A guide to the San Diego sites that make it unlike any other

Downtown San Diego from aboard Hornblower's Whale Watching Cruises on January 19, 2019.
(Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times)
(Los Angeles Times)

Head south, travelers. San Diego, California's oldest city, turns 250 this year. Its baseball team turns 50. So does the Coronado Bridge, the long span that adds a curvaceous blue flourish to the skyline. Chances are good that you've already been to the San Diego Zoo; the Old Globe; the big art, science and aviation museums in Balboa Park; and the USS Midway Museum. But there's much more waiting a couple of hours' drive on Interstate 5. We're pointing you to some of our other favorite spots, including museums, campus landmarks, historic structures and more.

Balboa Park

Music may have charms to soothe the savage breast, but that wasn’t the body part that needed attention. Instead, a chance to get off my feet and restore my sagging spirits drew me to Balboa Park’s Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Once I was there, I never wanted to leave.

If you’re not a lover of organ music, the hourlong concert may seem too high a penance to get off your feet, but only if you’ve not heard Spain’s Raúl Prieto Ramírez, who enters his second year performing these concerts. (He’s also the artistic director of the Spreckels Organ Society.)

The animated organist opened with the traditional “America,” segued into Bach’s “Adagio and Fugue in C major,” switched seamlessly to movie music, including “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme” from “La La Land” and “Climb Every Mountain” from “The Sound of Music,” gave us a little Louis-Nicolas Clérambault and topped it all off with the national anthem. His feet, clad in red shoes, were like a fire engine across the pedals, and his fingers flitted like hummingbirds across the keys.

After the concert, he invited attendees onstage; audience members also could take a closer look at the 5,000 pipes and 80 ranks that make up the historic instrument, which dates to 1914. One hour, total bliss, all free, don’t miss. — Catharine Hamm

Raul Prieto Ramirez is the San Diego Civic Organist and usually performs at 2 p.m. Sundays at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion at Balboa Park in San Diego.
(Catharine Hamm / Los Angeles Times)

Info: Balboa Park. For a schedule of upcoming performances: Spreckels Organ Concert, Balboa Park.

Spend a relaxing afternoon browsing in charming Spanish Village Art Center, near the entrance to the San Diego Zoo. The 37 gaily painted studios and galleries surround a large courtyard — the paving stones are splashed with color too — and are home to more than 200 painters, potters, photographers and more.

Glass bower John Heilken in action at Studio 19 in the Spanish Village Art Center at Balboa Park.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
The incredibly detailed El Centro Church is part of a true-to-scale train layout at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum.
(Anne Harnagel / Los Angeles Times)

The red-tile-roofed buildings were built in 1935 for the California Pacific International Exhibition. They were used as barracks in World War II, then claimed by artists in 1947. Look for: Joan Boyer’s plein air paintings (Studio 2); handsome platters and vases at the San Diego Potters’ Guild (Studio 29); and colorful glass pieces by Andy Cohn and others (Studio 19). If you’re lucky, you can watch a glassblower at work at the outdoor furnace. — Anne Harnagel Info: Open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. 1770 Village Place; (619) 233-9050. Free.

With no kid in tow, I wasn’t expecting to stay as long as I did at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, believed to be the largest in the world. What I saw captivated me for way more than an hour: four intricate, historically accurate layouts of train routes through the Southwest. Local model railroad clubs began construction of the true-to-scale layouts in 1982; they now cover about 27,000 square feet of model train operations. Favorite scenes: a tiny, incredibly detailed church in El Centro — the organ pedals are made of toothpicks — and the Tecate Brewery. The whimsical Toy Train Gallery, where club members operate their own trains, is filled with hundreds of miniature buildings, people, cars and trucks. See if you can spot the vintage A&W root-beer stand. — AH

Info: 1649 El Prado, Suite 4; (619) 696-0199. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Adults $11.50, $6 for students, free for children 5 and younger.

The red carpet isn’t the only place with stars. The San Diego Astronomy Assn. sets up telescopes for the public the first Wednesday of every month for its Stars in the Park event, which follows the Fleet Science Center’s “Sky Tonight” planetarium show. I was here to view the Super Blood Wolf Moon, a rare occurrence, but the weather did not cooperate. Only a sliver of the blood-red moon was visible — but it was still a fun night. — Calvin Alagot

Info: 1875 El Prado. Dusk, first Wednesday of the month. Free.

Customers looking the display window with a tray of Crostata Caramelized Apple in the foreground at Extraordinary Desserts in San Diego.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Do you really need a streusel-covered coffee cake with strawberries and raspberries from Extraordinary Desserts? A caramelized chocolate lava bun — a “flaky, croissant-like pastry with a center of creamy hazelnut-flavored chocolate”? A froissant — a croissant deep-fried with a vanilla custard topped with a berry? Are there not better uses for your $6.25?

Answers: No, you do not need these, and perhaps there are better uses for your money, although I cannot think of one. And I did not need the matcha chocolate chip cookie I wolfed down at Extraordinary Desserts, which has two locations in San Diego. (I visited the one nearer the Marston House by Balboa Park.)

You don’t have to have a pastry or a sweet when you go in, but why bother going in the first place? This place is all about dessert, the most important meal of the day. — CH

Info: 2929 Fifth Ave. (convenient to Balboa Park), (619) 294-2132, and 1430 Union St. (near Little Italy), (619) 234-7001.

There may be grander Craftsman homes than the Marston House — the Gamble House in Pasadena comes to mind — but it’s not the architecture that’s the power of this 8,500-square-foot manse at the northwest corner of Balboa Park. It is the large puzzle piece of history that completes the story of how San Diego became what it is.

The house was built for George and Anna Marston, who moved in in 1905. It’s no coincidence that a slightly yellow copy of the San Diego Union, carefully placed on the breakfast table, has a huge ad touting a sale on dresses and coats (from $29.95). Where to find such a bargain? Marston’s department store, of course.

The Marston House & Gardens is a beautiful Craftsman house, but it also tells a historic story.
The Marston House & Gardens is a beautiful Craftsman house, but it also tells a historic story.
(Catharine Hamm / Los Angeles Times)

A tour of the house is a better lesson in history than in home decor. A Stickley piano, for instance, isn’t original to the house, although Marston’s, which began as a dry-goods business and grew into a retail empire, was a purveyor of Stickley furniture. Instead, the magic of the house is learning how Marston took his business acumen and turned it into a civics lesson — if you do well, remember to do good — and a legacy. Balboa Park, the Presidio of San Diego and the public library system, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, Anza Borrego State Park and more all have Marston’s fingerprints.

By all means, enjoy the house, designed by Irving Gill and William Hebbard. It is a practical place, elegant in its simplicity (and innovation — an early version of the slow cooker is particularly thought-provoking). Enjoy the gardens, not quite as grand in winter but colorful in spring and summer, I’m told.

But it is also a place that gives a glimpse of a vision that grew and became something much broader and grander with time. We are the better for it. — CH

Info: Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Fridays-Sundays. 3525 Seventh Ave.; (619) 297-9327. $15 for adults, $12 for seniors (65 and older), $7 for those 6-12, and 5 and younger admitted free.

If you’re at Balboa Park at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, you can take a free staff-led tour of the park. And if you’re not? You can do what I did and ride up and down El Prado on an electric bike at night when it’s less crowded. (All sorts of scooters also are available, but a bike is a more familiar experience.) Red Jump bikes can be found around the park. It’s affiliated with Uber, so if you’ve already downloaded that app, you can be peddling in no time. The electric motor can get you up to 20 mph with not much effort and you can control your speed with a throttle on the right handle bar. — CA

Info: Jump bikes, about 15 cents a minute.

Bankers Hill

Walk around San Diego long enough and you’ll start to see it as a city of canyons and bridges, especially these two that transport you from residential streets to woodsy heights within minutes. They’re part of the city’s 5½-mile Seven Bridges Hike.

From First Avenue, turn east onto Quince Street to find a trestle-style bridge that looks like a Tinkertoy creation. The wooden bridge, built in 1905, once connected pedestrians and a trolley stop on Fourth Avenue. Now people linger amid views of tree canopies and hillside homes from 60 feet in the air.

Farther north and west of First Avenue is the Spruce Street Suspension Bridge, a hidden gem that creaks and sways when you cross its 375-foot span. Stay calm. Cables anchored in the canyon below hold it firmly in place. Spend time absorbing the novelty of this street-side sanctuary that’s also an Instagram fave. — Mary Forgione

Wesley Ramos at the Chicano Park Skatepark in the San Diego neighborhood of Barrio Logan. Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times
(Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times)

Barrio Logan

Chicano Park stands at the heart of Barrio Logan with the Coronado Bridge and Interstate 5 branching overhead like arteries. Murals throughout the park tell the story of a community that has fought hard to preserve its culture on this soil. The park also has a skatepark and a playground and holds events that can be found on their online calendar. On April 20, locals are celebrating the 49th Chicano Park Day, memorializing the nonviolent militant takeover of the park by the community. Festivities include a low rider car show along with food and music. — CA

A view of downtown San Diego from Coronado Island's Bay View Park on Jan. 19.
(Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times)


Bayview Park, a quiet little space, offers a panoramic view of the San Diego skyline from the comfort of shaded benches. Other parks offer comparable views, but this intimate park feels special, surrounded by trees and away from the madding crowd. It’s a good reason to make that trip across the Coronado Bridge. Bring a cup of coffee and watch the ships roll in. — CA

Info: 413 1st St., Coronado. Free.

East Village

Two panels outside the Lillian Place affordable housing complex at 14th Avenue and J Street offer a historical snapshot of the African American neighborhood that thrived here in the 19th and 20th centuries. Lillian Grant, one of the first black women to own property in San Diego, ran a racially integrated boarding house on the building’s site. At Market Street and 2nd Avenue, the black-owned Douglas Hotel drew A-list jazz and blues artists such as Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. It rated an entry in the Green Book travel guide for African Americans.

Info: 1401 J St.

A baby gray whale's tail peeks out during one of Hornblower's Whale Watching Cruises on Jan. 29.
(Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times)


Take to the high seas on a Hornblower cruise in search of gray whales, orcas and dolphins. If you’re lucky, you might see a whale breaching, but just being out on the water and getting fresh views of Coronado Island, Point Loma and downtown San Diego make the 3½ -hour cruise worth it. The bow is the place to be for the best experience, but bring a jacket because the wind is chilly even on a sunny day. For those who get too cold, there is also an indoor viewing area. The onboard snack bar serves beer. — CA

Info: 970 N. Harbor Drive; (619) 686-8715. Tours at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. daily. Tickets start at $43, but through March 31 $30 tickets are available by calling.

Little Italy

Live music and a fun crowd make the Little Italy Mercato an energetic place to spend your Saturday morning. Local restaurants provide pizza and gelato — what else do you really need? A long row of farm stands sell local produce, baked goods, honey, eggs and more — you’ll definitely leave with a full stomach. If you’d like to rest your feet, there are cafes nearby. A block from Waterfront Park. — CA

Info: West Date Street between Kettner Boulevard and Front Street; (619) 233-3901. 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays. Free. Little Italy.

The San Diego Firehouse Museum, Old Fire Station Number 6, served the Little Italy community from 1915 to 1970. The bricks-and-mortar building now houses the museum and its collection of fire buckets, hoses and nozzles, helmets and protective gear and a 9/11 memorial. Nine fire engines have pride of place. The hand- or horse-drawn La Jolla No. 1 — a beauty — dates to 1841 and was that community’s only fire protection in the early 1900s. — AH

Info: 1572 Columbia St.; (619) 232-3473. Open 10 a.m-2 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission $3 for adults, $2 for kids.

Mission Trails Regional Park

Lace up your boots, hike to the top of a peak, snap a photo to prove you made it, repeat four more times. That’s how the 5-Peak Challenge works, with a lot of inspiring vistas to keep you going.

Well-marked trails and fire roads wind through chaparral and up rocky flanks to San Diego’s highest point, the 1,592-foot summit of Cowles Mountain, where you can see Tijuana in the distance, as well as North and South Fortuna, Pyles and Kwaay Paay peaks.

Hikers on the summit of Cowles Mountain, San Diego's highest point, relax and enjoy the view, which sometimes includes Tijuana.
(Mary Forgione / Los Angeles Times)

The hikes are moderate (you have several routes to choose from), although most require a steep scramble to the summit. Do all of them and collect a finisher pin and certificate, free of charge, at the visitor center ($20 gets you a finisher T-shirt too). Trail runners may finish in less than a day, but take your time to absorb the beauty of the city’s wild side. — MF

Walk through the Mission Trails Regional Park Visitor & Interpretive Center and go straight to the outdoor terrace for a dramatic view of the rough-hewn ridges and valleys of Mission Gorge. It’s a peaceful spot where volunteers remind visitors that this is what the land looked like before Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo arrived in 1542.

Also on the terrace is an ewaa, or dome-shaped house made by the indigenous Kumeyaay people from shrubs and trees. The center, just 20 minutes from downtown, is a portal to the 7,000-plus-acres of park trails and history. — MF

Info: 1 Father Junípero Serra Trail; (619) 668-3281, Mission Trails Regional Park . Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Kids can climb aboard motorcycles and let the sirens wail and lights flash at the William B. Kolender Sheriff's Museum in Old Town San Diego.
Kids can climb aboard motorcycles and let the sirens wail and lights flash at the William B. Kolender Sheriff’s Museum in Old Town San Diego.
(Anne Harnagel / Los Angeles Times)

Old Town

Kids — and their parents — will find lots to interest them at the William B. Kolender Sheriff’s Museum, which showcases the history of San Diego County Sheriff’s Department since its founding in 1850. Future law enforcement officers can have their photo taken in a jail cell, don a judge’s robe in a mock courtroom or sit on a motorcycle — it’s OK to let the siren wail — and then check out two squad cars and a helicopter cockpit.

Exhibits on women in the department as well as its K-9 heroes, search-and-rescue unit and emergency responders also will keep them occupied. — AH

Info: 2384 San Diego Ave.; (619) 260-1850. Open Wednesdays-Sundays; check website for hours. $5 donation; kids 12 and younger free with adult. Old Town.

Is the Whaley House Museum a Greek Revival home haunted by bad luck and misfortune? To hear the story of the Whaley family, one might believe that’s so.

Thomas Whaley, a serial entrepreneur who knew success and its opposite, built the house in Old Town San Diego during one of the upticks in his life, a place that he and his wife, Anna, could raise their family.

The Whaley House has many pieces that belonged to the family.
(Catharine M. Hamm / Los Angeles Times)

This was no single-purpose structure. You still can see the courtroom where justice was dispensed, but that same space also had served as a school, a ballroom and a granary. You’ll see a theater and stage, where a handbill touts the performances of the Tanner Troupe offering “moral, chaste and versatile entertainments.”

There were those who thought daughter Violet less than moral. In her 20s, she divorced her husband, who was, by all accounts a scoundrel, but she suffered the societal consequences. Depressed, she shot herself with her father’s Smith & Wesson. The family moved out of the house.

The spirits said to prowl the place are thought to be hers, her baby brother’s (he was a toddler when he died) and three thieves who were hanged on the spot where the house was built. Whatever else it is, Whaley House is a snapshot of life, set against a backdrop of Victorian refinement that belies life’s curves and cruelties. — CH

Info: Opening and closing times (some evening hours are available) vary by season; call for times. Daytime admission: $10 for adults, $8 for seniors 55 and older, active military and children 6-12; younger than 5, free. Evening admission $13 year round. 2475 San Diego Ave.; (619) 297-7511, Whaley House Museum.

Mission Valley

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala was the first California mission.
(Catharine M. Hamm / Los Angeles Times)

This is where the change began. Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá marks the starting point of 21 missions that would transform California. The original was founded by Father Junípero Serra in 1769 but moved to this location about six miles inland in 1774. Various iterations have stood here, its current one a majestic structure worthy of its position as the first.

You can attend Mass, visit the excavation project, look at the simple rooms where the friars lived, visit the museum. There are plenty of quiet places to consider how the introduction of European culture and religion shaped what the state is today.

Try to be here at noon. It’s then you get the fullest experience of hearing the ringing of the Mater Dolorosa. The sound from this 1,200-pound bell, which is also rung at 6 p.m., will put a punctuation mark on your mission musings. — CH

Info: 10818 San Diego Mission Road, San Diego; (619) 281-8449, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá. Adults $5, students and seniors (55 and older) $3, children younger than 12, $2.

Point Loma

Liberty Station, the former Naval Training Center, welcomed its first recruits in 1923. The city of San Diego assumed ownership of the property in 2000 and has re-purposed the Spanish Colonial Revival buildings as a showcase for the arts and local businesses. You can spend the better part of a day strolling the park-like grounds and browsing the small galleries, museums and shops of the Arts District. Before you do, fuel up with breakfast sushi ($14.95) or brioche French toast ($9.95) at the Liberty Station outpost of the Fig Tree Café before heading out on Historic Decatur Road to explore. — AH

Info: 2400 Historic Decatur Road, Suite 103; (619) 821-2044 Liberty Station. Open 7 a.m.-3 p.m daily.

Building 202 houses several small museums and galleries, including the Visions Art Museum, which showcases the works of textile and fiber artists. On display through April 7: “Playing With a Full Deck,” a colorful contemporary collection of 54 small quilts, each representing a playing card, and Ving Simpson’s “Unknown Territory,” industrial-looking wall hangings and sculptures incorporating roofing felt paper.

Info: Building 202, 2825 Dewey Road, Suite 100; (619) 546-4872. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, noon-4 p.m. Sundays. $7 admission, 18 and younger, free Visions Art Museum

The San Diego Watercolor Society hosts a monthly member art show and sale in its bright, white gallery that includes a small library stocked with exhibit catalogs, art books and videos/DVDs. Looking to hone your skills with a paintbrush? The society offers weekend art classes.

Info: Building 202, 2825 Dewey Road, Suite 105; (619) 876-4550, San Diego Watercolor Society. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, noon-4 p.m. Sundays. Free.

The New Americans Museum, also in Building 202, and the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Los Angeles Times’ sister paper, are presenting a multimedia exhibit that looks at some of San Diego’s foreign-born recent newcomers who now call the city home. Through March.

Info: 2825 Dewey Road, Suite 102; (619) 756-7707, New Americans Museum. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays. Free.

“Marching Toward Empowerment,” the permanent exhibit of the Women’s Museum of California, incorporates items from the Alice Park Collection, one of California’s leading suffragists, in its exploration of the suffrage movement from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to the ratification in August 1920 of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Also of interest is a wall of fame honoring some of the state’s leading women, including Clara Shortridge Foltz, the first female lawyer on the West Coast.

Info: Barracks 16, 2730 Historic Decatur Road, Suite 103; (619) 233-7963, Women’s Museum of California. Open noon-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, $5 admission, $3 for students and seniors, free for military and children 12 and younger.

If all that browsing has left you famished, head to the Liberty Public Market, where you can chow down on ramen, corned beef, empanadas, lobster rolls and more offered by 30-plus vendors. For me, the shrimp tacos with pineapple and habanero chutney ($4.75 each) at Cecilia’s Taqueria filled the void. — AH

Info: 2820 Historic Decatur Road; (619) 487-9346, Liberty Public Market. Open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. daily. Some vendors open for breakfast.

A couple watching the sunset at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park in San Diego.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Are crumbling cliffs proof that California will eventually collapse into the ocean? No, but they’re a reminder that the ocean is eating away at some of the most gorgeous corners of the state. For a demo, head to Point Loma’s Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, a 68-acre mini-park (with a big parking lot) next to a residential neighborhood.

Once here, you can stroll on a bluff, gaze at the surfers or descend and poke around in the tide pools.

If tide-pooling floats your boat, find your way to the stairs leading from the foot of Ladera Street to the water’s edge. At the bottom, you’ll find rocky territory that can be slippery and dangerous, especially if it’s high tide. There’s no shame in turning back, but those slippery rocks below are filled with tempting tide pools and little creatures. Remember, though, do not touch.

Then there is the green flash, an optical phenomenon. Some don’t believe in it. I have seen several — or think I have. You decide for yourself. — Christopher Reynolds

Info: 1253 Sunset Cliffs Blvd.; Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. Free

Shelter Island

Pacific Rim Park, on the southernmost end of Shelter Island, rewards visitors with an easy walking trail that has views of the Naval Air Station on Coronado and downtown San Diego. With sculptures and monuments such as the Pearl of the Pacific and Friendship Bell, it’s a cool spot to check out if you’re staying on Shelter Island. — CA

Info: 1407a Shelter Island Drive; Pacific Rim Park. Free.

University Heights

There aren’t many places like Camera Exposure where you can walk in and find an expert who will help you find the right analog. Kenneth Kahan, who has been in the camera repair business for more than 25 years, tends to all the equipment himself. The stock ranges from small 35-mm point-and-shoots to large-format cameras. You’ll also find a good selection of 120 and 135 film. — CA

Inside Camera Exposure, a used-camera store in University Heights, on Jan. 29.
(Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times)

Info: 2703 Adams Ave.; (619) 640-5300, Camera Exposure. Open 12:30- 5:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Fridays and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays.

Waterfront Park

Snakes in a park! Six towering, golden heads with gaping red mouths and glittery mosaic collars that twine together in a single stem have become a beloved local landmark. “The Serpent Tree” is a fantasy sculpture by the late Niki de Saint Phalle, a French American artist who once called San Diego home.

Other pieces amid the park’s climbing rings, slides, swings and interactive fountains include a dazzling African American baseball player in a red shirt and blue and silver mosaic pants. It’s so kinetic you can almost hear the crack of his shiny gold bat. Look for more of her magical artworks around town, such as the long green “Nikigator” outside the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park. — MF

Info: 1600 Pacific Highway; open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Waterfront Park.

Points North: La Jolla

The Torrey Pines Gliderport, a windy haven atop a 300-foot sandstone cliff toward the north end of La Jolla, is a great place to watch the hang gliders and paragliders as they get in sync with the wind, then launch themselves. Once they catch an updraft, they can hang around for quite a while gliding above the clifftop.

Torrey Pines Gliderport sits on a cliff top in La Jolla next to the UC San Diego campus.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Between human launches, you can wander over to see the model aircraft enthusiasts heaving their models skyward and piloting them remotely. Or check out the Gliderport’s most notable recent addition — falconry lessons at the Total Raptor Experience, which includes a large enclosure in which several falcons roost between flights. (The 90-minute lesson [$77] includes calling the birds to and from hand-held perches.)

At some point, belly up to the Cliffhanger Café for soup, salad or a sandwich. (Prices top off at $9.49.)

If you want a little more nature and a little more exercise, there’s a steep trail to Black’s Beach, popular with nudists and skilled surfers (it’s a demanding break). The clothing-optional zone runs from the bottom of the trail to the north for about a mile. — CR

Info: 2800 Torrey Pines Scenic Drive, La Jolla; (858) 452-9858.

UC San Diego, home to 28,000 undergraduates, is best known for its top-ranked science programs. But it’s also a great place to visit for arts and architecture. Its Geisel Library (William L. Pereira Associates, 1970), in particular, looks like a spaceship from a planet where concrete was cheap.

Scattered throughout the 1,200-acre main campus are 20 pieces of public art that make up the still-growing Stuart Collection. The colorful “Sun God” (Niki de Saint Phalle, 1983) was the first and may be the most beloved. But I have a soft spot for Terry Allen’s “Trees” (1986), which includes two faux eucalyptus trees concealed within a eucalyptus grove. Their surfaces are wrapped in gray lead and periodically they “talk” — that is they play recorded songs, poems and stories.

And if that sparks your interest in performing arts, well, the La Jolla Playhouse, one of the top regional theaters in the West, is housed on the UCSD campus. — CR

Info: UCSD, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla; (858) 534-2230; La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla; (858) 550-1010.


Who would pay $35 to take a nap and read? Someone who just can’t seem to turn off the noise, perhaps. You can find a cloak of silence and a bit of history at Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, which offers an eight-hour retreat from the world, or Quiet Days, as they’re called.

Quiet Days at Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside offer a chance for you to do what you want for eight hours.
(Catharine M. Hamm / Los Angels Times)

You register, show up at 9 a.m. and find your room (twin beds, desk and sink) with a locking door and a bathroom with toilets and showers just down the hall. You are free to roam the grounds of the mission established in 1798 by Fermín Francisco Lasuén, attend Mass if you wish (not required), enjoy a lunch (sandwich, salads, cookies the day I was there) and generally spend the eight hours doing whatever you want.

On a rainy Monday, my wants were more sleep, reading a “serious” book (as opposed to, say, a murder mystery), wandering the gardens of the 56-acre grounds (roses had been pruned for winter so they are not as pretty as they will be) and generally savoring the absence of electronic intrusions. Worth it? Yes. At twice the price. — CH

Info:4050 Mission Ave., Oceanside; (760) 757-3659. See for more on one-day retreats, which cost $35 and require reservations. Longer retreats are available.


Take your basic U-shaped two-story motel from the ’60s, update it with a smidge of Midcentury Modern and, voilà, you have the Pearl. The simply furnished guest rooms — my mattress sat on what appeared to be a shipping pallet — do have one sweet feature: Each is home to a betta swimming placidly in a fishbowl attached to a wall. (Scooter may have been my best roommate ever.) The 23-room lodge, about a 10-minute drive from the airport, is convenient to Liberty Station and Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. — AH

Info: 1410 Rosecrans St.; (619) 226-6100; the Pearl. 10 parking spots; street parking OK. Rooms from $159 a night.

Tropical hideaway Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn on Shelter Island has its own restaurant and concert venue as well as a pool area with a bar and Jacuzzi. The spacious rooms have views of the water and the “island” is laid-back and away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Just a 10- to 15-minute drive from downtown and most attractions such as the Cabrillo National Monument. — CA

Info: 2303 Shelter Island Drive; (619) 224-3411 Humphrey’s Half Moon Inn. Doubles from $199.

Hotel Z in the Gaslamp Quarter is within walking distance of teeming neighborhood clubs and bars as well as Petco Park — no Uber or Lyft needed. It’s a Staypineapple hotel, a brand that strives to be the life of the party — and sort of succeeds. Guestroom doors are covered with surreal scenes that tease what’s inside: Floating goldfish? Zoo animals? A bushel of pineapples? Visitors make their bed using two rolled-up duvets and a slew of pillows. (There’s a flashcard to help in case you’re stumped.) The friendly staff, free suite upgrade, a robe to lounge in and free breakfast were part of a recent experience. One drawback: $45 a day to valet park; nearby lots charge less than half the price. Doubles from $110, plus $20 nightly fee and tax. — MF

Info: 521 6th Ave.; (619) 330-6401, Hotel Z.

The Sofia, on the edge of the Gaslamp Quarter, is a boutique hotel whose common areas are polished and pretty and whose rooms are snug but comfortable. Two drawbacks: The cost of my $137-a-night-room grew because of more than $17 in taxes, including the transient occupancy tax, and a $15.58 guest services fee, which included Wi-Fi, which I used, and bikes, which I didn’t. Tack on $38 for valet parking and my bill was more like $210. — CH

Info: 150 W. Broadway, San Diego; (619) 234-9200, the Sofia, Doubles from $144.

Coronado’s 29-room La Avenida Inn provided a comfortable room and a good beach-friendly location. It’s a short walk to the swank Hotel del Coronado, where you can peek in. The motel offers free parking and Wi-Fi, a pastry and coffee breakfast, and boogie boards if you need ’em. — MF

Info: 1315 Orange Ave., Coronado; (619) 435-3191, La Avenida Inn. Doubles from $169, plus tax and fees.

If you want to stay in the heart of buzzing Little Italy, La Pensione is for you. I asked for a quiet room away from the noise of India Street and the Piazza della Famiglia, and it was. The room was small, with limited amenities (tiny TV, $3 for bottled water), but the shimmery silver wallpaper was fun, and the roomy shower was great. Check-in was challenging; the hotel website does say its parking is limited, which means 20 spots for the 67-room hotel. There was no loading zone or valet service. I ended up parking overnight in an unfenced, open-air lot with no apparent security five blocks from the hotel. A.H.

Info: 606 W. Date St.; (619) 304-6866, La Pensione. Doubles from $150 a night.

Found hotel on the edges of San Diego’s Little Italy was a bargain at $94 on a winter’s night.
(Catharine M. Hamm / Los Angeles Times)

Found hotel, housed in a 1910 building in Little Italy, has several things going for it. First, the price. I paid $94 on a Sunday winter night, including tax, for a comfortable deluxe queen room with a kitchenette and a private bath. You can pay less, but you get less: Shared rooms with bunks mean you and your bunkies will share a bath as well. The upside: Prices per night start as low as $35 a person. (There are various iterations of rooms for those who require more privacy.) The common areas were inviting (including a spiffy outdoor gathering area that, alas, was unusable on a damp winter night). If you want parking, you’ll need to find it. Fortunately, I did, two blocks away, and my car was there the next morning. In all, a win for the budget traveler, especially because Found was several steps above “perfectly adequate.” — CH

Info: 505 W. Grape St., San Diego; (619) 230-1600, Found hotel. Deluxe queen from $119.

My room at the Bahia Resort had room to spare and even a shaded balcony from which to enjoy the view of Mission Bay. The stretch of beach in front of my room was lined with cabana-beds that served as a welcoming beacon for guests. Also just outside my window was an old-timey paddle boat that I hoped might have a casino on it. It didn’t, but it’s free to hotel guests and it takes you across the bay to the Bahia’s sister location, the Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa. After 9 p.m. the boat turns into a 21-plus nightclub with $5 specials on Fridays and Sundays.

998 W. Mission Bay Drive; (858) 488-0551, Bahia Resort. Doubles from $165.


Charles + Dinorah, the Pearl hotel’s small bar and restaurant named for the original owners, opens onto a small saltwater swimming pool. As you dine or float you can watch classic movies on a large screen attached to the building. The C+D winter salad ($11) with baby gem lettuce, charred dates and acorn squash, and two orders of skewers — pork belly ($12) and chicken ($10) — were just the right mix of crunch and comfort on a January night. — AH

Info: 1410 Rosecrans St., (619) 226-6100 Mains from $16.

Harbor Breakfast serves that — and lunch too — in two bright blue rooms on a less frenetic stretch of India Street in Little Italy.The menu covers all the breakfast basics — the pumpkin pancakes ($8) were scrumptious— and there’s counter service and outdoor seating too. — AH

Info: 1502 India St.; (619) 450-7926, Harbor Breakfast. Omelets $14-$15, crab Benedict $16.

Caffe Italia in Little Italy on Jan. 19.
(Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times)

Settle down at cozy Caffe Italia and have a cup of Italian coffee or espresso. Its menu is mostly paninis and salads, but there’s a waffle bar at Sunday brunch. It also has a gelato counter that features locally made flavors, so you may find yourself wondering if it’s OK to eat gelato for breakfast. (The answer is yes. Especially if you’re ordering one of its blended gelato drinks.) — CA

Info: 1704 India St.; (619) 234-6767, Caffe Italia. Lunch from $6.25.

Prado is part of the Cohn Restaurant group, a dining juggernaut in San Diego with restaurants that run the gamut from sassy to snazzy. Balboa Park’s Prado is the latter, offering the ideal prescription for a pleasant meal: If it’s a pretty day, get seated outdoors to soak up more Balboa vibe and peruse the menu. You can have vegetarian, greens, duck, beef; the menu touches most all of the notes. I chose the trio of grilled skewers (steak with chipotle honey, chicken with cashew curry, shrimp with mango ginger sauce on Asian slaw.) It was just enough in a just-right setting. — CH

Info: 1549 El Prado, Balboa Park; (619) 557-9441, Prado. Lunch main dishes from $13.50, dinner from $24.

Here’s what elevated Blind Lady Ale House, a Normal Heights pizza-y joint (it also has charcuterie and mussels and fries): a vegan pesto pizza among its more cheesy and meaty cousins. I’m not vegan, but I don’t eat cheese and I really miss pizza. This one, with cremini mushrooms, pickled onions and arugula ($16), was enough for lunch and dinner. (I could have skipped the veggies and been perfectly fine with the crust.) Coupled with a Burgeon 3 Day Window IPA (chosen for me to go with the pizza), I practically floated out of Blind Lady Ale House, whose initials are BLAH but is anything but. — CH

Info: 3416 Adams Ave.; (619) 255-2491, Blind Lady Ale House. Pizzas from $11.

Reviewers seem to either love or hate Rolberto’s Taco Shop in Normal Heights. I’m in the fall in the love category. The front of this joint is nondescript, but I thought my carne asada nachos ($6.60) had a lot of personality (tender, flavorful meat helped, as did the sauce) and also could have fed a throng. You say you can’t judge a taco place by one dish? True. But the steady stream of returning customers late on a Saturday afternoon seemed to suggest a following. — CH

Info: 3462 Adams Ave, (619) 563-0438, Rolberto’s Taco Shop. Tacos from $2.55.

Breakfast at the Mission in Mission Beach offers creative dishes with a healthful edge, good for vegetarian and gluten-free diners. Soy chorizo and eggs with cream chipotle sauce, gluten-free cinnamon bread French toast and a Zen breakfast of egg whites and braised tofu share the menu with more mainstream breakfast burritos. It’s a good spot to linger over a cup of coffee (they don’t rush you). Follow up your meal with a stroll on the Mission Beach boardwalk or a spin on the classic Giant Dipper Roller Coaster. — MF

Info: 3795 Mission Blvd. (also in North Park and SoMa East Village); (858) 488-9060, Mission. Breakfast from $7.95.

Start with a parking plan (or maybe an Uber or Lyft) and a reservation at Plumeria in University Heights before you even think about dinner at this Thai vegetarian restaurant. The neighborhood is packed on weekends, and so is this cozy restaurant that’s a good choice for vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free diners. (Don’t worry about the menu’s tuna and fish options; they’re faux fish.) Entrees have an aesthetic appeal: A spicy eggplant entree came with a star-shaped bed of brown rice. Menu includes stir fries, noodle dishes, curries and more. — MF

Info: 4661 Park Blvd.; (619) 269-9989, Plumeria. Appetizers from $4.95, entrees from $11.75.

The large white Buddha on a pedestal at the entrance to Saigon on Fifth sets a soothing tone at this Vietnamese restaurant in Hillcrest, the city’s LGBTQ hub. And it’s fancy without being pricey. You can spend time digesting the long list of menu options or go straight to the pho. Most use a beef-based broth, but when asked the kitchen produced a vegetarian version with fried tofu that didn’t skimp on spicy flavor. Insider tip: The restaurant validates parking for two hours at an underground lot off 5th Avenue. — MF

Info: 3900 5th Ave.; (619) 501-8988, Saigon on Fifth. Appetizers from $5.95, pho dishes from $10.95.

The Tijuana-style adobada (spicy pork) tacos with cilantro and avocado sauce at Tacos El G in the San Diego neighborhood of National City on Jan. 20.
(Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times)

A month had passed since I first feasted at Tacos El Gordo, and I was itching to get back to the creamy avocado-sauce-covered spicy pork tacos that haunted my dreams. I tried to find Tijuana-style adobada tacos in Los Angeles and I couldn’t find an equivalent. If you go during peak hours, you could wait in line for a long while. On my February trip I arrived at 7 p.m. on a Saturday and stood in line for an hour and 45 minutes. But on my first trip in January, I strolled in at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning and had to wait only 10 minutes. This place is so happening that it opened another location around the corner, and the drive-thru line stretches almost half a block. — CA

Info: 556 Broadway, Chula Vista; (619) 691-8848, Tacos $2.40 each.

The breakfast taco with chorizo, bacon, an overeasy egg, sharp cheddar, cotija and avocado on a hand pressed flour tortilla at ¡Salud! in the San Diego neighborhood of Barrio Logan on Jan. 20.
The breakfast taco with chorizo, bacon, an overeasy egg, sharp cheddar, cotija and avocado on a hand pressed flour tortilla at ¡Salud! in the San Diego neighborhood of Barrio Logan on Jan. 20.
(Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times)

You’re likely to encounter a line at ¡Salud!, a popular taco spot in Barrio Logan, but you’ll have plenty to look at with art-covered walls that reflect the vibrant culture of nearby Chicano Park. Of the many tacos on the menu, the breakfast taco ($4.50) stood out: It was filled with bacon, cheddar, avocado and a runny egg that brought it all together. There’s also a “not taco” part of the menu. — CA

Info: 2196 Logan Ave. ; (619) 255-3856, ¡Salud! Tacos from $2.50.