January 1, 2015

Travel Itinerary: San Diego, Calif.

A sunny seaside city offers cultural treasures and architectural gems.

  • By: Clare Leschin-Hoar

Father Junípero Serra established the first California mission in San Diego in 1769, making the city the Golden State’s earliest colonial outpost. Today, cool sea breezes, sparkling weather, and laid-back locals bolster the city’s friendly, sunshine-saturated vibe. Downtown’s historic Gaslamp Quarter, which dates to 1867, may bustle with tourists and conventioneers, but you can cool off nearby at the Sofia Hotel, a Gothic Revival–style Historic Hotel of America. Or sip a signature GG Aviation cocktail at the U.S. Grant Hotel while you chat up the bartender about the site’s speakeasy past and Prohibition-era tunnels.

A short walk to the water’s edge will bring you to Tuna Harbor, one of the last working piers in a city once heralded as the “tuna capital of the world.” Fishermen first began casting their lines for this saltwater fish in the 1880s. Watch them unload their daily catch: white sea bass, hook-and-line caught albacore tuna, harpooned swordfish, or diver-caught sea urchin. A rock-skip away, visit the USS Midway, one of America’s longest-serving aircraft carriers (from 1945 to 1992) and now a museum. Or head over to the nearby Little Italy neighborhood, which is bursting with new and notable restaurants.

Preservation tapped three homegrown locals who share a love of the city’s history for their best travel tips: ninth-generation San Diegan Molly McClain, a history professor at the University of San Diego; U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas (D-San Diego), whose district stretches the entire length of the California/Mexico border; and Richard Kenvin, author of Surf Craft: Design and the Culture of Board Riding.

Molly McClain
Professor, University of San Diego

EAT: Brockton Villa in La Jolla is an 1890s bungalow with patio seating and views of La Jolla Cove. I always take people there. It’s a wonderful example of Bungalow-style architecture from the earliest settlement of La Jolla. Bertrand at Mr. A’s offers spectacular views of downtown San Diego. Go for cocktails and enjoy the ambience shared by San Diego’s movers and shakers in the 1960s and ╦ç70s.

STAY: Known as the “Pink Lady” of La Jolla, La Valencia Hotel opened her doors in 1926 and quickly became a Hollywood hideout for the movie stars of the 1920s and 1930s. Highlights include Mediterranean-style architecture, Spanish tile, and WPA-era murals.

DO: The gorgeous Balboa Park was host to the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, making this year its centennial celebration. It’s one of the few former World’s Fair sites that is still relatively intact. Don’t miss the California Building, Cabrillo Bridge, the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, and the Botanical Building.

Juan Vargas
U.S. Representative, 51st District (CA)

EAT: You can’t come to San Diego without taking in a traditional Mexican meal. The Old Town Mexican Cafe has been a staple of historic Old Town for more than 30 years, and the food is fabulous. The tortillas are handmade right there in front of you. They serve traditional dishes such as chile relleno and guacamole; my favorite is the carne asada.

STAY: The best historic place to stay is the Hotel del Coronado just over the bridge in Coronado. There’s no place on the West Coast that has more character and more historical opportunities to investigate. It was financed by sugar magnate John D. Spreckels, who established a lot of the sugar beet farms and processors in Imperial County.

DO: A hidden gem of San Diego history can be found at Chicano Park, tucked in an area just underneath the Coronado Bridge, in the city’s Barrio Logan neighborhood. It’s an odd place for a park, but it’s an important piece of local history illustrating a community’s social struggle. In 1970, when bulldozers moved in to make way for a proposed California Highway Patrol station, the community banded together to stop the destruction. Today, this special park is home to the largest collection of Chicano murals in the country. On weekends, you can find classic lowrider car shows, traditional Aztec dancing, music, and celebrations.

Richard Kenvin
Author, Surf Craft

EAT: Around since 1974, El Pescador Fish Market in La Jolla may have a brand new location, but its heart remains true: fresh, locally caught fish, simply prepared. This special restaurant remains deeply connected to local surf culture, local seafood, and local fishermen. The food is superb. My favorites? The grilled sea bass sandwich and the cioppino.

STAY: First developed in 1915, a small cluster of historic beachside cottages is all that remains of Redwood Hollow in La Jolla. Accommodations come in a variety of options. Barbeque on the outdoor grills, relax on the porch, or cozy up to the fireplace. The cottages are situated perfectly for beach strollers.

DO: The surf is always good at San Elijo State Beach. Grab some breakfast and spend the morning catching waves at this favorite spot. Afterwards, walk the beach or bluff bike path to nearby Encinitas, and hop on the Coaster. The train makes stops in historic Old Town, Little Italy, and more, where you can enjoy restaurants, cafes, and plenty of charm. The Del Mar/Torrey Pines coastline is gorgeous. Time it for sunset and you’ll be gifted with million-dollar views.

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