With L.A. its glitzy big sister and San Fran its artsy little brother, San Diego is often the forgotten middle child of the California kin. But over the last ten years, almost undetected, San Diego has come of age with an explosive cultural scene of galleries, cafes, restaurants and cocktail bars. For travelers willing to spend a little time, they will get to know a city with a cool and confident sense of self. Here’s a peek inside out travel journal during a long weekend in sunny San Diego.
Our first destination upon arrival is La Jolla in the north-west of San Diego county. An upscale beach community, La Jolla charms visitors from around the world. The first residents of the area were artists back in the 60s, explaining the wealth of eclectic galleries and shops. Along Prospect St., we find the Grande Colonial Hotel, formerly an apartment building built in 1913, and today a hotel steps.
At Seal Beach, we watch the seals glide through the water and flop on shore to bask in the sun atop the rocks. Although spring in San Diego is as perfect as it gets, it can get cool in the evenings, especially along the shore.
Some of the areas best restaurants are located in La Jolla, boasting ocean views and acclaimed chefs. If the fresh Pacific seafood doesn’t satisfy you, enjoy a dinner at the 2012 Zagat-rated NINE-TEN Restaurant, located at the Grande Colonial’s lobby.
Chef Jason Knibb seduces our senses with his California cuisine mixed with Jamaican flavours. Particularly the Jamaican jerk pork belly. Ask star-waiter Thierry to pair your dinner with one of the Wine Spectator-awarded selections from the cellar.
To start our morning off, we walk along the La Jolla Coves and admire the majestic views. We stop for the famous French toast at Brockton Villa, with its beautiful outdoor setting overlooking the Pacific.
During our ride up to Solana Beach along the historic Route 101, we stop by Swami’s Beach, the inspiration for The Beach Boys’ iconic “Surfin’ USA,” and see an incredible panoramic view of the sea side landscapes from the top of the cliffs. Lunch is at Solace and the Moonlight, a corner restaurant in the coastal town of Encinitas and run by chef Matt Gordon, serving up superb regional and world cuisine.
After an early dinner of Chef Jeff Jackson’s seasonal local fare at AR Valentien, one of La Jolla’s most exquisite restaurants, we head to the La Jolla Playhouse at the University of California, San Diego. It’s is the perfect place for a night of thought-provoking theatre. Founded by screen legend Gregory Peck in 1947, it has since become one of the country’s incubators for new talent and plays. We watched “An American Night”, an exquisite satire of the immigration debates opened in the U.S South.
We pack our bags and head south to discover the hidden gems of San Diego’s downtown. Originally constructed in 1910, The U.S Grant Hotel is a picture of restoration perfection. It is named after Ulysses S. Grant, the U.S. president and Civil War commander, and is owned by Native American investors. The lavish interior has a small exhibition of artifacts. The hotel’s rooftop garden is a beautifully terraced oasis full of edible plants only visible to hotel guests whose rooms look onto it. Its privileged location, meters away from the historic and lively Gaslamp Quarter, provides easy access to most venues and attractions in the downtown area, including the Convention Center.
The Little Italy Farmer’s Market takes place every other Saturday, where we sample local fruit and have a taste of the Pacific’s famous oysters and sea urchin. As we’re in the Avocado Capital of the Country, we’re sure to grab a bottle of avocado oil.
At the San Diego Bay, we explore the inside of the aircraft carrier USS Midway, which for a decade from her launch in 1945, was the biggest vessel in the world, and saw service in Korea, Vietnam and the first Gulf War. Since 2004, she has been moored at San Diego’s Embarcadero providing visitors with the inside story on a giant war machine and great views of the Coronado Island.
Near the ferry loading dock, we stop by Anthony’s Fishette and get the “Seasonal Catch” and “Mixed Treasures” to share. The friendly San Diego favourite occupies a stubby pier, and for the intrepid travelers, enjoy your meal on the floating deck. During the harbour tour, we go up on deck of the ferry to enjoy a better view of the bay and catch sight of sea lions and dolphins.
The Grant Grill in the U.S. Grant lobby is the perfect setting for a pre-opera dinner at this award-winning restaurant is one of the original San Diego society hangouts, oozing old school refinement. The tasting menu, ranging from three to five courses and starting at $40US is a good way to sample without getting overstuffed. Chef de cuisine Chris Kurth makes an excellent selection for the rest of the menu, refreshed quarterly, taking his cue from the seasonal produce that comes in from local farms. Let Sommelier Jeff Josenhans introduce you to the elaborate drink selection, and don’t leave without trying the Centennial Manhattan.
The west coast premiere of Moby Dick, a new opera based the Herman Melville classic, offers a reminder of home in the voice of the Canadian tenor Ben Heppner. Sophisticated video and lighting effects are seamlessly integrated with the evocative and imaginative set and singers, giving the stage production a distinctly cinematic vibe.
Trying to find the front door of Noble Experiment, a supposedly hush-hush prohibition-style speakeasy, is no small feat. But once inside, attentive mixologist Anthony Schmidt delights with his creations.
A must-stop before leaving the beautiful city of San Diego is—ironically—the Kansas: City BBQ, where you can enjoy a complete Kansas-style brunch. Forgoing tablecloths or bow tied waiters, this is a down-home American restaurant with a friendly service and a favourite meeting point for the U.S. Army marines returning home. Film buffs might recognize it from Top Gun, and there’s even some Tom Cruise-adorned merch on hand.
The beautiful trolley tour through the largest city park in the U.S, Balboa Park, takes us over the Coronado Bridge, through the heart of the island. We also pass by the scenic Hotel del Coronado, where cross-dressing Toni Curtis and Jack Lemon vied for the affections of Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot. Named after Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, the park was originally conceived of to host the Panama-California Exposition in 1915. A handy map from the information centre details the fascinating gardens and historic buildings. Every Sunday at 2pm concerts are given at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ, constructed in 1915.
With our departure imminent, we cram as much as possible into our last few hours in San Diego: the Natural History Museum, which showcases more than 200 artifacts retrieved from the wreck site of the doomed Titanic; wandering past the Spanish colonial style buildings along El Prado, where you will find the only Rembrandt in the city as part of the extraordinary art collection of the Timken Museum; sneaking away from the hustle and bustle of the park to be amused by the little Museum of Photographic Arts; and finally taking in the sublime beauty of the Botanical Building’s lily pond.