Top 10 Things to Do in San Diego
1. The San Diego Zoo – both my wife and I worked here!
I drove the double-decker tour buses one summer and my wife worked in sales for three years. Driving the tour bus was a blast (albeit hair-raising with all the people around, tight turns, and steep hills). “Why do gorillas have such large nostrils? …because they have big fingers! Get it?! I still have my corny jokes.
The zoo was started by local San Diego veterinarian Dr. Harry M. Wegeforth. As the story goes, he was walking through Balboa Park one morning and heard a lion roar. When he went to investigate, he saw a half-starved caged lion that had been abandoned from the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. On the spot he decided that San Diego needed a zoo. Not just any zoo, but the zoo of zoos. Dr. Wegeforth and his team pioneered the first cage-less animal enclosures and authentic looking animal bio-habitats.
Today the zoo encompasses over 100 acres and 3,700 animals with more than 250,000 members, making it the largest zoo in the world. In addition, it is the largest botanical collection in the world. It is also one of the few zoos in the world to host Giant Pandas! So, take your most comfortable walking shoes, because there is a lot to see. You can easily spend most or all of a day at the zoo. There are bus tours, a sky tram, shops, exhibits, restaurants, and more to keep everyone enthralled.
2. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park – we got married there (seriously)!
The Safari Park (formerly called the Wild Animal Park) is located 33 miles north of San Diego outside Escondido in San Pasqual Valley. It is an impressive 1,800 acre free range animal facility. It opened in 1972 as a captive breeding program complete with the world’s largest veterinarian hospital. It played an instrumental role in both the California Condor and African White Rhinoceros recovery efforts. Today, it is also home to the “frozen ark,” a cryogenic collection of every animal species sperm and egg and plant species seed on the planet.
You can ride a 4X4 caravan tour through the park and get up close to the animals. There are also 26 miles of walking trails to enjoy. For thrill seekers, there is a 3/4 mile zipline that allows you to soar up to 160 feet above the valley. If you really want to get up close to the animals, you can arrange a special photo-caravan that takes you personally out into the valley to photograph them.
In 1994, my wife and I got special permission to have our wedding at Kilima Point in the Park since she worked there. No one had ever gotten married there before. They actually roped off the entire back section of the park so we could have it to ourselves. We had the point decorated with flowers and ribbons, a dance floor with DJ set up, a full buffet with tables to serve guests, and a limo brought in. My wife was in a beautiful white wedding gown with her accompanying brides maids and I was in a black tuxedo with my groomsmen. Our pastor performed the ceremony. We even had two giraffes come over as witnesses! I tell people, “I got married at the zoo, honestly!” Obviously, the park hold very special memories for us.
3. Sea World – see Shamu!
Although no longer owned by the Anheuser-Busch Company, Sea World still is an amazing place despite no longer having the iconic Clydesdale horses. The San Diego park is the original Sea World opened in 1964. Aside from lots of aquatic creatures to see, the park has3-D movies, thrill rides, an enormous kids play area, live shows, and of course, Shamu!
For an extra fee you can actually swim with real dolphins or beluga whales!
4. Balboa Park – much more to see and do there than just the zoo
Balboa Park is the largest urban park in North America at 1,200 acres (New York’s Central Park is 843 acres). It is home to numerous museums, theaters, green spaces, gardens, restaurants, and the world famous zoo. There is also an authentic replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater that hosts live productions. We especially like the Natural History Museum and Reuben H. Fleet Science Center. The Alcazar Gardens with the historic Botanical Building are particularly beautiful in spring and summer. During the holiday season, the park will be elaborately decorated with lights and displays. Balboa Park is a great place for a relaxing pick-nick!
5. Mission Beach – sand, surf, board walk, and roller coaster all in one!
Mission Beach is San Diego’s primary beach. Although it is usually very crowded in the summer, it is still a worthwhile visit. The boardwalk is fun to meander along to look at the shops, get a bite to eat, and enjoy the sun. On the corner of Mission Boulevard and Ventura Place is Luigi’s Pizza, famous for one of the largest pizza in the world at 30 inches in diameter! A single slice from it is 15 inches long and 12 inches wide! It is only two blocks from the Mission Beach Amusement Park (Belmont Park), where you can go afterwards to try to keep the pizza down. The Giant Dipper Roller Coaster is one of two original beach coasters on the west coast still around. It was originally built in 1925.
Remember, if you plan to get some surf action and go into the water, the surface temperature of the water at Mission Beach is between 65 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit. On a hot day, the water feels good for a quick dip, but that is all. You will see many more people on the beach than in the water for a god reason, it is cold!
6. Sea Port Village – a quaint shopping area to look around and have lunch
Sea Port Village is one of my favorite areas in San Diego to just leisurely walk around and enjoy a relaxing afternoon on the bay. It is conveniently located down town, so you can walk to it easily from the city center. The village has unique shops, art galleries, restaurants, and a vintage carousel. It is designed like a quaint old sea-side village with ornate buildings, running stream and ponds, meandering walk-ways, and a light house along the water. There is also a nice park where you can pick-nick, fly a kite, watch the boats go by, or even take a nap.
My favorite book store is there, the Upstart Crow. They have a unique collection of books and serve a great coffee with pastries.
7. U.S.S. Midway Museum – GO NAVY!
The U.S.S. Midway is a retired aircraft carrier now permanently docked next to Sea Port Village at Navy Pier as a museum. She was commissioned in 1945 and served honorably for 47 years until 1992. For her first ten years, she was the biggest ship in the world and the first t not be able to transit the Panama Canal. She saw action in Vietnam and was the flag ship in Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf.
On board, you can go from the engine room below sea level to the bridge over 100 feet off the water. The are realistic displays throughout the ship depicting the daily life of her crew. On the flight deck and in the hangar are many different aircraft that flew off her deck. There are even real pilot simulators that you can fly to test your combat flying and carrier landing skills! It is an amazing piece of history.
8. La Jolla Cove – upscale shopping, scenic beach, and fine dining (drive up Mount Soledad too!)
La Jolla is a very upscale beach community located about 20 minutes north of San Diego. It offers fine dining, trendy shops, and beautiful vistas. La Jolla Cove is a protected marine sanctuary with an abundance of wildlife. It offers some of the best diving on the west coast. You can see sea lions, seals, birds, sea otters, and other marine animals in the water and sunning themselves on the beach and rocks. Above La Jolla is Mount Soledad. From the 822 foot top you will see amazing views of the Pacific Ocean. A 28 foot cross adorns the top of the mount and has been the cause of much controversy over recent years as it is a religious symbol on government property. To avoid tearing down the long standing cross, the sight has been turned into a Korean War memorial. Dr. Seus also lived on the hill before his death.
9. Coronado Island – check out the Hotel del Coronado
The Hotel del Coronado is an opulent all wooden Victorian style hotel that has hosted numerous famous people since 1888. Notable guests have included Thomas Edison, L. Frank Baum, Charlie Chaplin, Vincent Price, Babe Ruth, James Stewart, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. More recently, guests have included Kevin Costner, Whoopie Goldberg, Gene Hackman, George Harrison, Brad Pitt, Madonna, Barbra Streisand and Oprah Winfrey. The following presidents have stayed at the hotel: Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Also, Prince Edward has stayed there. The hotel is open to the public for walking through to shop at its boutiques, see the amazing architecture, eat at one of its restaurants or bars, or hope to catch a peak at someone famous.
10. Old Town San Diego – a step back in time
This is the original settlement of Mission de San Diego. There is a historical park and museum with old pictures and recreations so you can get a feel for what life was like back in the early days of the area. Outside the park are shops, restaurants, and bars to enjoy.