Brilliant sunshine and beautiful beaches are a San Diego vacation staple, but there’s so much more to this dynamic South California city. Set aside time on your travel itinerary to explore Downtown San Diego. As the city’s cultural hub, Downtown is packed with top-notch art galleries, excellent museums, and a lively dining and bar scene.
Bordered by the North San Diego Bay, Downtown San Diego has a charming vibe where gleaming modern skyscrapers shadow beautiful historic Spanish-influenced buildings. Cosmopolitan restaurants and chic boutiques line the Victorian streets of the Gaslamp Quarter, and the bayfront boasts plenty of shops, restaurants, museums, and the grand old USS Midway.
Explore the historic Gaslamp Quarter, watch a performance at the San Diego Civic Theatre, and marvel at the incredible floating exhibits at the Maritime Museum of San Diego. Relax with a picnic lunch in one of the lovely parks along the bayfront against a backdrop of beautiful sea views.
Ready to explore central San Diego? Plan your wanderings with this complete guide for what to see & do, where to eat & drink, and where to stay in Downtown San Diego.
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What to see & do in Downtown San Diego
The historic Gaslamp Quarter is an elegant 16-block Victorian neighborhood with lively nightlife. Just south of Downtown San Diego’s main hub, the Gaslamp Quarter is the city’s go-to for evening entertainment.
In the Gaslamp Quarter, chic cafés stand next to dingy dive bars, chain restaurants rub shoulders with fine dining establishments, and rooftop bars draw the sunset crowd. The Balboa Theatre and Spreckels Theatre offer diverse programs of comedy, drama, and music, and the Lyceum presents off-Broadway musicals and plays.
By day, the Gaslamp Quarter is just as charming, with the airy Horton Plaza Park being the perfect place for a picnic and Petco Park packing to the hilt on San Diego Padres home games.
Keep the kids entertained for hours at the New Children’s Museum or delve into the Chinese American culture at the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum.
San Diego Civic Theatre
Catch a show at San Diego County’s largest performing arts venue, the San Diego Civic Theatre. Designed by modernist architect Lloyd Ruocco, the theater opened in 1965 and has been hosting performances and presentations ever since.
If you’re a fan of beautiful design, pop into the San Diego Theatre to see the magnificent three-story Grand Salon and its large central chandelier. The chandelier weighs 2,800 pounds and is made up of 52,000 Bavarian crystals – it’s a sight to behold!
More into dance than design? Get tickets to see a performance by the California Ballet, which calls the San Diego Civic Theatre home. The theater is also home to the San Diego Opera and Broadway San Diego, which both host a full calendar of events throughout the year.
USS Midway Museum
Stand in awe of naval power and might in front of the legendary USS Midway aircraft carrier at the Navy Pier on North Harbor Drive. Part of the USS Midway Museum, the floating behemoth is the main exhibit at the museum that celebrates one of America’s longest-serving aircraft carriers.
Spend part of your day in San Diego at the USS Midway Museum, discovering what life at sea would have been like on a ship that carried more than 225,000 sailors. Immerse yourself in one of the most important naval battles of WWII by watching a riveting multimedia movie narrated by the heroes that bravely took part.
Explore the awe-inspiring collection of 29 beautifully restored aircraft resting on the flight deck of the USS Midway. Try your hand at landing an aircraft on the ship! Adrenaline junkies or budding pilots can brave the skies in one of two flight simulators on board.
Time for some retail therapy! Seaport Village is one of the neighborhood’s top spots for shopping, dining, and relaxing and is among San Diego’s must-see attractions. Spread over four miles, the bayfront mall has meandering cobblestone pathways and a quarter-mile slate boardwalk along the San Diego Bay.
At Seaport Village, you’ll find over 50 diverse stores selling everything from apparel to art, as well as a wealth of restaurants from casual to fine dining. Beautiful, landscaped gardens dotted with tranquil ponds and ornate fountains offer a quiet place to take a break from shopping.
When the kids get bored of shopping, there’s plenty of family-friendly entertainment on hand, from a vintage carousel to a calm lagoon. Seaport Village hosts a variety of events and festivals on weekends and throughout the summer.
Maritime Museum of San Diego
Another Downtown must-visit for ‘seafaring salties’ is the Maritime Museum of San Diego. Located on San Diego Bay, the museum features one of the world’s finest collections of historic ships, including the world’s oldest active ship, an 1863 iron bark called the Star of India.
Browse exhibits that focus on different ages of sailing, maritime art (both British and 17th-century Dutch), charting the sea and cartography, and scientific and navigational instruments. Learn about the history of the United States Navy and its presence in San Diego.
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Enjoy self-guided tours of amazing floating exhibits like the 16th-century galleon, San Salvador, and the Victorian-era Steam Ferry Berkeley. Visit the famous vessel featured in the award-winning motion picture Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
San Diego Waterfront Park
Take a break from sightseeing and head to the San Diego Waterfront Park to chill out. Stretching between Ash Street to Grape Street between the bayfront and San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood, the lovely urban park surrounds the San Diego County Administration Center and is the perfect spot to relax.
Spanning 12 acres, Waterfront Park has spacious green lawns and grassy areas filled with unusual plant species. A network of walkways winds through the gardens with intermittent benches and colorful sculptures. A long row of reflecting pools with interactive spray fountains adds to the tranquility of the park.
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The kids can burn off energy at a fun, futuristic children’s playground on the Ash Street side of the gardens while you kick back with a book or simply soak up the gorgeous views across the bay.
Museum of Contemporary Art
Harness your creativity at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD), where you’ll find some of the city’s top art collections. The museum is one of two branches, the other of which can be found in the coastal community of La Jolla.
Spread over two buildings in Downtown San Diego, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego features an impressive collection of contemporary art from 1950 to the present. Head to the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Building to see large-scale installations and sculptures, including Richard Serra’s Santa Fe Depot sculpture.
The David C. Copley Building features two permanent installations that focus on light and space, with works by Jenny Holzer and Roman De Salvo. If you’re a contemporary art aficionado, take some time to visit both locations – it’s well worth it.
Embarcadero Marina Park South
Reflecting the region’s colorful maritime history, San Diego’s Embarcadero is a hive of activity with historic ships to explore, tours around the working fishing harbor to enjoy, and plenty of hotels, restaurants, and shops.
A peaceful place to escape the hustle and bustle of the Embarcadero is Embarcadero Marina Park South. Set on Marina South Way, the lovely open park boasts beautiful views over the bay and offers a host of outdoor activities, from biking to basketball.
Enjoy fishing off the pier, cycling through the park, working out at exercise stations, and browsing some incredible public art. There are several gazebos and picnic tables at Embarcadero Marina Park for impromptu lunches and several concessions selling drinks, snacks, and souvenirs.
Where to eat & drink
Downtown San Diego is a paradise for foodies with an array of globally inspired restaurants, laid-back eateries, and locally owned joints.
When you’re at the seaside, eat fresh fish, and there’s no better place in San Diego to get sea-smackingly fresh fish than The Fish Market. Grab a table on the outdoor deck overlooking the bay and tuck into heaving platters of freshly shucked oysters, grilled fish, lobster, and langoustines.
Dinner with a view, anyone? Boasting a beautiful rooftop bar with fantastic city views, Rustic Root is a gorgeous spot for alfresco dining under the stars. The restaurant serves contemporary New American Comfort food with a California twist. Sip signature cocktails and fine wines against the backdrop of San Diego’s glimmering skyline.
For a classic burger joint with a slightly kitsch twist, try Hodad’s Downtown. Unfussy and laid-back, towering burgers and piles of fries are the order of the day, along with cold craft brews on tap. Try the triple D’s Guy Fieri-inspired Guido Burger with pastrami, pickles, Swiss cheese, grilled onions, and spicy brown mustard. Go hungry!
Take a culinary journey to Spain at Cafe Sevilla of San Diego. Tuck into traditional tapas or small plates, mouthwatering paellas, and fresh seafood, and pair dishes with sangrias and Spanish wines. Enjoy a Flamenco Dinner Show on the weekends!
When it comes to lively bars, pop into San Diego’s longest-standing bar and abandon your inhibitions. Set over three levels in the historic Spencer-Ogden building, the Tipsy Crow boasts plenty of old-school games, cozy corners to dance in, and live comedy shows.
Looking for a hidden gem? False Idol is quite literally hidden—within Craft & Commerce—and is one of the city’s top little tiki bars. Nestled behind heavy steel doors, the tiny space is replete with wall-to-wall Polynesian pop-inspired artifacts and tiki décor. The exotic drinks are cool, but the rock-fire-water wall is way cooler!
Werewolf American Pub is a favorite with both locals and tourists alike for classic pub grub, ice-cold brews, handcrafted cocktails, and karaoke. This little dive bar is also open for brunch and serves killer Homer Cakes and Pork Belly Benedict.
Aptly named The Shout! House, this rocking venue hosts a high-energy dueling piano show with audience participation, sing-alongs, and dancing on stage. It’s loud, it’s boisterous, and it’s one of the best nights you’ll have in San Diego if you love a good party!
Where to stay
As it’s the heart of the city, Downtown is one of the most popular areas to stay in San Diego. The neighborhoods around the Gaslamp Quarter and Embarcadero are particularly enchanting, with hotels and accommodations to fit all vacation styles.
Half a mile from the trendy Gaslamp Quarter, the Marriott Vacation Club Pulse is ideally located for exploring Downtown San Diego. The upmarket all-suite hotel offers comfortable suites with floor-to-ceiling windows. Unwind after a day of sightseeing in the indoor pool or whirlpool tub. Sip classic cocktails from the bar.
Located within walking distance to Petco Park and the San Diego Convention Center, Staypineapple, Hotel Z is a modern boutique hotel with comfortable guest rooms and a laid-back vibe. Enjoy welcome drinks and complimentary afternoon snacks. Four-legged friends are welcome with special Pineapple Pup Packages! Grab a loaner bike to explore the area.
A hip hotel close to Petco Park and the San Diego Convention Center, the Moxy San Diego Gaslamp Quarter offers cozy, clubhouse-style rooms. Cool features include a state-of-the-art video wall with helpful travel tools and a 24/7 bar. Enjoy high-quality sound systems and free, fast Wi-Fi in your room. Tuck into a healthy continental breakfast before heading out for the day.
Boasting breathtaking views over San Diego Bay, San Diego Marriott Marquis and Marina is a modern hotel with all the bells and whistles. Lounge by the outdoor pool, relax in the luxury spa or work out in the fitness room. Three restaurants serve a variety of global cuisine. Dock your boat at the hotel’s private marina.
An elegant boutique hotel within a five-minute walk from the San Diego Convention Center, The Pendry has airy rooms with ocean-inspired décor and stylish en-suite bathrooms. Upgrade to a luxe suite for a kitchen, dining area, and living room. Enjoy high-end facilities like a deluxe spa and fitness center, a rooftop pool, and six restaurants and bars.