San Diego is often overlooked, thanks to California’s urban hotspots Los Angeles and San Francisco, but gay travellers would be wise to reconsider. Bordered by Mexico, the Pacific Ocean, the Laguna Mountains and the Anza-Borrego Desert, the state’s second-largest city is topographically gifted. It’s a city of distinct communities, and visitors should explore it neighbourhood by neighbourhood.
Downtown and Coronado
Historic, commercial and green, San Diego’s downtown is a natural starting point for a city adventure. Chockablock with restaurants, bars and shops, the Gaslamp Quarter buzzes with locals and tourists, particularly on a Padres’ or Chargers’ game night (the local professional baseball and football teams, respectively, for non-sports fans). The iconic US Grant Hotel stands out in the neighbourhood, with its 100-plus-year history and luxurious empire-style furnishings. For foodies looking beyond what the seafood restaurants and steakhouses offer, Cafe21 serves up exotic tapas plates inspired by its Azerbaijani chef.
Visitors to Balboa Park will hit the museum mother lode by setting foot in the USA’s largest urban park. Fifteen museums are housed in the ornate Spanish Renaissance–style buildings surrounded by lush and manicured gardens. While strolling, visitors should prepare for the occasional roar or whinny — evidence of the park’s nearby crown jewel: the San Diego Zoo. In addition to displays and aviaries, special tours offer an up-close-and-personal glimpse into the animals’ habitat and the zoo’s conservation efforts. The newer San Diego Zoo Safari Park, outside of town, is an even more authentic wildlife experience, with its residents roaming in larger game reserves.
Into the evening, The Old Globe theatre draws more of the culturally thirsty. New artistic director Barry Edelstein is bringing his Broadway credentials to the upcoming season, which includes a balance of Shakespearean and popular productions in the company’s three theatres.
Nearby Old Town is a preserved city block showcasing San Diego’s first settlement. Historic sites that date back to 1821 convey the energy of a 19th-century southwestern American community. Charming shops feature period-inspired knickknacks sold by costumed retailers. Among the highlights is the Whaley House Museum, full of tales of murder, suicide and hauntings.
Across the San Diego Bay, immediately west of downtown, is Coronado. The main draw to cross the bridge is the Hotel del Coronado, a sprawling seaside resort that celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. Friends of Dorothy might be particularly interested in the Del’s whimsical turret roofs and white clapboard siding since Wizard of Oz author L Frank Baum spent many winters here in the early 1900s. It was also the film location of the 1959 gender-bender comedy Some Like It Hot, starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.
Today, guests are well fed at the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, 1500 Ocean, where chef Robert Hohmann applies fresh California coastal ingredients to a Mediterranean menu. The hotel spa is a restorative haven, with extensive amenities and signature treatments using both heated and chilled seashells. According to spa manager Corey Menotti, the scenic views extend beyond the beach and ocean, given the naval base located immediately to the south: “There is no greater feeling on vacation then watching Navy SEALs storming your beach in the morning after their two-mile ocean swim, covered in sweat, sand and seaweed as you ponder which massage pairs best with a mimosa,” he says. “I mean, some like it hot, but this is ridiculous!”
Hillcrest and University Heights
San Diego’s gay and bohemian scenes are located in Hillcrest and University Heights, two side-by-side neighbourhoods north of Balboa Park. Funky boutiques, chic shops and diverse restaurants populate the area.
R-Gang Eatery in Hillcrest is the spot to fuel up for local nightlife. Following a philosophy of “gourmet without pretension,” gay chef Rich Sweeney serves up contemporary comfort food in a colourful dining room. A cuddly bear, Sweeney’s recommendations include the meatloaf with a subtle hint of blue cheese, the tater tots in four savoury flavours, and the sinful Gouda mac and cheese. “It’s a bit of a fat-girl thing,” says waiter Joey Adams of the menu. “Especially for Hillcrest,” he adds, signalling to two tank-topped gym bunnies walking along 5th Avenue.
Just down the street, The Loft is a similarly comfortable joint to kick off the night. An open front lets in the night air, swaying the Chinese lanterns that hang from the ceiling as chatty patrons congregate around a U-shaped bar while the corner jukebox plays diverse favourites.
University Avenue features a strip of gay shops, bars and nightclubs. Flicks video bar steps up its customers’ heart rates with a range of daily events featuring karaoke, local DJs and go-go dancers. Rich’s, nearby, is the city’s largest gay dance club and offers up all the expected trimmings: a circuit-style party with popular DJs and a vast dancefloor full of shirtless boys.
Partaking in the city’s nightlife doesn’t have to leave gay visitors with headaches and hangovers. The Diversionary Theatre in nearby University Heights has brought queer productions to San Diego audiences for 27 years. The theatre’s small size fosters an intimate connection between performers and audience members.
La Jolla stripped down
San Diego’s coast is lined with beaches, and Black’s Beach in La Jolla is known for gay and nude beach bunnies. The ambitious hike from atop the bluffs that shelter the beach is made more worthwhile by the cute surfers who ride the nearby waves. Kayaking, surfing and snorkelling tours are available from tour operators that clutter La Jolla Shores. OEX Dive and Kayak Center also offers free diving and paddle-boarding lessons with expert — and buff — instructors.
There are also attractions for the less adventurous but equally curious. While SeaWorld is the city’s iconic aquarium and theme park, La Jolla’s Birch Aquarium at Scripps showcases an exceptional gallery of sea horses whose graceful movements captivate spectators.
La Jolla’s landmark is the Grande Colonial Hotel, which celebrates its centennial this year. The charming European-style luxury hotel sits regally on Prospect Street, providing stunning ocean views. The hotel’s spacious rooms are decorated in yellows, greens and blues inspired by the natural setting and frequently host Hollywood celebrities on retreat or La Jolla Playhouse actors, including Will Ferrell, Robin Wright and Raquel Welch. The hotel’s restaurant, Nine-Ten, named after the hotel’s street address, features local seafood by executive chef Jason Knibb, who proved his credentials on Iron Chef America.