Comparing San Diego to Miami
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been on a cross-country trip, exploring a few of the United States’ most interesting cities to see how they compared and contrasted with Miami as places to visit and live. First on the list was New Orleans, a city basking in its own faded glory, which, with its “live for today” attitude proves to be an antidote, in many ways, to the rat-race culture of contemporary America. Next was Austin, a young liberal town in the heart of conservative Texas with a stellar sense of progressive community life, at the very least by Texan standards. My final installment on this 2600-mile journey: San Diego, California.
I chose San Diego, because along with Austin, it ranks consistently at the top of the best-of lists. With its comfortable Mediterranean climate, laidback lifestyle, and world-class culture, it makes a formidable first impression.
While I chose to drive the distance between Florida and Austin, I ditched the car in the long-term lot at the Austin airport and hopped on a cheapie flight for the final leg of my trip.
Whereas a plane ride into Miami brings you across the Everglades in most cases, giving you a sense of remoteness from the downtown area, San Diego’s airport is in the middle of the city. While it can be a little annoying at times to contend with planes coming in low overhead as you enjoy picnics in Balboa Park or a lazy day at the beach, there are some unexpected perks to the airport’s location. For starters, it’s an easy bus ride from most points in the city, making taxis and shuttles a practically unnecessary extravagance. But the best part of all is that it has led city leaders to impose a height restriction on area buildings, leading the beach areas to maintain their sleepy, Old California feel of decades past—quite a contrast from the skyscraper-lined beaches that dominate so much of the greater Miami area.
The sense of Old California stays with you as you explore the city. Having once lived in Los Angeles, San Diego reminded me of what that city must have felt like in the 40’s and 50’s, when the terms “Southern California” and “carefree” were synonymous. As I explored some of the older neighborhoods—Hillcrest, University Heights, and North Park, I noticed many older craftsman style bungalows and Mediterranean villas which in LA would have been long demolished in favor of soul-less apartment megaplexes. Each area seemed to have its own villagey center to it, offering an abundance of culture and entertainment. Inexpensive Vietnamese restaurants abounded, as did Mexican fare. The neighborhoods were easy to walk; sidewalks were consistent up and down gentle hills and the streets were narrow enough that crossing them was no great chore.
Downtown, the Gaslamp Quarter provided a notable contrast to the residential feel of the other districts. A polished revamping of one of the city’s oldest downtown neighborhoods, here, you can enjoy a more urban groove as you partake of an evening of food, drink and merriment.
(above) San Diego’s Meticulously-Restored Gaslamp Quarter
San Diego is the military epicenter of the US; as a result, it provides a never-ending stream of young enlistees and a nostalgic, shore-leave kind of euphoria. Because of the military economy, the city is faring better than many others around it in the financial woes of late. The armed forces, after all, aren’t so dependent on the stock market, and military jobs are much more dependable than their civilian counterparts.
HAWAIIAN SHIRTS AND HOODIES
Another striking element of the city is the pleasant climate. Like Miami, the sun is bright and at times, glaring. However, in San Diego, its intensity is nearly always complimented by a cool refreshing breeze. It feels almost like built-in air-conditioning. In Miami, especially during the hotter months, you find yourself sweaty and beet-red, desperately looking for shade, wherever you can find it. But San Diego, with its cooler temperatures and lower humidity, allows you to be outside all day long; this fact is evident in the abundant, naturally-fit bodies of the local populace, a sharp contrast to Miami’s frequently artificial, steroid-enhanced torsos.
Some would contend that the climate is too cold, but I found it refreshing. For those who prefer to spend their time in the water, Miami wins out with its balmy sea temperatures, which can easily go into the upper 80’s during the summer months, a marked contrast from the Pacific’s temperatures, which seldom stray past the upper 60’s.
However, for those preferring to get their exercise on the land, San Diego offers you the chance to get a lot done without even breaking a sweat. As I get older and more in need of regular conditioning, I realize the land offers me a lot more opportunities to keep fit than a few strokes in the ocean.
Nonetheless, if you’re a surfer, San Diego is your town. The waves along Miami’s coastline are consistently docile, due to the natural buffer created by the Bahamas. However, the waves along San Diego’s coast were impressive. Even so, there are calmer spots to be found for the kayaking set.
Because of the friendliness of the climate, you also spend a lot less on summer cooling bills. Since the rents in both Miami and San Diego are fairly comparable, that’s extra money in your pocket. It also feels healthier to live more of an outdoor existence, which is made all the more possible by a yearly rainfall total of about 10-12 inches.
San Diego has several nearby beach communities, with personalities all their own. The affluent flock to La Jolla, a posh village on the cliffs somewhat reminiscent of France’s Cote d‘Azur. It’s a little too high brow for bargain hunters like me, but it’s still nice to gander at from a distance.
(above) La Jolla’s striking shoreline
The collegiate crowd, for its part, makes for Pacific Beach, which, with all its upscale nightlife feels closest to our own South Beach. Its streets, however, aren’t as packed as Miami’s version, and people are a good deal mellower. The kiddies will want to flock to Belmont Park on Mission Beach, with its rollercoaster and carney feel.
Hippies and free-thinkers, on the other hand, prefer the laidback feel of Ocean Beach, where you can splash in the surf with your pooch on its Dog Beach (on the north end), or explore the picturesque trails along the Sunset Cliffs just to the south of Ocean Beach Pier. It’s an immensely walkable place, with quite possibly the world’s largest head shop, The Black, on its main street, and a co-op grocery at the north end, where a $15 yearly membership entitles you to partial ownership.
I fell in love with Ocean Beach, I have to say. It was such an eclectic, artsy place, an atmosphere which San Diego as a whole achieves quite effortlessly. Unlike Miami which can encumber with its materialistic plasticity, and even New Orleans and Austin, whose hipster-driven cultures engender a certain reverse plasticity, San Diego in contrast feels so unaffectedly casual…kind of like an old Gidget movie. Surfers stride alongside skateboarders and homeless hippies and everyone appears to get along. The atmosphere reminded me a little of Los Angeles’ Venice Beach, only more neighborhoody; Miami, however, has nothing to compare. Coconut Grove once played that role, but it’s since been transformed into an affluent college watering hole and lost that beatnik flavor. South Beach once had more of a free-thinking edge to it, but much of that has been swept under the rug, as civic leaders endeavor to convert it into a landscape of upscale boutiques. Ocean Beach, as if in a time-warp, projects the last inklings of a sixties sensibility, stubbornly standing ground against any and all attempts at gentrification and condofication.
Further north in Torrey Pines, Black’s Beach has the distinction of being the largest nudist beach in the US. Secluded by 300 foot cliffs, it doesn’t attract huge crowds, but does attract a steady number of naturists and hang-gliders, who like to use the cliffs to practice their maneuvers.
WHERE TO STAY
I enjoyed a couple of splurgy nights at the Lafayette Hotel (2223 El Cajon Blvd, 619-296-2101) in University Heights, as well as several more economical ones in Pacific Beach at the Banana Bungalow Youth Hostel (707 Reed Ave, Pacific Beach, 858-273-3060).
(above) The Lafayette Hotel, University Heights
The Lafayette Hotel was once a popular lodging place for Hollywood celebrities of the 30’s and 40’s, and maintains a bit of that glamour today. Conveniently situated on the cusp of San Diego’s three main inner neighborhoods, University Heights, North Park and Hillcrest, it offers the perfect location for exploring the city. At $69 a night, it’s a bargain. Next door, you can enjoy dinner at the Red Fox Steakhouse, a retro-chic piano lounge and must-stop on the scenester circuit. However, put any hopes you might have of an Aunt Esther sighting to rest. This business has no connection with the late comedian.
The Banana Bungalow is a nationwide hostel chain with locations in many cities. The Pacific Beach location is perhaps their most celebrated, however, because of their private deck abutting the boardwalk. You can sit out there with your drink and watch the sunset, while chatting with young travelers from all over the world. Whereas the HI-Austin hostel had a very quiet, alcohol-free atmosphere, the Banana Bungalow is quite the party place; it‘s walking distance from over 150 clubs, bars and restaurants, and drinking is not only encouraged, it’s practically a requirement.
One caveat: be prepared for a lot of late night comings and goings in their coed dorms. It’s a relatively small price to pay, however, for the great amount of fun that can be had there.
The friendly management organizes events throughout the week to help everyone get to know each other and have fun. While I was there, they planned a day trip to Tijuana and cocktails at a posh rooftop bar in downtown San Diego. Though the majority of the guests were into the party scene, the quieter, more intellectually-driven types still held their own. The Banana Bungalow has no upward age limit and welcomes people from the States as well as internationals. The only requirement is that you have out-of-state ID and proof of ongoing travel.
In contrast, the Ocean Beach Hostel (4961 Newport Ave, Ocean Beach), also with an idyllic location along that community’s main strip, has a policy so stringent it would seem only extraterrestrials would qualify. Not only do you have to be an out-of-county enrolled student or international traveler with a passport, you have to show that the passport has been stamped within the last six months. For people like me, it’s probably easiest just to hang your hat at the Banana Bungalow and make day trips down to Ocean Beach.
GETTING AROUND TOWN
The city of San Diego offers a comprehensive public transportation system, with trolleys and buses providing regular service to most areas. I did observe, however, that the drivers of said buses often seemed uncharacteristically surly in contrast with the prevailing easygoingness of the rest of the city, and that the buses seldom adhered to their schedules (This appeared to provoke a steady amount of consternation among the riders, who voiced their frustration quite frequently.). Also, sometimes areas rather close in geographic proximity can take a while to reach due to the transit grid, which requires you to make your connection in occasionally distant stations.
The local bus fare was a walloping $2.25 for a single ticket; however, $5 entitles you to a day pass you can use to travel around to your heart’s content. For longer stays, you might want to consider the 2-day pass ($9), the 3-day pass ($12), or the 4-day pass for $15.
GOOD PLACES TO EAT
In San Diego, the fish taco is the signature dish. It can be had cheaply enough at many of the area’s Mexican restaurants, including Mariscos German (and there’s nothing German about it!), 2802 Ocean View Blvd, which offers exotic variations of the standard fare, such as octopus tacos with grilled onions, and El Zarape (4642 Park Blvd), whose avocado salsa and 99 cent tacos make this a popular hang-out.
My personal favorite local dish, however, was Roberto’s Tacos’ carne asada burrito. Roberto’s has several locations throughout the San Diego area, and their burritos are delicious and cheap.
Sushi is also much more abundant in San Diego, due in part to the large Asian population. More competition means fresher fish and cheaper prices, so be sure to indulge when you’re in town.
ACTIVITIES, SAN DIEGO’S GOT ‘EM
The leading must-see attractions include the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park, Coronado Island, SeaWorld, and Legoland. But if your tastes vary from the norm, you might enjoy kayaking the caves of La Jolla with San Diego Bike & Kayak Tours (858-454-1010) or a horseback ride with Sweetwater Horses (619-252-5544) or Bright Valley Farms (619-670-1861); check out the Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, or embark on a snorkel adventure with Scuba San Diego (619-260-1880).
Some might describe San Diego as South Beach on Prozac, a friendlier, tamer Miami. Certainly, something about the city feels incredibly tame on every level. The intensity so prevalent in South Florida is toned down a few notches here, which has ramifications both good and blah. Maybe it’s the cooler temperatures that create a more relaxing vibe. Maybe it has more to do with the ethnic make-up, or in its identity as a military town; the fact remains, however: If Miami is a frenetic salsa, San Diego is a Frankie and Annette beach musical. As a place to visit, Miami’s energy can be invigorating, while as a place to live, it can eventually become draining. Still, since both places have their respective charms, rather than envisioning the choice of where to go as an either/or dilemma, it might be better to mark them down as successive chapters in your life experience.
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