Carnaval with Wookiees. That's Comic-Con International, San Diego's celebration of all things comics-science fiction-fantasy. The pop culture feast July 9-12 attracts fans from around the world who jam the convention center and join costumed aficionados whooping it up in the streets, bars and nightclubs of the Gaslamp Quarter. Hollywood hoopla is everywhere: star-studded celeb panels, invitation-only A-list parties, breathless fans. The marketing is heavy-handed, but that's part of the fun. Even if you don't have a coveted ticket to the convention, it is almost impossible not to get swept up in the contagious party atmosphere. Here are some suggestions for navigating the madness:
Rooms near the convention center are difficult to find by now. July is already a busy month in a city fueled by tourism, and many Comic-Con regulars book a year in advance. You may have to venture farther afield.
Two very different places — the Lafayette Hotel and the Paradise Point Resort & Spa on Mission Bay — offer respite from the crowds in the Gaslamp Quarter.
MORE: San Diego Comic-Con coverage
Lafayette Hotel, Swim Club & Bungalows in North Park (2223 El Cajon Blvd.;  296-2101, http://www.lafayettehotelsd.com), a hipster favorite that was a haven for Hollywood celebs back in the day, has been restored to its former glory. There are retro-chic rooms and bungalows, plus there's an almost-Olympic size (it's 2 inches short) pool designed by Johnny (Tarzan) Weissmuller and old-school dining at the Red Fox Steak House. Standard room rates in summer range from $139 to $239; rates for Comic-Con shoot up to $409-$499.
For a classic San Diego waterfront experience, check out the Paradise Point Resort & Spa on Mission Bay (1404 Vacation Road;  274-4630, http://www.paradisepoint.com), which has lush gardens and lagoons spread over 44 acres, and a sandy beach to romp on. You'll need a car to get around, but it's a great place to get an umbrella drink and unwind after a day at the con. Summer rates for a standard room for two range from about $190 to $340; rates during Comic-Con are around $350 and up.
You can also choose accommodations up the coast that are along the local commuter train line. It's an easy ride on the Coaster train, which can take you from Oceanside, Carlsbad or Encinitas to a trolley stop near the convention center. Info: http://www.gonctd.com/coaster
The Gaslamp is filled with restaurants. But we know what fuels Con attendees:
Head to Donut Bar (631 B St.;  255-6360, http://www.donutbarsandiego.com) for awesome treats. Depending on the baker's whim and the crowds who beat your sleepy self there (it frequently sells out early), try the mud pie doughnut (dipped in chocolate fudge and topped with peanut butter-marshmallow glaze, Oreo cookie crumbs and salted peanut pieces) or the maple bacon (Vermont maple glaze with a layer of fresh bacon pieces). Doughnuts $1.50 to $5.
For great burgers, go to Hodad's (945 Broadway;  234-6323, http://www.hodadies.com), an offshoot of the Ocean Beach institution that's been featured on "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives." Try the Guido, Guy Fieri's favorite: burger patties, pastrami, ketchup, pickles, Swiss cheese, onions and hot brown mustard. Burgers $4.25 to $12.
When in Cali, choose a California burrito filled with carne asada, cheese, sour cream and fries at Lolita's (202 Park Blvd.;  269-6055, http://www.lolitasmexicanfood.com), east of Petco Park. Burritos $2.75 to $7.50, combo plates about $8.
Finally, after a hard day of cosplay and waiting in line to get into Hall H, reward your Lord of the Universe self at the Altitude Sky Lounge rooftop bar at the San Diego Marriott Gaslamp Quarter (660 K St.;  446-6086, http://www.lat.ms/1PSYtZ6). It's 22 floors above street level, overlooks Petco Park and has killer views of downtown and the bay. You'll have time to watch the sunset and still make it to the convention center for the "Buffy" sing-along. Cocktails range from $6 (happy hour) to the mid-teens.
Head to Balboa Park (www.balboapark.org) to relax among impressive works by the likes of Louise Nevelson and Henry Moore. Grab a brew that's helped make San Diego the craft brewing capital of the world. The Blind Lady Ale House has opened Panama 66 (1450 El Prado;  696-1966, http://www.panama66.blogspot.com/), an outpost in the May S. Marcy Sculpture Garden adjacent to the San Diego Museum of Art. The garden and cafe are the ideal mix of art and culture on a hot July day. Brews are $6 and vary in size based on the beer chosen.
The lesson learned
As the Bard put it, "There are more things in San Diego, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Get out and explore.
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