Stereotypes are easy to grasp and convey, and inevitably you are going to read jokes about the city's most exotic industry - cosmetic surgery, or liposculpture. The last dozen pages of San Diego Magazine, just after the restaurant listings, are filled each month with ads for private clinics for rich people who want to change their bodies, illustrated by gruesome "before" pictures of women spilling from their G-strings. Once in basic shape you can have your hair extended, your skin resurfaced, your teeth and jaw fixed, your stress relieved through aromatherapy...only in southern California.
Yet this is not the whole story of San Diego. Reporters covering the convention will not have time nor inclination to tell you that it offers more than near-perfect weather and the sybaritic search for physical and mental perfection. It is a maritime city with a longer history than most in the United States. Buildings and neighbourhoods that evoke the past have been conscientiously preserved and restored, from dignified Spanish missions to turn-of-the-century Beaux-Arts extravagances. As a destination, it is decidedly not just for people unhappy with their thighs or their karma.
To tackle things chronologically, drive a few miles south to Point Loma. This overlooks the bay where, in 1542, the Portuguese sea captain Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first known European to land on the California coast, having set sail from Mexico a few months earlier on an expedition financed by Spain. There is a monument to him and a small exhibition relating his story. Between December and February it provides a wonderful vantage point to watch one of the world's most spectacular natural phenomena: the migration of thousands of grey whales from the Arctic Ocean to the warmer California lagoons.
Cabrillo would not have seen it, for he arrived in September and did not stay long. It was another 200 years before the Spanish sent settlers to California. In 1769 priests began to establish a chain of missions along the coast, the first one near what is now known as the old town. Five years later the mission moved six miles inland, when it was promptly burned down by Indians and the priest murdered.
It was rebuilt and in the mid-19th century used as a cavalry barracks, but it reverted to the church and was slowly restored until today it is a charming evocation of its period, dominated by a characteristic campanario with some of the original bells. The wood-ceilinged chapel is full of atmosphere and a few domestic rooms have been reconstructed. There is a delightful garden and a small museum.
Although the mission moved, the old town stayed where it was for 100 years, and many of its old buildings have been restored or reconstructed for visitors. The single street has the atmosphere of a Wild West town, lined with one- and two-storey timber buildings - the court house, school, hotel, saloon, newspaper office, jail and stores. At one end is a modern addition: the Bazaar del Mundo, a colourful courtyard enclosed by Mexican- style shops, stalls and restaurants.
In 1822 the Spanish withdrew and Mexico briefly controlled California, making San Diego its capital, until in 1846 it was incorporated into the United States. The Mexican border is only 17 miles south at Tijuana and to cross it for a few hours (first checking that your US visa is valid for re-entry) gives a vivid sense of the contrasting development of the two nations. From wealthy California you are suddenly thrust into a teeming Third World city where everyone is trying to sell you something - cheap drink and food, leather goods, loose women, over-the-counter antibiotics or potent diet pills.
In 1871, with San Diego growing into an increasingly busy port, its centre was moved closer to the waterfront. There, a surprising number of the late 19th-century office buildings, stores and hotels have survived in what is now known as the Gaslamp Quarter. Like the downtown areas of many American cities, it had degenerated into a notorious red-light district, but now is restored and alive with restaurants, discos and jazz clubs, packed on weekend evenings with youngsters having a good time.
It is also worth going on a daytime walking tour of the quarter, when the exuberant original detail of the architecture can be admired. Two other buildings worth looking at, a few blocks from the Gaslamp Quarter, are the Art Deco County Administration Center, built in 1936 as part of a federal works programme for the unemployed, and the old Santa Fe railroad station, dating from 1915, its elegant tiled walls well restored. In the 1880s there were plans to make San Diego the terminus of a trans-continental railway, but an untimely flood washed away the track to the east and the only rail-link since then has been along the coast, north to Los Angeles.
The city's most extraordinary and most famous building dates from 1887. To get to it you drive two miles across the dramatically curving high modern bridge - high enough to let large ships pass under - that links the city centre with the northern end of the Coronado peninsula. There stands the Hotel del Coronado, its elaborate wooden bulk adorned with conical turrets, pillared balconies and windows jutting from sloping roofs, like a giant dovecote. The interior is just as dramatic: the main dining room has a remarkable pine ceiling and chandeliers shaped like crowns.
One of the first American buildings equipped with electric light (personally installed by Thomas Edison), the hotel was the creation of the sugar tycoon John Spreckels and for years was a favoured resort of the international fast-set. It is possible that Edward VIII first met Wallis Simpson here in 1920, many years before their fateful liaison. The hotel has provided the setting for many films, notably Some Like it Hot, and it is still the most select place to stay in the area if you can afford it.
In 1915, to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, San Diego hosted the Panama California Exposition in Balboa Park, then a neglected 1,400- acre public space on a hill overlooking the city. Many of the fanciful Spanish-style baroque buildings, adorned by Italian plasterers, have remained as museums of art, science and history. Others are being restored, a little cluster of high-spirited architecture and decoration that is well worth visiting. Try to go on a Sunday and be there at 2pm to catch the weekly free recital at the open-air Spreckels Organ Pavilion, where several hundred music lovers doze fitfully in the sunshine until woken by some especially high- volume flourish on the world's largest outdoor organ. Blackpool, eat your heart out.
Balboa Park's most famous attraction is San Diego Zoo, another spin-off from the 1915 Exposition. A small menagerie of jungle beasts had been popular with visitors, so city enthusiasts decided to keep the animals as the nucleus of what is now one of the leading zoos of the world, covering 100 acres.
Even if you are not a fan of zoos, it is worth a visit for its lush vegetation. If you did not know that the animals were securely separated from you by ditches and fences, you might think you were strolling through a tropical jungle, likely to stumble on a pride of lions behind the next catalpa tree. An enthusiastic botanist could spend an absorbing day here without looking at an animal at all. There are bus tours of the grounds, an overhead cable car and scheduled animal shows in large arenas. A few miles out of town are two related attractions, the Wild Animal Park and the spectacular Sea World.
The main beaches are a few miles north-west of the city centre, on the edge of Mission Bay. The boardwalk at Mission Beach is a high-spirited mix of roller-bladers, joggers and spooning strollers, with surfers cavorting on the frothy sea: all only slightly less frenetic than the fabled beach at Venice, near Los Angeles. In the evening they mill round the beachside bars, or buy ice cream, jeans and sunglasses from booths backing on the boardwalk.
If strait-laced Republican delegates find that all too louche, they will feel more comfortable at La Jolla, San Diego's fashionable northern suburb. The beach here is calmer, the sunbathers a few years older and quite a lot wealthier. Along Prospect Street and Girard Avenue, close to the shore, are clusters of stores and boutiques selling expensive fashions and knick- knacks, the local equivalent of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.
Most of the delegates' time will be spent at the San Diego Convention Center, put up at the harbourside in 1989 precisely so that the city could host events of this kind. No architect has found a way to make these giant auditoriums look anything but garish and this is no exception, with its long roof shaped to give the impression of billowing sails.
One of the advantages of San Diego for conventioneers and tourists is that the airport is almost downtown, named Lindbergh Field after one of the city's most famous sons.
Charles Lindbergh, who made the first solo transatlantic flight in 1927, had his plane built here in his home town but the cautious locals would not fund the risky undertaking - so the plane was called Spirit of St Louis, whose folk showed a more entrepreneurial spirit.
The citizens missed the chance of having it called Spirit of San Diego for the same reason that the airport, despite years of debate about moving it, has stayed where it always has been. This is a conservative city that will not be rushed into precipitate decisions or changes for their own sake, a city where things move at a deliberate pace. This is why Republicans may feel at home in San Diego, and why it has managed to conserve so much of its history for everyone else's enjoyment.
! Michael Leapman flew to San Diego with United Vacations, which offers week-long packages from pounds 515, a price which includes accommodation and car hire, or fly-drive without accommodation from pounds 399. Phone 0181 313 0999 for more details. A car is all but essential for getting around southern California.
Michael Leapman visits Chicago, where the Democrats will be holding their convention later this month.Reuse content