The very first time I learned of the city of San Diego, I was at a raucous party in Kansas City. I was only 18 years old at the time and was coming home from my first adventure out west. Two buddies and I had stuffed ourselves into an old Dodge Swinger (manual 3-speed on the steering column) and had flown like ducks to the Rocky Mountain and Grand Canyon national parks. Being a city boy repressed by the urban skyscrapers and apartments of Chicago, I had found that my passion of the great, wild places was now abloom.
However, there were two blonde “surfer guys” from San Diego at this Kansas City spree who captivated me with their description (at 2 decibels above the party’s noise) of their homeland as “the best city in the world”. When I returned home and researched this undiscovered place for myself, I found that, in regard to climate, location and a totally laid back attitude, perhaps the surfers were right.
Discovering the “Best City in the World”
The first chance I got, I went. The trip to San Diego turned out to be with my father, when I was 21, which we always fondly remembered. We sojourned there for two consecutive years after that. Then, when I had children of my own, we returned to take in the world-class zoo, the surfing beaches and SeaWorld.
The City of St. Didacus, as I like to call it, has gone though vital changes since my last visit in 1999. On my most recent visit, I was impressed with the city’s devotion to its reconstruction. Buildings throughout downtown have been revamped, refitted, face-lifted and made over. Areas of the city once desolate or underused are now vibrant with trendy shops and experimental restaurants.
But this is in large part due to the history of the place. The abiding spirit of being first – of bearing the artist’s sense of adventure and creativity no matter what the odds – is not a new spirit but rather a centuries old one.
The History of San Diego
Juan Cabrillo discovered San Diego Bay in 1542, a mere 50 years after Columbus ventured forth from Spain as well. The Kumeyaay had been living in the area for nearly 12,000 years. (Perhaps they too enjoyed the Mediterranean breezes and sunshine.)
But it wasn’t until 1769 that the Presidio was established by Gaspar de Portola. And shortly thereafter, three Franciscan Friars raised and blessed a cross…. thus founding the first mission of Alta California, Mission San Diego de Alcala`.
After settlers arrived in 1774, the Kumeyaay soon rebelled and burned down the mission. Father Junipero Serra rebuilt the church and its glorious courtyard where it stands today (6 miles inland) using a fireproof adobe for its walls and Spanish tiles for the roof.
I visited Mission de Alcala on a sunshiny March morning and the first thing that struck me were the perfectly white walls above the road and the blue skied backdrop contrasting over the mission.
I got a chance to speak with Liz, the woman working the gift shop. Her knowledge and dedication to the mission’s history was evident and precise. The story she told when I asked her why the 21 missions along Camino Real had been built was simply that the government of Spain was worried about the presence of Russian seal hunters in the area. They wanted to dissuade the Russian mariners of any claim to who was in authority of Alta California, without issuing an overt act of war.
The solution they came up with? “Send in the Padres!” Padre, more or less, meaning priest or chaplain.
El Camino Real
El Camino Real is a highway of 21 missions dotting the area’s Californian hills that stretches 600 miles north from San Diego. These were built and maintained by a small company of friars including Frs. Junipero Serra and Juan Crespi. Overhead brass bells mark and adorn the road. Some notable missions recognizable in name are San Juan Capistrano , San Luis Obispo, and San Francisco Solano at the trail’s end in Sonoma.
Father Junipero Serra, canonized a saint in 2015, was the Franciscan who embodies the present reconstructive spirit of San Diego apparent today. He was already 55 years old when called upon to build Spain’s missions.
Following the rule of St. Francis, he seldom rode on horseback and is often depicted limping along with a walking stick. The injury to his leg, caused by an infectious mosquito bite, brought further obstacles but not the end of his ministry. He journeyed the entire 600 miles on foot, in order to take stock, at the age of 67 … three years before his passing.
Downtown San Diego
The Sophia Hotel, where I stayed on my recent visit, is situated in the Gaslamp Quarter near downtown San Diego. It correctly symbolizes the city because of its own recent transformation. Originally known as The Pickwick Hotel and built over 100 years ago, it had to suffer along with the neighborhood surrounding it, a significant loss in popularity.
But it went under a lengthy renovation from 1986 to 2000 and it wasn’t until December of 2006 that it re-opened as The Sophia.
It is so centrally located in the activities of the district that it must certainly be considered for one’s lodgings upon a trip to San Diego. A queen bed may be occupied from $140 per night to approximately $240 depending on view, etc. There is a valet parking lot and the rates are $36 per day; the valet service is excellent and open 24/7. It is quite possible to lodge at The Sophia without renting a car however, for everything in the Gaslamp area is a walk or an Uber away. There are even tourist tricycles adorned with colorful lights you can hop into for a fee and cruise the streets in the evenings.
And the staff at this hotel are well informed and friendly, eager to point out a restaurant or tavern which they consider their favorite.
The hotel has a lobby restaurant and bar named Currant American Brasserie. The night I dined at Currant, I opted for the Blistered Shishito Peppers for my appetizer over “Popcorn of the Moment” and the guac and feta covered tortilla chips. While tasty and engaging, it was also a little heavy, so I skipped having a salad.
As for the main courses, the restaurant is known and listed for its Brassiere Burger with aged white cheddar and caramelized onions. The grilled salmon with blackened spice is another dish worth consideration. My dessert choice was the chocolate mousse cake. It was a nicely rich tasting sweet, without being overly so. And upon closing my eyes, I believed I was savoring an ice cream.
Exploring the Gaslamp Quarter and Petco Park
The Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego is a trendy one, inviting you out of the confines of your apartment and the restraints of your mind. 5th Avenue and Broadway, which is only a four block walk from The Sophia, is a good place to begin your evening. Being the main drag of the Gaslamp, head south on 5th Ave. and stop into any bar or restaurant which may lure you along your way.
I was captured early on by the music coming from the open doors of Cafe 21. A four piece ensemble by the name of Sister Speak was balladeering the Ben E. King classic, Stand By Me.
This familiar song, of course, set the mood for the evening. I passed other emporiums for craft beers, liquors and chocolates. There was The Hopping Pig Bar, P5 Pizza Lounge, Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate, and Urban Wave Company for hipster kids. Asti Ristorante, a local-favorite Italian place looked alluring as well.
I walked joyfully to the avenue’s end, near L Street. A building bright crossed the way ahead of me. A lone maintenance fellow swept the street here, and I felt obliged to ask about the building hurtling out before us. Lucky for me that I did.
His name was Robert and he told me that what structure I faced, here beyond the Gaslamp, was the convention center of San Diego. We struck up a friendly conversation in which he explained how San Diego had been reconstructing itself over the last 10 to 15 years. First came the ballpark, Petco Park. This baseball stadium was built into the neighborhood – as if wedged into the existing structures. He pointed it out to me, only a block away from where we stood.
I couldn’t believe it was a baseball stadium. First, it looked only like a built-up addition to the hotels standing beneath it. But Robert explained that it was a coordinated effort to add appeal to the Gaslamp Quarter and bring back life to this historic downtown district. All the while, they had in mind to keep it homey, as with Boston’s Fenway Park or Chicago’s Wrigley Field.
After our mutual exchanges and reminiscences had ended, I walked to the ballpark for a closer inspection. Petco Park, it turns out, is a postmodern wonderment. It considers the canyons of San Diego and replicates them in the white steel beamed structures reaching out to each other overhead, creating enormous drops to the neighborhood below. The outer walls are of a sand colored stucco, which copies the expressive tones of the small cliffs of San Diego Bay and the beaches for which the city is famous.
And indeed, the park is built literally into the century-old Western Metal Supply Company building – a subtle nod to the historical notion of send in the padres!
The Breakfast Republic
My next morning was spent dining at the Breakfast Republic at 707 G Street. This happens to be one of a franchised chain indigenous to San Diego, but with a homestyle appeal. It is as if someone’s older brother opened a solitary steak and egg joint, but then the mom and grandmother got involved with the kitchen staff and began pouring out their created family breakfasts from years past. The hipster sommelier sister needed a job, so they hired her to bartend. Then the entrepreneur uncle sold the idea to a real estate firm… and the idea struck gold!
There is usually wait, so use your time wisely perusing the eclectic menu.
You may plan to begin with a “Caffeine Overdose”, which is a flight of latte, mocha, and “mexican” mocha; or perhaps you would prefer a Kombucha, draft beer, mimosa or another creative imbibement. Luckily for me, those hair-of-the-dog-that-bit-ya days are long past. Rogelio, the assistant manager who waited my table, steered me to the Thin Mint Mocha which was a welcomed divinity to my palate.
And so many other divine aspirations are chocked into their menu. They offer 6 different benedicts including a house made crab-cake; 7 types of French Toast (choose the sampler of 3); Lemon Coconut Pancakes, Churro Pancakes, as well as seven other styles; and 3 distinctive scrambles.
I chose the Chilaquiles breakfast (with a side of their “Jurassic Pork Bacon”) and was not at all disappointed. The sauce covering these small tortillas was slightly tangier than expected, but the sour cream applied evened out the taste quite nicely. The bacon was exceptional as well, though I normally prefer thin-styled slices.
I really enjoyed the breakfast, as chilaquiles once was our Sunday evening meal (minus the bacon) before my wife and I got married.
The rest of the day was then filled exploring the flowered hills, sunlit canyons, and Spanish-stylized buildings of Balboa Park.
The Flora and Fauna of San Diego
San Diego is often associated with its world-class zoo, but this crowd-puller actually lies within Balboa. The acreage of Balboa Park was set aside for the recreational pursuits of the citizenry back in the Alto California years, in 1835. It is one of the oldest places in America with a dedicated purpose as such. Much of the architecture is of Mission Revival Style and Spanish Baroque/Colonial which strive to evoke the feeling of the Spanish countryside.
This singular place, with its intriguing towers, amphitheaters and domes; its sightful gardens shaded under enormous fig trees; its storied structures resonant with the singing vibrations of its jays as well as its street musicians (stringed, brassed and wooded), is too, a place known for reconstructing San Diego.
For it was here beginning in 1909 that the city proposed to rebuild its image in order to attract an exposition to coincide with the opening of the Panama Canal. San Diego thus became the smallest city ever to host a World’s Fair. And thus, as well, the city of St. Didacus of Alcala found its place more prominently upon the map. Once again, the spirit of San Diego propelled itself to new heights.
Needless to say, you can spend many days of exploration here, but I only had one. So I spent my time merely walking about, taking in the sunshine. I did wander into the Japanese Friendship Garden, not to miss out on its beauty or the California sun.
This place is fringed by thoughtful rock placings, streams of koi filled waterways, and potted bonsai trees. Paths lead up and down a gentle canyon and brush past flowering trees of various colors. There are quiet places to sit, even though there are many fellow wanderers about.
I then walked toward the California Tower and toured the Museum of Man, with its anthropological galleries. It was an intriguing building, both inside and out. Inside were displays of various peoples and cultures; and outside were its cream-colored facade with its baroque adornments, the stretching tower, and the blue and white tiled dome.
Across from there was the Alcazar Garden. Sweet smelling and colorful, the stunning feature here for me was the triple trunked ficus tree shading the north end of the garden with its magnificent, smooth-white limbs.
The Reconstructed Navy Barracks of Liberty Station
That evening I took a fifteen minute drive to Liberty Station. Once again I was immersed in the reconstructive soul of San Diego. For this quarter is actually a reclaimed navy barracks of years past, now converted into a curious encampment of artisan shops and artist galleries. It is a completely new neighborhood whose promenade now flows seamlessly into the one which had surrounded it.
There is an awesome market at its northeastern end, and I suggest you come here with an appetite. Many eateries, sensual in smell as well as looks, are pressed side by side in an array meant to dazzle. A few to mention include Doughballs (for a fast, wood-fired pizza), Mastiff Sausages (for handcrafted sausages and sandwiches), Fishbone Kitchen (a “belly-up” oyster emporium), Le Parfait Paris for dent sucree’… and too many others to mention here.
Officine Buona Forchetta
There is also a notable sit down restaurant in this district, Officine Buona Forchetta. Their dedication to bringing Italy to California – lock, stock, and barrel – amazed me. Not only are its wood-fired ovens imported from the old country in order to record the proper blaze for its pizza pies; but its wines, cheeses, and even tomato sauce are as well.
The pies on the menu are Neapolitan in style, but the enormity of selection reminded me of Italy in its entirety. As my Franciscan friend, Father Ed always told me: there are only 2 kinds of people in this world. Those who are Italian… and those who are still hungry! You will not leave this ristorante hungry.
It is an active place with friendly staff and management, happy to make your stay a celebration. There is an outdoor area with a playground dedicated to families with kids. All servers and chefs speak with heavy accent adding to the flavors of the night.
For my starters, the table bread was soft yet spongy like sourdough. The vinegar, which I mixed with a bit of oil was distinct and tasteful. Very nice. As an appetizer I ordered Burrata Acquapazza. (This was the highlight of the meal for me!) As made in the south of Italy, it had an excellent red sauce which I savored completely.
For dinner I ordered the Luigina (one of their many specialty pizzas) with mozzarella, white truffle cream, porcini and prosciutto. It was immensely flavorful, though I had reached my capacity before finishing. A carry-home bag was provided. From Joseph, my server, to Marco who managed; from Chef Marcello, and to Luka who showed me how to fire a pizza, each experience added to the continental fun!
Other San Diego Delights
Apart from the dining scene of San Diego and the journey through Balboa Park, there are many other sensory-enhancing activities to be discovered. SeaWorld is a popular destination with events for families and friends throughout the year. There is also the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which is a scenic drive away in the San Pasqual Valley of Escondido. They offer several different daily safaris ranging from safari-carts and bedded trucks to a “behind-the-scenes” adventure with a keeper and even a zip line experience which zooms over a few separate habitats.
Hornblower Cruises offers scheduled trips exploring the north and south portions of San Diego Bay. This trip is useful to get a rough history of the area in regards to what it was like for Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo to enter this harbor for the first time aboard the galleon, San Salvador.
Also anchored at San Diego Harbor is the U.S.S. Midway, CV-41. This aircraft carrier served her country for 47 years and was the lead ship of her class. Now a floating museum, visiting her decks is a trouble-free circumstance as there is ample parking and food stops nearby. Coming into port from any ocean excursion and seeing the Midway resting high above her docks, as if poised to protect the skyscrapers and the city above her, brings a sense of patriotism to the heart.
It is also a common pleasure to drive over the silvery bridge of Coronado and to visit this famous resort city. Her golf course, her streets and her shops, are worthy of at least a day. And do yourself the favor of spending time playing on her “top-ten” beach, at the end of which stands the mighty Hotel del Coronado.
The Beaches of San Diego
And what visit to San Diego County would be complete without enjoying the sand and surf of her other world class beaches? Imperial Beach is the most southwesterly city of the continental United States. It is actually closer to downtown Tijuana, Mexico (5 miles) than it is to downtown San Diego (14 miles). Surfers and body boarders gather here upon late afternoons to paddle out into the Boca Rio beach-break as the rolling waves begin to swell.
Mission Beach is nearer to SeaWorld and the accruements of Mission Bay. This too is an expansive beach, but with a boardwalk rimming its outer edges. Belmont Park sets the mood for the area with its vintage wooden roller coaster, The Giant Dipper. There are over a dozen features to the park such as a tilt-a-whirl and carousel. And, The Wave House Bar and Grill, which overlooks the beach, is noted for its two artificial waves, “The Flowrider” and “Bruticus Maximus”.
Further north is the relaxed, laid-back Pacific Beach. This beach also has a boardwalk, but with shops and condos, cafes and bars. Tiny houses built right up to the walk bedeck it. Pacific Beach is definitely more atypical of what might be cliched as a sunny California beach town. One can’t help but imagine Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek cavorting with the surfers and ‘’dusky-jeweled’’ young ladies here, back when The Doors were singing in the heydays of the ‘60s.
I recommend a stroll or jog on this iconic strand. There are also, new to the area, segway type vehicles for rent called “bird-scooters”. They are electric scooters that zip along past the casual pedestrians and skateboarders. These can be rented as a rideshare app on your cell phone. A fun way to see more, they make a birdlike screech when you bend your knees to hug a curve or up the hill toward Chalcedony Row.
And do not leave P Beach without trying the fish tacos at one of the stands, a local favorite.
Connecting with Nature in San Diego
And, as long as you may find yourself up this way, journey a bit further north and you will discover the hilly community of La Jolla, The Jewel, with her bluffs and beaches. Kayaking is a must in order to explore the treasured sea coves here. There are several rental places off of Avenida De La Playa. ‘’Everyday California’’ is a cool shop with decent pricing. The vibes here will get you up for the sea swells awaiting.
If kayaking isn’t your thing, there is one sea cave reachable by land, Sunny Jim. It is only accessible through Sunny Jim’s Cave Store. Here, in this beach themed five-and-dime, is a hand-dug tunnel descending 145 steps through a narrow passageway to the ocean below. For 5 bucks you can get a dose of heart-pumping exercise up and down this rocky flight to view the sea and the cave opening which resembles the outline of a cartoon character of ages past.
La Jolla Shores is a family friendly crescent of beach. Torrey Pines City Beach sits under the ramparts of 300 ft. sea cliffs and has a nature path above. Black’s Beach, not so family friendly due to occasional nudity, is highly noted for surfing and bodyboarding. It sits a bit further south from Torrey Pines.
Ellen Scripps Browning Park and Kellogg Park bookend La Jolla Cove with its rising and falling surf, sunbathing seals and sea lions. From the grassy edges of either park you can enjoy the expanse of sun, sea, and air. The Ellen Scripps Park, they say, is the most photographed spot in San Diego.
With her shaggy sea pines and wind-stunted, rambly banyans; with her flowering, bubble-gum colored Melaleuca nesophila… this might be the place for you to capture a Californian sunset. A sunset to end a sun-filled, beach hopping day.
The State Parks
Beyond the city of San Diego, but within its county boundaries, are other rewarding adventures. The town of Encinitas, in the northern realms, offers fine dining and comfortable shops along with bakeries and yoga studios. Her avenues are embellished with white-trunked ficus trees.
There are places for surfing, and places for meditation. The Self-Realization Fellowship Hermitage was built here by the followers of Paramahansa Yogananda, the Indian saint. The center provides silent spiritual retreats (which must be planned in advance). But there is an elegant gift shop right on US Highway 101. And at K street and 3rd there is a communal garden with koi pools and sea-shrubbed paths which visitors can wander contemplatively.
To the east of San Diego is the largest park in California, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Here you may also find yourself walking in contemplation. The eastern side of this 600,000 acre reserve is atypical of desert environs. Desert bighorn sheep prowl in the heights of its mountains. Chuckwalla lizards crawl on its sands. Desert marigolds and a variety of other wildflowers sprout in unlikely places. Ocotillo and a host of cacti bloom after these, later in the vernal cycle. There is an oasis at Borrego Springs.
On the western side of the mountains the landscape becomes incredibly more Mediterranean. Large bushy trees replace the scrawny desert shrubs. Spreads and orchards are tucked in behind the highways. The quiet town of Julian sits on this side of the park. Stop in any of her bakeries or eateries or farm stands for apples or apple pie.
Reasons to Discover a Reconstructed San Diego And Visit the “Best City in the World”
Enjoy the fruits of San Diego, the city of St. Didacus; of St. Junipero, the walking saint; of Yogananda, the Indian saint who brought yoga and the Science of Kriya to America in the 1920’s.
Renew as did the founders and later leaders, the city planners and politicians who had the foresight and fortitude to build and rebuild; the insight to grow and expand while always keeping in mind the Spanish colonial heritage, the undaunted spirit of Father Serra, and the theme of their city… send in the padres.