To get an overview of San Diego in just 1 day, you'll have to dart around town a bit. Begin with a taste of the area's Hispanic heritage, then embrace San Diego's dazzling beaches, and end the day in the spirited downtown Gaslamp Quarter.
1. Old Town
Old Town State Historic Park is the most visited state park in California (and it's free). This is San Diego's original downtown, and history comes to colorful life here, especially at Fiesta de Reyes, a once-dilapidated 1930s motel converted into shopping and dining arcades, replete with mariachi players echoing the sounds of Mexico around an inner courtyard.
Hillcrest, San Diego's equivalent of L.A.'s West Hollywood or New York's West Village, is an urban, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood. Its tolerant attitude fosters a large gay community and a hip, eclectic vibe. Pop into trendy boutiques, vintage clothing stores, and an array of restaurants and cafes. Check out the '40s-era Art Deco neighborhood sign dangling above University Avenue (at Fifth Ave.).
3. Breaking Bread
Bread & Cie., 350 University Ave. (tel. 619/683-9322), is perfect for a quick shot of java and a fresh scone or muffin. Lunch fare features hearty Mediterranean sandwiches served on delectable homemade bread, such as a rosemary and cheese baguette or olive focaccia. Relax at one of the bistro tables or take your bite to go for a picnic at your next stop, Balboa Park.
4. Balboa Park
Balboa Park, the nation's largest urban cultural park, contains a cluster of diverse museums and theaters, as well as San Diegans lolling about in the grass on any given pristine 70°F (21°C) sunny day (which is pretty much every day). Wander past the Spanish Colonial Revival-style buildings along the pedestrian mall, El Prado, then take in the sublime beauty of the Botanical Building's lily pond or explore the meandering park trails.
5. The San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge
Drive across the 2-mile-long, curved San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge with the wind whistling in your ears. If you've rented a convertible, put the top down now. In a word: invigorating.
6. Hotel del Coronado & Coronado Beach
Nicknamed by locals as the "Hotel Del," this Victorian landmark, with its spiky red turrets and gingerbread trim, is a San Diego gem. Stroll through the elegant lobby (perhaps you'll meet the resident ghost, Kate Morgan), meander along the sprawling decks facing the Pacific, and take a leisurely walk along Coronado Beach. This is a great place to watch a sunset.
7. The Gaslamp Quarter
Finish the day in the historic Gaslamp Quarter, which always promises a lively evening street scene. Pick from dozens of restaurants (many housed in restored Victorian commercial buildings), and stick around for live music or dancing after dinner -- if you have the energy.