San Diego Essential Guide


San Diegans celebrate December Nights in Balboa Park

Balboa Park’s December Nights – the city’s annual two-day holiday gift to the community – promises to be bigger and better than ever this year. It’s the city’s largest free festival, expected to draw at least 300,000 in this its 35th year. The two-day celebration of entertainment, food and fun, is set for Friday, Dec. 6, from 3 until 11 pm, and Saturday, Dec. 7, sfrom noon-11pm. December Nights is as close as San Diego gets to becoming a winter wonderland. Balboa Park is decked in twinkling lights and silvery garlands. Fanciful Christmas trees abound – and the aromas of multi-cultural holiday treats waft through the air. In the spirit of the season, participating park museums open their doors to the public, free of charge, from 5 until 9 PM both evenings. Many present special holiday programs.  (Kids will be awed by the elaborate gingerbread constructions at the Mingei Museum – and can join in holiday-inspired craft projects at the Air & Space Museum. All ages will be enthralled by the amazing handbell ringers who perform at the San Diego History Center – and don’t miss the San Diego Floral Association’s exhibit at the House of Hospitality of 30 beautifully decorated holiday trees.) Festivities are family friendly, multi-cultural and staged throughout the park.  The San Diego Civic Youth Ballet will perform excerpts from “The Nutcracker” on the Casa del Prado Stage. Steps away, on the California Quadrangle near the Museum of Man, revelers can see the Santa Lucia Procession and children’s choir performances. The San Diego Civic Dance Company will present Rockettes-style routines – while a puppet-version of “The Christmas Carol” will be presented at the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater. African drumming and dance performances – and Reggae music performances are planned at the WorldBeat Center. Dozens of singers, dancers and musicians will take to the stage at the Organ Pavilion. Youngsters will have the opportunity to visit with roving Santas – and they can pose for a photo in the Old Globe courtyard with Dr. Seuss’s Grinch who stole Christmas.  Kids of all ages can join with Junior Theatre students singing holiday songs. A series of children’s holiday movies will run nonstop both evenings in the theater at the Hall of Champions. There also are plenty of carnival rides to keep the younger set entertained. Hungry?  December Nights is known for its mouth-watering range of food and drink offerings. The International Cottages of the House of Pacific Relations offer traditional holiday foods from a smorgasbord of nations: Think empanadas, eggrolls, shepherd’s pie, pasties, pancit, samosas, plantains, pierogi, bourekas, baklava, paella, even blueberry soup.   Many museums offer tasty treats: Find roasted chestnuts at the San Diego Art Institute, yakisoba at the Japanese Friendship Garden, hot toddies at the Hall of Champions. In addition, numerous food vendors sell an array of yummy holiday delights – from melted Swiss raclette to fresh-baked gingerbread cookies.  The 21+ set can sip a locally crafted brew at one of several beer gardens. December Nights are prime time for holiday shopping.  Find great gifts at museum stores, from Spanish Village artisans and at a wide range of arts and crafts booths.  For $300 or less, buy a piece of original...

Posted by on Dec 5, 2013

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Attractions, Eats, Festivals, Museums

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It’s festival time at Cabrillo National Monument

The annual Cabrillo Festival, Sept. 28-29, will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year – and next month the monument itself celebrates its 100th birthday. A centennial weekend celebration is set for Oct. 12-14.   The Cabrillo Festival commemorates the day in 1542 when Portuguese navigator Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed on the shore of what is now known as San Diego Bay. (He had christened it San Miguel.) Sailing under the flag of Spain, he was the first European to land on the west coast of what is now the United States. A highlight of the festival is the re-enactment of Cabrillo’s landing. “Cabrillo,” his soldiers and a priest sail into the bay on the San Salvador (The Californian) and once again claim the land for Spain.   Cabrillo Festival activities begin with a commemorative ceremony at 4 p.m. on Sept. 28 at the monument. That evening there’s a dinner/dance at the SES Portuguese Hall. (Tickets cost $50; phone 619-426-0769.)   The big day is Sunday Sept. 29 at Ballast Point– one of the few times the Navy’s nuclear sub base at the end of Rosecrans on Point Loma is open to the public. (Admission is free, but you’ll need valid photo ID to get in.) Festivities, which run from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m., will include music, dancing and activities for children. There will be demonstrations of Kumeyaay basket making and knot tying. Visitors can view a 16th Century Spanish soldiers living history encampment.  Vendors will native-American foods as well as foods from Mexico, Spain and Portugal.  (Cabrillo’s landing is set for around 1 p.m.)   Next month’s Cabrillo Centennial celebration will include living history tours to the top of the lighthouse (from 10 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 12), bayside trail hikes, food vendors and entertainment. On Sunday, Oct. 13, an exhibitor fair is planned at the Visitors Center Complex – and actors portraying World War II soldiers will offer tours of newly restored military bunkers. The fun concludes on Monday, Oct. 14, with an 11 a.m. centennial commemoration ceremony.   Admission to Cabrillo National Monument costs $5 per car. Get more info on the Cabrillo Festival at Learn more about centennial celebration at...

Posted by on Sep 22, 2013

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Attractions, Festivals, Museums, Point Loma, What's New?

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February is San Diego Museum Month

February is Museum Month in San Diego – and everybody gets a gift: half-price admission at 42 county museums and cultural attractions.  You’ll need a pass available this month at Macy’s stores throughout the county; they’re free as long as supplies last. Pass holders get half-price admission for up to four guests per visit at most of San Diego’s top museums – everything from downtown’s New Children’s Museum  to the USS Midway aircraft carrier to the historic Marston House. It’s a chance for the family to visit La Jolla’s Birch Aquarium, the fascinating ships at the bayfront Maritime Museum and more than a dozen museums in Balboa Park — from The Fleet Science Center to the Museum of Photographic Arts to the San Diego Museum of Art – all for half price. The annual promotion was launched in 1989 by the San Diego Museum Council. Get a full list of participants at...

Posted by on Feb 20, 2013

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Museums, What's New?

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Make yourself at home at Marston House

San Diego’s Marston House tells a story that goes well beyond bricks and mortar. This 16-room Arts and Crafts masterpiece on the edge of Balboa Park was the home of George and Anna Marston and their five children. They moved in in 1905. But the story started well before then: George Marston, a philanthropist, civic leader and owner of the city’s premier department store, commissioned renowned architects William S. Hebbard and Irving Gill to build his family an English Tudor-style home. Mid-project, Gill visited his friend Frank Lloyd Wright and was inspired to change the design. The result is San Diego’s preeminent Craftsman treasure. Back then the house sat on a barren hillside, surrounded by sage and chaparral – but not for long. George hired Central Park designer Samuel Parsons to do a landscape plan for the wild open space that eventually became Balboa Park; he donated $20,000 in 1902 for initial plantings. As the plan progressed, he and horticulturist Kate Sessions, known as the mother of Balboa Park, became fast friends. George ran for mayor of San Diego twice. In 1913, his wealth cost him the election in a nasty “Silk Stockings vs. Wool Stockings” campaign. In 1917, he was blasted for being “Geranium George” in a “Smokestacks vs. Geraniums” battle. One wonders what San Diego would look like now, if Geranium George had carried the day. Even without a mayoral victory, George managed to leave our region plenty of geraniums: He bought Presidio Hill, commissioned a design for Presidio Park, built the Serra Museum and donated everything to city in 1929. He used more of his own money to buy land for what has become Torrey Pines State Reserve and Anza Borrego State Park. Visit the Marston House and savor the design. Ponder that the place had solar water heating a century ago.  Marvel at the flush butterfly joints that hold together the old-growth redwood paneling in the living room. Admire the Tiffany lamps and caress the Stickley rockers. But don’t stop there. As natural light filters golden through windows in late afternoon, remember that this was a living home. The place still feels like home. Serene. Comforting. Embrace what it might have been like to be part of the family – and let your mind play. Eavesdrop on George and Anna in easy conversation around their dining room table, with Teddy Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington, Kate Sessions. Listen to the squeals of children scampering outdoors. Be transported. Become part of the Marston House story. The Marston House is at 3525 Seventh Ave. in San Diego. It’s open 10 AM to 5 PM Fridays through Mondays. Admission costs $10 for adults, $7 for students & those 65+, $4 for ages 6-12; those 5 and younger get in...

Posted by on Nov 24, 2012

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Kids: October is freebie time

During the entire month of October, kids eat, stay and play for free throughout the county. San Diego hotels, restaurants, museums, attractions and transportation companies are offering everything from free meals and admissions to special amenities at hotels.  Kids can even learn to surf and play golf for free, with a paying adult. Most deals are available to youngsters between the ages of 2 and 12 – but age limits and other restrictions vary by venue. The county’s headliner family attractions – the Zoo, Sea World and Legoland – are participating.  All kids 11 and younger get free admission at the Zoo and Safari Park. With each paid adult admission, SeaWorld is giving free admission to a child between the ages of 3 and 9. At Legoland, one child 12 or younger gets a free Hopper ticket, when an adult buys a Hopper ticket. More than 30 county museums are participating. Kids 12 and younger get in free everywhere from the Birch Aquarium and the Fleet Science Center to the New Children’s Museum and the USS Midway Museum. Go to to print out a free coupon. (Two youngsters admitted per paying adult.) Two kids can cruise free with each paying adult on one- and two-hour Hornblower cruises.  An adventurer between 6 and 15 years old can kayak for free with a paying adult at La Jolla Kayak. Every adult who buys an Old Town Trolley Tours ticket can take along a youngster between 4 and 12 for free. Even Amtrak has joined the fun, providing one free fare for a rider 2-15 years old with each paid adult fare aboard Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner between here and Oceanside. Learn more at Some venues require coupons available on the...

Posted by on Oct 23, 2012

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Attractions, Eats, Museums, What's New?

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Trashy art is hot draw at Living Coast Discovery Center

Did you know that a burrowing owl imitates the sound of a rattlesnake to fool potential predators? You’ll hear the proof at the Living Coast Discovery Center. You’ll also have the chance to pet stingrays like those that inhabit local waters – and check out their ocean-going buddies, including sharks and jellies, all serenely swimming behind glass. Formerly known as the Chula Vista Nature Center, this 25-year-old attraction is an internationally recognized non-profit zoo and aquarium that focuses on plants and animals native to the San Diego region. It sits on 3.3 acres on historic Gunpowder Point and is part of South Bay’s 300-plus-acre Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge Visitors won’t be overwhelmed here. It’s easy to see everything – at a relaxed pace – in a single morning or afternoon and still have time to leisurely wander the 1.5 miles of marsh hiking trails. At the center, visitors can experience up-close encounters with everything from hawks to green sea turtles (their daily feeding time is at 1:45 PM).  They can spy on huge spiny lobsters – and a local rattlesnake, kept safely behind glass.  Walk through the Shorebird Aviary – and be on the lookout for clapper rail chicks. Visit Eagle Mesa at 3:30 PM feeding time to interact with keepers and learn more about resident bald and golden eagles. Through Sept. 3, check out “Washed Ashore: Plastics, Sea Life & Art,” a nationally acclaimed art exhibit with massive sculptures and smaller art pieces made entirely of debris collected from beaches. The exhibit, which includes weathered synthetic ropes, nets, abandoned toys, cigarette lighters, flip-flops and Frisbees, is designed to bring attention to the global crisis of ocean pollution. It goes on a worldwide tour after its LCDC engagement. There’s no restaurant at the center, so bring a picnic to enjoy on one of several observation decks. Savor views of downtown, Coronado, the bay.  Or settle marsh side and view graceful herons in flight across the grassy wetlands or perhaps spot a red-tailed hawk swooping down for a midday snack. Bird watchers have spotted more than 200 species from the center. There’s cool gift shop, with educational books, games and toys. To get to the center, visitors take a free shuttle bus from a parking lot just off Interstate 5’s E Street exit; shuttles run every 15 minutes. The center is open 10 AM – 5 PM daily. The last shuttle departs at 4 PM.  Admission costs $14 for ages 18-64; $9 for ages 4-17, 65+ and students with ID; those under age 4 get in free. Learn more at...

Posted by on Aug 23, 2012

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Attractions, Museums, South County

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