San Diego is a vibrant, metropolitan city with a laid-back, small-town feel, and no other San Diego neighborhood embraces this best-of-both-worlds spirit like downtown. Neatly packed into a single square-mile grid between the 5 freeway and the Harbor, downtown San Diego has it all: soaring skyscrapers bustling with big business, old turn-of-the-century buildings housing trendy new nightclubs, and peaceful parks perfect for a short stroll or a relaxing rest.
Visitors and residents alike can enjoy dining in Little Italy, shopping at Horton Plaza, taking in an opera at the Civic Center, exploring an aircraft carrier at the Harbor, and dancing in the Gaslamp Quarter, all in the space of a few dozen city blocks. Close to the international airport, cruise ship terminal, Balboa Park museums and world-renowned San Diego Zoo, downtown is a fine place to begin your visit to America’s Finest City.
Downtown San Diego encompasses several distinctive communities of interest to visitors. The Business District, centered around the Civic Center at First Avenue and C Street, is the heart of local government and commerce. The Opera House and Golden Hall music venues are located here, as well as the offices of the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau. If you need to get directions, exchange currency, renew a visa or reschedule a plane flight, you’ll find a wide array of travel-related services in the area.
Continuing south of the Civic Center to Broadway, you’ll arrive at San Diego’s landmark urban hotel, THE US GRANT. For a true taste of gracious Californian hospitality enjoy historically chic ambiance blended with contemporary sophistication in the hotels legendary Grant Grill and Lounge. It’s hard to miss the Horton Plaza Shopping Center across Broadway, with its eccentric architecture and colorful facades. Horton Plaza offers a blend of familiar department stores and unusual, one-of-a-kind boutiques, plus movie theater, dining, pharmacy and a nearby grocery store.
To the east of Horton Plaza and stretching south for several blocks along 4th and 5th Avenue is the historic Gaslamp Quarter in all its meticulously-restored brick-and-mortar grandeur. Here you’ll find some of the city’s best restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Practically every kind of international cuisine is on offer in the Gaslamp, from Asian to Irish, Cajun to Spanish. An equally exotic mix of shopping opportunities are located in the area. Urban adventurers will want to make a night of it in the Gaslamp Quarter, dining and shopping, dancing and barhopping.
The waterfront Harbor and Embarcadero Districts comprise downtown’s western and southern boundaries respectively. Following the aptly named Harbor Drive south from the airport, you’ll arrive at the stately County Administration Building and the San Diego Maritime Museum, with its fleet of historic ships and flagship Star of India. Beyond you’ll find the Cruise Ship Terminal and local charter companies offering dinner cruises, whale watching tours and other seaborne adventures. As the road bends eastward, it’s hard to miss San Diego’s latest and greatest nautical attraction, the Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum at Navy Pier. The Embarcadero is fronted by the Seaport Village shopping center, Marriot Hotel and Marina complex, the San Diego Convention Center, and a series of beautiful public parks. On any given day, you can find young urban professionals out for jog, while sailboats race past the Coronado Bridge.
The outlying areas of downtown have been revitalized in the last few years, as upscale high-rise condominiums and town-house developments support a growing community of cosmopolitan residents in downtown San Diego. The East Village area south of Market Street, once a run-down industrial zone, has recently become home to the San Diego Padres newly-opened Petco Park and a number of high-rise hotel projects. Similarly, Little Italy, once a small community of ethnic food markets and family-style restaurants on the northern outskirts of downtown, has evolved into the city’s creative epi-center with ad agencies, art galleries, artist studios and coveted residential lofts.
Finding your way around downtown San Diego by car is fairly straightforward. But, as in any city, be prepared to navigate a few tricky one-way streets, and, once you get where you’re going, you’ll have to find a place to park or hire a valet service to find one for you. The best advice is to know before you go—figure out where you’re going, plan out your day, and map out your route. Make advance reservations for prime dining hours at popular restaurants. Carry cash and coin for the many self-pay lots and parking meters around town. There are also several large parking structures serving Horton Plaza, the Gaslamp District, the Ballpark and Convention Center.
Perhaps the best way to visit downtown is by taxi or by public transportation. San Diego is served by an excellent trolley and bus network that will take you virtually anywhere you want to go (619-685-3004/www.sdcommute.com). Romantic, horse-drawn carriages and bicycle-powered rickshaws called pedi-cabs ply the streets around the Gaslamp Quarter. With a decent sense of direction and a little common street sense, it’s relatively safe and easy to make your way around downtown San Diego on foot.
Seasonal events include Little Italy’s Artwalk Festival in April and the Summer Pops concerts at the Embarcadero. In early September, Street Scene takes over the Gaslamp Quarter for a three-day live music extravaganza. In December, downtown dresses up for the holidays; check out the nightly Parade of Lights, with decorated yachts sailing up and down the waterfront.
Accommodation possibilities run the gamut in downtown San Diego—from the YMCA near the old Santa Fe Train Depot on Broadway to the new luxury hotels around the Convention Center, and there are dining options to suit any palate. On a sunny San Diego afternoon, the sidewalk cafes in Little Italy and the waterfront restaurants around the harbor are great choices for lunch, while the Gaslamp Quarter comes alive at the dinner hour and keeps going strong late into the night. For that special souvenir to remember your San Diego vacation by, check out the kites, wind chimes and other fanciful keepsakes at Seaport Village. If fashion is your fare, Horton Plaza is sure to please, while the Gaslamp Quarter offers everything from book stores and boutiques to adult novelties and antiques.
None of San Diego’s big attractions—its famous beaches, museums, zoos and amusement parks—are located downtown, so a visit here is more of a sensory immersion than a sight-seeing mission. Sure, there’s plenty for you to do downtown, but it’s really about what the city does to you. San Diego works its magic whether you’re taking a cab across town, or sitting in a cafe taking in the scenery. So wander, enjoy, and let the spirit of our “little big city” move you.
From the North: Take I-5 South, exit on Front Street and continue south to Broadway.
From the South: Take 5 FWY north to Sixth Avenue, following Sixth Avenue South off the exit ramp to Broadway.