Scarcely a generation ago, one drove through downtown San Diego with the windows rolled up, past derelict tattoo parlors and sleazy porn palaces. But it has transformed into a first-class destination for visitors and a trendy area for residents. There are restaurants, art galleries, festivals, performing arts centers, museums, and a sports stadium. The atmosphere is strictly Southern Californian: a blend of urban energy and laid-back priorities. From the edge of the Embarcadero to the beautifully restored Gaslamp Quarter, downtown is a great place to have fun in.
For those arriving by ship or train, the Embarcadero is San Diego’s front door. Passengers disembark from gleaming white cruise ships tied up at B Street Pier or pass through a 1915 train depot. But the Embarcadero is an attraction in itself. Pedestrian-friendly walkways pass historic ships, museums, shopping centers, and parks. Serious and quirky public artworks and a harbor filled with maritime life define this lively district.
In the mid-19th century, the Gaslamp Quarter was the heart of a new city, but within 50 years it had fallen prey to gambling halls, opium dens, and houses of prostitution, and within another 50 years, it had become a broken-down slum. Now the Gaslamp Quarter sparkles as it looks to a brilliant future. During the day, the gloriously restored buildings attract history buffs and shoppers. By night, crowds dine in fashionable restaurants, listen to music, or sip drinks.
Home to the world-famous San Diego Zoo, 15 unique museums, theaters, countless recreational opportunities, and exquisite landscaping, Balboa Park creates an indelible impression. Year round, vibrant flowers bloom in profusion and pepper tree groves and grassy expanses provide idyllic spots for picnicking. Allow a minimum of a few days to enjoy the park’s many attractions.
Formerly a Victorian village that fell into neglect but survived as a warehouse district and artist colony, this area is now very fashionable. Petco Park, home to the San Diego Padres baseball team, is the neighborhood’s major focal point. Check out the 1909 Western Metal Supply building: architects incorporated the vintage building into the stadium’s structure. A state-of-the-art Central Library and Children’s Museum are located here.
When it opened in 1985, developers hoped this unique shopping center (see Westfield Horton Plaza) would help revive a declining area. It was an immediate hit – people loved the Plaza’s inward-facing design, tiered shopping levels, and the 43 unusual colors of paint on its walls. Over several city blocks, the plaza features more than 130 shops, movie theaters, and stage shows at the Lyceum Theatre. Adjacent to Westfield Horton Plaza is the Balboa Theatre. Built as a cinema in 1924, it now offers live shows.
This revitalized neighborhood is one of San Diego’s oldest. Genoese fishing families were the first Italians to settle along the waterfront in the 1860s. Along with Portuguese immigrants, they founded San Diego’s prosperous tuna industry. Little Italy, sometimes known as Middletown, is now a fashionable address. While retaining its Bohemian character, restaurants, galleries, design stores, and a Saturday market line its streets.
An eight-block area that overlaps part of the Gaslamp Quarter marks the former center of San Diego’s Asian community. The Chinese came to San Diego after the California Gold Rush and found fishing and construction work; others ran opium dens and gambling halls. Japanese and Filipino communities followed. This is the home of Chinese New Year celebrations, a farmers’ market, and an Asian bazaar. Join a walking tour at the Chinese Historical Museum, and look for Asian architectural flourishes on the buildings.
3525 7th Ave • 619 298 3142 • Open for docent-led tours only: half-hourly tours start at 10am; last tour begins at 4:30pm • Adm
This fine Arts and Crafts house, built in 1905, is open to the public as a museum. The exterior combines elements of Victorian and English Tudor styles, while the interior offers expansive hallways and intimate living spaces adorned with Mission-style furnishings, fine pottery, paintings, and textiles by craftsman artisans. The museum is operated by the San Diego Historical Society.
Planner Max Schmidt used the idea of functional public art to create this 1/4-mile (0.4-km) promenade along Harbor Drive. Described as a “serape” of colors, textures, and waterworks, the promenade celebrates a multicultural heritage. Granite stones bear quotes by civil-rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King.
1001 & 1100 Kettner Blvd • 858 454 3541 • Open 11am–5pm Thu–Tue (11am–7pm 3rd Thu each month) • Docent-led tours: 5:30pm & 6:45pm 3rd Thu each month, 2pm Sat & Sun (included with admission) • Adm
This two-building downtown location of the museum in La Jolla presents rotating art exhibits, as well as selected pieces from the permanent collection. At the entrance is the 18-ft (5.4-m) Hammering Man at 3,110,527, a steel and aluminum sculpture by Jonathan Borofsky. The museum also hosts lectures and workshops, and there is a themed gallery tour at the free opening on the third Thursday evening each month.
When entrepreneur Alonzo Horton arrived in a burgeoning San Diego in 1867, he believed that a new city could prosper in this location. He bought 960 acres and sold and even gave away lots to people. When you walk the Gaslamp Quarter, note the short blocks and lack of alleys, created due to the opinion that corner lots were worth more and alleys only accumulated trash.
Start at the Santa Fe Depot. Walk right on Broadway, cross the RR tracks, and walk two blocks to Harbor Drive. Turn right and head to the Maritime Museum of San Diego. Check out the exhibits and climb aboard the Star of India. Walk back down Harbor Drive to the ticket booth for harbor tours. A narrated harbor cruise brings you close to the naval facilities. Next, spend an hour or so aboard the USS Midway at the USS Midway Museum. Finish your morning with lunch at the Fish Market (N. Harbor Drive; 619 232 3474).
Continue down Harbor Drive to Seaport Village and stay on the sidewalk until you reach a crossing. Turn left; walk up the street past the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel, across Harbor Drive and the trolley tracks. Walk onto the Martin Luther King Promenade, which stretches past beautiful downtown apartment revitalizations. At the Convention Center trolley stop, turn left, then left again on J St. On J and 3rd, stop by the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum. Turn left on 3rd and right on Island; you’ll pass the historic Horton Grand Hotel. At 4th, visit the William Heath Davis House. One block farther is the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter. Pick up a sundae at Ghirardelli Soda Fountain (631 5th Street).
This bridge links Coronado to San Diego. Its gradual incline and curve allow cars to maintain speed. It is high enough for aircraft carriers to pass beneath at high tide.
This Navy marine mammal facility trains bottlenose dolphins, with their biological sonar, to locate sea mines.
This base provides shore support and living quarters for more than 50 naval ships of the Pacific Fleet, and is one of only two major fleet support installations in the country.
Several aircraft carriers tie up here. You can often see high-tech aircraft, submarines, and destroyers.
Seals and sea lions are bay residents. The East Pacific green sea turtle and the California least tern have protected foraging habitats.
Home to the Navy SEALS and the Navy Parachute Team, the facility has served as a training base since 1943. It is responsible for training and maintenance of the ships of the Pacific Fleet.
Dedicated to the European discovery of San Diego and Alta California, this monument draws over one million people a year. The statue of Cabrillo is a replica of an original that could not withstand the wind and salt air.
The National Steel and Shipbuilding Company designs and builds US Navy auxiliary ships, commercial tankers, and container ships. It is one of the largest shipyards in the US.
The sailing ship Star of India dates back to 1863; Berkeley used to carry passengers in the Bay Area; and the USS Midway features in the USS Midway Museum.
San Diego boasts the fastest-growing cruise ship port on the west coast, with 180 ships docking at the B Street Pier throughout the year. Cruises leave for excursions to the Mexican Riviera, Hawaii, Canada, the Panama Canal, and the South Pacific.
631 5th Ave • 619 450 6303
Established in 1895, this is the place for serious lovers of quality headgear of all shapes and styles, catering to both men and women.
363 5th Ave, Suite 100 • 619 234 7487
Come here (see The Wine Bank) for expert staff and two floors of North American and international wines in all price ranges.
849 W. Harbor Dr • 619 235 4014 • Open Sep–May: 10am–9pm; Jun–Aug: 10am–10pm
At this complex by the bay, you’ll find kites, magnets, gifts for left-handed people, and T-shirts galore.
103 Horton Plaza
The many specialty departments here (see Nordstrom), such as cosmetics and accessories, clothing, and shoes are like small boutiques in themselves.
414 W. Cedar St • 619 203 4066
This intimate Little Italy boutique sells apparel for men and women, baby items, home decor, paper goods, and accessories and gifts.
232 5th Ave • 619 294 9880
American Pop artworks are on sale here in a gallery setting. Featured artists include Chuck Jones, Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz, and Tom Everhart.
4th Ave & Broadway • 619 239 8180
This large plaza boasts a wide variety of shops and restaurants. Plans are underway to develop it into a tech “campus” with boutique retail.
551 5th Ave • 619 238 2496
Cigar makers roll tobacco from Central America and the Dominican Republic in San Diego’s original cigar factory. Aficionados can select from a variety of cigars.
2171 Pan American Plaza • 619 233 5044
Toys, instruments, jewelry, books, crafts, and ethnic clothing are among the temptations at this colorful store.
246 Broadway • 619 343 1433
Custom tailored men’s suits, shirts and pants, as well as expert alterations make this the go-to place in San Diego for weddings, special occasions, and style upgrades.
Exhibit-led art books, stationery, jewelry, purses, flower pressing kits, and Tibetan chests are for sale here. The children’s section offers educational toys and gifts.
This museum store is filled with ethnic clothes, Chinese brushes, Russian dolls, chiming bells, and a good selection of alebrijes.
Crafts from around Latin America here (see San Diego Museum of Man) include Peruvian gourds, Mexican folk art, and three-legged Chilean good luck pigs. There is also a wide range of Native American crafts such as silver jewelry.
Check out the select merchandise that relates to the museum’s (see Museum of Contemporary Art) special exhibitions. The latest art books and handcrafted jewelry are always on offer.
House of Charm, Balboa Pk
Juried art shows present the work of local artists, whose works often go on sale after being exhibited. This small shop features glass sculptures, porcelain objets d’art, hand-painted cushions, and jewelry.
Gratify your nautical gift needs with a variety of model ships, T-shirts, posters, and prints inscribed with an image of the Star of India.
Science toys, videos, puzzles, and hands-on games here (see Reuben H. Fleet Science Center) are very popular with the kids.
Chinese calligraphy sets, tea sets, snuff bottles, and chops – a type of carved stamp used to sign one’s name – are on sale here.
Exhibition catalogs, prints, note cards, and calendars represent the world’s finest photographic artists, both past and present. A wide range of books is also available.
If you’re interested in San Diego’s past, including haunted locations and biographies, this museum offers one of the best collections of local history books.
400 J St • 619 858 2277 • $$
The creative menu here features seafood from around the world. The oysters and crab cakes are legendary.
600 W. Harbor Drive • 619 231 9680 • $
This busy eatery shot to fame as a setting in the iconic film Top Gun. It serves big plates of barbecue favorites with traditional sides.
US Grant Hotel, 326 Broadway • 619 744 2077 • $$
With a club-like ambience, The Grant Grill offers contemporary California cuisine. Try the famous mock turtle soup with chervil and sherry.
750 N. Harbor Dr • 619 232 3474 • $$$
Chichi seafood restaurant with fabulous views. Come here for a window seat, a calm atmosphere, and seafood prepared with panache.
1747 India St • 619 232 5095 • $
One of the city’s most-loved local Italian spots (see Filippi’s Pizza Grotto). Guests should expect a wait as there is limited seating here.
1549 El Prado, Balboa Park • 619 557 9441 • $$
Made with tres leches (sponge soaked in three types of milk), caramelized banana, meringue, and fired plantain, the Prado Tres Leches is a must try here.
224 5th Ave • 619 237 4900 • $$$
Delectable steaks, fresh seafood, and pasta dishes are served at booths, tables, or on a shaded patio.
110 W. Broadway • 619 795 2353 • $
There’s something for everyone here – from fried chicken and hearty salads, to vegan options and soups.
140 W Broadway • 619 702 6309 • $
American and French classics such as skillet breakfasts, New Orleans-style beignets, juicy burgers and an absinthe menu draw locals in a steady stream.
1536 India St • 619 234 6802 • $$
This Little Italy restaurant serves food with a modern Latin kick. Try the tacos with jalapeno tartare sauce or spicy honey aioli.
Price categories include a three-course meal for one, half a bottle of wine, and all unavoidable extra charges including tax.
$ under $40 $$ $40–$80 $$$ over $80