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San Diego City Culture

Unique Neighborhoods
San Diego City Culture
There’s much more to San Diego than surf culture and sunny weather. The city’s art, architecture, and cuisine are heavily influenced by Mexico, while its military ties make for unique history. There’s even a craft-beer craze sweeping the county.
By Rajam Roose, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Blaine Harrington/age fotostock
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    Unique Neighborhoods
    Unique Neighborhoods
    Marked by street-spanning neon signs, San Diego’s neighborhoods each have their own identity. Explore them by foot, noting the Spanish Revival architecture of Kensington, the Victorian buildings of the Gaslamp Quarter, and the craftsman-style houses of Mission Hills. India Street in Little Italy features a wide variety of restaurants and wine bars, while edgy North Park is home to the city’s creative class and some of its best boutiques: Go to Pigment for SoCal-inspired gifts and home goods, or Aloha Beach Club for menswear and surf gear.
    Photo by Blaine Harrington/age fotostock
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    The Gaslamp Quarter
    The Gaslamp Quarter
    Located between downtown and the Convention Center, the Gaslamp Quarter is filled with clubs and restaurants. Since its hotels are popular with many out-of-towners, it’s adopted a somewhat touristy feel. If you’re staying here, you’ll definitely enjoy the fact that it’s historic and centrally located, but make sure to also explore other neighborhoods—like North Park and South Park—to see where the locals live and hang out. If you’re not camping out in the Gaslamp, take some time to walk the area, especially Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth avenues between Broadway and Island. Back when San Diego was a booming port town studded with bars, brothels, and gambling halls, this area was known as the Stingaree—because you were more likely to be “stung” here than out at sea. Many structures in the area were erected during the middle 19th century, and more than 90 of them are designated historic buildings. The one at 835 Fifth Avenue is where Wyatt Earp likely gambled and slurped oysters in the late 1800s.
    Photo courtesy of Andreas Hub/Visit California
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    The Birthplace of California
    The Birthplace of California
    Often referred to as the birthplace of California, San Diego has a long and storied history. It was discovered by Europeans in 1542 but wasn’t officially settled until 1769, falling under Spanish and Mexican rule before becoming part of the United States in 1846. American Indians like the Diegueño people, however, were the original inhabitants of the region. Learn their story at the Junípero Serra Museum in Presidio Park, then visit the Cabrillo National Monument to see where the Spanish first landed. You can also tour Old Town, where the city has designated part of the neighborhood a state historic park. Here, many early-19th-century buildings have been preserved or even reconstructed to give a sense of what the city looked like when it was first established.
    Photo courtesy of James Blank/San Diego Tourism Authority
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    Parks and Gardens
    Parks and Gardens
    San Diego’s mild climate and ecological diversity create the ideal environment for cultivated plant life. Head to Balboa Park to tour several examples of European-style gardens, as well as one dedicated to roses; a desert zone filled with cacti and other native flora; and a tranquil Japanese friendship garden. A 20-minute drive north of downtown, the San Diego Botanical Garden in Encinitas is more than worth the trip for its 37 acres of lush exhibits, including bamboo groves, a tropical rain forest, an herb garden, and an area given over to subtropical fruit.
    Photo by Stuart Westmorland/age fotostock
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    Theater and Performing Arts
    Theater and Performing Arts
    A thriving performing-arts culture can be found in dozens of venues across San Diego. The Old Globe produces plays that often go on to Broadway, while the Spreckels Theatre, built in 1912 as a vaudeville house, now offers ballets, musicals, and concerts by famous musicians. For contemporary work, check out the La Jolla Playhouse, which presents cutting-edge shows like The Donna Summer Musical as well as the Without Walls festival (a series of live performances in unusual locations—like the interior of a car).

    Photo courtesy of The Old Globe
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    Classical and Contemporary Art
    Classical and Contemporary Art
    San Diego is home to a nicely varied art scene. For beautiful examples of folk art, head to the Mingei International Museum, where both the collection and gift shop demonstrate history and craftsmanship. Contemporary art can be found at BasileIE in Barrio Logan and the dozens of spaces in Liberty Station, while the best murals are located in North Park and at Barrio Logan’s Chicano Park. Tours such as Ray at Night in North Park and the annual Mission Federal ArtWalk offer a unique chance to browse works and mingle with local creatives.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    The Craft-Beer Scene
    The Craft-Beer Scene
    San Diego County is home to more than 100 craft breweries, with at least 30 located directly in the city. Start at Mike Hess Brewing in North Park or Mission Brewery, a dog-and-kid-friendly spot for suds in the East Village. A beer shop and bar with several locations in San Diego, Bottlecraft offers a well-curated selection of international, domestic, and local beverages, while Modern Times serves seasonal beers with a cult following, like the Citra-hops-anchored Booming Rollers IPA.
    Photo by Rajam Roose
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    Beaches
    Beaches
    With an estimated 70 miles of coastline, San Diego is home to several popular stretches of sand, each with a unique landscape and oceanfront habitat. Explore colorful sandstone cliffs at San Elijo State Beach in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, or walk on soft, sparkling sand at Coronado Central Beach. Also worth visiting is La Jolla Shores, where you can kayak in wildlife-filled waters off the coast or learn to surf in the beach’s gentle break.
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    Diverse Cuisines, Local Ingredients
    Diverse Cuisines, Local Ingredients
    San Diego’s culinary offerings are indicative of its diverse culture. Fish tacos are a city staple, with the best examples at Haggo’s Organic Taco in Encinitas and Galaxy Taco in La Jolla. Also popular is Asian food, especially the excellent sushi, ramen, and dim sum in the Kearny Mesa district. Since most ingredients at San Diego restaurants are grown in California, food is typically fresh, and frequently organic and sustainably sourced. For the best in farm-to-table fare, try Campfire, Veladora Coastal Ranch, and Ironside Fish & Oyster.