san diego city guide: lonely planet


co/ @tessbulten

co/ @tessbulten


Any historian will tell you that a city’s beating heart is given its jazz by the saga that surrounds it. Egypt was ruled by divine Pharaohs and Rome had Julius Cesar.

With this in mind, the Gaslamp Quarter was once lead by shoddy prostitutes, loathsome gamblers and corrupt city officials. Although the red lights of the Gaslamp have been well-retired, the spirit of the city still lingers along the original buildings that house this modern district. Tucked into a sunny metropolis of old-world charm and new-world ventures, the Gaslamp offers some of San Diego’s finest shopping, art, culture and historic monuments. All along a coast of ocean spray.

The uniform here is flip-flops; where locals wear them with sunny confidence all year round. And why not when you live with the self-proclaimed title of, “America’s finest city”? This cluster of 16-blocks serves as a stomping ground for a beehive of offbeat bars, upscale dining, swanky lounges and toe-tapping music. There is something here for everyone and any local will proudly tell you that.

San Diego is just like LA but well-mannered; without the traffic, without the strife and without the True Hollywood Story. Even a simple shout-out to the Chargers football team will give you a boisterous applause. We have big-city standards with a small-town feel; blessed with gentle Mediterranean climate, top-notch museums, beaches galore and an urban playground called the Gaslamp.

Welcome to San Diego! And we mean it.



William Heath Davis set out in 1850 to establish a town along the waterfront of San Diego. He began developing land near the foot of Market Street and after an economic depression, Davis’ ventures failed and the town was known as “Rabbitville”.

Alonzo Horton decided to take over Davis’ failure in 1867 and built a wharf for $50,000. During the 1880’s, the Gold Rush created an economic boom and 40,000 residents populated the city. Just a few years later, the boom was over and the highly sought after land could not be sold.

By 1887, Horton’s town became infested with crooked gamblers and 350 prostitutes who picked up sailors in taverns and opium dens. The district was known as the Stingaree because it was said that, “you could get stung just as badly by the District as the stingrays in Mission Bay”. With a change in citizen morality in 1912, the police raided the town and the red-lights of the Stingaree were turned off for good.

Up until the 1970’s the Gaslamp Quarter remained plagued. Among the X-rated book stores and seedy hotels, the architecture told a very different story: one of valor, a desire for sophistication and commercial entrepreneurship. In 1982, one of the most extensive projects was executed to redevelop the area with the purpose of restoring the Gaslamp’s Victorian buildings. 



The downtown area of San Diego is situated just northeast of the San Diego Bay. The entire area revolves around the Gaslamp District, which is a lively enclave bustling with remarkable architecture, cheerful bars, trendy clubs, boutique hotels, and high-spirits. The convention center is positioned on the southwest border, just along the water’s edge. The north-south avenues are numbered (First, Second, etc.) whereas the east-west streets are lettered (A, B, etc.) going south and named after trees (Ash, Beech, etc.) going north. I-5 is the main north-south freeway connecting San Diego with Orange County, Los Angeles and Tijuana. CA-163 will provide a magnificent scenic route, dropping you off through Balboa Park.



Internet Access

All public libraries provide free internet access. Other good places include coffee houses or Kinko’s copy stores. Check your local telephone directory for information.

Medical Services

Gaslamp Urgent Care ( 619-239-9675;; 250 Market Street;  8am-6pm Mon-Fri, 9am-1pm Sat)


Banks and ATMs are found everywhere in the Gaslamp

Travelex (177 Horton Plaza;  10am-6pm Mon-Fri, 10am-4pm Sat, 11am-4pm Sun)


Main Branch ( 800-275-877; 815 E Street;  8:30am-5pm Mon-Fri)

UPS Store ( 619-232-0332; 501 W. Broadway; 8am-7pm Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm Sat)

Tourist Information ( Excellent resource for information on events, new venues and parking secrets. ( Sun-drenched information about all things San Diego.

San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau ( Find hotels, dining, events, rentals, etc.



William Heath Davis House ( 619-233-4692;; 410 Island Ave at 4th Ave; admission $5;  10am-6pm Tues-Sat, 11am-3pm Sun) was one of the first homes built in the Gaslamp. Davis had this colonial-inspired, saltbox house shipped from Cape Horn and assembled in San Diego. This monument is the oldest surviving structure and appropriately houses a small museum and the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. A two-hour walking tour (adult/senior & student $10/8;  11am, Sat) is available, but the risqué topics are not appropriate for children.

The Embarcadero (1492 North Harbor Drive, San Diego) is a popular waterfront location with a sweeping view of the San Diego Bay. Not only is the view absolutely breathtaking, visitors can shop and dine at Seaport Village, tour the Maritime Museum, jump aboard the Star of India or take a cruise along the harbor.

The Hotel del Coronado is certainly the most famous hotel in San Diego, but the US Grant Hotel ( 619-744-2077;; 326 Broadway) comes in at a very close second. Built in 1910 and renowned for its history, the US Grant has been occupied by 13 US Presidents and accommodates the National Registrar of Historic Places. Free tours are available with a simple call to the concierge’s desk.



Home to the San Diego Padres, Petco Park ( 619-795-5000;; 100 Park Boulevard; tours adult/child/senior $59/5/6); tours  10:30am, 12:30pm & 2:30pm Tue-Sun) embraces the sun, sea, city, and spirit of the district! The ballpark features timeless traditions with the historic Western Metal Supply Company Building renovated right into the park, including state-of-the-art amenities. With panoramic views of the city, baseball is served Southern California style with a sandy beachfront just beyond center field, complete with palm trees and a miniature t-ball diamond for future Padres.

Journey off the beaten path and step aboard a ghostly bus to the darker side of San Diego! Haunted Ghost Tours ( 1-877-6-HAUNTED;; tours adult/child/senior $30;  6:30pm & 8:30pm Thu-Sun) visit all the fascinating museums and haunted locations including the eerie William Heath Davis House, Horton Grand Hotel, and a spooky graveyard or two.



The fantastically stylish Ivy Hotel (619-814-1000;; 600 F St; per night $285-500) is the hottest new hotel in the Gaslamp. The contemporary rooms are bold, chic and integrated with cutting-edge amenities. The sultry rooftop pool is elevated over the Gaslamp Quarter, providing the perfect oasis for relaxation or a late-night rendezvous with downtown hipsters.

Reconstructed on the site of an infamous “cathouse”, the Horton Grand Hotel ( 619-544-1886;; 311 Island Ave; per night $169-270) is located in the historic red-light district. This hotel is notorious for its most famous tenant, Roger Whittaker, a gambler from the 1800’s. In an attempt to escape his scaling debt, Wittaker hid in an armoire in room number 309, but was later found shot to death by an angry gunman. Reports of ghostly encounters have made this hotel a Gaslamp must-see! Stay if you dare!

A unique, hybrid hotel, the 500 West ( 866-315-4251;; 500 W. Broadway; per night $49-69) is an affordable, upscale hostel with a European flair. The rooms are adorned with contemporary furniture and modern conveniences such as flat screen televisions and complimentary internet. Every room has a view of the harbor, downtown or hotel courtyard. 



Serving up Indian food in malls across San Diego, Royal India ( 619-269-9999;; 329 Market Street; mains $18-28 11am-12am daily) has an upscale edition for the trendy Gaslamp crowd. The restaurant’s outstanding architecture was imported from palaces in India, including a Royal glass chandelier and 10ft waterfall. The quality of the décor is warm, in palettes of earthy tones and vibrant splashes of garish red. Regular patrons recommend the Vegetarian Samosas, Chicken Tikka Marsala and Lamb Korma Curry.

The chic, loft restaurant Confidential ( 619-696-8888;; 901 Fourth Ave; tapas $4-17 each;  6pm-2am Tues-Sat) is a stylish eatery for the elitecrowd of downtown. Polished with white minimalist furnishings, industrial accents and color-hued lighting, this place feels more like a swanky LA hotspot than a Gaslamp restaurant. Equipped with a renowned chef, the menu bestows an array of global tapas like a Beef Tenderloin Skewer with gorgonzola fondue and port wine reduction. With the menu served until 2am, top DJ’s turn this restaurant into a hipster’s delight.

Finding a delicious and authentic Mexican restaurant is not a difficult undertaking in sunny San Diego. Hole-in-the-wall restaurants are situated on every corner, but Gaslamp locals love La Fiesta Mexican Cuisine & Lounge. ( 619-232-4242; 628 Fifth Avenue; main $8-14;  10am-11pm Mon-Thu; 10am-2am Fri-Sat; 10am-11pm Sun)

The fusion of elegant dining with traditional family favorites evokes Spanish and South American dishes like the black bean pizza, beef tamales and world famous margaritas!


Planted among the glistening skyline of downtown San Diego, Altitude ( 619-446-6088;; 660 K St; 5pm-2am Sun-Fri; 3pm-2am Sat) is situated 22 stories above the bustling city in the Gaslamp Marriott Hotel. Named one of the best new bars in the world, Altitude’s view is the only thing more beautiful than the crowd it invites. With the largest fire-pit in downtown, patrons can gaze down on home plate at Petco Park and watch the game from incredible new heights!

For decades, Star Bar ( 619-234-5575, 423 E St, Daily 11pm-2am) has stood at the end of E Street and is the perfect dive bar for those looking for one. Christmas décor can be found all year and prices are labeled on bottles for easy recognition. Expect nothing less than a great selection in the jukebox and cheap drinks.



With a breezy island feel and unruly environment, Dick’s Last Resort Restaurant ( 619-231-9100;; 345 Fourth Ave; main $8-20;  Daily 11am-2am) serves up gallons of BBQ sauce on a warm plate of sarcasm. Welcome to all ages who dare to enter, the wait-staff’s goal is to whip up delicious food and dish out wacky humor at their guests’ expense. Live music is available every night but the local talent may be the guy from the table number 3!



Horton Plaza ( 619-239-8180;; 324 Horton Plaza;  10am-9pm Mon-Fri, 10am-8pm Sat, 11am-7pm Sun) is located in the heart of the Gaslamp with more than 187 stores to satisfy any shopping need. With the highest concentration of general shops, stores range from specialty boutiques to department chain stores.

For those looking for an original find, Future of Style ( 619-955-8046;; 740 5th Avenue, Suite B;  Daily 11am-8pm) captures the latest urban fashion trends to hit the San Diego streets. This store carries their independent brand inspired by real trend setters from the Gaslamp nightlife.




San Diego International Airport-Lindbergh Field (SAN;  619-231-2100; is just a stone’s throw away from the Gaslamp, 3 miles west of downtown. All major US airlines serve San Diego, including Air Canada and Aero-Mexico.


Greyhound ( 619-239-3266, 800-231-2222;; 120 W Broadway) has buses departing San Diego daily to all major cities including San Francisco and Los Angeles. The standard one-way/round-trip fare to Los Angeles is $17/28 and San Francisco is $62/123.


Amtrak ( 800-872-7245; runs the Pacific Surfliner throughout the day and provides a breathe-taking view along the coast. A trip to Anaheim ($24, 2 hours), Los Angeles ($34, 3 hours) and Santa Barbara ($37, 6.5 hours) is accessible from the historic Union Station.



There is no denying that getting around San Diego is more convenient with a car, but it is possible to spend a visit at the Gaslamp without anything but public transportation. A great resource is the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS;  619-233-3004; which will take you anywhere in the Gaslamp District. One/Two/Three/or Four-day passes are available for $5/9/12/15.