Cannonball Fights on Historic Sailing Ships to Old Town to Torrey Pines, It's All Good!
In any other town these B-List attractions would be enough to make the Chamber of Commerce blush, but not in San Diego.
Normally the B-List means second best leftovers, but in San Diego you get prime time tourist attractions like the Gaslamp District and The USS Midway, as well as tips on San Diego's Best Golf courses and San Diego whale watching. Take a sailboat ride on the America's Cup sailboat or have a real Pirates of the Caribbean experience on a historic sailing ship as you engage in a real cannonball fight! Sounds pretty good, pretty pretty good!
So make sure you add a few of these attractions to your list of Things to Do in San Diego. You're going to have a great time!
If your VHS tape of Top Gun is shredded, if you still dream that Tom "Maverick" Cruise will someday walk into a bar and sing to you, if your iPOD still has Kenny Loggins' "Danger Zone" as a favorite, then you need to come visit the USS Midway to see the real thing.
Docked near Seaport Village in the San Diego Bay, the USS Midway is one of the longest serving aircraft carriers in military history. At 1,001 feet it's longer than three football fields, larger than the Titanic, it's impressively huge. Once home to 4,500 men, the USS Midway is now a floating museum, giving visitors a real feel for what living and serving on a ship was like. San Diego is a military town and the USS Midway gives you a great appreciation for the contribution of those who have served to protect our country.
Donning headset, the tour provides audio backdrops and stories to take you right where the action is. The sights and smells - what is that smell? - give a fascinating glimpse to life in the military. Wear comfortable shoes as you'll be walking up and down tiny stairs, bumping your head on metal beams, tripping on doorjambs, squishing sideways to fit through narrow hallways ("whoa baby!"). Climb to the top to see the fighter jets ("Goose, can you hear me, Goooose!!!") and take in a flight simulator that takes you on a real mission. Retired military? The USS Midway will raise your retirement flag for free as a way to honor your service.
LOCAL WALLY'S TOP GUN TIP: The famous sleazy bar scene was filmed at nearby Kansas City BBQ, which also serves up some of San Diego's best smoked barbecue. And if you really want the full Top Gun experience, check the calendar for the Miramar Air Show to see the Blue Angels in flight!
Definitely not cheesy, the USS Midway Museum is not a tourist trap. It's presented with the respect and dignity it deserves and a great way to spend an afternoon learning about our military and life on an aircraft carrier. Top Gun lives!
THE LOWDOWN: Decommissioned aircraft carrier with a walking tour, exhibits, flight simulators and fighter jets
LOCAL TIP: Next to the ship is The Fish Market - grab a seat on the outdoor patio for appetizers and drinks afterwards
WALLY SAYS: Fascinating trip back in time, kids will love it too!
The Gaslamp District has some reputation! San Diego's history starts sometime in the mid-1800's, but by 1880 the area now known as the Gaslamp District was filled with gambling halls, saloons, and prostitutes. The 1913 crackdown on the area then known as The Stingaree sent the girls packing - and caused San Diego to lose its distinction as the favorite Navy liberty port. Well, duh!
Fast forward to the 70's when Local Wally first set foot in San Diego and the Gaslamp was not the place to be. That is, unless you were looking for adult bookstores, pawn shops and peepshows. You could almost smell the second hand alcohol in the air as you strolled down the streets past the passed out bums, I mean, drug intolerant homeless citizens. By the early 80's there was talk in the air of revitalizing the area - remember, there was no Horton Plaza shopping center, no cool clubs, there wasn't even the Convention Center. But there was Ingrid Croce, the wife of the late Jim "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" Croce, who took a huge chance and opened a restaurant in the seedy part of town that arguably started the current boom.
LOCAL WALLY'S DISCOUNT CROCE'S DINNER TIP: Croce's has great food and is popular with both locals and tourists. If you plan on eating there, buy one of these discount dining tickets before you go.
Fast forward again to today and The Gaslamp District is a thriving commercial area filled with restaurants, shops, clubs, bars, theaters and music venues. The 16 1/2 block area runs roughly from the Convention Center to Broadway along 4th and 5th Avenue and features many prime examples of turn of the century (the last century, not 1999) architecture. Best of all, while there's still a few crazies wandering the streets it's safer than its ever been for tourists, though I'm still pretty cautious once the sun sets.
Daytime visitors will love the eclectic shops and the smells wafting from the restaurants. Spend a couple of hours just wandering the streets and stop in at a local place for lunch. When night time hits the action heats up at the various clubs - the young and trendy crowd heads to places like The Stingaree where the vibe is more Vegas than SoCal, or the chic and sophisticated bar at The Hard Rock Hotel, or the skyhigh Altitude Sky Lounge on The Marriott's rooftop overlooking the ballpark. If your Facebook photos have more pics of you with the kids than you taking your top off (what where you thinking?), then head to the Irish Pubs - what? That's right, get yourself a Guinness at a variety of Irish Pubs from The Field (made famous by Carly from American Idol), Dublin Square, Blarney Stone Pub, and Hennesey's Tavern. Afterwards head over to The Shout House for some raucous dueling piano singing (Warning: R rated songs, lots of swearing on stage, think New Orleans after drinking too many hurricanes). For the truly sedate check out the Padres baseball schedule and take in a ballgame - sit in the cheap seats, grab a beer and a dog and enjoy the warm Summer evening.
LOCAL WALLY'S GASLAMP PARKING TIP : Pay close attention to the Padres baseball schedule because if there's a game the traffic is going to be murder! Park at the Old Town trolley station and take the trolley in, or park at Horton Plaza and make sure you get your ticket validated at the Starbucks for more reasonable parking rates.
THE LOWDOWN: It's like New Orleans at night, the best place for the young and hip, plenty of clubs and restaurants.
LOCAL TIP: I try to be nice but Fred's Mexican Restaurant has got to have the worst food in San Diego!
WALLY SAYS: Don't skip just because you think you're too old - worth checking out the night scene even if you're just wandering around after dinner.
If you were impressed by Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride when your tiny boat wound up in the middle of a cannon fight, you ain't seen nothing yet because in San Diego we do things right. Climb aboard a historic tall ship, a sailing vessel with cannons, and be part of a mock battle on the bay as three tall sailing ships fight for dominance. You're there, you're part of the crew, and the blasts are loud enough to be heard in Balboa Park. Whoa baby!
These mock battles don't happen every weekend so check the events schedule and plan ahead if you want to live out your dream to be a pirate. On some weekends the tall ships skip the battle and sail into the ocean, quite an adventure to be on a real sailing ship as you round Point Loma and enter the high seas. No, this isn't your grandmothers harbor cruise, this is exciting, a thrilling way to experience San Diego. Don't miss!
No vacation to San Diego is complete without getting on the water. Here's a few more options if the tall ships aren't sailing when you're in town.
AMERICA'S CUP: You know this guy - Dennis Conner won the America's Cup with the Stars and Stripes and now it's your turn to be part of his crew sailing around the bay.
HARBOR CRUISE: If the thought of sailing makes you think of vomiting, take a more sedate Harbor Cruise. One and two hour trips take you around the bay and highlight the sights from the water, nice and easy.
CORONADO FERRY BOAT: Type A personalities who want to do it all will love the short ride across the bay. Rent bicycles on the other side and pedal around the island until you get to the Hotel Del Coronado where there's both ice cream and martinis waiting for you, depending on your mood!
For those who like their boats tied to a dock, the San Diego Maritime Museum also offers tours of the majestic Star of India, the worlds oldest active sailing ship, as well as ferry boats and submarines. The HMS Surprise, a painstakingly accurate replica of the 18th century Royal Navy frigate Rose, was the actual ship used in the movie "Master and Commander". Kids will especially love climbing into the belly's of the various ships to see the inner workings and adults will enjoy the history each vessel provides.
LOCAL WALLY'S HUNGRY, HUNGRY TOURIST TIP : Next to the Star of India is Anthony's Fish Grotto and the fast food take-out counter called the Fishette. Some scoff at Anthony's as being a tourist trap but anyone who grew up here remembers how exciting it was when Mom and Dad would take the fam to Anthony's for fish and chips, still the best in town. Crazy old school restaurant with 70's era waitresses but a killer view of the bay.
LOCAL WALLY'S WHALE WATCHING TIP : From December to April turn that bay cruise into a whale watching trip! You'll see the gray whales up close as they migrate south, often with babies in tow. The Birch Aquarium has teamed up with the San Diego Harbor Excursion company to offer daily trips with one of their guides.
THE LOWDOWN: Tour nine docked ships, takes about an hour - or board a cannon fighting ship if you can!
LOCAL TIP: If the tall sailing ships are a sailing, don't miss this once in a lifetime opportunity!
WALLY SAYS: Five stars for the sailing experience, three for the docked boats
Sometimes it's just great to get in a car and drive and there's no better drive than the Road to the Cabrillo Monument, out on the tip of Point Loma. The year was 1542 when California's first undocumented immigrant :-), Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, stepped out of his boat and onto the west coast of what would some day be called the United States. In 1913 Cabrillo National Monument was established to commemorate his discovery and today is a favorite destination for locals and tourists alike.
Your adventure to Cabrillo Monument starts with a stop at one of the locals favorite "fast food" seafood joints, Point Loma Seafoods. Grab some fresh seafood sandwiches for the trip and head out on the road. As you approach the tip of Point Loma make sure you stop for some photo ops of the city on the left side of the road. On the right is the military cemetery, the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. Now I know that cemeteries are not usually the stuff vacations are made of but the sight of rows and rows of headstones against the blue Pacific is inspirational. Take a few moments to thank those who served for our country. And did I mention the view? Wow!
Once at the tip you'll find the famous lighthouse. Old photos and artifacts will give you a good idea of what life was like for the men who lit the lamps for so many years, and the views of the ocean often feature whale and dolphin sightings. TIP: Look for the spouts of water from their blowholes to find the whales and even if you don't see one make sure you say "Did you see that? He's way out there, ahh you missed it!" That's what I do, everytime, just to watch everyone else straining to see. There's also plenty of educational exhibits for the PBS types - me, I like to just take in the fresh air and the incredible views.
Take the drive down the hill to the incredible tidepools where you'll have hours of fun torturing, I mean viewing the sea life captured for your amusement at low tide. What's more fun than poking a sea anemone and having its close up around your fingers? Seriously though, the animals are protected so don't be flinging a starfish into the ocean like a Frisbee unless you want a tap on the shoulder from a Park Ranger. Weather is unpredictable and often windy on the point so bring a jacket and wear tennis shoes of you plan on visiting the tidepools.
Who can resist dragging their clubs to San Diego to play on the same courses you've seen on TV? Torrey Pines? La Costa? San Diego has tons of courses but whether you're a scratch golfer or a shankopotomus, pick one of these courses and you're virtually guaranteed a good time.
TORREY PINES: Hard to get on and very long, Torrey Pines nonetheless is the Holy Grail for serious golfers. You can try to get a tee time up to 90 days in advance (good luck), or bite the bullet and pay the price to get on via a booking company. San Diego Golf Reservations charges an additional $25 per player to book your tee time. Not recommended for hackers, this course requires some decent golf skills to have a good time.
CORONADO MUNICIPAL COURSE: Often overlooked, the Coronado Golf Course gets my vote for best all around golf course for tourists. Located on the bay next to the San Diego Coronado Bridge, the Coronado Golf Course offers some beautiful views and while challenging, it's still accessible enough for golfers of all levels. Don't let the "municipal" label scare you off - The greens are fast and the fairways green. Best yet, the rates are the best bargain in town - under $50 with cart!
BALBOA PARK MUNI GOLF COURSE: Holy timewarp, Batman, when was the last time the clubhouse was remodeled? Well, get over it because that's part of the charm of the Balboa Park Golf Course, another city course that locals love and you will too. Challenging course with lots of hilly elevation changes, super good condition, harder than it looks but tons of fun for even average players. Lush landscaping, views of the skyline and Coronado, a glimpse or two of the bay, and five bucks gets you a great burger and fries, what more could you want?
RIVERWALK GOLF CLUB: Located in Mission Valley, Riverwalk Golf Club offers three 9 hole courses keep the game rolling. Wide open fairways to pump up your ego, this a great choice for the average golfer. Fast greens keep everyone in check. Plenty of water hazards but a "fair" course that doesn't make you wish you did something else that day. Great vacation golf!
ENCINITAS RANCH: Located 25 miles up the coast, Encinitas Ranch Golf Course sits on a bluff about a mile off the coast and offers sweeping ocean views and many picturesque holes. And while it's no cakewalk, its reputation is that its one of the more forgiving courses in town, earning it the nickname "Easy Ranch". I've scored my best game ever at this course, as well as some dismal rounds, so you be the judge if it deserves the "easy" status.
LA COSTA GOLF COURSE: World famous, play on the same course that challenges Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. It's damn hard, it's expensive, so make sure you got game before plunking down the two hundred or so bones it costs to play at La Costa Golf Course. As a consolation if you hack the day, the course is at the La Costa Resort and offers a beautiful setting for the 19th hole.
AVIARA GOLF COURSE, THE FOUR SEASONS RESORT: Spectacular course, of course, since it's part of The Four Seasons Resort in Carlsbad. Aviara Golf Course is perhaps one of the most beautiful courses in San Diego, featuring lush landscaping and spectacular water hazards. Serious golfers paradise, play a round while your wife goes to the spa and everyone leaves happy.
MISSON BAY GOLF COURSE: Serious golfers will think I'm crazy to recommend Mission Bay Golf Course, an 18 hole exec course, but where else can you play Night Golf?! This is the sort of place you sneak a 6 pack in your bag and dammit, that guy shanked a ball right into your tee box, but with the right attitude this is some fun place. Perfect for total hackers, duffers, beginners, and alcoholics. If you fit into any of those categories, you'll love this course!
MORLEY FIELD DISC GOLF, BALBOA PARK: OK, OK, this is not a golf course in the truest sense but rather a Disc Golf Course, aka Frisbee Golf! Morley Field Disc Golf is the perfect family activity and requires absolutely NO experience to have fun. Super cheap ($4 including disc rental), loads of fun, disc golf is just like real golf only you fly a frisbee into a basket instead of knocking a ball into a hole. Note that while disc golf is hugely accessible, it is taken rather seriously by some so let the better players play through to avoid additional embarrassment.
WAIT, THERE'S MORE - FOLLOW ME TO
THE BEST OF THE REST!
SPRING 2013: Migrating whales, tacos filled with local lobster, sunny days and cheap hotel rooms, that's Spring in San Diego. If your days are filled with snow and ice then plan a quick trip to San Diego and get back in the sunshine. And it's not too early to start planning your Summer vacation.
Stick with me and you'll not only get real advice from a real local but find cheap hotel and discount tickets as well. Local Wally is the oldest local website on San Diego and the only one left still run by a local guy.
And if you like beer, check out my newest site DrinkUpSanDiego.com, the complete guide to San Diego's breweries.
See You Soon,