San Diego could be improved. If the county had 75 miles of beaches instead of 70. If the Padres won a World Series or the Chargers won a Super Bowl. Or if the municipal sloganeers dropped "America's finest city" in favor of "You stay classy, San Diego."
But this is nit-picking. Besides its most obvious tourist attractions — the beaches, the zoo and Old Town — San Diego's downtown has interesting edges, several old neighborhoods are showing new vigor, and everybody seems to be brewing artisan beer. It's kid-friendlier than San Francisco, cooler than the desert and healthier than just about any place. It's true that many San Diegans claim to hate all things L.A., but between complaints, they've built a destination that's likely to keep Angelenos coming forever. Remember the sunscreen, leave your Dodgers hat in the trunk and enjoy.
For the second installment in 2012's Southern California Close-Ups, here are 11 micro-itineraries in San Diego, Coronado and La Jolla — nothing comprehensive, just a beginning, based on one prodigal son's samplings in the last few months. (Before spending the last 20 years in Los Angeles, I spent about 24 in San Diego.) Later this year, we'll return for the northern part of San Diego County, including Del Mar, Carlsbad and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, formerly known as the Wild Animal Park.)
1. San Diego Zoo
For all the attention it gets, the San Diego Zoo (2920 Zoo Drive, San Diego) boils down to about 3,700 animals on 100 acres — not unlike certain college campuses. But instead of four years, you spend a full day, beginning at the 9 a.m. opening. Use the bus or Skyfari aerial tram to trim walking time. And be glad that, unlike the Los Angeles Zoo, this one has a pleasant full-service restaurant: Albert's, in the Lost Forest. At $32 a kid, the zoo costs about half as much as SeaWorld, and parking is free. Of course, your teenager may still drag his or her feet. That's when you disclose that the first YouTube video ("Me at the Zoo," posted April 23, 2005) was an 18-second clip of YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim standing in front of an elephant at the San Diego Zoo, mumbling about its trunk. Never mind the biology, kids. Come for the ancient Internet history!
2. Balboa Park
Even if you omit the zoo, Balboa Park (1549 El Prado, San Diego) is among the most inviting and enlightening public spaces on the West Coast. Its 1,200 acres include more than a dozen museums (fine art, folk arts, photographic arts, cars, planes, trains, anthropology, natural history, sports) and several performing arts venues, most notably the Old Globe theaters. Then there are the gardens, the reflecting pool and a few restaurants. When you've had enough, get a bite in one of the resurgent old neighborhoods nearby. In addition to downtown and Hillcrest, there's North Park, where craft beer and well-wrought sandwiches await at Tiger! Tiger! (3025 El Cajon Blvd., San Diego). Or South Park, where you can get a burger, beer and picnic-table seat while the kids gobble hot dogs and goof off in the play area at the Station Tavern (2204 Fern St., San Diego). Or explore Adams Avenue, about 2 miles north of the park. On the 2800 and 2900 blocks in the University Heights area, you'll find plenty of antiques stores. You'll want to pause for pizza and beer at the Blind Lady Ale House (3416 Adams Ave., San Diego). Then maybe catch an arty foreign film at Kensington's arty old Ken Cinema (4061 Adams Ave., San Diego). Adams Avenue's merchants host street fairs with music in April, June and September (www.adamsavenuebusiness.com).
3. East Village
The East Village (www.sdeastvillage.com), east of the Gaslamp Quarter, is beginning to outshine much of downtown. It helps that pleasant, intimate Petco Park (100 Park Blvd., San Diego) is tucked in amid the condos, hotels, retailers and restaurants. And it doesn't hurt that the ballpark has added Hodad's, a locally renowned burger joint, to its list of food purveyors. Start your evening early with a drink or modern Mexican meal at El Vitral (815 J St., San Diego), which sits next to the ballpark. After the game, or instead of it, proceed to the small but engaging Neighborhood (777 G St., San Diego) for a drink or a casual dinner. If you like craft cocktails, secret doors and texting your reservations a week in advance, you might be interested in Noble Experiment (www.nobleexperimentsd.com, open Wednesdays-Sundays), a speak-easy whose "secret" entrance is next to Neighborhood's bathrooms. After you're finished on G Street, you may or may not be ready to weave among the many conventioneer-friendly restaurants and bars of 4th and 5th avenues in the Gaslamp Quarter. When the time is right, flop at the Hotel Solamar (435 6th Ave., San Diego), a block from the ballpark. But don't try any of this July 12-15. That's when Comic-Con takes over downtown.
4. Little Italy
In the early 20th century, when tuna fishing meant more to San Diego than conventioneers did, Italian fishermen lived on and near India Street. Then the tuna industry began to shrivel, Caltrans put a freeway through the neighborhood, and Little Italy dwindled. Now it's back, with thematic emphasis, and India Street buzzes with shops, restaurants, bars, the occasional butcher and barber, and a handful of lodgings, all within about five blocks of the Embarcadero's historic ships (www.sdmaritime.org and www.midway.org) and eight blocks of the downtown train station. Stroll India between Beech and Grape streets, roll a little boccie in Amici Park at State and Date streets, maybe check out the galleries and design shops along Kettner Boulevard. For dinner, grab a table at Bencotto (750 W. Fir St., San Diego), where the Italian food comes with warm service amid cool, sleek design. Afterward, step over to Craft & Commerce (675 W. Beech St., San Diego), a bistro pub full of repurposed wood and red metal chairs, but no vodka or ketchup. (It's a flavor thing. Let your waiter explain.) Then La Pensione (606 W. Date St., San Diego) is waiting with 68 rooms upstairs. Failing that, the 23-room Little Italy Inn (505 W. Grape St., San Diego), which occupies an old building and feels more like a B&B, is just a few blocks away. Both offer rooms for less than $200.
5. Old Town
If you like celebrating a Latin culture that thrived in San Diego long ago, you need not stop with Little Italy. Follow the legions of tourists north to Old Town, which was the heart of San Diego in its years under Mexican control from the 1820s to the 1840s. Parking might be difficult unless you arrive by San Diego's well-developed trolley system (www.sdmts.com), but scores of shops, displays, kid-friendly attractions and adult-friendly margaritas await in and around Old Town State Historic Park (4002 Wallace St., San Diego). If you're shopping, check out the Fiesta de Reyes shops and restaurants (www.fiestadereyes.com) and don't overlook the nearby Bazaar del Mundo (www.bazaardelmundo.com) on the 4100 block of Taylor Street.
Begin with a greasy-spoon breakfast at Clayton's Coffee Shop (979 Orange Ave., Coronado), with its horseshoe-shaped counter and military specials. Then meander to the beach by the Hotel del Coronado (1500 Orange Ave., Coronado), where Navy SEALs often train and sandcastle master Bill Pavlacka often fashions amazing edifices. Because the Del is right there, you might as well get another cup of coffee at the snack bar (and if Christmas is at hand, check out the lobby decorations). From the Coronado Ferry Landing, near the north end of Orange Avenue, you can catch a ferry to downtown San Diego and back. The rest of the day can go two ways. You can get an affordable dinner at Miguel's Cocina (1351 Orange Ave., Coronado) and spend an affordable night in the same complex at El Cordova Hotel (1351 Orange Ave., Coronado). Or you can splurge with a room at the Hotel Del (rooms in the newer buildings are larger than those in the original building). Or for a more intimate scene (but no pool), try the 1906 Lodge at Coronado Beach (1060 Adella Ave., Coronado) a few blocks away.
7. Point Loma
Plenty of tourists overlook Point Loma, but not you. First stop is the Cabrillo National Monument (1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive, San Diego), where an 1850s lighthouse overlooks dramatic cliffs and tide pools. On the way, you'll see the grassy slopes of Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery, where about 100,000 service members and family members are buried. Then return to Point Loma Seafoods (2805 Emerson St., San Diego), a local haunt that upgraded in early 2012, and grab a table on the upstairs deck overlooking the marina. If you were more wholesome, you'd head next to Liberty Station (www.libertystation.com), where the former Naval Training Center now contains a shopping center, nine-hole golf course and vast expanses of grass. (Escondido-based Stone Brewing Co. is due to open a Liberty Station bistro later this year.) And if you were trendier, you might dine at Gabardine (www.gabardineeats.com), a seafood spot that opened in March at 1005 Rosecrans St. Instead you pop over the hill to scruffy Ocean Beach, where surf shops, antiques sellers and bars dominate Newport Avenue, along with the Black (5017 Newport Ave., San Diego), a head shop that opened its doors when Jimi Hendrix was still touring. At the north end of Voltaire Street, Dog Beach is set aside for unleashed beasts and their servants. For dinner, try pizza or pasta at Point Loma's upscale waterfront Pizza Nova (5050 N. Harbor Drive, San Diego). Most of the lodgings here are global brands, but well-priced independents include the Bay Club Hotel & Marina (2131 Shelter Island Drive, San Diego), which sits at the water's edge with a low-key Polynesian theme, and the Pearl (1410 Rosecrans St., San Diego), a 23-room midcentury hotel (with restaurant) that's been revived with hipster style. The Pearl gets some noise from street traffic, but room rates often are as low as $99.
8. Mission Bay
Shamu beckons, and if you can face entrance fees of as much as $73 a head, you'll answer. Founded in 1964 by four former UCLA frat brothers, SeaWorld San Diego (500 Sea World Drive, San Diego) has rides, shows and scores of animals, including dolphins, penguins, seals, sea lions, polar bears and killer whales. A new Manta coaster ride has just opened. Brace yourself for big crowds on summer weekends, especially July 14 and 15 and July 21 and 22, when the annual Over-the-Line Tournament on nearby Fiesta Island draws thousands of revelers. (It's like softball but with more drinking.) Later, retire to Paradise Point (1404 Vacation Road, San Diego), a self-contained 44-acre, 462-room family resort where you can rent paddle boats, feed ducks and play miniature golf. Daunting in summer, Paradise Point's prices drop substantially in cooler months.
9. Pacific Beach
Just about the sleekest thing in hard-partying P.B. is Tower 23 (723 Felspar St., San Diego), a bright minimalist hotel that faces the waves and the old wooden Crystal Pier. If you have kids along, head instead for the pier itself — the Crystal Pier Hotel (4500 Ocean Blvd., San Diego) has some cottages that date to 1930 and hang above the waves. If the beachfront parade of joggers, bikers and skateboarders is too much, try a room on the quieter bay side of Mission Boulevard at the Catamaran Hotel (3999 Mission Blvd., San Diego).
10. La Jolla
La Jolla's scenery speaks for itself, if you can hear it over the yawp of the harbor seals that have taken over the beach at the Children's Pool near Coast Boulevard and Jenner Street. Find your way early to Coast Boulevard so you can snag street parking. Then enjoy grassy Ellen Browning Scripps Park, the Coast Walk Trail between Cave Street and Torrey Pines Road, the upscale shops on Prospect Street and the galleries on Girard Avenue. The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (700 Prospect St., La Jolla) was born in 1915 as a private home designed by modernist pioneer architect Irving Gill, and his work is all around. Gill's other works include the La Jolla Recreational Center (615 Prospect St., La Jolla) — which has a nice kids' play area — and the Bed & Breakfast Inn at La Jolla (7753 Draper Ave., La Jolla), a civilized place to stay. Gill also remodeled Wisteria Cottage (780 Prospect St., La Jolla), where La Jolla Historical Society begins its walking tours two Saturday mornings a month (www.lajollahistory.org/historic-la-jolla/walking-tours).
11. Torrey Pines
The epic scenery continues at Torrey Pines State Beach (North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla), Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve (12600 N. Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla) and Torrey Pines Golf Course (11480 N. Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla). You might want to sleep at the Spanish-style Estancia La Jolla resort (9700 N. Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla) or visit Birch Aquarium (2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla), where admission is $14. Later, catch a show at La Jolla Playhouse on the UC San Diego campus at 2910 La Jolla Village Drive. But while the sun still hangs high, head past the stark, concrete symmetry of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies (10010 N. Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla) to the rambling bluff top of the Torrey Pines Gliderport (2800 Torrey Pines Scenic Drive, La Jolla). Grab a snack at the Gliderport's Cliffhanger Cafe, claim a picnic table, watch the hang gliders jump and swoop. Then look south to La Jolla Cove or down 300 feet to Black's Beach, where surfers hang out and nudists frolic (or maybe it's the other way around).