Imagine early morning at a quaint Sicilian farmers’ market; you’re shopping for freshly caught fish, fruits and vegetables from local farms, baked goods from local bakeries, fresh local flowers, and local artwork. The cool, salty sea air wafts among the vendors, and the conversation is lively. You don’t have to travel to Europe for this experience; simply visit the Little Italy Mercato in Downtown San Diego on any Saturday. This scenic neighborhood is comprised of Italian retail shops, restaurants, art galleries, home design stores, and residential units. One of the most active areas of Downtown, and just a few blocks from the Embarcadero, you’ll find it across Laurel Street from the San Diego International Airport. Little Italy is the perfect place to stay during your vacation for convenience, proximity to attractions, and outright charm. You’ll love La Pensione boutique hotel, a neighborhood architectural icon, with its relaxing Italian-style courtyard.
When the 1903 earthquake devastated San Francisco, it was a blessing in disguise for San Diego. Many of the fishermen from San Francisco were forced to move; they began searching for big tuna, which landed them in San Diego in what is now Little Italy. From then until the 1970s, Italians that relocated to this area of San Diego led the tuna fishing and canning industries. Little Italy became known as the tuna capital of the Western United States.
Unfortunately, between foreign competition and rising costs, and the construction of Interstate 5 that ate through the top of the neighborhood, Little Italy began a 30 year decline. Empty storefronts and vacant lots would replace what was once a vibrant neighborhood, and home to more than 6,000 Italian families. Determined to get back on their feet and reclaim their district’s vitality the Little Italy Association was formed, and with their perseverance and hard work the tides changed. Now, Little Italy’s 48 blocks are a model for urban development that continues to exude old world charm as the new art district of San Diego.
Whatever brings you to Little Italy, there are a few things that you must see. One of the neighborhood’s top three attractions is the Piazza Basilone. Built in 2004 and named after war hero John Basilone, it was created not only to honor him, but also all veterans who never came home from the wars of the 20th century. This stunning plaza features a statue of a serviceman meant to represent Gunnery Sergeant Basilone. A gorgeous fountain, containing a world globe, is at the center of the plaza. There is generous seating throughout the plaza where you can people watch, enjoy a cup of coffee, or just enjoy tranquil peace, honoring those who have served or are serving this great nation.
Another must-visit place is the “Jewel of Little Italy,” Our Lady of the Rosary Church. Consecrated in 1925, this fairly small church is a religious icon in this little Italian community. Two statues stand tall at the front entrance; one is of Christopher Columbus who was born in Genoa, and the other is of Saint Peter who was a fisherman turned disciple of Jesus. Upon entering, you’ll notice several gorgeous murals and paintings along with breathtaking stain glass windows. It is most noted for its incredible Italian architectural, and also for offering two special masses, one in Italian, and the other a Gregorian chant.
You also won’t want to miss the Firefighters Museum is a perfect destination for children and history buffs alike, it is a great way to spend thirty to forty minutes of family time in the afternoon. This brick and mortar building has been here since 1962 and houses fire equipment dating all the way back to the 1800s. A piece of steel from the World Trade Center calls this museum its home as well. For just a few dollars, you can explore interesting artifacts and fun displays. The museum is located at 1572 Columbia Street and has a gift shop selling firefighting apparel.
Other Things to See and Do
The day-to-day beauty of Little Italy includes gorgeous art in public spaces along the streets and plazas. Walk down any tree-lined sidewalk in Little Italy, especially India Street, and you’ll pass stunning galleries, antique stores, eateries, and furniture showrooms. In fact, the art scene is so intricately woven into the community that you begin to feel a part of it. Enjoy the seamless blend of Little Italy’s modern urban edge with its Old World charm where family, history, culture, and art are ever present.
Nearly every event in Little Italy relates to the neighborhood’s Italian heritage. The Sicilian Festival in May features Italian and Sicilian entertainment, vendors, cuisine, and a cultural pavilion that highlights the contributions made by Italians to San Diego. The Taste of Little Italy is hosted here twice a year showcasing neighborhood cuisine old and new. Then there is Little Italy Carnevale every March, theLabor Day Stickball tournament, and Bulls of St. Agata Charge – a car show of over 40 Italian Lamborghinis lining Fir Street each October. These are just a few of the Italian events that Little Italy warmly shares.
If you can, make Little Italy your fall vacation destination. Each October, the neighborhood presents Little Italy Festa; it’s the largest Italian festival in the country, with the exception of New York City. Over 150 Italian food and crafter booths set up, along with three stages of live entertainment. It also features a stickball exhibition game, bocce ball tournament, and wine and beer gardens; this is a true Italian experience you won’t want to miss. The San Diego Italian community has used the annual event to welcome visitors from around the world for over 20 years. Make reservations early for a neighborhood hotel; they sell out fast.
If you’ll be in San Diego during springtime, try to plan around the annual Mission Federal ArtWalk spread over 17 blocks in Little Italy. It is the biggest non-Italian event in the neighborhood, and the largest art event on the West Coast with over 120,000 people in attendance each year. Touted as the original fine arts event of San Diego, artists have been presenting here for over 30 years. The goal of the annual event is two-fold, to cultivate new artistic talent and to provide San Diego with meaningful cultural enrichment. Join the fun at ArtWalk and view the art, enjoy the music and dance, and set your inner artist free with interactive artistic experiences.