California’s southernmost city can be hard to pin down. It’s full of tourists who’ve come to visit SeaWorld San Diego and let loose in the bar-filled Gaslamp Quarter — and they skew first impressions. So you need to dig a little deeper. Bordering Mexico, this is a city of taco shops, high-class mole restaurants and mezcal bars where Californian and Mexican sensibilities merge. Even inland, if you’re not in flipflops, you’re overdressed. Those flipflops come in handy on the beaches wedged between the city and the Pacific. Each has its own identity, from upmarket Coronado and weed-scented Ocean Beach to sea lion-filled La Jolla and Pacific Beach, where surfers dandle on their boards waiting for a wave.
Bone broth, ‘radical’ pizza and all the fruit and veg you could wish for, displayed in the Californian sun. It’s Saturday morning in Downtown, and it feels like half the city has descended on the Little Italy Mercato Farmers’ Market.
This, a few blocks north of the Gaslamp Quarter, is the real San Diego. Italians first moved here to work in tuna fishing; today, this low-rise area in the lee of Downtown’s skyscrapers is one of the city’s loveliest areas. And on Saturdays it’s even lovelier, when over 200 stalls cram into hilly Date Street.
Of course, this is Little Italy for a reason. So while families cram into Salt & Straw for ice cream made with farmers’ market produce (think honey, lavender, tomato, strawberry and olive oil sorbets), I’m at Filippi’s Pizza Grotto, a restaurant and deli with wine flasks slung from the ceilings and bad art on the walls. At the deli, I order a Sicilian cannolo, a pastry shell filled with sweet ricotta.
South of the Gaslamp is Barrio Logan, historically a Mexican area. Although its main drag is now home to new galleries and bars, it’s still possible to find traditional joints on Logan Avenue — if you know where to look.
At Mexican restaurant La Fachada, I join a Spanish-speaking line ordering lunch at the outdoor counter. Inside a beige-walled room with formica tables, an elderly man drinks a Corona beer as he watches wrestling on TV. I’m brought soft tortillas heaped so high there’s no way I’ll be able to close them. The ‘pescado’ is heavenly — a soft wedge of fried fish, sprinkled with peppers, coriander and hot sauce.
The next day, I brave the Gaslamp Quarter — not for the infamous nightlife but to tackle a lesser-known side of it. Brunch is peanut butter and banana-stuffed toast at Cafe 222 — a recipe that’s earned it an appearance on the Food Network. Two blocks up is Downtown’s oldest building, the Davis-Horton House, a clapboard building that’s now a museum. As I study the 19th-century antiques, I learn about onetime owner, George Deyo, who brewed moonshine during Prohibition. Walking back through the Gaslamp — its heritage buildings home to bar after bar — I realise the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
North & South Park
‘You are radiant!’ shouts the mural on the wall outside Artelexia. At its centre is Our Lady of Guadalupe, her face covered by an electric-blue Sacred Heart.
If La Fachada represents San Diego’s Mexican heritage, Artelexia is the future. Inside the Mexican gift shop, an enormous portrait of Frida Kahlo sprawls across one wall; the others are crammed with textiles, jewellery, blankets and ceramics. Almost everything is made by artisans in Oaxaca.
I’m in hipster North Park, and it’s very Californian. Frou-frou Pigment sells, among other things, turbans, cannabis-infused perfumes and plants; there’s also a healthfood shop for cats and dogs.
There’s nightlife, too. “People call this the beer boulevard of America,” says Steve Devlin, tasting room manager at Mike Hess Brewing, one of San Diego’s many microbreweries. In 2009, it was even smaller — the city’s first nanobrewery. Today, it makes and sells Claritas (a German kölsch-style beer that won gold at the 2016 World Beer Cup) in what used to be an evangelical bookstore.
Directly above Balboa Park, the neighbourhood of North Park is home to a handful of museums set in frothy Spanish revival buildings. Below it is South Park, a residential district dotted with bookshops and vintage stores. Between the smart bars on Grape Street, though, is something different. The sign outside Big Kitchen Cafe reads, ‘Small world, big kitchen. Think globally, eat locally’. Inside, a woman strides towards me. “Are you open?” I ask. “No,” she grins. “But do you want to see my cafe?”
She’s Judy Forman — the self-proclaimed ‘beauty on duty’, as I’ll later find out — and I’ve stumbled on a San Diego landmark. There’s a horseshoe-shaped counter in a room plastered with stickers (‘Thelma and Louise live!’), banquettes backed by photos of The Beatles and Martin Luther King, and a peace flag in the lush conservatory. A sign saying ‘Hippies use back door’ has been changed so it ends with ‘front door’.
“Judy,” I say, “are you a hippy?”
“If by a hippy you mean someone who puts their money where their mouth is, then yeah,” she replies, handing me a palm tree-etched goblet of lemonade.
The cafe has been a centre for activism for 40 years, it turns out. The next day, on Judy’s orders, I return for breakfast. “I want to show you my city,” she tells me over burritos. So we get in her car — manual, ancient by American standards — and she hits the gas. “Let’s go to the beach.”
On Coronado, located on a sand-spit next to Downtown, I’ve squished my feet into the softest sand outside the Hotel del Coronado, a white Victorian clapboard grande dame. At chi-chi Pacific Beach, I’ve strolled along the bar-lined boardwalk and down the bungalow-dotted pier. At the end, people are fishing. Mackerel, sea bass and stingrays are all down in the depths, a local tells me. Although with the latter, “usually we take a photo, give it a kiss and throw it back in the water”.
There’s only one beach Judy wants to take me to, though: Ocean Beach. A bit hippy, a bit grungy, if you’re looking for classic California viewed through a Beach Boys filter, this is it.
“Ocean Beach is about simple living and conscious community — it’s where you experience what it means to be a free spirit,” Gretchen Michelle Petrina explains at her shop, The Holistic Science Company, which sells organic, vegan and essential oil-crammed healing products. Next to the Ocean Beach shop is a bungalow covered in placards. ‘OB is like fungus, it grows on you’, says one. ‘OB: where the circus is always in town!’ reads another. “I used to love Ocean Beach,” sighs Judy. “But then everyone got younger and drunker, and I became the grandma.”
From the slightly scraggy beach, where a guy is offering chakra balancing for $25 (£19), we walk up Newport Avenue, the neon-lit main drag, past retro cocktail joint Tony’s Martini Bar and burger joint Hodad’s to the Ocean Beach Antique Mall — a whopping building divided into dozens of individual stalls, selling everything from vintage Cali postcards to retro tiki statues. Back in the car, Judy drives over the roller coaster hills — skinny palm trees marking out the shape of the coastline — to Sunset Cliffs, whose crumbling, ruddy headland is San Diegans’ favourite place to catch the setting sun.
Judy has to scoot off to the Women’s Museum of California, but I return solo at sunset. The views run up the coast to La Jolla and down to the Coronado Islands off Mexico. The ocean is silvery, and the waves break mutely against the cliffs. When the sun sets, though, the water starts slapping on the rock, and the circling gulls start screeching. They don’t want it to end, clearly. Neither do I.
Published in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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