San Diego is a city that is regularly lauded for its quality of life. Travelers can rent a little of this quality by dropping by for a visit. In my experiences in San Diego, I'm always impressed by the city's easygoing energy and the simplicity of navigating the city's streets. For a major metropolis, there's a surprising hometown feel that can probably be attributed to San Diego's distinctly different neighborhoods. Two of my favorites are the Gaslamp Quarter and San Diego's version of Little Italy.
The Gaslamp Quarter is 16 blocks of sidewalk cafés, restaurants, clubs, specialty shops, art galleries and microbreweries. On my last visit to San Diego, I stayed in the ultra-hip (www.ivyhotel.com), a comparatively new Gaslamp Quarter hotel that is redefining San Diego cool. The modernity of the Ivy's interior design contrasted nicely with the 19th-century atmosphere of the Gaslamp Quarter.
In its former incarnation as a red-light district, the quarter had some pretty unsavory names, being referred to as Flea Town, Rabbitville and Stingaree. The Gaslamp Quarter is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The quarter contains 94 historical buildings in a variety of architectural styles, including Classical Revival, Spanish Renaissance Revival, Modern, Oriental, Spanish, Baroque and Italian Baroque Revival styles. A nice touch in the quarter is the restored gaslamps and wide brick sidewalks. During the early evening hours, the quarter's restaurants and bars are filled with visitors and residents, creating a convivial and lively scene.
I stumbled upon San Diego's Little Italy by accident and quickly rearranged my schedule so I'd have a few hours to explore the neighborhood.
Little Italy in San Diego is situated in the northwest end of downtown and dates back to the 1920s. At its height, more than 6,000 Italian families lived within Little Italy's 56 square blocks. It's actually larger than other, more famous Little Italy neighborhoods, such as those in San Francisco and New York.
Many of Little Italy's residents were fishermen in their homeland. After migrating to San Diego, Italians became the backbone of the local tuna-fishing industry. Tuna fishing has since declined and today many of the fishermen's cottages have been converted into small shops and cafés, offering everything from hip housewares to that perfect cup of espresso.
San Diego's ample sunshine makes sidewalk dining possible year-round. As you'd expect, there are plenty of options for dining Italian, but you'll also find a range of restaurants, from Mexican to Japanese.
Each fall, the neighborhood celebrates the Little Italy Precious Festa. The event has grown to become the largest single-day Italian-American festival west of the Mississippi. This year's Little Italy Precious Festa will be held October 12.
One reason San Diego gets high marks for its quality of life is its coastal location and proximity to some of the best beaches in California. During my visit, I happened to combine my forays into San Diego's neighborhoods with some beach time at La Jolla and Coronado Island. La Jolla is a sophisticated and upscale beach town and Coronado Island has a caught-in-time quality that melts stress away. Both are only minutes from downtown and really cap off a San Diego vacation.