Photograph by Lesley Ann Miller/Zuma press
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A killer whale performs in the show "Believe" at SeaWorld San Diego's Shamu Stadium. The whales are seldom out of sight as they are tracked by three underwater cameras.

Photograph by Lesley Ann Miller/Zuma press

San Diego Must-Dos

Our experts recommend the top attractions in and around San Diego—with advice on how to get the most out of your visit.

Balboa Park
The nation’s largest urban cultural park includes the San Diego Zoo (see below), the Old Globe, 13 major museums, unique gardens, and fanciful architecture that originated with Expos in 1915 and 1935. Highlights include Mingei International Museum, Museum of Photographic Arts, and San Diego Air & Space Museum. Fee for most museums. Tel. +1 619 239 0512.

More than 30 beaches—some miles long—line the city’s coastline from Imperial Beach to La Jolla. Noteworthy are Coronado Shores, Pacific Beach, and La Jolla’s Cove, a postcard-perfect pocket of sand. “La Jolla Shores is one of the best for families, with kayaks for rent and surfing lessons.”—Debbie K. Hardin, author, Great Destinations: San Diego and Tijuana. Tel. +1 619 221 8824.

Birch Aquarium at Scripps
Based at the pioneering Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the aquarium has more than 60 marine life tanks, including a giant kelp forest habitat, ghostly moon jellies, and an array of seahorse species. 2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla; tel. +1 858 534 3474; fee.

Cabrillo National Monument
“Views, views everywhere: naval vessels, cruise ships, sailboats, and military aircraft, and in winter, whales.”—Marael Johnson, author, National Geographic San Diego guidebook. Point Loma, the prominent peninsula protecting San Diego Bay, is home to an 1855 lighthouse, short nature trails, and tide pools. Parking fee. 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Drive, Point Loma; tel. +1 619 557 5450.

Gaslamp Quarter
Sixteen and a half blocks of late-19th- and early-20th-century architecture downtown, restored in the past two decades. The area is easier to explore by day; evenings the streets fill with convention-goers who revel in the thicket of restaurants and nightclubs. Docent-led walking tours Saturday at 11 a.m. (fee); tel. +1 619 233 4692.

Museum of Contemporary Art
“The programming is top rate, with an emphasis on how the predicament of the border is addressed.”—Roman de Salvo, San Diego sculptor. Popular TNT—Thursday Night Thing—lures downtown visitors for artist talks, interactive pieces, DJ lessons, and live music, the first Thursday every month. 1001 Kettner Boulevard, downtown; tel. +1 619 234 1001; fee. Original location at 700 Prospect Street, La Jolla has more extensive gallery space; tel. +1 858 454 3541.

Old Town State Historic Park
The birthplace of San Diego became known as “Old Town” when today’s downtown was developed. The park encompasses buildings of the mid-1800s, focusing on the settlement’s original ties to Mexico. The striking Serra Museum just up the hill is the site of California’s first mission. Free guided tours daily at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. 4002 Wallace Street, Old Town; tel. +1 619 220 5422.

Petco Park
“It feels both old-fashioned and new.”—Maribeth Mellin, author, Access San Diego. The Padres’ 42,000-seat ballpark opened to raves in 2004, partly for its incorporation of historic buildings into the stadium. The Major League Baseball (MLB) season runs April through September. 100 Park Boulevard, downtown; tel. +1 619 795 5000; fee.

San Diego Wild Animal Park
Thirty-five miles (56 kilometers) north of downtown, this 1,800-acre (730-hectare) offshoot of the San Diego Zoo is known for vast multi species enclosures, allowing rhinos to mingle with giraffe, etc. Tram tour of larger enclosures, walking trails through other exhibits. 15500 San Pasqual Valley Road, Escondido; tel. +1 760 747 8702; fee.

San Diego Zoo
World-renown 100-acre (40-hectare) facility in Balboa Park, with a botanical collection that rivals the animals. Bus tours skirt most enclosures quickly; exploring on foot reveals animal behaviors in more depth. “I like the Zoo late in the day as the crowds thin out and the animals are getting more active.”—Maribeth Mellin, author, Access San Diego. 2920 Zoo Drive; tel. +1 619 234 3153; fee.

SeaWorld San Diego
Original branch of the marine-theme amusement park. The “Shamu” orca show in a seven-million-gallon pool-stadium is impressive, as is the heavy dose of patriotism and souvenir peddling that is sold hand-in-hand. 500 SeaWorld Drive, Mission Beach; tel. +1 619 226 3901; fee.

Torrey Pines State Reserve
Two-thousand-acre (809-hectare) state park dedicated to America’s rarest, most constrained pine species, a twisted beauty that clings precariously to 300-foot-high (91-meter-high) coastal bluffs above isolated beachfront. “Fabulous short hikes that give people a chance to see what San Diego looked like before all the irrigation was put in.”—Debbie K. Hardin. Coastal Highway 101, 12500 North Torrey Pines Road, between La Jolla and Del Mar; tel. +1 858 755 2063; fee.