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Source: Local Wally’s Guide to San Diego
SAN DIEGO GUIDE TO ESSENTIAL ATTRACTIONS!
San Diego, the second-largest city in California, is a first-class place for a holiday. The city is spread out, and having a car is pretty essential. A week’s rental of an economy-size vehicle from San Diego airport with almost any company will costs you about $250.00 a week, including total damage excess waiver. Or, you may try Old Town Trolley Tours a hop-on, hop-off open-sided bus service linking tourist areas, with insightful commentary.
1. The San Diego Zoo
You’ve heard about the zoo all your life. Will it live up to your expectations? Well, banish all thoughts of apprehension and rest assured that this is the finest zoo you will ever see.
I recommend you plan a full day there and wear comfortable shoes. If you’re too lazy to walk (hey, we all are sometimes), the tour bus is a great way to see the sights. You can even get on and off the bus, allowing you to spend more time in the areas you like and then hop on the next bus. You Won’t Believe It! It Surpasses Your Expectations!
What sets San Diego Zoo apart is the sheer beauty of the surroundings (lots of tropical plants) and the fact that the new exhibits place the animals in their natural habitat instead of a cage (well, sort of). You will not be disappointed. What exhibits are not to be missed? Well, the last time I was there I saw a baby Panda, Polar Bears playing in a pool, Hippos in an aquarium with their big mouths wide open next to the glass, and a bad little monkey throwing monkey poop at the people (I hate it when they do that!). Then I went to the Children’s Zoo to pet some baby animals and watch some baby chicks being born, and even petted a weird porcupine looking animal. All in all, a pretty fun day!
San Diego Zoo
San Diego Zoo
LOCAL WALLY PANDA TIP: The Pandas are the hot exhibit now. Check what time they will be on display at the entrance of the zoo, then go there as early as you can. The lines can be quite long during the middle of the day. Take a break and check out the Zoo’s PandaCam!
LOCAL WALLY FOOD TIP: Be prepared to spend a ton of dough on food at the zoo. Most of it is typical zoo stuff like hot dogs, nachos, and some pretty good soft ice cream. If you want real dining, go to Alberts a “sit down” restaurant. Not bad, really, and the setting in the tree house are is great. Of course, if you’re cheap like me, bring in a bunch of Subway sandwiches and you’ll be glad you did!
If you are short of time, avoid the shows if you are over 10 years old. Some are just plain stupid and a waste of time. Only go if you are so tired you must have a place to sit, and watch where you sit or you might find yourself baking in the hot summer sun. Really short of time? Then visit the Zoo during the evening hours during the summer. Another “only in San Diego” sort of experience!
Yes, it’s touristy. The shows are often corny. You even can wonder if it’s such a good idea to keep a killer whale in a big pool. But you cannot come to San Diego and not visit one of our biggest attractions. Where else can you see sharks, penguins, whales, and lots of pasty white tourists getting sunburned all in the same place? SeaWorld has all this, plus amusement park rides to keep those with attention deficit disorder happy.
The Shamu show!
And no matter how much the kids beg, do not sit in the front rows of the Shamu show! They are not kidding when they tell you you’ll get drenched. It’s more fun watching others get soaking wet (try walking around all day in wet, salty shoes) than it is to be there yourself.
LOCAL WALLY HOT TIP 1: Want to swim with dolphins? You can at SeaWorld for $150. Think of it as a once in a lifetime experience and the cost somehow gets more reasonable. Come on, you know you want to do it! Check out their official site for more info. Want to see another penguin??
LOCAL WALLY HOT TIP 2: Got Money To Burn? You can spend money at SeaWorld faster than a blackjack table in Vegas! If you’re a high roller, check out the various behind the scenes events. It’s expensive, but if you want to hang out with Penguins or just pretend you are Shamu’s trainer for an hour, you’ll love these options.
Whew, someone must have been on acid when they dreamed up a theme park made up 100% of Legos! Located in Carlsbad, a beachfront community approximately 30 miles north of downtown, this park has proven popular with tourists with small children – 10 years and under – and a bore for any human over about 12. Does this mean Wally doesn’t recommend it? No, it just means you better know what you are getting yourself into before you fork out your cash and time for a day with blockheads.
Here’s what you’ll see: Famous buildings made out of Legos. Famous people made out of Legos. Little kiddie rides made out of Legos. You get the idea. The good news is that Legoland is near the Flower Fields (beautiful blooms in Spring), as well as some great strawberry stands (San Diego grown – get a basket or two), and the Carlsbad Company Stores (nice outside factory outlet mall) with a great restaurant (Belle Fleurs). Add an In-N-Out Burger nearby on the coast, Fidels Mexican Restaurant in Carlsbad Village (cool little shops, quaint setting), and fantastic un crowded beaches and this day is starting to look salvageable!
Watch out for tons of traffic during rush hour, especially at what is called “the merge” where the 805 and 5 freeways come together. Going south on a Friday afternoon is also often busy due to weekend visitors from Los Angeles. Either leave before the traffic, or plan to stay in the area for dinner.
LOCAL WALLY HOT PARENTING TIP: Look, you won’t be able to pry your little one out of the park if they are under 10 even if you threaten to blow your head off with a Lego gun. Before you even step foot into the car, prime the way for a fast exit with statements like “Now remember, we can only stay 10 minutes” or “I think there’s Legos all over Carlsbad, even at the beach or in the fancy restaurants, and there’s a prize for whoever finds the most!”
4. The Wild Animal Park
An offshoot of the San Diego Zoo, the Wild Animal Park features wide open spaces for the animals to roam, thus simulating a much more natural environment. Add some lush landscaping, some educational animal shows, a new tram ride (as of 2007), and you got a winner.
Sounds good so far, right?
Well, let Wally give you a bit of, hmmm, insight. While I like the Wild Animal Park, do NOT go there instead of the Zoo. The Zoo is a much richer experience – basically, you’ll see more animals in a more tropical setting at the San Diego Zoo than The Wild Animal Park. It’s not that the Wild Animal Park isn’t good, it’s just not as good as the Zoo.
My 2007 resolution was to be more, ahem, positive, so let’s start with the good stuff. There are a lot of things to like about the Wild Animal Park. I really like the lorikeet aviary, A lorikeet is like a small parrot, and someone figured out that if you sell tourists little cups of sugar water, the lorikeets will do just about anything in the aviary to get it, including landing on your head (and pooping if you are unlucky). Pretty funny. (Whoops, I was supposed to be positive – damn!) And I also really like walking out to the elephant lookout area where there is often a baby elephant with its Mom. And the new tram ride is significantly better than the old monorail ride. For starters, it’s shorter (25 minutes versus 45), and you get to go deeper into the area where the animals actually are – basically, old monorail ride was often a long hot ride to nowhere, new tram ride you actually see animals. Nice upgrade.
Also, there are cool things to do like a Photo Safari where you go out in a safari truck and get to get up close to giraffes and other animals (the giraffes come right up to the truck). You can sleep overnight there for a real safari type experience, you can ride a tethered hot air balloon, and the new lion exhibit lets you get pretty close to the lions, closer than you’ve ever been. Nice job.
So Wally, what’s the downside??? My therapist is NOT going to like this, but here I go with the negative thoughts. First, The Wild Animal Park is in Escondio, which I believe is Spanish for “Hotter than Hell in Summer”. How hot? So hot you will thank them for selling you a $5 Coke. Take some 100 degree weather, add a ton of tourists, and you’ll be wishing you stayed along the coast and just went to the beach. So be forewarned – check the weather before you go and if it is hot in Escondido, forget about it! Also, if you thought the SeaWorld and Zoo shows were dumb, many of the shows at the Wild Animal Park are just plain boring. The elephant show used to be great, but some Einstein decided to make it educational and it goes nowhere. The only show that still thrills is the bird show, aka Frequent Flyers.
So there you have it. Should you go? Well, I’ll tell you the same thing I tell my friends. It’s good, it’s not as good as the Zoo, but it’s good. Find a day that’s not too hot, bring a picnic and waters, wear comfortable shoes, and if you have the cash, spring for a photo safari. Stay until evening when it cools down and you’ll have a pretty nice time. But do not go there instead of the Zoo!
LOCAL WALLY HOT TIP: Want More info on Photo Safaris? They are a great way to see the park and get some great shots. Call ahead – they book up fast.
LOCAL WALLY TIP FOR WINE LOVERS: No time for a wine tasting? Just need a drink NOW? Stop by Orfila Vineyards (13455 San Pasqual Road, 760 738-6500) for a fast sample on the way to or from the park. Pretty tasty stuff, and San Diego grown.
5. Old Town
Well, well, well…. Looks like our greedy bureaucrats have pulled a fast one on us. Old Town was home to the incredibly touristy and fun Bazaar Del Mundo. It was so popular it became the number one revenue producing park in California. So don’t fix what ain’t broken, right? Wrong!
Old Town concessions were sold to a New York company, and their vision of Old Town is radically different than what once was. If you have been here before, you might not recognize it. Gone are the bright colored umbrellas at Casa de Pico. Heck, gone is Casa de Pico! Casa de Bandini? Gone. That’s two of Wally’s favorite tourist Mex food joints that are now history – so sad. Perhaps the good news is that if you have never been to Old Town, you will probably still like it. Most of the radical changes are in the old Bazaar Del Mundo area, and the rest of Old Town remains untouched.
At least you can still find a margarita in Old Town – you might need it!
There are more changes coming, with threats of turning one of my favorite “light” theater experiences at The Theatre in Old Town into educational entertainment! Holy School Field Trip, Batman! At least they didn’t touch the The Thomas Whaley House Museum, one of the few houses actually authenticated by the U.S. Department of Commerce as being haunted and has a cool old cemetery there.
Vera is always amazed by the greenery and plants
There are still some good restaurants there, notably Old Town Mexican Cafe, which some locals believe is the best Mexican restaurant in San Diego (not entirely true, but a solid reputation). You’ll know OTMC by the women in the window making fresh tortillas, and their carnitas (slow cooked pork) is great. I also like Zocalo Grill for their great patio and happy hour. Lots of good stuff to snack on, and a great, relaxed upscale setting.
So Old Town ain’t what it used to be, but there’s still enough there to warrant a stop for a few hours, a margarita, and perhaps a bite to eat.
6. Balboa Park
It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when San Diego actually had to do things to attract tourists to visit. In 1868, city leaders had the bright idea to set aside 1,200 acres in the downtown area. Good idea. Then in 1915, to attract visitors, San Diego held an exposition to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. What? It probably made more sense back then than now, but the good news is that the original temporary buildings were saved.
In 1935, new city leaders probably thought “it worked once, it will work again” and held the California Pacific International Expositon. And again, the buildings were saved. Tons of Museums, Tons of Activities, Hours of Amusement!
The first thing that will strike you about the park is the absolute beauty. The original architecture sets the stage. If you’ve seen Citizen Kane, you’ve seen Balboa Park. Movie great Orson Welles used the exteriors of the buildings to represent Kane’s castle. It’s filled with museums for every taste, from art to sports to autos to electric trains. Now here’s your problem! So many museums, but so little time. Start with this link to the official Balboa Park Website to check out the museums and events.
Even most locals haven’t found the time to visit them all. So Wally’s advice is to plan ahead and pick a couple you really like ahead of time, then browse the others once you get there and pick one on a whim, just for fun. But a trick most locals know is that Tuesday is FREE museum day! Every Tuesday a museum is rotated into the free spot. On the first Tuesday, free museums include, San Diego Model Railroad Museum, San Diego Natural History Museum, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center; Second Tuesday, Museum of Photographic Arts, Museum of San Diego History;
Fourth Tuesday, San Diego Aerospace Museum, San Diego Automotive Museum, and the San Diego Hall of Champions. Plan your trip that day and you might get lucky and get a freebie you wanted to visit.
Hungry? The best (and only) restaurant is The Prado, located in the House of Hospitality. Featuring excellent upscale California cuisine, The Prado has been getting rave reviews from locals and tourists alike. Good choice for a nice meal and the patio is wonderful on a nice day. Other than that, most of the other food in the park is typical park fare – hotdogs, French fries, and overpriced sandwiches. If you don’t plan on a real meal, Wally’s advice is to bring a little picnic in with outside food. Sure, you can splurge on an overpriced ice cream. Hey, you’re on vacation!
You can easily spend a full day there, and some tourists find that a couple of days is needed to really explore. If you’re unlucky enough to visit San Diego when it’s raining, Balboa Park is a good place to visit while you wait for the weather to clear.
7. The Midway Aircraft Carrier
Remember how your Dad used to say things like “when I was a kid, we didn’t have to pay to visit the aircraft carrier in the bay…” Well, maybe he didn’t way that, but it’s true. Before Osama and his gang of idiots raised their ugly heads, you could typically visit a real, working aircraft carrier just for asking! Well, those days are gone but luckily for you someone parked a big boat in the bay and turned it into the Midway Aircraft Museum.
It’s got everything from fighter planes to flight simulators on board, enough to see to keep military buffs going for a few hours. And check this out! If you are retired Navy, you can have your retirement flag raised over the Midway for No Charge!
LOCAL WALLY TIP: Want to make your San Diego Vacation a real TOP GUN experience? Plan your trip around the Miramar Air Show where you can see the fantastic Blue Angels. Then head over hungry to Kansas City BBQ, the place where the Top Gun bar scenes were filmed, and get ready to sing “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” while feasting on some pretty good BBQ.
Lots of history on The Midway, and lots of fun for all ages. Location can’t be beat, right in the middle of the bay next to tourist trap Seaport Village and walking distance to one of Wally’s favorite fish restaurants, The Fish Market.
8. La Jolla
How can Wally describe La Jolla? Imagine one of the most dramatic and beautiful coastlines in the world. Add some palm trees swaying in the breeze, upscale restaurants, gorgeous beaches, and beautiful women in tiny bikinis all flocking to check out your tan. Ahhh, this is FANTASTIC! Earth to Wally, wake up! OK, so perhaps the women part doesn’t typically happen, but everything else you have heard about La Jolla is true. It’s the lifestyles of the rich and famous along the best beaches this side of Hawaii. Ultra cool and chic, you’ll feel like a millionaire pulling up to the valet in even though you’re driving a rented Hyundai Accent!
“But I Don’t Want to Hang Around Rich People All Day!”
La Jolla “Baywatch” sort of beach
Upscale La Jolla
Hey, even Jed Clampett liked hanging around Beverly Hills and he was an actual hillbilly! If he can do it, so can you. The difference is La Jolla may be upscale, but it’s still San Diego and that means it’s still friendly and casual. For walking around in summer, shorts and flip flops are just fine (men, wear a shirt). Even at dinner, unless you are in the fanciest of restaurants you only need to add shoes and a nicer top and you’re set to go. Of course, you can also totally dress up and try to be one of the beautiful people. It’s your call.
So Wally, tell me about this “La Jolla” you talk so much about… OK, La Jolla is many things, starting with the beaches. It’s home to La Jolla Shores, the ultimate big sandy “Baywatch” sort of beach that will have your eyes popping out as you gawk at the young, fit bodies soaking up the sun. Parking is a bitch there, but the Shores have never failed to impress. But La Jolla is also tiny coves where you can pretend the beach is all yours (WARNING: People can still see you so don’t get caught!) Want more options? How about sea caves that you can actually kayak into, or great tide pools at low tide where you can bother all the little trapped sea creatures? Still not impressed? Then head over to the Children’s Pool and the famous sea wall and you’ll most likely find LIVE SEALS hanging on the beach! Take a walk out on the seawall and plant a romantic kiss on that someone special. (LOCAL WALLY WARNING: DO NOT KISS SEALS. THEY BITE AND OFTEN HAVE FISH BREATH.) With sidewalks along the top of the bluffs, walking the shoreline has never been more “civilized”. Great for wheelchair access, also.
LOCAL WALLY KAYAK TIP: If you know what you’re doing, you can rent a kayak and go explore on your own. Otherwise, plan ahead by getting Discount Kayak Tour Tickets before you go.
Now that you’ve seen the beaches, head up into the little town and visit some of the great shops. Browse through the upscale boutiques, the art galleries, perhaps even pretend you’re a local and have a martini at La Valencia, the landmark pink hotel. After all that walking, you’re probably hungry and there is only one place to eat for lunch when you are in La Jolla, and that’s George’s At The Cove’s Ocean Terrace Bistro. The Ocean Terrace is their outside al fresco dining. It’s elegant yet casual, with a view to knock your socks off. Go early to get a table next to the glass sides (you’ll know what I mean) and get ready for a fantastic dining experience. The food is excellent, reasonably priced, and the service is top notch. But the setting! It’s right out of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”, only YOU are in the picture! Cool, huh?
San Diego streets are very clean
Across the street is Alfonso’s, what used to be one of my favorite Mexican restaurants and one I have gone to since the mid-70′s Unfortunately, their son has taken it over and things have, well, changed. Their carne asada tacos are still great, but their tiny pitcher of margaritas for $22 is a bit of a rip off. Still, their carne asada is some of the best and worth a stop – just get a beer instead.
La Jolla is also home to the Torrey Pines Glider Port. (858 452-9858) If you ever wanted to jump off a cliff in a hang glider, this is the place! Yes, you can actually go out with an experienced pilot on a tandem flight if you wish. This must be where the bumper sticker “Get in, shut up and hang on” came from! $125, a 20 minute lesson, and you’re jumping off that cliff, baby! It’s also a great place to uncork a bottle of wine, listen to the jazz on Sunday afternoons, and watch the other lunatics risk their lives for your enjoyment.
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