Downtown San Diego is the city’s bustling, historic core, which has grown by leaps and bounds in the last 10 years. From its trendy shops, restaurants and nightlife, to its noted landmarks such as Petco Park in East Village and the USS Midway on the harborfont, no two downtown visits need be the same.
Businessman Alonzo Erastus Horton envisioned San Diego as a bustling port city, and in 1867 he spent $264 for 800 acres he called “New Town.” Today, New Town is known as the historic Gaslamp Quarter, or simply “The Gaslamp.” Comprising more than 16 blocks, the Gaslamp stretches from Broadway to Harbor Drive (just north of the Convention Center), with Fourth, Fifth and Sixth avenues as its main thoroughfares. Anchoring the area’s northwest end is Horton Plaza, a small square with a bubbling fountain on the corner of Broadway and Fourth.
The Gaslamp’s immaculately preserved Victorian-style buildings are home to dozens of restaurants, clubs, theaters and retailers. Several tour guides offer an insider’s look at the Gaslamp, or create your own: The area can be easily covered on foot, or you can rent from Bike Revolution (522 Sixth Ave.) to navigate the district on two wheels.
If you start your exploration at the southern end of the Gaslamp, be sure to visit the Chuck Jones Gallery (232 Fifth Ave.) for cool animation art. Also check out the Art of Tim Cantor gallery (527 Fourth Ave.) for conceptual art, oil paintings and writings. Shop for designer resale at Carolyn’s (310 K St.) or pre-owned luxury watches at Nikki & Co. Fine Jewelers (562 Fifth Ave.). Find clothing, towels and bedsheets made from bamboo atCariloha (435 J St.). Stop in locally owned Dolcetti (635 Fifth Ave.) for contemporary men’s and women’s clothing. For national retailers, venture farther up Fifth, where you’ll find well-known stores like hat boutique Goorin Brothers (631 Fifth Ave.), Quiksilver (402 Fifth Ave.), Urban Outfitters (665 Fifth Ave.) and Dutch brand G-Star Raw (470 Fifth Ave.), with styles for men and women.
Or make your way over to Westfield Horton Plaza, a multilevel outdoor mall with a kaleidoscopic design that kicked off the revitalization of downtown when it was constructed in 1985. It’s now home to some 100 restaurants and shops, including White House Black Market, Macy’s, BCBG and more. There’s also culture to be had at the mall: San Diego Repertory Theatre performs on the Lyceum Theatre stage, and the historic Balboa Theatre anchors the shopping center’s eastern edge, at Fourth Avenue and E Street. And don’t mind the outdoor construction—a new urban plaza is in the works.
After a long day of shopping and sightseeing, sate your hunger at one of the Gaslamp’s 100-plus restaurants, bars and cafés, ranging from American to Chinese to Indian to Thai to steak and seafood.
Parking can be dicey in the Gaslamp; a garage is your best bet. Park It On Market is a 500-space garage at Market Street with entrances on Sixth and Seventh avenues (619.232.1271); while 6th & K Parkade offers 1,230 spots, with entrances on Sixth and Seventh avenues (619.233.3994). For more information, call the Gaslamp Quarter Association (619.233.5227).
Arts and culture abound downtown. Sites worth exploring include the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and the New Children’s Museum, an interactive art/play place with innovative exhibits for kids of all ages. The San Diego Chinese Historical Museum (404 Third Ave.) features a beautiful garden with a koi pond.
More than a century old, the San Diego Symphony performs at Copley Symphony Hall, while Broadway/San Diego brings touring shows to the Civic Theatre (1100 Third Ave.), and Spreckels Theatre (121 Broadway) hosts many performing arts events throughout the year.
The completion of Petco Park (100 Park Blvd.) and the New Central Library (330 Park Blvd.) helped gentrify this once-gritty, now-alive neighborhood east of the Gaslamp.
Shop among feisty fashions at Bloom boutique (660 Ninth Ave.). Pick up a creamy burrata at Venissimo Cheese (871 G St.), which also offers cheese-making classes, or grab a fine California cabernet sauvignon at Bacchus Wine Market (647 G St.).
The area’s burgeoning art scene includes a few notable galleries: the edgy Periscope Project (corner of 15th and K streets) built from stacked shipping cargo containers, andAlexander Salazar Fine Art (640 Broadway), featuring mixed-media work from emerging and mid-career contemporary artists.
A few blocks north of downtown, Little Italy is home to fabulous restaurants, galleries, boutiques and markets dotting the main drag, India Street. Highlights include the popular Bottlecraft (2161 India St.) and new Ballast Point (2215 India St.) craft beer tasting rooms; a handful of small art galleries, such as Noel-Baza Fine Art (2165 India St.), featuring works by legends and locals alike; and trendy boutiques, including Spoil Me Rotten (1501 India St.), offering women’s dresses, blouses, scarves and jewelry.
Take time to explore the streets branching off from India, too. The colorful cottages of theFir Street Shops include Love & Aesthetics (621 W. Fir St.), stocked with rare artwork, home wares, bath products, jewelry and gift items; as well as Vitreum (619 W. Fir St.), specializing in simple, elegant ceramics. On Cedar, Vocabulary (414 W. Cedar St.) is a chic boutique featuring emerging designers. Running parallel to India Street, Kettner Boulevard forms the spine of the art-and-design district. A gallery cluster near the corner of Kettner and Kalmia includes cool Subtext Gallery (2479 Kettner Blvd.), focused on lowbrow and graphic artists. Monthly on the second Friday, many area galleries host evening receptions.
Shop for vintage and modern furniture, art and home accents at @HOM (2310-B Kettner Blvd.) and Mixture (2210 Kettner Blvd.), identifiable by its large roll-up garage door.
Foodies will enjoy roaming the popular Saturday morning Mercato farmers market on Date Street (619.233.3769).
Retail/entertainment destinations include The Headquarters at Seaport District and Seaport Village, a 14-acre plaza with shops and a 19th-century carousel. The bayside boardwalk is ideal for walking to and from the Convention Center. Grab an iced cappuccino at Upstart Crow Bookstore & Coffeehouse (835-C W. Harbor Drive) and head for the Embarcadero Marina Park, which offers bike and jogging trails, basketball courts and picnicking. Continue north along the harbor to Broadway Pier, where you can embark on sightseeing excursions or catch the Coronado Ferry (1050 N. Harbor Drive), which travels across the bay several times daily. Make time to tour the retired USS Midway aircraft carrier and the floating Maritime Museum.
After a day of exploring, get pampered at the sea-inspired Kin Spa at the Manchester Grand Hyatt (1 Market Place).
A detailed map of downtown is here.