San Diego City Culture

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San Diego City Culture
San Diego has a rich and storied history, charming neighborhoods to explore on foot, a diverse cultural scene, and plenty of farm-to-table restaurants and craft breweries. Add in the relaxed beach culture, and you have a uniquely San Diego vibe.
By Rajam Roose, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Blaine Harrington/age fotostock
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    Unique Neighborhoods
    San Diego's neighborhoods each have their own identity and charm, and are best explored by foot. Note the Spanish-style architecture—with terra-cotta tile roofs, stucco walls, and picture windows—of Kensington and North Park, the Victorian buildings of Downtown, and the craftsmen-style homes in Mission Hills. Little Italy has little plazas where you can sit and enjoy the San Diego sunshine, great restaurants and wine bars, and tempting boutique shopping; Carol Gardyne sells lovely hand-painted silk scarves. Tree-lined South Park is home to a fascinating bookstore, The Grove at Juniper & 30th.
    Photo by Blaine Harrington/age fotostock
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    The Gaslamp Quarter
    The historic heart of San Diego, wedged between downtown and the Convention Center, is known as the Gaslamp Quarter. Back when San Diego was a booming port town filled with bars, tattoo parlors, and prostitutes, this area was known as the Stingaree—because you were more likely to be "stung" here than at sea. Nowadays, the port is mostly occupied by cruise ships, luxury yachts, and Navy ships, and the Gaslamp is known for art galleries, restaurants, shopping, and clubs. The historic self-guided walking tour and the ghost tour showcase the significance of many of the buildings found in the area. Other tours highlight food and nightclubs. There's even a shopping tour, whose guide will help you find the Gaslamp's most beloved boutiques.
    Photo courtesy of Andreas Hub/Visit California
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    Rooftop Bars
    San Diego's year-round mild weather encourages people to enjoy their nightlife outside. There are several rooftop bars and dance clubs located in the Downtown, Gaslamp, and Little Italy neighborhoods. What better way to enjoy a cocktail than with a view of the San Diego skyline and the lights of the boats passing in the bay? During the hotter months of the year, you can also take a dip in one of the city's rooftop swimming pools, such as at Andaz's RoofTop600 or at Hard Rock Hotel's Float. For the highest viewpoint, check out Altitude Sky Bar; at 22 stories, it has incomparable views of the Coronado Bridge, the Padres' stadium, and even the distant Point Loma.
    Photo courtesy of Hyatt
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    The Birthplace of California
    Settled by the Spanish and once part of Mexico, San Diego has a long and storied history—which is easy for travelers to explore—and is often referred to as the birthplace of California. American Indian peoples, including the Kumeyaay, were the original inhabitants of the region; you can learn about their history in the Junípero Serra Museum, on Presidio Hill. The Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma highlights where the Spanish first landed, in 1542. Visitors can check out the lighthouse and enjoy sweeping views of San Diego and the surrounding bay. Part of San Diego Old Town has been designated a state historic park, preserving and recreating early-nineteenth-century buildings that date back to the establishment of the city.
    Photo courtesy of James Blank/San Diego Tourism Authority
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    Diverse Cuisine, Local Ingredients
    The diversity of San Diego culture is reflected in the city's culinary offerings. Most food served here is grown in California, so ingredients are fresh and many chefs have strong relationships with neighboring organic farms to promote sustainable dining. The ubiquitous fish taco, a San Diego staple, is freshest at the Fish Market; Rubio's, a local chain, claims to have served the city's first. Asian influence is strong, and excellent sushi, ramen, and dim sum can be found in the Kearny Mesa neighborhood. Creative restaurants that serve good Californian farm-to-table cuisine include Cucina Urbana, Herringbone, Snooze, and Heat Bar & Kitchen.
    Photo by Rajam Roose
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    Parks and Gardens
    San Diego's mild climate and ecological diversity create the perfect environment for a variety of gardens. Many examples of European-style gardens can be found in Balboa Park, which also has a rose garden and a large garden of cacti and other native plants. Another of Balboa Park's horticultural gems is the tranquil Japanese Friendship Garden. The San Diego Botanical Garden is located in Encinitas, but is well worth the 20-minute drive north of downtown; it features four square miles of lush exhibits, including rare bamboo groves, desert gardens, a tropical rain forest, a herb garden, and a subtropical fruit garden.
    Photo by Stuart Westmorland/age fotostock
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    Theater and Performing Arts
    San Diego isn't just surf and sun; a thriving performing arts culture is found in dozens of venues across the city. The Old Globe, in Balboa Park, has produced many shows that have gone on to Broadway. Balboa Theater, in the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter, was built in 1924 as a vaudeville house; today, it features ballet, musicals, and concerts by famous musicians. For contemporary and cutting-edge work, La Jolla Playhouse presents award-winning shows and the Without Walls theater program—live performances that require audience participation and take place in unusual locations, such as the interior of a car.
    Photo courtesy of The Old Globe
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    Classical and Contemporary Art
    San Diego is home to a diverse art scene. Enjoy classical and contemporary paintings and sculpture at the San Diego Museum of Art. Explore contemporary art in all media at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which hosts many exhibits throughout the year. For beautiful examples of folk arts, Mingei International Museum (and its gift shop) have gorgeous pieces that demonstrate some of the world's most unique crafts. Local art is celebrated in dozens of galleries and festivals, too. Mingle with local artists during art walks, such as Ray at Night in North Park or the annual Mission Federal Artwalk. Finally, look out for urban murals on the sides of buildings, down hidden alleys, and even on the electrical boxes of city streets.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    The Craft Beer Scene
    There are over 80 craft breweries in San Diego county, 30 of which are located within the city. Several bars in downtown San Diego and the Gaslamp Quarter brew their beer in-house, and beer-tasting rooms are found in neighborhoods such as Little Italy, Downtown, and North Park. Ballast Point in Little Italy features superb beer flights alongside food prepared by a Cordon Bleu–trained chef. Dogs and kids are welcome at Mission Brewery in East Village. Downtown Stone Beer Garden doesn't serve food, but does allow people to bring their own. Several beer tours are also run throughout the city where you get to visit a selection of breweries.
    Photo by Rajam Roose