Little Italy, San Diego: What to See & Do + Where to Eat, Drink & Stay

Where there are Italians, there’s always great food. And San Diego’s Little Italy, fondly recognized as the city’s culinary heart, is no exception. This chic, pedestrian-friendly Downtown neighborhood is packed with bustling restaurants, laid-back brewpubs, hip cocktail bars, and a festive, lively atmosphere.

Centered around the vibrant Piazza della Famiglia, a charming plaza with a tiled fountain that evokes a European feel, Little Italy promises to delight! Head to the weekly Little Italy Mercato Farmers’ Market for fresh produce and gourmet goodies. Take a culinary journey to Italy at the Little Italy Food Hall with an array of classic Italian fare.

When you’re not eating, there are so many things to do in Little Italy, San Diego. Spend a few hours exploring Amici Park, visit the San Diego Firehouse Museum, or take a cruise on a tall ship at the Maritime Museum of San Diego.

Ready to take a trip to Europe without leaving San Diego? Plan your adventure with this complete guide for what to see & do, where to eat & drink, and where to stay in Little Italy, San Diego!

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What to see & do 

Piazza della Famiglia

The first stop on your adventures in Little Italy should be the Piazza della Famiglia. Located in the heart of the neighborhood on W. Date Street, this 10,000-square-foot European-style piazza is where all the action is.

Home to chic boutiques, charming eateries, and cozy bars, the lovely square is a gathering place for the community. Sidewalk cafés have tables with umbrellas where you can relax over lunch and watch the world go by.

A beautiful, tiled fountain frames the east side of the piazza, and the Piazza della Famiglia dedication monument – an embossed olive tree – can be found on the west side.

Piazza della Famiglia is a lovely spot to spend a sunny afternoon strolling around, browsing the shops, and enjoying Italian gelato. Book a table at one of the restaurants overlooking the piazza and watch it come alive when the sun sets with families enjoying the evening air.

Amici Park

Escape the jostling crowds and head to the lovely little Amici Park on Union Street. This rare gem offers a tranquil haven in the heart of the neighborhood with a large green playing field and Bocci ball courts. You can walk your dog in the Little Italy Dog Park and enjoy a game of bocce with the locals!

Washington Elementary School uses the use the park as a playground during school hours, but Amici Park is a lovely spot for a picnic in the afternoons. During the weekly Little Italy Mercato Farmers’ Market, you can kick back in the park and listen to live music.

The Amici Park Amphitheater is another part of the park that offers a quiet place to relax with a book. It comes alive at night when performances are hosted, and you can watch Italian films here every Saturday evening.

San Diego Firehouse Museum

If you love fire engines, the San Diego Firehouse Museum is a wonderful little museum that shouldn’t be missed! Based in the former home of San Diego Fire Station No. 6, the museum celebrates San Diego’s rich heritage of firefighting and pays tribute to all those who have answered the call of duty.

Inside the San Diego Firehouse Museum, you’ll find a fascinating collection of firefighting gear and memorabilia dating back a century. Explore exhibits of antique firefighting equipment, including helmets, axes, hydrants, and uniforms. Marvel at San Diego’s very first fire engine – a horse-drawn steamer!

Take a moment to pay tribute to the lives lost at the 9/11 memorial that includes a piece of steel from the World Trade Center. Kids can climb aboard one of the working fire trucks and experience what it would be like to be a firefighter.

Volunteer firefighters are on hand to answer any questions you may have. Don’t forget to pop into the gift shop to get a few unique souvenirs.

Music Box

In the mood for some live music? Spend an evening at the Music Box. Formerly known as Anthology, this top-notch tri-level live music and special events venue hosts a variety of music shows from hip-hop to rock.

The 13,000-square-foot space is spectacularly designed with an artistic backdrop for all manner of music shows across a wide range of genres, from artists such as Johnny Cosmic, KBong, and Shygirl to Art of Shock, Brujeria, and Dwarves.

Besides topping the list of what to do in San Diego for music lovers, the Music Box is also a great spot for a private party with an outdoor event space and a full catering menu of small plates.

Waterfront Park

Take a break from sightseeing in Little Italy, and chill out in Waterfront Park. Stretching from Ash Street to Grape Street in the Embarcadero area, the lovely urban park surrounds the San Diego County Administration Center and is the perfect spot to relax.

Sprawling out over 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.

Waterfront Park

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.

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Waterfront Park is a short walk from the fascinating Maritime Museum of San Diego, where historic ships are docked in the bay. Pick a picnic spot in the park overlooking the museum and its beautiful old ships for a one-of-a-kind view.

Maritime Museum of San Diego

If you love naval history and old ships, then a visit to the Maritime Museum of San Diego is a must for any first-time San Diego itinerary! Located on San Diego Bay, the museum features one of the world’s finest collections of historic ships, including the world’s oldest sailing ship, an 1863 iron bark called the Star of India.

Make your first stop in the Maritime Museum of San Diego at the magnificent Star of India, where you can walk her decks. Discover her history of sailing between Great Britain, India, and New Zealand before becoming a salmon hauler between Alaska and California.

Maritime Museum of San Diego

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.

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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 current presence in San Diego.

Where to eat & drink

Little Italy is the culinary heart of Downtown San Diego, and you’ll find an array of fantastic places to eat and drink throughout the neighborhood.

As expected, you’ll find plenty of Italian restaurants in Little Italy, but there are a few that stand out above the rest. Buon Appetito Restaurant is one of these. Warm and welcoming, the rustic restaurant has been serving award-winning Italian fare for over 60 years, so you know you’re getting something good!

From handmade pasta to wood-fired pizza and some of the best Italian wines this side of Italy, Buon Appetito Restaurant is a must for a laid-back evening of really good food and wine.

Another great spot that oozes rustic Italian charm is Davanti Enoteca. Expect classic Italian fare with a contemporary twist served in a cozy, cellar-type, brick-lined dining room. Warm summer evenings call for alfresco dining on the outdoor patio beneath twinkling fairy lights. Be sure to ask the chef to recommend one of the fantastic wines from the well-stocked cellar.

Restaurant in Little Italy

For authentic Calabrian cuisine, Civico 1845 is the place to be. Helmed by brothers Dario and Pietro Gallo, the restaurant’s menu boasts classic dishes like Fiori di Zucchine and Pasta al Forno, along with Calabrian specialties like Garganelli alla Calabrese and Scialatielli Civico. There is also a completely vegan-Italian menu – the first of its kind in the US!

When in San Diego, do as the San Diegans do and head to the oldest tavern and legendary dive bar in town. Established in 1933, the Waterfront Bar & Grill is an institution that has been serving classic pub grub and libations for nearly 100 years. Expect dark, dingy, and loud – everything a time-honored dive bar should be.

A pioneer in San Diego’s craft cocktail movement back in 2009, Craft & Commerce fast became San Diego’s go-to spot for hipsters, working professionals, and tourists who loved a good cocktail. Today, the eclectic bar boasts an African-safari-meets-library ambiance with leather banquettes and book-lined walls. Get a taste of what made the bar famous with the Lip Reader (think absinthe, Pamplemousse rose, and gin) and the rum-heavy Del Boca Vista.

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!

Yearning for a good old Kiwi pint? Set on the corner of Cedar and Columbia Streets in a Craftsman-style historic home, the Queenstown Public House will sate your needs. The fun New Zealand-themed restaurant serves classic Kiwi fare like a tender rack of lamb and roasted duck. The Bare Li’L Lamb burger with New Zealand lamb, blue cheese, and wasabi aioli is a must!

Where to stay

Located in the heart of downtown, Little Italy is one of the most popular neighborhoods to stay in San Diego. If you hit any snags trying to score lodgings here, you can extend your search to other areas in Downtown San Diego, like the Gaslamp Quarter or the Embarcadero.

Le Pensione Hotel

La Pensione Hotel

Set in the heart of Little Italy just a mile from the vibrant Gaslamp Quarter, La Pensione Hotel is a charming inn with a chic lobby lounge and lovely courtyard. Luxuriate in designer linens in your cozy room and stay connected with fast, free Wi-Fi. Dine in the trendy Italian restaurant and enjoy spa treatments in the comfort of your room.

Best Western Plus Bayside Inn

Best Western Plus Bayside Inn

Casual and laid-back, the Best Western Plus Bayside Inn offers a comfortable retreat just three blocks from San Diego Bay. Basic rooms have en-suite bathrooms and all the mod cons you need for a hassle-free stay. Relax in the hot tub, work out in the heated pool, and enjoy classic American cuisine in the hotel restaurant. A complimentary airport shuttle service is a bonus.

Carte Hotel Downtown, Curio Collection By Hilton

Carte Hotel San Diego Downtown, Curio Collection By Hilton

Nestled among the bustling restaurants of Little Italy, the Carte Hotel San Diego Downtown, Curio Collection By Hilton is a chic spot to make your base. Located just a mile from the Embarcadero Marina Park North, the hotel has a gorgeous rooftop bar and an elegant wine-tasting room. Relax by the rooftop pool and sauna. Take yoga classes in the fitness center to unwind.

Treksplorer

Ryan O'Rourke is a seasoned traveler and the founder & editor of Treksplorer, a fiercely independent guide to mid-range luxury travel for busy people. With over 20 years of extensive travel experience, Ryan has journeyed through over 50 countries, uncovering hidden gems and sharing firsthand, unsponsored insights on what to see & do and where to eat, drink & stay. Backed by his travel experience and in-depth research, Ryan’s travel advice and writing has been featured in publications like the Huffington Post and Matador Network. You can connect with Ryan on Twitter/X at @rtorourke.

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