San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter
By Brian E. Clark
Visitors to San Diego who are history fans – maritime and otherwise – as well as Major League Baseball, fine dining and hands-on children’s museums will all find something to their taste in and around San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.
Some 16-and-one-half blocks of the neighborhood – which is within a long stone’s throw of the San Diego Convention Center – are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The district is home to a nearly 100 Victorian-era buildings, as well as some of the city’s best restaurants and scores of retail shops. And when the sun goes down, the area’s nightlife sizzles, attracting thousands of diners, theatergoers and nightclub patrons.
When I rolled into the Gaslamp Quarter earlier this year at 2 a.m. on a Friday night, the streets were clogged with night owls who seemed to be enjoying themselves. The district has long been known as a place to have a good time. A century-and-one-half ago, that included plenty of rough-and-tumble bars and houses of ill-repute.
This year marks the 250 anniversary of San Diego, now the 8th largest city in the nation. The area was home to the Kumeyaay Nation and their ancestors for thousands of years and they continue to be part of the region’s cultural fabric.
The first Europeans to arrive on the West Coast were Spaniards who sailed into San Diego Bay in 1542 and named the land Alta California. Early settlers relied on the help of the Kumeyaay, and much of the exploration of California occurred over native trails.
Today’s San Diego didn’t begin until 1769, with the dedication of Mission San Diego de Alcala, the first of 21 California missions. It was established near the ancient Kumeyaay village of Kosa’aay (Cosoy), known today as Old Town San Diego.
The Gaslamp Quarter is about five miles south of Old Town on San Diego Bay. The district began its development in 1867 – nearly 100 years after Old Town was established – when civic booster Alonzo Horton bought around 800 acres for a mere $265 in hopes of creating a new city center closer to the bay. You can pick up a map at the Gaslamp Museum at the Davis-Horton House at the corner of Fourth and Island avenues for a self-guided tour of the area.
San Diego boomed in the 1880s and the Gaslamp Quarter’s redlight district – known as the Stingaree – reputedly had more than 71 saloons with names like Old Tub of Blood, Legal Tender and Last Chance, to say nothing of some120 bordellos and upwards of 350 prostitutes.
Debra Sanderlin, general manager of the pet-friendly Bristol Hotel, says she often recommends that guests take the narrated Old Town Trolley Tour Its stops include not only in the Gaslamp Quarter, but Old Town, the Embarcadero Marina near the USS Midway Museum, the Maritime Museum and the Star of India, an iron-hulled sailing ship built in 1863 on the Isle of Man.
She also suggests visiting the nearby Seaport Village on San Diego Bay, which has more than four dozen shops, a dozen-plus restaurants and venues for outdoor entertainment. Or take advantage of the hotel’s baseball package and go to a San Diego Padres’ ballgame at nearby Petco Park.
If you have youngsters in tow, you might want to check out the hands-on New Children’s Museum on West Island Avenue. The San Diego Chinese Historical Museum (sdchm.org), which celebrates Chinese-American culture and art, is located a short stroll from the kids’ museum on Third Avenue.
A great way to get a feel for the Gaslamp Quarter is to take one of the many walking tours offered by district’s Historical Foundation and other groups, says Kate Connor, sales and marketing director at the Kimpton Solamar Hotel .
The tours cover everything from Victorian architecture to ghosts to pubs to a racy one dubbed the “Brothels, Bites and Booze Tour.” There’s also a brewery tour offered by Social Cycle (socialcycleca.com) that rolls through the Gaslamp Quarter and neighboring East Village, which was once home to many Italian families that fished for tuna and other seafood. The Social Cycle is a16-person bicycle -complete with “adult” beverages – that is manually powered by its passengers and operated by a “captain.”
For baseball fans, no trip to San Diego would be complete without a visit to Petco Park, where the Padres play ball. Located on the edge of the Gaslamp Quarter in the East Village, the field opened in 2004 and has great views of downtown San Diego.
In addition to taking in a game, the best way to get a feel for the ballpark is to take a tour that includes writers’ row in the press box, the Padres’ dugout and the110-year-old Western Metal Supply Co. Building, which has viewing suites on the third and fourth floors. The cost for the tours is $20 for adults and $17 kids 14-and-under, military and seniors.
You can also get grew city views from the rooftop Kimpton Solamar Hotel’s Upper East Bar. Pick your libation from a stacked menu featuring craft cocktails like Gogo Yubari (Japanese whiskey, lemongrass, tiki bitters) and Flower Child (hibiscus-infused Absolut Elyx vodka, lime and ginger beer). Guests can enjoy a sophisticated downtown vibe, outdoor games, cozy up in one of the private cabanas or unwind poolside on a chaise lounge, during the day or at night.
If you like Mexican Food, try Curadero. Located inside Kimpton Palomar San Diego, Curadero offers modern Mexican street cuisine. On the menu, visitors will find tacos, ceviches made with local seafood, small plates and large plates of roasted and braised meats. Curadero also has tasty cocktails, featuring tequila and mezcal, Baja wine and Mexican craft beers.
Another watering hole is You & Yours Distilling. Opened recently, the craft spirit tasting room and lounge serves gin and vodka craft cocktails in a chic warehouse space. You & Yours offers a seasonal cocktail menu and tasting flights, as well as distillery tours and cocktail classes.
There’s also 10Barrel Brewing Co., one of the neighborhood’s hottest brewpubs which offers scenic views of the San Diego skyline with a spectacular open-air rooftop where you can soak up SoCal’s sunny weather. Guests can watch nearly every step of the brewing process in the brewpub while sipping on over 20 different San Diego-exclusive and signature beers on tap.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.