Near-perfect weather. Seventy miles of beaches. And enough attractions to keep everyone entertained for weeks. This enviable list has been San Diego's story for decades. But the quintessential Southern California beach city isn't taking its reputation for granted. In the last few years the historic downtown Gaslamp District has led a trendsetting nightlife revival. A Hard Rock Hotel, a hip barometer of sorts, opened last December. For the younger set, there's the eco-conscious New Children's Museum. And some familiar names are getting upgrades: Earlier this year, SeaWorld opened a Sesame Street playground; and four Giant Pandas, including the locally born toddler Zhen Zhen, are causing a stir at the city's legendary zoo. It's gotten to where even the residents can't keep up with the latest diversions. Just be sure to leave time for the classics, like splashing in the ocean and building sand castles on the beach.
If ocean temperatures mirrored San Diego’s mild weather, locals would probably live in their bathing suits. But in winter, water temperatures can drop into the 50's, so most residents stay out of the ocean. But no matter: The beaches remain lively year round. And each one serves as a sandy showcase for its neighborhood’s particular character. Here are some of the best spots.
Best Pier: Ocean Beach (known as OB ) is a funky beach town with a wave-beaten wooden pier and anglers who crowd the railings. After a stroll, stop by the Ocean Beach Pier Café for mango pancakes and great views of the daily regatta of yachts, catamarans and fishing boats. Turning back towards the shore, you’ll see the aptly-named Sunset Cliffs stretching south.
Best Boardwalk: The Mission Beach boardwalk draws scantily clad bikers, joggers and rollerbladers. Million-dollar mansions and modest beach cottages line much of the three-mile-long promenade, interspersed with laid-back bars and restaurants. Just south of the boardwalk’s center, the historic Giant Dipper roller coaster rattles above the ice cream stands and souvenir shops of Belmont Park (belmontpark.com).
Best Surf Spots: Kayakers, divers and surfers congregate at La Jolla Shores, a mile-long beach with room for everyone. The esteemed Surf Diva Surf School holds weekend classes here. Diehards tackle the waves at Windansea in La Jolla or Tourmaline Surfing Park in Pacific Beach, arriving just after dawn for the biggest swells. Mission Beach’s Wave House offers man-made waves; the Bruticus Maximus ride churns up 10-foot giants.
Most Drop-Dead-Gorgeous Beach Parks: From the palm-fringed lawns of Ellen Browning Scripps Park, you can look down at the tiny beaches and rocky tide pools of La Jolla Cove. A sidewalk edges the sea cliffs from the cove to a natural saltwater pool that has been overtaken by harbor seals. Farther north in Encinitas, lush tropical cliffside meditation gardens are open to the public at the Self-Realization Fellowship Retreat and Hermitage. The view of the Pacific, especially at dusk, is awe-inspiring.
NEW FAMILY FUN
Forget the idea of a quick trip when you take your kids to the New Children’s Museum, a playtime extravaganza that opened downtown last May. Artists helped create most of the murals, toys and recreational areas at this three-story, eco-friendly space. In the “pillow fight” room, mattresses line the walls, and an arsenal of foam tires cover the floor. Climbers can scramble up vertical murals, while budding Picassos are encouraged to add their own flourishes to the swirling patterns decorating a defunct VW bug. Every age group gets its own studio, from toddlers to teens.
San Diego’s original big attraction, SeaWorld, is only getting better. Last May, it opened a new Sesame Street amusement park. Big Bird, Elmo and friends amble about the two-acre space and also appear in a seat-rattling movie spectacle. Not to be outdone, Shamu, SeaWorld’s iconic killer whale, stars in a freshly choreographed show. On another stage, acrobats in bright lycra outfits perform elaborate circus feats.
Meanwhile, the panda watch continues at the San Diego Zoo. Giant Pandas first arrived here from China. The zoo built them a new enclosure, and, after negotiations with China, expanded it into a research station. The first Giant Panda baby was born here. The youngsters are eventually sent to China, but year-old Zhen Zhen (pronounced “jun jun”) is still toddling about.
NIGHT LIFE RENAISSANCE
Before preservationists took up the restoration cause in the 70's, San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter was a tangle of boarded-up Victorian houses and rundown adult theaters. Today, the area’s chic rooftop clubs and marquee restaurants help drive an eclectic nightlife scene citywide.
Sophisticates tend to head for Stingaree, a three-story club with a VIP attitude and a well-publicized list of celebrity sightings. Scene-makers favor the costumed dancers and cozy booths at Envy, a black-on-black basement club at the Ivy Hotel.
Everybody stops by at least one rooftop bar, whether it’s the Ivy’s stark white Eden (where private cabañas rent for four figures on holiday evenings) or the more casual Altitude Sky Lounge, overlooking ball games at Petco Park. Expect velvet ropes and long lines at the Hard Rock Hotel’s poolside Moonstone Lounge and street-level Sweetwater Saloon. If you prefer to avoid the crush, check out the saloon’s outdoor patio in daylight hours.
Big-name acts and DJs play at all sorts of downtown spaces, from the jam-packed House of Blues to Anthology, an elegant supper club that hosts the likes of Wynton Marsalis and Arturo Sandoval. Try to snag one of the coveted stage-front tables at Anthology, where you can snack on crisp duck confit between sips of pinot noir.
The cutting-edge vibe downtown has expanded to San Diego’s beach towns as well, so a trendsetting nightclub, restaurant or wine bar is never far off. But with the salty sea air and a general laid-back attitude, things remain thoroughly San Diego—just sassier
Surf Diva Surf School: 858.454.8273; surfdiva.com
Wave House: 877.550.9283; wavehouse.com
Self-Realization Fellowship Retreat and Hermitage: encinitastemple.org
New Children’s Museum: 200 W. Island Ave.; 619.233.8792; thinkplaycreate.org
SeaWorld: 500 SeaWorld Dr., Mission Bay; 619.226.3901; seaworld.com
San Diego Zoo: Balboa Park; 619.231.1515; sandiegozoo.com
Stingaree: 454 6th Ave; 619.544.9500; stingsandiego.com
Envy: 600 F St, 619.814.1000
Altitude Sky Lounge: 660 K St.; 619.696.0234
Sweetwater Saloon: Hard Rock Hotel; 207 5th Ave; 619.702.3000
House of Blues: 1055 5th Ave.; 619.299.2583
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.