1.5 Days in San Diego
Our first two nights were scheduled in San Diego, but we landed at 8:45pm (11:45pm Eastern Time), and had to rent a car and get to our hotel. We crashed into bed and tried to rest up for our packed day ahead.
One of my best friends had plenty of wonderful things to say about her time at Coronado Island, just a quick 10 minute drive from downtown San Diego, so we chose to stay on the island rather than in the downtown area. Once we’d decided to stay on Coronado, I had to choose from the handful of hotels there. The famous Hotel del Coronado was a bit out of our price range at $400+/night, so we settled on the El Cordova Hotel just across the street. It is an old mansion that’s now divided into 40 guest rooms. Although I was the tiniest bit hesitant about booking a hotel room where the door opens to the outside (always a big no-no in my book), the hotel was the very opposite of creepy and was absolutely fantastic. (More about El Cordova Hotel + pictures of the hotel here.)
After getting some much-needed rest, we headed out in our rental car to explore downtown San Diego. We had plenty of things on our to-do list, but were just taking the day in stride and trying to be flexible, not rushed. We headed to Balboa Park, one of the top must-see attractions in the city and home of the San Diego Zoo. I have to admit that I wasn’t too pumped about spending the morning in a park (it seemed a little boring to me), but it was the top-rated attraction in San Diego, so we decided to give it a shot. It turned out to be anything but boring and we spent a long morning exploring the botanical gardens, the many museums and scenery of the extraordinary park. One of the best parts? Free Admission!
Balboa Park has plenty of free parking, so we pointed Google Maps to Inspiration Point lot, just outside of the park. A free tram service picked us up quickly (they run every 10 minutes starting at 9am), and took us to the park– which was only about a 4 minute trolley ride and (it turns out…) totally walkable. We were dropped off at Plaza de Panama, which is right in the heart of Balboa Park. The Visitor’s Center opened at 9:30am, so, while we waited to grab a map and get our bearings there, we walked down El Prado Road, past the Museum of Natural History and found a beautiful garden of cactuses. It really felt like we were in the Southwest then! The weather was shaping up to be a gorgeous day, so we enjoyed walking around the park and seeing the beautifully manicured lawns and dramatic architecture of each building. Balboa Park began as 1,400 acres set aside by the city government in 1868 and really started “blossoming” with the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition, which commemorated the opening of the Panama Canal. This exposition provided a momentum for city officials to continue improving the park, and many of the exhibits and museums were created for this exposition.
After a quick run through the Visitor’s Center’s gift shop, we headed to the Botanical Gardens which have free admission (but don’t open until 10am). If you like orchids, this building is a must-see because there are all shapes, sizes and varieties of orchids on display, along with many other exotic flowers and plants. Although the lily pond outside of the Botanical Gardens is strangely missing its lilies, it’s still a beautiful site.
From the Botanical Gardens, we walked past the Museum of Man which had a beautiful tower and Spanish-tiled dome. We opted out of the museums for lack of time, but I’ve heard many good things about the museums — and, of course, the San Diego Zoo, which is also located inside the park. After pausing at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion (a beautiful outdoor pavilion), we headed to the UN International Gift Shop where many trinkets from all over the world were on display. Unfortunately, the nearby Hall of Nations was closed for renovations, but we got to look inside each one — these small cottages offer a window into each country. For example, the House of Scotland was decorated with tartan plaid curtains.
After a morning at Balboa Park, we headed into Old Town to try some authentic Mexican food. Because San Diego is only 18 miles from Tijuana, Mexico, we couldn’t pass up being so close to the country without trying its food. We fell in love with Casa Guadalajara: a colorful, delightful lunch experience with one of the best patios. The food was delicious – and, after we told them we’d be in a bit of a hurry, it came out almost immediately.
After lunch, we barreled down another one of San Diego’s many freeways toward our harbor cruise. When doing a bit of research, I came across a fantastic deal on a 2 hour harbor cruise with Hornblower Cruises. On Goldstar.com (a site similar to Groupon, but for events), I purchased two tickets for less than the regular price of one ($27.00/2 vs. $28.00/1 at the window). We picked up our tickets at Will Call with no trouble and waited by the harbor to begin our two-hour cruise on the Admiral ship.
While waiting, we hopped next door to see the USS Midway and its famous statue (commemorating the end of WWII).
The Admiral was kept very clean and was one of the nicest tourist ships I’d been on. We were a bit disappointed in the narration as they didn’t share as much history of the city as we’d hope — just pointed out landmarks (and sea lions!) as we passed them. Overall, though, the cruise was a fantastic afternoon activity with beautiful views of the San Diego skyline — really a must-do activity when visiting San Diego.
The best part was that the weather (even in February) was warm enough to enjoy sitting on the outside deck of the ship as we sailed the harbor. We hopped off after the first hour of the South Bay and skipped the second hour of the cruise (the ship comes back to port for those who have just purchased a one-hour tour) because it was late afternoon by this point and we wanted to explore Coronado Island.
We drove back into Coronado and set out for a walk just as the sun was setting. Our hotel, El Cordova, was just across from the beach, so we were able to enjoy our first Californian sunset from the sand. We walked up toward the Hotel del Coronado (a grand Victorian hotel built in 1888) and enjoyed the bustling atmosphere of the many restaurants on the hotel’s back patio with patrons enjoying cocktails or early dinner outside. The weather couldn’t have been nicer and we were tempted to split an $18 hamburger just to enjoy the view, but we chose instead to walk through the many shops on the lower level of the hotel. The Hotel del Coronado is a magnificent building, the West Coast’s version of the Greenbrier. The mahogany and oak detail in the large lobby is stately and inviting, and the gift shop boasts the hotel’s history, steeped with stars and old-timey pictures. Interestingly, the hotel is the second-largest wooden structure in the US, so it’s looming stature can be seen from all over the island– and we even spotted it on our harbor cruise.
After enjoying the sights at the “Hotel Del”, we walked down Orange Ave., another bustling street for a Wednesday night. Chochtky shops and restaurants reign on this strip, but it doesn’t feel cheap at all. We settled on Village Pizzeria for dinner as it offered outdoor patio seating facing the street (for prime people-watching). We split one 10-inch pizza and were extraordinarily happy with the divine Billy Goat pizza ($18). This pizza was piled high with spinach, roasted red peppers, red onion, oven-roasted tomatoes, basil, balsamic and goat cheese. Although it was lacking red sauce and meat (usually two things I never go without on a pizza), it was filling and extra-extra-flavorful!
Although we only spent a few hours exploring Coronado, we didn’t find it as expensive as its rumored to be and the hotel prices were comparable to downtown San Diego– no more expensive and no “island tax!” We were especially happy to stay on Coronado in lieu of downtown because of the extra character we found in the cute island atmosphere.
For our final morning in San Diego, we spent our last few hours in La Jolla before heading north. La Jolla is a few minutes north of downtown and is rumored to be the “ritzy” island. We headed toward La Jolla Cove — enjoying the beautiful green hills along the way. La Jolla Cove used to be where children would swim, but, in the past decade, the sea lions have taken over the cove. Despite the terrible smell, we so enjoyed seeing the sea lions up close. They were too busy bathing in the sun light to notice us, though!
Once at the cove, we took the steps down to the small beach and were awed by the small mass of swimmers who were swimming clear across the bay! We spent the morning basking in the warm sun, enjoying the views and watching the swim caps bobbing along the ocean on their way across the bay. It was the perfect ending to our time in San Diego and definitely worth a trip to the north end of the city.
All-in-all, we so enjoyed our short time in San Diego, finding its small-town charm to far outweigh its winding freeways and skyscrapers. With no lack of personality, visitors to this southern California gem will surely leave satisfied– I know we did.