Maybe it’s the pristine beaches; or maybe just the proximity, but Tinseltown seems to have always had a thing for San Diego. Many of the most popular and beloved films of all time have been set in the laidback California beach town and fans can easily follow in the footsteps of their favourite films shot in San Diego.
As the story goes, movie producers got inspiration for Top Gun from a magazine article about fighter pilots at the Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego. Intrigued by the fast-paced Navy pilot lifestyle, they decided to set up shop in San Diego to film. Scenes, like the one where Charlie runs after Maverick to his motorcycle after a classroom briefing (shot on what is now the patio of Solare Italian restaurant), were filmed at the former Naval Base now known as Liberty Station and visitors can also go and see the home where Charlie lived on 102 Pacific Street in Oceanside, known locally as the “Top Gun House.” Kansas City Barbecue in downtown San Diego served as the backdrop for some of the movie’s popular bar scenes. While visitors won't see Tom Cruise or Kelly McGillis flirting by the jukebox or belting out "That Loving Feeling,” mementos like autographed posters and photos from the film are always on display.
“I don’t think the Hotel Del would have had the same history would it not have been for Hollywood,” says Chris Donovan, the historian at the legendary resort on Coronado Island. The landmark Hotel del Coronado has served as the backdrop for many films shot in San Diego over the last century, including The Stunt Man, the comedy My Blue Heaven with Steve Martin and Rick Moranis and Rudolph Valentino’s silent drama The Married Virgin. Shot entirely at the Del in 1918, this silent film offers an intriguing window into the hotel as it used to be, before Hollywood really moved in.
The most famous film to use the Del as a setting is Billy Wilder’s comedy classic Some Like it Hot, featuring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. The exterior shots of the hotel were all filmed on location (and display beautiful verandas that no longer exist) but the interiors were meticulously recreated and shot on a soundstage. Hollywood stars and presidents have loved staying at the Hotel Del over the years, and to this day (while it’s often kept under wraps), movie stars often stay at the property’s exclusive Beach Village.
Balboa Park’s beautiful gardens and Spanish Colonial Revival architecture have made appearances in a number of popular movies over the decades, but the most notable of all is Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. The building that houses the Museum of Man served as the exterior of Charles Kane's mansion, "Xanadu” and one of the first shots of the movie is the California Bell Tower and dome. The park is also featured in Director Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film Almost Famous. A former San Diegan, Crowe chose to shoot several scenes in San Diego, including the opening scene on Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach by the long-closed Strand Theater and at the San Diego Sports Arena (now know as the Valley View Casino Center), where William Miller (Patrick Fugit) first meets band Stillwater.
While the Anchorman movies are set in San Diego, many of the scenes were actually filmed in LA and Long Beach. Still, lovers of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy can follow in Ron’s footsteps by walking in Balboa Park where he (Will Ferrell) wanders distraught after getting fired. Shots of the waterfront and the Coronado Bridge are also featured. In the sequel Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues the first few minutes of the movie were also filmed on location at SeaWorld where Ron, now fired from his job as a national news anchor, is working.
The cult classic, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, was filmed entirely in San Diego, at locations ranging from Qualcomm Stadium to a local high school. When a few scenes filmed at the University of California, San Diego campus called for the movie’s scientists to wear lab coats, filmmakers “borrowed” lab coats from some of the empty UCSD offices. The Star of India, the world’s oldest merchant sailing vessel still in operation, also played a role in the movie and today, visitors can walk the decks of the historic ship, now located at the Maritime Museum of San Diego on the Waterfront.
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What are your favourite films shot in San Diego? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Casey Chiotti
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About the author: CaseyCasey Chiotti
Casey Chiotti has a passion for food and travel. She regularly crosses the globe to experience a destination restaurant and sniffs out bakeries like a bloodhound. A freelance food and travel writer, her work has appeared in Sunset, San Diego Magazine, and on thepointsguy.com. Casey lives with her husband in San Diego and shares her travel musings on her own website Travelproper.com.