The southernmost California town, which borders Tijuana, is dripping in Mexican history.
The city was under Mexican rule until the mid-1800s, when it was acquired by the US and became part of California. Yet more than 160 years down the track, San Diego offers the best of both worlds. You can be chomping down on a fish taco at Galaxy Taco in La Jolla for lunch, then spend the afternoon at Balboa Park, home to 17 museums, before dropping by Old Mexico Town for dinner.
There’s a lot to be gleaned from visiting the city that is also the gateway to a country Donald Trump has destined to be hidden behind a wall. Even the names of San Diego towns are pronounced in Mexican, so don’t be put out if a local politely but promptly corrects you.
The upmarket coastal suburb of La Jolla (pronounced “La Hoya”) is where you can down delicious fish tacos, either before or after you spend an hour on a guided tour – on a paddle board out in the Pacific Ocean.
La Jolla is also home to possibly one of the most prestigious public golf courses in the world, Torrey Pines. It held the 2008 US Open and the Major returns in 2021 – and it’s one of more than 90 in the city.
If you haven’t got time to get out on the water or enjoy a round of golf then visit Mount Soledad, which is easy to spot because of the massive cross that sits on top.
Mount Soledad, which is home to a war memorial, provides a panoramic view of San Diego and the coastline. On top of the hill, there’s also the house where Theodore Geisel lived and wrote a number of his famous Dr Seuss books.
The house of another famous author, Frank L Baum, is also worth a drive past at 1101 Star Park Circle, Coronado, which is easy to spot because the sign, “Wizard Of Oz Ave” sits over the front door.
The home is about a 10-minute walk from the iconic Hotel del Coronado, which was inspiration for the Emerald City in Baum’s Wizard Of Oz books and also featured in the 1958 Marilyn Monroe film Some Like It Hot (although it was called the Seminole Ritz).
The 129-year-old architectural wooden Victorian resort-style hotel is where you can have the most lavish of breakfast buffets and look out across manicured lawns to a whirring Pacific Ocean. Its original elevator has a driver and its most requested room, if you’re game, is 3327, which is purportedly haunted by the ghost of writer Kate Morgan, who was staying at the hotel when she was shot and killed in 1892.
Baum and Geisel may be two of the best-known writers to have lived in San Diego, but that’s no coincidence.
San Diego could easily be the cultural capital of California. Besides boasting so many museums, Balboa Park has two historic theatres that have jettisoned a number of major stage productions, like Jersey Boys, onto Broadway.
“There’s a snobbish view of the West Coast that it’s all about beaches,” says the city’s passionate Tourism Authority spokesman Joe Timko. “[But] there are so many other layers – and under-appreciated is the cultural aspect of California and particularly, San Diego.
“If you look at the history of La Jolla playhouse and the Old Globe (theatre), you will see productions that were produced and originated there that eventually went on to New York to win Tony Awards.”
Timko makes a point of highlighting the arts and the diversity of food that makes San Diego a more intriguing and culturally deeper tourist destination than cities that rely on theme parks and man-made attractions to lure visitors.
The Mexican border city of Tijuana is about a half hour’s drive from the CBD and crossing the border is way too easy. There’s no stopping, so if you take a wrong turn, you could easily end up in Mexico – and if you haven’t got your passport, getting back to the US could be tricky.
Timko says San Diego is proud of its Mexican history and influences, and it’s not uncommon for the city and Tijuana to work together on arts events.
“A lot of their displays or shows have Spanish and English language,” he says. “We do complement each other. Our Spanish population is very large and there are people who work and do things across the border.
“[Mexico] is very much an influence and we embrace and we accept it and respect it quite a bit.”
Getting there: There are no direct flights to San Diego from Australia but you can fly via Los Angeles with either Virgin Australia or Qantas. The total travel time is about 16 hours. Or you can hire a car at LAX for the 200km drive south, which will take some 2.5 to 3 hours.
Staying thre: Estancia La Jolla – If you’re looking for something relaxing and away from the hustle and bustle of San Diego, then this resort is perfect. The retreat has a Spanish hacienda-style facade, a large pool and a choice of quality restaurants. Prices start from around $US300 ($A390) per night. The Lodge, at Torrey Pines – A luxury 170-room hotel on the grounds of the Torrey Pines Golf Course (36 holes) start at $US450 per night.
Playing there: Balboa Park is home to 17 museums and is only two kilometres from the heart of San Diego. The Park also backs on to San Diego Zoo. There’s also a day trip to Mexico with Baja Winery Tours. You can walk around Tijuana or spend a day checking out food and wine at Valle de Guadalupe, about an hour’s drive into Baja California. If you’re contemplating driving to Mexico, be mindful that almost all car hire companies will not provide insurance for vehicles driven into Mexico. The vendors in Mexico are open to bartering but they also know how to stand their ground, so do your homework on how much to pay for a poncho, pinata or an Aztec print dress.
The writer travelled as a guest of San Diego Tourism.
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