Bird Rock Coffee Roasters was honored (and surprised) to be mentioned in New York Times 36 Hour series.

Stop in at Bird Rock Coffee Roasters in La Jolla (5627 La Jolla Boulevard; birdrockcoffee.com) for a small-batch, house-roasted coffee to go from Roast Magazine’s 2012 Micro Roaster of the Year.

April 4, 2013
36 Hours in San Diego
By FREDA MOON

Like its urban rival Los Angeles, San Diego is not so much a city as a loose collection of overlapping (and sometimes colliding) communities bound by arterial, life-giving freeways: it’s a military town in Coronado; a surf town in funky, eclectic Ocean Beach; and a border town in the historic Mexican-American neighborhood of Barrio Logan. If San Diego has a cohesive identity at all, it’s a shared embrace of an easy, breezy Southern California casualness. With its lack of pretension, the city is often seen by outsiders as a kind of Pleasantville — a bland, happy place with an exceptional amount of sunshine. Depending on how deep you look, that may be all you see. But there are, after all, worse things than Spanish tiles, palm trees, tropical blooms, year-round flip-flops, fresh fish tacos and bonfires on the beach.

FRIDAY

3 p.m.
1. First Stop

If possible, arrive in San Diego by train. Opened in 1915, the Santa Fe Depot (Union Station) is a Spanish Revival structure surrounded by fountains, palm trees and benches decorated in tile mosaic. Next door, in the station’s former baggage building, the downtown location of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego is hosting “The Very Large Array,” an exhibition of works by about 100 local and Tijuana artists (running through June 1, 2014), that offers a compelling introduction to San Diego as a border city. Admission, $10.

4:30 p.m.
2. Afternoon Delight

Sitting above the water on a stilted deck on Harbor Island, C Level (880 Harbor Island Drive; cohnrestaurants.com) looks across the San Diego bay to the Naval ships at Coronado, downtown’s towering skyline and the tall ships at the Maritime Museum. On weekday afternoons from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m., the bar menu has $5 specials on cocktails — including the Desi Arnaz (Cruzan mango rum, papaya nectar, mint, fresh lime and soda) and the Sol y Mar (Finlandia grapefruit vodka, aloe juice and fresh lemon) — and snacks like rice-paper-wrapped prawns and steamed mussels with chorizo. Afterward, take a giddy ride on the Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster ($6 a person) at Belmont Park, a vintage amusement park on the beach in Mission Bay.

7 p.m.
3. Pork Shop

Opened in 2011 and beloved by locals, Carnitas’ Snack Shack (2632 University Avenue; carnitassnackshack.com) is a glorified taco stand serving pork-centric comfort food — including carnitas tacos with guacamole and salsa fresca ($7), braised Duroc pork belly with a frisée, apple and radish salad ($8), a steak sandwich on jalapeño and Cheddar cheese bread ($9) — from a takeout window in North Park. The squat structure has outdoor tables and heat lamps around back and a giant sculpture of a metal pig adorning its roof.

8:30 p.m.
4. Just About Normal

For dessert, head for Adams Avenue and try the house-made Mexican chocolate or banana walnut ice cream at the mom-and-pop Mariposa Ice Cream or the exotic paletas (Mexican-style popsicles) at Viva Pops, which come in flavors like lavender lemonade, salted caramel and mango-chile. Both shops, at 3450 and 3330 Adams, respectively, close at 9 p.m. on weekends. Then, explore the buzzing Normal Heights neighborhood. Stop in at Lestat’s Coffee House, at 3343 Adams, for caffeine to fuel the remainder of the evening. While there, check the events calendar for the attached concert space, which hosts local music acts, comedy shows and open mic nights next door.

10:30 p.m.
5. Old School, New Age

In South Park, rockabillies and old-timers take turns playing shuffleboard at Hamilton’s Tavern (1521 30th Street; hamiltonstavern.com), which has a daunting 28 taps, two cask beer engines and some 200 bottled beers and claims to be the city’s oldest alehouse. Or, instead, have an only-in-California experience at Kava Lounge (2812 Kettner Boulevard; kavalounge.com), a New Age bar, dance club and arts space that promotes “future planetary night life” in the form of vegan cocktails, experimental dance music and class offerings that include “Ballet for Belly Dancers” in a nondescript building identifiable only by the Eye of Providence painted above its entrance.

SATURDAY

9 a.m.
6. To the Shore

Cruise up the coast to the Cottage in La Jolla (7702 Fay Avenue; cottagelajolla.com), a would-be surf bungalow with an umbrella-canopied patio, which makes use of the Western bounty with dishes like lemon ricotta pancakes ($10.95), polenta with tomato relish, kale pesto, goat cheese sauce and chives ($11.95) and soy chorizo hash with scrambled eggs, black beans and queso fresco ($11.95). Then continue north to the 2,000-acre Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, home to one of the rarest species of pine in the world, sandstone cliffs shaped by the sea and a lagoon that hosts migrating seabirds.

Noon
7. Mission Viejo

Founded in 1769 as the first of California’s 21 missions, the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala has a bloody and politically complicated past. Today, the National Historic Landmark is an exceptionally peaceful place — an active parish on a hillside carpeted with ice plants, with a Spanish-style garden at its center and a gift shop that sells Mexican folk art like milagros (religious charms) and Talavera pottery. For lunch, head north to the Island Style Cafe (5950 Santo Road; islandstylecafe.com), a home-style Hawaiian cafe with fabric orchids on the tables and tropical landscape prints on the walls. Try the Korean-style fried chicken thighs ($8.75), served with classic sides like macaroni salad, and a customary glass of POG (passion-orange-guava juice, $2.50).

4 p.m.
8. Cerveza Land

One of the centers of the country’s ever-expanding craft beer industry, San Diego has an intimidating number and diversity of breweries (more than 70 total, including 20 or so new ones last year alone). Enthusiasts should seek out the West Coaster (westcoastersd.com), a monthly magazine devoted entirely to the city’s beer scene. Each brewery has its own focus and ambience, from the potent beers with heavy metal names (Anvil, Horny Devil, Evil Dead Red) at AleSmith Brewing Company (9368 Cabot Drive; alesmith.com) to the vaguely steampunk décor at Societe Brewing Company (8262 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard; societebrewing.com) to Lightning Brewery (13200 Kirkham Way, Poway; lightningbrewery.com), in the far suburb of Poway, which is run by a brewer’s brewer with a Ph.D. in biochemistry and which feels like stepping into garage science experiment.

8 p.m.
9. Sea and Sky

In the perennial debate over where to find San Diego’s best fish tacos, the line at Blue Water Seafood Market & Grill (3667 India Street; bluewaterseafoodsandiego.com) is one indication. The menu reads like a choose-your-own-aquatic adventure, listing 12 kinds of seafood — including Scottish salmon, Hawaiian albacore and Alaskan halibut — six kinds of marinade (among them: chipotle, blackened and “bronzed”) and four preparations: salad, sandwich, plate or tacos (from $4 per taco to $25 for a plate of jumbo shrimp). Afterward, have a nightcap next door at Aero Club (3365 India; aeroclubbar.com), a charmingly divey whiskey bar with some 600 bottles climbing the wall and toy airplanes hanging from the ceiling. Alternatively, settle into a zero-gravity lounge chair for an 8 p.m. movie ($15) at Cinema Under the Stars, an open-air theater in Mission Hills.

SUNDAY

9 a.m.
10. Europe in America

Stop in at Bird Rock Coffee Roasters in La Jolla (5627 La Jolla Boulevard; birdrockcoffee.com) for a small-batch, house-roasted coffee to go from Roast Magazine’s 2012 Micro Roaster of the Year. Then take a slow Sunday drive down the coast, past the sandstone Sunset Cliffs to the Cabrillo National Monument. Walk the two-mile Bayside Trail along a rocky point of sage scrub and maguey plants, near where in 1542 Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo led the first European expedition to the coast of what is now California. For brunch, head downtown to Little Italy’s Extraordinary Desserts (1430 Union Street; extraordinarydesserts.com), which has a “European breakfast” ($20.95) spread of imported cheese, fresh fruit, homemade granola, smoked salmon, decadent pastries and rustic breads starting at 11 a.m. Reservations recommended.

12:30 p.m.
11. Park and Ride

With 15 museums, one of the country’s most well-respected zoos and 1,200 acres of hills, gardens, forests and ravines, Balboa Park (balboapark.org) cannot be fully explored in a weekend, much less an afternoon. But, for an overview, San Diego Fly Rides ($75 a person, including a snack, water and helmet) uses high-end electric bikes, which can travel up to 20 m.p.h., to cover nine miles of ground on its two-hour Spanish Twist tour (16 and older). For one final San Diego meal, sample the tacos de lengua (tongue), pastor (marinated, spit-barbecued pork) or cabeza (beef head) at Northgate Market, a Mexican grocery the size of a Costco with a food court that turns out fresh, house-made tortillas, along with enough tamales, ceviches, antojitos (snacks) and aguas frescas (fresh fruit “waters”) to feed a pueblito.

Lodgings

Opened in 2009 as San Diego’s first LEED-certified hotel, Hotel Indigo (509 Ninth Avenue; hotelindigo.com) has a 3,800-square-foot green roof, free wireless Internet and a ninth-floor terrace bar overlooking Petco Park stadium. Rooms are pet-friendly and start at $146.

With 159 “ultra-modern” rooms (from $280), a four-story nightclub and a flashy Philippe Starck-Katsuya Uechi restaurant, the recently renovated Andaz San Diego (600 F Street; sandiego.andaz.hyatt.com) seems designed to lure stylish young Angelenos south.

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