Whenever I book a cruise, like the one to Hawaii I wrote about last time, I always arrive at the city the ship is to depart from least a day early. It gives me time to relax and get over any jet lag, and helps if there are any travel delays. Our cruise to Hawaii left from San Diego, so Roger and I booked two nights there and it wasn’t enough.
We arrived at the city’s airport, which is right in the city and less than three miles from the cruise terminal, and went to our hotel, the Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina, which is another mile along the waterfront.
It was a perfect place to relax and get into a vacation frame of mind with palms swaying in the tropical oasis surrounding the pool, hot tubs and fire pits. Visitors can get food and cocktails poolside and there’s a shop with wine and prepackaged food to go providing all you need for a picnic on a balcony overlooking the bay.
Just outside the hotel, the waterfront promenade leads to the beautiful marina, waterfront restaurants, the Coronado ferry, specialty shops at the Seaport Village and historic ships along the Embarcadero.
San Diego is the eighth largest city in the United States and the second largest in California. We wanted to see more of the city and added three hotel nights at the end of our cruise.
Touring the city by trolley
We toured the city the easiest way, with a narrated Old Town Trolley’s Hop-On Hop-Off tour. It runs on a 25-mile loop that takes two hours to see if you do it all at once. Trolleys come every 20 minutes and if one is full, another is sent out to you.
It brought us to at all our places of interest, and one stop was right in front of our hotel.
“Take a picture,” our driver advised as he pointed to the Marriott’s lush landscaping, “and you can tell your friends you went to Hawaii.”
The next stop was Horton Plaza Park, named for Alonzo Horton, known as the Father of San Diego. In 1867, he rode a mule and to what is now the Old Town, thought the town should be by the bay, and built one where San Diego stands today.
Horton laid out short city blocks with plenty of popular corner properties but without alleys for “rubbish and rascals.” By 1910, the plaza’s U.S. Grant Hotel was opened by the former president’s son at a cost $1.9 million.
San Diego’s historic Gaslamp Quarter is one of the city’s eight distinct neighborhoods. This center of Victorian architecture gets its name from the 5-globe street lamps originally fueled by gas. With over 150 restaurants, bars, and music venues, it’s now known for its nightlife.
Self-guided tours of the Davis-Horton House, the oldest wooden house in San Diego, are available here. It’s where Alonzo Horton and his fourth wife lived while their house was being built.
The next stop, Petco Park, is home to the San Diego Padres. Behind-the-scenes tours are offered.
The Old Town Trolley is the only one that crosses the bridge to Coronado, a delightful beach community between San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean with an island feel.
En route, it passes the port where, our driver said, 12 percent of all bananas — or 128 million bananas — and 10 percent of all cars — 4 million — imported to the U.S. arrive. The colorful murals in Chicano Park, beneath the bridge, are on the National Registry.
San Diego has the largest naval base in the Pacific, and ships can be spotted from the bridge.
Coronado is a popular place for lunch at a beachfront restaurant and a stroll along the Coronado Beach pathway.
The legendary Hotel del Coronado, the choice of presidents, celebrities and royalty, is a must-see. “The Del,” was built in 1888 and was the first hotel west of the Mississippi wired for electricity. This National Historic Landmark was featured in the 1959 movie “Some Like It Hot,” starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.
Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo
The trolley continues to Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo, the nation’s largest urban cultural park. Spend a day at each if you can, but at least stop to see the magnificent Spanish colonial architecture and see why Balboa Park is called the Jewel of San Diego.
The buildings go back to the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition, which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal. San Diego was the first American port of call. The Exposition brought millions of visitors to the city of 40,000.
This 1,200-acre hub of the area’s history and culture is right in the middle of the city. Buy an Explorer Pass if you plan to visit several museums.
At the San Diego Zoo, inhabitants roam freely in exhibits that replicate their natural habitats, including plant species from their native lands. Top attractions include the Polar Bear Plunge, Scripps Aviary and the Panda Canyon. The zoo also has the largest koala colony and most successful koala breeding program outside Australia.
Start with the guided double-decker bus tour and get a treetop view from the Skyfari Aerial Tram. If you’re tired, you can use the Kangaroo Bus to get around.
The Old Town is where Father Junipero Serra built the first of his 21 missions in 1769, establishing the first European settlement, and making San Diego the “Birthplace of California,” however, Native Americans were the first to explore and settle the state.
Old Town State Historical Park celebrates the Mexican and Early American period, from 1821 to 1872. Some original buildings have been preserved. The Fiesta de Reyes area features daily music and dancing, specialty shops and restaurants.
Little Italy is a neighborhood of restaurants, patio cafés, concerts, shops, and special events. On Wednesdays and Saturdays the Little Italy Mercato is held on Piazza della Famiglia, the public square with a tiled fountain. Little Italy Food Hall opened there in 2018.
The trolley continues to Embarcadero and the Maritime Museum, a place to learn about the history of the U.S. Navy in San Diego. Historic vessels, sailing ships, steam-powered boats and submarines are restored, maintained and operated here.
Visitors can explore the Star of India, an iron windjammer that began sailing from Great Britain to India and New Zealand in 1863 and the world’s oldest active ship. The museum’s B-39, a Soviet-era diesel-electric submarine, is from the Cold War. The HMS Surprise, a recreation of the 18th century Royal Navy 24-gun frigate Rose, was built for the Academy Award winning film, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” with Russel Crowe.
The U.S.S. Midway Museum has over 30 restored aircraft and helicopters, 10 acres of exhibits, and flight simulators. A self-guided tour about living and working onboard is narrated by Midway sailors. Visitors can control the action in a flight simulator ride and watch a 15-minute movie on one of World War II’s most important naval battles.
Harbor or dinner cruises depart from the Embarcadero area for another perspective of the ships in the bay. You might also spot some sea lions.
From here it’s a short walk to the shops and restaurants of Seaport Village, the last trolley stop before returning to the Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina.