San Diego, CA: Accessible Travel Tips to Attractions

San Diego is one of California’s premier vacation beach towns, where people from all over the world come to soak up some sun. The weather here is pretty much the same all year round, which makes it a top destination no matter the season. San Diego is very wheelchair friendly and has done a stellar job making the city accessible to all.

GASLAMP DISTRICT
The Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego is a historic neighborhood located feet from the bay that has been reinvigorated with lively businesses and entertainment. Throughout the year, this area hosts many large festivals, events, and concerts and just a block away is Petco Park. For a wheelchair traveler, the Gaslamp Quarter is very wheelchair friendly with accessible conscientious businesses and infrastructure.

All down 5th Street are places to eat. Every price range, international cuisine and ambiance seems to be represented. There are a number of restaurants on the adjacent streets, but 5th Street has the largest collective selection. A famous steak house is Lou Mickey’s, a fine dining establishment. An Italian restaurant called Bella Luna is recommended for its fresh, hand-crafted menu selections. There are also smaller cafes and lots of places to indulge your sweet tooth. Strolling down 5th Street is a breeze for a wheelchair user because of the generally flat terrain.

Of course one can expect a variety of retail and boutique stores. The Horton Plaza is a multi-level outdoor mall located between 4th Street and Front Street with entrances all over. For the most part, the mall is generic, with department and retail stores as well as a food court. It is very wheelchair accessible, with elevators and long ramps to get you from one point to another. The rest of the surrounding area includes all kinds of boutique and well-known stores mixed in with other businesses from the Gaslamp District. There is also a variety of art galleries, wine shops, and a psychic reader. There were only a small handful of stores where wheelchair access did not seem possible, but for some of the older buildings, an additional entrance was created for a wheelchair user’s convenience. Usually, there was a sign directing where to go.

Along the waterfront of the Gaslamp Quarter are miles of walkway smooth and flat enough for a wheelchair user. Handicapped parking is also available sporadically. There are art pieces and restaurants to enjoy all along the way. Most of the restaurants sit right on the water. San Diego Naval Base is the largest in the United States Navy and one can also see a number of Navy memorials and historical vessels along the waterfront. The Maritime Museum is a way to learn about and explore two of these ships. A wheelchair user is not able to access every part of the boat, but can see a few decks, including one that is accessible via a lift. Since one is unable to see everything, the cost to enter the Maritime Museum is free for a person in a wheelchair.

The San Diego Trolley is a convenient way for any physically disabled traveler to get around to certain areas of the Gaslamp Quarter. There are stations located all over the different trolley lines and come often. For the physically disabled, the cost of a ticket is significantly discounted. After getting a ticket, anyone in a wheelchair should head to handicapped marker, so that the conductor sees you and can setup accessing a trolley, read more.

LA JOLLA
La Jolla is home to the UCSD and many hip beach goers. The main area of La Jolla consists of restaurants, bars, retail stores, and hotels. A lot of the stores are beach-inspired selling bathing suits, sunglasses, and gelato but there are a handful of designer stores, like Gucci and Armani. There are a good number of handicapped parking spots and parallel spots include a ramp for easy sidewalk access.

The Valencia Hotel is world-class luxury resort built in 1926. The beautiful design mixed with the breathtaking ocean views made it a favorite spot to use for many Hollywood films, and the stars were frequent guests of the hotel. The various dining spaces are set up a to create different ambiances to satisfy any mood. No matter what the time of day, if the weather is pleasant, the Terrace Patio is a popular choice. With clear views of the Pacific Ocean and gardens, why wouldn’t it be?

The Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego (MCASD) displays over 4,000 pieces created after 1950, representing a variety of media and genres: painting, sculpture, works on paper, photography, video, and installation. The museum itself is set overlooking the ocean. A couple of the show rooms have large bay windows, making for an incredible view. There is handicapped parking directly outside the museum. The inside of the museum is accessible for any disabled traveler thanks to the paved walkways with plenty of space to maneuver, and elevators going from floor to floor. Opposite to the main entrance is a cafe. There is even a garden with various sculptures and pieces displayed about. Someone using a wheelchair can easily follow the ramp down to bottom. There is an exit out of the museum, but it is best to go back the way you came if you parked in front of the museum, because otherwise there is a very steep hill to climb to get back.

Someone using a wheelchair should take a stroll along the ocean front walkway. There is handicapped parking in a few places and it is recommended parking close to the lifeguard tower or park because there are fewer inclines; the park has an accessible restroom. However, the pathway runs for miles and for the most part is totally flat and accessible. Along this smoothly-paved path, one can enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of the ocean, including a famous spot known as Children’s Pool, where sea lions mate and raise their young.

MORE FOOD OPTIONS: Other great choices to get something to eat are the Cheese Shop, which serves great salads and sandwiches, or Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza. There is also Roppongi Restaurant and Sushi Bar, located on Prospect St.

ADDITIONAL ACTIVITIES: The La Jolla Playhouse is a Tony Award-winning non-profit theatre and is accessible for visitors with physical disabilities (read more). The Birch Aquarium is small and completely wheelchair accessible: equipped with ramps, parking, restrooms, and even access to the outdoor tidepool exhibit.

MISSION BEACH – PACIFIC BEACH – OCEAN BEACH
These three beaches in San Diego are named differently but are all very close to one another. La Jolla isn’t far away, but it doesn’t offer the classic white, sandy beach that blockbusters have made so iconic. Mission Beach is basically a peninsula with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the bay on the other, both with beaches. The bay side is called Mission Bay. What’s particularly attractive about this area is a 14-mile-long, paved bike trail which allows you to enjoy the atmosphere of the beach. Also located on the bay side of Mission Beach is a pier where you can rent a waterproof jetpack to fly like Iron Man. It wasn’t designed for the disabled, but so far, a number of people with a handicap have experienced it. The bay side of Mission Beach is also known for a small area where fire-pits are allowed, but sadly none are accessible. On the beach side of Mission Bay are a bunch of touristy shops and a paved walkway for a pleasant stroll along the ocean.

If you keep traveling north on the paved trail, it will lead you into Pacific Beach, also known as PB, and is another popular beach in San Diego with eateries and souvenir shops. This area is often swarmed with young adults hanging out at the beach.

South of Mission Beach is Ocean Beach, which is similar to the preceding beaches. SeaWorld is a short drive from the coast of Ocean Beach. The area with the most people is Newport Street where all the restaurants, cafes and shops are located. The paved walkway runs along the ocean like at other beaches but shortly after passing the pier the pathway curves and wheelchair access ends due to some stairs. The pier is very smooth and wheelchair accessible and at the entrance of it are two handicapped parking spots.

Mission Beach, South Pacific Beach and Ocean beach all have beach wheelchairs for rent. At Mission Beach, both a manual and power beach wheelchair are available. Regardless, check availability call  (619) 525-8247 or (619) 221-8899. Please also note that in general, all the eateries at PB, Mission Beach and Ocean Beach are on the lower end of the food quality spectrum.

BALBOA PARK
In 1868, 1400 acres were set aside by civic leaders to develop the “City Park,” the name was changed to Balboa Park in 1910 after a citywide naming contest. Today, it is the nation’s largest urban cultural park. The park has an array of attractions for any wheelchair traveler, including over 15 museums, an IMAX, 8 gardens, indoor and outdoor performing arts venues, and even the San Diego Zoo. With so much to do, one can easily spend all day at Balboa Park.

Getting around Balboa Park is easy for a wheelchair user because of the flat, smooth walkways as well as access to ramps when needed. Handicapped parking spots can be found all over the park, but on the weekends, many spaces are filled by 10am. Specifically, two parking lot recommendations suggestions are behind the Botanical Building and the Spanish Village Art Center. The majority of the attractions have wheelchair accessible restrooms, but there are also some facilities located throughout the park.

San Diego Zoo
Another incredible attraction for the wheelchair traveler in Balboa Park is the San Diego Zoo, affiliate of the world famous San Diego Wild Animal Park. Nine Animal Zones make up the zoo, and it is best to follow the trails marked by a blue line as they are the most wheelchair accessible pathways. Some portions may have slight inclines so a little workout or push is in order for manual chair users. A few sections are not wheelchair friendly due to the steep terrain and ground makeup, but a shuttle can be arranged to access these areas. Due to the availability of a shuttle, all disabled people must pay the full ticket price.  More disabled access information.

Monkeys are a visitor favorite. Forest Tales is a huge attraction located in the Animal Zone called the “Lost Forest.” This exhibit is very popular among visitors because it takes you up into the canopy, face-to-face with the primates. The walkway is extremely wide and smooth, perfect for a wheelchair user. The gradual decline to the forest floor is so mild that you may not even notice it. Nonetheless, there is at least one elevator if you choose that route.

The flamingo lagoon is one of the first exhibits you see after entering the San Diego Zoo. It is one of many bright displays of birds that you will find throughout the zoo. Another example is the hummingbird exhibit, which you can actually enter. It is fairly wheelchair friendly. There is no automatic door, but once inside, the observation area is wide and flat enough for the majority of chairs. It is located in the Discovery Outpost Zone. Wegeforth Bowl is an outdoor auditorium featuring several educational shows about the animals. Wheelchair accessible seating is available at the top of the bowl The Sea Lion show always draws a good crowd.

Gardens in Balboa Park
There are more than eight gardens located within Balboa Park, which creates a magnificent backdrop to all the many cultural events that frequently occur in the park. All the gardens are kept in pristine condition year-round. The majority of the gardens are easily accessible. The Desert Garden, however, is accessed by going up a very steep hill. Some of the more popular gardens to explore are the Alcazar Garden, Botanical Building, Inez Rose Garden, and the Japanese Friendship Garden, which are all highlighted below.

Alcazar Garden is designed after the gardens of the Alcazar Castle in Seville, Spain. This formal garden, bordered by boxwood hedges, is planted with 7,000 annuals for a vibrant display of color throughout the year. The Alcazar Garden is best known for its ornate fountains, exquisite turquoise blue, yellow, and green Moorish tiles and shady pergola. Because of the beauty within the garden as well as the surrounding views, the garden courtyards are often used for various ceremonies, like weddings.

The Botanical Building, with its long lily pond, is one of the most highly-photographed buildings in Balboa Park and is easily accessible for anyone using a wheelchair or walker thanks to the flat, smooth terrain. The historic building was built around 1915 the and is one of the largest lath structures in the world. The Botanical Building has 2,100 permanent plants, featuring fascinating collections of cycads, ferns, orchids, other tropical plants, and palms. It also presents some of the Park’s vibrant seasonal flower displays. No restrooms are available at this location, but there is one nearby.

The Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden has approximately 2,500 roses of nearly 200 varieties on a three-acre site full of fragrance, color, and beauty. The best way to access the rose garden by wheelchair is to drive over to it. There is a handicapped spot almost directly in front with a curb cutout for easy access. The garden is almost totally flat with only a few areas that have slight inclines. There is a bridge near the Natural History Museum over to the Desert and Inez Garden, but once you get over to the other side, the ramp down is steep.

The Japanese Friendship Garden is a lovely, accessible, oriental garden with a koi pond and museum. It is believed to be the only garden that has an entrance fee because of the museum. The garden charges an admission fee. Inside the Japanese Friendship Garden is a wheelchair accessible restroom. Next to the koi pond is a small museum with a few displays of ancient Japanese art. Directly in front of the entrance is a tea pavilion, which is open daily for teas and food.

Museums
What draws many tourists and locals to Balboa Park are the the museums.  A total of 19 museums can be explored, and with a diverse variety of subject matters, there is something to pique anyone’s interest. One of the more popular attractions is the National History Museum, and the San Diego professional sports teams is the Hall of Champions Sports Museum. Of course there is an array of art museums displaying pieces from around the world, from classic to modern, from photography to sculpture to painting. For example, the Timken Museum of Art has a world-class collection of European old master paintings, American paintings, and Russian icons. Another is the renowned San Diego Museum of Art.

An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, the Air & Space Museum houses a collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft from all over the world, including a working flying replica of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the actual Apollo 9 Command Module spacecraft and the only real GPS satellite on display in the world. The Museum also offers interactive exhibits including MaxFlight® and Space Shuttle simulators plus dynamic, hands-on and ever-changing traveling exhibitions. All of the exhibits are wheelchair accessible; a wheelchair user can even follow the spiraling ramp to the top of the museum to see different views of the various aircraft. The ramp is a bit of a workout, but there are resting points along the way if using a manual chair or walker.

Inspired by Briggs Cunningham, a renowned automobile collector and racer, the Automotive Museum attracts automotive enthusiasts from all over to see its world-class collection. Over 80 historic autos and motorcycles are featured on a single-level, wheelchair accessible showroom. Two of the most noted vehicles are Frank Sinatra’s 1967 Austin Petrol Hire Car and Louie Mattar’s Fabulous $75,000 Car. Special exhibitions that change every two or three months display other fine vehicles and famous autos.

House of Pacific Relations International Cottages began in 1935 when it housed a group of people promoting multicultural goodwill and understanding through educational and cultural programs. Today, this tradition continues every Sunday from noon to 4pm, when the doors to the homes open and the celebration of 32 countries begins. At 2pm on Sundays from March-October, the lawn in front of the cottages features music, dance, traditional costumes, arts, crafts, and ethnic foods of one particular country. See the entire schedule here.

Mingei International Museum is a museum dedicated to the appreciation and understanding of the art of the people from all eras and cultures of the world. The Museum collects, conserves and exhibits these arts of daily life by unknown craftsmen of ancient times; from traditional cultures of past and present; and by historical and contemporary designers. The collection of art at Mingei includes 19,600 objects from 141 countries, like the Middle East, Indonesia, and Mexico. At Mingei there are also special and traveling exhibits, which keep locals returning.

The Science Center is a fantastic place for hands-on learning for people of all ages but is a particular favorite place to bring young children. Like any museum, the Science Center has a number of exhibits as part of its permanent collection, but there are also special exhibits that come and go. It is also the home to Southern California’s only IMAX Dome Theatre. There are 18 wheelchair accessible seats conveniently available almost immediately after entering into the dome.

Theaters in the Park

The most famous is The Old Globe (below photos). Founded in 1935, the Globe produces 15 plays and musicals annually, from the renowned Summer Shakespeare Festival to world-premiere productions that have gone on to Broadway. The Old Globe is actually made up of three unique venues: the historic Old Globe Theater; the intimate Cassius Carter Center Stage, and the outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theater.

Another historic theater is the Starlight Theater & Bowl, which is one of the oldest continuously producing musical theater companies in the United States, Starlight presented its first season in 1946 and has featured more than 1,000 productions of 120 musicals. Since it is an outdoor theater, performances occur during the months of July, August, and September.

In addition to the theaters, Balboa Park also showcases the Spreckles Organ Pavillion. The whole venue is based around one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs, which was donated by John D. and Adolph Spreckels in 1914. This unique organ contains 4,530 pipes ranging in length from the size of a pencil to 32 feet, and is housed in an ornate, vaulted structure with highly embellished gables. Since 1917, San Diego has had a civic organist, who performs free weekly Sunday concerts from 2pm to 3pm from June to August.

Spanish Village Art Center
Between the National Museum of History and the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park is the Spanish Village Art Center, open daily from 11am to 4pm. Thirty-seven working artist studios/galleries host over 250 local painters, sculptors, metalsmiths, jewelry designers, clay artists, gourd artists, photographers, printmakers, fiber artists, basket weavers, mixed-media artists, glass artists, and more. All of these artists come from San Diego’s large artist community, and purchasing a one-of-a-kind piece from one of the studios helps to keep creativity thriving.

Since there are more artists than studios, many are shared by three or fours artists. All the pieces are tastefully displayed and sectioned off by artist, which makes it enjoyable to see the different styles. Some artists even give live displays daily; Studio 19 you can see the artist blow glass. The walkways are made up of cobblestones, but for the most part, the surface is even, except for a few broken stones. A wheelchair traveler in a manual chair or walker should keep an eye out for such barriers to avoid getting a small wheel wedged.

Food at Balboa Park
Balboa Park is not a place you visit for the restaurant selection. In fact, there are very few choices in general to get anything to eat. Most places are set up as small cafes, serving soups, salads, and sandwiches. There are also a few carts and other vendors serving items like hot-dogs. At the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum, there is a full-service bar and grill, and at the Japanese Friendship Garden, there is the Tea Pavilion that has a small menu of Japanese-inspired foods.

Out of all the places to eat, the best one is The Prado at Balboa Park. This award-winning, full-service restaurant offers indoor and outdoor seating. The outdoor patio under the umbrellas is the most requested area, since it looks out onto a beautiful garden. There is a lift for wheelchair users to access the patio area.

The diverse cuisine includes an array of appetizers, salads, sandwiches and imaginative entrées. The lounge combines a lighter menu with a wide variety of margaritas, sangria, beer, wine and other beverages. Since it is the nicest restaurant in the Park, it is a busy destination, so it’s recommend that you make reservation even if that means stopping there when first arriving to set up a time for later that day.

SAN DIEGO ZOO SAFARI PARK
San Diego Zoo Safari Park, once known as the San Diego Wild Animal Park, is located in Escondido, CA about 1.5 hours from San Diego. The location is necessary as much space is needed to house all the animals. It’s estimated that the zoo sits on 1,800 acres (730 ha) of land. There is a fee for parking in addition to admission. Furthermore, even though there are three rows of handicapped parking available, it fills up exceptionally fast so arriving early and avoiding holiday weekends is advised. If traveling with a caregiver or an attendant (which could be a friend or loved one), he or she can receive free attendant ticket into the park. The basic tram tour around the perimeter is included with the entrance fee, but additional tours, like the hot air balloon tour is an additional fee.

To see everything in the park, one must plan to be there all day, but even that may not be enough for some given the size. The sheer size of the park makes it a bit challenging to explore if using a manual wheelchair. Even a body-builder wheelchair user would find a full day here a workout. This also means that the attendant or caregiver with a manual wheelchair user needs to be in fairly good physical condition to assist with pushing up hills. The highest point of the park is Condor Ridge where exhibits for birds and bighorn sheep are located. In this area packed granite and a wooden boardwalk make up the pathways. Throughout the park you may notice 5 signs for an ADA shuttle. The shuttle with a lift can transport two wheelchair guests and equipped with tie-downs for the wheelchair.

Other than the Condor Ridge area, most of the park is paved or wooden boardwalks. A few shows that take place a few times during the day are a featured event that many gather for and are free. The amphitheater where the bird show takes place has no official accessible seating, so wheelchair guests gather at the base of the stairs. Near the African Tram Tour terminal (the free tour) is a space where a cheetah run demonstration takes place. There is no wheelchair viewing space, so if you want to see the show, come early because crowds obstruct the view. The last African Tram Tour leaves shortly after this cheetah run demonstration is over, so people will rush to make it. Planning an earlier tram tour or skipping the cheetah run demonstration is the best way to approach this.

The African Tram Tour (free) is the main event and what makes the San Diego Zoo Safari Park unique. The front car of the tram is wheelchair accessible. A portable ramp is set up and seats are flipped up to fit guests using wheelchairs. In many cases, three adult wheelchairs can fit in this area. Tie-downs for wheelchairs are used to secure the wheelchair in place. The 25-minute tour takes you around the inner perimeter of the park where some African animals like hippos, giraffes, gazelles and more roam together peacefully in the open. Other animal enclosures are seen but not passed through directly and sometimes these animals can be difficult to spot.

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