east to west across the city, and the downtown area framing the harbor, San Diego is a great backdrop for the photographers and a fun city for both visitors and residents alike.
So let’s take a look at what people, when they get the chance, get out and do in San Diego!
Top Ten Things to Do in San Diego
1. From scrub to Urban City Park - Balboa Park
2. Wander with the Peacocks and check out the Pandas - San Diego Zoo
3. Walk in the Footsteps of 225,000 Service Men and Women - USS Midway Museum
4. Take me to the Ballgame - Petco Park
5. History Afloat - Maritime Museum of San Diego
6. East Coast comes West - Mission Beach
7. Where it all began - Cabrillo National Monument
8. Up close and personal with the Beluga and Friends - SeaWorld San Diego
9. Natural Testament to Survival - Torrey Pines State Reserve
10. Follow the March - Mormon Battalion Historic Site
#1 - From Scrub to Urban City Park - Balboa Park
(1549 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101)
In 1868 1,400 acres of land was set aside as a ‘City Park’. The vision of the forefathers, though, stopped short about there and it wasn’t until 1892 when a woman by the name of Kate Sessions came to an agreement with the City that she would donate 100 trees per year in exchange for 32 acres of land within the park’s boundary upon which she wished to use to establish a commercial nursery.
Many of those original trees still exist in today’s Balboa Park, although the total acreage of the Park is now slightly smaller, at 1,200 acres. Kate Sessions is still remembered, having been named ‘Mother of Balboa Park’ at the California/Pacific International Exposition in 1935. And it is fair to say that her contribution certainly not only put the Park on the map, but also assisted San Diego’s rise to prominence as well. The Park, the city fathers realized, was more than just a green open space.
In 1905, a tax was levied for development of the Park and over the following seven years much work was done to create what is now an urban cultural park, although in the beginning it was more about creating a space for Expositions, the first of which – the Panama Exposition - was held in 1915. The name change from City Park to Balboa happened in time for the opening of the Exposition, and Balboa was chosen in honor of the first European to spot the Pacific Ocean, Spain’s Vasco Nunez de Balboa.
Much of what is enjoyed in the Park today is as a result of those early Expositions. Many of the buildings were temporary in design, but have been reconstructed over the years. Examples of these, which can be seen today, are the California Tower and Dome (which houses the San Diego Museum of Man), a 1,500 foot bridge (Cabrillo Bridge), and one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs, Spreckels Organ Pavilion. San Diego Museum of Art – the oldest and largest in the region – is also here in Balboa Park, having been built in 1926.
With such a large area, you may want to consider exploring with a tour. These leave from the Visitors Center and include ranger-led tours on Tuesdays and Sundays, or one hour walks led by volunteers every Saturday which follow a theme – for example, history, trees. There are also Trail Walks on the second Wednesday of each month.
Balboa Park is home to 15 museums, many places to eat, and even the San Diego Zoo. But if it is culture you are looking for, check out the Old Globe Theater and the Spanish Village Art Center with its 35 working studios, or, on a Sunday, a free organ concert.
But don’t forget, a lot of what you see today is as a result of the inspirational idea of Kate Sessions, so be sure to check out some of the wonderful living specimens in the Park – from cactus gardens, to the Palm canyon, to the Trees for Health Garden. And yes, many of those original trees are still alive. There is definitely something for everyone to see and enjoy at Balboa Park.
#2 - Wander with the Peacocks and check out the Pandas - San Diego Zoo
(2920 Zoo Drive, San Diego, CA 92101)
With its 4D theater, Dr. Zoolittle Children’s Shows on weekends and holidays, this is a definite must-see if you have little ones with you.
San Diego Zoo is situated within the Balboa Park, and, as with the Park itself, owes much for its development to the early Expositions. Abandoned exotic animal enclosures after the 1915 Panama-California Exposition were the original inspiration for the Zoo which would open in 1921 and which now has a display of over 800 species and 4,000 animals in total. Of particular note is, of course, the Giant Panda – San Diego Zoo is one of the few places in the world where you can see this glorious animal up close.
The Children’s Zoo with its turtles, tortoises, hummingbird, insect and reptile displays are great for the small ones, but if it is the Pandas you must see on this visit to San Diego Zoo, go early – they are, of course, a very big crowd drawer. The Panda Canyon has three Giant Pandas, but they do share their enclosure with other creatures of interest, including the Red Panda – which isn’t actually a panda at all, but in fact related to the raccoon.
The Giraffe Experience is another favorite at San Diego Zoo which is home to a number of African Masai giraffe. These giraffe have an oak leaf pattern and the same long dark tongue of their relatives elsewhere. Take the opportunity to feed them – now that’s something you can’t do every day!
The Elephant Odyssey is a very educational display as it provides a very visual opportunity to travel back to meet extinct animals through the display of fossils and other archaeological finds, and then brings you to meet their descendants today.
With over 100 acres to cover, there is plenty to see as you wander with the free roaming peacocks to keep you company – but for an excellent overview, take a ride across the park on the sky tram!
It would be easy to spend four or five hours at the San Diego Zoo. Remember, the entrance fee and the on-site concession food stands are quite pricey (and the food range fairly limited), so you may want to consider packing your own snacks and drinks for the visit. There is free parking available and, if you have family in the military be sure to ask for your discounted entry fee.
And don’t forget, if it’s the Giant Pandas or the Polar Bears which are to be the highlights of your visit, get there early!
#3 - Walk in the Footsteps of 225,000 Service Men and Women - USS Midway Museum
(910 North Harbor, San Diego)
If you like to add a little history to a visit, or add to the education of your kids while they are on vacation, the USS Midway Museum is a must-see on your next visit to San Diego.
The USS Midway Museum is the most visited floating ship museum in the world – boasting some 800,000 guests in its first year as a ‘museum’ in 2004 - and a visit aboard should definitely not be rushed. Allow 3-4 hours so that you can explore what is, in essence, a ‘floating city’. And while you wander through tight quarters, check out the crew’s sleeping arrangements, and climb steep stairs, it is worth remembering that 225,000 men and women have served aboard the Midway! This is no display case – this is the real thing!
Yes, the USS Midway may be safely moored in its San Diego home, but it has played a major part in United States Naval history, including serving during the Vietnam War. This enormous vessel took just 17 months to build and when it was launched, in 1945, was the largest ship in the world.
With its four acre flight deck, there is an excellent opportunity to get up close to 25 restored aircraft which have been used in action from World War II through to Operation Desert Storm. So much history all in one stop! Restoration is ongoing, and the USS Midway is playing an enormous part in preserving history for generations to come, and making it accessible to all.
If you have time, take a tour with one of the Volunteer Guides. With maritime backgrounds, you will discover not only facts and figures but also enjoy personal anecdotes and humorous accounts from some who have in fact called Midway home during parts of their careers. Alternatively, take a self-guided audio tour and make your own way around – this is a good option if you don’t think you will be comfortable climbing the steep stairs, or being in somewhat confined spaces.
If all you have seen and learnt has you yearning for more, check out one of the three flight simulators for a touch of virtual reality!
Remember, the USS Midway is on the water and it can be cooler there than on land, so bring an extra layer of clothing. Comfortable footwear is a must, too, if you are to get around the vessel easily – best to leave the high heels at home for this adventure!
#4 - Take me to the Ball Game - Petco Park
(100 Park Boulevard, San Diego, CA 92101)
This open air ballpark in downtown San Diego is the home of The Padres. Opening in 2004, the Park was immediately claimed as ‘the world’s best ballpark’ – not surprising given that as well as being new, well thought out, and colored to mirror San Diego’s sailing boats, sea and sand, but largely because of its stunning views of San Diego’s downtown skyline.
The main reason for this, and also unfortunately for the delay in opening the Park, is a historical building on the site. Initially this was to be demolished, but it was instead restored (and now houses lounges and team facilities). This caused a change to the format of the stadium, and the result is main seating which looks across the field, but then beyond to downtown San Diego. It truly is spectacular!
Behind the outfield, there is also a park within the park which is open to the public when games are not in play, and which provides a great place for the kids. You can even take your dog! The seats back here in the outfield are cheap, like they are at most stadiums, but also have a decent view. This really is a people’s park.
More than a people’s Park, though, Petco – a major pet supplier – bought the naming rights to the stadium and holds ‘pet adoption’ Sundays at the park, another entertaining San Diego activity in a class of its own!
Live shows are also held at the Park, including the Rolling Stones in 2005. But to really get a feel for the atmosphere of what Petco Park is all about, try and get to a game. Now the Padres may not be your home team, but the views will be spectacular and the entertainment cannot be faulted. Fireworks light up the San Diego sky and foghorns blast for home team home runs and it is impossible to miss the action with 244 high definition televisions and another 500 standard definition television monitors scattered around the stands and amongst the concessions. There’s little chance, either, that you will miss the commentary – 500 computer controlled speakers will not leave you guessing!
So far only one game has succumbed to the weather elements and been postponed due to rain, but it is fair to say that a night at a ballgame in the mild Californian climate with the backdrop of San Diego’s skyline is a very pleasant way to spend some time …. and be entertained!
#5 - History Afloat - Maritime Museum of San Diego
(1492 North Harbor Drive, San Diego, CA 92101)
Established in 1948, the Maritime Museum of San Diego boasts one of the largest collections of historic vessels in the United States of America.
Check out the local guide to find out if there are any public events at the Maritime Museum which coincide with your stay in San Diego. There are regulars which are a lot of fun for the whole family – The ‘Chocolate Festival’ and the ‘Pirate Buccaneer Birthday Bash’ to name a couple. There is also an opportunity to have a family sleepover on the Star of India – the oldest sea-going sailing vessel (1,197 ton) built at Ramsey on the Isle of Man, UK, in 1863.
Along with the interactive exhibits, there are also sailing adventures which depart regularly from the Museum. You can choose from a four hour cruise aboard the tall ship ‘Catalina’ with its 7,000 square foot of canvas, and 145 feet in length, or take a 45 minute historic harbor cruise aboard the sturdy 1914 Pilot Boat.
Also on display are the following vessels:
Berkeley (1898) – the first successful propeller driven steam ferry;
Californian (1984) - a replica of a mid 19th century revenue cutter;
Medea (1904) – a steam yacht from luxurious days gone by, with trimmings displaying its wealth;
USS Dolphin – a navy submarine which holds the record for the deepest dive;
HMS Surprise (1970) – a replica of an 18th century Royal Navy frigate;
B39 – a Soviet attack submarine
This is a great activity that will fill your mind and exercise your body! Wear sturdy shoes as you will be walking and climbing, and if you are taking the opportunity to cruise on the harbor, don’t forget to take the sunscreen!
The Maritime Museum of San Diego strives to replicate and educate and it is certainly successful with its professional and well-maintained facility. Boosting its profile as a fun place to visit has seen the creation of family-oriented programs and many district schools regularly visit. And if you are a sailor yourself and think that you know all that there is to know about ropes and how to tie them, you may be interested to know that there is another knot that gets tied regularly at the Maritime Museum with its $400 Wednesday wedding ceremonies causing quite a stir!
Be sure to check out part 2 of this series.