You won't run out of things to see and do in San Diego, especially if outdoor activities are high on the agenda. The San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld, and the Zoo Safari Park are the city's three top attractions, but there are also Balboa Park's museums, downtown's Gaslamp Quarter, the beaches, and shopping in Old Town. You can catch a performance at one of the city's prized live theaters or a Padres game at downtown PETCO Park, as well.
The Three Major Animal Parks
If you're looking for wild times, San Diego supplies them. The world-famous San Diego Zoo is home to more than 800 animal species, many of them rare and exotic. A sister attraction, the Zoo Safari Park, showcases some 430 species in an au naturel setting. And aquatic animals form a veritable chorus line at SeaWorld San Diego -- waving their flippers, waddling across an ersatz Antarctica, and blowing dolphin kisses -- in various shows throughout the day.
San Diego's "Big Three" family attractions are joined by LEGOLAND California.
Now That's a Deal! -- San Diego's three main animal attractions offer combo tickets that can save you some cash. Here's how it works: If you plan to visit both the zoo and the Zoo Safari Park, a 2-Visit Pass is $70 for adults, $50 for children ages 3 to 11; passes are valid for 1 year (and can be used twice at the same attraction if you choose). A 3-for-1 pass gives you 1-day passes to the zoo and Zoo Safari Park, and unlimited entry to SeaWorld for 5 days from first use. The cost is $121 adults, $99 children ages 3 to 9.
Other value options include the Southern California CityPass (tel. 888/330-5008; www.citypass.com), which covers the zoo or Zoo Safari Park, plus SeaWorld, Disneyland Resorts, and Universal Studios in Los Angeles. Passes are $276 for adults, and $229 for kids age 3 to 9 (a savings of about 30%), and are valid for 14 days. The Go San Diego Card (tel. 866/628-9032; www.gosandiegocard.com) offers unlimited general admission to more than 50 attractions, including the zoo and LEGOLAND, as well as deals on shopping, dining, and day trips to Mexico and the local wine country. One-day packages start at $69 for adults and $58 for children (ages 3-12).
Downtown & Beyond
Wander through the turn-of-the-20th-century Gaslamp Quarter to the joyful, modern architecture of the Horton Plaza shopping center. Adjacent to the Gaslamp is the East Village, which, thanks to the opening of PETCO Park in 2004, has extended downtown a few blocks farther east.
Seaport Village is a shopping and dining complex on the waterfront offering stellar views; while another way to experience San Diego's waterfront is with one of several harbor tours.
Old Town & Mission Valley
The birthplace of San Diego -- indeed, of California -- Old Town takes you back to the Mexican California of the mid-1800s.
Mission Valley, which starts just north of Presidio Park and heads straight east, is decidedly more modern; until I-8 was built in the 1950s, it was little more than cow pastures with a couple of dirt roads. Shopping malls, motels, a golf course, condos, car dealerships, and a massive sports stadium fill the expanse today. Farther upstream along the San Diego River is the Mission Basilica San Diego, and just a few miles beyond lies an outstanding park with walking trails. Few visitors make it this far, but Mission Trails Regional Park reveals what San Diego looked like before the Spanish (and the car dealers) arrived.
Mission Bay & The Beaches
Opened to the public in 1949, Mission Bay Park is a man-made, 4,200-acre aquatic playground created by dredging tidal mud flats and opening them to seawater. Today, this is a great area for walking, jogging, in-line skating, biking, and boating.
For a spectacular view, drive north on Mission Boulevard, past Turquoise Street, where it turns into La Jolla Mesa Drive. Proceed up the hill 3/4 mile and turn around. From here you'll see the beaches and Point Loma in front of you, Mission Bay and San Diego Bay, downtown, the Hillcrest/Uptown area, and (on a clear day) the hills of Tijuana, and to the east, San Diego's backcountry.
One of San Diego's most scenic spots -- the star of postcards for more than 100 years -- is La Jolla Cove and Ellen Browning Scripps Park on the bluff above it. The walk through the park, along Coast Boulevard (start from the north at Prospect St.), offers some of California's finest coastal scenery. Just south is the Children's Pool, a beach where dozens of harbor seals can be spotted lazing in the sun. The 6,000-acre San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park, established in 1970, stretches for 10 miles from La Jolla Cove to the northern end of Torrey Pines State Reserve, and extends from the shoreline to a depth of 900 feet. The park is a boat-free zone. Its undersea flora and fauna draw scuba divers and snorkelers, many of them hoping for a glimpse of the brilliant orange garibaldi, California's state fish.
La Jolla has architectural treasures as well; highlights include Mary Star of the Sea, 7727 Girard Ave., a small Roman Catholic church with some stylish art; and La Valencia Hotel, a fine Spanish Colonial-style structure. The La Jolla Woman's Club, 7791 Draper Ave.; the adjacent Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego La Jolla; the La Jolla Recreation Center; and the Bishop's School are all the handiwork of famed architect Irving Gill.
At La Jolla's north end, you'll find the 1,200-acre, 22,000-student University of California, San Diego (UCSD), which was established in 1960 and represents the county's largest single employer. The campus features the Geisel Library, a striking and distinguished contemporary structure, as well as the Stuart Collection of public sculpture and the Birch Aquarium at Scripps (see individual listings). One of celebrated architect Louis I. Kahn's masterpieces is the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, 10010 N. Torrey Pines Rd., a research facility named for the creator of the polio vaccine. Farther north is an ersatz jewel, the Lodge at Torrey Pines, a modern, 175-room luxury resort in the guise of an early-20th-century Craftsman-style manse. It overlooks the revered Torrey Pines Golf Course.
For a fine scenic drive, follow La Jolla Boulevard to Nautilus Street and turn east to get to 823-foot-high Mount Soledad, which offers a 360-degree view of the area. The appropriateness of the 43-foot-tall cross on top, erected in 1954 in this public park, has been the subject of 20 years of legal jousting (religious symbols are prohibited on public land). In 2008, a federal judge ruled the cross could stay; in 2011 another judge ruled it was unconstitutional. Stay tuned.
It's hard to miss San Diego Bay's most noteworthy landmark: the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge. Completed in 1969, this graceful five-lane bridge spans 2 1/4 miles and links the city and the "island" of Coronado. At 246 feet in height, the bridge was designed to be tall enough for the Navy's aircraft carriers to pass beneath. Heading to Coronado by car is a thrill because you can see Mexico and the shipyards of National City to the left, the San Diego skyline to the right, and Coronado, the naval station, and Point Loma in front of you (designated drivers have to promise to keep their eyes on the road). When the bridge opened, it put the antiquated commuter ferries out of business (though in 1986 passenger-only ferry service restarted). Bus no. 901 from downtown will also take you across the bridge.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.