World Facts Index > United States > San Diego
Semi-tropical San Diego, with its mean temperature of 70 degrees F, swaying palm trees, Mediterranean-like white-washed stucco buildings and strong cultural influences from sunny Mexico, is as close to visiting a foreign country as visitors could get and yet, is as American as apple pie.
On most days upon arrival visitors are treated to a sparkling-clear panoramic view of San Diego's modern downtown buildings, the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge and the hundreds of pleasure and commercial craft bobbing in the San Diego Bay.
The heart of this clean city lies at the foot of the harbor just minutes by cab or rental car from Lindbergh Field, where most travelers debark. Modern San Diego has become much more than just a harborside city. Spanning from the North County beach areas of La Jolla and Del Mar to the inland cities of Escondido and Poway, to the South
Bay cities of Chula and San Ysidro, San Diego is now the sixth largest city in the United States. While all these areas fall under the San Diego umbrella, each individual community maintains its own personality, geography and identity. Truly, in San Diego's case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Less than three miles from the airport is downtown proper. This thriving commercial area with its active waterfront is a bustling, colorful combination of major hotels, convention facilities, restaurants, nightclubs, shopping venues and boats of every shape and size. Its focal point is Horton Plaza, an architectural masterpiece built
during the mid-70s which holds trendy shops, lively restaurants, a theatre, and even an ice rink during the holiday season. Just east of Horton Plaza is the Gaslamp District, a 16-block source of civic pride. Once slated for destruction, this area has been reclaimed by the people of San Diego thanks to the 1970s Redevelopment Plan. Where
once dilapidated warehouses and run-down Victorian houses stood, and where no one dared to enter after dark, the Gaslamp District has now become the pulse of the city. At any hour of the day or night, visitors and locals flock to this area to dine, dance, and to see and be seen. Due west of the city proper is The Embarcadero, a fun
daytime location where visitors can take in leisurely views of the bay, hop aboard a harbor cruise, or enjoy seafood at its finest. For shopping, visit Seaport Village, a 14-acre shopping and dining complex designed to emulate early California-style architecture, located just south of the Embarcadero.
No visit to San Diego would be complete without a trip to Balboa Park. Home to the world-famous San Diego Zoo, the park is much more than a beautiful place to see exotic animals. Gardens and grounds in Balboa Park were established as a city park for the people in 1868. In preparation for hosting the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, a
celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal, founding fathers, architects and master gardeners collaborated to create the fine Spanish Colonial Revival style buildings and gardens that still grace the grounds today. Additional building were raised on the site in the early '30s, this time incorporating the look and feel of the Mayan
civilization and California's early indigenous peoples. The blend of the structural styles in Balboa Park, and the maturation of meticulously cared for gardens now serves as the backdrop for many of the city's cultural events. Within the confines of the park, visitors can enjoy scores of museums and art galleries including the San Diego
Museum of Man, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Timken Museum of Art, the Botanical Gardens and the Spreckel's Organ Pavilion.
For a taste of what San Diego was like in its earliest years, be sure to take in the sights and sounds of this colorful settlement, now preserved as a state historic park. Famous as the first European settlement in California (there are numerous preserved homes and working buildings on premises and several museums to study the early
inhabitants), this area is also famed for its glorious year-round gardens, mouth-watering Mexican dishes, lilting Mariachi music and free-flowing margaritas. Be sure to spend a little time browsing through Bazaar del Mundo'truly a marketplace of the world. Within easy walking distance from the center of Old Town is The Presidio, a
must-see while in San Diego. This structure, now an historic landmark, is where Junipero Serra established the first of the Spanish missions in California.
A short drive up the coast takes visitors to La Jolla ('the jewel' in Spanish), and truly a jewel it is. Despite its dense population, the people of this affluent city have somehow managed to maintain its beautiful natural setting. Cliffs along the main streets overlook the beaches and coves along the Pacific Ocean; tropical vegetation
creeps and climbs across red-tiled roofs and verandas; and sunsets at La Jolla Shores are simply spectacular. After the sun goes down, the streets come alive with live music, sumptuous dining and trendy boutique shoppers. One of the most highly desirable places to live in Southern California, this community lives up to its high standards
yet its residents still welcome visitors with friendly smiles.
Travel a few miles further north along the coastal drive to reach Del Mar, another fine beach community. Famous for its race track, founded by Bing Crosby and fellow Hollywood cronies during the '40s, (racing season runs from late July through Labor Day) this seaside town offers as much to families as it does to racing aficionados.
Beaches here are easily accessible (although parking can be atrocious in the summer months), clean and family friendly. Boutiques and open-air restaurants line the main street, giving it a Riviera-like quality. Just north of this city, visitors can find the renown Carlsbad Flower Fields (acres of blooming Ranuculus in springtime) and the
recently opened LEGOLAND California, great for those with young children in tow.
A major inland city of 80,000 inhabitants in San Diego County, this city is a quieter, more rural version of San Diego, replete with avocado and livestock ranches, vineyards and granite-strewn hillsides. Site of the San Diego Zoo's 2,200-acre Wild Animal Park at the eastern edge of Escondido in San Pasqual Valley, an extension of the
city's world-famous zoo providing visitors a look at wildlife in the wild. Zebra, antelope, big cats, hippos and elephants roam seemingly at will; the Wgasa Bushline monorail affords visitors a 50-minute overview of the park. Dusk is the favored time to take the tour; both animals and humans seek shade in the middle of the day as this
valley often sees extremely high daytime temperatures.
Chula Vista/San Ysidro
Visitors would be remiss if they never traveled south from the city proper into the area referred to as the South Bay. Fine stretches of sand like Imperial lures surfers and swimmers; fine shopping and rural living abounds in Bonita; and commerce and industry flourish in National City. The main city in this area is Chula Vista, home to
one of San Diego's newest music and entertainment venues, the Coors Amphitheater. Top acts (from Jimmy Buffet and his flock of Parrotheads, to Grammy Award winning Carlos Santana, to the Boston Philharmonic) book shows here to packed houses. Completed in 1996, this entertainment complex provides state-of-the-art acoustics, VIP tables
complete with cocktail table service, stadium seating and picnic-seating on grassy knolls. Adjacent to the amphitheater, visitors (and especially their children) can cool off and frolic in the watery fun at Knott's Soak City U.S.A (open June-Sept.). Just a stone's throw away from the Mexican border is San Ysidro, a colorful combination of
street vendors, insurance brokers and casual restaurants featuring South-of-the-border favorites. Visitors planning to cross into Mexico can park their vehicles safely in San Ysidro and walk across the pedestrian bridge that spans the two countries or hail a cab into downtown Tiajuana.
History of San Diego
The Earliest Peoples
Archaeologists have determined that the first inhabitants of this area settled here more than 20,000 years ago, in the area now known as Ranch Santa Fe. These indigenous peoples were hunter-gatherers, subsisting on local seafood, wild berries and acorns. By 7000 BC, descendants of these earlier peoples, the San Dieguito People, had
migrated to the sandy shores of now affluent La Jolla and the then rocky riverbed of Mission Valley.
The simple life of these native peoples was forever altered when the Spanish Conquistadors overtook the Aztec civilization. The conquest for gold, land and religion brought Spanish explorers and religious leaders to the area. The fervent desire for more lands (and converts) brought them even farther to the north into what was then known
as Alta California, today's Southern California.
While looking for a Northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed into San Diego Bay in 1542 and came ashore near Ballast Point in Point Loma. In honor of the feast day on which he landed, Cabrillo dubbed this area San Miguel, before sailing off to further explore the West Coast of California.
The area is now the Cabrillo National Monument.
For nearly 60 years, the land named by Cabrillo remained the quiet domain of the local inhabitants who continued to live their simple lives fishing and gathering abundant native plants. And nothing much changed that way of life, even after Sebastian Vizcaino arrived from Mexico in 1602 and renamed the area San Diego de Alcala, in honor
of his vessel, San Diego, and the Catholic saint of the same name.
In 1768, expeditions were once again organized from Baja (lower) California into Alta (upper) California in order to establish territorial rights along the California coast before the encroaching Russians. Secondarily, the Catholic church decided to establish a series of missions along a northerly advance from which to convert the
native peoples. By 1769, a contingent of soldiers and Franciscan Brothers, including Father Juan Crespi, established a military camp on Presidio Hill, near what would later become Old Town. That summer, Father Junipero Serra would found the first California Mission on that site. The Mission San Diego de Alcala would later be moved to its
current location in Mission Valley.
Even before East Coast colonists became engaged in the Revolutionary War with Britain, colonists were establishing a settlement in San Diego, first military men in 1774, then families in 1777. In 1787, the American ship, "Columbia" was the first to circumnavigate the world and global interest in California was sparked and its
future would never be the same.
Around the time of Mexico's war to win independence from Spain, a thriving settlement of 600 people was established in Old Town, and it's still a lively community today. By 1821, Mexico earned its independence, and within four years San Diego was named the official capital of both upper and lower Baja. This was a time of prosperity for
the city, an overland route was established by famed trailblazer, Jedediah Smith, and the fledging city elected its first mayor or "Alcalde," Juan Osuna.
By 1835, San Diego was officially recognized as a "pueblo," or "city." That same year, Richard Henry Dana (a seaman and author), arrived in San Diego. His book, "Two Years Before The Mast " published in 1841, includes details of early San Diego and has become a seaman's classic read. Visitors can view the
movie version every summer aboard the Star of India.
In 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico to gain rights to the western lands and within two years, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo was signed ending the war and setting the countries' current borders. San Diego became the southernmost city in the United States. Four years later it would also become the southernmost city in
the newly admitted state called California.
An American City
By the mid-1800s, San Diego became an official county and acquired one of its most influential residents, William Heath Davis. He was so enchanted by the city that he purchased 160 acres by the bay and determined to build a fine city. For a while, his vision soared. Land parcels were sold and businesses moved in. Then disaster struck. A
series of floods and then a fire put an end to his dream of "New Town." But his own home, the William Heath Davis House, is still the oldest surviving structure in San Diego, visitors visit the home, now a museum in the Gaslamp District.
Before long, a newcomer who moved from San Francisco in 1867, came to San Diego after hearing of its beauty at a lecture. Alonzo Erastus Horton renewed Davis' dream. With the purchase of 800 acres at .33 cents an acre, he became a city planner of sorts spending $50,000 to build a wharf at the end of Fifth Avenue. This structure would
become the backbone of his fast developing city. Before long, he would also build his "Horton Hotel" at the site where the current US Grant Hotel stands today. At the dedication of the hotel, he also set aside half a city block as a plaza for his guests with the stipulation that it would revert to city ownership upon his death.
Today, this half city block is the site of modern Horton Plaza shopping center, part of the City Centre Redevelopment Project started 100 years later and completed in 1985 at a cost of $140 million.
The prosperity of Horton's ventures brought all elements to the Gaslamp District. Prostitutes and gamblers, including Wyatt Earp, who ran three gambling house in San Diego during the 1880s, flocked to the bustling commercial area. Commerce soon moved north of this area which had become known as the "Stingaree District" (apply
named due to the dangerous sting ray found in San Diego Bay). For a few years the Gaslamp District flourished, but by the end of the decade this once-thriving area began a steep economic decline, which would not be rectified until the downtown redevelopment undertaken in the 1970s. Now redeveloped, The Gaslamp Quarter boasts gourmet
dining, live theater, great shopping and more.
But, across the bay on Coronado Island (which is actually a peninsula) during the 1880s, a success story was being launched. The undertaking to create a beautiful city separate from downtown was successful and the city of Coronado still ranks as one of the most desirable visitor destinations in the San Diego area.
In 1885, after San Diego was linked to the rest of the country by the Transcontinental Railway, Indiana railroad magnate Elisha S. Babcock and Chicago piano manufacturer H. L. Story made their way to the island and proceeded to purchase the land for the then unheard of sum of $110,000. With proceeds from the sale of some of the land,
they built the ferry to the island and began the construction of world-renowned Hotel Del Coronado. Two years later the hotel was complete and immediately became, then as it is now, a favored vacation destination.
By late 1899, the U.S. Army had established Fort Rosecrans which remained an active Army post until 1959 when the Navy purchased the site to develop a submarine base at Ballast Point. The establishment of the Army fortress ushered in an era of military influence on the San Diego scene.
In years to come, marking well the lessons from the Mexican-American War when the military recognized the value of its natural harbor and strategic location, San Diego would become home to American armed forces. The North Island Air Station was established when three pilots with three airplanes landed in 1912. A military presence
escalated during WWI and the U.S. Navy designated San Diego its home port for the Pacific Fleet in 1919. The Marine Training Recruit Depot opened for raw-recruits in 1923 and, in 1941, pilots and navigators trained for the inevitable entrance into WWII.
At the end of WWII, captivated by the city, thousands of sailors decided to stay and make San Diego their home. Needing work to provide for their arriving families, the neophyte Aerospace industry was born. For decades to come, names such as Convair and Ryan Industries led the way in technological innovations from factories and
research centers in San Diego.
To this day, the U.S. military presence is a dynamic part of the San Diego landscape and economy.
America's Finest City
The beginnings of culture in San Diego seem to stem directly from its entrenchment in promoting the Panama-California Exposition of 1915. Since 1868, when the city fathers had designated land to be set aside as a city park, Balboa Park has existed, but it wasn't until plans for the Expo took shape that the city would have one of its most
distinctive attractions. Construction began in 1911 on the buildings which would commemorate the completion of the Panama Canal with the first to be completed was the Administration Building. Sugar magnate John D. Spreckels presented the Organ Pavilion to the people of San Diego in 1914 and this organ, the largest outdoor organ in the
world, is still played on Sunday afternoons.
Perhaps by accident, San Diegans acquired yet another world-famous attraction, the San Diego Zoo during preparations for the 1915 Expo. Animals being imported for display during the Expo were quarantined by Dr. Harry Wegeforth. His efforts to garner public support for a zoo led to the plans for the facility to be a showcase in newly
developed Balboa Park.
On New Years Eve in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson presses a telegraph key which turned on the lights and set off a huge fireworks display that marked the opening of the Panama-California Exposition. The Expo, which was a huge success, brought thousands to San Diego, many of whom returned to make the city their home. Visitors still
flock to Balboa Park to witness the magnificent architecture that now houses museums dedicated to a wide variety of interests, from anthropology to zoology.
A Modern City
By 1960, San Diego's population had topped one million people and tourism had become the city's third most important industry. Investments in the city's economy flourished: in 1961 the Mission Valley Shopping Center opened; in 1963, Jonas Salk created the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla; in 1964, the water-based theme
park, SeaWorld opened its gates in 1967, the San Diego Stadium (now QUALCOMM Stadium) opened for sports fans of the San Diego Padres and Chargers, and in 1969, "The Big Blue," the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge linked the cities together.
During those years the city doubled, incorporating thousands of acres of surrounding suburbs and the outlying suburbs to the east, south and north flourished. Research, business and technology expanded in the area called the "Golden Triangle" in the northern part of the city including La Jolla and Sorrento Valley; San Diego's
answer to the Silicon Valley. Ten years later San Diego became a city of two million people, the second largest city in California.
From its humble beginnings as an abundant natural resource for indigenous peoples to a Spanish, then Mexican colony to a dockside red-light district, to a military stronghold, to a city of culture and world renown, to a modern, bustling city - San Diego has witnessed both times of prosperity and decline.
Through it all, the breathtaking natural beauty continues to attract people from all around the world. Yet, just as it has always been, the true wonder of this city lies in its people, a truly divergent group who continue to look toward the future with hope, expectations, and genuine love for San Diego.
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