The nation's seventh-largest city, San Diego is a sprawling expanse of beach towns and urban neighborhoods. The city is divided into eight major areas, each home to distinctive San Diego neighborhoods. Downtown's waterfront convention center is the hub for business travelers. The Gaslamp Quarter's boutique hotels, restaurants and nightlife draw youthful crowds, especially on weekends. Coronado is across San Diego Bay via ferries or bridge over the bay. Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo are just east of Downtown. Uptown's trendy neighborhoods radiate from the park and are accessible on public buses. The coastline defines the north-south geography with the beach towns and Mission Bay east of Interstate 5. Beaches close to Downtown tend to have a laid-back, funky vibe; the bus ride from Downtown takes anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. Room rates and dining tabs rise as you go north to La Jolla; drive farther up the coast and you'll find a lineup of quirky small towns, from Del Mar (home to the fairgrounds and racetrack) to Camp Pendleton, the Marine base beside Oceanside. San Diego County sprawls north, south and east from I-5. Mission Valley, at the intersection of four major freeways, is a good hub if you have a car. Take time to visit the Wild Animal Park and the mountains and desert parks that complete the varied landscapes of San Diego's neighborhoods.
San Diego's Downtown has morphed into an exciting, cosmopolitan center city over the past decade. The historic Gaslamp Quarter district with boutiques, bars and restaurants in restored 19th century Victorian, Baroque and Frontier buildings is like a laid-back French Quarter. The surrounding streets of this San Diego neighborhood are filled with pedestrians long into the night, as are those in the burgeoning East Village neighborhood near Petco Park, Downtown's exceptional baseball park. Cruise ships, sailboats and Navy aircraft carriers fill San Diego Bay on the shores of Downtown, facing a shimmering skyline of modern skyscrapers taking full advantage of the view. A few blocks north of the Gaslamp Quarter, the revitalized Italian district has become a new, desirable urban San Diego neighborhood. Traditional pizza parlors, bakeries and bars have long drawn fans to Little Italy. Now, antique shops, design stores, gourmet restaurants, clubs and trendy cafes all contribute to its emergence as a full-blown trend-setting neighborhood extension of Downtown.
With its palm-fringed parks, Mediterranean-style mansions and gorgeous beaches and coves, La Jolla is the quintessential coastal enclave. Jaguars and Beemers prowl past art galleries and jewelry shops along Prospect and Girard, home to some of the priciest real estate in the county. Within view of the village's venerable hotels and reliably superb restaurants, La Jolla Cove cups a protected underwater reserve at the edge of Ellen Browning Scripps Park, where a series of lawns along a craggy coastline lead to the Children's Pool and a colony of harbor seals that have taken over a beloved beach. A few miles north, the sands of La Jolla Shores extend for miles to the renowned Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Residents include a veritable brain trust of Nobel-winning scientists who conjure miracles at the Salk Institute and the University of California San Diego.
You can't visit San Diego without visiting the beach. Beach towns blend into each other along San Diego's 70 miles of coastline. Ocean Beach, with its eclectic bars, surf shops, antique emporiums and incomparable sunset views, wavers between funky and family friendly. Mission Beach is action central with a bevy of bikini-clad beauties and buffed-out studs vying for attention on the boardwalk and beach. The scene gets a bit less intense on the north end of the boardwalk at Pacific Beach, though the town's bars are popular with the college set. Mission Bay, a 4,236-acre panorama of Southern California at play, flows through manmade channels edging the beaches.
A cluster of centuries-old suburbs and villages, each with its own character, Uptown includes the communities of Mission Hills, Hillcrest, North Park, South Park and others bordering Balboa Park. Wide streets lined with an architectural melange of restored homes lead to commercial districts with distinctive restaurants and shops. Hillcrest, San Diego's longtime gay neighborhood, is packed with alternative clubs, amusing shops and ethnic restaurants. North and South Park have become the trendiest San Diego neighborhoods in the city with pubs, cafes and eateries that attract foodies from all over. Hotels are scarce and businesses are spread out. Hillcrest has the largest conglomeration of sights within a few blocks of each other, but you can't get from there to North and South Park without transportation or boundless energy. Instead, have a restaurant or club in mind and then explore nearby streets.
Coronado is our favorite weekend getaway for long bike rides on wide, palm-shaded boulevards past blooming country gardens and impressive mansions. The sweeping arc of the San Diego-Coronado Bridge links Downtown with Coronado, a self-contained community where multiple generations of old-line families cling to traditions. Though oft called an island, Coronado is an isthmus with 18 public parks and 28 miles of sandy beach lining its shores on the Pacific Ocean and San Diego and Glorietta Bays. The Navy has a strong presence here; Navy Seals train on the beaches and fighter jets launch from the North Island base. The historic Hotel del Coronado dominates this San Diego neighborhood and faces a beach that's always on Top 10 lists. There are enough coffee bars, cafes and gourmet restaurants to keep you from having to ever cross the bridge to the big city—if that’s what you wanted, of course.