Beach life ... San Diego offers a diverse glimpse into California's summer lifestyle. Photo: Getty Images
From the beach to the zoo and beyond, this is the best San Diego has to offer.
1 California's birthplace
As the site where the first Europeans set foot on the US west coast, San Diego oozes history and culture. The Cabrillo National Monument, on Point Loma, marks the spot where Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo stepped out of his ship after sailing into the bay under a Spanish flag in 1542. The lookout has a visitors' centre, an old lighthouse and unbeatable views of the city skyline, mountains and Pacific Ocean.
San Diego dreaming
Laid-back ... Ocean Beach, San Diego. Photo: Getty Images
2 Old Town
Peel beneath the touristy veneer to find the best of this lively district. Presidio Park is recognised as the area where Spanish settlers initially resided, as showcased in the Junipero Serra Museum. Nearby Whaley House, on a former gallows site, is one of only two officially designated haunted houses in the state. Old Town is one of the most reliable places for authentic Mexican food, without having to cross the border to Tijuana. The shops are fun and colourful, too. Sample fresh toffee at Cousin's Candy, make your own candles at Toby's, or pick up souvenirs at the open-air market. On Friday nights, enjoy live music (and awesome guacamole) at the outdoor Casa de Reyes. fiestadereyes.com.
3 Gaslamp Quarter
Old Town ... where Spanish settlers originally resided. Photo: AFP
The heart of the city's nightlife beats along these 16 blocks, particularly 5th and 6th avenues. Kicking off at 4pm in most bars, happy hour usually lasts two or three. Then the revelry continues at popular venues such as Quality Social and Side Bar, or Croces for live jazz. A good place to people-watch over a fresh seafood dinner is Blue Point Coastal Cuisine, on the corner of Market Street. Finish up at Fluxx dance club to see the adult-sized tree house and five-metre rope chandelier. On your way home, note the historic Victorian buildings, preserved from the days of the Wild West. In the late 1800s, Wyatt Earp ran three gambling halls in this red-light district. bluepointsd.com.
4 Rooftop bars
A sexy space to sip under the stars sits atop the Andaz Hotel. Ivy Rooftop has a swimming pool, swinging chairs and beds for reclining while imbibing. Other hot spots in the cool breeze include Altitude, on top of the Marriott, and Stingaree on 6th Avenue. Bursting to return to the social scene is the W Hotel's newly renovated rooftop beach bar, complete with a heated sand floor, fire pits and private cabanas. W's downstairs Living Room is also buzzing on the weekends, and the finger food is good, too. thewsandiegohotel.com.
5 USS Midway
The city's top-rated attraction on Trip Advisor, the USS Midway aircraft carrier was part of the US Navy fleet for 47 years and is now open to the public as a museum. Home to more than 200,000 sailors during the Vietnam and Gulf wars, the massive vessel had tiny quarters for its crew. After touring inside, head up to the top deck to see 25 restored fighter jets and bombers. Based at Navy Pier on San Diego Bay, the Midway dwarfs the cruise ships docked nearby. midway.org.
6 San Diego Zoo
Spread across 40 hectares, the famous zoo is home to 4000 animals, including hundreds of rare and exotic species. Take the Sky Tram (cable car) to absorb the magnitude of the site and get off near the polar bear plunge pool, which has glass panels for easy viewing. Then walk downhill past the zebras and line up to see the critically endangered giant pandas. A guided bus tour is also available for an added experience. sandiegozoo.org.
7 Balboa Park
With 15 museums, art galleries, a theatre and eight gardens, an entire day should be set aside for the largest urban cultural park in the US. The zoo is next door, so get there early to cover the whole shebang. Highlights include two Smithsonian affiliates: the National Air and Space Museum, displaying one-of-a-kind aircraft and spacecraft, and the Museum of Man, celebrating the diversity of the human race. balboapark.org.
8 Fish tacos
San Diego is renowned for this tasty snack of corn tortillas filled with battered fish, crispy cabbage, pico de gallo salsa and creamy Mexicana sauce. This style of taco was introduced to the local beaches by surfers from Baja California and it's still being perfected everywhere from food trucks to fine-dining establishments. South Beach Bar & Grille, in Ocean Beach, claims to serve the world's best mahi-mahi taco, but people on foodie website Yelp rave about the Casanova stand at the UTC Farmers' Market. casanovafishtacos.com.
9 High-tide dining
The Marine Room at La Jolla Beach is the ultimate waterfront restaurant. During high tide, the surf comes up to the floor-to-ceiling windows and, on a good day, dramatically crashes against the glass. Executive chef Bernard Guillas (who travels annually to Melbourne to take part in the Children's Hospital fund-raiser) specialises in French cuisine and seafood, but you could also try elk or the amazing desserts. Reservations for brunch and dinner are recommended. marineroom.com.
10 Beach life
More than 100 kilometres of coastline provides a diverse glimpse into California's summer lifestyle. Connecting Pacific Beach and Mission Beach is a five-kilometre boardwalk that functions as a parade of the young and the flawless, from buff joggers to bikini-topped roller skaters. Ocean Beach has more of a laid-back, almost hippie vibe and it's where you can eat Hodad's legendary burgers. Across the bridge, Coronado Beach is good for families, with designated areas for volleyball, kite-flying and sandcastle building. La Jolla Shores is also gentle and child-friendly, allowing for excellent snorkelling and kayaking.
Developed 130 years ago as a haven for the rich and famous, this ocean-front community maintains an air of luxury. Dominating the landscape is Hotel del Coronado, the world's largest hotel when it was built in 1888 and which later provided the backdrop for the Marilyn Monroe film Some Like it Hot. Admire the mansions, Duchess of Windsor Cottage and the Museum of History and Art, which highlights the military life on the island.
12 Trolley tour
City tours can be a bore, but the drivers employed by this company are a special blend of comedian and historian. The jump-on-jump-off Old Town Trolley covers more than 100 points of interest, including Coronado, Balboa Park, the zoo and downtown. A good idea is to spend your first day on this tour and then use it to get to Little Italy or Old Town for dinner. trolleytours.com/san-diego.
SeaWorld is closer, but Legoland California is a plastic playground for kids as well as adults reliving their childhoods. Thirty minutes north of downtown San Diego, the theme park shows off amazing constructions comprising millions of Lego bricks and rides for under-13s. A new section features six live-action displays of scenes from the Star Wars movies. And at the world's first Lego-themed water park, children can customise their own soft Lego rafts and race down the six-person slide. california.legoland.com.
14 Petco Park
This is arguably the country's greatest venue to watch baseball, largely because of its convenience and views. Apart from a wonderful outlook over San Diego and its harbour, Petco Park claims to have the best sight lines in baseball. It's walkable from the city centre (about 20 minutes from the Santa Fe train station), or you can catch the MTS trolley to the door.
15 The Sofia
This is a hotel that gets it right: excellent service, free wi-fi, free bike hire, free guided walking tours on weekends and an in-room microwave for reheating those doggie-bag leftovers from American-sized meals. An unusual feature is its 24-hour yoga and pilates room with an on-call instructor. Handy for all kinds of visitors, The Sofia is close to the main Amtrak station and the cruise ship terminal, and 10 minutes from the airport. thesofiahotel.com.
16 Normal Heights
With a name such as that, it's no wonder this village tries hard to be quirky. Artists and musicians create a free-spirited environment where you can browse antiques, vintage shops and cafes. Head to Adams Avenue for retro art and home decor, and be greeted by the resident cats at the bookstore. For live music, the 24-hour Lestat's Coffee House holds nightly gigs and sometimes welcomes well-known singers to its intimate stage.
17 Torrey Pines State Reserve
Named after the Torrey Pine tree, this reserve is just north of La Jolla and is a lovely place to see indigenous wildlife in its native environment. Take a hike to Blacks Beach, popular with nudists as well as surfers. The Torrey Pines Gliderport is the only place on the west coast for visitors to go paragliding and hang-gliding. torreypines.org.
18 Craft-beer crawl
San Diego's craft beers have been recognised with international awards, and there are hundreds of brewpubs and tasting rooms to find out why. North Park's 30th Street is described by biased locals as the best street in the world for craft beer. You can easily walk between a dozen bars and restaurants, including the dark and cosy Ritual Tavern, with a mediaeval atmosphere, and Toronado, offering 50 beers on tap and 230 in bottles.
19 Mission Bay
This 1600-hectare aquatic playground is the largest facility of its kind in the world, with separate areas for swimming, sailing, jet-skiing, water-skiing and fishing. It takes a boat to explore the whole network of waterways, inlets and marinas. On the shore, people run, cycle, skate and have picnics. The park is so big that this is also the spot where you will find SeaWorld, in the south-east quadrant.
20 Little Italy
For some reason, the main thoroughfare in Little Italy is called India Street but, more predictably, it is lined with Italian restaurants and pizzerias. Further along is a wide selection of art galleries and design stores, while Fir Street has boutiques selling clothing, shoes and accessories. A nice place for a wander, leading to the beautiful Amici Park.