Bob Curley goes on a whirlwind tour of downtown San Diego taking in the city’s historic roots and dining hotspots, while swatting up on US naval aviation aboard USS Midway
1. Gaslamp Quarter
Start in San Diego’s old commercial centre, which has become the hottest spot in town for dining, shopping and evening entertainment. Sidewalk cafes have taken full advantage of the perfect southern California year-round climate. Croce’s (802 Fifth Ave, tel +619 233 4355, croces.com) serves light, fresh and fabulous Californian cuisine for lunch and dinner, under the friendly guiding hand of owner Ingrid Croce, widow of the legendary folk singer Jim Croce. The adjoining Jazz Bar is an appropriate tribute to the late singer-songwriter, and admission is included with your meal. If you have time in the evening, check out Altitude, a rooftop bar at the San Diego Marriott Gaslamp Quarter (660 K St, tel +1 619 446 6086), which has amazing views of the city and bay. The bar overlooks Petco Park, making it a popular hangout when the San Diego Padres baseball team is playing.
2. Seaport Village
From the Marriott, it’s a short walk to the Gaslamp Trolley Station. Take the Orange Line two stops west to the Seaport Village station (the light-rail trains depart about every six minutes and cost $1.25; sdcommute.com). The waterfront Seaport Village has 54 unique retail shops; in spite of the touristy faÃ§ade, this is the best place in the city to pick up a San Diego souvenir. Most days there is free live outdoor entertainment. Strolling around the faux port is pleasant, and a wide variety of seaside restaurants provide culinary temptations. Seaport Village, tel +1 619 235 4014, spvillage.com.
From Seaport Village, a pleasant half-mile walk north along the bay takes you to the pedestrianised Embarcadero. Here you can visit the USS Midway (tel +1 619 544 9600, midway.org), now a floating museum berthed at the pier, which provides an overview of the history of US naval aviation. You can also take a one-hour south-bay tour with San Diego Harbor Excursions (tel +1 619 234 4111, sdhe.com), which provides an up-close look at the massive nuclear-powered aircraft carriers at the North Island Naval Air Station, with US Navy Seals practising helicopter drops off Coronado Island, and spectacular views of the San Diego skyline. Alternatively, take a short tour of the Star of India, an iron-hulled 1863 sailing barque, which is the oldest active ship in the world. Located at the Embarcadero, the Star of India is part of the Maritime Museum of San Diego (tel +1 619 234 9153, sdmaritime.org). Admission includes access to the museum’s other historic ships, including a Russian Cold War-era diesel submarine and a 19th century steam-powered ferry.
4. Little Italy
Just three blocks from the Embarcadero, San Diego’s Little Italy is rather incongruously centred on India Street. Once the centre of the city’s tuna-fishing industry, the area is now re-asserting itself as a downtown dining and entertainment district. Local celebrity chefs such as Joe Busalacca have put their stamp on the renaissance, opening some of the 20 or so Italian restaurants in the neighbourhood. Mimmo’s Italian Village is a great lunch spot that captures the best of what’s old and new about this up-and-coming neighbourhood. There are also a variety of other ethnic eateries, including Mexican, sushi, and even a Cajun restaurant (but, alas, no Indian). Little Italy, littleitalysd.com. Mimmo’s Italian Village is on 1,743 India St, tel +1 619 239 3710.
5. Old Town
From the Little Italy Trolley Station, on Pacific Highway and West Cedar Street, take the Blue Line three stops west to Old Town, which is a relaxing place to end your whirlwind tour of downtown San Diego. As the name implies, this neighbourhood was where the city of San Diego was founded. In fact, the California Department of Parks and Recreation has dubbed Old Town the ‘Birthplace of California’. Founded in 1769, it was the first permanent Spanish settlement in California and the first of a string of 21 Catholic missions stretching from San Diego to San Francisco. The heart of the city was eventually transplanted to the waterfront, but Old Town San Diego State Historic Park preserves the feel of an early colonial Spanish town, with period adobe mansions, wood-frame shops and a carriage stable open to the public. Surrounding the state park, in the Old Town neighbourhood, are dozens of restaurants, shops, churches, and galleries – some located in original adobe buildings. Great open-air Mexican restaurants, such as Cafe Coyote, serve up fresh-grilled tortillas. Grab a seat, order yourself a margarita, and snack on a spicy treat before heading back to your hotel. Old Town San Diego, tel +1 619 291 4903, oldtownsandiego.org. Cafe Coyote is on 2,461 San Diego Ave, tel +1 619 291 4695, cafecoyoteoldtown.com.