San Diego: An Urban Neighborhood Guide
With its expansive beaches, ideal weather, and laid-back reputation, San Diego is a popular vacation destination that plays host to over thirty million visitors each year. Many of these sun-starved visitors enjoy their stay in America’s Finest City so much that they decide to make it their permanent home. What many visitors and new residents may not know is that the city of San Diego is composed of many distinct and diverse neighborhoods. Each of these districts possesses unique charms, and all are worth exploring. Whether you are planning an overnight visit or a cross-country move, you will want to familiarize yourself with what each of these neighborhoods has to offer.
Situated just north of downtown, Little Italy is less than a five-minute drive from the airport and a great place to enjoy a glass of wine at a sidewalk café after a long flight. The neighborhood received its ethnic designation at the beginning of the twentieth century when it was home to large numbers of Italian fishermen who valued the easy access to the San Diego Bay. Today it is an active, urban village consisting of several blocks that are densely populated with Italian restaurants that run the gamut from the casual deli to more upscale fine dining. Weekly Farmer’s Markets and frequent art and cultural festivals have made Little Italy a popular housing choice for single professionals in their late twenties and thirties. The neighborhood’s boutique hotels offer visitors a nice alternative to the national chains and high-end hotels that dot the rest of the downtown area.
Old Town San Diego
A few miles north of Little Italy is historic Old Town San Diego, home to California’s first Spanish mission. Steeped in history and Mexican-American culture, Old Town is a State Historical Park, and the center of town is made of several blocks of well-preserved historical structures. Many of these century-old buildings now house museums, craft stores, and some of the best Mexican restaurants in the county. Perhaps the most popular destination in Old Town is the Whaley House, a private residence built in the mid-1800s and one of California’s two certified haunted houses. In addition to the historical attractions, residents and tourists alike value Old Town’s its proximity to the shopping of nearby Mission Valley.
Travel a mile or two east of Old Town, and you will find yourself in an area of San Diego that is well known for its tolerance and diversity. Hillcrest has strong ties to its LGBT community and the annual Gay Pride Festival and Parade attracts over 100,000 people each year. In addition to its open-minded and welcoming attitude, Hillcrest is also renowned for its restaurants. Ask any local where to get the best Thai food in the city, and they will immediately direct you to Hillcrest. In recent years, however, the restaurant scene here has expanded dramatically. The variety of excellent dining options available in Hillcrest is now worthy of the district’s diverse and inclusive nature. Whether you are craving Persian or French, Afghan or Mexican, you will find what you are looking for in Hillcrest. And if your tastes tend toward more domestic fare? Some of the city’s best diners are in this walking neighborhood.
Continue east from Hillcrest and enter the neighborhood that takes its name from its location next to Balboa Park, San Diego’s famous urban cultural park. North Park has been enjoying a slow renaissance of sorts for the past several years. This gradual gentrification has created a uniquely diverse, hip neighborhood where trendy restaurants and coffee shops are nestled next to pawnshops, taco stands, and ethnic grocers. Similarly the housing options here range from brand new apartment complexes and live-work lofts to hundred-year-old Craftsman bungalows. North Park has a decidedly edgy feel and its many resident artists have developed lively art and music scenes. Ray at Night is a popular monthly artwalk that encourages residents and visitors to explore the art galleries that line Ray Street, and the Birch North Park Theater hosts everything from independent films to rock operas. North Park is also home to the San Diego Indie Fest, a celebration of regional independent musicians that is now in its fifth year.
South Park and Golden Hill
Bordered by Balboa Park and North Park, South Park and Golden Hill are small neighborhoods that are easily missed by visitors. However, the plentiful neighborhood parks, tree-lined streets, unexpectedly impressive restaurants, and jovial local bars make these San Diego neighborhoods worth exploring. The architecture in these few square miles runs the gamut from the dignified mansions that overlook the park to the tiny Spanish casitas that dot the streets a couple of blocks to the east. Views of the downtown skyline are abundant, but these neighborhoods have a much more residential feel than other parts of the city. South Park and Golden Hill are home to a wide variety of people from growing families to retirees who have been in the area for decades. The many independently owned and operated coffee shops and boutiques also make South Park and Golden Hill a popular destination for the young and hip as well.
As you leave Golden Hill and head toward the city center, you will enter the East Village, a 130-block section of the city that includes Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres. In addition to being the largest of the downtown neighborhoods, the East Village is also the most up-and-coming. Prior to the construction of Petco, the East Village was a crime-ridden area populated by drug addicts, the homeless, and the social service organizations that serve them. That all began to change when Petco opened in 2004. Today, art galleries, cutting edge restaurants, and an experimental theater have taken the place of abandoned warehouses, and rundown duplexes have been replaced by modern high-rises. Residents and tourists alike also enjoy the 2007 addition of a bowling alley/bar that has quickly become a popular neighborhood destination.
If you crave the big city feel of the country’s eighth largest metropolis, you will want to make your way northwest to San Diego’s thriving downtown. The heart of downtown is known as the Gaslamp Quarter and here you will find an abundance of shopping, dining, and drinking options, many of them aimed at tourists and those whose business travel brings them to the Convention Center which is just blocks away. The Gaslamp comes alive at night and its rooftop bars, VIP lounges, and pulsing clubs are a far cry from South Park’s local watering holes and North Park’s under-the-radar dive bars. If you are looking to see and be seen, then you will definitely want to don your party gear and head to the Gaslamp! Between the Gaslamp and the airport you will find Seaport Village, a quaint collection of shops and restaurants that faces San Diego Bay and Coronado Island. From Seaport Village you can rent a sailboat or stay on solid ground and stroll down the Embarcadero to check out the tall ships and the USS Midway, a retired aircraft carrier. Continue north along the Embarcadero and you will once again find yourself in Little Italy.
There are many ways to discover the urban villages of America’s Finest City. Start with the neighborhood that suits your personality or challenge yourself by exploring (or moving to!) an area that offers new experiences. Whether you are coming to visit or to stay, San Diego’s metropolitan districts offer entertainment for every age group and food and drink for every palate. Enjoy discovering the city center, and then move on to the beach communities!
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