In 2019, San Diego celebrates its 250th birthday. This Southern California city is perfect for starting and finishing cruises along the Pacific Coast and out to the Pacific islands. Contributing to its laid back vibe are great beaches, shopping, restaurants and sunshine: summer temperatures average 22°C/72°F; winters are a steady 16°C/61°F.
San Diego’s environmentally-friendly cruise port is in the city’s heart, on the Embarcadero. This two-mile-long waterfront is lined with shops, hotels, museums, parks and restaurants with views of the water. No wonder seven of the world’s leading cruise lines offer departures from the two convenient cruise ship terminals.
Can I walk to any places of interest?
Within a 20-minute stroll, you can contrast the massive USS Midway aircraft carrier with a 150-year-old working sailing ship, follow a self-guided art walk with witty sculptures that are perfect for selfies, be entertained by buskers and check out Seaport Village with its shops, restaurants and a 120-year-old merry-go-round.
San Diego has an impressive, well-priced public transport network, with four light rail lines and lots of buses. In summer, the Waterfront Shuttle links eight stops along the Bayfront, from South Embarcadero to Harbor Island ($3; valid all day). Or hop in a cheerful pedicab.
San Diego is a major holiday destination, with hotels aplenty. If you want to stay right on the water, there are practical chain hotels, such as the vast Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina, where many of the 1,360 bedrooms overlook bobbing boats. The buzzy Hotel Republic, with its open-air terrace café/bar upstairs, is in the heart of the action and close to the Gaslamp Quarter and Little Italy. Out on Coronado Island, the 130-year-old Hotel del Coronado is a charmer with a celebrity guest list, including Marilyn Monroe, who filmed part of Some Like It Hot here.
What to see and do
Cross-cultural currents run deep in San Diego. Delve into its early Spanish history; enjoy zingy Mexican dishes. Take in museums and the notable craft beer scene. Above all, enjoy being outdoors on sandy beaches, in vast parks and on the seafront, with views of super-yachts at Fifth Avenue Landing.
What can I do in four hours or less?
Explore the Embarcadero’s rich maritime history, by following the waterfront boardwalk. An eight-minute stroll north from the cruise port is the Maritime Museum of San Diego. The highlight here is the 160-year-old, British-built, Star of India, the world’s oldest active sailing ship. Heading back towards the port, you can’t miss the towering USS Midway aircraft carrier, a US Navy mainstay from 1945-1992. Now a museum, you can see everything from the flight deck to the mess hall. Best of all, talk to volunteers, who served aboard this leviathan.
Steps away is Tuna Harbor Park, whose statues are part of a mile-long art trail. Take a selfie with the eye-catching “Kissing” statue and a life-size image of movie star Bob Hope; listen to him entertaining the troops – the sound comes from hidden speakers. Next is Seaport Village, with souvenir shops, cafés – and buskers. Look out for Rabindra Sarkar, San Diego’s own “rock star”, whose balancing rocks seem to defy gravity. Next door, The Headquarters, once the police HQ, is now devoted to restaurants and shops, as well as an eight-cell jail block, now a mini police museum. A 15-minute stroll gets you back to your cruise ship.
What can I do in eight hours or less?
Cruise lines, such as Holland America, offer a host of excursions, from trips to the city’s famous zoo to wine tasting in the nearby Ramona Valley. But San Diego is easy to explore on your own. For the main attractions, ride San Diego’s hop-on, hop-off Old Town Trolley ($38 online; stop B, Embarcadero). Get off at Balboa Park, the USA’s largest urban cultural park. Its 17 museums cover science and natural history, art and photography, automobiles and even model railways. For fabulous views, climb up seven storeys in the century-old California Tower at the Museum of Man.
Also in the park is the world-renowned San Diego Zoo, which pioneered natural, cageless habitats. Other stops include Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Back in 1821, settlers built houses here, made of sun-dried adobe brick. Five homes still stand. But there is more than history on offer. Another stop is the Gaslamp Quarter, with its Victorian architecture, brick pavements, galleries, shops and 100 restaurants. On Coronado Island, the city’s very own small resort island, get off near the glam Hotel del Coronado for a spa treatment; explore the boutiques; return to your ship on the Coronado ferry (US$5).
Eat and drink
The Gaslamp Quarter has restaurants galore: steak, seafood, healthy Southern Californian and authentic Mexican. The taprooms here are among the 150 breweries in San Diego’s renowned craft beer scene.
Tip? Savour smoked brisket and ribs at the Kansas City Barbeque, famous for the Great Balls of Fire piano scene in the Tom Cruise film Top Gun.
Don’t leave San Diego without…
Close to the terminal, Seaport Village has 50 specialty stores and galleries, while Little Italy and the Gaslamp Quarter offer one-of-a kind shops. Further afield, find bargains at Las Americas Premium Outlets, near the Mexican border (125 stores) and glitz at Fashion Valley Mall (200 stores from Hermès to Prada).
Need to know
With British Airways’ direct flights from London Heathrow, San Diego is 11 hours away.
San Diego is generally safe, with little crime against tourists. In crowded areas take the precautions you would at home.
Best time to go
San Diego’s steady year-round climate is rarely very hot or cold. Cruise departures run between January and April (for the Pacific Coast, Mexican Riviera, Hawaii, South America) and from October to December (Hawaii, Australia, Mexico, South America). There are no departures between June and August, when the city is at its busiest.
Major shops, museums and attractions are open daily.
Use the Southern California CityPASS to save on bundled admission tickets to SeaWorld San Diego, San Diego Zoo/San Diego Zoo Safari Park; the Go San Diego Card is another money-saving pass. San Diego’s tourism website features special deals for cruise ship passengers.