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A Historical Walking Tour of San Diego

Downtown San Diego is a living tribute to history and revitalization. The Gaslamp Quarter followed up its boisterous boomtown years—the late 1800s, when Wyatt Earp ran gambling halls and sailors frequented brothels lining 4th and 5th avenues—with a long stint of seediness, emerging only recently as a glamorous place to live and play. Little Italy, once a bustling Italian fishing neighborhood, got a fresh start when the city took its cause to heart.

Where It All Started

Begin at the corner of 4th and Island. There you'll find the 150-year-old William Heath Davis House, a saltbox structure shipped around Cape Horn and assembled in the Gaslamp Quarter. Among its famous former residents: Alonzo Horton, the city's founder. Take a tour, keeping a lookout for the house's current resident: a lady ghost.

From there walk a block east to 5th Avenue and head north. Along the way, you'll see some of the 16½-block historic district's best-known Victorian-era commercial beauties, including the Italianate Marston Building (at F Street), the Keating Building, the Spencer-Ogden Building, and the Old City Hall. Architecture buffs should pick up a copy of San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter, a self-guided tour published by the Historical Society.

At E Street, head back over to 4th Avenue and you'll behold the Balboa Theatre, a striking Spanish Renaissance-style building that was constructed in 1923 and restored in 2007. Right next to it is Westfield Horton Plaza mall, which opened its doors in 1985. This multilevel mall played a huge role in downtown's revitalization, as entrepreneurs and preservationists realized the value of the Gaslamp Quarter. Pop across Broadway to check out the stately U.S. Grant Hotel, built in 1910 by the son of President Ulysses S. Grant.

Art Stop

Follow Broadway west to Kettner Boulevard, where the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) makes a bold statement with its steel-and-glass lines. It's definitely worth a wander, as is MCASD's newest addition across the street, situated in the renovated baggage depot of the 1915 Santa Fe Depot (the station itself is also a stunner).

From Fishermen to Fashionistas

From there, head north on Kettner until you hit A Street, make a quick right, and then take a left on India Street. This is the heart of Little Italy, which at the turn of the 20th century was a bustling Italian fishing village. The area fell into disarray in the early 1970s due to a decline in the tuna industry and the construction of I–5, which destroyed 35% of the area. In 1996, a group of forward-thinking architects—commissioned by the city—created a cache of new residential, retail, and public areas that coexist beautifully with the neighborhood's historic charms. Now, it's a vibrant urban center with hip eateries, bars, and boutiques. You'll find remnants of retro Little Italy, from authentic cafés (check out Pappalecco, a popular gelateria) to boccie ball matches played by old-timers at Amici Park.

Updated: 03-2013

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