The last time I wrote about San Diego it was as a staging post on my road to discovering that the Brussels Sprout is cool in California. The foggy, coastal area south of San Francisco grows 95 cent of the American crop and it’s definitely not cool there to boil the little bullets into mushy oblivion. My Brassica oleracea gemmifera Damascene moment came in a downtown taproom, when shrimp tacos were accompanied by tempura sprouts – their natural hint of bitterness in harmony with the hop.
The Golden State’s Sprout Love is quite mainstream. Check out the menu at the Desmond Restaurant in San Diego’s Kimpton Alma Hotel on Fifth Avenue. For $19 you can order a plate of sprouts with dashi broth, Japanese curry, scallions and a poached egg. When I used the Kimpton as my base for exploring California’s most southerly city its culinary emphasis was elsewehere – on dishes from across the Mexican border 20 miles to the south.
Sprouts weren’t really what brought me to San Diego, though. Of all the places to live the West Coast dream it has few equals. Immoderately blessed with perfect weather, surf culture and pristine beaches, its laid-back attitude belies its history as a major deep sea harbour for the US Navy.
So many major attractions to see but sometimes Seaworld and Aquatica, San Diego Zoo and the USS Midway Museum, based upon a legendary aircraft carrier, may have to take a backseat to exploring the possibilities of the city’s many cool hang-outs. Here are 10 suggestions to make you want to get up and go…
Go to the Park
Sounds a dull place to start? Not when you are talking Balboa Park, which stretches across 1,200 acres and encompasses everything from the 660 species San Diego Zoo to nearly 20 museums and a host of other venues in glorious lush gardens, the Japanese one the pick. Best place, for an overview is the California Tower, closed to the public for 80 years but now open for tours via seven sets of winding stairs from the Museum of Man. You are rewarded with a spectacular panorama of the city. You almost duck when low planes fly past. The Park, a National Historic Landmark, is named after Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa, in honour of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, held on the site. A Balboa Park Explorer Pass costs from from $56 for one day, giving access for up to four venues. For full city tourism information visit SanDiego.org.
Go El Greco
It seems appropriate that in a US city with so many Hispanic ties that the San Diego Museum of Art, among the country’s finest, should boast such a strong Spanish collection. Francisco de Zurbarán, Murillo, Juan Sánchez Cotán’s iconic Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber and, of course, El Greco. Check out his glorious Adoration of the Shepherds and the unearthly Penitent St Peter. The SDMA is not just about Old Masters; you’ll find benchmark collections of Indian art and 19th and 20th century American paintings and sculpture. All set in one of Balboa Park’s original Mission-style buildings, with a Platereresque frontage inspired by Salamanca in Spain.
Go fly a kite
After all that history it’s time to get the wind back in your sails. And where better than Embarcadero Marina Park? We didn’t exactly fly our own kite but it was good to see lots of them fluttering against the backdrop of the mighty Coronado Bridge. The breezy harbour-front Embarcadero walkway is jogger and dog walker heaven, while Seaport Village offers a cluster of folksy gift shops. The harbour is where it all began for San Diego back in 1542 when Juan Cabrillo sailed into the sheltered Bay. Loma Point, where the explorer stepped on shore is celebrated with a scenic National Monument. There are breathtaking views from here and the adjacent Ballast Point Lighthouse.
It’s not all exhilarating green spaces. In a transformation typical of many American cities The Gaslamp Quarter, a once dead downtown, is now the centre of a food and drink-centric nightlife. A long period of neglect preserved the Victorian architecture of this 16 block historic district. Just wander around, looking up at the ornamentation of buildings such as the Romanesque Keating Building, ornate, domed Balboa Theatre and the hallucinogenic Louis Bank of Commerce, once home to a favourite bar of Wyatt Earp and the notorious brothel, the Golden Poppy Hotel. When your neck starts to get stiff there’s an abundance of bars to recover in. Restoring the green wrought-iron gas lamps (they actually run on electricity) was an inspired move to inspire after-dark footfall. We succumbed, dining at upmarket seafood restaurant Lionfish in The Pendry Hotel on Fifth Avenue.
Go for a beer
Ever-impressionable, where better to dip into San Diego’s unrivalled craft beer scene than the pioneering brewery that calls itself Ballast Point? It caused quite a splash in 2015 when it was bought for $1billion by an an international beverage group; last year its major rival Stone was snapped up by Japanese giant Sapporo. Craft is no longer all about plucky minnows. All quality dilution fears allayed at Ballast Point’s original brewtap up in the Little Italy district. The flagship Sculpin IPA, served unfiltered, was fantastic. Elsewhere, you are definitely spoiled for choice; there are over 150 breweries – check out the likes of Modern Times, Border X, Karl Strauss, Societe and Belching Beaver.
Go to market
Little Italy, these days more chic eaterie and art gallery territory than Genoese fishermen’s slice of the ‘Old Country’, does offer the pick of the city’s farmer’s markets – the Little Italy Mercato open Wednesday and Saturday, straddling several streets, its 175 vendors showcasing the richness of Southern Californian food culture. We had brunched first at at Herb and Wood – immaculate baked goods, Kombucha, house-made bone broth and savoury specials such as salmon rillettes on avocado and sourdough. Very different to the Mercato, though equally buzzing, is Liberty Market, a seven days a week artisan-led operation in a former naval training complex. It’s an eclectic mix with a vintage comic bookshop rubbing shoulders with a feminist museum and and a bistro/boutique brewing facility run by Stone. The focus, though is the globally-influenced food hall, where you’re spoilt for choice. In the end I went for a trio of ceviches plus oysters and a sea urchin from the Poke Bar. Washed down in the ‘Mess Hall’ with sour beers sourced from the comprehensive Bottlecraft beer shop.
Go plant based, heavy metal brunch
As with craft beer and small batch coffee roasts, we in the UK are always playing catch-up with our West Coast cousins. So too with San Diego’s vegan culture. Combine it with a heavy metal ethos and you get Bar Kindred, cool even by the cool standards of its South Park setting (North Park isn’t bad either if you are into foraging for vintage vinyl, thrift store chic, hipster brews and chakra practitioners). There’s no booking at Kindred, so get there early for breakfast cocktails, drop biscuits with mushroom gravy, then brunch mains that might deliver calypso beans, soy curls, maitake mushrooms, charred kale, jicama salsa and Creole aioli. Ask if you can sit under the giant four-eyed snake wolf. No wi-fi. Well, we said it was heavy.
Go grab a coffee
Locals claim the city’s coffee culture rivals or even surpasses Portland and Seattle’s. Amazingly there are 1,900 coffee shops in the city, so definitely a risk of caffeine overload in your quest for the best. I asked the locals and they came up with this trio: Black Horse (North Park, Normal Heights and Golden Hill) and the Barrio Logan district duo Cafe Moto and Cafe Virtuoso, the latter organic. A current fad elsewhere is to spike your morning ‘bullet’ coffee with a shot of omega-3-rich flax oil or fat-burning coconut oil. Avoid.
Go to the beach
There is a string of strands to show off your beach body all along the coast. We ended up at La Jolla, which boasts some of the USA’s most expensive beach front real estate and boutique shopping to match. Ostensibly we were there for kayaking to the La Jolla Sea Caves with the added carrot of possible whale or shark watching but, gauging the ocean swell, I chickened out and instead sauntered the length of the beach for refreshment at Caroline’s clifftop cafe at the fascinating Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Lunch was at award-winning Galaxy Tacos. Ask for the terrace; order the essential Baja rried fish with chile lime crema, avocado mousse, cabbage, pico de gallo or the more unusual Lengua (tongue) with cilantro, onions and avocado salsa verde. Sprouts here come roasted with chipotle mayo. If you stay until sunset I’d recommend a cocktail and sea view at Level 42 at ‘California Modern’ restaurant Georges at the Cove.
The coastline to the north of La Jolla offers a string of laid-back beach towns, seafood and surfing, along the legendary Route 101, but before you get to all that take in the managed wilderness of Torrey Pines State Reserve. The name gives away its raison d’etre – preserving 3,000 endangered examples of the US’s rarest pine tree, Pinus Torreyana, which only grows here and on Santa Rosa Island off Santa Barbara. Below the 1,750 acre clifftop reserve you’ll find one of the last great salt marshes and waterfowl refuges in Southern California. The well-kept trails – family-friendly or more testing – provide stunning views of the Pacific. ‘Beware of rattlesnakes’ notices made me watch where I was putting my dusty Vans.
Eighty colourful, politically provocative murals under a fly-over? Chicano Park is the emotional epicentre of the Barrio Logan district. Its painted pillars depict the life and struggles of San Diego’s Mexican community. Back in the Sixties, when the Coronado Bridge was constructed through it, the Park itself was the cultural focus of these struggles. It still is, its cultural importance confirmed by being granted National Historic Landscape Status in 2017. The street art has spread out across the Barrio now as vacant warehouses have become creative spaces and live music venues and authentic Mexican food is a big draw. At La Cuatro Milpas the tortillas are made fresh each day, while fish and chorizo are the tacos of choice at Salud! by the San Diego Taco Company. Alongside the Barrio coffee already mentioned there’s also a strong craft beer presence with the likes of Iron Fist and Border X Brewing (try the Blood Saison made with hibiscus). If all this has whetted your appetite for Mexico proper? Cross the border into Tijuana, the city once called ‘Satan’s Playground’. Be sure to sample Caesar’s Salad in its hotel birthplace (or if you can’t make it, try my recipe.)