Thanks to some great tips and accidental finds, we managed to feel like we got a self-guided insider’s tour of San Diego. Other than Cabrillo National Monument, which I consider the number one thing to do in San Diego, we also greatly enjoyed a few other area spots: Old Town San Diego, The Botanical Building at Balboa Park, Coronado Island, and Torrey Pines State Park (not to mention lots of delicious, authentic Mexican food).
Old Town San Diego
Delightfully tacky, yet nearly authentic. That’s Old Town San Diego. A section of the Old Town neighborhood is a state park, where a variety of museums share space with typical tourist trap vendors: chocolates, tin goods, “native american” trinkets, “gems,” and restaurants can be found in plenty. The museums are free and are authentically decorated and furnished. My favorite was the Casa de Estudillo, a wonderfully-designed Spanish colonial style house built in the 1820s. A docent in authentic garb was chatting with some tourists while waiting to begin the guided tour. One of the tourists asked who would live in a house like this — someone from the one percent? “Oh yes,” she said, “this would have housed one of the wealthiest families” in what was then Mexican California. It was a bit smaller than today’s equivalent…say, the 100-plus-room Spelling mansion. I got a huge kick out of walking around the Old Town area — it’s great to see the state step in to preserve these historic buildings, though the balance they have struck to keep the park free to visitors (the shops) makes it feel a bit like an historical amusement park.
The Botanical Building at Balboa Park
All of the buildings in Balboa Park are amazing. They’re old, ornate, classic. They’re filled with nooks and crannies, art and artifacts, and good, old-building smells. But my favorite, by far, was the Botanical Building. It’s not a building so much as it is a framework — it’s made up of wooden slats that provide partial shade while allowing air, moisture, and limited sunlight into the building. Inside, most of the plants are ferns or palms, and the bars of light combined with the segmented leaves makes it a confusing and magical place to the eye. You’re forced to pause, sit, take it all in. When we visited there were a multitude of spectacular orchids blooming, some I had seen before (the “Home Depot” varieties and the magical one that smells like chocolate) but many more that I hadn’t.
Not an island so much as a peninsula (who needs geographical correctness, anyway?), Coronado Island is interesting for its mixed-use nature. On one piece of the island, you will find one of the most expensive places to live in the country. On another piece, you will find a gigantic, noisy naval base. It’s quite an interesting place to observe…but it’s a place I’ll only need to go once.
Torrey Pines State Park
Torrey Pines are a type of endangered, rare pine tree — one of the rarest in the US. They currently grow naturally just in SD County and on one of the Channel Islands. I thought they looked almost identical to the white pines I’m familiar with from upstate NY (at least, the ones that weren’t gnarled by the brutal ocean winds). This park isn’t notable just for the pines themselves — it’s an amazing piece of wilderness on an otherwise overly-developed coastline. The bluffs along the beach reach high overhead and are made up of different colored sandstone that has been eroded in many cool patterns. There’s a great system of trails that lead up, over, and around the bluffs, offering stunning views of the ocean and the coast. Who knows what other types of plants once thrived along this coastline but were crowded out before their rarity was noticed?