27 San Diego

PopulationMetro: 3,255,000
As a waterfront vision finally takes shape, Southern California’s urban ideal thinks long term to keep a good thing going.

You have to admire the hubris of a place that blithely calls itself “America’s Finest City.” And even if our rankings place it #27 overall globally, San Diego is edging closer to being worthy of its self-appointed title.

Certainly, San Diego is as naturally endowed as any place has a right to be—its sublime 263 full and partly sunny days annually make the Top 10 for Weather globally, and the 23 beaches within city limits made it synonymous with SoCal surf culture. The many charms, events and attractions (the zoo!) of the 1,200-acre Balboa Park, the largest urban cultural park in North America, help the city to a #6 spot globally in our Parks & Outdoor Attractions subcategory.

Then there’s the uniquely fluid cultural identity of the city: the Cross Border Xpress, which links San Diego with Tijuana, facilitated travel for 1.9 million and has boosted exploration of the sublime wines and dining in the Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe.

San Diego Bay

The cultural blend can be tasted in San Diego’s cuisine, with its restaurants powering an impressive #35 Culinary ranking nationally—Corazón de Tierra, George’s California Modern, TRUST, and Poki One N Half are a few of San Diego Magazine’s recent favorites. Now there’s cannabis culture, too: since the state-wide legalization of marijuana, farm-to-table dinners with edibles are a thing, craft beer and pot have become fast friends, and “cannabus” tours are bringing visitors to both dispensaries and breweries.

The 35 million people who visited in 2017 are finding San Diego’s 1.5 million residents hard at work. The city’s thriving innovation ecosystem means a ranking of #37 globally for GDP per capita. Qualcomm, a major employer, alone has 13,000 local workers whose salaries average about $105,000, according to The New York Times. (That the company spent much of 2017 and 2018 in an ownership battle with rival chip maker Broadcom is a matter of much local consternation.)

Given that innovation, tech and entrepreneurialism love centrality, downtown San Diego is flourishing as a place to live and learn. Construction began in mid 2017 on a UC San Diego downtown complex that will contain 426 residences and a 53,000-sq.-ft. office and classroom building that will groom the next wave of local startups. Accessibility to education for all is a cornerstone of the initiative.

CITY PERFORMACE
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But what will really make San Diego America’s Finest City is the realization of its urban waterfront. Disparate sections are being woven together and to downtown in a meaningful way—giving residents and visitors the “world-class waterfront” they’ve long been promised. This means some version of a two-mile seaside link from the convention center, past the enormous Midway aircraft carrier attraction to Waterfront Park.

A rejuvenated Embarcadero is a cruise ship and maritime history hub; a controversial new plan for Seaport Village is beginning to advance; the beloved 50-year-old Anthony’s is making way for the Portside Pier, four venues for modern dining and drinking. Meantime, a massive new heart of the waterfront is already under construction: the eight-block waterfront Navy Broadway Complex is a $1.3 billion project on 12 acres that will house a new 17-story headquarters for the U.S. Navy as well as the Manchester Pacific Gateway, a development of four office buildings, two hotels, a museum, a retail promenade and a 1.9-acre park.

As importantly to the waterfront—and to the Gaslamp tourism area—is a long-awaited convention center expansion. A proposal went on the ballot in November 2018 to raise the city’s hotel room tax with a view to raising $6.4 billion over the next 40 years. Along with the expansion, some $2 billion would be used for homeless services and permanent housing and would help San Diego stay ahead of a livability challenge that will only intensify for West Coast cities in the coming decade.

Hotel developers are bullish on tourism’s future: the Pendry Hotel—an approachable luxury offspring of Montage—opened in 2016 and as of this year, San Diego has almost 3,000 rooms under construction, second only to Los Angeles in the booming state of California.