Best known as the home of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Escondido is a city of 138,000, founded near the site of a historic battlefield where U.S. forces tangled with Californios during the Mexican-American War. Escondido is surrounded by agriculture, particularly citrus and avocado (neighboring Fallbrook is known as the avocado capital of the world). Grand Avenue, old Escondido's main drag, is experiencing a well-conceived renewal, with historic storefronts filled by restaurants and antiques stores, including the Escondido Antique Mall, 135 W. Grand (tel. 760/743-3210), holding dozens of individual dealers.
This is also the site of the California Center for the Arts, 340 N. Escondido Blvd., an attractive 12-acre campus with postmodern architecture and two theaters, an art museum, and a conference center. Renowned symphonies, eclectic musical artists, Broadway roadshows, and national dance companies are regularly scheduled here, often making the 45-minute drive from downtown to Escondido (along I-15 N. to the Valley Pkwy. exit) worth the effort. To find out what's playing and to get tickets, call tel. 800/988-4253, or visit www.artcenter.org.
Kids and their art-loving chaperones will want to check out the amazing Queen Califia's Magical Circle (tel. 760/839-4691; www.queencalifia.org) at Kit Carson Park, 3333 Bear Valley Parkway; the entrance to the park is at the corner of Bear Valley Parkway and Mary Lane. This wildly fanciful creation is the only American sculpture garden by acclaimed artist Niki de Saint Phalle, who in the years before her death in 2002 called San Diego her home. This brilliantly imaginative work features 10 sculptures and totems -- the tallest standing 24 feet -- encircled by an undulating, 400-foot-long wall of mosaic snakes. Composed of glass, stone, and tile, it's a riot of color and shape. The installation is open Tuesday through Sunday from 8:30am to 3:30pm (closed on Mondays and rainy days); entrance is free.
As this is a major agricultural area, the farmers' market on Tuesday afternoons is unsurprisingly one of the county's best. It's held on Grand Avenue, between Juniper and Kalmia streets, from 2:30 to 6pm (tel. 760/745-8877; www.sdfarmbureau.org). Another attraction is Orfila Vineyards on the way to the Wild Animal Park.
Two miles east of the Zoo Safari Park is the San Pasqual Battlefield State Historic Park, 15808 San Pasqual Valley Rd. (tel. 760/737-2201; www.parks.ca.gov). There's a picnic area, a .5-mile loop trail, and a small museum that details the bloody clash of 1846 in which Californios loyal to Mexico, armed only with lances, skirmished with invading U.S. troops. It's open weekends only, 10am to 5pm.