Part of downtown San Diego’s charm is the mix of old and new buildings and modern high-rises. In addition to its visual appeal, the district is also a thriving arts and cultural center, while the Bayfront area is a charming place to live an idyllic waterfront lifestyle.
Downtown San Diego includes the historic Gaslamp Quarter and Little Italy, one of the most popular areas of the city. In addition to the most famous attractions, you’ll also find a few that are unlikely to appear in a travel brochure. If you’re a non-mainstream traveler, you might enjoy our selection of the most unique attractions in downtown San Diego.
Enjoy a variety of eye-catching public sculptures.
San Diego has several famous monuments that remind the city of its past as a strategically important military stronghold, several of which dot the Greatest Generation Walk by the downtown harbor. Perhaps the most famous – and most unique – is a massive 25-foot bronze sculpture that reproduces the famous photograph of a kissing couple on V-J Day in Times Square, New York, 1945. At any time of the day, loving couples can be seen reenacting the iconic kiss under the statue.
Exploring family life in the Victorian era
Dating back to the mid-19th century, the Davis-Horton House is the oldest house in the entire historic Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego. Inside this Victorian-era building (which was prefabricated in Portland before being shipped to San Diego) is a fascinating “living history” museum, with each room representing a different period. With an audio guide, visitors can take a tour of the house and learn about the history of the house, its former inhabitants, and how people lived in times past.
Learn about the history of firefighting.
The Firehouse Museum, located in the heart of the city in the Little Italy district, offers a glimpse into the noble history of firefighting that has saved countless lives. The museum has a wide range of exhibits, from antique fire engines, sirens, fire hats and hydrant molds to late 19th century memorabilia, making it a favorite attraction for adults and children alike. Highlights of the pavilion include a horse-drawn motorboat and a piece of steel from the fallen World Trade Center.
Visit an authentic 19th century amusement park carousel.
One of the last carousels built by the prolific amusement park carver Charles I.D. Looff, the Looff Carousel is a magical relic of the past. The carousel, which is located in the shops, galleries and restaurants of Harbor Village off San Diego Bay, features more than 40 horses and other animals, including camels, giraffes and elephants. First installed in Texas in 1895, it went through a legendary journey, finally coming to San Diego in 2004, and has been captivating children and adults ever since.
Explore some of the best breweries in San Diego.
San Diego has a thriving brewery scene where visitors can discover the secrets of their brewing techniques and sample some of their homegrown beers.Thorn Brewing Co. Border X brewing is a chic, vibrant tasting room with a large selection of craft beers, as well as a charming beer garden and kitchen that serves delicious barbecue. There are also regular weekly events here, including Mexican-inspired taco nights and “Lotería” nights featuring classic Bingo games, prizes and top-notch beer.
Aboard a historic sailboat
The San Diego Maritime Museum, one of the largest collections of historic ships in the United States, is a magnificent educational facility dedicated to preserving the region’s rich maritime heritage. The museum first opened in San Diego Bay in 1948, and visitors can board many of the museum’s historic ships and submarines, as well as view other exhibits on art, maritime history, commerce and exploration. The pavilion’s central attraction is the Star of India, an 1863 tin boat considered to be the oldest active sailing ship in the world.
steeped in Chinese history
Adjacent to the Gaslight District is the Mission Hall, a Chinese church built in 1927 and a museum of Chinese history. The pavilion has a five-star garden and koi pond. The collection includes Chinese cultural artifacts from the mid-19th century and miniature models of local fishing villages, Chinatown from around the 1910s, Chinese laundries, Chinese grocery stores and more. There are also archaeological finds in Old Chinatown, as well as stories of local Chinese veterans and early Chinese Americans. Across the street from the Mission Building is an extension of the museum that hosts temporary exhibitions.
Visit a boutique music hall
A public space for local musicians, artists, and designers to promote themselves, FeeLit is more than just a run-of-the-mill record store. The boutique sells a large selection of music-themed merchandise, including vinyl records, new and used discs and tapes, local artwork and clothing. The store also regularly hosts live music performances, artist exhibitions, receptions, in-store performances and more.
Hunting an alien invasion.
Almost every child of the 80s will have fond memories of the arcade game Space Invaders, and in recent years, these iconic aliens have returned to invade urban space around the world. Among the destinations where they have appeared is downtown San Diego, where images of the aliens have been etched on the tiles of several buildings throughout the area. Several maps document the alien invasion, making for a unique treasure hunt for retro gaming fans and anyone who enjoys quirky adventures.
Take some pictures of the bridge in the future.
One might ask, how unique can a bridge be? In the case of the Harbour Avenue pedestrian bridge, the answer is that it is one of the longest self-anchored pedestrian bridges in the world. It has a very futuristic look, standing atop six lanes of traffic and stands 40 meters high, offering a great view of downtown and the Gulf Coast area, making it one of the best viewing points for urban San Diego photo enthusiasts. This bridge can be reached by stairs or an elevator.
Taste some of California’s best wines.
As San Diego’s largest urban winery, Carruth Cellars has a winery tasting room and secluded garden patio where guests can taste a variety of wines, all made from premium grapes from some of Northern and Central California’s most famous vineyards. Guests can wine by the glass, by the bottle, or choose from a pre-dinner menu, and craft beer and kombucha are also available. The restaurant’s offerings include hand-picked cheese sides and grilled meats, as well as fresh pizzas made using a wood-fired oven.
Dining at the Rotunda
For a unique dining destination in downtown Phoenix, Compass Arizona Grill is a no-brainer. Located on the top floor of the Hyatt Regency, this upscale restaurant is not only known for its top-notch cuisine, but is one of the only rotating restaurants in the world. As it rotates 360 degrees, diners can enjoy the food while taking in the panoramic views of Phoenix without leaving their seats.