Though sometimes eclipsed by its bigger and more famous California cousins Los Angeles and San Francisco, San Diego occupies a place all its own in the pantheon of American cities. The third largest city in the Golden State, San Diego is a mere 90 minutes south of Los Angeles and only a half hour from Tijuana and the Mexican border. What’s great about this modest city is that it’s been able to stay a manageable size and retain its cool California vibe, all while evolving with the cultural, food and sports trends that you find in other major urban destinations. But there’s more for travellers than just urban delights; on San Diego’s coastal white sand beaches, there’s room for everyone.
1. Explore the unique San Diego
If you’re looking for something out of the ordinary when it comes to San Diego’s sun and sand, check out the Cabrillo National Monument. It commemorates Juan Cabrillo’s discovery of San Diego, so you can learn about the area’s history, but it also has a very cool hidden cave on the western side past the tide pools that is only accessible at low tide. It’s a bit challenging, but if you time your visit right, you won’t get stranded, and it’s well worth it for the cave’s natural beauty – not to mention the story you’ll be able to tell. The best time to visit the cave and the tide pools is late fall and winter, when low tides occur during daylight hours. As a rule of thumb, aim for two hours before low tide, keeping in mind that the area closes at 4:30 p.m. More information about the low tides at Cabrillo National Monument is available on their website.
2. Take an artful day trip
After a few days of fun in the sun, rent a car and head out to Escondido, about an hour north of town. There you’ll find a truly unique experience. Though billed as a tourist attraction, Queen Califia’s Magical Circle is not your typical place to stop, take pictures and plunder the gift shop. This incredible sculpture garden (the only one of its kind in America) was created by celebrated and prolific French artist Niki de Saint Phalle, whose colourful and playful art is often compared to Spain’s Antonio Gaudi. The nine-piece installation was inspired by California’s rich culture and history, especially Native American, Pre-Columbian and Mexican art, and features a five-legged eagle, a snake wall and intricate black and white tile work. But those make up just a fraction of the sculptures you’ll find within these 12 acres of Kit Carson Park. A true wonder of San Diego North.
3. Find a crackin’ place to eat
If you’re looking for a great breakfast place to start your day, you can’t go wrong with The Crack Shack. In fact, you can try this new eatery any time of day, since it serves the most important meal of the day all day long. And it’s not just about brekkie; The Crack Shack’s menu features all kinds of American classics, so long as they rely on both the chicken and the egg. Chef Richard Blais and his team worked for three months to perfect their fried chicken, which is available in either a 5- or 10-piece order (perfect for sharing), and the Señor Croque is a favourite breakfast option, marrying bacon, chicken, egg and maple brioche into one magical union. And if you’re just looking for a cool spot to play bocce and enjoy a drink in the mid-afternoon sun, this hot spot offers that as well.
If you really want to embrace the California vibe, there’s only one place to go: Head to the beach to enroll in the Pacific Surf School. Founded by master instructor Emiliano Abate, this surf school has taught 40,000 students how to ride the waves, so you’re definitely in good hands. It’s open year-round, and classes are designed to suit all age groups. Private and semi-private lessons are also available if you’re feeling bashful about hanging ten for the first time. Surf’s up!
4. Catch a wave!