With the Gaslamp Quarter, East Village, and Petco Park, downtown San Diego is the place to be.
Blessed with impeccable weather, a world-famous zoo, and an endless supply of Baja-style fish tacos, San Diego has long been the ultimate laid-back beach town. Its miles of sunny coastline lure visitors from all around the world. But lately those visitors have been noticing a cosmopolitan strut in San Diego’s step. The city isn’t just for shortboarders and Shamu adorers anymore. It’s also a prime destination for club hoppers, window-shoppers, full-fledged foodies, and anyone with a taste for urban exploring.
Most of the action takes place around the city’s eminently walkable downtown, at long last transformed by a decades-old revitalization effort. The extreme makeover—backed by more than $5.6 billion in private investments—was driven in part by the commercial promise of Petco Park, the new home of the San Diego Padres baseball team, which opened in downtown’s East Village neighborhood last year. The 42,500-seat ballpark sits at the eastern edge of the Gaslamp Quarter, the city’s center for nightlife. There you’ll find offbeat restaurants (Mexican sushi, anyone?), imaginative shops, hookah cafes, red-roped nightclubs, and, this being San Diego, fish tacos. (The fried taco platter at the Tin Fish on Sixth Avenue is one excellent choice.)
Though the Gaslamp is a year-round playground for both locals and visitors, it enjoys an extra surge of activity during baseball season. After Padres games, thousands of fans stream out of Petco Park and join the lively nighttime scene at spots such as Cafe Sevilla, where a crowd of mixed ages savors tapas and sangria over the thrumming of live flamenco music. It’s a free-wheeling atmosphere unlike anything you’ll find in San Diego’s more traditional—and predictable—settings, like Old Town, Pacific Beach, and downtown La Jolla.
A more sedate scene holds sway at Cafe Bassam, an espresso bar and tearoom decorated with antique rifles, sepia-tone photos, and jars of loose tobacco for sale by the ounce. Even farther from the carnival atmosphere is Dizzy’s, a live music venue that has become an instant neighborhood favorite in the rapidly developing East Village. This hot spot boasts of having no liquor license; the musical lineup, mostly jazz (from avant-garde to classical), is the main draw.
There’s been so much construction that the crane is now said to be the official bird of downtown San Diego. Several stylish hotels have jumped in on the real estate rush. The newest, Hotel Solamar, welcomed its first guest just in time for the Padres home opener in April. Many of its 235 rooms overlook the pool with accompanying bar on a fourth-floor roof above the lobby. There are more great views to be had at Prava, a boutique hotel rising over Fifth Avenue, the Gaslamp Quarter’s main artery. The best of its 57 rooms have balconies with patio sets, perfect for warm nights of eavesdropping on club hoppers in the street below.
It’s not the kind of sound track you’d expect to hear in a city traditionally known for its crashing waves and squawking sea gulls—but it could be the voice of San Diego’s new persona.