In San Diego, life is lived outdoors. It’s not only the surfers finding happiness here. A visit to a big city with small town charm.

"Landing in ten minutes." Finally: San Diego. A boyhood dream has come true! Somewhere in this California coastal city is a bar with the famous piano from "Top Gun". Fans have been making the pilgrimage to this magic place, where Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis found their cinematic happy ending, for thirty years. Full of anticipation, I softly hum to myself the refrain to "Highway to the Danger Zone", the theme song to this hit movie from the 80s, and then the wheels touch down with a gentle rumble. Welcome to "America’s Finest City"!

The line is long at the car hire desk, but the early morning drive downtown is short. The Embarcadero, the long pedestrian zone along the harbour, begins less than five minutes’ drive from the airport. This area is bustling from morning until night. Young sailors put their arms around female Japanese tourists for selfies, tourists slurp steaming bowls of clam chowder on the terraces of seafood restaurants; nearby, a melancholy old hippy strums the first chords to "Hotel California" on his guitar: "Such a lovely place, such a lovely place!"

Photos: Travel Magazine, Liesa Johanssen

Bathing shorts, sunglasses and a lots of ice cream

San Diego is "pretty laid back", its inhabitants say. It’s a low-pressure place. It’s no wonder – the temperature seldom dips below 20 degrees Celsius. Those who can, wear bathing shorts and sandals, and nobody leaves the house without sunglasses. Summer or winter, life in the second largest city in California, with its nearly 1.4 million inhabitants, is lived outdoors. Every day brings endless possibilities to enjoy it outside, be it golf, beach yoga, or surfing at some of the best surf spots in California. Or at one of the special events which fill the calendar year round. Festivals, concerts, parades, open air events, exhibitions.

While in other American cities one often looks in vain for the chance to dine "al fresco", this is as big a part of San Diego as its famous zoo, or even Sea World. Today, everyone is streaming to Waterfront Park to the Street Food Festival right across from the Maritime Museum, with its rusty submarines and historic sailboats. People are lined up at the food trucks, women in business suits alongside muscular dudes in surfer shorts. There’s roast chicken and New Orleans Cajun shrimp, fried fish from the bay, and all manner of tacos. The longest line is in front of Chad Furlong’s bright yellow delivery truck. Furlong, serves shaved ice, syrup-drenched icebergs in plastic cups. While surfing in Maui a few months ago, he couldn’t get enough o. this Hawaiian dessert, he says with enthusiasm. "I just had to try it here!" When Chad isn’t taking his ice-mobile from event to event and bringing happiness to all the people o. California, the flip-flops-wearing entrepreneur helps out with the building of a children’s day care centre in Mexico. «San Diego», says Chad, «is a big city, with the feel of a friendly village.» He can’t think of any better place to live.

Burgers, beer and many friends

One of the most beautiful places to take in some sun is Balboa Park, the cultural centre of San Diego. There, lovers of all things grilled and brewed have assembled on a hill of the almost five-hundred-hectare park. This is the Burger & Beer Festival, where the city’s best hamburgers are chosen. Over three dozen chefs present their creations: burgers with camembert, burgers with mint, burgers with Nutella. The visitors stroll from stand to stand, try out the appetisers, and chase them down with a craft beer. In between they relax in folding chairs under the shade of the palm trees, or dance merrily before the little stage where a punk band is singing through the smoke of the many grills. For most people here, winning is not the goal. The main thing is that the burgers be all-natural: This can mean humanely raised beef, home-made bread, onions from one’s own garden. The same applies for the beer, which tastes best when it’s brewed by a family business, or in someone’s garage. And there are several of those in San Diego, the unofficial American capital of craft beers. The San Diego Brewers Guild alone comprises nearly 100 microbreweries with enchanting names like Little Miss Brewing or Burning Beard. And almost all of them operate a local establishment in the city, where one can imbibe practically at the source.

Whether in a café, a fast food restaurant, a taxi or a souvenir shop, in San Diego, strangers turn quickly into friends: "How can I help you, my friend"», one hears everywhere. It’s not superficiality, says Moni Blom, who sells her colourful sculptures on a sandy beach on the Coronado Peninsula, art which brings to mind the creations of French artist Niki de Saint Phalle. At the Coronado Art Walk, over 70 artists show their works: kitschy paintings of sunsets, dolphins carved of precious stones, painted surfboards. The aroma of seafood is in the air, somewhere a band is doing a cover version of Bowie’s "Let’s Dance", children are building sand castles. "The people here are simply happy!", says the engineer. The proximity to the ocean, the mild climate, the diverse cultures. "Nothing beats that mix." Has she sold anything today? That’s not important, says Moni. "What’s important is that I’m out in the fresh air!" She’s wearing a bathing suit underneath her white blouse and jeans. "So I can take a dip in the ocean whenever I feel like it."

Contagious Joy

While the evening sun bathes San Diego’s skyline in golden light, on the other side of the Coronado Bridge the last band of the day plays at the Blues Festival, on the harbour promenade. Ted Wood, bearded architect and drummer, sits on a bench and taps with his foot to the beat of the music. He’s actually not a city person, says Wood, but San Diego is different. "Good music and nice folks everywhere." How right he is! But even if the festival’s good cheer is contagious, and we’d prefer to kick off our shoes and dance along, we have to move on. We’ve got one last appointment, in a small diner at the edge of the historic Gaslight District. Next to all the impressive Victorian buildings and skyscrapers, the one-storey "Kansas City Barbeque" seems unremarkable at first glance. A bar like thousands of others in the USA: a little behind the times, paint flaking from the walls, worn-out furniture. Then we catch sight of the "Top Gun" sign in the window, and know we’ve come to the right place. Here stands, in a corner in this bar, the legendary piano from the 1986 film, the very piano where "Maverick" sang "Great Balls of Fire". And here’s the jukebox which played "You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’" in the final scene from "Top Gun". "On the contrary", one thinks, sipping a beer at the bar like Tom Cruise, "this lovin’ feelin’ for San Diego has only just begun."


The neighbourhood of Little Italy offers the perfect alternative to Starbucks et al., for those who want to enjoy their latte in a more individual setting. Heartsleeves Coffee is located in a hidden courtyard – nowhere else in San Diegodoes the coffee taste so good! And of course the quaint little coffeehouse has abundant seating in the shade.

(Text: Travel Magazine/Peter Aeschlimann)