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Escape to San Diego for the Holidays

By: Ann Wycoff

Hit the road and take in the sights as you navigate San Diego's 59-mile scenic drive that loops its way through the city's charming neighborhoods and reveals our unique attractions and natural wonders. Enjoy sweeping, panoramic views of the coastline, the shimmering yacht-dotted bay, downtown's skyline, Mexico and the surrounding mountains along the way. If you want to cover the entire trip in one adventure, carve out at least three hours, but we suggested doing parts of the tour on different days, so you can relax and make leisurely stops at various destinations. Blue and yellow signs bearing a white seagull mark the drive every quarter mile, but please note, some of the seagull signs may be missing or turned, so please follow the directions as they are written below. Enjoy the ride!

1. Embarcadero / Downtown

Get your bearings, maps, brochures and Visitor Guides at the International Visitor Information Center, an official visitor center of the San Diego Tourism Authority. Located at 1140 North Harbor Drive (in front of the B Street Cruise Ship Terminal), the Visitor Center is open daily from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM October through May. From June to September, it's open daily 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Phone: 619.236.1212.

The start of your scenic drive celebrates San Diego as a seaport city as our massive bay is filled with aircraft carriers, cruise ships, historic sailboats and private yachts. Head north on Harbor Drive, past the Broadway Pier, where you can catch a ferry across to Coronado or explore the bay on a harbor excursion. Next is the Cruise Ship Terminal, where some of the world's finest ships call on San Diego. Further along the Embarcadero, the tall masts of beautiful historic ships designate Maritime Museum of San Diego, one of the world's top collections that includes the ferryboat Berkeley, built in 1898; the luxury yacht Medea, built in Scotland; and the Star of India, the world's oldest active sailing ship, built in 1863, which has circled the globe 27 times.

Across the street, kids will love the County Administration Center Waterfront Park, especially for cooling off on warm days under the arcing water jets and in the splash pond. The sprawling 12-acre grassy park is perfect for picnics and playtime as it hosts a creative playground with slides, climbing walls and modern recreational features for bayfront fun.

2. Harbor Island

From here, continue north along the harbor on Harbor Drive toward the San Diego International Airport, also known as Lindbergh Field, (named after Charles Lindbergh, whose famous flight began in San Diego). Take the exit marked "Harbor Island" and do a loop of the island, which affords spectacular views of San Diego Bay, Point Loma, the Coronado Bridge and Downtown.

3. Spanish Landing & Shelter Island

Return to Harbor Drive, bear left, and continue driving west along Harbor Drive past Spanish Landing Park, a nice spot for biking or a picnic. Further ahead on the left is the building site of the San Salvador, a work-in-progress replica of explorer Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo's 1542 flagship that discovered San Diego Bay, part of the Maritime Museum. Ahead at Scott Street make a left, followed by another left onto Shelter Island Drive. Most of San Diego's sport fishing fleet is docked in this area. Take a loop around Shelter Island, home to hotels, restaurants and marinas. On the tip of the island you will find the "Yokohama Friendship Bell," representing Yokohama, Japan, one of San Diego's sister cities.

4. Point Loma

From Shelter Island Drive make a left turn back on Scott Street, then a right turn at Talbot Street and head up the hill. Turn left onto Canon Street, and then make a left at Catalina Boulevard, where the road eventually turns into Cabrillo Memorial Drive. The peninsula is home to a seaside residential community, military bases, and a national cemetery. Striations of white gravestones of the Fort Rosecrans Cemetery line both sides of the street as you head out to the tip of Point Loma.

5. Cabrillo National Monument

Continue driving to the Cabrillo National Monument, named for Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. On September 28, 1542, he sailed into what is now known as San Diego Bay. Historians believe he docked on Point Loma's east shore, the first landing by a European in present-day California. Point Loma has been described as "where California began." The Old Point Loma Lighthouse began operating here in 1855; though it's no longer in use, it is open for viewing. (In 1891, another lighthouse was built at sea level and still operates today.) The tip of Point Loma is the most southwestern point of the continental U.S., and an excellent perch to watch the gray whales migrate south to Mexico during the winter months. You can also visit the tide pools, join in a ranger walk, explore the museum and drink in the panoramic views of the harbor, city and Mexico.

6. Ocean Beach

Return to Cabrillo Memorial Drive whose name eventually changes to Catalina Boulevard. Continue along Catalina and turn left at Hill Street. Follow Hill and then turn right at Cordova Street, which becomes Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. As you continue along Sunset Cliffs, you will enter the bohemian seaside community of Ocean Beach. Take a short side trip to the Ocean Beach Municipal Fishing Pier by making a left turn onto Newport Avenue. The pier is an excellent spot for fishing, bird watching or seeing surfers charge waves. Stroll along Newport Avenue for antique and consignment shopping or a bite to eat.

7. Mission Bay Aquatic Park

Return to and continue driving along Sunset Cliffs Boulevard for a visit to Mission Bay Aquatic Park, a 4600-acre aquatic playground with 27 miles of beaches. To reach the park area, follow Sunset Cliffs Boulevard to West Mission Bay Drive. Follow signs to West Mission Bay Drive; it turns into Ingraham Street. You'll see the exit for SeaWorld San Diego here. Continue driving North on Ingraham Street, across two bridges. At the second bridge, which crosses over Fisherman's Channel, turn right onto Crown Point Drive. From here you can see wind surfers and catamarans zipping across the water. To explore the area further, take a walk or bike ride on the pathway around the bay, or glide across the water on a kayak or stand up paddleboard.

8. Soledad Mountain

Follow Crown Point Drive and turn left at Lamont Street, which traverses the residential areas of Crown Point and Pacific Beach. At the intersection of Beryl Street, the name will change to Soledad Road. Drive up the hill past Kate Sessions Park (which has a nice playground) and turn left onto Soledad Mountain Road. Travel .8 miles and turn right onto La Jolla Scenic Drive that weaves through one of the exclusive residential areas of La Jolla. Look for the turnoff to Mount Soledad Park. Climb up the Veterans Memorial to the Cross for one of San Diego's most soul-stirring views. From this lookout point, you can see San Diego County for miles in every direction. If timed right, it's a wonderful spot to watch the sun sink into the Pacific.

9. University of California, San Diego Campus

As you leave the park turn right on Via Capri, drive down the hill, and turn left on Hidden Valley Road. This hillside residential area of La Jolla offers spectacular ocean views. At La Jolla Parkway, go through the intersection and follow the signs to Torrey Pines Road. Follow it up the hill and through the canyon and then left on North Torrey Pines Road. On the right is the beautiful UCSD Campus, known for its spectacular architecture, several Nobel Prize-winning faculty members and contemporary art installations.

10. Birch Aquarium at Scripps and Salk Institute

While you are in the UCSD area, you can take two short side trips from the marked route. To visit the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, turn left from North Torrey Pines Road onto Expedition Way and follow signs to the aquarium, home to marvelous kelp tanks, Pacific Ocean marine life habitats, sea dragons and more. When you leave the aquarium parking lot, turn left onto North Torrey Pines Road. Then continue north along North Torrey Pines Road, past the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, named after Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine. Just beyond the institute is the Torrey Pines Glider Port (off Torrey Pines Scenic Drive) where hang gliders soaring along the jagged cliffs and sea. When leaving, make a U-TURN and head n south, down the hill, along La Jolla Shores Drive.

11. La Jolla Cove Park & La Jolla Cave

Continue along La Jolla Shores Drive and turn right onto Torrey Pines Road. Turn right at Prospect Street, an upscale boutique shopping street referred to as the "Rodeo Drive of San Diego." Turn right onto Coast Boulevard and head down to the La Jolla Cove, an enchanting spot for swimming, snorkeling with the orange Garibaldi fish and sea cave kayaking. Further south along the coast is the Children's Pool, a popular gathering place for snoozing harbor seals and swimming. From the Cove, you can walk up Cuvier Street to the elegant shopping and dining district around Prospect Street and Girard Avenue.

12. Pacific Beach

Follow Coast Boulevard, past the Museum of Contemporary Art, and then turn left onto La Jolla Boulevard. Keep going through the charming beach community of Bird Rock. As you reach the bottom of the hill, the street name will change to Mission Boulevard. As you proceed, on your right is Pacific Beach, a confluence of sunbathing, surfing and SoCal culture. For a taste of the San Diego beach scene, stroll, bike or rollerblade along Ocean Front Walk (stop and make a right at Diamond Street). Watering holes and snack shops line this street that hosts a carnival of colorful characters who make for great people watching.

13. Mission Beach

Continue driving along Mission Boulevard into the seaside community of Mission Beach. Just past the roller coaster, turn right at the light, and park your car in the lot. Explore Belmont Park and enjoy an adrenaline-thumping ride on the Giant Dipper built in 1925. Play laser tag, take a dip in the ocean, or stop at one of the seaside restaurants or shops located along the boardwalk.

14. Old Town State Historic Park

Exit the parking lot and head east on West Mission Bay Drive, following the signs for Sports Arena Boulevard. Drive under the freeway overpass and turn left at the first stoplight to continue along Sports Arena Boulevard. Bear left onto Rosecrans Street and go under another freeway overpass. At the stoplight the street name will change to Taylor Street. For a walk back in time, Old Town San Diego State Historic Park awaits on the right with shopping bazaars, cantinas, adobes and museums. This historic park represents San Diego's Hispanic heritage and merging of cultures from 1821 to 1872, when this area was the center of San Diego. Free walking tours are offered daily at 11:00 AM and 2:00 PM from the park headquarters. You can also visit charming Heritage Park Row, where a number of Victorian buildings scheduled for demolition were relocated.

15. Serra Museum/Presido Park

Continue driving along Taylor Street. Turn right on Presidio Drive, drive up the hill and turn left on Presidio Drive. Visit the Serra Museum, named for Father Junipero Serra, the Franciscan friar who established Alta California's first mission and presido in 1769. The Spanish Revival-style museum (built in 1928/29) displays artifacts and photographs depicting the early days of San Diego.

16. Hillcrest

After visiting the Serra Museum, continue up Presidio Drive and turn left at Arista Street. Turn right at Fort Stockton Drive. You are now driving through Mission Hills, one of San Diego's first suburbs, and a charming residential area with great Spanish-Revival architecture. Turn right at Goldfinch Street. Continue one block and turn left onto Washington Street. You are now in Hillcrest, which attracts a large LGBT community, as well as many others drawn by the rich selection of trendy boutiques, breweries, art galleries and excellent eateries.

17. Balboa Park

Turn right on First Avenue and then left onto Laurel Street, which becomes El Prado and delivers you into Balboa Park, the largest urban park with cultural institutions in North America. Named for the Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1513, Balboa Park is cultural gem. Many of the park's lovely buildings are examples of ornate Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, constructed for the Panama-California Exposition (1915-16), and also used for the California-Pacific International Exposition in 1935. The sprawling 1400-acre park, includes renowned museums, lush gardens, cafes and the internationally acclaimed The Old Globe Theatre, known for its Shakespeare Festival and Broadway-bound premieres.

Called the "Smithsonian of the West," Balboa Park has 17 museums devoted to art, history, space, sports, physical and natural sciences. Favorites include the San Diego Natural History Museum, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and the San Diego Air & Space Museum. Continuing along El Prado, turn right onto Pan American East Road which leads to the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, an outdoor concert setting featuring the world's largest outdoor pipe organ. Enjoy free music here on Sunday afternoons. To the right is the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages, where each Sunday afternoon at 2:00 PM (between March and mid-November), one of the houses sponsors ethnic folk dances, music or entertainment.

18. San Diego Zoo

Head southwest on Pan American East Road and turn left on President's Way. Turn left on Park Boulevard and then take another left into Zoo Way. The world-famous San Diego Zoo encompasses 100 acres of Balboa Park and houses 4,000 animals of 800 exotic species. Wander through the natural habitats and discover Tasmanian Devils, baby pandas, playful polar bears, swimming Sumatran tigers and the largest colony of sleepy koalas outside of Australia. (For information about visiting the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, see our list of side trips below.)

19. Seaport Village / USS MIDWAY / The Headquarters

To exit Balboa Park, turn right onto Park Boulevard and follow it downtown. Take another right at B Street and then a left on Fourth Avenue. Next, take a right on Broadway and then a left on Pacific Highway toward the city's excellent waterfront dining. About one-half mile farther down, you will reach Seaport Village. Park in one of the lots and stroll through this bustling, waterfront shopping and dining destination. Kids will love the hand-carved carousel from 1895. A little further north, along Harbor Drive, between Seaport Village and the Visitor Center (where your tour began), sits the USS Midway Museum. Berthed along the Navy Pier and open daily, the museum pays tribute to the over 200,000 service men and women who served aboard the now decommissioned USS Midway. Next, walk over to The Headquarters (789 W. Harbor Drive), the former police station. At this stylish, open-air mall, you find art galleries, a toy store, boutique shops, gourmet chocolates and many family friendly dining options.

20. Convention Center & Embarcadero Marina Park

When you leave Seaport Village, turn right onto Harbor Drive and head east. On your right is the San Diego Convention Center; across the street is the home of the San Diego Padres baseball team, PETCO Park. New to the city's skyline is the striking three-story dome of the San Diego Central Library. Just beyond the convention center, turn right on 8th and explore the Embarcadero Marina Park home to bike paths, picnic tables, a gazebo, a fishing pier and great views of the Coronado Bridge.

21. Gaslamp Quarter

Return to Harbor Drive and turn left, and then turn right onto Fifth Avenue, which leads the the historic heart of San Diego and its vibrant Gaslamp Quarter. During the California Gold Rush, this raucous waterfront area was once known as the Stingaree District, home to saloons, gambling halls, brothels and opium dens. Today, the dynamic entertainment district boasts more than 100 restaurants, 35 nightclubs and 100 retail shops. Weekend guided walking tours of the area start at the Gaslamp Museum at the William Heath Davis House, which was built in 1859 in New England and said to be haunted. Aspiring ghost-hunters should take a late-night tour for a spine-tingling experience.

22. Horton Plaza

Continue driving on Fifth Avenue and turn left onto F Street. At the next intersection, you arrive at Horton Plaza, a unique shopping, dining and entertainment complex known for its contemporary architecture and trendy stores. Park in the adjacent garage that's free with validation. This marks the end of your scenic journey, though this spot is a great gateway to further explore the Gaslamp!

Suggested Side Trips Beyond the 59-Mile Scenic Drive

23. Mission San Diego de Alcala

To reach the Mission San Diego de Alcala, drive eastbound on Interstate 8, exit Mission Gorge Road, and turn left onto Twain Street, which becomes San Diego Mission Road and leads to The Mission. The first of 21 in California, The Mission (built in 1769) was moved in 1774 from its original location in Presidio Park to the valley, where water and grazing land were plentiful. Today, it serves as a cultural center and active parish with services at 7:00 AM and 5:30 PM on weekdays, and several on Sundays. The public is welcome daily from 9:00 AM to 4:45 PM for docent-led tours.

24. Hotel del Coronado

From Interstate 5 drive across the San Diego-Coronado Bridge and turn left at the first traffic light, onto Orange Avenue. You'll pass the charming village of Coronado before arriving at the iconic Hotel del Coronado, with its signature wedding cake trim and red turrets. Built in 1888, the seaside gem has hosted royalty, celebrities and presidents, and served as a Hollywood movie location for several films. Peddle along the bike path, gather seashells along one of "American's Finest Beaches" or take a dip in the sea. The Coronado Museum of History and Art (1100 Orange Avenue) tells the story of the enchanting island through memorabilia, historic black-and-white photos and great art.

25. San Diego Zoo Safari Park (35 miles north of downtown San Diego)

Drive north on Interstate 15, exit Via Rancho Parkway, turn right and follow the signs to the Safari Park (formerly called Wild Animal Park). Set on 2,200 acres, this amazing park and wildlife conservancy has more than 3,000 animals roaming freely in environments similar to their native African and Asian habits. Tour the park by tram; hike the scenic Kilimanjaro Trail; zip line over rhinos, feed a friendly giraffe, explore the exotic gardens, enjoy an aerial view from a hot air balloon or take the Tiger Trail into the Sumatran forest, home to the majestic big cats.

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