12 Things to Do in Downtown San Diego

by Paul Joseph  |  Updated November 29, 2023

Spanning the city’s historic Gaslamp Quarter and Little Italy, San Diego’s downtown district draws visitors and locals alike in their droves.

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)

With its blend of Spanish colonial architecture and modern high rises, downtown San Diego’s juxtaposition of old and new gives it a distinctive appearance. The district is also a thriving hub for art and culture, while the Bayfront area offers a flavour of waterside living. If you’re planning to visit San Diego and would like to spend time downtown, we’ve picked out some of the best things to see and do.

Marvel at some eye-catching public sculptures

San Diego boasts several notable monuments that serve as a reminder of the city’s past as a key strategic military destination, 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 iconic 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 legendary smooch.

Visit a top-class museum

Perhaps the city’s most pre-eminent cultural institution, San Diego Museum of Art is home to a huge assortment of nationally renowned artworks including pieces by Spanish and Italian old masters, South Asian manuscript illustrations, and 19th and 20th century American paintings and sculptures. Located within the vast green expanse of Balboa Park, the museum regularly features major exhibitions from around the world, as well as showcasing its own collections. It also hosts frequent lectures and other events such as Culture & Cocktail evenings.

Balboa Park, 1450 El Prado / Mon-Tues & Thurs-Sat 10am-5pm Sun 12pm-5pm Closed Weds

Housing one of America’s largest collections of historic sea vessels, the Maritime Museum of San Diego is dedicated to preserving the region’s rich maritime heritage. First opened in 1948 on 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.

1492 North Harbor Drive / Mon-Sun 10am-5pm

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

Spend a day at the zoo

Situated in Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo is one of the city’s most enduringly popular family attractions and among the most acclaimed zoos anywhere in the world. Home to more than 4,000 animals spanning 800 species – including some that are endangered – the facility is known for its lush, naturalistic habitats that create an almost safari-like experience for visitors. As well as the array of animals on display, there are also daily zoo keeper talks and guided bus  tours.

2920 Zoo Drive / Mon-Thurs 9am-5pm Fri-Sun 9am-7pm 

You can buy tickets for San Diego Zoo at Viator

Residents at San Diego Zoo (Photo: MattCC716 via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Explore the city’s entertainment epicentre

Known for its nightlife, theatre houses, symphony halls, art galleries, and diverse restaurant scene, the Gaslamp Quarter is downtown San Diego at its most pulsating. Stretching for over 16 blocks from First Avenue to Sixth Avenue south of Broadway, a perpetual buzz of activity permeates the area, making it a magnet for locals and visitors alike. It also features in many organised walking tours of the city, thanks to its vibrancy and reputation as the historic heart of San Diego.

You can book a guided walking tour of the Gaslamp Quarter at GetYourGuide

Take some snaps from a futuristic bridge

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

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.

2710 Historic Decatur Road Barracks / Mon-Thurs 12pm-9pm Fri-Sat 12pm-10pm Sun 11am-8pm 

Catch a baseball game

As in almost every city across America, baseball is a seriously big deal in San Diego. And at the heart of the city’s baseball are the San Diego Padres, who play their home games at Petco Park. Visitors have the chance to experience that most American of recreational activities – attending a ball game – with tickets available to the public for most matches. Expect plenty of great sporting action, along with lashings of fast-food favourites including fries, chilli cheese dogs, boiled peanuts and beer.

100 Park Boulevard

Packed crowds watch a ball game at Petco Park (Photo: Jay via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Get a taste of Little Italy

Dotted with quaint patio cafes, restaurants, pubs and cocktail bars, along with several art galleries, clothing boutiques, indie music venues and the picture-postcard Piazza della Famiglia, the buzzing San Diego neighbourhood of Little Italy is a delight to explore. For dedicated foodies it’s a particular favourite, with the area’s strong Italian influence seen in the locally-sold produce. At the heart of its food scene is Mercato Farmers’ Market, which draws large crowds with its gourmet items and craft stalls.

You can book on to a guided food tour of Little Italy at GetYourGuide

Take in some theatre

Theatre lovers visiting San Diego are in for a treat thanks to the presence in the city of the San Diego Civic Theatre. Laying claim to being the region’s largest performing arts venue, for almost six decades the theatre has been at the forefront of San Diego’s vibrant cultural scene, playing host to a busy programme of live performances by such prestigious groups as the San Diego Symphony and the Golden State Ballet. The venue also stages concerts, films, lectures, and more.

1100 3rd Avenue  

Admire a 19th-century 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.

Seaport Village, 817 West Harbor Drive / Mon-Sun 10am-9pm

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

Take a stroll around a scenic Japanese garden 

Another of Balboa Park’s array of attractions, the Japanese Friendship Garden and Museum was created based on the traditional principles of a Japanese garden while incorporating elements of San Diego’s own landscape and climate. The 12-acre garden invites visitors to explore its eye-catching stone designs, tranquil koi ponds, imaginative water features, and gorgeous vistas. There are also regular educational programs, exhibits, festivals and horticultural classes that take place here, each serving to enhance visitors’ appreciation of Japanese culture.

2215 Pan American East Road / Mon-Sun 10am-6pm