A mild and sunny winter awaits those who want to explore California’s activity-packed second-biggest city. Simon Calder reports
Why go now?
The word ‘winter’ in southern California means mild temperatures and sunny days. The state's second city (after Los Angeles) perches prettily on the world's biggest ocean just above the Mexican border. Whether you plan a great California road trip or a journey south of the border into Mexico, San Diego is a great city to start or end an adventure.
Fares for the daily service from Heathrow to San Diego on British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) start at around £500.
San Diego's Lindbergh Field is spectacularly located close to downtown: on a good day you can get from reclaim to reception in 10 minutes.
A taxi will whisk you downtown for around $20 (£13). Bus 992 runs every half-hour at weekends and on weekday evenings, and every 15 minutes from Monday to Friday during the day. It serves the city's railway station, Santa Fe Depot, then runs along Broadway to its terminus at City College Trolley Station.
The fare for the 20-minute journey is $2.25 (£1.50, exact change only). Or buy a $5 (£3.30) Day Pass, valid on all buses and trolleys (as trams are known). For public transport information, you can call 511 free within San Diego, or see sdmts.com.
Get your bearings
While San Diego has 70 miles of coastline, with a wave of beaches rippling up the coast, the downtown area is compact — confined within the bounds of San Diego Bay and the San Diego Freeway . Broadway is the east-west axis. The revitalised Gaslamp Quarter runs six blocks south from here, with 5th Avenue as the main artery. The International Visitor Information Center has just moved alongside the Cruise Ship Terminal at 1140 North Harbor Drive (001 619 236 1212; sandiego.org; 9am-4pm daily, longer in summer).
Broadway is an excellent location. All three hotels recommended here are historic properties; rates exclude breakfast. The hotel with the greatest heritage is the U S Grant at 326 Broadway (001 619 232 3121; usgrant.net). It is named after Ulysses Simpson Grant, the US president and Civil War commander, and is owned by Native American investors; the lavish interior has a small exhibition of artifacts. A Classic Superior room costs as little as $179 (£119) online. Ask for a tour of the hotel even if you are not staying there.
The name is the address at Hotel 500 West (001 619 231 4092; 500westhotelsd.com), a more modest but characterful location that houses the YMCA in the basement; the association used to run the whole building, but it is now operated as a ‘hybrid hotel’. The location, almost next door to Santa Fe Depot, is excellent. Doubles cost $78 (£52), twins $89 (£59).
Close by, beside the just-closed Greyhound bus terminal at 150 West Broadway, is the Sofia Hotel (001 619 234 9200; thesofiahotel.com), which opened in 1927 as the flagship hotel for the Pickwick bus company, and was the first property in town with all en-suite bathrooms. The current internet rate for the stylish rooms is $181 (£121). Guests are offered free tours of the Gaslamp Quarter on Saturdays and Sundays, at 9am.
Take a view ...
... from the runway of the aircraft carrier USS Midway, which for a decade from her launch in 1945, was the biggest vessel in the world (and the first too big to fit through the Panama Canal). She saw service in Korea, Vietnam and the first Gulf War. Since 2004, she has provided visitors with the inside story on a giant war machine — and great views of the city and bay from deck (001 619 544 9600; midway.org; 10am-5pm daily, admission $18/£12).
Take a hike
To match the vast scale of the ship, a gigantic sculpture of a sailor sweeping his sweetheart off her feet stands on the shore close to the Midway. Walk south-east along the shore from here to the Seaport Village, a touristy enclave. Continue along the shore until you reach the gleaming Convention Center — which, as a largely windowless hulk, pointlessly separates downtown from the water. Climb the steep steps, pause to take in the view, then descend to the railroad tracks.
Make a note of Tin Fish in case you feel like cod and chips ($11.95/£8) later.
As the archway promises, this is the gateway to the Gaslamp Quarter — the once-seedy red-light district reinvented as the hub of downtown. Walk north along 5th Avenue, lined with Victorian and Spanish revival architecture.
Go left along Island Avenue to the William Heath Davis House . This prefabricated New England home was shipped around Cape Horn from Maine. It now serves as self-styled ‘curator’ of the Gaslamp Quarter (001 619 233 4692; gaslampquarter.org), and houses a museum of San Diego life (10am-6pm daily; Sunday noon-4pm; closed Monday; $5/£3.30). Just beyond, the Horton Grand Hotel takes you back to the Thirties and includes a museum (plus another lunch choice, the recently relocated Cheese Shop).
The other handsome redbrick structures on the walk up 5th Avenue to Broadway no longer deliver tattoos; they now house enterprises such as Croce’s (14) at 802 5th Avenue (001 619 2334355; croces.com), where the widow of singer Jim Croce has created a jazz bar and restaurant in his memory.
Lunch on the run
Unless Croce’s entices you, divert temporarily south of the border. Valentine’s at 844 Market Street (open 8.30am or earlier, closes midnight or later), serves Mexican fast food with panache — and horchata, the delicious rice-and-vanilla drink. More than you can eat costs around $6 (£4).
Unusually for a US city, San Diego has a big, diverse mall in the middle of downtown. The Horton Plaza Mall offers a vast array of retail outlets, from Macy's to Banana Republic, within a compact downtown location with a sharp sense of design. Macy's offers overseas visitors an 11% discount (though sales tax will push up marked prices by 8%). Close by, Le Travel Store emigrated from the Horton Plaza to a former ‘labor temple’ (trade-union hall), built in 1907 at 745 4th Avenue. This is just the place to get kitted out for an adventure south of the border to Tijuana or Tierra del Fuego, or for an exploration of San Diego's remarkable hinterland.
Head for the ocean, or at least the Bay, to catch happy hour at Anthony's Fishette. This friendly restaurant (001 619 232 5103; gofishanthonys.com) occupies a stubby pier. Happy-hour (5-7pm) cocktails are $5 (£3.30); tasty own-brand beer is $3 (£2); .
Dining with the locals
If you can drag yourself away from Anthony’s, San Diego's Little Italy is a walk away on India Street. Of the many options, Zucchero’s at no 1731 (001 619 531 1731; cafezucchero. com) is full of plants, colour and cheer. Everything is good value, including the fish of the day ($24/ £16). Ample pasta dishes are on offer at $15 (£10).
Sunday morning: take a ride
For a sense of San Diego's origins, take the blue trolley to the Old Town San Diego stop. This State Historic Park is a curious combination of restored historic properties and tourist attractions — but beyond it is the Presidio, the hill where Junípero Serra, a Franciscan friar from Mallorca, established a Catholic settlement. San Diego started as the first Spanish mission in the present US; the I-8 freeway is a noisy distraction, but you can still sense the history. Then retrace your steps to take the Green Line to Mission San Diego.
Go to church
Shortly after the Presidio was constructed, the whole Christian enterprise was moved a few miles east to the Mission — where you can explore Serra's spartan dwelling, built around 1774, and the handsome ‘mother church’, the Basilica San Diego de Alcala (missionsandiego.com; 9am-4.45pm daily). From here the Camino Real, California's original highway, runs north for 600 miles, connecting 21 missions.
Out to lunch
Bus 13 from the Mission will take you to Hillcrest, the hub of San Diego's thriving gay and lesbian community centred on University Avenue. At number 350 (between 3rd and 4th Avenues), Bread & Cie is a stylish, barn-like venue that bakes its own and delivers feasts from smoked salmon to artichoke frittata.
A walk in the park
San Diego has America's finest urban park. From either Hillcrest or downtown, bus 7 cuts through Balboa Park every 12 to 15 minutes. Named after Vasco Nuñez de Balboa (the first European to see the Pacific), this extravagant collection of architecture, gardens and wilderness began as the location for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915. Pick up a map from the Information Center and explore the fascinating mix of Spanish architecture and effusive flora — such as a copy of the Alcázar gardens in Seville. Free park-ranger tours are at 1pm on Sundays and Tuesdays.
El Prado, the main axis of Balboa Park, is a boulevard lined with museums, from fine art to photography. The stand-out gallery is the small but impressive Tinken Museum of Art , which has a fine (and free) collection of works by Rembrandt, Rubens and El Greco (001 619 239 5548; tinkenmuseum.org; 10am-4.30pm daily except Monday, Sundays from 1.30pm).
Icing on the cake
If it slithers, splashes or simply sits and snacks, you can probably find it in San Diego Zoo. Residents of America's finest zoo include giant pandas, polar bears, orangutans and 800 other species. Open 9am-5pm daily (longer in summer); $42 (£28); 001 619 231 1515; sandiegozoo.org.