Tucked into the sunny and parched southwest corner of the United States, San Diego is situated in one of the country's most naturally beautiful metropolitan settings. Learning the lay of the land is neither confusing nor daunting, but it helps to understand a few geographical features. Two major characteristics give San Diego its topographical personality: a superb and varied coastline; and a series of mesas bisected by inland canyons inhabited by coyotes, skunks, and raccoons.
San Diego's downtown -- 16 miles north of the Mexico border -- sits at the edge of a large natural harbor, the San Diego Bay. The harbor is almost enclosed by two fingers of land: flat Coronado "Island" on one side, and peninsular Point Loma on the other. Both of these areas hold important military bases, bordered by classic neighborhoods dating to the 1890s and 1920s, respectively.
Heading north from Point Loma is Mission Bay, a lagoon that was carved out of an estuary in the 1940s and is now a watersports playground. A series of communities is found along the beach-lined coast: Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, La Jolla, and, just outside San Diego's city limits, Del Mar. To the south of downtown, you'll find National City, which is distinguished by shipyards on its bay side, then Chula Vista, and San Ysidro, which ends abruptly at the border (and where the huge city of Tijuana begins, equally abruptly).
Inland is Mission Valley, a mile-wide canyon that runs east-west, 2 miles north of downtown. Half a century ago, the valley held little beyond a few dairy farms, California's first mission, and the San Diego River (which is more like a creek most of the year). Then I-8 was built through the valley, followed by a shopping center, a sports stadium, another shopping center, and lots of condos. Today, Mission Valley is the most congested -- and least charming -- part of the city.
In spite of this, residents all use the valley, and many live along its perimeter: On the southern rim are older neighborhoods such as Mission Hills, Hillcrest, Normal Heights, and Kensington; to the north are Linda Vista and Kearny Mesa (bedroom communities that emerged in the 1950s), and Miramar Naval Air Station. Just outside and to the north of the city limits is Rancho Bernardo, a quiet, clubby suburb.
The city of San Diego possesses one other vital (if man-made) ingredient: Balboa Park. Laid out in a 1,400-acre square between downtown and Mission Valley, the park contains the San Diego Zoo, many of the city's best museums, theaters (including the Tony Award-winning Old Globe), wonderful gardens, recreational facilities, and splendid architecture.
Coronado -- Locals refer to Coronado as an island, but it's actually on a peninsula connected to the mainland by a long, sandy isthmus known as the Silver Strand. It's a wealthy, self-contained community inhabited by lots of retired Navy brass living on quiet, tree-lined streets. The northern portion of the city is home to Naval Base Coronado (also referred to as U.S. Naval Air Station, North Island), in use since World War I. The southern part of Coronado, with its architecturally rich neighborhoods, features some of the region's priciest real estate, and has a long history as an elite playground for snowbirds. Shops line the main street, Orange Avenue, and you'll find several ritzy resorts, including the landmark Hotel del Coronado, referred to locally as the "Hotel Del." Coronado has a lovely dune beach (one of the area's finest), plenty of restaurants, and a downtown reminiscent of a small Midwestern town.
Downtown -- After decades of intense development and restoration, downtown San Diego has emerged as a vibrant neighborhood with attractions that have become a magnet for travelers and locals alike. It's the business, shopping, dining, and entertainment heart of the city, encompassing Horton Plaza, the Gaslamp Quarter, the Embarcadero (waterfront), the Convention Center, and Little Italy, all sprawling over eight individual "neighborhoods." The Gaslamp Quarter is the center of a massive redevelopment kicked off in the mid-1980s with the opening of the Horton Plaza shopping complex; the area now features renovated historic buildings housing some of the city's top restaurants and clubs. Immediately east of the Gaslamp is the East Village, where you'll find PETCO Park, home of the San Diego Padres Major League Baseball team since 2004. Little Italy, a bustling neighborhood along India Street and Kettner Boulevard, between Cedar and Laurel streets, at the northern edge of downtown, has also undergone a renaissance. It's a great place to find a variety of restaurants (especially Italian) and boutiques.
Hillcrest & Uptown -- Part of Hillcrest's charm is the number of people out walking, shopping, and just hanging out. As the city's original self-contained suburb, first developed in 1907, it was also the desirable address for bankers and bureaucrats to erect their mansions. Now it's the heart of San Diego's gay and lesbian community, but it's an inclusive neighborhood, charming everyone with an eclectic blend of popular shops and cafes. Despite the cachet of being close to Balboa Park (home of the San Diego Zoo and numerous museums), the area fell into neglect in the 1960s. By the late 1970s, however, legions of preservation-minded residents began restoring Hillcrest. Other old Uptown neighborhoods of interest are Mission Hills to the west of Hillcrest, and University Heights, Normal Heights, North Park, South Park, Golden Hill, and Kensington to the east.
Mission Bay & the Beaches -- Casual is the word of the day here. Come here when you want to wiggle your toes in the sand, feel the sun warm your skin, exert yourself in recreational activities, and cool off in the blue ocean waters. Mission Bay is a watery playground perfect for waterskiing, sailing, kayaking, and windsurfing. The adjacent communities of Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, and Pacific Beach are known for their wide stretches of sand, active nightlife, and informal dining. If you've come for the SoCal beach lifestyle, this is where you'll find it. The boardwalk, which runs from South Mission Beach to Pacific Beach, is a popular place for in-line skating, bike riding, people-watching, and sunsets.
La Jolla -- Mediterranean in design and ambience, La Jolla is the Southern California Riviera. This seaside community of about 25,000 is home to an inordinate number of wealthy folks who could probably live anywhere. They choose La Jolla for good reason -- it features gorgeous coastline, outstanding restaurants, upscale shops, galleries, and some of the world's best medical facilities, as well as the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). The heart of La Jolla is referred to as the Village, roughly delineated by Pearl Street to the south, Prospect Street to the north, Torrey Pines Road to the east, and the rugged coast to the west. This is a picturesque neighborhood, which makes it perfect for simply strolling about. It's uncertain whether "La Jolla" (pronounced La-hoy-ya) is misspelled Spanish for "the jewel" or a native people's word for "cave," but once you see it, you'll no doubt go with the first definition.
Old Town & Mission Valley -- These two busy areas wrap around the neighborhood of Mission Hills. On one end are the Old Town State Historic Park (where California "began") and several museums that document the city's beginnings. Old Town is said to attract more visitors than any other site in San Diego -- it's where you can steep yourself in history while eating and shopping to your stomach and heart's content. Not far from Old Town lies the vast suburban sprawl of Mission Valley, a tribute to the automobile and to a more modern style of prosperity. Its main street, aptly named Hotel Circle, is lined with a string of moderately priced hotels as an alternative to the ritzier neighborhoods. In recent years, condo developments have made the valley a residential area and a traffic nightmare.
Off the Beaten Path: North Park & Beyond
To the northeast of Balboa Park is North Park, one of San Diego's original suburbs. Established in 1911, this mixed-use residential and commercial district was scraped out of a lemon grove, and thrived until the 1970s and 1980s. The neighborhood then went into decline, but recent gentrification has brought it roaring back to life. North Park was also the site of the worst aviation disaster in California history. On September 25, 1978, PSA Flight 182 collided in mid-air with a small plane over the community, killing 144 people, including 7 on the ground, and destroying or damaging 22 homes.
North Park's turnaround is best exemplified by the 2005 renovation of the fabulous Birch North Park Theatre, a 1928 vaudeville house where a variety of performing arts groups now strut their stuff. Eveoke Dance Theatre has established a permanent home nearby, as well. The area's lively scene gets monthly showcases with the Ray at Night Art Walk (www.rayatnightartwalk.com), the second Saturday of the month from 6 to 10pm, and North Park Nights (www.northparknights.org), held the third Saturday of every month from 6 to 11pm.
Dining makes a strong showing here, too, with Mission, Spread, Urban Solace, Jayne's Gastropub, and Ranchos Cocina. There are great tacos and 145 tequilas available at Cantina Mayahuel (2934 Adams Ave.; tel. 619/283-6292; www.cantinamayahuel.com), while "gastro-cantina" El Take It Easy (3926 30th St.; tel. 619/291-1859; www.eltakeiteasy.com) ups the ante on Mexican food with its creative menu. Meat lovers will have a field day with the quality sausages at the Linkery and the gourmet burgers (more than 30) at Tioli's Crazee Burger; there's also an ever-changing menu of contemporary American fare at The Smoking Goat (3408 30th St.; tel. 619/955-5295; www.thesmokinggoatrestaurant.com). And don't forget to save room for something sweet from Heaven Sent Desserts (3001 University Ave.; tel. 619/793-4758; www.heavensentdesserts.com). Other eateries making noise on the dining front include URBN Coal Fired Pizza/Bar (3085 University Ave.; tel. 619/255-7300; www.urnbnorthpark.com), Sea Rocket Bistro (3382 30th St.; tel. 619/255-7049; www.searocketbistro.com), and Farm House Café (2121 Adams Ave.; tel. 619/269-9662; www.farmhousecafesd.com).
By day there's shopping at independent boutiques and vintage stores; by night, check out a few of the hipster haunts such as Air Conditioned (4673 30th St.; tel. 619/501-9831; www.airconditionedbar.com), Bar Pink (3829 30th St.; tel. 619/564-7194; www.barpink.com), U-31 (3112 University Ave.; tel. 619/584-4188; www.u31bar.com), and Live Wire (2103 El Cajon Blvd.; tel. 619/291-7450; www.livewirebar.com). The Toronado (4026 30th St.; tel. 619/282-0456; www.toronadosd.com) has 50 beers on draft, and the Red Fox Steak House (2223 El Cajon Blvd.; tel. 619/296-2101; www.lafayettehotelsd.com) has an old-school piano bar.
And if you really need your morning edition of Le Monde, you can find it at Paras Newsstand, the city's best (3911 30th St.; tel. 619/296-2859).
In addition to North Park, there's also a neighborhood called South Park (which is actually east of Balboa Park), and it blends into Golden Hill at the park's southeastern corner. Both neighborhoods have architectural gems including meticulously preserved Victorian mansions and Craftsman bungalows. And both areas have a crop of bars and restaurants worth investigating, including the neighborhood bistros Alchemy (1503 30th St.; tel. 619/255-0616; www.alchemysandiego.com) and Vagabond (2310 30th St.; tel. 619/255-1035; www.vagabondkitchen.com). There's also the retro Turf Supper Club, the Whistle Stop Bar (2236 Fern St.; tel. 619/284-6784; www.whistlestopbar.com), Hamilton's Tavern (1521 30th St.; tel. 619/238-5460; www.hamiltonstavern.com), and Influx Cafe (1948 Broadway; tel. 619/255-9470; www.influxcafe.com), with its minimalist-chic decor and home-baked goods. The funky breakfast spot known as the Big Kitchen (3003 Grape St.; tel. 619/234-5789; www.bigkitchencafe.com) is a local institution -- it's where a pre-fame Whoopi Goldberg once worked.