Tacos & Top Guns

San Diego Boasts Harbor Seals, Beachfront Roller Coasters, and All the Tacos

Add sun (there’s always sun), and you have an easy family getaway.

By Kelly Clarke Published in the February 2020 issue of Portland Monthly

Clockwise from left: Sea lions at La Jolla, a spread at Salud Tacos, Chicano Park, and unforgettable breakfasts at Morning Glory

When traveling, bedtime can bring the suspicion you’re missing out, turning in just as a city is revving up. The feeling is even stronger if you have to hit the sack early due to kids in tow (or just a morning meeting). But this particular FOMO is easy to combat in San Diego, a hybrid of beach hang, military town, and Latino culture with so many sun-fueled activities that you won’t miss the moonlight.

No matter the hour, if you’re in San Diego and not eating tacos, you’re doing it wrong. Epic bites await in Barrio Logan, just south of downtown. Stroll through Chicano Park, a historic landmark boasting the largest concentration of Latino murals in the world, vividly painted on the towering struts of the highway overpasses that arc over the park and playground. (Be on the lookout for four-wheeled works of art, too: The park is a regular meet-up spot for the airbrushed, chrome-gleaming triumphs of the Amigos Low Rider Car Club.) Wander farther down Logan Avenue to explore galleries, snag a Chupa Chups from riotously cute sweet shop La Paleta, and devour birria or avocado-cream-smeared fish tucked into tortillas at cult Salud Tacos. Bonus: stiff margaritas and a $6 kids meal that comes with fresh fried churros.

A 10-minute trip north lands you in another country entirely: the city’s Little Italy looks like a threadbare theme street (cue the old dude playing the theme song from The Godfather on the corner) but is packed with teeny, legit trattorias. Oddly enough, the area’s biggest draw right now isn’t even Italian. Breakfast phenom Morning Glory perches above the open-air Piazza della Famiglia, a bastion of ruffle-edged sunbrellas and ruby-eyed skulls that looks like Mary Poppins’s “Jolly Holiday” covered by the Cramps. Lines can stretch up to two hours for poofy Japanese pancakes, fried egg–topped pork belly fried rice, and breakfast cocktails, but at 7 or 8 a.m., you’ll have the up-jumped diner to yourselves. (Visit the bathroom. There are mirrors, swans, and butt warmers involved.)

A picturesque view at Balboa Park

Book out at least five hours to explore rightfully lauded Balboa Park, a linked collection of selfie-worthy pavilions and art and science museums that lead to the vast San Diego Zoo (with a sky tram and many adorable koalas). Get an eyeful of even wilder life 20 minutes up I-5 at the super-ritzy coastal village of La Jolla, where hundreds of harbor seals typically sunbathe on the rocks abutting a sheltered beach known as the Children’s Pool. (Kids can’t actually swim there when seals are present, so keep walking along the cliffside path to find plenty of safer spots to splash around.)

For lodging, chic seekers flock to the new Guild Hotel (theguildhotel.com, rooms from $184/night). The reimagined century-old Army/Navy YMCA is just blocks from the bayside Embarcadero’s wealth of activities, from tours of massive aircraft carrier USS Midway (the largest ship in the world when it was launched in 1945) to rides on the century-old carousel at touristy Seaport Village. Farther north beyond Balboa Park hides the midcentury Lafayette Hotel & Swim Club, a storied collection of tropical rooms built around an Olympic-size pool. Ante up for a Suze Suite for the fam, with bunk beds and two bathrooms (lafayettehotelsd.com, rooms from $184/night).

In perennially pleasant San Diego, temps rarely dip lower than 65, so the beach beckons even in February. San Diego’s answers to Seaside, Imperial Beach and Pacific Beach, lure with boardwalk tchotchke shops and open-air, all-ages pubs stocked with local brews and quality tacos. Spend an afternoon soaking up rays and then head to Belmont Park, a clean, bright oceanside amusement park and arcade flaunting the Giant Dipper, a century-old wooden roller coaster. Hop in and clickity-clack higher and higher as the sun sets over the Pacific, the salty air whipping through your hair as you zoom down to earth again and again. It’s a scream.

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