Looking for a blissful winter escape that won’t break the bank? Head to America's Finest City.
I can’t really argue that it’s cheaper to spend a long weekend in balmy San Diego than it is to stay home in the Bay Area, where it’s raining, but there have been moments over the last few days when I’ve wondered. The ﬂight that brought me here cost less than a dinner date. San Diego’s city beaches—and beach parking—are free, the varied and excellent museums are practically free, and you can eat like a king for a pittance, at least if you appreciate ﬁsh tacos. Which you should. Moreover, the hotels are offering sweet winter deals, such as an $89 rate for AAA members, or three nights for the price of two (see “If You’re Going . . . ,” below). At home, I would be stuck inside. I might decide this was the perfect dreary weekend to get the couch reupholstered. That alone would make San Diego a steal.
But I am not at home, I am not inside, and the weekend is anything but dreary. It’s a sunny Saturday morning and I’m strolling through San Diego’s Mercato, an open-air farmers’ market in the Little Italy District. Vendors are selling smooth-skinned Fuerte avocados, oranges, grapefruit, and plump Medjool dates. I breakfast on ceviche from Poppa’s Fresh Fish Company, and while ceviche for breakfast may sound unconventional, it’s actually invigorating. An hour later, I’m standing on the Ocean Beach concrete pier—at 1,971 feet, the second-longest pier on the West Coast—gazing out over the jade-green waters that produced my breakfast. Looking back toward shore, I see a few surfers paddling in the waves and anglers casting for perch. Why is San Diego such a midwinter bargain? Just standing here in the sun doing nothing feels like luxury.
Father Junípero Serra founded San Diego in 1769, when he established Alta California’s ﬁrst mission here. Although it was subsequently ransacked by Indians, rocked by earthquakes, burned down, and neglected, the mission complex—now restored—still offers a poignant glimpse of what California was like before the world rushed in.
Inside the four-foot-thick whitewashed walls, the basilica is cool, silent, and dark, the only daylight trickling through small, high-set windows. It feels a bit like a fortress, which in a sense it was. Step outside, though, and the sun is dazzling, the courtyard a walled paradise of pepper trees and bougainvillea. You can understand why the embattled newcomers stuck it out—and why so many others followed.
A vital part of today’s city ﬁrst took shape about a century after Serra, in 1867, when Alonzo Horton, a land owner from Wisconsin, fell in love with San Diego’s mild climate and invested in waterfront real estate. He divided the land into lots and founded a rollicking port neighborhood known as the Stingaree—so named because you could get stung more severely by its thugs and hookers than by any stingray in the sea.
A casual stroll through the 16.5-block area, now called the Gaslamp Quarter, reveals mainly shops and restaurants, but spring for a $15 walking tour with the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation and the neighborhood comes to rumbustious life. My docent, Keiliki Rodriguez, alternated between telling ribald stories and pointing out the neighborhood’s architectural jewels. Among the highlights: the elegant 1888 Yuma Building, which I had walked past earlier that morning and failed to notice, and the ornate Louis Bank of Commerce which, despite its sober name, once housed an oyster bar (said to be Wyatt Earp’s favorite) and, later, a brothel upstairs. “Even a lot of San Diegans don’t realize there’s a national treasure here,” Rodriguez said.
There can be few, if any, San Diegans who don’t realize they have a national treasure in Balboa Park. In 1868, city leaders put aside 1,400 acres of scrubby mesa to build a park, and over the next 70 years this extraordinary complex of museums, botanical gardens, and theaters took shape. You can spend hours strolling through its luxuriant grounds, which include a 78-year-old cactus garden and the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden. And every Sunday at 2 p.m. there’s a free concert at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, which houses one of the world’s largest outdoor musical instruments, a 100,000-pound organ with 4,518 pipes.
The day I check out Balboa Park, the crowds are, as always, streaming into San Diego’s most renowned attraction: the zoo. I adore the San Diego Zoo (and you can read my earlier story about it at viamagazine.com/sdzoo), but on this trip I’m more interested in Balboa Park’s less-celebrated offerings. Apparently, I’m the only one who is. I have the 15 museums virtually to myself, which is great for me, but also sort of a shame.
The tranquillity of visiting the San Diego Museum of Art, with a permanent collection that includes lovely works by Renoir, Matisse, and Georgia O’Keeffe, as well as assorted Renaissance masters, beats an overcrowded blockbuster show any day. And amazingly, there are no children gawking at the mummies and shrunken human heads on display in the excellent Museum of Man. Brought here from South America in 1915 for the Panama-California Exposition, the exquisite tiny noggins are ghoulish, but also fascinating and oddly gorgeous.
You can further appreciate the foresight of early San Diegans at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, a 2,000-acre park tucked just within city limits. Created in 1899 to protect the endangered Torrey pine, a delicate conifer with long, feathery needles, the park includes a beach, wetlands, and seven miles of hilly trails. The two-thirds-mile Guy Fleming loop trail, smelling of crushed sage, winds past crenellated sandstone cliffs and Torrey pines sculpted by the wind. The trail opens onto stunning cliffside views of the ocean—a spectacular payoff for a 15-minute walk, 20 minutes from downtown San Diego.
To buy a postcard, I stop at the visitor center in the old adobe Torrey Pines Lodge (not to be confused with the Lodge at Torrey Pines, with its legendary golf course and AAA Five Diamond designation). Financed by philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps, the adobe was inspired by the homes of the Southwest’s Hopi Indians and designed to blend with the nearby sandstone cliffs. The stately lodge opened as a restaurant in 1923, serving $1 steak dinners to travelers arriving in their Model T’s.
Alas, the lodge is no longer a restaurant, and the price of dinner in San Diego has gone up considerably—in most places. For 99 cents, I dine on a zesty ﬁsh taco at El Zarape, a popular café in the University Heights neighborhood. Then, in a nearby area that’s clearly off the tourist track, I ﬁnd an even better deal on the best ﬁsh taco in town. The staggeringly delicious morsel, from the Mariscos Germán truck, consists of hot, crispy ﬁsh slathered in creamy sauce and salsa, neatly folded in a warm, supple corn tortilla. It costs $1.50, and it comes with a free cup of soup.
Photography courtesy San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau and Little Italy Association
This article was first published in January 2011, but was updated in November 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.