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Welcome to San Diego

San Diego

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, long-time vacationers and would-be residents can't help but be drawn to 'America's finest city'.

Although California's third biggest city with an ever-increasing population of more than a million, San Diego prides itself on its conservative 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. It remained a village backwater until, with the bombing of Pearl Harbour during World War II, the US Naval Fleet Headquarters was relocated to San Diego Bay and the booming of wartime activity transformed it into a thriving city.

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 15 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.

Information & Facts


The weather in San Diego is sunny and mild all year round, with little variation in temperature between summer and winter. Occasional heat spells are caused by the hot Santa Ana winds blowing in from the desert, otherwise temperatures range between a low of 57°F (14°C) and average high of 72°F (22°C). May and June are prone to fog. Rainfall is low, most of it falling between December and March.

Getting Around

Getting around San Diego is relatively easy without a car, with three types of public transport servicing the city. Buses and the 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. A Coaster train service operates during morning and evening rush hours, linking downtown with the outlying northern coastal communities as well as providing four services on Saturdays. The Coronado Ferry as well as a water taxi service shuttle 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, but waiting times can be long. 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 possible to get around using public transport, many people prefer to rent a car, especially as there is no public transport late at night, and some areas are easier and quicker to get to by car. The city is easy to navigate with well laid out highways, and parking meters are plentiful. Car rental agencies require a credit card or cash deposit and a valid driver's license, and the minimum age is usually 25 years.

English is the most common language but Spanish is often spoken in south-western states.

The US Dollar (USD) is the unit of currency and is divided into 100 cents. Only major banks exchange foreign currency. ATMs are widespread and credit cards and travellers cheques are widely accepted. Travellers cheques should be taken in US Dollars to avoid hassles. Banking hours are Monday to Friday 9am to 3pm.

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. Visitors can purchase a day pass that includes entrance to five museums for $35, or a seven-day all-inclusive pass for $77 (adults) and $42 (children).

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.

The active downtown area of San Diego is compact and easy to walk around. It encompasses the business district, the historic Gaslamp Quarter, the post-modern Horton Plaza pastel-coloured shopping mall, and the waterfront Embarcadero with boardwalk shops, museums and restaurants. The Gaslamp Quarter was the first commercial district in San Diego and is now a trendy 16-block area of historic buildings and old-fashioned wrought-iron street lamps, antique stores, shopping centres, art galleries, chic coffee houses, restaurants and jazz bars. The Horton Grand is a reconstruction of a 19th-century hotel with Victorian décor and costumes, well worth a peek. San Diego is one of California's most important centres for the performing and visual arts, and its artistic and musical heritage is celebrated annually with the opening of artists' studios and galleries to the public, as well as its numerous Blues and Jazz festivals. Summer evenings are the liveliest time to visit, when people flock to the outdoor tables, bars and clubs and wander the streets. However visits after dark should be confined to the populated, well-lit areas.

Epitomising 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 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.

On the shores of Mission Bay is one of San Diego's best-known attractions whose mascot, the resident killer whale Shamu, has for many years become synonymous with the city. 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 Program 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.

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, the drugs and violence that seems to be the lot of a border town, is still there, but the focus has shifted in an effort to clean the town up a bit, and it has become something of a shopper's delight along with the intense nightlife 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.

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