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San Diego characterises a typical Southern Californian beach city: with year-round sunshine and surf, a superb coastline with miles of sandy-white beaches, easygoing inhabitants, and a wide variety of world-class family attractions, tourists can't help but be drawn to 'America's finest city'.
Although California's second biggest city with an ever-increasing population of more than a million, San Diego prides itself on its small-town ambience, with very little of the pollution, highway congestion and raciness of Los Angeles. In 1769 a Spanish missionary by the name of Father Junipero Serra established a Catholic mission and fortified settlement in what was later to become San Diego; it was the first permanent European settlement on the West Coast of the United States.
The city is a vibrant collection of colourful neighbourhoods and communities. It has award-winning restaurants, trendy shopping districts, attractions such as the world-renowned San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld, and a dynamic downtown district that includes the city's historic Gaslamp Quarter. There are numerous indications of its Mexican and Spanish heritage in the traditional architecture, typical Mexican cuisine, and strong links with the town of Tijuana just across the Mexican border.
San Diego is also rich in art and culture, and the city boasts the largest urban cultural park in the US, with beautiful gardens and Spanish architecture featuring 17 museums, art galleries and theatres to be found in Balboa Park. More than 70 miles (113km) of beaches around the city offer superb surfing and beach activities and provide the perfect introduction to this accessible and laid-back city.
Balboa Park contains one of the biggest groups of museums in the USA, many of them housed in magnificent Spanish-Mexican buildings, in addition to more than 85 Performing Arts and International Culture Organisations including theatres like the internationally acclaimed Old Globe Theatre, and several art galleries. The park also houses the world-renowned San Diego Zoo with more than 800 species in spacious re-created natural habitats. The oldest and most famous of the 14 museums in Balboa Park is the Reuben H Fleet Science Centre with a big screen Omnimax Theatre and virtual reality simulator that transports visitors to outer space.
Other museums cover a wide range of interests, including cars and motorbikes, anthropology, various forms of art, and natural history. The Spanish Village Art Centre provides a traditional ancient village setting for viewing sculpture, painting, glassblowing and pottery performed by crafts people in classic tiled-roofed studios. The park has numerous features and facilities including golf courses, hiking and cycling trails, promenades, extensive landscaped gardens and horticultural treasures, a Japanese Friendship Garden, fountains and restaurants, a pavilion for Sunday afternoon concerts and the world's largest outdoor organ.
The San Diego Zoo is one of the city's biggest attractions and has a worldwide reputation for its enlightened management program, worldwide conservation efforts, natural animal environments and most notably its success in breeding endangered species in captivity for reintegration into their natural habitats (together with the Wild Animal Park north of the city). It is the only zoo to have successfully bred Chinese giant pandas in captivity. The zoo houses more than 4,000 mammals, birds and reptiles. Many rare and endangered animals roam simulated natural habitats, while tourists follow walkways and bridges, passing waterfalls, tropical forests, sandy plateaus, arctic tundra, and bird aviaries.
The 100-acre (40-hectare) park can be explored on foot, on narrated open-air trams, hop-on-and-off buses, or above the ground on the aerial Skyfari tram or hot air balloon. One of the highlights is the Tiger River Asian rainforest with animal enclosures situated along misty trails enhanced by waterfalls and exotic plants. It features tigers, pythons, tapirs and crocodiles. Other highlights include the Gorilla Tropics, Sun Bear Forest, polar bears in a simulated freezer, and the Ituri Forest Exhibit that features African buffaloes, monkeys and hippos. There is also a Children's Zoo where small animals such as rabbits, goats and sheep can be petted, and the nursery where the latest arrivals are looked after. An outdoor amphitheatre has daily sea lion and other animal shows.
Some 35 miles (56km) away is the San Diego Safari Park, where visitors can see animals like giraffe, rhino, cheetah, elephant, tiger and gorilla in open-air habitats. Tours are available by tram, bus, Segway and even zipline.
SeaWorld is a leader in marine conservation and plays an important role in rescuing and rehabilitating animals found beached along the West Coast. It is also one of the world's largest marine entertainment parks and is a source of education as well as family recreation. The park is best known for its work with killer whales (orcas) and dolphins, and the Dolphin Interaction Programme provides the experience of feeding, stroking and wading with bottlenose dolphins (requiring advance booking and an additional fee).
SeaWorld's favourite attractions are its arena shows that run throughout the day, highlighting the behaviours and talents of trained marine mammals such as sea lions, walruses, otters, dolphins and killer whales. Most of the exhibits are walk-through marine environments like the Penguin Encounter that passes through a glass-enclosed Antarctica with remarkable emperor penguins sliding over glaciers into the icy water. The walk-through glass tube that passes through the Shark House affords frightening face-to-face encounters. Adventure rides include the Shipwreck Rapids ride with its turbulent rivers and underground canyons, the exhilarating Journey to Atlantis and the virtual-reality trip to the world of beluga whales, polar bears and walruses of the Wild Arctic. During summer peak hours the shows and more popular exhibits can be very crowded with long queues. Certain attractions are closed at certain times of the year. Check the website for more information.
The bustling downtown area of San Diego makes for a compact hub of activity and is an easy walk. It includes the business district, the historic Gaslamp Quarter, the post-modern Horton Plaza mall famed for its pastel colours, and the waterfront Embarcadero with boardwalk shops, museums and restaurants. The first commercial district in San Diego; the Gaslamp Quarter, was and is now a trendy 16-block area of historic buildings and old-fashioned wrought-iron street lamps, antique stores, art galleries, shopping centres, restaurants and jazz bars, and chic coffee houses.
Well worth the visit is the Horton Grand, which is a reconstruction of a 19th-century hotel with Victorian décor and costumes. One of California's most important centres for the performing and visual arts; San Diego is celebrated for its artistic and musical heritage annually with the opening of artists' studios and galleries to the public, as well as its numerous Blues and Jazz festivals. Summer evenings are popular and considered to be the liveliest time to visit, when people come out in their droves to frequent the many outdoor tables.
Epitomising the Southern California lifestyle, the beaches and seaside suburbs are the heart and soul of the city, with bikini-clad bodies, sun-tanned surfers, and a plethora of little shops, coffee houses, cafes, and restaurants. The 70 miles (113km) of sandy coastline attracts swimmers, sunbathers, surfers, volleyball players and snorkellers. A boardwalk that runs from Mission Beach to Pacific Beach is extremely popular for rollerblading, jogging and cycling. Mission Bay is a playground for waterskiing, sailing and windsurfing, and the surrounding beaches of Mission Beach, Ocean Beach and Pacific Beach are known for their wide stretches of sand as well as for the vibrant nightlife and dining. The northern part of Ocean Beach is known as 'Dog Beach', one of only two beaches in San Diego that allow dogs.
Mission Beach is the most popular with plenty of action, particularly along the Ocean Front Walk that resembles the boardwalk parade of Los Angeles' Venice Beach. To the north, the pretentious seaside suburb of La Jolla is known for its high-priced real estate, expensive shops and excellent restaurants, as well as its beautiful coastline with lovely coves, cliffs, gorgeous beaches and superb surfing. La Jolla Cove has clear waters and the offshore San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park affords brilliant snorkelling and diving, with giant kelp forests and a deep canyon.
The isthmus of Coronado contains an upmarket resort community with several beaches, including the award-winning Silver Strand State Beach, hotels, outdoor dining, boutiques and the Museum of History and Art dedicated to the history of Coronado. A naval station occupies the western end of the island. The island is of little interest except for the historic Hotel del Coronado around which the community grew.
'The Del' is a much-loved San Diego institution, and a National Historic Landmark dating back to 1888. Its distinctive Victorian turrets, conical towers, balconies and curious architecture have served as a filming location for many years, and a stage for political meetings and social happenings. Its glamorous old-world ambience with polished oak pillars and arched ceilings has hosted guests like Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and a number of presidents. Guided tours are available, or visitors can choose to dine and dance here, stay as a guest or simply wander through the grounds and look at its historic photo gallery. Visible across the bay is Point Loma where a statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo commemorates the landing of the first European in 1542.
A great way to beat the heat in San Diego is a 32-acre water park located in Chula Vista, just outside San Diego. Water slides and other fun water attractions are on offer, with many new and exciting rides for adults and children alike. There are many fast-food stands throughout the park and lots of shopping facilities.
Legoland California is among the most popular attractions for families in San Diego. The first Legoland built outside of Europe, the park is divided into nine sections: Explorer Island, Heartlake City, Fun Town, Castle Hill, Miniland USA, Pirate Shores, Imagination Zone, Land of Adventure and Legoland Waterpark. The attraction also features a lego themed aquarium and a hotel. Rides and attractions cater for all ages, and there are shops and restaurants located around the park. Legoland California even has its own iPhone and Android apps to assist visitors in planning their Legoland adventure.
San Diego has a semi-arid climate and enjoys sunny and mild weather all year round, with only slight variation in temperature between the seasons. Occasional heat waves are caused by the hot Santa Ana winds blowing in from the desert, making it significantly hotter, but the temperatures in peak summer, between June and August, average between 62°F (17°C) and 76°F (24°C). Average temperatures in winter, between December and February, range between 48°F (9°C) and 65°F (18°C). May and June are prone to fog. Rainfall is low, with most of it falling between November and April.
San Diego Comic Con is the place to be if you're a comic and science fiction enthusiast. One of the biggest in the world, the convention started in the 1970s promoting comic books, and grew to include movies, television, and other pop culture elements. This is where studios reveal info about upcoming movies, authors and artists do question-and-answer sessions, celebrities sign autographs, and rare collectable merchandise can be found. One of the most fun elements of Comic Con is the chance to dress up as your favourite character, and see what wacky and over-the-top costumes others are wearing.
Every March and April, San Diego enjoys the Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch as they blossom into bright ranunculus flowers, drawing over 100,000 visitors and lovers of flowers from across the globe every year.
Located only 30 minutes north of downtown San Diego, the festival offers tours of the fields and also provides opportunities for nature enthusiasts and photographers. There are tractor-driven wagon rides to enjoy and a 1,500 square foot greenhouse which houses the world famous Ecke poinsettias.
There is also a sweet pea maze and various themed gardens to enjoy, making the Flower Fields a great place to bring the family and enjoy a beautiful day of flower-gazing, picnicking, and great sunny weather.
Getting around San Diego is relatively easy without a car, with three types of public transport servicing the city. Buses and the San Diego Trolley light rail cover the city, but service generally stops around midnight. The trolley is the best way to get to the border with Mexico for trips to Tijuana. Passes are available from the Transit Store for both bus and trolley fares; it also provides timetables and route information. The Coronado Ferry, as well as a water taxi service, shuttles passengers between the city and Coronado Island (also connected to the mainland by bridge).
Privately owned Old Town Trolley Tours offers hop-on, hop-off narrated tours of places of interest for tourists, though this option is a bit more expensive than the public trolley. Taxis must be ordered by phone and waiting times can be long. Ride-hailing taxi services, like Uber, are also available. Cycling is a popular way to get around San Diego, and there are numerous bike hire shops and many designated bicycle lanes. Some bus routes, the trolleys, and the Coronado Ferry offer free passage of bicycles, allowing people to get to an area by public transport and then explore from there. Although it is possible to get around using public transport, many people prefer to rent a car in San Diego as some areas are easier and quicker to get to by car.
Easygoing San Diego offers plenty of entertainment for holidaymakers, with lots of the city's attractions revolving around the lovely coastline and marine life. Top San Diego tourist attractions include the endlessly popular Sea World, the picturesque Seaport Village, Mount Soledad, Balboa Park with its 17 museums and cultural institutions, the pedestrianised Old Town and the quaint Gaslamp District. Animal attractions can be found at the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
Of course, the beaches are a big drawcard in San Diego. The best beaches include Carlsbad State Beach; the beautiful La Jolla Cove; Mission Beach, which is a good spot for active beach games; and La Jolla Shores, the perfect place in San Diego to learn to surf. The laid-back Pacific Beach is popular with young locals, Black's Beach is frequented by surfers and sometimes nudists; and Coronado Beach is probably the best family beach in the city.
Those planning to do a lot of sightseeing should consider purchasing the Go San Diego Card, which offers discounts on about 48 top San Diego attractions.
A typical border town, Tijuana is not suited to everyone's taste, with plenty of noise and frenetic activity. Its location on the American/Mexican border and proximity to San Diego ensures a steady stream of curious day-trippers and souvenir hunters from up north, as well as students in search of cheap alcohol and a lower drinking age. Tijuana's notorious 'sin city' image of prostitution and sex shows has now taken a back seat; the sleazy element is still there to an extent, but the focus has shifted in an effort to clean the town up a bit. It has become something of a shopper's delight along with the intense nightlife, a burgeoning culinary scene and non-stop entertainment.
This is the place to shop, drink and dance the night away; there are souvenir stalls, numerous duty-free shopping malls and markets selling goods from all over Mexico, and countless bars, restaurants and dance clubs. Tijuana has some traditional attractions as well, including bullfighting and Jai Alai (a Spanish ball court game), but this is not the classic Mexico that stories are made of. Just across the Mexican border, 30 minutes from downtown San Diego, Tijuana is unlike other Mexican cities, but is a worthwhile experience that provides a fascinating contrast between Mexico and the USA.
Located in south-eastern California, Joshua Tree National Park is instantly recognisable for its vast desert expanses, spectacular sunsets, and peculiar Dr Seuss-like trees. The vistas are at times like something from another planet, and visitors can spot bighorn sheep, coyotes, bobcats, rattlesnakes and a variety of birds in the brush. Barker Dam, near Hidden Valley, is a great place to spot wildlife. Joshua Tree encompasses parts of both the Colorado and Mojave Deserts, and has nine designated campgrounds. There are good hiking trails and nature walks, and visitors can also view the park by horseback and 4x4.
While not as well-known as Napa Valley or Santa Barbara, the wineries in San Diego and neighbouring Riverside are growing in popularity as they produce excellent wines. A few of the most popular wineries to visit include Vinavanti Urban Winery, Bernardo Winery, The Blue Door Winery, and San Pasqual Winery.
While many of the most popular wineries are in Escondido, but there are other areas around San Diego worth visiting. The suburb of Temecula is home to more than 30 wineries that offer tastings and tours, and Valle de Guadalupe, just across the border in Mexico, also has a number of good vineyards within 90 minutes of San Diego that are worth exploring.
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