San Diego is a huge city, the sixth largest in the USA, known as 'That place right under Los Angeles, the one with all the palm trees'. It is often closely identified with LA, which is a grave mistake as it is very different - it doesn't share the smell, the crime, the people... or, in fact, anything with the city. In fact, it works as a welcome escape from LA.
There is a lot more to San Diego than the Zoo* and the beach: San Diego is famous for its innumerable tourist attractions, beautiful climate, laid-back demeanour, and friendly people. So if you really want to see San Diego, go to at least one of the places listed below.
If you want to visit San Diego, be sure you get a hotel room next to Seaport village, which was built for tourists, but is now so overlooked that it's currently just a cool place for SDSU students to go have coffee after passing an exam. It's located right over the San Diego Bay, on a rocky shore, which brings out the beauty of the ocean without the clutter of kids building sand mountains right in front of you. Food and souvenirs are much less expensive here than in other tourist areas. If you can't get a room there, don't panic! There's a 'hotel circle' downtown within walking distance; but be cautious, as it's more expensive there.
A step away from the central downtown end of Seaport village is the Hyatt Islandia Hotel. The lobby isn't very exciting, but take the elevator up to the 40th floor to San Diego's biggest best-kept secret, the 'Restaurant at the Top of the Hyatt'. The entire room has walls of windows, and you can sit there for hours with a drink looking out onto Greater San Diego from one side of the restaraunt and into the docks, the bay, and on a clear day, out onto the ocean from the other side.
From the Hyatt you can go either to Balboa Park or the Old Town. If you want to go to the Old Town, take the trolley, the trip lasts for about 10 minutes.
The Old Town shows San Diego's true beginnings: Mexican origins and colonial Spanish influences. Here you can go back in history; almost all of the shops here are over 100 years old, and still have their original display cases and advertisements, and almost all of them have items from as far back as 150 years for display and sale. Don't forget to visit the Whaley House, one of California's two 'certified' haunted houses1.
If you go to Balboa Park from the Hyatt, you might want to put up the extra money for the taxi... the stop closest to the park is four blocks away, and it's easy to get lost. Balboa Park is the home of San Diego Zoo, and therefore people usually go straight there, missing everything else the park has to offer.
Try and go to Balboa Park on a Tuesday, if you can, when at least one museum is free, and there are a lot more free outdoor performances than on other days. Whatever day you go, your first stop at Balboa Park should always be the House of Hospitality, the park's official entrance. Here you will learn about the history of Balboa Park or, if you're just in it for the attractions, a map of where everything is.
Some of the things no one should miss:
Sprekels Organ Pavillion, a huge outdoor pipe organ whose music dominates most of the park when played. All concerts are free, and there is almost always one going on.
Reuben H Space Fleet Space Theatre and Science Centre; a hands-on museum (mostly for kids) on one side, an IMAX theatre on the other.
The House of Pacific Relations and, next-door, the International Cottages. The International Cottages are a collection of small 'houses' representing over 30 nations. Inside each house is a small, but extensive, display of the country's history and culture. This is particularly worth a visit as every house hands out biscuits, lemonade and cookies for free!
One thing built exclusively for tourists (but it appears that it's exclusively visited by zoology and psychology students) is the Wild Animal Park. The park is the zoo's sister destination, and features mainly North and Central African animals all living together in one huge habitat, in a enclosure which replicates the wild. Instead of looking at individual animals on foot, as you would do in a zoo, you take a 'safari' tram through the park, and see animals living as close to the wild as possible.
Finally, after a hard day's touring, have a Rubio's fish taco at Rubio's. Where you can get an authentic Baja-style fish taco of beer-battered fish fillets placed in a warm, soft corn tortilla with mild salsa, a tangy white sauce, and shredded cabbage dressed with guacamole, Monterey Jack and Cheddar cheese, and cilantro/onion and served with lime wedges. Delicious!