I’ve been putting off writing this story for some time—too many things to tell you about and too little space. Yes, San Diego has a brilliant blue ocean and blue skies most of the time, mild temperatures year-round, a strong Spanish/Mexican heritage that permeates most of its architecture and culture, a huge U.S. Navy presence, amazing beaches and golf courses, a wealth of public and private universities and a world-famous zoo. You knew all this already, didn’t you?

But did you also know that the San Diego International Airport is so close to the seaport/downtown area that you feel compelled to duck your head when Boeing 707s are landing? Or that the freeway system has been known to short-circuit GPS navigators, turning unflappable direction-giving voices into shrieking lunatics?

Well, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let me tell you why you absolutely must visit San Diego. It’s fabulous, and there’s no end to the attractions you’ll want to see. If you have limited time, the first place to experience (and it’s quite an experience) is Balboa Park, the city’s crown jewel of 1,200 acres of gardens, 15 museums, concerts, classes, dining and shopping. Many of the beautiful Spanish Renaissance buildings were constructed for the 1915 Exposition. Not to be missed are the Museum of Art, Museum of Man, the San Diego Symphony, the Tony Award-winning Old Globe theater, Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater, the Botanical Building, Japanese Friendship Garden, Spreckels Organ Pavilion and the San Diego Zoo. Minutes from downtown, Balboa Park is the nation’s largest cultural park and could keep one entranced for weeks on end.

You’ll want to see Old Town, the Del Mar Racetrack (established by Bing Crosby and Pat O’Brien), Legoland, SeaWorld, Torrey Pines for hiking and golf, Safari Park, the USS Midway aircraft carrier, Seaport Village, Gaslamp Quarter, etc., etc.—I’m telling you, this is one vast playground.

One does need to sleep and eat, and the calmest, most luxurious spots are found outside the city proper. The Grand Del Mar was named Best Luxury Hotel in the U.S.A. by TripAdvisor for 2012. Combining the Old World charm of a Mediterranean estate with the modern luxury of an elegant home, you can’t beat this. Its Addison restaurant received Southern California’s only five-star and five-diamond rating. Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa is another Old World beauty and has been even further beautified to re-open to loyal returning guests. And in tony La Jolla, the iconic La Valencia resides. Since 1926, its hand-painted murals and exquisite Spanish mosaics have made ‘The Pink Lady and the Pacific’ a favorite. Step inside the Whaling Bar & Grill and you’re sure to make a few friends while enjoying delicious steak and fish offerings.

Marvelous restaurant choices are all over the place. Be adventurous, especially along the streets of Old Town and Gaslamp Quarter. Some of the hottest restaurants are in the Del Mar suburb, north of the city: Market Restaurant + Bar for sushi and a lively bar scene; Burlap, an ‘Asian-Cowboy’ spot; Flavor del Mar, for spectacular ocean views and the feeling of being on a Hollywood set; Café Coyote in Old Town, for great Mexican; and—just for fun--Pubcakes, for cupcakes made with beer.

You can hop on Old Town Trolley for a really convenient way to see many of the attractions, but you’ll miss too much if you don’t have a car. Here’s a suggested list of supplies to get you from one glorious place to another as you navigate the city’s frustrating freeways: a full tank of gas, a reliable GPS, a stoic navigator, a backseat DVD system for the kiddos, and Zen patience—a must.

Native St. Louisan, Judy Crowell, has been a Ladue News travel writer for years, traveling the world but preferring to chronicle the sublime beauty of America, “from sea to shining sea”.

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