As you might expect, Sea World and the San Diego Zoo are this city's most popular tourist attractions, but can you name the No. 3 destination?
It's Horton Plaza.
Don't confuse it with the minuscule park that's been a downtown focal point ever since Alonzo E. Horton laid out the "new" city of San Diego in 1867.
That Horton Plaza has lent its name to 6 1/2 square blocks that are the centerpiece for urban redevelopment in the heart of California's second-largest city. Occupying those blocks is a dazzling center for shopping, dining and entertainment.
Jon Jerde, designer of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, has created a bizarre yet beguiling complex of 140 shops, galleries, eateries and theaters that opened three years ago. Last year more than 12 million people, one-third from out of town, visited Horton Plaza.
Surrounded by Lodgings
You can easily spend a day or more exploring the multilevel mall that's also surrounded by lodgings, including the impressive Westgate, the landmark U.S. Grant and new Omni hotels.
Get to Horton Plaza from Los Angeles by driving south on Interstate 5 to San Diego's Civic Center exit on Front Street. Follow it across Broadway and beneath the Federal Building to G Street, then turn left to the plaza parking entrance at 3rd Avenue.
It leads into one of two multistory garages that hold 2,400 cars. To help you find your car later, the parking levels are indicated by various fruits and vegetables. Bear left and spiral up to Corn, the uppermost covered floor (P-7).
Nearby exits from the garage open onto Plaza Level 3, the top story that presents views of the open-air complex. A first impression is that there is no order to the layout or architecture, but it's going to be fun looking around.
If you need orientation, look for an information cart that has a map with a list of stores and services. Also pick up Horton Plaza's monthly events brochure for special entertainment or attractions on the day of your visit.
One information cart shows a Food Court, fast-food shops with everything from sushi to French fries, yogurt and Greek gyros. You'll be enticed into Claudia's, where the smell of freshly baked cinnamon rolls is funneled from the oven to a sidewalk vent that's above the heads of passers-by.
Finding your way around in a maze of walkways, stairs, ramps, escalators and bridges is an adventure in itself. As you wander, look for the design elements that are plaza features, creating the look of a European marketplace. Street vendors have carts full of merchandise, as a tile-covered facade of archways is copied after a building in Venice.
Replica gas-lamp street lights and Jessop's Jewelers 1907 street clock represent another historic era. Also, there are abundant colorful flowers, banners and costumed characters that lend an amusement-park look to the plaza; in particular, the topiary trees shaped as dancing hippos are a la Disneyland.
Public art also is displayed, including a recent mural honoring the Stars & Stripes, winner of the America's Cup recently in San Diego. Another is the multicolored obelisk with wildlife images representing water, earth and air.
That monument is partially below ground and marks the entrance to the Lyceum, a two-stage playhouse featuring performances by its resident professional acting company, the San Diego Repertory Theatre. On stage through Oct. 29 are "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "Heathen Valley."
The plays are nightly except Monday at 8 p.m., with two shows Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets cost $16 to $20. For information and reservations, call (619) 235-8025.
For family members who prefer films instead of plays, Horton Plaza's upper-level movie theater offers seven screens with current Hollywood releases.
Every day from noon to 2 p.m. visitors can listen to musical entertainment, including country, Big Band, piano and jazz, on the Sports Deck (Plaza Level 2). Other music is scheduled most weekend afternoons as well as after 5 p.m. on Thursday and Friday.
On weekend afternoons also entertaining is a juggler, Joel Paris, who rides a unicycle around the plaza.
Of course, the great variety of stores is the major reason for visiting Horton Plaza, which was built at a cost of $140 million.
Along with four major department stores--Nordstrom, Robinson's, The Broadway and Mervyn's--you'll come across such specialty shops as the Price of His Toys, an adult gadget emporium. Also Le Travel Store and Adventure 16's Wild Horizons.
Storefronts are as different as the items within. Huge pins extend above the entrance to the Village Hat Shop, while a World War II jeep greets shoppers at Banana Republic. Children like to enter the Imaginarium through a small door.
Marie Callender's has all-day dining (to 11 p.m.) on Plaza Level 3. That's also where you'll find the Panda Inn with Chinese dishes, and Harbor House, which has a French bistro featuring seafood and pasta, plus an English pub.
More refreshments and foods are at the 1950s soda fountain in Long's Drugs and you can get deli items from Irvine Ranch Farmers Market, both at street level.
Eateries at Horton Plaza stay open into the evening. Shopping hours are Sundays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., all other days from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. (except Saturdays to 6 p.m.). The office phone for Horton Plaza is (619) 239-8180.
Parking at Horton Plaza is free for the first three hours, afterward $1 an hour. If you arrive after 5 p.m., parking is free.
Round trip from Los Angeles to San Diego's Horton Plaza is 260 miles.