San Diego County is the southern-most region of Southern California. It encompasses the city of San Diego and its large metropolitan area, which includes many smaller cities and communities. San Diego County lies along the U.S.-Mexican border, across from the Mexican city of Tijuana.
The central, largest city of the county, San Diego sprawls across the southwestern portion of the county and is the focal point for visitors to the area. There's much to explore here; among the most notable attractions are the lush Balboa Park with its museums and famed zoo, sunny beach neighborhoods, the upscale seaside community of La Jolla with its cliffs and scenic coves, the historic district of Old Town, California's oldest Spanish mission, and the thriving urban and nightlife center of Downtown.
East of San Diego lies a mountainous region of high desert that's strikingly rural for its proximity to such a large city. Out here visitors will find desert scenery, arid backcountry, forested towns, charming small towns, several casinos operated by local Indian tribes scattered throughout the area, and wine growing regions like the town of Julian.
To the north of San Diego, this is a mostly suburban region of the county with some notable attractions, including a set of delightful beach towns.
Surrounding the San Diego Bay to the south of San Diego, this is a very built-up region with few major attractions, although you'll find some pleasant beaches and the very busy border crossing of San Ysidro.
Besides San Diego, there are many smaller cities in the county. Listed here are the major ones:
- 1 Carlsbad - A lovely beach town in North County that's the home of Legoland California, a theme park based on the phenomenally popular toy line, featuring thrill rides, a water park, and strikingly accurate Lego sculptures.
- 2 Chula Vista - The largest city of the South Bay region. There aren't any major attractions here, although visitors will find a delightful nature center situated in the marshes of the bay and some good boating opportunities.
- 3 Coronado - A beautiful island community just across the San Diego Bay from Downtown San Diego. Much of the island is given over to a major naval base, but you'll also find one of the region's cleanest beaches here as well as the gorgeous and historic Hotel Del Coronado.
- 4 Del Mar - A small, very pretty Bavarian style seaside town in North County, famed locally for its charming beach, its fairgrounds, and its horse racing track.
- 5 El Cajon - The largest city of the Inland region, El Cajon is largely suburban in character.
- 6 Encinitas - A small but picturesque beach town in North County with popular surf spots, beachside camping, coastal wetlands and a lovely botanical garden.
- 7 Escondido - A large inland city of North County, mostly suburban in character but with a few minor attractions. The nearby San Pasqual Valley holds the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the expansive sister park to the San Diego Zoo that contains stunningly huge exhibits that resemble African savanna.
- 8 Oceanside - The largest city of the North County region, Oceanside offers a popular beach and pier, coastal wetlands, and the largest of the Spanish missions in California.
San Diego County covers a very large area (4,526 square miles, to be exact) with incredibly varied topography. The western half of the county is mostly urbanized, and includes the city of San Diego and its many suburbs to the south, east, and north. The climate of the western half is more moderate, due to its proximity to the ocean, giving San Diego its signature weather. The eastern half is mostly uninhabited or rural, contains snow-capped mountains, forests, and barren desert, and is prone to more extreme weather.
Like much of California, English and Spanish are the dominant languages in San Diego County. Typically, most businesses have at least a few employees who are bilingual in English and Spanish, and some people will be bilingual in English and Tagalog (mostly spoken by San Diego's large Filipino population). It is also common to see store signs printed in both English and Spanish, especially in neighborhoods with large Hispanic populations.
For detailed information on getting in to San Diego, see the Get in section of San Diego.
San Diego International Airport (SAN IATA) is the only commercial airport in the county and is served by all major U.S. airlines, offering flights from cities around the country and some international flights to Mexico and Canada. General aviation pilots have several airports spread across the region to choose from.
Amtrak's frequent Pacific Surfliner San Luis Obispo-Los Angeles-San Diego route serves San Diego County with several stops along the coast, stopping in Oceanside, Solana Beach, and at the southern end of the line at Union Station in Downtown San Diego, with a secondary station in Old Town San Diego.
Three major interstate roadways, Interstate 5, Interstate 8, and Interstate 15, lead into San Diego County. I-5 runs from the north along the coast, I-8 comes in from the east through the desert, and I-15 leads in to San Diego from the northeast.
In the western half of the region, a complex system of interstate highways and major roads connect the cities and neighborhoods of that half of the region. In the more rural Inland region, only I-8 and a small network of state and county roads run across the area.
The COASTER commuter rail system runs along the coast of San Diego County north of Downtown San Diego, linking together most of the coastal cities and towns of North San Diego County with Old Town and Downtown San Diego. Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner runs this same route, stopping in Oceanside, Solana Beach, and San Diego, but is less practical for getting around the county than the COASTER due to its high price.
In North County, the SPRINTER rail line runs east-west between Oceanside and Escondido. In San Diego, the San Diego Trolley light rail system links several cities east and south of San Diego to the metropolitan center, running east through La Mesa and El Cajon to Santee and south through Chula Vista to the USA-Mexico border.
The Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) and the North County Transit District (NCTD) operate public transit bus services in San Diego County. MTS serves San Diego and many of the surrounding cities, while NCTD serves North County. Service in the Inland region is pretty scarce.
- 1 Orange County - While Disneyland is obviously the attraction that brings the most visitors to Orange County, there is more to this county than just the House of Mouse. The county's Beach Cities offer vast sand expanses great for sunbathing, swimming, surfing and even whale watching, particularly in the spring and fall when grey whales migrate along the coast. Festivals such as Laguna Beach's Pageant of the Masters (July & August) or the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa (mid-July to mid-August) draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. And Knott's Berry Farm was an actual berry farm before adding roller coasters and other rides, and since 1973 has featured a popular October transformation into "Knott's Scary Farm" when the entire 160 acre park is re-themed into a haunted house style attraction.
- 2 Riverside County - Bordering San Diego County to the north, Riverside County's western portions include the far outskirts of Los Angeles, as well as more rural areas like Temecula, known for its wineries and hot air balloons. The majority of the county lies in the desert, with the most-visited portion being Palm Springs and its neighboring resort towns. Further east the county is essentially uninhabited, and includes the remote, rocky desert of Joshua Tree National Park, and the empty landscapes west of the Colorado River.
- 3 Imperial County - Located to the east of San Diego County in the state's southeast corner, this primarily agricultural county features extreme summer temperatures and below sea-level elevations. The Salton Sea dominates the region, and this massive alkaline lake is worth visiting for the ghost towns, wildlife refuge, and oddball characters that now populate its shores.
- 4 Baja California - From San Diego County it's easy to make a quick trip down to Mexico. Tijuana lies right across the border from San Diego, easily accessed by car or the San Diego Trolley light rail service. For a more low-key alternative, drive to the small border crossing town of Tecate (home of the Tecate brewery).