12 Unique things to do in Downtown San Diego

by Paul Joseph  |  Published May 13, 2020

With its harmonious mix of Spanish-influenced architecture and modern high rises, downtown San Diego’s juxtaposition of old and new is just part of its alluring charm. Along with its significant visual appeal, the district is also a thriving hub for arts and culture, while the Bayfront area offers a delightful flavour of the idyllic waterside lifestyle.

An view across the water towards downtown San Diego (Photo: Brian Roberts via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Encompassing the historic Gaslamp Quarter and Little Italy, downtown San Diego is one of the city’s most popular areas for locals and visitors alike. As well as its most well-known attractions, you’ll also find several that are unlikely to have made it into the tourist books. If you’re a fan of off-the-beaten-track travel, you may enjoy our selection of some of the most unique things to see and do in downtown San Diego.

Admire an assortment of eye-catching public sculptures

San Diego is home to several notable monuments that serve as a reminder of the city’s past as a key strategic military location, and several of them are dotted along the Greatest Generation Walk by the downtown harbour. Perhaps the most famous – and unique – is a huge 25-foot bronze sculpture that recreates the famous photograph of a kissing couple on V-J Day in Times Square, New York in 1945. At all times of day love-struck couples can be found under the statue re-enacting the iconic kiss.

A giant waterside sculpture of the legendary V-J Day kiss along Greatest Generation Walk (Photo: Ted Eytan via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Explore domestic 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 of downtown San Diego. And within the Victorian-era edifice (which was pre-fabricated in Portland before being shipped to San Diego) can be found a fascinating ‘living history’ museum, in which every room represents a different period. Self-guided tours with audio guides invite visitors to step back in time and learn about the history of the house, its former residents, and how people lived in a bygone era.

LOCATION 410 Island Avenue HOURS Tues-Sat 10am-5pm Sun 12pm-4pm Closed Mon

Learn about the history of firefighting

Situated in downtown’s Little Italy district, the Firehouse Museum offers a captivating insight into the noble history of firefighting that has saved so many lives. Housing a huge variety of exhibits, from antique fire engines, alarms, hats, hydrant molds, and memorabilia dating back to the late 1800s, the museum is a popular attraction for adults and kids alike. Highlights include a horse-drawn steamer and a piece of steel from the fallen World Trade Center.

LOCATION 1572 Columbia Street HOURS Thurs-Fri 10am-2pm Sat-Sun 10am-4pm Closed Mon-Weds

An old fire engine at the Firehouse Museum (Photo: Smart Destinations via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

See an authentic 19th-century amusement park carousel

One of the last remaining carousels built by prolific master amusement park carver Charles I.D. Looff, the Looff Carousel is a magical relic of the past. Nestled within the shops, galleries and eateries of Seaport Village next to San Diego Bay, the carousel features over 40 horses and a menagerie of other animals including camels, giraffes and an elephant. First installed in Texas in 1895, it has enjoyed a journeyman’s career, finally arriving in San Diego in 2004 where it has captivated children and adults alike ever since.

LOCATION Seaport Village, 817 West Harbor Drive

The 19th-century Looff Carousel (Photo: cultivar413 via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Discover some of San Diego’s best breweries

San Diego has a burgeoning beer brewing scene and at its vanguard are a number of acclaimed breweries where visitors can discover the secrets behind their brewing techniques and sample some of the in-house produce. Located in the historic Barrio Logan neighbourhood, Thorn Brewing Co. boasts a spacious tasting room that invites guests to oversee the whole brewing process while enjoying 16 rotating beers on tap, plus delicious wood-oven pizza and rotating food trucks. Border X brewing is a chic, vibrant taproom featuring a huge range of craft brews, plus a charming beer garden and kitchen serving up delectable grub. The venue also hosts regular weekly events including taco nights with Mexican-inspired craft beer pairing, and a ‘Lotería’ night, featuring the classic Bingo-like game complete with prizes and top notch beer.

A mouth-watering beverage at Thorn Brewing Co. (Photo: Thorn Brewing Co.)

An exterior shot of Border X Brewing’s downtown venue (Photo: Border X Brewing)

Board a historic sailing ship

Housing one of America’s largest collections of historic sea vessels, the Maritime Museum of San Diego is a magnificent educational facility dedicated to preserving the region’s rich maritime heritage. First opened in 1948 on the San Diego Bay, visitors can board many of the museum’s historic ships and submarines, as well as peruse other exhibits on art, maritime history, commerce and exploration. The venue’s centrepiece attraction is the Star of India, an 1863 iron-bark that is thought to be the world’s oldest active sailing ship.

LOCATION 1492 North Harbor Drive HOURS Mon-Sun 9am-9pm

Exhibits at the Maritime Museum of San Diego (Photo: experienceology via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Immerse yourselves in Chinese history

Adjacent to the Gas Lamp District, you will find a Chinese Historical Museum in a Mission Building constructed in 1927 as a Chinese church. It has a quint garden with a koi pond. The collections include Chinese cultural/art objects and miniature models of the local Fishing Village from the mid-19th century, Chinatown around 1910’s, Chinese laundry business, and Chinese general stores. There are also archeological findings from the old Chinatown and stories of local Chinese veterans and early Chinese Americans. Across the street from the Mission Building is the extension of the museum that holds temporary exhibitions.

LOCATION 404 Third Avenue HOURS Weds-Sun 10.30am-4pm Closed Mon-Tues

Visit a boutique music emporium

A communal space where local musicians, artists and designers can promote themselves, FeeLit is far more than a common-or-garden record store. The boutique venue sells a huge assortment of music-themed items, including vinyl records, new and used compact discs and cassette tapes, local artwork and clothing. The store also plays host to regular live music performances, artist’s exhibitions, receptions, in-store performances, and other events.

LOCATION 909 East Street HOURS Mon-Sat 12pm-7pm Sun 1pm-5pm

Hunt down an alien invasion

Almost every child of the 1980s will fondly recall the Space Invaders arcade game and in recent years the iconic aliens have returned to invade urban spaces across the world. Among the destinations they’ve been spotted is downtown San Diego, where depictions of the extra-terrestrials have been emblazoned on tiles along the sides of several buildings throughout the district. Several maps exist documenting the invasion, giving rise to a unique treasure hunt for retro gaming fans and anyone who loves a quirky adventure.

One of the Space Invader illustrations etched on a building in downtown San Diego (Photo: allenhimself via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Take some snaps from a futuristic bridge

How unique can a bridge be, one may ask? In the case of Harbor Drive Pedestrian Bridge, the answer is that it is one of the longest self-anchored pedestrian bridges anywhere in the world. Futuristic in appearance, it stands 40 metres above six lanes, offering stunning views of downtown and the Bayfront area that make it one of San Diego’s finest vantage points for urban photography enthusiasts. The bridge can be accessed by stairs or elevator.

LOCATION 2 East Harbor Drive

Pedestrians pass across the Harbor Drive Pedestrian Bridge (Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Sample some of California’s finest wines

San Diego’s largest urban winery, Carruth Cellars is home to a winery tasting room and secluded garden patio with outdoor seating where patrons can enjoy a variety of wines, all produced using quality grapes from some of the most acclaimed vineyards across Northern and Central California. Guests can order wine by the glass, bottle, or choose from prix fixe flights, while craft beer and kombucha are available on tap. Culinary offerings include hand-picked cheese pairings and charcuterie, plus freshly baked pizzas made using a woodfired oven.

LOCATION 2215 Kettner Boulevard DATES Mon-Sat 3pm-7pm Sun 2pm-6pm

Dine in style at a revolving restaurant

For a unique dining destination in downtown Phoenix, Compass Arizona Grill is hard to beat. Situated on the top floor of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, the upscale eatery is not only acclaimed for its top notch food but also the fact that it is one of the world’s only revolving restaurants. As it turns leisurely through 360 degrees, diners can enjoy their gourmet meal while admiring panoramic views of Phoenix without leaving their seat.

LOCATION Hyatt Regency Hotel HOURS Mon-Sun 5pm-11pm