San Diego - The Original Spanish Mission

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Well over 100 years ago, legendary lawman Wyatt Earp walked the seedy streets of Downtown San Diego, keeping an eye on the houses of ill repute, gambling dens and the human detritus that congregated on its footpaths. Earp reportedly owned three bordellos himself in the infamous Gaslamp Quarter - also known as Fleatown and Rabbitville - and lawlessness was kept relatively under control for the sake of business. These days, the red light district is no more, but the Victorian townhouses, theatres and hotels have thankfully survived, and the area has undergone a major transformation over the past decade. 

The Gaslamp Quarter

It’s a city famous for its zoo and beaches, but San Diego is not just a one-dimensional destination - its Downtown has been restored and is buzzing with a new energy. It is a city that’s been reborn, and the 16 blocks that make up the Gaslamp Quarter is now listed on the US National Register of Historic Places. Gaslamp has gone through periods of boom and bust, and in the late 1970’s it was a slum which had been earmarked for demolition by developers.

Preservationists and town planners successfully fought to have the Gaslamp Quarter listed and protected, and in the last 10 years it’s become not just one big historical monument, but also one of the most happening entertainment districts in North America. More than 100 restaurants, 35 pubs and nightclubs and 100 retail shops as well as theatres, art galleries, offices and small loft apartments cram into the Gaslamp Quarter - and the renaissance is spreading throughout the Downtown.

Getting Around San Diego

Set between an imposing mountain range and a magnificent bay and 100km of sandy beaches, San Diego is a sprawling metropolis with fantastic weather that now has a heart thanks to the revival of Downtown. The grid system in the city makes for easy navigation and this part of San Diego is best explored on foot - the architecture in itself is something to behold and the cafe and bar scene is best discovered and enjoyed unplanned. This is a great way to discover that San Diego has the “hipness” of its big northern neighbour LA - without the pretentiousness. 

Getting around outside of the city centre is slightly more difficult - in typical Californian style everything is pretty spread out, so a rental car is a good option for a day or two after an exploration of the Downtown. Another option is the Old Town Trolley which is basically a hop-on-hop-off bus service that loops the city and its surrounds, taking in all the major tourist attractions. It’s a great way to “do” San Diego in a day and work out which destinations are worthy of a return visit for further exploration.

Old Town And The Bay

The most popular stop is naturally the Old Town, which is a state historic park set out over 12 acres which marks the site of the first European settlement on the west coast of the United States. In 1542, the Spanish first came to this area although settlement didn’t take place until 1769 - and Old Town is now a living snapshot of what mission society was like, and just how hard life was in those early days.

The city’s strong naval traditions can be experienced at most points along San Diego Bay - ships and submarines of varying sizes cruise the waters, and Navy SEAL’s can be seen road running along the harbour front. At the southern end, some purpose-built shopping districts have sprung up on the water, and although the Embarcadero and Seaport Village are traditionally touristy American - there are a few good spots to watch the maritime movement out on the bay over a cup of coffee or something stronger. It’s also a great place to watch one of the most entertaining free shows in the city - planes landing at San Diego International Airport fly in over the tops of the skyscrapers, literally, before landing just a few kilometres from Downtown.

Balboa Park

Inland, Balboa Park is a 1200 acre urban oasis which has been described as “San Diego’s Central Park” but it’s more than just a serene outdoor experience. It’s also home to 15 of the city’s museums, including the fantastic Museum of Art - it’s a cultural centrepiece with extensive gardens and playgrounds with Spanish-Colonial style buildings and architecture. The San Diego Zoo is also located within Balboa Park and with more than 4000 creatures, it still remains one of California’s enduring tourist landmarks.

And no visit to San Diego would be complete without experiencing “The Del” - the Hotel del Coronado, south of the city centre. Set on Coronado Beach, which is consistently rated the USA’s best, The Del is an iconic American Hotel and where Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon frolicked in the film “Some Like it Hot”. Greta Garbo and Charles Lindbergh were regulars and legend has that Wallis Simpson and the future Duke of Windsor first met at the Victorian-era hotel. It’s also the definitive way to finish off a San Diego sojourn - sitting in front of The Del with a cocktail as the sun sets over the ocean.


Ben Hall


  • 4
    Great City

    Posted by Judy on 26th Nov 2018

    The only reason to mark San Diego down is that you can't fly there internationally from what I would be great to have the option of avoiding LAX!

  • 5
    My Fave SoCal City

    Posted by Anna And Jack on 26th Nov 2018

    Hubby and I went to San Diego a couple of years ago as part of a huge California trip we made (pre Trump) which included LA, San Francisco and a side trip to Vegas. We had a ball, but wished we'd organised more days in San Diego than LA in the end.....loved the city so less crazy busy and out there. Thanks for the article it brought back nice memories for us.