Why: The California Tower, built to conjure Spanish Colonial daydreams for a world expo in 1915, was closed to visitors in 1935. But it reopened in 2015 and as you surmount its 157 steps, you'll hear how Balboa Park has grown from a temporary fairground into one of the nation's foremost urban parks. You'll also get a bird's-eye view of the signature tiled dome that's also part of the California Tower.
What: The tower and dome are both part of the Museum of Man, one of 17 cultural organizations in the park. If you sign up to climb the tower, your guide will remind you how the 1,200-acre park began as a venue for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, San Diego's underdog effort to compete with San Francisco's Panama-Pacific International Exposition the same year. San Francisco's expo was fancier, but when those parties were over, San Diego set aside more acreage, preserved more buildings and may have reaped more long-term benefits.
Anyway, the tour lasts about 40 minutes. It's fun to climb the narrow spiral staircase (and a tad disappointing to learn that the highest levels of the tower are off-limits). The observation deck, about 100 feet above the ground floor, looks out on the redwood lattice of the Botanical Building; the not-so-native trees shading the not-so-native animals of the zoo; the curlicued Spanish Colonial Revival facades of the Prado; the roofs of the Old Globe; and the Cabrillo Bridge, also built for the long-ago expo.
Why: This is the place to see grown men and women jump off a perfectly good cliff, then rise on the updraft.
What: The Torrey Pines Gliderport sits between the UCSD campus and the sea, sending skyward a steady stream of paraglider pilots and the occasional model airplane. And just down the road you find another set of planes -- the stark, symmetrical, concrete surfaces of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, designed by Louis I. Kahn in 1965 and hailed in a 2017 survey of architects as one of California's 25 must-see buildings. (There are weekday tours.)
Of course the Pacific view is great from around here. (That's Black's Beach below.) Grab lunch at the Cliffhanger Cafe, settle in at a picnic table and watch the action.
Why: Because the California shoreline where the U.S. and Mexico meet is like no place else. A tall fence runs into the ocean and shore birds perch on it. A second fence runs parallel. Border Patrol agents circulate in SUVs and on ATVs, making sure nobody climbs over or swims around. Antennas reach skyward. Cellphones lose bearings. Through the fence, you might glimpse Mexican families romping on the beach.
What: Border Field State Park's 418 acres include the beach, views of a few rocky offshore islands and Monument Mesa, which has shaded picnic tables and a broad view of the wetlands, scrub and several horse stables on the U.S. side. The Mexican side features a bull ring, a lighthouse and several hillside developments. Authorities don't recommend swimming on the U.S. side (no lifeguard; low water quality after rains). But you can ride horses, which is rare on California beaches.
In dry weather between 9:30 a.m. and 6 p.m., the flood-prone road into the park is usually open, allowing you to drive almost all the way to the beach. When the road's gate is closed, it's about a 1.5-mile walk to the beach and a few yards farther to the mesa, which includes Friendship Park.
Why: After eight decades as the unsung older sibling to the Golden Gate, San Francisco's Bay Bridge stands every night in a spotlight of its own. Some 25,000 of them, in fact. Admire it after dark, from land or sea.
What: The Bay Bridge, opened in 1936 and largely renewed after years of still-ongoing seismic retrofitting and replacements, now offers LED light displays nightly. Artist Leo Villareal, who conceived the twinkling spectacle, calls it The Bay Lights. The work was first displayed from 2013 to 2015, then returned as a permanent feature in January 2016. About 25,000 programmed white lights are involved — but you can't see them from the bridge itself.
Instead, you can see them from across the water — perhaps the Ferry Building, or almost anywhere along the Embarcadero (including the long boardwalk of Pier 7). Or you could admire them from aboard a ferry.
Why: This handsome beach, which neighbors the Montage Resort, includes sandstone cliffs and a prime parking area that fills up fast.
What: Treasure Island isn't an island. But it is a beach and city park in Laguna Beach. It's sometimes overlooked because it wraps around the exclusive Montage resort (most rooms cost $800 a night or more). But Treasure Island has a shaded parking structure (whose roughly 30 spaces fill up early ever day), a pleasant bluff-top path alongside the resort's immaculate landscaping, public benches, picnic spots with 180-degree ocean views, tide pools and white-sand shores that include a dramatic sandstone arch.
About the name: In the 1930s, this beach was used as shooting location for a movie version of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel "Treasure Island." Later, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz used the spot in their 1954 vacation road-trip movie, "The Long, Long Trailer." The Montage site once held a trailer park.
Why: Boot camp becomes a playground. What's not to like?
What: Built as a Navy training center in the 1920s, shut down in 1997 and converted to civilian uses, Liberty Station's stately, sprawling Spanish Colonial Revival grounds now house dozens of restaurants, shops and many sports and arts groups, with acres of lawn to boot. While Old Town and Balboa Park grab tourists in vast numbers, Liberty Station draws more locals. (It's got grocery and hardware stores.) And it underlines the Navy's strong role in the local history and economy. The compound's Public Market is a modest food hall, neighbored by the immodestly large indoor-outdoor space of Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, which has taken over the old mess hall.
If you'd rather consume culture than ale, IPA or Imperial Stout, the complex's Arts District houses dozens of art and dance studios, a few galleries and minor museums, and sundry special events, including free outdoor movies on summer Saturday nights. The complex also includes a Courtyard by Marriott, a Homewood Suites by Hilton and the nine-hole Sail Ho golf course, also known as the Loma Club.
Why: There is no publicly accessible golf course in the country with the history, spectacular coastal vistas, memorable holes and overall experience of Pebble Beach Golf Links.
What: Pebble Beach will host the U.S. Open championship for the sixth time in 2019 and is an annual stop on the PGA Tour for a reason: It’s a course of almost unimaginable beauty and variety. As magnificent as it appears on television, it’s beyond that in person. Noted golf course architect Tom Doak wrote in “The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses,” considered by many the bible of critiques of the world’s courses: “Your first time around, it’s probably as thrilling a course to play as any in the world.” No argument here. (The neighboring courses aren't bad, either.)
The only catch is that to be assured of a tee time, you need to book at least two nights at one of three Pebble Beach resorts. You can also show up first thing and put your name on a stand-by list, or you can try to make a tee time 24 hours in advance, but both those options are dicey, particularly during the busy season from April through November.
Why: This bookseller has taken a dead bank building on an iffy downtown block and turned it into a bold retreat for readers and bohemians.
What: The Last Bookstore opened elsewhere downtown in 2005, as booksellers were faltering across the land. And then-owner Josh Spencer defied conventional wisdom a second time by moving his business to this far larger space in 2011. It beckons readers with a ground floor full of new and used books, including graphic novels and an annex for art and rare books.
The store also buys, sells and trades used vinyl, CDs and DVDs. The 25-foot white columns, circa 1915, suggest you may be sifting through the ruins of a lost civilization. The suspended artworks hint at acts of magic in progress. The stage gets used often for readings and live music.
Why: It’s an opportunity to play a seaside complex where Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Phil Mickelson (three times) and Tiger Woods (seven times) have been professional champions. That includes Woods’ dramatic playoff victory in the 2008 U.S. Open despite two stress fractures in his left leg and an ailing left knee that required surgery shortly after his win.
What: The North and South courses at Torrey Pines live by the same mantra that guides real estate: Location, location, location. High on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific, the courses offer distractingly beautiful views of the ocean and beaches below, accented above by ever-present hang gliders soaring over the cliffs and the frequent fly-bys of military jets from the nearby Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.
Why: Largo (formally, Largo at the Coronet) is a rare venue where music and comedy rub elbows, where performers take chances, where big names turn up on stage and in the crowd, where audiences really concentrate. So don't show up late; once the show starts (usually 8:30 p.m.), the doors close and that's that.
What: Largo began in 1989 as Cafe Largo on Fairfax Avenue. Over time it changed owners, shortened its name and changed addresses (in 2008), but held its reputation. The main performance space is the 280-seat Coronet Theater, but just off the entry courtyard you'll find the 65-seat Little Room (Guinness on tap).
Recent performers include Jon Brion, the Watkins Family Hour, Grant Lee Phillips, Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, Tig Notaro, Harry Shearer and Judith Owen. On Sept, 19, I caught Sammy Miller and the Congregation, a young, six-man lineup that specializes in joyful jazz with lots of laughs and theatricality.