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San Diego is a large and pleasant coastal city right on the Pacific Ocean in Southern California. It's home to 1.3 million citizens and the second-largest city in the state with many universities and good swimming beaches. It's also known for its ideal climate, bio and communications technologies, long history, nightlife, outdoor culture and ethnic diversity.
The city sits just north of the Mexican border, across from Tijuana. Though a large city, San Diego has a somewhat slower paced atmosphere and, when visiting, some may find it provides a soothing break from the typical hustle-bustle of a city of its size.
San Diego is seamlessly divided into districts comprising each of charming individual neighborhoods.
This list of districts is by no means an official breakdown of the city, but one that is meant to make sense from the standpoint of a visitor, based on the number of attractions the average visitor will find in each area.
Situated on the bay, downtown is a hub of business and nightlife. It also has many tourist attractions amongst its gleaming office and hotel towers.
Located in the heart of the city, Balboa Park is the second largest urban park in the world. It is home to many amazing museums and the renowned San Diego Zoo. Next door is Hillcrest, a happening urban neighborhood. Or for a quieter experience there are cute cafés and some renown drinking establishments in South Park.
Old Town-Mission Valley
The site of the first Spanish settlement in California, Old Town today is a historic district popular with tourists and locals for sampling the Mexican culture.
Point Loma-Ocean Beach
Located on a scenic peninsula curving around the bay, this area offers gorgeous views of San Diego, and its beautiful coastline. Ocean Beach is a quiet, laid-back beach neighborhood. Its hippie roots show on its beaches, organic food market and reggae clubs.
Mission Beach-Pacific Beach
Two extremely popular beach communities with plenty of shops, restaurants, and nightlife, alongside a man-made inlet known as Mission Bay with its variety of water sports including kayaking, sailing, kite surfing. It is home to Sea World.
San Diego International Airport, better known as Lindbergh Field, (SAN) is 2.5-3 miles (4-4.8km) NW of downtown San Diego and is less than 10 minutes drive (or taxi ride) along Harbor Dr to get to downtown. The descent into the airport from the east is remarkably close to downtown buildings, which can be a bit alarming for first-time visitors.
Although alternatives are being created, San Diego is Southern California, so renting or having a car available will increase your enjoyment to this city if you really want to cover some distance. If you would like to use public transportation, it can be done. Some buses run late into the evening, but this doesn't apply to all routes!
The San Diego metropolitan area is sprawling. Car travel is the most efficient way of getting around the metro area. Throughout the downtown and beach communities, on-street parking is metered. Parking meters accept coins, pre-paid Parking Meter Cards, and some newer meters accept credit cards.
By public transit
The Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) operates bus service to large portions of the county, although service in many areas is sparse and infrequent. The weakest points in the transit system are suburb-to-suburb travel and poor links between some of the individual coastal communities, both of which often require long trips to one of the transit hubs, then back out. If you will be mainly in the areas around downtown, the bus may be suitable, but service generally gets weaker the farther you are from the central area.
Like much of California and the Southwestern United States, English is the predominant language with Spanish the second most widely spoken. Store signs are written in English or both languages, and many businesses have bilingual employees that speak both English and Spanish.
What to see
See San Diego with children for travelers with children.
A couple of discount passes offer admission to a number of places:
Go San Diego Card – This enables free admission and express entry to over 40 attractions, including Sea World, Legoland, San Diego Zoo, Universal, and all Balboa Park museums.
Southern California CityPass – Gives you one day each at SeaWorld San Diego and the San Diego Zoo, another day at Universal Studios Hollywood, and a 3 day park hopper ticket for Disneyland.
From historic landmarks to world-class zoos and parks, San Diego has a lot to see.
Parks and Beaches
Cabrillo Park and National Monument — Here visitors can stand on a piece of history. In September of 1542, Juan Cabrillo and his crew landed at San Diego Bay. This was the first time a European expedition had set foot on the United States' west coast. Cabrillo National Monument memorializes this moment. The park also offers gorgeous views of San Diego’s harbor and skyline. Migrating whales can be spotted in winter.
Balboa Park — Home to the famous San Diego Zoo, the park also encompasses myriad botanical gardens, over a dozen museums and several family-friendly attractions.
Ocean Beach and Mission Beach — Ocean Beach still sports a laid-back hippie vibe. Mission Beach in Mission Bay, is a popular place for young people. It's a great place to spot sea life amongst the throngs of rollerbladers and cyclists.
Old Town State Historic Park — This “birthplace” of California features original Spanish establishments, beautifully restored Victorian homes and Whaley House.
Zoos and Aquariums
San Diego Zoo — Located in Balboa Park, No visit to San Diego would be complete without seeing its famous zoo. The 100-acre zoo houses over 3,700 rare and endangered animals and boasts a botanical collection of over 700,000 exotic plants.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park — This 1,800-acre park allows visitors to see animals like giraffes, rhinos, condors and more. These animals are not behind bars but are free to roam.
Sea World — Visitors can ride a roller coaster, swim with dolphins, see a show and go underwater at Explorer’s Reef while they learn about the world’s waters and their creatures.
Birch Aquarium — This La Jolla attraction lets visitors see where the ocean comes alive. Visit a massive kelp tank, see tropical fishes and learn about the important role oceans play in everyone’s lives.