San Diego's Essential Attractions
The Best Things to do in San Diego!
Unlike some towns where the marketing hype is due mainly to the overactive imagination of the Chamber of Commerce, San Diego actually lives up to its reputation.
Don't believe me? Does your city have a zoo that's so big that they keep the hippos in a giant aquarium? When was the last time you got to pet a penguin in your city or see actual whales swimming free in the ocean? Or how about our 1,200 acre park in the middle of the city filled with everything from classic art to electric trains and another park based solely on Lego's? I'm not bragging, it's just that San Diego rocks!
These are the big ones, the essential San Diego attractions that every vacationer needs to know about. Plan a day for each one and get ready to be totally blown away by my hometown, San Diego.
Best Big Essential Things to Do in San Diego
The San Diego Zoo came to being after the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, a special event that was the impetus for the creation of Balboa Park. When the event was over the exotic animals needed a home and in stepped Dr. Harry M. Wedgeforth, a physician with a love of animals who led the efforts to create a zoo for the city. Set in Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo occupies over 100 acres of hilly terrain, landscaped with lush tropical plants and featuring over 4,000 animals.
And this isn't any ordinary zoo. Here the animals are set in large natural environments and every year there are more expansions and improvements. Feed a giraffe, go on a "backstage" tour where you can feed rhinos, or join the pandas for their morning breakfast.
Walking the zoo requires good shoes but smart (or lazy) zoo-goers look for the Skyfari or escalators at the bottom of the park to get back to the entrance. Even lazier visitors can jump on the open air zoo buses which gives a good overview of the main exhibits while letting you hop on and off to spend time at your favorites. During the summer visit the Zoo during the afternoon hours and stay into the evening, a wonderful "only in San Diego" sort of experience.
I know it sounds corny and I know you swear you won't, but I dare you not to tear up during the Shamu show when the music swells up and the killer whales jump high in the air in unison. It's like watching a heartwarming Hallmark TV special - you know you're not supposed to like it but darn it if this isn't the best show you've ever seen and hey, my allergies must be acting up cause I'm not crying, and, well, God Bless America!
Of course, SeaWorld has gotten some flack in recent years about the debatable rationale for keeping giant sea mammals in tanks but locals know that SeaWorld also does a lot of good for our local sea life. And where else can you pet dolphins or walk through an underwater tube surrounded by sharks - wait, doesn't anyone remember the problem with that in Jaws 3?
As if that wasn't enough, SeaWorld also offers rides, from the kid friendly Sesame Street rides to thrill rides like Journey to Atlantis and the Wild Arctic motion ride. And here's a tip - bring a poncho or a dry set of clothes if you plan on going on the "white water" Shipwreck Rapids raft ride as you most certainly will get soaking wet, if not by the splashing water then by the people on the sidelines who shoot power water guns at you as you float by. And the soak zone in the front rows of the Shamu show? Better believe it!
An offshoot of the San Diego Zoo, the Safari Park is an 1,800 acre "natural environment" located 35 miles north of downtown and focused on the conservation and preservation of rare and endangered species. Animals roam the plains interacting with other animals while near extinct animals like the Northern White Rhino - only 5 known animals left in the world with 2 at the park - are given their last chance at survival.
Kids and adults alike will love feeding the colorful parrot-like birds at the Lorikeet Landing where a small cup of nectar brings on Alfred Hitchcock bird feeding frenzy. But the real attraction is the Journey into Africa Tour, a tram ride into to open plains where you'll see everything from zebras to elephants to rhinos. It's like you're on a Discovery Channel "live" show as you see the animals in a near natural habitat interacting with each other, leaving you with a deep appreciation for our need to protect these animals in the wild.
For the true adventure types consider a Photo Safari where you'll be taken deep into the plains to get right in there with the animals - feed a giraffe lately? - or even sleep overnight in the park in their safari tent cabins. During the Spring there's the butterfly aviary where you'll you'll be surrounded by hundreds of beautiful insects and the famous bird show is still delighting visitors after all these years. Now a bit of warning - it can get so hot during the Summer that you'll actually thank them for selling you a $5 Coke. Wear shorts and sunscreen, bring water (picnics are also ok), check the weather before you go and if it's triple digits get an early start.
1549 El Prado, San Diego
In 1868 the City Planners got it right when they set aside 1,400 acres of scrub filled wasteland and declared it the site of a future city park. Fast forward to 1915 and this land became the site of our first World Fair, the Panama-California Exposition. What they thought would be temporary buildings were erected along the "Prado", the main walkway, in an ornate Spanish-Renaissance style.
As a means to boost the local economy during the Great Depression of the '30's, the city hosted our second Worlds Fair in 1935 called the California Pacific International Exposition, adding even more buildings. And today the same buildings are still standing, home to just about every type of museum you can think of and surrounded by lush gardens and landscaping.
Now I know what you're thinking - you think this is going to be some sort of boring 6th grade field trip, an educational experience versus a fun adventure, a place for brainiacs. Sure there are the museums with art you don't understand, but there are also mummy's and iMAX movies and hands on science exhibits and koi ponds and the actual Apollo 9 Space Command Module. From classic cars to electric trains, photography to dinosaurs, you'll want to start your day early to make sure you see it all. You'll also want to get a museum pass so you can pop into each one without paying an additional fee.
There are also some great dining options that are surprisingly not tourist traps. The Prado is a full service restaurant with a beautiful bar and patio, perfect for snacks, lunch and dinner. A new dining option getting lots of attention is Panama 66, the sister restaurant to foodie focused Blind Lady Ale House and featuring plenty of beer options as well as excellent food in a casual or picnic-like setting.
Legoland is a giant playground of interactive toys and adventures, rides and amusements, part theme park, part water park, all based on those damn blocks you step on at night. You think your kids are out of control at the local toy store? You ain't seen nothing yet!
The entire park is built with the young kids in mind. Rides are scaled down so the kids can go on their own and play areas are set up to let their imaginations soar. What kid wouldn't like take a dig in the sand for dinosaur fossils after riding a pint sized roller coaster? Or go on an Africa safari to spot life sized animals made completely with Legos? They can even get a Lego drivers license after learning to drive on the Lego cars in Fun Town or climb the rope ladders and zoom down the slides next to dragons. Add a water park with slides that are scaled down for the kids and you have the most awesome experience for the 3 to 10 year old crowd. Even the most addicted to Xbox kid will love the simple pleasures of running around and exploring, stretching their imaginations as they learn new things.
As if this wasn't enough, there is also a separate Sea Life aquarium, also interactive and educational while being entertaining, and even a Legoland Resort where I'm guessing the bar is the most popular attraction for the adults.
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 iTunes 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.
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. 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.
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!