Thursday 22 August 2019

San Diego: 10 great things to do in 'America's Finest City'

Fionn Davenport walks, jogs and scoots his way around San Diego as the city celebrates 250 years

George's Ocean Terrace, San Diego
George's Ocean Terrace, San Diego
Fionn Davenport in San Diego
Sunset at USS Midway
The Gaslamp District, San Diego
Downtown Gaslamp Buildings, San Diego
Dinner at George's, San Diego
George's Ocean Terrace
Dusk at Petco Park
Ocean Beach, San Diego. Photo: Alex Matthews
A surf shop at Ocean Beach. Photo: Alex Matthews
North Suite, Intercontinental Hotel, San Diego
Volleyball on Coronado Beach. Photo: Brett Shoaf
North Surf at San Diego. Photo: SanDiego.org

Fionn Davenport

San Diego celebrates its 250 birthday in 2019, but like so many other things in California, it doesn’t look its age.

Like the superannuated surfer dudes of Ocean Beach, the oldest city in the state remains forever young, replenished by perennial sunshine and an easy-going enthusiasm that blows through town like a warm zephyr.

This observation comes to me as I attempt an early-morning run on Harbor Drive, which wraps around San Diego Bay in a crescent-shaped hug.

I’m a reluctant runner at the best of times, but much like this city, I subscribe to the idea that you’re only as old as you feel. And this morning, thanks to a combination of jet lag and beautiful location, I’m feeling not quite young but optimistic - at least enough to lace up my trainers and head out at 5.45am.

Also, I wouldn’t mind getting even just a hint of that fit and healthy glow that everyone in town seems to have...

After a few stretches I head out, slowly, along the designated running lane that winds its way around the bay alongside Harbor Drive. The sun hasn’t quite risen but already it’s a humidity-free 17 degrees – ideal conditions that seem to mock my own lack of conditioning.

Sunset at USS Midway
Sunset at USS Midway

Things to do in San Diego? Almost immediately, I run by the USS Midway (midway.org; above), an aircraft carrier that since 2003 has been one of the city's most popular museums.

I visited it the day before, and while tales of military bravura generally leave me cold, it was still an interesting visit, if only to see how its 4,000-odd crew lived like well-drilled sardines while on board.

I make my way around the bay, still slowly.

A few hundred yards into the bay on my left is Coronado Island (coronadovisitorcenter.com) home to a big naval base (and the landmark Hotel Del Coronado, made famous in the movie, Some Like it Hot).

Fionn Davenport in San Diego
Fionn Davenport in San Diego

San Diego has long been home to the US Pacific fleet, and its various bases are spread out across the city. I’m soon joined by a couple of marines, or at least I think they were judging by their impressive physiques and crew cuts. I say ‘joined’ but they pretty much sprint past me, chatting casually to each other as they go. In comparison I’m barely moving and already I’m out of breath.

By the time I'm 5km from my hotel, I’m absolutely shattered.

My solution? The electric scooter, whose ubiquitous presence has divided San Diegans into those who think they’re a battery-powered nuisance putting pedestrians at risk and those who argue they’re a clean energy answer to the problem of traffic congestion.

For me, it’s a solution to tiredness, and in no more than 30 seconds I’ve unlocked one using my Lyft account (others are connected to Uber and other ride-share services), swallowed what little pride I have left and am whizzing down the road.

The Gaslamp District, San Diego
The Gaslamp District, San Diego

Obnoxious though they may be to some, the scooter is emblematic of San Diego’s forward-looking vision, which nods to the past but is firmly focused on the here and now.

The best example of this is in the historic Gaslamp district (gaslamp.org) in the heart of downtown. In the late 19 century, the area was known as Stingaree and was synonymous with wildness and debauchery.

Legendary lawman Wyatt Earp ran a saloon and a brothel here, and the handsome building at 835 5 Ave has been preserved along with 100 or so others, but they all house either a hotel, a restaurant or a busy bar. After decades of dereliction, the Gaslamp is once again a major nightlife destination for visitors and locals, so pretty much what the district was originally designed to be, minus the brothels.

San Diego isn’t afraid to build here, either: alongside the Baroque Revival architecture are modern buildings and, on the edge of the 16½-block district, Petco Park (mlb.com/padres/ballpark), home to the San Diego Padres baseball team.

I didn’t get to a game, but did the next best thing and watched the action from the rooftop Altitude Sky Lounge (altitudeskylounge.com) where 360-degree views take in the city’s changing skyline – not least on the waterfront itself, where some sleek skyscrapers have sprouted (including my hotel, a new member of the InterContinental group with eye-catching upper-storey views of the Pacific in all its glory).

Dusk at Petco Park
Dusk at Petco Park

I renewed my relationship with the electric scooter in the 1200 acres of Balboa Park (balboapark.org) home to 17 museums and cultural institutions as well as arguably the world’s best zoo. I saw some El Grecos and Goyas in the Museum of Art (sdmart.org) and an Apollo command module at the Air and Space Museum (sandiegoairandspace.org) but was happiest just zipping around the park and its fine collection of buildings and fountains – it was just too nice to be indoors.

San Diego’s outdoorsy side is best expressed in its collection of ocean-facing neighbourhoods, each different from the other and a telling reflection of the city’s varied character. Nearest downtown is Ocean Beach (oceanbeachsandiego.com) which clings to its early-70s hippie vibe with all its might, aggressively rejecting the intrusion of corporate brands and chain stores in favour of a colourful string of indie surf shops and weed dispensaries.

And while I can wander shirtless and barefoot into any restaurant here, I’ll need to wear at least a pair of designer sandals to fit into fancy La Jolla (pronounced ‘La Hoya’), further on up the coast, beyond the more family-friendly Mission Beach and college-y Pacific Beach neighbourhoods.

Ocean Beach, San Diego. Photo: Alex Matthews
Ocean Beach, San Diego. Photo: Alex Matthews

But it’s in La Jolla that I find my favourite restaurant in all of America.

George’s at the Cove (georgesatthecove.com) is actually three differently priced restaurants in one, but the Euro-Cal cuisine in each is the fruit of the endlessly creative chef Trey Foshee. I opt for the mid-range Ocean Terrace, where I feast on grilled octopus, Alaskan halibut and achiote marinated yellowtail tacos with a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean.

During my visit I kept hearing the tourist mantra that San Diego was ‘America’s Finest City.’ I’m usually immune to this kind of hyperbolic guff, but sitting on the terrace at George’s with a full belly and watching the sun go down, I couldn't quite think of a reason why it wasn’t.

Happy Birthday, San Diego. You really do look good for your age.

Get There

Pacific_Beach_North_Surf_-Courtesy_SanDiego.org.jpg
North Surf at San Diego. Photo: SanDiego.org

Fionn travelled as a guest of British Airways (ba.com/sandiego), which flies to San Diego from Dublin via London Heathrow from €259 plus taxes each-way.

World Traveller Plus class - basically a big economy seat with extra legroom - costs from €509 plus taxes each way.

Travelling via the UK meant missing out on Pre-clearance in Dublin, but the staggered nature of international arrivals in San Diego means that its airport only ever handles one flight at a time, making customs and immigration a breeze, Fionn says.

"While I waited at the carousel a friendly Tannoy voice welcomed us to town and gave us regular updates on how long it would take to get our bags (not long)."

Fionn stayed at the InterContinental San Diego (intercontinentalsandiego.com), where rooms start from US$200 (€177) per night as we publish.

For more information visit sandiego.org

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