San Diego was one of those surprising destinations where you encounter so much more than you expected. It’s trite to say there’s something for everyone, but in this city, it’s quite true.
You could visit San Diego looking for city shopping and nightlife and find it in the popular historic Gaslamp Quarter. You could visit with family and spend a week exploring museums, beaches and more.
For us, we were on a mission (as we are in every destination) to find beauty, perhaps best captured by Sunset Cliffs, above. And we ran out of time before we ran out of beautiful places to see.
Like this lovely Japanese Garden.
If you have one day in San Diego, spend it at Balboa Park. Easy to access by public transit or car, the urban space is basically a profusion of flowers, fountains, architectural marvels and museums.
Think culture meets nature.
If you’re a garden lover, it will be hard to see all the gardens in one day and have time for anything else. I skipped the Australian Garden, California Native Plant Garden, Children’s Ethnobotany Garden, Veterans Memorial Garden, Trees for Health Garden, Palm Canyon and the Florida Canyon Native Plant Preserve. Most of these were either small or filled with trees and hardier plants rather than ornamental blooms.
That still left a dozen. Of these, the ones not to miss are the Japanese Garden, which is the only one requiring an admission fee, the Rose Garden and the lagoon-fronted, orchid-filled Botanical Building.
The zoo, located at the northern tip of Balboa Park, is also a botanical garden in its own right, and of course, we loved seeing the animals. While not my favorite zoo when compared with others like in St. Louis, the San Diego Zoo was entertaining. Allow at least five hours to tour all the habitats, but you could spend longer.
If you’re interested in shopping, there’s the historic Gaslamp Quarter, which also has a thriving nightlife, and for handmade finds, the Spanish Village Arts Center inside Balboa Park. I don’t care for souvenirs, but I did like photographing the pretty colored tiles.
And although I’m not a shopper, I made my way to Westfield Horton Plaza, a giant outdoor mall, in the rain one morning. It’s filled with bright colors and architectural oddities and worth the trip for photography fun. Maybe not in the rain, though.
Another architectural gem, the Villa Montezuma is located right by downtown. The 19th-century mansion, on a small lot in what may not be the best neighborhood, looks strikingly out of time and place with its mosaics, towers and fairytale colors.
All of this can be seen within walking distance of each other, though sometimes it’s a good walk. But Old Town is off the beaten path, requiring a train or bus ride in the historic heart of San Diego.
If you have two days, after Balboa Park, I would suggest spending one in Old Town, but of course, I don’t go in for the Gaslamp district or all the beaches. Old Town is wonderful: touristy yet original.
You can get amazing Mexican food, tour the historic buildings, some recreated, some not, and wander through what seems like an old village tucked away within the district. This last is really just a commercial complex of around 20 restaurants and shops, but with its strolling mariachi band and folk dancers, bright, colorful wares and Spanish-style architecture, Fiesta de Reyes is a destination in its own right.
Because I wanted to see a mission and couldn’t make it to the real one so far off our transit track, I settled on walking through a park up a hill to the mission-esque Serra Museum.
For this photo, it wasn’t really worth it. Although perhaps inside the museum, it’s better. All I know is, it was a long walk.
Heritage Park, however, was totally worth it. A string of beautiful Victorian houses just a block or so from Old Town, this site is pleasantly peaceful, a great place for a picnic or photography. You can’t go inside the houses, but their exteriors are outlandish enough to provide entertainment.
Ah, the Victorians.
They knew how to do things classy, and then just a little over the top.
The six cottages, lined in a quiet cul de sac, range from Queen Anne to Italianate with features like a veranda and bay windows.
And I haven’t even mentioned the shows: flamenco, murder mystery dinner theater and ballet in the park.
Read about more San Diego attractions:
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