Though it’s only 15 miles north of downtown San Diego, La Jolla (pronounced “La HOY-ya”) shuns the big city’s trendy trappings. Instead, this Mediterranean-style seaside community nourishes long-lasting creativity. Broadway-bound playwrights test their work at the La Jolla Playhouse, founded by San Diego native son Gregory Peck. Nobel laureates conjure theorems while surfing at La Jolla Shores. Amusing sculptures are scattered about the campus of the University of California, San Diego in Torrey Pines, high atop a bluff overlooking La Jolla’s coastline.
Though part of San Diego County, the city of La Jolla is most definitely a separate entity. It’s grown in the past few decades as a hub for technology and research, home to Qualcomm, the telecommunications research company, as well as the Salk and Neurosciences institutes. But at its core La Jolla is about natural beauty, culture and art.
In northern La Jolla, the University of California San Diego sprawls across deep canyons and through eucalyptus groves. Outside its concrete-and-glass Geisel Library, look for the talking tree that “lectures” librarians: One of three steel-wrapped sculptures in artist Terry Allen’s Trees, the talking version spouts aphorisms and speeches, including President Obama’s inaugural address. Note that the library is named for Ted Geisel—a La Jolla native best known as Dr. Seuss, who would doubtless have approved of such a tree.
A leisurely campus walking tour takes about three hours; you can pick up a map at one of the information centers. It points out some 18 other sculptures spread about the grounds, all part of the Stuart Collection. Bruce Nauman’s neon art installation entitled Vices and Virtues flashes FAITH/LUST, HOPE/ENVY and other cautionary words from atop a laboratory, while Tim Hawkinson’s 180-ton granite boulder Bear dominates the Academic Courtyard.
On the south end of campus is the stage that Gregory Peck called his “little summer-stock theatre.” It was revived in 1983 as the La Jolla Playhouse, and has given birth to a string of hit productions. Memphis, The Who’s Tommy and Jersey Boys are among the 18 shows that premiered at the Playhouse and then moved on to Broadway, where they earned a combined 30 Tony Awards. The season ends with American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, an irreverent comedy from Culture Clash. The Playhouse’s Page to Stage program helps writers and directors fine-tune their works using feedback from live audiences. I Am My Own Wife, which won a Pulitzer for drama, evolved within the program, as did Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays.
The renowned Salk Institute for Biological Studies rises like an abstract pyramid atop a bluff just west of the university. In the early 60s, Jonas Salk told architect Louis I. Kahn that he wanted a design “worthy of a visit by Picasso.” Kahn’s response was an architectural wonder. Twin three-story concrete buildings angle toward each other across a travertine marble plaza in which a silver water channel flows toward the horizon. At the plaza’s end, stairs descend to a small terrace where scientists lunch at tables facing a blue panorama of sky and sea. Salk’s cafeteria is open to the public for inexpensive meals. Free guided tours start at noon on weekdays; reservations are essential.
Another good lunch spot is the open-air Cliff Hanger Café, where you can watch hang gliders and parasailers drift above the ocean as you munch on a deli sandwich. Stand near the bluff’s edge and take in the tiled roofs of La Jolla’s Village, the surfers at the Shores and the gnarled trees at Torrey Pines State Reserve to the north, where rangers are headquartered at a adobe house donated by—you guessed it—the benevolent Ellen Browning Scripps.
La Jolla Playhouse: 2910 La Jolla Village Dr.; 858.550.1010; lajollaplayhouse.org
Geisel Library: 9500 Gilman Dr.; 858.534.3336; libraries.ucsd.edu
Salk Institute for Biological Studies: 858-453-4100; salk.edu
Cliff Hanger Café: 2800 Torrey Pines Scenic Dr.; 858.452.9858
La Jolla’s Village: 8657 Villa La Jolla Dr.; 858.455.7550