For the past year, I have divided my time between my home in Sacramento and that of my partner, who lives in San Diego, in a district that abuts the lovely hillside campus of the University of San Diego. Some weeks I choose the 80-minute flight; other weeks, if I want more flexibility, I drive. It’s a long drive, somewhere between eight and nine hours, but a fairly easy one, straight down Interstate 5, through the LA conurbation, and southward to San Diego. I know I’m almost home when I pass the Mormon temple just west of the freeway. From there, it’s just another 15 minutes.
San Diego is easy to like. Nine out of 10 days its weather is perfect, with copious amounts of sun and mild temperatures that usually hover in the high 60s to low 80s. Spoiled by the ideal weather, locals complain when the sun doesn’t come out, regarding it almost as a personal affront from the gods above.
Beaches and Trails
Beﬁtting the perennially sunny climate, the beaches in this part of the state are glorious. Some, like the vast stretch of golden sand along CORONADO ISLAND, rival Malibu or Miami Beach for sheer sunbathing fantasy. One early evening this past June, I was lying on the beach there, the towers of the fabled Hotel del Coronado to my left, when I suddenly saw dolphins, about 100 yards off shore, launching themselves out of the water in frolicking play. Other stretches of sand, like PACIFIC BEACH, are carnivalesque, more akin to Venice Beach, the side streets ﬁlled with cafes and funky clothing stores, with music venues, surf shops and pot dispensaries. Some beaches—the ones with particularly strong surf and rip tides—are reserved for surfers, and when the large waves roll in, hundreds of enthusiasts paddle out in their wet suits to try their luck. And then there are the cliffs: the wild rocks of SUNSET CLIFFS NATURAL PARK in the south part of the coastline and, toward the north, the marvelous walks at LA JOLLA COVE (a short hop from the sprawling UCSD campus). At La Jolla, see hundreds of seals and sea lions, as well as cormorants, pelicans and a slew of other creatures. Nearby: the stunning vistas of TORREY PINES STATE RESERVE. It’s possible to hike for hours in these areas, then drive a short distance to one or another ﬁrst-rate beach-front restaurant to while away the evening.
I could spend every day walking these cliff s and never grow bored by the views and the wildlife. For me, the cares of the world dissipate on these trails. It becomes almost a meditative experience. And the sunsets . . . don’t even get me started on the vision that is the Paciﬁc as the sun drops down over the horizon, the ocean waters sparkle golden, and the sky turns ﬁery colors.
Plenty To Do?
In Southern California lore, San Diego is the underappreciated baby sibling of LA, a smaller, tamer version of the Hollywood mythos. Traditionally, it has been thought of as lower down the SoCal totem pole, a conservative, sleepy sort of place, its politics deﬁned by the military’s outsized footprint, its culture, under the Mediterranean climate that makes it so appealing year-round, homogenous and bland. Tourists would come to the city for its WORLD-FAMOUS ZOO, its WILDLIFE SAFARI PARK, for LEGOLAND and SEA WORLD. But they generally wouldn’t come for culture in a city that was seen as being somehow void of sophistication.
I doubt that stereotype was ever fully true, and it’s certainly not so now. Sure, people come for the zoos and amusement parks—which are outstanding—but also for plenty of other rich experiences. These days, the city is a pastiche of ethnic groups and neighborhoods. It’s got an appealing hum of life to it that makes it one of the most attractive locales in the state. There’s a LITTLE ITALY near the downtown that is as vibrant and as chock-full of good restaurants as any Little Italy in the country. OLD TOWN is ﬁlled with Mexican restaurants where one can listen to mariachi music, drink excellent margaritas and devour huge, steaming plates of good food. There are strip malls with wonderful Asian restaurants and supermarkets. The bohemian neighborhood of HILLCREST has long been a center of gay culture. The area around LIBERTY STATION, which used to be a naval training center, is now a huge arts district, with a massive food court, a slew of ﬁrst-rate restaurants and watering holes, and numerous artists’ studios and galleries. Planes from the nearby airport ﬂy low overhead here, providing a near-constant soundtrack to an evening out.
Arts & Music
BALBOA PARK, one of the country’s most beautiful urban parks, boasts a clutch of museums, most of them arranged along an avenue in the center of the park that was built as a part of the Panama-California Exposition that showcased exhibits from around the world between 1915 and 1917. The museums aren’t the caliber of, say, the New York
Met, but they can certainly hold their own against the museums in most cities in the United States. One can spend a pleasant few hours learning about California’s past in the NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM, or viewing art at the MINGEI, or perusing photos at the MUSEUM OF PHOTOGRAPHIC ARTS, or taking in the latest exhibit at the MUSEUM OF US (previously known as the Museum of Man). Also in Balboa Park, you can wander within a stunning ROSE GARDEN, an explosively beautiful CACTUS WILDERNESS or, for a small entrance fee, the manicured JAPANESE TEA GARDEN.
Deeper into the park, there’s an ORGAN PAVILION, where concerts are played on one of the world’s largest organs. This past spring, my partner and I attended a showing of some Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton silent ﬁlm classics, with live organ accompaniment. From start to ﬁnish, it was stunningly good entertainment. And there’s THE OLD GLOBE THEATER. An outdoor theater modeled on Shakespeare’s Old Globe in London, it routinely hosts some of the best stage productions on the West Coast. In recent years, San Diego has built up a deserved reputation for showcasing block-buster plays before they debut on Broadway in New York.
A few miles away, the city’s symphony orchestra plays its concerts at a giant outdoor venue, THE RADY SHELL AT JACOBS PARK, which is perched right on the water’s edge. Music lovers can make a long evening of it, arriving early to buy food and drinks, then picnicking while listening to world-class classical music. As the dusk gives way to darkness, the Shell changes color. Sometimes it’s a luminescent purple, other times it sports reds and greens and blues. It can be seen for miles, a massive artificial seashell towering over the docked yachts in the nearby marina.
A bit of an Edge
The diversity of the city is reflected, too, these days, in its politics. San Diego’s current mayor is Todd Gloria, who is both a person of color and openly gay. During the Trump years, the city became an epicenter of protest against border policies such as family separation. Many weekends saw demonstrations led by clergy of various faiths along the border just to the city’s south. More recently, large crowds of protestors have been taking to the streets around the civic center to protest the Supreme Court’s overturn-ing of Roe v. Wade.
In the post-World War II decades, the city cultivated a reputation as a conservative, suburban bastion. Today it feels more complex, more edgy, a region that has clearly and consciously come into its own. And at the same time, it’s great fun, a place where it’s easy to eat and drink well, to pamper yourself and experience the good times in life.