Characterizing Downtown San Diego in a singular way is like calling a crafted microbrew a beer. Yes, conceptually microbrews are beer, but when you really know them you’re able to distinguish a stout from a porter by color, clarity, aroma, and taste. You appreciate the range of flavors, textures, and presentations from the subtle to the bold. This is Downtown San Diego, a multifaceted neighborhood of seven distinct districts from the subtly charming to the bold and overstated. Drilling down to the nuances of Downtown will make your experience of San Diego that much richer.
Downtown San Diego History
Until the mid-1800s Downtown San Diego was located in Old Town. A few businessmen collaborated to move Downtown to the San Diego Bay waterfront for better shipping opportunities. They struggled to make it work until Alonzo Horton invested heavily in the vision, establishing New Town as the new Downtown by the late 1880s. Between the transcontinental railway’s Santa Fe Depot and the harbor’s Broadway Pier, they had planted the seeds of a thriving city. Today, Downtown San Diego, also known as Centre City, is bordered by the San Diego International Airport to the north, San Diego Bay to the West, I-5 to the east, and Barrio Logan to the south. Its seven districts include the Civic Core, Columbia, Cortez Hill, East Village, the Gaslamp Quarter, Little Italy, and the Marina.
Downtown San Diego Highlights
The Civic Core District and the adjacent Columbia District are where San Diego’s civic and financial activities take place in an array of historic buildings. Tucked in the center of the other Downtown districts, they extend all the way to the bay. You’ll enjoy the gracious architecture you find here in structures like the San Diego Trust and Savings Bank building, Spreckels Theater, the Owl Drug Building, and the U.S. Grant Hotel, all located along W Broadway Street. In fact, book your stay at the iconic Empire-style Grant hotel for the complete historically rich experience. Don’t miss the 100-year-old historic Santa Fe Depot where you can arrive and depart Downtown by Trolley, Coaster, or Pacific Surfliner.
Quaint Cortez Hill, one of the oldest San Diego neighborhoods, is primarily a residential district and home to the iconic El Cortez Hotel. Once frequented by Presidents and movie stars, El Cortez sits high on the hill on the site of Ulysees S. Grant, Jr.’s former home. Although, it has been converted to condominiums, you can still lunch there at SoleLuna Café. Wander this historic area, just north of the Columbia and East Village districts, admiring the Victorian homes original to the neighborhood and enjoying expansive hilltop views; or, peruse the shops and sidewalk cafés along 5th and 6th Avenues.
East Village is where the bold and the beautiful gravitate. It is the largest of the Downtown neighborhoods and the most recently renovated. What was once a warehouse district eventually became a thriving artists’ district that over time gave way to urban blight. The arrival of Petco Park, the Padres’ MLB stadium, ignited urban renewal that birthed trendy modern condos and hot new retail spaces. Another new addition to the neighborhood is the San Diego Central Library, which is pure architectural eye candy. This shiny new neighborhood is the perfect place for a day on the town, with the best in boutique shops and designer clothing, high-end spa services, and upscale restaurants.
The Gaslamp Quarter is the historic heart and soul of San Diego. From W Broadway to Harbor Drive this 16-block long district is between 4th and 6th Streets. The manifestation of Alonzo Horton’s original vision of New Town now includes his namesakes Horton Plaza on the corner of W Broadway and 4th Street and the adjacent Westfield Horton Plaza, a shopping and entertainment hub. Ninety-four historic buildings from the Victorian Era still line the streets today, having been repurposed into restaurants, nightclubs, shops, and hotels. The San Diego Convention Center sits along the bay at the opposite end in the Marina district. The Gaslamp Quarter is host to many festivals and celebrations throughout the year.
Little Italy was once a thriving fishing village that generation after generation of Italian families called home. Located between the San Diego International Airport and the Columbia district, Little Italy is known for its Italian-American dining, patio cafés, boutique shops, pubs, and most importantly art galleries. You will find boutique shopping in the quaint cottages of Fir Street, and art and design stores and galleries along India Street and Kettner Boulevard. Each year, thousands of art lovers converge on India Street when the district hosts ArtWalk, San Diego’s original fine art festival. In fact, Little Italy has a full calendar of hosted events year round, so check out the neighborhood website to see what’s happening while you’re here.
The Marina is bordered by the Columbia district to the north, the Gaslamp Quarter to the east, Barrio Logan to the south, and San Diego Bay to the west. What was once a warehouse district is now a glitzy area of high-rise luxury hotels and condos, high-end restaurants, the San Diego Convention Center, and Seaport Village. It is home to Pantoja Park, the oldest park in San Diego, and the stunning embarcadero. You’ll also find the B Street Cruise Ship Terminal, Port Pavilion on the Broadway Pier, and the USS Midway and Maritime Museums here.
With over 100 neighborhoods in San Diego to explore, Downtown is only the beginning. Come back again and again until you’ve experienced them all!