San Diego
La Jolla Shores | Dobino/Shutterstock
La Jolla Shores | Dobino/Shutterstock

Why No One Should Underestimate San Diego

If you're even thinking of being in San Diego, check out the rest of our DestiNATION: San Diego guide. It's stacked with expert advice from locals on what to eat, where to drink, and what to do.

When I first arrived in San Diego, shrouded in a thick cloud of Bay Area smug, I figured I'd give it a year. I thought I had the city pegged: an insecure beach town trying desperately to escape the long shadow of Los Angeles, an overgrown suburb as shallow and flat as the MGD in a beer pong cup. And I, well, I was an intellectual (or at least a wannabe). I needed culture! Museums! People who wanted to think and make art and spend hours talking about books. You know what people talked about in San Diego? Burritos.

I knew San Diego was capable of producing creative people -- Tom Waits and Eddie Vedder and Frank Zappa all started their first bands here -- but I was pretty sure the real artists just got rounded up every few years and put on a Greyhound bound for New York or LA. San Diego couldn't get them to stick around, and it wouldn't keep me either. A year, max.

That year turned to two turned to five to a decade and counting. The San Diego I thought I knew still lives up to its stereotypes every damn day. But when I broadened my definition of the place to include the stuff beyond the beach -- beyond, even, the scar left by the miles-long international border fence that cut the Californias apart 169 years ago -- I found a region far more cosmopolitan and culturally attuned than it gets credit for.

See a Rembrandt in the morning, tan your naked butt in the afternoon, attend a lucha libre match at night.

Yes, there is the San Diego that has pretty beaches and the nice zoo and an orca in a swimming pool. There's the San Diego that shows off its abs on Mission Beach, and the one that golfs at country clubs and takes cotillions seriously. There’s the San Diego that drives a Maserati to its Del Mar beach house and the one that brews double IPAs while wearing suspenders. And yet. There is also the San Diego that resettles record numbers of refugees and has the second-largest Chaldean population in the country. There's the San Diego that rides a Huffy to work in City Heights, and the one that wakes up at 4am in Tijuana to wait at the border crossing to get to school every morning.

These many San Diegos don't overlap as often as they should, riven as they are by freeways and fences that keep everyone contained. The more you can transgress these artificial borders, the better you will understand this place.

La Mona Tijuana
La Mona, Tijuana | Flickr/Martha Silva

A town always bordering on something

The best thing that ever happened to me in San Diego didn't even happen in San Diego. It happened 20 minutes away, in a garbage-strewn depression in Tijuana, when my friend Derrik Chinn and I knocked on Armando Muñoz García's door.

We'd heard rumors about the eccentric architect who'd built an 18-ton concrete sculpture in his backyard of a naked lady that locals called La Mona (The Doll). But rumors were one thing; seeing her up close, all hair and hips and tits, standing six stories tall in a shantytown near the airport -- that was something else. Muñoz offered to give us a tour of La Mona, who turned out to have a three-story apartment built into her curves.

"I sleep in her bosom," he explained with a sly grin. "I have my office in her head, and the bathroom… well, that's downstairs."

Like a Mexican variation on Lady Liberty, La Mona was Muñoz’s love letter to his city. As I approached the trapezoidal window that opened up from her heart, the view stretched out over her perky cement nipples toward the distant horizon, swelling with the chaotic carnival of colors and sounds and life that is Tijuana.

There was a touch of magical realism in witnessing such mad, audacious creativity in such an unexpected place. Life on the border is full of such surprises.

San Diego/Tijuana Border Fence
Our Silences in San Diego's Embarcadero | Sherry V Smith/shutterstock

It's definitely America, but it's also ex-Mexico

"You have to mentally prepare for the surreality of crossing what's essentially a line a bunch of people drew in the dirt more than a century and a half ago," says Chinn, who now runs Tijuana day tours that sometimes include visits to La Mona. "You're traveling to an entirely different reality, with different laws, customs, morals, and standards."

It's easy to forget that San Diego was Mexico at one time. Now they're separated by a wall so arrogant it even tries to split the ocean -- but even it is largely symbolic. People, ideas, money, and drugs flow back and forth every day, no more contained than the air. Two halves of a strange and beautiful whole, San Diego and Tijuana are twin cities separated by a fence that casts their political, economic, social, and cultural inequities into sharp relief. It's an uneasy reality, but it makes for fertile ground for artists.

"Living on the border of Mexico and engaging with artists in TJ is one of the biggest strengths that San Diego's art scene has going for it," says Ginger Shulick Porcella, an art curator who recently moved to San Diego from New York (guess that Greyhound goes both ways now). "But I still meet a lot of artists that never go to Mexico, which I find to be crazy."

They will tell you Tijuana is dangerous and will discourage you from going. Ignore these people.

You will meet people like that too -- people who have lived in San Diego all their lives and never so much as tipped their sombrero in Tijuana's direction. They will tell you Tijuana is dangerous and will discourage you from going. Ignore these people. Tijuana has, especially recently, moved away from its marketing as a viceland for gringos and grown a pretty badass creative scene of its own. Noise bands, street artists, a chef whose nouvelle Mexican food rated 8,000 words in the freaking New Yorker. Yeah, there's some unsavory stuff that goes down there, but don't let that keep you away.

"I honestly think Tijuana is the best part of San Diego," says local writer Alex Zaragoza, who grew up in TJ and calls both cities home. "People think it's a lawless town and that they can treat it as such, which has always been a point of contention between Mexicans from the city and Americans. But if you act as you would in your own city (so long as you're not an asshole in general), you'll most likely have an awesome time and not end up in jail or punched in the face."

Our Silences in San Diego's Embarcadero
Our Silences in San Diego's Embarcadero | pikappa51/Shutterstock

Expanding beyond your preconceptions

Said somebody, sometime, about San Diego County: "Where else can you snowboard in the morning, surf in the afternoon, and camp under the desert sky at night?" While it's true that some amped-up weekend warrior could technically accomplish all of these things in a day, I've yet to meet anybody who has, or even wanted to. Anyway the tagline doesn't capture what, to me, makes San Diego unique in the world.

If I could rewrite the sales pitch, I'd ask: "Where else can you see a Rembrandt in the morning, tan your naked butt in the afternoon, attend a lucha libre match at night, and slurp some of the best ramen of your life in a nondescript strip mall at 3am? Where else can you find an art gallery painted on a freeway overpass, have a soul food lunch, see the sun set over Tijuana from the heart of a 60ft-tall naked woman with an architect living in her boobs, and watch an international border disappear before your very eyes?"

San Diego will confirm your preconceptions over and over again. Yes, the beaches really are that beautiful. Every time I get off the 5 and reach the crest of La Jolla Parkway, the arresting sight of the low-slung sun glittering on the Pacific steals my breath away. And yes, the city is still very much the white, conservative military town that gave itself the cringeworthy epithet "America's Finest City." And it's a fact that, at any given moment, one of the two local alt-rock radio stations will be playing something by Sublime (the other will be playing Red Hot Chili Peppers).

The version of San Diego that's all palm trees and surf breaks exists here in full flower, and if that's what you came for, we raise a sandy Corona in your direction and wish you nothing but glassy barrels for days, brah. But if you're willing to wipe away our Coppertone topcoat and search out the region's rich and varied cultural side, you'll go home with a suntan and a story to tell.

Oh, and I was so wrong about the burritos. Especially the California burrito. (Fries inside the tortilla? Shine on, you crazy, guac-filled diamond.) Burritos, man. I could talk about burritos for hours.

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Maya Kroth is a journalist and a traitor to her Northern California roots (sorry, Bay Area, but your burritos got nothin' on SoCal). Find her on Twitter @theemaya.