With 248 sunny days a yearand verdant hillsides covered by bougainvillea-clad casitas, San Diego epitomizes all of southern California's considerable appeal. After decades of suffering from an image problem, the city has finally blossomed. Want great food?Endless beaches?Desert hiking?It's all here. Downtown, the revitalization of the Gaslamp Quarter has created parallel restaurant rows along Fourth and Fifth Avenues. Whether it's burgeoning clubs that lure San Diegans out well after midnight, or a handful of boutiques stylish enough to play in Paris or New York, the city is in its prime.
HOTEL CALIFORNIA: WHERE TO STAY When visiting San Diego, keep in mind that laid-back Coronado is worlds apart from energetic downtown; fashionable La Jolla and funky Pacific Beach, though adjacent, are a study in contrasts. The W San Diego (421 W. B St.; 866/837-4147 or 619/231-8220; www.starwood.com; doubles from $229) is the newest—and most talked about—hotel. Le tout San Diego comes here to soak up attitude at Magnet bar, dine at Rice, or sip wacky martinis over giant Plexiglas chessboards in the electric-blue Living Room lounge. Ask for a room on a high floor to escape the noise from the late-night revelers below—and pray that the couple next door isn't planning an all-night party. • Two years ago the Bristol (1055 First Ave.; 800/662-4477 or 619/232-6141; www.thebristolsandiego.com; doubles from $239) got a major makeover; the formerly dowdy downtown lodge is now a boutique hotel with splashy red, yellow, and orange rooms and a Pop art lobby (Roy Lichtenstein's Oval Office greets guests as they check in). • Whether or not you play golf, you'll love looking out over the greens to the ocean from the Lodge at Torrey Pines (11480 N. Torrey Pines Rd., La Jolla; 888/826-0224 or 858/453-4420; www.lodgetorreypines.com; doubles from $325). The rooms at the California Arts and Crafts hotel (featured in T+L's June issue) average a spacious 560 square feet, with William Morris wallpaper and faithfully reproduced Tiffany lamps; Palisade rooms have fireplaces, and balconies overlooking the golf course. • The Mediterranean villa-style La Valencia Hotel (1132 Prospect St., La Jolla; 800/451-0772 or 858/454-0771; www.lavalencia.com; doubles from $300) has been known as the Pink Lady of La Jolla since it was built in 1926. The inviting lobby is classic southern California: Spanish tiles, wrought-iron chandeliers, and a drop-dead view of La Jolla Cove. Rooms in the palm-shaded main building could use an update, but the Ocean Villas, added three years ago, are beachy-cool. • The Hotel del Coronado (1500 Orange Ave., Coronado; 800/468-3533 or 619/435-6611; www.hoteldel.com; doubles from $270) completed a three-year, $55 million restoration in 2001. Its sandcastle charm and spectacular beach make it the gold standard for local resorts. Request one of the premier guest rooms in the historic Victorian building—they're larger than the quaint, but tiny, standard rooms. • Ambitious spa plans are under way at Loews Coronado Bay Resort (4000 Coronado Bay Rd., Coronado; 800/815-6397 or 619/424-4000; www.loewshotels.com; doubles from $149). The 10,000-square-foot spa, due to open in January, will include a garden with alfresco showers, outdoor treatment rooms, and a watsu pool.
THE LATEST DISH: WHERE TO EAT The fish taco once represented the culinary apogee in San Diego, but a flurry of openings has put the city in the gastronomic spotlight. In a town where tables at the most stylish restaurants go bare, A. R. Valentien (Lodge at Torrey Pines, 11480 N. Torrey Pines Rd., La Jolla; 858/777-6635; dinner for two $100) is an oasis of Riedel crystal and white piqué tablecloths. Chef Jeff Jackson chooses farm-fresh produce; his unfussy cooking highlights rather than overwhelms the ingredients, as in a simply prepared steak of wild king salmon, garnished with roasted wild asparagus and garden-fresh potatoes. • On the ground floor of La Jolla's Grande Colonial Hotel, the French doors of Nine-Ten (910 Prospect St., La Jolla; 858/964-5400; dinner for two $90) open onto the sidewalk. The menu offers tasting portions of all the main courses and makes experimenting a pleasure: creamy lobster risotto with porcini and white-truffle oil; intensely flavorful flatiron steak bathed in red wine sauce; ethereally light crème fraîche panna cotta with candied fennel and sautéed rhubarb topped with mint granita. • Little Italy's Indigo Grill (1536 India St.; 619/234-6802; dinner for two $60) is a reincarnation of the restaurant that chef Deborah Scott owned a block away in the mid nineties. The unusual concept, "native offerings from Oaxaca to Alaska," is reflected in the rustic-artsy décor. Warm sesame-and-pumpkin-seed-crusted Brie sounds a little risky, but bathed in a rich mole negro with roasted garlic, poblano chiles, and serrano jelly, it's a winner. • Though the Gaslamp Quarter's Fourth and Fifth Avenues are lined with many sidewalk restaurants, Aqua Blu (734 Fifth Ave.; 619/544-6456; dinner for two $85) is a standout for local seafood. The red-and-yellow beet salad, heightened by pink grapefruit and dotted with shiso microgreens, has a beguilingly minty flavor. • At Arterra (11966 El Camino Real; 858/369-6032; dinner for two $85), in the unfortunately sterile San Diego Marriott Del Mar, chef Bradley Ogden turns out smart, produce-driven (nearby Chino Farms is credited on the menu), Mediterranean-inspired American cuisine, and the kitchen opens onto the Danish-modern dining room. Order the fig salad: its late-summer sweetness is perfectly offset by a miniature Gorgonzola soufflé.
BUYING FRENZY: WHERE TO SHOP Sure, there are still stores with rows of flip-flops, racks hung with neon bathing suits, and shelves filled with silly snow globes, but San Diego also has a new crop of stylish stores that make it a worthy destination for serious shoppers. In white-hot Little Italy, a colorful stretch of boutiques makes up Fir Street Cottage Shops. Cathedral Home (611 W. Fir St.; 619/255-5861) stocks leather-and-suede Geometrico pillows in chocolate and chartreuse, and tall, pink Japanese floral vases. • Sorella Boutique (619 W. Fir St.; 619/232-9322) has red silk shantung dresses, cotton Bermuda shorts, and calico cowboy shirts by Anna Huling. • Niche (621 W. Fir St.; 619/615-0782) sells the trendiest shoes by Marc Jacobs as well as handbags by Ballroom and Lauren Merkin. • Nearby, in the Gaslamp Quarter, Divas on Fifth (542 Fifth Ave.; 619/235-0550) is the boutique for Mandalay dresses, low-rider jeans by Policy, and Stella Page handbags with découpage cowboy motifs. • Le Bel Age Boutique (1607 W. Lewis St.; 619/297-7080) has been a staple in the well-heeled Mission Hills neighborhood for 17 years; it's still popular for silk hostess pants from Harari and jewelry designed by owners Valerie Lee and Michala Lawrence. • Up the coast in La Jolla, Gallery Eight (7464 Girard Ave.; 858/454-9781) stocks handblown glass vases and bowls, ceramic jars painted with botanical motifs, and quilted silk jackets imported from India.
FEEL THE BEAT: NIGHTLIFE Though it may not burn as bright as L.A. after dark, San Diego has an impressive number of thriving lounges and several new design-forward clubs. With its stainless-steel bar seats and oscillating fiber-optic lights, Thin (852 Fifth Ave.; 619/231-7529), the sleek, street-level extension of Onyx, is the most stylish newcomer. Down-tempo music and acid jazz are a welcome departure from the techno beat at most clubs. • Havana meets South Beach at Deco's (731 Fifth Ave.; 619/696-3326), where the young, beautiful, and libidinous drink cocktails with names like In-Fidel Castro and Don's Johnson and strut their stuff on two dance floors. Upstairs is a patio with oh-so-Miami nightclub beds. • The W San Diego (421 W. B St.; 619/231-8220) has locals so heated up that they pose as hotel guests in order to skip the velvet rope. The bare-midriff crowd sips mojitos in the futuristic-mod Living Room or moon-bathes at the rooftop bar, Beach. • On the edge of Old Town, El Agave Tequileria (2304 San Diego Ave.; 619/220-0692) draws aficionados of añejo and reposado—they pour 850 tequilas in all.
DON'T MISS: MORE ESSENTIAL STOPS Pannikin 7467 Girard Ave., La Jolla; 858/454-5453. A La Jolla institution, where locals come for terrific pastries and coffee (try the mocha—espresso mixed with Mexican chocolate). • San Diego Zoo 2920 Zoo Dr., Balboa Park; 619/234-3153. Still one of the world's best. See giant pandas Gao Gao, Bai Yun, and Hua Mei. • Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego 700 Prospect St., La Jolla; 858/454-3541; www.mcasd.org. The permanent collection of 3,000 works focuses on artists from the last half-century. • Roberto's 2206 Carmel Valley Rd., Del Mar; 858/755-1629. The Del Mar outpost is the best of a chain of fish taco stands. • George's at the Cove 1250 Prospect St., La Jolla; 858/454-4244. San Diegans love to argue about which La Jolla restaurant has the best ocean view, but the terrace here tops our list for drinks at sunset.
LESLIE BRENNER is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure.
NEXT GREAT NEIGHBORHOOD: HILLCREST
This trendsetting area attracts hipsters who come for terrific used-book stores, stylish boutiques, vintage-clothing shops, intimate wine bars, coffeehouses, and restaurants. We've mapped out the best stops on the block.
1 California Fleurish 4011 Goldfinch St.; 619/291-4755. A pretty perfumery that also sells delicate silk scarves and fragile Japanese teacups.
2 Maison en Provence 820 Fort Stockton Dr.; 619/298-5318. Those red-and-white-checked Provençal ceramics you've always wanted are here, along with all things French: table linens, Orangina café trays, striped canvas market bags.
3 Parallel 33 741 W. Washington St.; 619/260-0033; dinner for two $70. Chef Amiko Gubbins creates dishes inspired by stops along the 33rd parallel, from Japan to India to Morocco.
4 El Cuervo Taco Shop 110 W. Washington St.; 619/295-9713. Hillcrest's best-kept secret: amazing tacos in an unassuming storefront.
5 Crush 530 University Ave.; 619/291-1717. A wine bar with 60 selections by the glass and Mediterranean tapas.
6 Mint 525 University Ave.; 619/291-6468. Retro-chic sneakers by Puma, Adidas, and Fornarina.
7 Wear It Again Sam 3823 Fifth Ave.; 619/299-0185. Expertly edited vintage: forties Mexican felt jackets, panama hats, collectible cowboy shirts.
Joan Embery WILDLIFE AMBASSADOR, SAN DIEGO ZOO
An active conservationist, Embery has lived in San Diego for 54 years. Here, she shares her five favorite things about her hometown.
1. Horseback riding in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park (12551 Hwy. 79, Descanso; 760/765-0755). "Both the easy route around the lake and the scenic route through the mountains are beautiful."
2. Shopping at Antique Warehouse (212 S. Cedros Ave.; 858/755-5156). "I like antiques—primitive and folk art—and the Cedros Design District in Solana Beach is a great place to find them."
3. Swimming off Fiesta Island (Fiesta Island Rd. at Sea World Dr.). "It's the perfect spot for a picnic. Plus, my yellow Lab, Traveler, and my weimaraner, Blue, love the water."
4. A day of bird-watching. "Start by seeing the pelicans at La Jolla Cove, and then drive through the Anza-Borrego Desert. You'll be at the Salton Sea a few hours later. This is the only area of the United States with such a range of topography and wildlife."
5. Sunday brunch at the Beach House (2530 S. Coast Hwy., Cardiff-by-the-Sea; 760/753-1321; brunch for two $50). "I was having brunch on the rocks once with a friend, watching the dolphins go by, when a wave crashed right on us and took our food with it."
BEST BEACHES: SAND, SURF, AND HARBOR SEALS
With 33 beaches, San Diego has a stretch of sand for every mood.
SNORKELING Beneath La Jolla Cove (1100 Coast Blvd., La Jolla) lies San Diego La Jolla Underwater Park & Ecological Reserve, where crystal-clear waters reveal a wealth of sea life, including bright orange garibaldi, tiger sharks, and spiny lobsters.
SURFING Made famous by Tom Wolfe in The Pumphouse Gang, Windansea Beach (6800 Neptune Place, La Jolla) is the spot for serious surfing. The thatched-roof surfboard hut, built during World War II, is a registered historic site.
MOST DRAMATIC A two-mile strand sheltered by imposing cliffs that hang gliders can't resist, Black's Beach (2800 Torrey Pines Scenic Dr., La Jolla) is also popular with nude sunbathers.
LONG WALKS At low tide, you can stroll along the whole coastline at Del Mar (Coast Hwy. at 17th Ave.)—from Black's Beach to Cardiff-by-the-Sea. Just don't forget your sunscreen.
BUILDING A SANDCASTLE The broad expanse of soft, white sand at Coronado Beach (Ocean Blvd. at Marina Blvd., Coronado) provides plenty of space and raw material to get creative.
MOST CONTROVERSIAL Harbor seals have colonized Children's Pool (850 Coast Blvd., La Jolla), a former favorite of dog-paddling tots, causing a raging kids-versus-animals debate citywide.
PEOPLE-WATCHING The busy boardwalk between Mission Bay and Pacific Beach (3141 Ocean Front Walk, Mission Beach) is home to a parade of bikinied babes, tattooed surfers, and skateboarders.