Gaslamp Quarter: Journey to the historic district of San Diego

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Lluis Enric Mayans

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Fifteen blocks in downtown San Diego make up Gaslamp: the most characteristic district of San Diego and (however recent it may be) the most definable as the "historic center". Of course, it is unthinkable to travel to San Diego without at least taking a walk on the 5th Avenue, the central street of Gaslamp. Anyone visiting San Diego for the first time might think the Old Town, given its name, is the oldest area of ​​the city. In truth, while that is the first Californian settlement, Gaslamp is the historic heart of the city of San Diego as we know it today.

The name of the neighborhood derives from the old gas lamps, many of which still survive on the sidewalks of the main streets, and we find it reproduced in the large arched sign located at the southern end of 5th Ave., where it overlooks Harbor Dr. But Gaslamp isn't just old street lamps! Among the contemporary skyscrapers, historic buildings remain undeterred, many of them in the Victorian style. Homes and hotels alternate with shops, bars and restaurants, which contribute to making Gaslamp the district par excellence in which going out at night in San Diego.


  • History of the neighborhood
  • What to see in the Gaslamp Quarter
    • Historic buildings along 5th Avenue
    • Balboa Theatre
    • Davis Horton House
    • Horton Plaza Park
  • Tours of the neighborhood
  • Where to sleep at the Gaslamp Quarter

History of the neighborhood

The history of the neighborhood it is long and troubled. It all began in 1867, when the real estate entrepreneur Alonzo Horton (hence the name of the neighborhood's central square), he bought this large plot of land with the intention of creating a new city center closer to the bay. This area used to be known as New Town: in stark contrast to the Old Town where the first form of city was born.

From shopping area, famous for red light clubs and gambling, Gaslamp saw an attempt at redevelopment, which unfortunately resulted in a period of severe urban decay. In the 80s and 90s of the twentieth century a great effort was made to give new life to the neighborhood and it was during this period that the district received its current name, despite the fact that there were very few gas lamps. Today is registered as a historic district, on the National Register of Historic Places, as “Gaslamp quarter historic district”.

What to see in the Gaslamp Quarter

Having gone from being the most infamous district to the hottest one in the city, today Gaslamp offers good food, entertainment and shopping to tourists and locals alike. We could not not include it in the things to see in San Diego, so much has left us pleasantly surprised. But since at first glance it may seem not so different from the central neighborhoods of other American cities, let's go and explore it thoroughly to discover every secret.

Historic buildings along 5th Avenue

Yuma Building

I have already mentioned that the 5th Avenue is the main street. My advice is to take a walk too in 4th Ave., 6th Ave. and in the various crossroads that connect these three roads, starting from the power plant Market Street. The bulk of the historic buildings, however, is concentrated on "Fifth Street", and there are three that in particular capture everyone's attention.

Lo Yuma Building is located at 631. Dating back to 1882, this Victorian-style red brick structure with Art Deco influences stands out against its surrounding context with its protruding windows and two spiers. Three floors (four with the basement) are not many compared to the skyscrapers that stand behind it, but its facade certainly makes it much more beautiful to photograph. The name Yuma refers to the area of ​​Arizona where the one who wanted it worked. The building has changed function several times over the years, today it is home to cultural events that alternate frequently inside.

Louis Bank of Commerce (left) and Nesmith-Greely Building (right)

At number 825 there is another clearly distinguishable red building: the Nesmith-Greely Building. Built in 1888, it is another architectural highlight for the central street of Gaslamp, but unlike the previous one it is not accessible inside as it houses private apartments. The Romanesque style is made unique by the rows of windows bordered in white, each with a different shape.

Right next to it is the building of the Louis Bank of Commerce, built in the same year, but in a style inspired by the Baroque. The architecture is more elaborate and to distinguish it in particular the two turrets on the top. It seems that originally it should have had a further floor, but due to lack of building material the project was modified by creating the two turrets that make it much more curious. For the same reason, it is noted that one of the two windows on the top floor does not have a balcony.

Here is a list of some others interesting historic buildings on 5th Ave.:

  • Hubbell Building (civico 813)
  • Spencer Ogden Building (civico 770)
  • Cole Block Building (civico 702)
  • Old City Hall (civico 664)
  • Bijou Theater (civico 658)
  • Casino Theater (civic 643)
  • Manila Cafe (civic 515)
  • Broker's Building (404 Market Street)
  • Samuel I. Fox Building (531 Broadway)
Casino Theater
Manila Cafe
Hubbell Building
Spencer Ogden Building

Along 5th Ave., between one place and another, it is also interesting to stop by Chuck Jones Gallery (house number 232): an art gallery with sketches, prints and sculptures by Mr. Jones. Many will ask you who he is: well, none other than the creator of many Looney Tunes characters and Warner Bros such as Wile E. Coyote, Road Runner, Bugs Bunny and Duffy Duck, characters who have made and continue to make cartoon history.

Neighborhood events Gaslamp Quarter hosts many city events and festivals: western-themed festivals and folly Mardi Gras there are only two of the events to mark on the calendar. Read our article dedicated to San Diego events to find out more!

Balboa Theatre

Gaslamp doesn't end on 5th Avenue: along 4th Avenue it is impossible not to notice the Balboa Theatre. This theater was built in 1924 as a venue mainly dedicated to cinema and in 1934 it was renovated and started offering contemporary films produced in Mexico City and presenting the greatest stars of Latin American cinema.

In the period of the Second World War, the upper floors (until then occupied by offices) were converted into accommodation for the sailors and remained so even at the end of the war. In the 50s it risked being demolished and was rescued by the Russo family, who bought it in 1959 running it as an action movie house, then selling it to the San Diego Municipality in 1986.

Unfortunately the theater remained closed for over twenty years, until in 2002 the city redevelopment agency undertook to preserve it as a public good and finance its restoration (26,5 million dollars). In 2008 the Balboa Theater reopened its doors with great and growing success demonstrated by the public and by the awards received at local, state and national levels.

Davis Horton House

The oldest of all the houses in the Gaslamp Quarter is the Davis Horton House (410 Island Ave.). The building dates back to 1850 and is home to the historic foundation of the neighborhood. Entering it you can see how people lived here at the end of the nineteenth century. Foundation volunteers, often dressed in period clothing, are available to tell stories of times gone by.

The house is called saltbox because the shape is reminiscent of old salt boxes. It can be visited from Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 17pm, Sunday from 12pm to 16pm. The ticket costs $ 5, but there are also guided tours available that you can check on the official website.

Horton Plaza Park

The neighborhood square it is easy to find, also because there are no others. On one side we find a small public garden surrounded by palm trees. Next to it, a fountain with water features around a small temple. The other half of the square is a large public space that hosts events of all kinds and that you will hardly find empty. On this page you can see if there is any event you like on the days you stay in San Diego. In the square there is also an outdoor bar where you can pleasantly stop while visiting the neighborhood.

Tips on where to eat If you feel peckish after visiting the neighborhood, know that There is no shortage of restaurants to try in Gaslamp. In our article where to eat in San Diego you will find recommendations on the best restaurants in the neighborhood and the entire city.

Tours of the neighborhood

To better appreciate this district, we recommend a guided tour on foot, by bike or by Segway that also allows you to learn about the history and often anecdotes about the points of interest. To choose the one that best suits your needs, we suggest you consult the proposals by clicking on the link below.

Check out the Gaslamp Quarter tours

Where to sleep at the Gaslamp Quarter

Here are some suggestions for staying overnight in this neighborhood bearing in mind that there are excellent solutions even outside the Gaslamp, a short distance away. L'Omni San Diego Hotel (675 L St.) is a short distance from the MLB Padres stadium and across the street is the Convention Center. Contemporary rooms and suites have city or bay views. The property has a fitness center, business center, restaurant, wi-fi and outdoor terrace with heated pool and fireplace.

A pleasant experience is lived at The Keating Hotel by Pininfarina (432 F St.) which features its historic 1890 facade with a bright color and rounded shape. Despite their age, the rooms and suites are modern and functional. At guests' disposal there is a 24/7 concierge service, a meeting room, a restaurant and a spa. The hotel is pet friendly but charges $ 100 for the four-legged friend and valet parking costs $ 45 per night.

Il San Diego Marriott Gaslamp Quarter (660 K St.) is a historic hotel built in 1913. The European-style suites and rooms are different from each other, equipped with mini-fridges, microwaves, and coffeemakers. Breakfast is served on the terrace overlooking the city. The property features a restaurant, business center and valet parking at a cost of $ 32 per night with unlimited entry and exit.

Built in the mid 1880s theHorton Grand Hotel (311 Island Ave.) has classic rooms with historic decor. The hotel has wi-fi throughout the hotel, a 24-hour gift shop, business center, meeting place and restaurant. Private parking available at a cost of $ 42 per day but other options are within walking distance.

Look for a hotel in the Gaslamp Quarter

If you want more tips on the neighborhood and other areas of the city, you can consult our article entirely dedicated to where to sleep in San Diego.

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