With its abundance of wildlife, laid-back attitude and distinctive neighbourhoods, it’s no wonder this California city has been going strong for 250 years, says Phoebe Smith...
Heavy metal music reverberated around the bar as a man served up avocado toast with a side of barbecued jackfruit topped with Tabasco. The walls – strewn with photos of a topless male goth clutching his cat – were decked in chintzy wallpaper and the staff busied around a clientele of boardshort-wearing surfers and well-dressed families. If ever a scene summed up San Diego, this was it.
Unashamedly different from the other cities in The Golden State, San Diego is where beach meets business meets diversity. First settled by the Kumeyaay Nation, Europeans arrived later to use it as a base, establishing a mission in 1769 on what is the birthplace of California.
Yet San Diego has escaped much of the tourist spotlight. Most know the city for its controversial SeaWorld and San Diego Zoo, but it is home to far more wildlife than that confined by man-made walls.
Away from the noise of the bar, I soon saw its wild side first hand. As the sound of growling sea lions, breaching whales and the call of circling peregrine falcons took over, I realised that these were the real rhythms of the city.
If you're already travelling around California or all 50 states, Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner train links San Luis Obispo to San Diego, passing through Santa Barbara and Los Angeles en route. It’s a gloriously sedate and scenic way to arrive.
If you're flying into San Diego and continuing your trip from there, he's what you need to know.
San Diego International Airport is around 5km from Downtown. Unusually, on arrival you pick up your hold luggage before passing immigration.
You’ll then find the usual ATMs, exchange counters and tourist information booths, as well as helpful ‘ambassadors’ (look for the blue polo shirts), who can also answer questions.
The MTS buses (route 992) run every 15 minutes and cost US$2.25 (£1.75) for one-way tickets and link to Santa Fe Depot Trolley Station and Downtown, the latter taking around 20 minutes.
Taxis cost from around US$20 to $25 (£16–20).
Begin with a leisurely stroll along the waterfront of the laid-back beachside community of La Jolla (pronounced ‘la hoya’), watching sea lions noisily squabble, pelicans (pictured) clumsily dive-bomb the water and cormorants drying their wings out on the guano-white cliffs, before taking to the water in a kayak (half day from US$44/£35pp). There you could be surrounded by pods of dolphins, breaching whales or flocks of sea birds while learning about the underwater eco-system and caves once used by smugglers.
Next, make like the birds and soar your way up the road to indulge in a tandem paraglide with Torrey Pines Gliderport (flytorrey.com; from US$165/£130pp) for the best view of this stretch of the California coastline available.
Come back to earth (literally – and hopefully not with a bang) with a late brunch at Kindred for some inspired vegan fare alongside heavy metal music and a dizzying array of photos on the wall of its goth owner and his beloved cats.
Finally, head back out on the water for whale, dolphin or sea lion spotting with one of the operators that run wildlife trips off the coast – Hornblower (from US$28/£22pp) and Cruise San Diego (from US$48/ £38pp) are especially recommended – the latter also does sunset trips.
End with a meal at Puesto for artisanal tacos and Mexican-inspired tapas. Save room for organically made dessert at Bobboi Natural Gelato and cocktails overlooking the bay at George’s at the Cove for a California-style cheers!
Coast: When you hear the sea lion cries, you know you’re somewhere special.
Situated in beachside La Jolla, the Pantai Inn offers suites that have balconies and patios right by the main event – where seals, sea lions and pelicans congregate.
The breakfasts are amazing, too. One-bedroom cottages from US$388pn (£305).
On the water: The interior of the Bay Club Hotel may be nothing to write home about, but location is everything.
Set on the marina of Shelter Island, you’ll have to tear yourself away from the views at breakfast – the nesting ospreys help. Doubles from US$119pn (£94).
Allow yourself three to four days or you’ll miss out on a lot. If beaches are your bag, take your pick: Ocean has a bohemian feel, Mission offers an old-style rollercoaster and Pacific is home to the beautiful people.
Then there’s the neighbourhoods. Little Italy has top food, North Park has good restaurants and galleries, while Barrio Logan and Chicano Park, with its huge murals lining the underpasses, reminds you just how close to Mexico you really are.
Wander museums in Balboa Park – also a great place for bird watching – then, if you’ve time, head out of the city to see the wonderful wetlands and coast of Border Field State Park to the south, where western snowy plover, light-footed clapper rail and California least tern nest.
At the park’s edge is the Mexico border, where Friendship Park (open weekends only) allows family members either side of the fence to meet. It’s a truly moving place.
Time zone: GMT-8 (GMT-7 Mar–Oct)
Int’l dialling code: +1 (619)
Visas: Not required by UK nationals. You will need to obtain an ESTA before arrival; these cost US$14 (£11) and are valid for two years.
Currency: US dollar (US$) ATMs are plentiful and tipping is expected.
Getting there: British Airways flies direct to San Diego from London Heathrow daily, arriving in late afternoon. Prices from £366 return.
Getting around: Phoebe got around San Diego using RentalCars.com car hire.
Recommended guidebooks: Coastal California (Lonely Planet, 2018) has specific info on San Diego, as does the Los Angeles, San Diego and southern California guide (Lonely Planet, 2018)
Useful websites: San Diego's official website – the official guide to the city.
Climate: It can get hot and crowded in summer (Jun to Aug) as temperatures hit the high 20s. Shoulder seasons can be pleasant (Sept/Oct and Mar/Apr), but mid-December to April is when the grey whales visit and the crowds are gone.
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