It can be hard to get a handle on downtown San Diego from the street. More high-rise than you might imagine and more densely-packed than other Californian cities, it is also divided into distinct districts. Happily, some of the best places to get an overview of the city are from rooftop bars which offer sensational vistas accompanied by a tempting array of cocktails.
San Diego’s harbour is dominated by the two towers of the Grand Hyatt Hotel whose 40th-floor Top of the Hyatt bar gives unbeatable sunset views over the marina. Further downtown, on 6th Avenue, the Nolen (thenolenrooftop.com) attracts a more local, fashionable crowd, who down cocktails and local craft beer above the busy Gaslamp Quarter.
Further north in La Jolla, paragliders emerge each morning from the clifftops at Torrey Pines. Taking advantage of the unique soaring conditions (westerly sea breezes deflected upwards by the sandstone cliffs) gliders can stay aloft for hours and land back on the clifftop. Unlike many paragliding venues, flying here is a year-round activity (although they do make a grudging exception for Christmas Day). Tandem flights (flytorrey.com) take you straight out over the sea where, floating above the vast Pacific Ocean and with dolphins and surfers sharing the waters of Blacks Beach below, you can see the expanse of the La Jolla coastline spreading out on one side and North County on the other. The flight even gives you aerial views at startlingly close quarters of La Jolla’s poshest clifftop communities. It’s worth sticking around afterwards for a sandwich at the Cliffhanger Café to watch others in flight and enjoy the views with your feet on the ground.
The best way to get the full panorama of San Diego is undoubtedly to take a helicopter tour, which in one flight takes in the city’s entire area. Most fly over La Jolla (some venturing further north up the coast to glitzy Del Mar) as well as downtown and waterfront San Diego andBalboa Park, with perhaps a swoop down to the Mexican border towards Tijuana. Variations on the theme include a stop-off for wine tasting in nearby wine country. These trips don’t come cheap – prices tend to start at around $250 for the most basic tour – but they do cover a huge distance.
If you’re a fan of classic Tom Cruise movie Top Gun, a trip to San Diego is all about visiting locations from the movie, and a combat flight over the city is the ultimate Top Gun experience. Admittedly less sightseeing and more adrenaline adventure, this is your chance to experience a flight in a fighter jet (skycombatace.com), complete with aerobatic manoeuvres and even the option to take the controls yourself. It’s wildly expensive but, for Top Gun buffs especially, unforgettable.
San Diego is built around a sea port and with its grid formation you often get tantalising glimpses of the ocean as you walk around. To get the best water views though, you need to head out into the harbour. Tours take place at regular intervals throughout the day in cruise ships, and give you a feel of the scale, depth and history of San Diego, as well as impressive shots of the skyline. The tours typically take you past the glamorous residences of Coronado and under the Coronado bridge, passing the military base (where you get an excellent close-up look at navy destroyers and aircraft carriers) and commercial shipyards with huge floating dry docks. If you want to turn the tour into more of an experience there are dinner and champagne cruises as well as blue whale tours on some days of the week.
There aren’t many major cities that don’t have a boat-on-wheels tour in one form or another (often called a Duck Tour) and there’s a reason – it’s an incredibly popular, fun trip, especially for families. After a whistle-stop drive around the city, the San Diego version makes a splashy entry into the bay. From then on, there’s more of an emphasis on wildlife than in most of the harbour cruises – there’s a detour to see the sea lion colony – and the commentary is aimed at a mixed age audience.