Summer, San Diego-style

With beaches, baseball, and a recharged downtown, the sunny city makes an ideal August getaway

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  • A perfect San Diego day ends with dinner in the Gaslamp Quarter.

    San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter

    Andrea Gomez

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  • Casa del Prado

    The Spanish colonial splendor of Balboa Park's Casa del Prado

At Petco, the city is as much a part of the ballpark as the ballpark is of the city, a Southern California take on the retro baseball stadium trend. Swaying palm trees cast shadows on the park's sandstone face as cool breezes blow in from San Diego Bay. The century-old brick Western Metal Supply Company building forms a section along the left-field line, and families picnic in the grassy area beyond the centerfield fence known as "the park in the park." Here kids play spirited Wiffle Ball on a tiny diamond, and toddlers frolic in a sandy play area that bumps up against the warning track.

From the grandstands behind the plate, fans look toward the skyline, where cranes hover over the city as luxury buildings promising field views begin their rise. While the ballpark is the most impressive symbol of the changes downtown, the area is also being transformed by a seemingly endless number of residential projects.

Somewhere beneath all that construction, the tables at Cafe Chloe in the East Village are filling up. With its chocolate brown and white interior and Man Ray photographs on the walls, this is the kind of neighborhood bistro that every neighborhood should have. It's simple and elegant, a perfect complement to the French-inspired creations of chef Katie Grebow.

"Just a little place for the community," says Alison McGrath of the restaurant that she and her husband, John Clute, opened after moving back to San Diego from San Francisco. "No one was doing a true European-style cafe. This is a place where you can nurse your coffee and work on your laptop. It's really egalitarian. We get people from 8 to 80. Artists and working-class folks. Grandmas for tea. And hot young couples heading for Gaslamp clubs."

With its late-19th-century buildings, the Gaslamp may be a National Historic District, but Colonial Williamsburg it's not. Unlike Cafe Chloe, many Gaslamp restaurants and clubs ― with their waterfalls, cabanas, $20 covers, and firepits ― have the production values of summer blockbusters.

And there are nights when the Gaslamp positively hums as flocks of 20-somethings, locals sampling the latest restaurants, and wide-eyed tourists become part of a good-time tableau. The revelry isn't restricted to the streets, though. The Altitude Sky Bar perches on the 22nd floor, and as beautiful as its design and many of its patrons may be, nothing can rival the twilight view: down into the ballpark, across the bay to Coronado and out to Point Loma, and south into Mexico.

A city built around a park

Inside San Diego is a separate city, quieter, lusher, more exotic. Cross Cabrillo Bridge ― a 1,500-foot, seven-arch span ― into Balboa Park, and you feel less like you've entered a standard American city park than some outpost of empire. Looking like the San Diego raj, lawn bowlers in their crisp whites stand out sharply against the brilliant hue of the bowling green. A dense forest of eucalyptus fills the air with an aromatic blast. And all around is a botanical fantasy-land of themed gardens ― Japanese, replicas of formal designs from Spanish palaces, and thickets of cactus from around the world.

At the heart of the park is El Prado, the promenade of Spanish Colonial architecture built for the 1915 world's fair, the Panama-California Exposition. The bell tower and the Moorish tile dome of the fair's California Building contrast vividly with the San Diego sky. But grand as El Prado may be, Balboa Park ― like the beach ― is above all a place where San Diego lives.

A Buddha-like bulldog riding in a red Radio Flyer wagon is wheeled beneath arcaded walkways and past façades thick with saints, martyrs, explorers, and goddesses. Flamenco music lures passersby as a guitarist plays beside a lily pond, and beneath the sweeping white colonnade of the park's organ pavilion, a man stands before the sea of empty seats, singing arias in a sweet tenor. For himself and anyone who pauses to listen.



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