It’s a bad cliché in travel writing to claim a city “has it all”. But when you look at San Diego, it’s difficult to figure out what it doesn’t have or what kind of traveler it wouldn’t please. For beach fans there are 70 miles of stunning sands. For theater geeks, you have the La Jolla Playhouse and the Globe Theater, which together have moved more shows to Broadway in the last 30 years than almost any other regional theaters in the country. Museum lovers have a spate of world-class museums in Balboa Park. Families can’t do better than spending the day at the superb San Diego Zoo and Sea World. For gourmets there’s a burgeoning foodie scene that some claim will rival that of Los Angeles and San Francisco in a few years. For fans of exotic travel, Tijuana is just 30 miles away and the city’s dozens of vibrant Hispanic neighborhoods even closer. Cute boutiques, hopping bars … ugh, it can’t be avoided: this is a city that, for once, truly has it all.
Which makes planning the perfect day here near impossible—there are just too many options. So here’s an admittedly flawed itinerary, proffered with the knowledge that maybe you just don’t need our help on this one. It’s hard not to enjoy yourself when you’re in San Diego.
8 a.m. - 9 a.m.: Breakfast time and it’s going to be big: pancakes the size of pizzas; foot-long omelets stuffed with stuff and smothered in creamy sauce, “smores” coffee topped with charred marshmallow. Just like its Las Vegas outpost, Hash House a Go Go serves some of the most original, delicious breakfasts in the US. More than just a meal, dining at Hash House is a culinary adventure and a filling one (if you finish your plate you’re going to want to skip our lunch suggestion).
9 a.m. - noon: Rush over to the San Diego Zoo because, truth be told, you’re not going to be able to see everything you’ll want to in just three hours. As zoos go, this is arguably the best in the US, a massive facility that pioneered cageless animal enclosures with its adoption of large, natural-looking moated grounds. Over 4000 animals live in these humane, and often quite beautiful, “biospheres” (the new Monkey Trail with its treetop trail is spectacular in and of itself). You’ll want to make a beeline for the giant pandas, as this is one of the most popular exhibits in the zoo (and you can only see these gentle beasts at three other zoos in the US); other rare and endangered creatures on display here include Galapagos tortoises, tree kangaroos from New Guinea, and stately wild Przewalski's horses from Mongolia.
Slather on the sunscreen and spend the morning blissfully kicking back on the sands of La Jolla Cove ; or hiking through Ellen Browning Scripps Park on the bluffs above. With its dramatic cliffs, there are few places in the state that offer such potent eye-candy. And that’s underwater as well as above ground: you can enter the 6,000 acre San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park here, a boat-free, scuba-diving and snorkeling mecca with crystalline waters and an abundance of undersea life.
Noon - 2 p.m.: No need to leave Balboa Park for lunch. Instead, wander the curvy paths of the Japanese Gardens to the Tea Pavillion , which serves up Udon soups, sushi, gourmet teas, salads and sandwiches. The food is hearty and fresh, but it’s really the lovely setting, just off a small rocky pond, that’s the draw here. If you’re looking for a more celebratory meal, try the Prado Restaurant also in Balboa Park, an elegant place where the food is so acclaimed it’s opened its own food and wine school on premises.
2 p.m. - 5 p.m.: If you haven’t gotten enough of the animals, head back to the zoo. Or try something a little different at the charm-laden Mingei Museum . The name derives from the Japanese words “min” (“all people”) and “gei” (“arts”). What that means in practice are folk art and decorative art exhibits, which are often scholarly in concept, but dazzlingly beautiful in practice (such as the current exhibit contrasting the jewelry of five different continents). Along with the changing exhibits, key pieces of pottery, sculpture, toys, paintings and textiles from the museum’s permanent collection are always on view.
Or for a compelling mishmash of history, nature and stupendous views, make your way to the Cabrillo National Monument . Named for Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (that’s his towering figure overlooking the sea), the first European to set foot on the West Coast of the US in 1542, the monument is one of the best vantage points in San Diego for watching the yearly Pacific Gray Whale migrations (from December to March). You can either do so from the base of the statue, or ascend to the top of historic Point Loma lighthouse, which also boasts a nostalgic exhibit on what life was like for the families that manned the lighthouse. For more spectacular views, hike the two-mile long Bayside Trail, which will take you through one of the only remaining sage scrub coastal habitats in the world. Or go directly down to the tidal pools with their flowering anemones, octopi and other natural wonders. Ranger walks and talks are available to all these areas, and really add to the experience.
5:30-7:30: If you’re headed to the La Jolla Playhouse (see below), dine at George’s at the Cove , one of the “winningest” restaurants in town, having been voted top-restaurant in the area by the Zagat’s survey in the same year that its chef Trey Foshee was selected as one of America’s top 10 chefs by Food and Wine magazine and awarded “Chef of the Year” by the California Restaurant Association. Fresh produce, selected daily by the chef from a local farm, is the hallmark here and it’s at the root of every succulent dish, whether your pick is a Chino farms corn soup studded with lobster or Niman Ranch lamb chops sided by a juicy plum salad and braised leaks. The menu changes every 6 to 8 weeks, as it is seasonally based.
8 p.m. - 11 p.m.: Head to the La Jolla Playhouse where this year’s Broadway hit, the Tony-Award winning “Jersey Boys”, debuted. Other hits from this powerhouse theater include “The Who’s Tommy”, “Big River”, “Thoroughly Modern Millie”, the Matthew Broderick version of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and many others. If the La Jolla is dark (or you don’t like what’s playing), consider San Diego’s Globe Theater instead, with a reputation just as stellar, having recently served as the home of the new Twyla Tharpe/Bob Dylan musical “The Times They Are A Changin’” (which will be coming to Broadway later this year). Its annual Christmas musical “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch That Stole Christmas” is coming to NYC as well this fall. Past hits here: The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
11 p.m. - on … End the night with a moonlit walk along the beach. If that’s not quite exciting enough for you, head to the craps tables. San Diego has nine Native American casinos in East and North San Diego County. An especially popular one is the Sycuan Casino & Resort outside El Cajon, which offers 65 table games and 2000 slots.
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Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer guides in bookstores now.
San Diego Zooat 2920 Zoo Drive in Balboa Park, phone 619-234-3153 (recorded info) or 619/231-1515; www.sandiegozoo.org . Open Sept to mid-June daily 9am-4pm (grounds close at 5 or 6 p.m.); mid-June to Aug. daily 9 a.m. - 8 p.m. (grounds close at 9 p.m.) Admission is $21 adults, $14 children 3-11, free for those in military in uniform.
La Jolla Cove is located at 1100 Coast Boulevard. You can stroll here from downtown La Jolla and with parking as tight as it is at the cove, that may be your best strategy. Lifeguards are stationed here year round.
Mingei International Museum, 1439 El Prado in Balboa Park, phone 619-239-0003; www.mingei.org/. Open Tues-Sun 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Admission $6 adults, $3 children 6-17 and students with ID, free for children under 6. Free admission the third Tues of each month.
Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer guides in bookstores now.
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