Gaslamps and glitz

Exploring coastal cities in southern California

We set off from Stovepipe Wells early, bound for San Diego at the very southern tip of California near the Mexican border. We anticipated taking the same spectacular hillside road that originally brought us to Death Valley from Bakersfield, but instead the navigation system took us through the heart of the sister Panamint Valley. For 50 miles we drove without seeing the faintest sight of life – human or otherwise.

Amidst the parched terrain we were slowly re-introduced to civilisation as we passed through small mining towns. The landscape increasingly featured more vegetation including the occasional Joshua tree, which I had some bizarre fascination with pointing out amongst the desert haze.

Quite literally in the middle of nowhere!

A Joshua tree

After what seemed like an eternity driving on a rather dull straight road (A.K.A. highway 295) for 100 miles at a snail’s pace, the landscape rapidly urbanised as we approached the Los Angeles County. We stopped off for a vegan burrito at San Bernardino to the East of Los Angeles city before beginning the final leg down to San Diego.

San Diego

The climate became noticeably more tropical as we neared the coast. The traffic had picked up unsurprisingly, despite travelling outside of rush hour, which demanded both of us give our full attention to the road. We survived a few hairy moments and eventually reached our hotel, Hotel Republic San Diego, in Downtown.

Our first dilemma was finding a home for our Mustang for the night. Parking lots are widespread across the city, but cost a fortune at $35 per day with very few alternatives (valet parking is about $5 more). To date we had only parked in remote locations for free so the price came as a shock, but we had little alternative but to stump up the cash.

It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with San Diego. The downtown area feels airy and far less congested than other US cities. I found people to be more relaxed and less in a rush. The rich cultural diversity of the locals is reflected in all facets of life here, especially the food and entertainment. To top it off, the weather was sublime.

After dropping off some laundry to a friendly Iranian lady beside our hotel, we made the short walk to Seaport Village where Nishay indulged in some street tacos.

Seaport village

We spent the evening roaming around the Gaslamp Quarter, a sizable district in the city centre with bars, nightclubs and restaurants. The area became increasingly energetic as the night wore on, with music echoing across the streets. We didn’t venture inside many bars but instead preferred just to absorb the atmosphere. The Gaslamp Quarter, and in fact San Diego in general has a classy feel about it. Despite pervasive homelessness the presentation of the urban spaces feels a step above anywhere I’ve been before in the USA.

Following a quick breakfast form 7 Eleven the next morning, we headed back to the USS Midway docked beside the Seaport village.

USS Midway is a military aircraft carrier that served in the Vietnam, Korean and Iraqi wars and was decommissioned in 1992. Since 2003 the ship has been converted into a museum and docked at San Diego, the USA’s largest naval port.

USS Midway Aircraft Carrier

The whole operation, from a hospital, hairdressers laundry services is like a efficient city on water. We spent half of our time exploring the bowels of the ship. The ships can be at sea for months at a time, and most of the 4000 staff spend almost their entire time in the windowless and confined cabins (I thought I had it bad at my office!)

After basking on deck in the glorious sunshine, we had the chance to walk around the aircraft and helicopters situated beside the runways. One famous helicopter is the Sea King which previously ferried U.S. Presidents and the Apollo astronauts.

The Sea King was notably used to ferry the Apollo astronauts from their capsules back to land

My favourite part of the experience was sitting beside the aircraft on the deck and listening to stories from the veterans that served on the ship. The vets explained the entire take-off and landing procedure, the different hand signals and the complex communication protocol between the ground team (embarrassing admission: I never knew that aircraft actually relied on a catapult to launch them in the air and a tailhook to slow them down!).

Trying my best to emulate the “Go for launch!” signal

A view of the deck from the bridge

We were at the museum for longer than anticipated – almost 5 hours – but it was absolutely worth the time. I’d go as far as saying this is one of the best museums I’ve ever visited because of the openness of the vast facility. The detailed accounts from the elderly army veterans made it especially memorable.

Back in Seaport village, we indulged our lunch at Puesto. The orange infused guacamole and salad here is to die for (I absolutely don’t regret three refills of tortilla chips!). I’d strongly recommend this restaurant to any visitors to the city.

We walked up the boardwalk to Little Italy to enjoy an ice cream before heading to the Petco Park to watch the local San Diego Padres team take on Colorado Rockies at baseball.

Little Italy

We were intent on experiencing a quitenesially American pastime at a live sports event.  Before the game started, I was quickly reminded about respecting American patriotism. I hadn’t realised that everyone stopped in their tracks with hand on heart while the national anthem played, and received a few raised eyebrows until I finally clocked on.

Now, I apologise to any avid baseball fans but I’m a little bemused by baseball as a sport. The mechanics of the game reminded me of playing rounders at school, but the pace of a baseball game seems far slower. I always thought that test cricket could be considered ‘dull’, but baseball appears even more so. During the entire 3-hour game there were fewer than 30 ball-to-bat contacts and only three home runs, all scored by the same player.

Perhaps this game wasn’t a typical one, but regardless it was still enjoyable. The fanfare plays a much bigger role in the game in the USA, and I think Americans value the actual experience of attending a game for the social aspect and take the competition less seriously than the British do.

Baseball at Petco Park

We set off early from our hotel en-route to Los Angeles and made our first stop nearby at San Diego’s Balboa Park. The park is home to the famous San Diego Zoo in addition to a number of gardens and museums. We didn’t have much time here so lingered around the sights beside the main El Prado boulevard, particularly the Spanish village and botanical garden.

Walking around Balboa Park

The Botanical Garden

I’d highly recommend spending a full day here. There’s plenty to see and do, whether it’s experiencing some cultural, historical or natural sites. Unfortunately, we were pressed for time as we were concerned that we’d be sitting in traffic on the way to LA.

Los Angeles

Predictably, despite our best intentions, we failed to escape the traffic. The chaotic driving amongst 10 lanes of meandering traffic was perhaps just as frightening as my night time blizzard drives through the Icelandic countryside – and I wasn’t even driving! I was hopelessly trying to help Nishay navigate the intersections by yelling incomprehensible and contradictory instructions. Such is the extent of traffic; the authorities have dedicated Express lanes that bypass the gridlocked roads for a fee per mile (a typically American solution to a longstanding American problem).

Our hotel was Freehand Los Angeles in Downtown, and much like San Diego, finding a cost-effective car parking space was a treasure hunt. Luckily, we found a friendly but clearly stressed Mexican chap who shoehorned the Mustang between an excessive number of vehicles on his tiny patch of land between skyscrapers.

We were so exhausted from driving that we opted for the metro service up to the Hollywood strip. I was a little underwhelmed by the area as it was excessively crowded and ‘artists’ trying to pocket some money from unsuspecting tourists.

We walked for an hour along the Walk of Fame while trying to read the celebrity names upside down and simultaneously avoid oncoming tourists. The cityscape is intriguing: we were in the heart of the city yet there were hardly any tall buildings in sight. Most buildings on the strip are detached and barely a few floors in height, which goes a long way in explaining the city’s iconic urban sprawl.

The Hollywood Walk of Fame.

This became more evident as we made the seemingly endless walk across Sunset Boulevard towards the Laugh Factory comedy club. Thankfully our stomachs were happy as we’d just enjoyed a hearty meal at Veggie Grill which was packed with people and featured an impressively expansive vegan menu.

The Laugh Factory is a comedy club for up and coming comedians, and has seen many successful comedians launch their careers here over the past 4 decades. The performances at the Laugh Factory was entertaining for more than just the comedy. The audience were a bit over-excited and barely within 10 minutes of the performances starting, a middle-aged lady had emptied the whole contents of her stomach in front of the comedians (unfortunately we had to put-up with a horrid stench for the remaining hour and a half!). A group of ladies behind us who also had too much to drink were heckling the comedians, some of which took it light-heartedly and others who were visibly irritated. About 3 of the 6 acts were genuinely funny, and for those that weren’t, the jovial audience kept us amused.

The Laugh Factory

The next morning, we braved it out in the car and ventured into the Hollywood hills. I was expecting to bump into a few celebrities as we mulled around Mulholland drive and Beverly Hills, but we didn’t manage to see any (although we most certainly heard them parading around in their Lamborghinis). Many of the mansions were gated away so there was nothing much to see other than parkland and distant views of the city suburbs below.

A quick stop at the famous Hollywood Bowl

Driving through Mulholland Drive. The pretty countryside views made up for the lack of celebrity action

Nestled between the mansions is Graystone manor where several famous films have been shot, notably Rush Hour and Beverly Hills Cop.

We expected Beverly Hills to be full of glitz and glamour and our assumptions were very much reality.  The people around us dressed with serious style and the restaurants were a healthy notch pricier than anywhere else we had previously visited (no surprises there). We thoroughly enjoyed a late lunch at vegan restaurant Café Gratitude. The nachos and guacamole (again…) was utterly delicious and the airy chic setting was the perfect respite from the city.

As our last excursion for the day, we headed to the hilltop Griffith observatory prior to sunset to admire the panoramic urban view of Los Angeles beneath us. We underestimated the parking situation beside the observatory so ended up parking some way below and walking up the steep hill.

The Griffith Observatory perched at the top of Mount Hollywood

The observatory itself is modern with planetariums and interactive exhibits – it reminded me very much of Greenwich Royal Observatory. One exhibit showcases California’s seismic past, and in fact a working seismometer had registered an earthquake just off the coast earlier in the day.

The seismometer is an impressive bit of kit: the earthquake was barely perceivable to us

The sheer size of Los Angeles became apparent as daylight turned to darkness. Endlessly long and straight street-lights line the avenues and stretch over the horizon in a vista of light.

As night fell, Los Angeles became a vista of light

We checked out early the next day, and grabbed some cakes and smoothies from the nearby Whole Foods market. We made the short drive to Chinatown which unfortunately didn’t live up to our high expectations. The whole place isn’t anywhere near as authentic as the San Francisco Chinatown – there’s no buzz and it seemed more like a ghost-town. The only saving grace was that we managed to spot the famous Foo Chow restaurant that featured in Rush Hour, which today still bears close resemblance to how it was depicted in the film.


We crossed the city and arrived at the Santa Monica beach. The weather was perfect – pleasantly warm but not hot, and I enjoyed a pleasant walk up the beach to the pier while Nishay took a nap beside the sea. The whole walk was a hive of activity with fitness fanatics and tourists, so we resorted to resting beside the sea for a few hours to watch the passers-by.

The bustling cities had clearly taken its toll on Nishay!

Meanwhile I took a stroll along the beach to Santa Monica Pier

Santa Barbara

We set off in the middle of the afternoon and joined California’s famous Highway 1 which we were following along the coast back to San Francisco. The traffic was rough leaving the city but cleared up as we passed through the remote towns up the coast. We reached Santa Barbara just as the sun was glistening above the ocean.

The beach at Santa Barbara

The pleasant cityscape makes Santa Barbara feel more like a village

I don’t have too much to say about Santa Barbara other than I’d happily retire here in a heartbeat. It’s quaint and encapsulates the most idyllic features of the best seaside town I’ve previously visited. The downtown area feels more like a Spanish village than a city with its wide, treelined streets and historic architecture. During the daytime the harbour area and main State Street is peaceful and a far cry from the hustle and bustle in Santa Monica.

At night the bars spring out of nowhere and the city is transformed with an energetic vibe but without the general chaos of a typical city party district. Again, everything seemed very civilised and classy, much like the Gaslamp quarter in San Diego but smaller in scale.

Dinner at the rustic Mesa Verde Café

We had cleared the big cities on our trip and were pleasantly refreshed as we prepared to visit our final destination in the remote countryside. As if our road-trip could not have been any more picturesque, the next day we were in for an incredible spectacle as we picked up Highway 1 onto the Pacific Coast Highway.


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