Before our cruise on the Royal Princess we had a ship’s excursion booked in San Diego, California. It was supposed to be a ghosts and gravestones tour in San Diego’s old town area on a hop-on hop-off trolley. We never got to take this tour because it got cancelled before the cruise started. We made no other plans for this port so we just got off the ship to see what was there. The first thing we saw was hop-on hop-off trolleys. The first ones we walked past were on the pier, waiting for ship’s passengers who had booked the regular city trolley tour, but we didn’t go far before seeing more parked along the side of the road.
The hop-on hop-off trolleys have a booth about a block from where passengers disembark the cruise ships. Their official name is Old Town Trolley Tours, although some of their tours go well beyond the old town area. Tickets at the booth were nearly $20 less than purchasing them onboard our ship and about $7 less than buying them through Princess online before the cruise, although people who bought through the cruise line did have those trolleys waiting just for them right at the dock. Once they get off they’d be in line with the rest of the crowd waiting for the next trolley though.
The trolley city tour has 10 stops. Normally the route runs through Old Town, but due to the streets being blocked off for festivities happening there on the day of our visit they ran a separate shuttle from Embarcadero where the cruise ships dock to Old Town and bypassed it on the main route. When running the full route boarding from Embarcadero, the Old Town historic area would be the last stop. The trolleys going to old town that day were easily distinguishable from the regular red ones since they were black and all painted up for the ghostly tour we had intended to take that day. The old town area is where the city’s original settlements were, and it is now a state historic park. We ended up just buying tickets for the regular trolley tour at the nearby booth. By the time we got back to Embarcadero we did not have time to take the other trolley to old town before the ship left so we never did see that area.
Embarcadero is a stop for the trolley tour whether there are cruise ships in town that day or not. Besides the cruise ship piers, it is the access point for a visitor’s center and Lane Field Park, which was the original home of the San Diego Padres baseball team. The park kept a few baseball themed things. Also accessed from this stop is the Santa Fe Railway Depot, ferries, several museums in old ships including an aircraft carrier museum, and some military memorials.
The first stop for anyone boarding by the cruise docks is Seaport Village. It’s worth getting off the trolley there to have a look around. This 14-acre village is a replica of a seaside village of 100 years ago built by Disney in 1980. It has unique shops, eateries, entertainment including a historic carousel, a marina, and it is the access point for the Seal tours – amphibious vehicles that look quite a lot like those called ducks in other places. Being the home of a navy seal base, San Diego calls their amphibious vehicles seals. From this stop people can walk to the Kansas City Barbecue made famous in the Great Balls of Fire scene in the 1986 movie Top Gun. We wandered around the area a bit, looked in a few shops, and watched people ride scooters along the seaside walkway. We had to wait 1 trolley to get back on because the first one to come by was full and nobody got off. The next one came shortly after and had room for everyone waiting at that stop.
After that the trolley went to Mariott Marquis and Marina. The driver said nobody ever gets out there. Nobody got on either. People who can afford to stay at the Mariott probably prefer other forms of transportation. It had a lovely garden, but we were on the wrong side to take any photos of it. That would be the closest stop to the children’s park and museum, and the convention center. The driver said nobody ever got off at the next stop at Horton Plaza Park either. Besides Horton Plaza Park, which has a fountain that had the first ever light and water show in 1910, this stop accesses the historic Grant/Horton House Hotel, Balboa Theater, and Palace Pawn Brokers, a shop in a building that was once a gambling hall owned by Wyatt Earp of shootout at the OK Corral fame.
Next it stopped in the historic Gaslamp Quarter where the current streetlights were once working gaslamps that had to be lit each evening and snuffed each morning by a caretaker on stilts. That job is no longer required since the lights have been converted to electricity. This stop has historic buildings, museums, restaurants, theaters, and dive bars. A couple people wanted on there, but we had no room left. The way the trolley route meanders through town puts this stop fairly close to the Mariott one.
The next stop was Petco Park where a ballgame slowed the traffic to a crawl so our driver told jokes to pass the time as we slowly crept by.
After driving across a bridge tall enough for the navy ships to pass under, the trolley stopped at Orange Avenue on Coronado Island. Half the island is a navy base and the other half has hotels and residential areas as well as a huge beach. Hotel del Coronado is an enormous sprawling hotel complex on the beach. Our driver insisted Coronado Island is a peninsula rather than an island. Considering the only land connection is a sandbar called the Silver Strand connecting it to Imperial Beach, that actually makes it a tombolo – which is defined as a narrow bar of sand or beach material attaching an island to the mainland. Or at least the attachment is a tombolo, which leaves Coronado as an island since the definition specifies attaching an island.
My niece used to live on Coronado Island so we got off at that stop for some nostalgia and a chance for her mom (my sister Barbara) to send her some pictures of her old stomping ground. My husband and I actually visited her there years ago just before boarding one of the earliest cruises we ever took, which left out of San Diego. She took us out to dinner at a place that looked exactly like the Irish pub by the bus stop so I’m guessing that it was the very same place. One of the 10 museums that have free entry for anyone on the trolley tour is at that stop. We just went to the beach and took a brief look inside the hotel. We didn’t visit any museums so I can’t say whether or not any of them are worth going to. There is free access to the beach at the Hotel del Coronado, and it’s quite a nice beach. Barbara took her shoes and socks off and waded out into the water for a bit.
There were so many people waiting to get on at that stop that the trolley people had someone there passing out numbers. You could only get on the next trolley if your number was called. We could not get on the one that was at the stop when we first got there, but did get on the next one to arrive.
The next stop is Balboa Park. We got off there too. The park is home to the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ, which has a 1 hour concert each Sunday. We just happened to get there on the right day and at the right time to watch a bit of the concert. I had not seen a pipe organ since I was a kid and we used to sometimes go to a long since gone restaurant called Pizza & Pipes, and attend a church that had a small one. By the time we left the park they had closed a big door over the pipes so it just looked like a stage and you would never even know the giant pipe organ was there if you just happened to be passing by and were unfamiliar with the area.
Balboa Park has lots of free things to see or do, and some with admission fees like the Japanese Garden or the famous San Diego Zoo. There are international houses representing a variety of countries and a botanical building that looks like a giant cage full of plants among the many things at the park. We looked over the edge into what you could see of the Japanese garden without actually paying to go into it and wandered around the botanical building for a bit. It’s an interesting building with quite a variety of plants. You would not stay dry in there if it rained.
The park also has a space museum, science center, automotive museum and museum of man as well as other museums and attractions. It has some trails too. A free tram takes people from one area to another throughout part of the park, but we just walked. The park alone has more things to do than time to do them all in one day, especially when your time is limited by when the ship leaves port. We spent quite a lot of time there and only saw a tiny fraction of the park’s attractions. As with the other stops we got off at that day, we had to wait one trolley to get on.
The last trolley stop before returning to Embarcadero that day was in San Diego’s Little Italy area, which is not that far from the port. The firehouse museum is located at this stop and is one of the ones with free admission for trolley riders. If it had been doing the full tour it would have gone to Old Town before going back to Embarcadero. It looks close enough on the map to walk back to Embarcadero from Little Italy if someone were running late and didn’t have time to make the trip to Old Town first.
For someone with just a day to see San Diego (like cruise ship passsengers) the trolley is an easy way to get around town and to a variety of tourist attractions. The trolleys also have tours to Old Town & San Diego Market, La Jolla & Mission Beaches, and at night the San Diego City Lights tour. And of course the Ghosts and Gravestones tour that we did not get to go on.