Relatively free from smog and overbuilt freeways, San Diego, set around a gracefully curving bay, is the second most-populous city in California – affluent and libertarian, but also easygoing and friendly. Although it was the site of the first mission in California, the city only really took off with the arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad in the 1880s, and has long been in the shadow of Los Angeles. However, during World War II the US Navy made San Diego its Pacific Command Center, and the military continues to dominate the local economy, alongside tourism. Understandably, the long white beaches, sunny weather, and bronzed bodies give rise to the city's well-deserved nickname, "Sandy Ego."
With more than 130 million visitors since its opening in 1964, SeaWorld is San Diego's leading tourist attraction and one of the most popular marine-life parks in the world. The founding principles of education, entertainment, research and conservation make SeaWorld an ideal place to learn about, enjoy and gain an appreciation for some of the ocean's most fascinating animals. Spread across 189 acres on beautiful Mission Bay Park, SeaWorld San Diego is known for spectacular animal shows, interactive attractions, aquariums, rides, beautiful landscaping, dining facilities and education programs for all ages. And of course, Shamu!
This world-famous establishment is clearly no ordinary zoo. Walk or ride a double-decker bus throughout this expansive park, home to over 4,000 rare and exotic animals exhibited in beautiful garden habitats. San Diego Zoo is also a major research facility dedicated to conservation efforts. However, it is cleverly disguised as a park with entertaining shows and inspiring exhibits like Polar Bear Plunge and Hippo Beach.
The world-renowned San Diego Zoo is only one part of this magnificent 1,200-acre (490 hectares) city park that was built for the 1915-1916 Panama-California Expo. California's Hispanic roots were celebrated as the city erected breathtakingly ornate Spanish style buildings. The California Building was modeled after a Spanish colonial church and is topped off with a polychrome tile dome. Balboa Park is home to the zoo, museums, a pipe organ pavilion , botanical gardens, a Tony award winning theater , an antique carousel and a miniature-scale train . Of particular interest is Balboa Park's Christmas on the Prado that is held the first weekend of December each year.
Near the man-made islands of Mission Bay, this beach runs along Mission Boulevard and boasts a fabulous boardwalk. One of the best places in San Diego to soak up the city's beach lifestyle, this is an unsurpassed area for people watching or building sandcastles. For a faster pace, rent a bike or in-line roller skates or better yet, take a ride on Belmont Park 's world-famous wooden roller coaster. Whatever attraction you choose, be prepared for large crowds and limited parking at Mission Beach.
Completely renovated in 1997, this elegant outdoor mall is your best stop for serious shopping in San Diego. Less tourist-like than the flamboyant and exciting Horton Plaza , Fashion Valley Shopping Center is much easier to navigate. It is the main hub for upscale and designer shopping. Exclusive names like Hermès, Neiman Marcus and Rolex are among the luxury brand stores. With 200 stores, seven restaurants, a food court and a movie theatre, even the most discriminating shoppers will find what they are looking for, including foreign currency exchange.
History, food and fun are all within easy walking distance of the Old Town. Father Serra established the first mission here more than 225 years ago; Kit Carson helped to raise the first American flag in 1846. Now there are 37 restaurants and entertainment is abundant with artisans, dancers, galleries, hotels, mariachis, professional theatre and shops. Most restaurants and shops accept major credit cards. You can access this area from Interstate-5 by taking the Old Town Avenue exit, driving east and turning left on San Diego Avenue.
Home to the San Diego Padres, this state-of-the-art baseball park is one of the league's treasures with world class facilities, beautiful views of the city and comfortable seats for 42,000 fans. Besides baseball, Petco Park is used for many civic events like fireworks, picnics, and concerts.
San Diegans of Italian ancestry are working hard to restore and revitalize this seaside district just off downtown San Diego and the results are fabulous. Visitors will enjoy the plethora of Italian markets and bakeries, may watch a game of bolla at the local park or light a candle at the Our Lady of the Rosary Church where Italian fishermen of San Diego's once-massive tuna fleet used to seek blessings. In October, a three-day festival brings 50,000 visitors to the area. Credit card acceptance varies.
A local radio show made Belmont Park's roller-coaster world famous. Hoping to win a new car, the show fans spent several consecutive hours riding the coaster. Do not miss it, but try not to get carried away as you ride one of the oldest all-wood coasters still in operation. For those not into thrills that include fast-paced turns and long free-falling drops, the ocean-front park also has an indoor swimming pool, a new wave-generation pool, and a family play-land, along with several shops and restaurants. It opens daily at 11a.
Fun for adults and kids, this museum-on-water is the focal point of San Diego's historic Embarcadero Promenade. Comprised of several painstakingly restored historic ships, it is a tribute to the sea-faring age. One of the ships showcased at Maritime Museum of San Diego is the Star of India (1863), a stunning vision that graces the coastline as the world's oldest actively-sailed, square-rigged ship.