Start: The Maritime Museum, at Harbor Drive and Ash Street.
Finish: The Convention Center, at Harbor Drive and Fifth Avenue.
Time: 1 1/2 hours, not including museum and shopping stops.
Best Times: Weekday mornings (when it's less crowded and easier to park).
Worst Times: Weekends, especially in the afternoon, when the Maritime Museum and Seaport Village are crowded; also when cruise ships are in port (days vary).
San Diego's colorful Embarcadero, or waterfront, cradles a bevy of seagoing vessels -- frigates, ferries, yachts, cruise ships, a merchant vessel, an aircraft carrier, and even a Soviet submarine. You'll also find the equally colorful Seaport Village, a shopping and dining center with a nautical theme. It's not all about the water, though -- you'll also find the two downtown wings of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, including a spectacular annex that opened in 2007.
Start at the:
1. Maritime Museum
Not a building, but a collection of ships, the Maritime Museum is at Harbor Drive at Ash Street. The main attraction is the magnificent Star of India -- the world's oldest sailing ship that still goes to sea -- built in 1863 as the Euterpe. The ship, whose billowing sails are a familiar sight along Harbor Drive, once carried cargo to India and immigrants to New Zealand, and it braved the arctic ice in Alaska to work in the salmon industry. Another component of the museum is the 1898 ferry Berkeley, built to operate between San Francisco and Oakland. In service through 1958, it carried survivors to safety 24 hours a day for 4 days after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. You can also check out the HMS Surprise, which had a star turn in the film Master and Commander; a Soviet-era B-39 attack submarine; the Californian, a replica of a 19th-century revenue cutter; the Medea, a 1904 steam yacht; and the Pilot, which served as San Diego Bay's official pilot boat for 82 years.
From this vantage point, you get a fine view of the:
2. County Administration Center
This complex was built in 1936 with funds from the Works Progress Administration, and was dedicated in 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The 23-foot-high granite sculpture in front, Guardian of Water, was completed by Donal Hord -- San Diego's most notable sculptor -- in 1939; it depicts a stoic woman shouldering a water jug. On weekdays, the building is open from 8am to 5pm; there are restrooms and a cafeteria inside.
3. Take a Break
The cafeteria on the fourth floor of the County Administration Center, 1600 Pacific Coast Hwy. (tel. 619/515-4258), isn't exactly posh, but it has lovely harbor views; it serves breakfast and lunch weekdays from 7am to 2:30pm. The salads, panini, and burgers are all modestly priced. If you can't pass up the chance to have some seafood, return to the waterfront to Anthony's Fishette, 1360 N. Harbor Dr. (tel. 619/232-5105), a simple eatery with a simply marvelous location. You can dine alfresco to enjoy your fish and chips and clam chowder.
Continue south along the Embarcadero.
4. Urban Trees
You probably noticed the collection of sculptures along the Embarcadero -- this is the Urban Trees public art project that stretches from Hawthorn Street to the cruise ship terminal. There are 30 Urban Trees, ranging from whimsical abstractions to modernist totems; each collection stays up for about a year before being replaced by the next crop. If you really fall in love with one, they are for sale.
Continue past the B St. Pier cruise ship terminal to the:
5. Harbor Cruises
They depart from the Embarcadero all day; there are evening dinner cruises, too. Ticket booths are right on the water.
A little farther south, near the Broadway Pier, is the:
6. Coronado Ferry
It makes hourly trips between San Diego and Coronado. Buy tickets from the Flagship booth -- a one-way trip is 15 minutes.
Head out onto the Broadway Pier for a better look at the:
7. Port Pavilion
Unveiled in 2010, this 52,000-square-foot, $28 million facility is a cruise ship terminal and event space; it's also a LEED-certified "green building." The most notable feature of this aqua-shaded, steel-and-glass building with the sawtooth roof is the soaring, sculptured exterior wall designed by artist Leni Schwendinger. Described by its creator as a "monumental sea creature," the piece is called Tidal Radiance, and it's at its shimmering best after dark.
Head straight back to Broadway, you'll see the two gold mission-style towers of the:
8. Santa Fe Depot
This mosaic-draped railroad station was built in 1915 and provides one of the city's best examples of Spanish Colonial Revival style. It's only 1 1/2 blocks away, so walk over and look inside at the vaulted ceiling, wooden benches, and walls covered in striking green-and-gold tiles. A scale model of the aircraft carrier USS Midway is on display inside.
Continue to the north end of the station where you will find the:
9. Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego
What was once the station's baggage building is now the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's dynamic Jacobs Building. Designed by the architect responsible for the Warhol museum in Pittsburgh and the Picasso museum in Spain, this is one of the city's cultural flagships. The original downtown annex is across the street.
Return to Harbor Drive and head south; you'll stroll through a small tree- and bench-lined park and to the:
10. USS Midway
This aircraft carrier had a 47-year military history that started 1 week after the Japanese surrender of World War II in 1945. By the time the Midway was decommissioned in 1991, more than 225,000 men had served aboard. The carrier is now a naval museum, telling the story of life on board the ship, of the wars it fought, and of the records it set (the Midway was tasked with setting new standards throughout much of its career).
South of the Midway, at Pier 11, is the:
11. Unconditional Surrender Statue
Kitsch on a grand scale. This 25-foot, full-color statue re-creates an iconic American image: Alfred Eisenstaedt's 1945 photo of a sailor and nurse in passionate embrace following the news of Japan's surrender in World War II. You have to see this one to believe it. Nearby are several other pieces of patriotic art, including a salute to another American icon, Bob Hope. Featuring a cast of 15 bronze statues, this recent addition to the Embarcadero art collection depicts the comedian entertaining the troops.
Continue along the walkway to:
12. Tuna Harbor
This is where the commercial fishing boats congregate. San Diego's tuna fleet is based here but is a shadow of its former self -- it was once the world's largest.
13. Take a Break
The red building on the peninsula to your right houses the Fish Market, 750 N. Harbor Dr. (tel. 619/232-3474), a market and casual restaurant, and its upscale counterpart, Top of the Market, just upstairs. A meal here is fresh off the boat. Both serve lunch and dinner, and the Fish Market has a children's menu and an oyster and sushi bar. It's fine to drop in just for a drink and to savor the mighty view. Prices are moderate downstairs, expensive upstairs. For dessert or coffee, go inside Seaport Village, 849 W. Harbor Dr., to Upstart Crow (tel. 619/232-4855), a bookstore and coffeehouse.
Keep walking south, where you can meander along the winding pathways of:
14. Seaport Village
This outdoor shopping center contains myriad boutiques and restaurants. The carousel is pure nostalgia -- Charles Looff, who built the first carousel at Coney Island, carved the animals out of poplar in 1895. You will no doubt also notice the official symbol of Seaport Village: a 45-foot-high detailed replica of the famous Mukilteo Lighthouse in Washington State.
From Seaport Village, continue your waterfront walk southeast to the:
15. Embarcadero Marina Park North
Jutting out into the bay, Embarcadero Marina Park North is a lovely patch of green, well used by San Diegans for strolling and jogging. It features expansive views and is often fairly deserted. The four hotel towers here that wall you off from the rest of the city belong to the Manchester Grand Hyatt and the Marriott San Diego Hotel & Marina. A concession at the marina rents boats by the hour, and arranges diving, water-skiing, and fishing outings.
The waterfront walkway continues to the:
16. Convention Center/Embarcadero Marina Park South
This building is another striking piece of architecture hugging the city's waterfront. When it was first completed in late 1989, its presence on the Embarcadero was a major factor in the revitalization of downtown San Diego. It was later enlarged to an even more imposing size, to less acclaim. Embarcadero Marina Park South stretches out into the bay from here; you'll find a restaurant, basketball courts, a concession stand, and a fishing pier. You can also catch a ferry to Coronado.
To access the Gaslamp Quarter or San Diego Trolley, you'll need to head back to Seaport Village or cut through the lobbies of the Hyatt or Marriott hotels.
17. Winding Down
There's no better place in San Diego to catch a sunset than the Top of the Hyatt, 1 Market Place (tel. 619/232-1234), a 40th-floor lounge with sweeping views of the city and harbor. It's located in the eastern tower of the Manchester Grand Hyatt and opens at 3pm daily. For those afraid of heights, there's a branch of the popular Pacific Rim-fusion eatery Roy's, 333 W. Harbor Dr. (tel. 619/239-7697), on the marina side of the Marriott, perched right above the action along the pedestrian pathway.