I always just said I lived in Southern California, but not L.A. And my particular strain of snobbery made it clear that I would not have anything to do with Orange County. If anyone who knew the region ever thought about it for like 20 seconds or more, they would have realized that I live in San Diego. So now the cat's out of the bag. Please don't kidnap me.
I'm not from here, but I've lived here long enough to know what's up. So I would be remiss if I didn't set straight all my bloggy friends who will be descending on San Diego for the BlogHer 2011 "Mother of All Mommyblogging Conferences" on what to do and what to avoid while visiting "America's Finest City" (yep--that's our motto...or at least what it says on the sides of the cop cars).
Everything you need to know about the history of San Diaaahhgo can be found in the movie Anchorman.
San Diego is actually a pretty big city (just over 3 million residents), but it's sprawling, so you don't feel like you're in a metropolis. People often call it "a city of neighborhoods." At least I think I've heard people say that. Anyway, they should say it, because it's true. There are dozens of different neighborhoods, and they each have a specific character. People can be pretty loyal, defensive, or even snobby about their neighborhoods, which is really stupid unless you happen to live within a 2-mile radius of my house, in which case you are perfectly entitled to feel superior to the poor chumps who live in the other, God-forsaken parts of town.
The city is pretty diverse ethnically, but the distinct neighborhoods also tend to keep people somewhat culturally segregated. This is kind of a shame on one hand; but it's also cool that there are certain blocks where most of the signs on the stores and restaurants are in Vietnamese, or Somali, or Korean.
Anyway, what do you care about the cultural landscape of San Diego? You're just coming here for a couple days.
I only bring this stuff up because what you will experience while hanging out in downtown San Diego (especially the Gaslamp Quarter) will not necessarily provide you with a good idea of what the city is like. You could very well leave town thinking that we are a city of douchebags and hussies, which would only be partially true.
In what follows, I'll give you some general advice for how to negotiate the myriad options this very fun city offers, a few specific suggestions, and some warnings that might save you both money and heartbreak. I'm assuming that you are only here for 4 days, tops, and that you don't have a car; so I'll leave out a lot of the popular and/or cool things that require a lot of time or travel.
What to Pack
Shorts, t-shirt, flip-flops, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, hoodie.
You could honestly get by on that. I only wear real shoes in the most extreme "winter" weather. A hoodie is key because it does get cool and misty at night, and as long as you keep your head warm, it doesn't matter if you have pants or shoes on. Bring a wide-brimmed hat, or at least a ball cap, because the sun will be beating down on you relentlessly. The air temperature will be delightful, but if you don't take proper precautions, you'll fry within an hour, no shit. And dudes, because hats are actually practical here, and not just an affectation, it's perfectly acceptable to wear a Panama or a cowboy hat or a fedora. It's awesome. I think you could even pull off a boater or a pith helmet.
This is also a very casual city. People tend to dress up a bit downtown, in a douchey, Jersey Shore way, and if you go up to La Jolla you'll see some expensive threads; but you can pretty much get away with anything. If you come to my neighborhood (which you should), you will notice that people dress either like me (shorts, flip-flops), or in the wacky hipster garb du jour.
What to Eat
There are a lot of really good restaurants here, but not that many amazing ones. It's not San Francisco or New York. So my wife and I usually go to the good, reliable places instead of the trendy joints with celebrity chefs or the classic, stuffy restaurants where you pay too much for boring food. The really expensive ones have almost always been a bit disappointing.
Wherever you are in town, you should use Yelp to help you make dining decisions. San Diegans are big Yelpers. If you haven't done so already, get the app for your phone. Then you can type in "Italian food" or whatever, and hold that sucker in the sky. You will probably not be misled.
We live uptown, and don't usually go downtown to eat because it's a little overpriced, it's a bitch to park, and, yes, the scene tends to be douchey. But some of the places we like downtown are Cafe Chloe (especially for brunch and lunch), Blue Point (great oysters, nouvelle seafood, kickass martinis), and Oceanaire (pretty much the best seafood we've had in San Diego). There's also the aptly named Extraordinary Desserts, which has two locations, in Little Italy (downtown) and Banker's Hill (uptown), where you can get decadent treats and good coffee, and--a lot of people don't realize this--fantastic breakfasts. Another place we love that's not in the heart of downtown, but just a quick cab ride away, is Island Prime. It offers great seafood (and landfood), beautiful views of the bay, yummy cocktails, and cool interior design. There's also a bistro (C-Level) attached to it, which offers cheaper, more casual fare, and outdoor seating.
If you get daring and go the five miles uptown (Hillcrest, North Park, South Park, University Heights, Banker's Hill, City Heights, Normal Heights), you'll find many more interesting options including all kinds of fusion, farm-to-table, artisan, ethnic, vegan, gastropubs, and neighborhood eateries; and you won't have to pay as much as you would downtown. I could go on all day about which uptown restaurants you should try, but most people won't make it out of the Gaslamp. Hit me up on Twitter or something if you want recommendations. Oh--and if you somehow got roped into hauling your kids to BlogHer with you, there's one uptown spot you should take them to eat--Station Tavern. It's a solid burger joint with a full bar and great local brews on tap, and--get this--a playground where the youngsters can run loose while you kick back and swill adult beverages.
Mexican Food Strategy--This merits its own heading
Of course, when you're in San Diego, you have to eat Mexican food. Most importantly, you need to eat some fish tacos. Go ahead and get the grilled mahi-mahi if it makes you feel better about yourself; but at least taste the deep-fried cod (or whatever whitefish fell off the truck) with cabbage and mayonnaise-y dressing. Oh man. Sooooo goooood.
We have our favorite neighborhood taqueria, as well as a couple specialty spots we go to, but you don't need to drive all over town looking for them. All you need is a good strategy.
First off, do not go into any Mexican restaurants that seat more than thirty people.
But wait, you're saying, that means I can't eat in any of the restaurants in Old Town.
People will tell you to go to Old Town and eat in this or that place where some ladies are hand-making tortillas in the window. DON'T DO IT. You'll wait half an hour to be seated, and then pay twice what you would at any little hole-in-the-wall, and the food will be mass-produced, bland slop. There are some upscale restaurants in Old Town that are pretty decent, but they're no better than upscale Mexican places anywhere else in town, and you'll have to pay the hapless tourist premium if you eat there. Old Town is fine if you're interested in California Mission history, but there's really no reason to eat there.
Use either your nose or Yelp to find the popular taquerias near you. Once you have spotted the place, look for the signs of a good Mexican restaurant: a brisk business, Spartan decor, efficient service, and Latino customers. If there are families eating there, that's a great sign. If there are construction workers taking their lunch breaks, that's even better. Immediately walk out if you see any tablecloths.
You might as well go to the beach as long as you're here. But which one? Here's the quick-and-dirty run down of the beaches closest to downtown, from south to north:
- Ocean Beach (OB)--Dirty hippies. Lots of dogs. Medicinal marijuana clinics. It's actually a fun place to hang out. Go to "Dog Beach" to get the full experience: dogs running loose, people who live on the beach, surfers, beautiful people.
- Mission Beach--The "family-friendly" beach. Less crazy than other beaches, but still pretty lively. Features a bustling boardwalk, an amusement park, surfers, dolphins, kids in lifeguard and surf camps. Plenty of decent restaurants and bars.
- Pacific Beach (PB)--Oy. Frat party on the beach. Fun if you're in the mood for it. If you want to learn how to surf, there's a park here called Tourmaline where I often take visitors who want to try the sport of kings. The waves are mellow and there are enough of them for everyone. You can rent a board from a number of different surf shops and go mess around in the foam without being in danger of getting shanked by locals or crushed by massive waves.
- Coronado--There are beautiful beaches in this little city on a spit of land just off the coast of San Diego. It's very laid back and less of a party scene than a lot of the San Diego beaches. Very easy to reach from downtown via ferry.
You'll probably have some downtime during the conference, and, if you have any sense, you probably added in an extra day or so to your trip just for goofing around. Here are a few suggestions for getting away from the convention center and hotel.
Balboa Park: This is San Diego's answer to Central park. It's just a couple miles from downtown and features a bunch of museums, a humongous outdoor organ, beautiful gardens, and, of course, the zoo. The zoo is awesome, and not even depressing. The animals all seem pretty happy. It's the best zoo in the world, I'm pretty sure. And if you have made it to the zoo, you might as well eat lunch, dinner, or go out for drinks in neighboring North Park or Hillcrest.
Coronado: This is probably the easiest way for you to go to the beach. It's quite different than a lot of the beaches in and around San Diego. The town is quiet, conservative, and very affluent. The wide, flat beaches look more like Florida than the dramatic cliffs of the California coast. But it's a beautiful place, and you can get there easily by a scenic ferry ride, and rent bikes to cruise around the "island" (everyone calls it an island even though it's really a spit.) It's the home of the famous Hotel Del Coronado, which was the filming location of the movie Some Like it Hot. You can walk around the very cool old hotel, but I wouldn't recommend eating there: it's overpriced and mediocre at best. There are a couple good restaurants in Coronado, which Yelp will help you find.
Shopping?: I guess people like to do this when they come to San Diego? I would only shop if I had to, but I gather that people are actually interested in buying stuff while they're here. Here's the scoop. Fashion Valley is the high-end mall that's closest to downtown. I only go there when I need to go to the Apple store. It's pretty funny, really. The first time I went, I thought it was a joke. There were women there who looked like caricatures of Southern Californians: heels, fake boobs, rhinestones, little dogs in purses, the works. But it's no joke. They are there every day of the week. If I were in the market for designer stuff though, I would head to the outlet mall in San Ysidro, right on the border. It's got all kinds of premium brands like Coach, Calvin Klein, Kenneth Cole, etc., all deeply discounted. Also, you can see Tijuana from there, if that interests you. There's often stuff on fire.
Wander around the Gaslamp Quarter. There are plenty of bars and clubs. It's pretty cheesy, like Party Central in any party town, but it's fun if you're visiting. I don't hang out there much, so I don't have a favorite place to recommend. There is one very popular spot though, called The Shout House, that's fun and wildly popular, especially with groups of women, for some reason. It's a piano bar where two musicians play and sing all kinds of tunes, liberally adding off-color lyrics, and often dragging people on stage to perform with them. There's a small cover charge, the drinks are reasonably priced, and the service is like a well-oiled machine whose only purpose is to get you hammered.
Naturally, I would recommend jumping in a cab and heading uptown for some slightly less cheesy nightlife options. Hillcrest is known as the gay neighborhood in San Diego, and has a vibrant club scene that goes on into the wee hours. North Park, South Park, University Heights, and Normal Heights have everything from wine bars to brew pubs, lots of live music, DJs, and plenty of filthy hipsters to mock and secretly envy.
There's a lot to do in this town. I didn't mean to write a freakin' dissertation about it, but I did, and I've barely scratched the surface. If you're from here, or have been here, and have some ideas about what to do in San Diego when you're staying downtown and have some hours to kill, please share them in the comments. And if you have questions, I'll try to answer them. I'll be around during the conference, and if you want to get in touch, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on facebook or twitter @betadad.
Please click those "share" and "tweet" buttons if you think this might be helpful to anyone attending the conference!