LOS ANGELES — San Diego could be improved. If the county had 75 miles of beaches instead of 70. If the Padres won a World Series or the Chargers won a Super Bowl. Or if the municipal sloganeers dropped "America's finest city" in favor of "You stay classy, San Diego."
But this is nit-picking. Besides its most obvious tourist attractions — the beaches, the zoo and Old Town — San Diego's downtown has interesting edges, several old neighborhoods are showing new vigor, and everybody seems to be brewing artisan beer. It's kid-friendlier than San Francisco, cooler than the desert and healthier than just about any place. It's true that many San Diegans claim to hate all things L.A., but between complaints, they've built a destination that's likely to keep Angelenos coming forever. Remember the sunscreen, leave your Dodger hat in the trunk and enjoy.
The park and the 'hoods
Even if you omit the zoo, Balboa Park (1549 El Prado, San Diego) is among the most inviting and enlightening public spaces on the West Coast. Its 1,200 acres include more than a dozen museums (fine art, folk arts, photographic arts, cars, planes, trains, anthropology, natural history, sports) and several performing arts venues, most notably the Old Globe theaters. Then there are the gardens, the reflecting pool and a few restaurants. When you've had enough, get a bite in one of the resurgent old neighborhoods nearby. In addition to downtown and Hillcrest, there's North Park, where craft beer and well-wrought sandwiches await at Tiger! Tiger! Tavern (3025 El Cajon Blvd., San Diego). Or South Park, where you can get a burger, beer and picnic-table seat while the kids gobble hot dogs and goof off in the play area at the Station Tavern (2204 Fern St., San Diego).
Play ball and eat well
The East Village (www.sdeastvillage.com), east of the Gaslamp Quarter, is beginning to outshine much of downtown. It helps that pleasant, intimate Petco Park (100 Park Blvd., San Diego) is tucked in amid the condos, hotels, retailers and restaurants. And it doesn't hurt that the ballpark has added Hodad's, a locally renowned burger joint, to its list of food purveyors. Start your evening early with a drink or modern Mexican meal at El Vitral (815 J St., San Diego), which sits next to the ballpark. After the game, or instead of it, proceed to the small but engaging Neighborhood (777 G St., San Diego) for a drink or a casual dinner. If you like craft cocktails, secret doors and texting your reservations a week in advance, you might be interested in Noble Experiment (www.nobleexperimentsd.com, open Wednesdays through Sundays), a speak-easy whose "secret" entrance is next to Neighborhood's bathrooms.
In the early 20th century, when tuna fishing meant more to San Diego than conventioneers, Italian fishermen lived on and near India Street. Then the tuna industry began to shrivel, Caltrans put a freeway through the neighborhood, and Little Italy dwindled. Now it's back, with thematic emphasis, and India Street buzzes with shops, restaurants, bars, the occasional butcher and barber, and a handful of lodgings, all within about five blocks of the Embarcadero's historic ships (www.sdmaritime.org and www.midway.org) and eight blocks of the downtown train station. Stroll India between Beech and Grape streets, roll a little boccie in Amici Park at State and Date streets, maybe check out the galleries and design shops along Kettner Boulevard. For dinner, grab a table at Bencotto (750 W. Fir St., San Diego), where the Italian food comes with warm service amid cool, sleek design.
When San Diego was really Mexican
If you like celebrating a Latin culture that thrived in San Diego long ago, you need not stop with Little Italy. Follow the legions of tourists north to Old Town, which was the heart of San Diego in its years under Mexican control from the 1820s to the 1840s. Parking might be difficult unless you arrive by San Diego's well-developed trolley system (www.sdmts.com), but scores of shops, displays, kid-friendly attractions and adult-friendly margaritas await in and around Old Town State Historic Park (4002 Wallace St., San Diego). If you're shopping, check out the Fiesta de Reyes shops and restaurants (www.fiestadereyes.com) and don't overlook the nearby Bazaar del Mundo (www.bazaardelmundo.com) on the 4100 block of Taylor Street.
Begin with a greasy-spoon breakfast at Clayton's Coffee Shop (979 Orange Ave., Coronado), with its horseshoe-shaped counter and military specials. Then meander to the beach by the Hotel del Coronado (1500 Orange Ave., Coronado), where Navy SEALs often train and sandcastle master Bill Pavlacka often fashions amazing edifices. Because the Del is right there, you might as well get another cup of coffee at the snack bar (and if Christmas is at hand, check out the lobby decorations). From the Coronado Ferry Landing, near the north end of Orange Avenue, you can catch a ferry to downtown San Diego and back. The rest of the day can go two ways. You can get an affordable dinner at Miguel's Cocina (1351 Orange Ave., Coronado) and spend an affordable night in the same complex at El Cordova Hotel (1351 Orange Ave., Coronado).
Shamu beckons, and if you can face entrance fees of as much as $73 a head, you'll answer. Founded in 1964 by four former UCLA fraternity brothers, SeaWorld San Diego (500 Sea World Drive, San Diego) has rides, shows and scores of animals, including dolphins, penguins, seals, sea lions, polar bears and killer whales. A new Manta coaster ride has just opened. Brace yourself for big crowds on summer weekends, especially July 14-15 and July 21-22, when the annual Over-the-Line Tournament on nearby Fiesta Island draws thousands of revelers. (It's like softball but with more drinking.) Later, retire to Paradise Point (1404 Vacation Road, San Diego), a self-contained 44-acre, 462-room family resort where you can rent paddle boats, feed ducks and play miniature golf. Daunting in summer, Paradise Point's prices drop substantially in cooler months.
Just about the sleekest thing in hard-partying P.B. is Tower 23 (723 Felspar St., San Diego), a bright minimalist hotel that faces the waves and the old wooden Crystal Pier. If you have kids along, head instead for the pier itself — the Crystal Pier Hotel (4500 Ocean Blvd., San Diego) has some cottages that date to 1930 and hang above the waves. If the beachfront parade of joggers, bikers and skateboarders is too much, try a room on the quieter bay side of Mission Boulevard at the Catamaran Hotel (3999 Mission Blvd., San Diego).
La Jolla's scenery speaks for itself, if you can hear it over the yawp of the harbor seals that have taken over the beach at the Children's Pool near Coast Boulevard and Jenner Street. Find your way early to Coast Boulevard so you can snag street parking. Then enjoy grassy Ellen Browning Scripps Park, the Coast Walk Trail between Cave Street and Torrey Pines Road, the upscale shops on Prospect Street and the galleries on Girard Avenue. The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (700 Prospect St., La Jolla) was born in 1915 as a private home designed by modernist pioneer architect Irving Gill, and his work is all around. Gill's other works include the La Jolla Recreational Center (615 Prospect St., La Jolla) — which has a nice kids' play area — and the Bed & Breakfast Inn at La Jolla (7753 Draper Ave., La Jolla), a civilized place to stay. Gill also remodeled Wisteria Cottage (780 Prospect St., La Jolla), where La Jolla Historical Society begins its walking tours two Saturday mornings a month.
For all the attention it gets, the San Diego Zoo (2920 Zoo Drive, San Diego) boils down to about 3,700 animals on 100 acres — not unlike certain college campuses. But instead of four years, you spend a full day, beginning at the 9 a.m. opening. Use the bus or Skyfari aerial tram to trim walking time. And be glad that, unlike the Los Angeles Zoo, this one has a pleasant full-service restaurant: Albert's, in the Lost Forest. At $32 a kid, the zoo costs about half as much as SeaWorld, and parking is free.