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 50s, 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 (858-454-8273; surfdiva.com; from $165). 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 (877-550-9283; wavehouse.com; $40 for one hour).
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 & Hermitage (encinitastemple.org). 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. 200 W. Island Ave.; 619-233-8792; thinkplaycreate.org; $10
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. 500 SeaWorld Dr., Mission Bay; 619-226-3901; seaworld.com; from $51
Meanwhile, the panda watch continues at the San Diego Zoo. Giant Pandas first arrived here from China in 1987. 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 in 1999. The youngsters are eventually sent to China, but year-old Zhen Zhen (pronounced “jun jun”) is still toddling about. Balboa Park; 619-231-1515; sandiegozoo.com; from $24.50
NIGHT LIFE RENAISSANCE
Before preservationists took up the restoration cause in the 1970s, 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.
454 6th Ave.
ENVY and EDEN
600 F St.
ALTITUDE SKY LOUNGE
660 K St.
HARD ROCK HOTEL
207 5th Ave.
HOUSE OF BLUES
1055 5th Ave.
1337 India St.
RCI-AFFILIATED RESORTS IN THE SAN DIEGO AREA INCLUDE:
WORLDMARK SAN DIEGO
WINNERS CIRCLE BEACH & TENNIS RESORT, Solano Beach
SAND PEBBLES, Solano Beach
GRAND PACIFIC PALISADES, Carlsbad
For more information, visit RCI.com or call
HARD ROCK HOTEL
A high-energy 420-room hotel.
207 5th Ave.; 619-702-3000;
A stylish 176-room downtown
hotel with two busy nightclubs.
600 F St.; 619-814-1000;
ivyhotel.com; doubles from $299
HOTEL DEL CORONADO
This venerable fairyland of turrets
and domes has a new Beach Village,
with 78 ultra-modern oceanfront villas.
1500 Orange Ave., Coronado;
doubles from $335
The hippest haunt at the beach,
with 44 tricked-out rooms.
74551 Ocean Blvd., Pacific Beach;
doubles from $219
CRYSTAL PIER HOTEL
Sleep above the waves in one of
the cozy Cape Cod–style cottages
on a pier. 4500 Ocean Blvd.,
Pacific Beach; 800-748-5894;
crystalpier.com; doubles from $235
OMNI SAN DIEGO
Baseball fans rave about this 511-
room hotel connected to Petco Park
via sky bridge. 675 L St.;
doubles from $259
On the salty Pacific Beach boardwalk,
this room offers sophisticated takes on
steak and seafood. Tower23 Hotel,
723 Feldspar St., Pacific Beach;
858-270-5736; dinner for two, $110*
RUBIO'S FRESH MEXICAN GRILL
In San Diego, fish tacos are as popular
as hot dogs are everywhere else. Ralph
Rubio started the trend at this roadside
stand; he now has more than 180
locations. 4504 E. Mission Bay Dr.,
Mission Beach; 858-272-2801; tacos
for two, $12
Amid Old Town’s touristy Mexican
joints, this red-walled sushi bar
surprises with superb soft-shell crab
rolls and sashimi plates served until
midnight. 3964 Harney St., Old Town;
619-295-3272; dinner for two, $46
Seasonal produce is paired with Baja
scallops and Niman Ranch steaks
inside the Lodge at Torrey Pines.
11480 N. Torrey Pines Rd., La Jolla;
858-777-6635; dinner for two, $110
POINT LOMA SEAFOODS
Try the crab-on-sourdough sandwich at
this busy fish market, where seating and
parking are in high demand. Closes at 6
p.m. 2805 Emerson St., Point Loma;
619-223-1109; lunch for two, $18
THE PRADO AT BALBOA PARK
Dine on wild mushroom risotto and
braised pork osso bucco in a delightful
shaded courtyard at the park’s House of
Hospitality. 1549 El Prado, Balboa Park;
619-557-9441; dinner for two, $76
*Dinner prices cover a three-course meal for two,
not including drinks, tax or tip.