Every year, millions of people find themselves craving a vacation from greater Los Angeles. Many of these people don't want to cross state lines or climb mountains or contend with deserts, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, redwoods, Gold Country or Mickey Mouse. Which leaves them facing this question: San Francisco or San Diego?
Or, as some people would phrase it: Think or swim?
It is a per-capita fact that one city has more surf shops and the other has more college graduates. But there's more to this choice than that.
One of these cities gives you reliable sun, a world-class zoo and kid-friendliness, accompanied by the occasional reminder that the 1982 film "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" was based on a true story.
The other city doesn't seem to care as much about your kids, but it will feed, entertain and edify you with such verve and sophistication that you'll barely notice the arctic breezes.
One is forever winning popularity contests, but the other is cheaper, has less crime and attracts more than twice as many overnight guests countywide.
One gave us "The Maltese Falcon," the other gave us Tony Hawk.
One is the cradle of hippiedom; the other is a major Navy port. (See stories online.) One is four times as densely occupied as the other, yet when it comes to hotels, they're almost dead even -- 226 in one city, 225 in the other.
One city has Balboa Park -- no, check that. Both have Balboa parks. But can you guess which Balboa Park once harbored a nudist colony? One has the Golden Gate Bridge; one has the Coronado Bridge. One points north to Marin County; one points south to Mexico. One has Market Street -- wait, both have Market streets. San Diego's is longer, and San Francisco's is scarier.
One city has a winning football team, and one has the 49ers. Both have losing baseball teams (if you count up the last three seasons), and both teams play in retro-flavored downtown ballparks near water's edge.
So if you're a weekend tourist, which is better?
I hereby submit that from dusk to dawn, San Francisco is better. Well, except from November through March, when it can get cold enough to frost your Irish coffee.
I further submit that from dawn to dusk, San Diego is better. Especially if you get outdoors a lot or you're a kid.
Oh, but San Francisco will be better July 22 to 25, when 126,000 Comic-Con people will clog downtown San Diego. And San Diego will be better Sept 19 to 23, when 45,000 people gather at San Francisco's convention center for the annual Oracle OpenWorld information technology conference.
To arrive at this richly nuanced answer, I made fresh visits to each city and weighed the data with absolute objectivity and seriousness, except for the parts that I goofed around with, which follow. Your results may vary.
San Diego: To reach downtown S.D. from downtown Los Angeles, you'll probably drive. It's about 120 miles south, two hours on a great freeway day, four hours on a rotten one. Expect a round-trip gas bill of $36 if you get 20 miles per gallon and pay $3 a gallon. If you take Amtrak, it's a little less than three hours and $29 per adult each way.
San Francisco: From downtown L.A., drive north about 380 miles (round-trip gas bill: $114), six hours at best. Or you could fly, probably paying $100 to $200 for an LAX-SFO round trip. Amtrak? Too slow and complicated.
S.D.: Sprawl with a pretty face. The San Diego Trolley takes you from downtown to Mission Valley or the border, but to reach the beach, you'll probably be driving. Taxi licenses? 1,222.
S.D.: Despite the great fish tacos, S.D. is rarely counted among the planet's best cities for eating. For 2010, the Forbes Travel Guide (which recently swallowed Mobil's influential restaurant-ranking operation) deemed 58 S.D. restaurants worthy of ranking. One got four stars, and one got five -- Addison, at the Grand del Mar hotel.
S.F.: Is always popping up on somebody's list of world's best restaurant cities. For 2010, the Forbes people deemed 125 S.F. restaurants worth ranking. Nine got four stars, and one received five: the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton.
The city as a muse
S.D.: Inspired Max Miller (who wrote the gritty 1932 novella "I Cover the Waterfront") and must have somehow influenced Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel), who lived here about 40 years. Tom Waits ("San Diego Serenade"), Frank Zappa and Blink-182 played in their first bands here, and Jewel and the Stone Temple Pilots got big breaks. At the movies, it was either the set or inspiration for "Top Gun," "Traffic," "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" and "Fast Times." On television, "Simon & Simon."
S.F.: Inspired Dashiell Hammett's detective novels (including "The Maltese Falcon"), Douglass Cross (who wrote the lyrics to "I Left My Heart . . . "), and many classic-rock performers, including the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and Santana. At the movies, it was the set for "Dirty Harry," "Bullitt" and "Milk." On television, "The Streets of San Francisco" lingers in memory.
The college crowd
S.D.: The U.S. Census said that, in 2008, 40.7% of residents 25 or older had bachelor's degrees. San Diego State counts about 27,500 undergrads; UC San Diego counts about 22,500 and University of San Diego (a private Catholic university) counts about 5,100.
S.F.: The U.S. Census reported that, in 2008, 50.3% of residents 25 or older had bachelor's degrees. San Francisco State reports about 24,000 undergrads, UC San Francisco reports none (its more than 4,000 students are all grad students in medical subjects) and University of San Francisco (a private Catholic university) counts about 5,500.
The international crowd
S.D.: 25.5% foreign-born, by count of U.S. Census, 2008.
S.F.: 35.6% foreign-born, by count of U.S. Census, 2008.
The LGB crowd
S.D.: It's not just the Hillcrest area. One UCLA study in 2006 estimated gays, lesbians and bisexuals amounted to 6.8% of the city's population (source: the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy, UCLA School of Law).
S.F.: It's not just the Castro. That 2006 UCLA study estimated that gays, lesbians and bisexuals amounted to 15.4% of the city's population.
What travelers say
S.D.: Eighth place in the 2009 Condé Nast Traveler's Reader's Choice Award for favorite U.S. city, just behind Savannah, Ga., just ahead of Boston. Facebook travel fans as of mid-January: 56,858.
S.F.: Winner of 2009 Condé Nast Traveler's Reader's Choice Award for favorite city in the U.S. Facebook travel fans as of mid-January: 123,908.
What travelers do
S.D.: In 2008, the county hosted 15.2 million overnight visitors and 15.9 million more day-trippers.
S.F.: In 2008, the city/county hosted 5.93 million overnight visitors and 10.5 million more day-trippers.
S.D.: San Diego's average high, year-round: 71. Average low: 57. About 9 to 10 inches of rain yearly. Yet locals know to expect June gloom. By one analysis of weather since the 1950s, May and June are the cloudiest months of the year.
S.F.: San Francisco's average high is 63, the average low 51. About 20 inches of rain yearly.
S.D.: The FBI's 2008 uniform crime report shows 6,047 violent crimes and 40,365 property crimes among 1.3 million residents.
S.F.: The FBI's 2008 uniform crime report shows 6,744 violent crimes and 36,301 property crimes among about three-quarters of a million residents.
The conventioneer factor
S.D.: Down south, 2010's three biggest conventions will be the annual Comic-Con July 22-25; ASR Trade Expo, an Aug. 14-16 gathering of sports apparel retailers (20,000 expected); and the Society for Neuroscience, Nov. 13-17 (36,000 expected).
S.F.: To the north, there's Oracle OpenWorld, Sept. 19-23; Semicon West for semiconductor equipment and materials people, July 13-15 (25,000 expected); and the Winter Fancy Food Show of the National Assn. for the Specialty Food Trade, Jan. 17-19 (19,000 expected).
S.D.: Once, this was Nixon country. But in 2008, San Diego County voted 54% to 44% for Obama-Biden over McCain-Palin. In fact, with its larger population, San Diego County delivered more than twice as many Obama votes as San Francisco County.
S.F.: Liberal nirvana. Barack Obama got 84% of presidential voters in 2008.
Lay of the land
S.D.: 1,256,951 residents (and growing) in the city's 324 square miles, said the U.S. Census Bureau in 2006. That's more than 3,800 people per square mile. (Countywide census figures from 2008 show 3,001,072 people in about 4,200 square miles.)
S.F.: 744,041 residents (and shrinking) in 46 square miles, said the U.S. Census Bureau in 2006. That's more than 16,000 people per square mile. (The city and county of San Francisco share boundaries.)
S.D.: In the city, 225 hotels and 37,425 rooms, by count of hotel trade analyst STR. In the first 11 months of 2009, the average room rate was $130.97.
S.F.: In the city, 226 hotels and 34,417 rooms, by count of hotel trade analyst STR. In the first 11 months of 2009, the average room rate was $147.46.
What's this on my hotel bill?
S.D.: Hotel tax is 10.5% if you're in a lodging with fewer than 70 rooms, or 12.5% if you're in a city hotel that's larger.
S.F.: Taken together, hotel taxes and a new "assessment" add up to 15% or 15.5%, depending on location.
What's that out in the water?
S.D.: On Coronado (an isthmus, not an island), a grand old hotel has held hundreds of guests at a time since the late 19th century. Annual number of tourists: more than 2 million.
S.F.: On Alcatraz, a gloomy old prison held hundreds of inmates at a time from the late 19th century until 1963. Annual number of tourists: 1.35 million.
S.D.: Balboa Park, 1,200 acres, includes the San Diego Zoo, more than a dozen museums, the Old Globe theater complex and a big, old, brown, wooden Botanical Building. There's also a butterfly habitat in Zoro Canyon that was a nudist colony during the Panama California Exposition of 1935.
S.F.: Golden Gate Park, 1,017 acres, includes the California Academy of Sciences, the De Young Museum and a big, old, white, wooden Conservatory of Flowers building. Also two windmills and a bison paddock.
S.D.: The San Diego Zoo and the rest of Balboa Park. The Wild Animal Park in Escondido. SeaWorld San Diego. Legoland in nearby Carlsbad. The New Children's Museum downtown. All that tourist stuff around the Embarcadero. A 2008 study found that 19% of the county's hotel guests were traveling with children.
S.F.: The California Academy of Sciences and the rest of Golden Gate Park. Cable cars. The Exploratorium. The San Francisco Zoo. All that tourist stuff around Fisherman's Wharf. A 2004 study found that 8.7% of hotel guests were traveling with children.
S.D.: In Balboa Park, you find the S.D. Museum of Art, the Museum of Photographic Arts, the Timken (Old Masters), the Mingei (folk art) and museums of natural history, man, science and aviation. Beyond, there's the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (in La Jolla and downtown), the Maritime Museum's waterfront Star of India, said to be the world's oldest active ship.
S.F.: The S.F. Museum of Modern Art, the De Young, the Legion of Honor and the Asian Art Museum get attention, but dozens more museums include a Jewish Museum, Cable Car Museum and Cartoon Art Museum.
S.D.: In the county, 70 miles of shoreline. Perhaps 150 surf shops, about 90 golf courses. The county's inland mountains often get snow (Julian), the desert gets wildflowers (especially Anza-Borrego Desert State Park) and there's four-wheeling in the dunes (especially Ocotillo Wells).
S.F.: Almost 30 miles of shoreline. Surf suitable for wetsuits. Fewer than 10 golf courses. Forty-three hills, by the visitor bureau's tally. Mt. Tamalpais and all the glories of Marin County await at the north end of Golden Gate Bridge.
S.D.: S.D. Symphony, S.D. Opera, the Old Globe, La Jolla Playhouse.
S.F.: S.F. Symphony, S.F. Opera, American Conservatory Theater. (And across the bay, there's the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.)
S.D.: One entry on Esquire magazine's Best Bars in America list: the Bar at the Red Fox Steakhouse on El Cajon Boulevard. One entry on Beeradvocate.com's "Top 20 Beer Bars in America" list: O'Brien's American Pub on Convoy Street.
S.F.: Nine entries on Esquire magazine's latest Best Bars list: 21 Club, Alembic, Bourbon & Branch, Cantina, Tommy's Mexican Restaurant, Toronado, Tosca Cafe, Vesuvio, Zeitgeist. One entry on Beeradvocate.com's "Top 20 Beer Bars in America" list: Toronado.
Weird celebrity history
S.D.: After the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt Earp came here to buy real estate and saloons. In the 1930s, a local kid named Ted Williams caught on with the city's minor league baseball team, then went on to the majors.
S.F.: Ansel Adams, as a child of 4, broke his nose in the great earthquake of 1906. In the 1930s, a local kid named Joe DiMaggio caught on with the city's minor league baseball team, then went on to the majors.
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