Planning, or dreaming of, a trip to California? Maybe you want sunshine and your traveling partner wants culture? Well, you can have both with a holiday in San Diego, focused around the city’s beautiful Balboa Park. This week-long itinerary offers activities without packing your schedule too full for relaxation. After all, what good is a vacation if you need another break to recover from it?
Porkyland in La Jolla
DAY 1 – Welcome
Welcome to San Diego! If you have a camera, some sunscreen, and an appetite for activity, you’re ready for your vacation.
Arrive via Amtrak or one of the many commercial airlines servicing San Diego’s Lindbergh Field Airport (SAN) and hail a cab. Go to your Victorian Bed & Breakfast, Keating House at 2331 2nd Avenue on Banker’s Hill in downtown San Diego. Arrive at Keating House at your previously arranged time. There is no set check-in time, instead you make a check-in appointment and one of the innkeepers greets you and handles your checking in. Check-out time is noon. Keating House is an authentic Victorian manor so each guest room is uniquely decorated. Each one is painted as it was in 1888, so you can enjoy rich Victorian colors. Eight rooms and one suite are available. Currently, room rates start at $115 (before tax) and include breakfast.
For your first evening in San Diego, walk or taxi to the Gaslamp Quarter for dinner. Restaurants are plentiful (I lost count at 75) and range from informal to gourmet fine dining. Whether you want pizza by the slice or a prime Porterhouse steak, the Gaslamp Quarter will send you home well-fed and happy. If given the option, try to get a table by the window or in an outdoor café so you can people watch. Trip Advisor is a helpful resource for restaurant recommendations in this neighborhood as well as all of San Diego (and the world).
DAY 2 – Art Museums
Start your morning with homemade breakfast at your B & B then set out to explore nearby Balboa Park, America’s largest urban cultural park. It was created as part of the California Pacific International Exposition of 1935-36. The Park boasts museums, restaurants, trails, gardens, the San Diego Zoo, and a wealth of cultural attractions and special events.
Keating House is about four blocks from Balboa Park so no driving is necessary (click here for walking directions). If you are traveling with someone whose mobility is impaired, Keating House has guest rooms on the first floor and a free tram drives within Balboa Park so you can save your energy for walking in the museums.
Consider buying a Passport Pass, such as Passport to Balboa Park ($39), Stay-For-A-Day Pass ($29) or Balboa Park Passport with San Diego Zoo Admission ($65). The standard Passport covers one adult admission to 13 of the Park’s attractions and is valid for up to seven days. Passports can be purchased at one of the participating Balboa Park museums or online.
For your first day there, start with the San Diego Museum of Art. Admission is included as part of the Passport, otherwise it is $12 per adult. Its fine art collection has been built up since the 1920s and it is yours to appreciate. Having spent your morning appreciating fine art, take a break to appreciate lunch at Sculpture Court Café (formerly Water’s Café). The Café is located in the outdoor Sculpture Court and Garden. The menu offers a wide selection with most things less than $15.
After lunch, stroll next-door to the Timken Museum of Art. Admission is free to enjoy the amazing works of classic European painters.
Enjoy dinner at The Prado within the Park, by the hospitality building. Their dinner menu is carefully considered and offered at city prices, main courses range from $20 to $37. When making reservations, ask for an outdoor table. The weather is almost always perfect in San Diego, so why not enjoy it. Also, if you want to beat the rush and catch your evening film, reserve your table for 5-5:30 p.m.
Wind down your day by enjoying a film at the Museum of Photographic Arts. Documentary and classic films are shown and admission varies (sometimes free). Though this museum is included on the Passport, a film showing is considered a special event and, therefore, possibly an additional entrance fee. It is worth the money if there is a double-feature of two films you’d never find at the local video rental store.
DAY 3 – San Diego Zoo
Get a good start with breakfast at your B & B, then walk to Balboa Park for your day at the world-famous San Diego Zoo. With so many animals and plants to observe, you will not be short of things to see at the Zoo.
After all that walking, you’ll be ready to eat like a bear so Lunch at Albert’s or one of the other restaurants or cafes within the Zoo. Albert’s is named for the Zoo’s Silverback Gorilla and is the only Zoo restaurant to serve beer and wine. After lunch, continue touring the Zoo and don’t forget to wear sunscreen.
To cap off an active day at the Zoo, have a casual dinner at Hob Nob Hill. The restaurant is located at 2271 1st Avenue, about two blocks from Keating House. Hob Nob Hill has been in its present location under the same management since 1946. They are all about quality without leaving your wallet too empty. Some might say it is a place where you can count on getting the most bang for your buck (click here for a coupon from their website). The restaurant is open from 7am to 9pm every day of the week. Daily specials are available for lunch and for dinner, but standard menu items, like their tuna melt, are available for either meal. Dinners include soup or salad and your choice of potato, vegetable, or bread. For the perfect start to a refreshing summer meal, start your feast with their Gazpacho soup and finish with a delicious slice of pie.
DAY 4 – Old Town & Local History
After breakfast at your B & B, walk to Balboa Park. By now, it is becoming familiar and it’s the perfect time for you to learn about San Diego’s history and rich culture. Your first stop is the Museum of San Diego History. Admission is included in your Passport, otherwise $5. This museum houses a vast collection of historical documentation, photographs, and cultural artifacts. You will leave having connected with San Diego’s past. Exhibits bring perspective into how it has grown to become one of the largest cities in the United States.
Before, leaving the Park, stop in to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. If you are a railroad admirer, you will love this place. If you have not interest in trains, you can breeze through, getting the gist of its importance to western expansion.
Depart Balboa Park around 1pm and taxi or drive five miles north to the Old Town neighborhood. Mexican cafes and cantinas are plentiful in this section of San Diego. If the timing is right, you will have missed the lunch rush. You can select one at random and know that if it has managed to stay in business with such healthy competition, it must be worth trying. The price seems to be right too! Food Network has mentioned one restaurant in particular as being a good value. Last I heard, Old Town Mexican Café hosts a fiesta every single Friday, but evidently good times and good food are there every night of the week.
Spend your afternoon browsing the shops of Old Town. This may be a nice place to look for a souvenir or two. Next to gifts from a museum gift shop, non-touristy goodies overshadow more generic purchases.
Taxi back to Keating House for a quick nap or to write some postcards, then walk to Hob Nob Hill for dinner. Two nights in a row makes you a regular customer. Since specials are changed daily, you can try something completely different or stick with a favorite. This also helps balance out the vacation budget given the expense of dining out.
DAY 5 – Space, Sports & Science
Sleep a little later today, you deserve it. Once you’ve refueled with breakfast at your B & B, walk over to Balboa Park. This morning, explore a different section of the Park. Begin your tour at the San Diego Aerospace Museum. Admission is included with a Passport, otherwise it is $15 per adult. It has a mind-boggling number of retired aircrafts and uniquely insightful exhibits on air exploration. Spend the rest of your morning roaming the San Diego Automotive Museum and San Diego Hall of Champions, just steps from each other and in the same cul-de-sac as the Aerospace Museum.
When you are ready for lunch, consider Time Out Café in the Hall of Champions. As a deli, prices are reasonable and outdoor benches are available. You can even get beer and wine there. Another suggestion is to proceed to your afternoon destination, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, and eat lunch at Galileo Café. Sandwiches, salads, and pizza dominate the family-friendly menu.
Spend your afternoon in the cool IMAX theatre enjoying a show. It is a good plan to purchase your tickets earlier in the day or before you eat lunch to make sure you have a seat for the show. Matinees are usually shown around 1:00 p.m., but schedules may change so it’s best to check online. After your IMAX film, explore the Science Center all afternoon.
Wander to the Gaslamp District again and have dinner in one of the neighborhood’s many restaurants. Then taxi back to your B & B for a good night’s rest.
DAY 6 – Coronado
Sleep in on your last full day in San Diego. After a delicious breakfast, take a taxi to Broadway Pier to take the Regular All Day Ferry to the Coronado Ferry Landing Marketplace. For schedule information, visit: . Take the shuttle bus from there to downtown Coronado. One-way fare is $2.25 per person.
Arrive in downtown Coronado and wander the quaint streets. This is a perfect time to pick up any last-minute non-touristy souvenirs or to treat yourself to a new hat. For lunch, there are numerous options in the downtown area of Coronado, but today you will be dining at the famous Hotel Del Coronado’s Sheerwater Restaurant. You can find a burger or fresh fish, it all depends what you like. An ocean view is the perfect accompaniment for your lunch, so soak up the Pacific from this historic landmark.
After lunch, wander the beach and shop in the resort’s stores. Take your time enjoying Coronado before returning to the Ferry Landing to float back across to Broadway Pier. After you have returned from your day’s adventure on Coronado, taxi back to your B & B to pack for your departure the following day. For dinner, pamper yourself with fine Mediterranean cuisine at Cucina Urbana (formerly Laurel). When I dined there, they offered a special early three-course dinner menu for $35 per person between 5:00 and 6:00pm daily, but under a new name I am unsure what of the prior establishment has carried over. The new menu is online.
DAY 7 – Bon Voyage
On your last morning in San Diego, make sure you have a good breakfast at your B & B and finish packing. If there is one more museum you want to see at Balboa Park or a souvenir you wish you’d bought, you still have time to get that taken care of.