Formerly San Diego’s “skid row,” downtown San Diego’s core historic area was reborn in the 1980s under a new name: the Gaslamp Quarter. Actually, gas lamps were never used for outdoor lighting in San Diego — though today you can find a few decorative ones. Rather, the district’s distinctive gas-lamp-style electric streetlights pretty much inform you whether you’re in the Gaslamp Quarter or not. This is the place to go in the daytime for scoping out dozens of historic buildings dating from the latter 1800s through the early 1900s and (by night, especially) for feeling the pulse of thousands of visitors milling about, drinking at watering holes, and dining in fine restaurants.
Ignoring small exceptions, the Gaslamp Quarter district stretches two blocks from west to east (Fourth and Sixth avenues) and eight blocks from north to south (Broadway to Harbor Drive). The layout of the buildings is a surveyor’s dream: The square blocks are filled with shoulder-to-shoulder buildings extending 200 feet east-west and 300 feet north-south. Most of the buildings are narrow (25 or 50 feet) and often have several stories. Others have frontages of various multiples of 25 feet, up to 225 feet in the case of one historic building — the 1873 Backesto Building on Fifth Avenue. Some of the buildings here are modern (21st Century), but even those were designed to fit in harmoniously with the earlier structures.
A definitive starting point for our Gaslamp Quarter tour is the historic Horton Plaza fountain at Fourth and Broadway. The century-old fountain (which may be within the boundary of a construction zone for a new public plaza by 2012 or 2013) was one of the first to combine colored lighting effects with flowing water. Across Broadway lies the elegant US Grant Hotel, dating from 1910.
Head south on Fourth Avenue, staying on the left (or east) side to remain close to a long row of historic buildings. More than 90 buildings throughout the Gaslamp are tagged with brass plaques, each including a short historical description. At the end of the fifth block (Fourth and Island Avenue), on the left, pay a visit to the William Heath Davis House (1850), which houses the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation’s visitor center. There you can pick up a guide map for the 90+ historic buildings in the Gaslamp district.
After traveling two more blocks south (nearly as far as Harbor Drive and the Convention Center) it may be best — for purposes of historical interest alone — to swing left on K Street and left again on Fifth Avenue. Now, as you head north on either side of Fifth, you’re going to encounter the best in historic architecture or the wildest nightlife if you’re here during the late-night hours. Notable daytime sights include the old San Diego City Hall building (1874) at Fifth and G, the Backesto Building (the long, low one) at Fifth and Market, the 1890 Keating Building at Fifth and F, and the ornate 1888 Lewis Bank of Commerce building on Fifth between E and F. When you reach E Street, head back to Fourth to return to Horton Plaza.
Naturally, you’ll be tempted to stray off of the route described above. You can head west to check out downtown San Diego’s tiny Asian district centered at Third and Island, head south to follow the arrow-straight path through the Martin Luther King linear park paralleling Harbor Drive, or skip a few blocks east and picnic at the grassy “Park at the Park,” which is adjacent to the Petco Park baseball stadium.
Check out San Diego’s best historical scenery by day, and the city’s most vibrant night life after dark.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 0 miles
Hiking length: 1 mile or more • Difficulty: Easy