Although San Diego has a reputation as a predominantly white, middle-class, conservative-leaning metropolis, a closer look reveals a more diverse picture: 25% of the city's inhabitants are Hispanic, 14% are Asian, and 8% are African American. The San Diego Art + Sol website (www.sandiegoartandsol.com) is an excellent place to get additional information on the city's contemporary cultural attractions; it also features a variety of touring itineraries.
The San Diego Museum of Man covers 4 million years of hominid history, with a particular focus on the native heritage of the Americas. The history of San Diego's indigenous peoples is related at Mission Trails Regional Park and the Junípero Serra Museum.
With the Mexican border just 16 miles from downtown San Diego, Mexico's influence is unmistakable, and Spanish street and place names are prevalent. The Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá, Junípero Serra Museum, and Old Town showcase Spanish-Mexican history, while contemporary culture is reflected in the murals of Chicano Park (tel. 619/563-4661; www.chicano-park.org) under the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge. Voz Alta, 1754 National Ave. (www.vozaltaproject.org), is a gathering spot in Barrio Logan for writers, artists, and musicians with a Chicano bent that hosts concerts, art exhibits, poetry slams, and other events. The Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park offers classes, live entertainment, and gallery exhibits.
Cinco de Mayo (May 5) is a huge celebration in Old Town, but any day is great for shopping for Latin-American handicrafts at Bazaar del Mundo or Fiesta de Reyes. Americanized Mexican food is ubiquitous, but for a taste of the real Mexico, try El Agave Tequileria, or head south of the border. While in Tijuana, be sure to visit the excellent Centro Cultural Tijuana, which covers the history, contemporary art, culture, and performing arts of Baja California and the rest of Mexico.
Initially lured by the California gold rush in the 1850s, a small Chinese community came to live in San Diego and controlled much of the fishing industry until 1890; Chinese also helped build (and later staff) the Hotel del Coronado. Chinatown -- downtown, south of Market Street -- eventually merged with the rough-and-tumble Stingaree, San Diego's red-light district. At the turn of the last century, the area was a hub of gambling, prostitution, and opium dens, and Chinese families ran notorious saloons such as the Old Tub of Blood and the Seven Buckets of Blood. Today, an Asian/Pacific Historic District is beginning to materialize, concentrated between Market and J streets, and between Third and Fifth avenues. Eighteen buildings in this area have strong historical ties to the Asian/Pacific-American community. Also here is the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum, which offers walking tours of the old Chinatown the second Saturday of the month.
An African presence has also been felt in small but important ways throughout San Diego history. Black slaves were part of Juan Cabrillo's expedition along the California coast in 1542, and Pío Pico, a San Diegan who became the last Mexican governor of California before it was annexed by the United States, was of African descent. The Clermont Hotel, 501 Seventh Ave., is nondescript but socially significant -- it was built in 1887 and was one of the city's first black-owned businesses. A segregated hotel "for colored people" until 1956, it may be the oldest surviving historically black hotel in the nation and was designated an African-American landmark in 2001.
In Old Town, the ramshackle Casa del Rey Moro African Museum, 2471 Congress St. (tel. 619/220-0022; www.ambers.com), provides a scholarly look at black history, with a special emphasis on how it has played out in San Diego and California. The WorldBeat Center in Balboa Park produces reggae and African music concerts, has a variety of classes, a gift shop, and even runs its own radio station. In the mountains east of San Diego, you'll find the Julian Gold Rush Hotel, built in 1897 by freed slave Albert Robinson. The town itself was founded after gold was discovered in 1869 by another freed slave, Frederick Coleman. Soul of America (www.soulofamerica.com) is a comprehensive website, with travel tips, event and family-reunion postings, and sections on historically black beach resorts and active vacations. The section on San Diego is fairly detailed and has a calendar of events.