As fans flock to the famous sci-fi, fantasy and comic convention, we skip the event halls in favour of the best of the Californian city’s outdoor life

High above me, traffic rumbled along the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge as commuters headed to work. But in Chicano Park, directly beneath the huge, curving structure, life was quieter. I soon realised, though, that this hadn’t always been the case. The park, in Barrio Logan, one of San Diego’s oldest neighbourhoods, is not a conventional urban space, nor is its history straightforward.

Adorning the many concrete bridge supports are large, colourful intricate murals – often the work of several artists – that tell the story of the park’s controversial creation, as well as conveying defiant slogans and mythical images with resonance to the Mexican-American community. The city’s Chicano population (a chosen identity for some Mexican-Americans) saw Barrio Logan affected by freeway building in the early 1960s, with families forced out during construction of the bridge, which was completed in 1969.

Historical mural at Chicano Park. Barrio Logan

Alarmed at the destruction, the community made demands of the authorities, among them enough land to create a park. But only a small patch of ground was allocated. When bulldozers arrived on 22 April 1970, some Chicanos thought it was to work on the park: it wasn’t, it was to build a police station. The community “took over” the park for 12 days – planting flowers and starting the murals – until the city relented and agreed to build the park.

As the cars zipped by overhead, Mario “Torero” Acevedo, an artist and one of those involved in the takeover, explained the murals to me. Dressed in red beret and black jacket, arms flailing in description – and frequently interrupted by locals who fist-bumped or hugged him – Mario started with Chicano Park Takeover. Its images are based on newspaper photos of activists stopping bulldozers but also of the community coming together to cultivate land. Mario’s own Rage of La Raza mural depicts the anger of Mexican-American people, with its staring male eyes, naked female figure and a “child of the future” above the Chicano Park logo. He pointed out Voz Libre, dedicated to Pedro J Gonzalez, host of one of California’s first Spanish-language radio shows, and the Children’s Mural – which only kids could contribute to.

Mural in Chicano Park painted on a support for the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge

I took several of the short trails around the monument and the nearby lighthouse but those views were the highlight – and without looking too hard, I was able to see Mexico. If LA is close, Mexico is even nearer: the border town of Tijuana is 15 miles south and made possible a cross-border trip with Tony Uribe, who hosts vineyard tours of the Guadalupe Valley with Baja Wine Tour for a Cause. It was a great opportunity to see a slice of Mexican life, though also vital to factor in time at the border crossing, where queues can sometimes be lengthy.

The previous day, morning cobwebs had been swept away on a hike trail around Torrey Pines state natural reserve, with its wildflowers and cacti and panoramic views over a choppy-looking Pacific. The reserve is a 30-minute drive north of Downtown and is close to the beach at La Jolla, where wetsuited up, I tackled the ocean on a 90-minute kayak trip with Everyday California ($44). The superb surfing is a clue: the waves can sometimes get a bit too powerful for novice kayakers.

Of course, San Diego is not without its missteps. The Gaslamp Quarter is “the historic heart of Downtown” with its Victorian-era buildings. In reality, it’s a nightlife hub that feels too engineered. In search of diversity in food, drink and shopping, it’s better to head for neighbourhoods like North Park (Urban Solace, Folk Arts Rare Records, and Holsem Coffee), the East Village (You and Yours Distilling) or Barrio Logan (embrace the queue for tacos at ¡Salud!). And while every US city seems intent on the title of craft-beer capital, San Diego (and the county) does have 100 breweries. I tried flight-tastings at award-winning, established ones – Societe, Coronado Brewing Co, and Modern Times – on a trip with Brew Hop Tours (tours from $75pp). Once I’d signed a no-barfing-in-the-van waiver, that is. Societe’s Feral ale was particularly distinctive and became a fast favourite.

It felt apt to finish with an afternoon in another delightful open space –Balboa Park – if only because it underlined how San Diego seems to do things well but without the whole world realising it. At more than 485 hectares, it is one of the biggest urban parks in the US (significantly larger than Central Park) and includes 15 major museums, the San Diego Zoo, theatres and themed gardens. This year the park is celebrating its 150th birthday and as I rode the free shuttle bus that links many of its attractions, I couldn’t help feeling that perhaps it was time San Diego came out from the shadows a bit more.