San Diego is a big city with a small-town feel that’s perfect for unwinding amid ocean breezes and browsing maritime museums.
Most visitors to the Golden State flock to San Francisco’s foggy Golden Gate Bridge or Los Angeles’ souvenir-packed Hollywood Blvd. But it’s the less-obvious city of San Diego that best preserves that laid-back California lifestyle.
It’s just life-affirming to watch the locals doing morning yoga on the beach in their pajamas, to catch a whiff of patchouli incense in the afternoon or hear the boardwalk crowds break into applause at the end of a gorgeous sunset. A few days spent in the land that popularized words like “whatever” are a vivid reminder to slow down, enjoy the simple pleasures and not take life – or yourself – too seriously.
A laid back vibe
San Diego is actually California’s second-largest city. But it doesn’t feel like it with its juniper-lined residential streets and its quaint Old Town full of historic buildings. As California’s oldest city, it was first home to the Native American Kumeyaay people, then settled by the Spanish before it became a part of Mexico and later the US in 1850.
The winter months are my favorite time to visit. The miles of sandy beaches are less crowded and the city’s mild winters mean you can still wear your flip-flops by day and throw on a sweatshirt at night.
I skip the iconic Mission Beach, a tourist hot-spot with its famous roller coaster, and head to the more local Pacific Beach. It’s popular among university students for its nightlife and among surfers for its easy access from the city. I haven’t got up the courage to take surfing lessons, but I love watching the veterans manoeuvre the waves. For many who sneak in an hour or two of surfing after work, the sport is a way of life.
Pacific Beach boasts 3.7 kilometers of boardwalk lined with hip cafes and shops selling neon flip-flops, airy sarongs and souvenir magnets in the shape of surfboards. Ocean Front Walk and Ocean Blvd. are filled with million-dollar homes that look almost quaint with their motley collections of potted plants and plastic chairs on the balconies.
Walk in the opposite direction, towards the cliffs bursting with succulent plants and topped with mansions, and you’ll find staircases leading up to spectacular views of the wide ocean.
For a closer feel of the salty air, stroll down Crystal Pier that’s lined with bright white cottages build in 1930 that are available to rent for a “sleep over the ocean” experience. Rates at the Crystal Pier Hotel range from $225 to $600 a night and reservations should be made a year in advance. More budget-friendly motel rooms a block from the beach start at around $90.
La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove, a short drive up north, is a tiny cliff-lined beach where kids can swim in the ocean’s more shallow and calm waters. If you can brave the bad smell and loud noise, head to the shore to see dozens of sea lions frolicking on the rocks – or more often lounging in the sun. There’s a grassy park atop the cliffs with ocean views so stunning that parking spaces fill up when sunset approaches. Locals bring fold-out chairs and eat simple meals on the grass, couples stroll hand-in-hand while others find a deserted spot on the rocks to dive into a thick novel.
Downtown La Jolla has blocks of small upscale shops, cafes and art galleries that come to life at night as crowds window-shop or meet for dinner at ocean-view restaurants. Slovenly gallery browsing is welcomed by the unobtrusive staff. And perusing photographs and paintings of the city is a perfect way to end a day of beach-hopping. The best part is catching views of the Pacific below that unexpectedly peek out from between rows of boutiques.
Old Point Loma Lighthouse
With its rich history as a port, San Diego is also a popular spot for maritime buffs. I always make time during my trip to visit the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, classically American with its white picket fence and Stars and Stripes flag waving in the wind. It’s the highest-elevated lighthouse in the US and perched atop a 121-meter cliff.
Built in 1855, practically ancient history by American standards, the lighthouse is no longer in service. But it’s open to the public as a museum where visitors can view the former living quarters of the lighthouse keepers who grew vegetables in the garden and sometimes had to fire a shotgun to warn ships away on foggy nights.
I’ve been inside only briefly, too distracted by the views from the cliff to read about local history. Located on the tip of Point Loma peninsula, the site offers a panoramic view of the city across the San Diego Bay and the deep blue water below criss-crossed by dozens of sailboats that pass in seeming slow-motion.
I later head downtown to the Maritime Museum of San Diego, a Disneyland for sailing aficionados. As I walk out of the parking lot, I love the surreal sight of the massive sails of the Star of India, the world’s oldest active sailing ship, peeking out through the trees, traffic lights and souvenir stands. It’s like a pirate film prop smacked in the middle of a modern downtown.
A $18 adult general admission ticket gets me into the museum’s collection of historic vessels. These include a Soviet B-39 submarine that once carried 24 torpedoes, and the Steam Ferry Berkeley that brought thousands of survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to safety.
More awe-inspiring are the museum’s giant sailing ships. The spectacular Star of India has a history as long as the piles of ropes on her deck. This full-rigged ship braved a mutiny and a collision on her voyages to India, then spent more than a decade taking working-class emigrants from England, Ireland and Scotland to the promise of a better life in New Zealand. Another ship in the museum collection, the HMS Surprise, is a replica of an 18-th century Royal Navy frigate that was build in 1970 and later became the set for 2003’s academy award-winning film Master and Commander.
In 1542 AD, Spaniards on the ship San Salvador became the first to arrive in Southern California in search of trade routes linking Mexico to Europe and Asia. The museum offers sailing adventures aboard this vessel, lovingly built years ago by master craftsmen and volunteers.
The vessels have permanent and visiting exhibits that transport you back in time. There are old maps and instruments used in the discovery of new waters. And there’s an inside look at the cramped quarters of fishermen who one lived below deck.
San Diego’s Mexican food
In the evening I return to Pacific Beach to catch another perfect sunset that turns the sky’s colors from red and purple to navy blue. I later drive down twisting residential streets until I stumble upon a brightly-painted Mexican joint that fills the air with spice. It’s always a good sign when the air is thick with the scent of frying fish and when many of the customers are Mexican themselves.
San Diego is just 35 kilometers from the US-Mexico border and has a large Hispanic population. It’s the perfect spot to savor one of my favorite meals: fish tacos, served with a side of refried beans and Spanish rice. This kind of food never tastes as good as it does here, in the Southwest.
I spend the last day of my trip in the sand gazing out into the ocean. My last few hours in California always have me thinking about resolutions: learning to surf, finding the time for yoga, reading more history. And taking things slower.