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Everything To Know About Visiting the Gaslamp Quarter

January 30, 2023
Gaslamp District

The Gaslamp Quarter, sometimes called the Gaslamp District, is a must for first timers in San Diego. Not only does it have a rich history, but it also offers plenty to do. A vibrant part of downtown San Diego, the Gaslamp Quarter has everything from historic landmarks, shopping, and dining to nightlife, live music, theater, and more. 

Read on to learn about the history of this fascinating neighborhood and what to do while you’re here.

History of the Gaslamp Quarter

Gaslamp Quarter

The Gaslamp Quarter may be the vibrant heart of downtown San Diego now, but it had a rough start. The area was originally known as Rabbitville as early development attempts failed and it was predominantly inhabited by rabbits. San Francisco-based merchant William Heath Davis began developing the area in 1850, which was then called New Town, but it wasn’t until real estate developer Alonzo Horton purchased 800 acres of land here that major developments started. 

A red light district called Stingaree emerged in New Town around the 1880s. The Stingaree was full of saloons, brothels, and gambling dens that catered to sailors while they were on shore. 

In 1912, San Diego announced it would host the Panama-California Exposition, and the city began cleaning up the Stingaree. The police then raided the brothels though the district’s ill repute continued for a few more decades. 

It wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that a revitalization of the area and attempts to clean up the district’s image began. That’s when the area was renamed the Gaslamp Quarter, a nod to its Victorian-era history and the gas lamps that once lit the streets. Faux gas lamps and brick sidewalks were later installed, adding to the bygone feel. 

Visit the Gaslamp Museum

If you’re a history buff, the Gaslamp Museum, located in the Davis-Horton House, is a must. The Davis-Horton house is the oldest standing structure in downtown San Diego and is one of the eight prefabricated “saltbox”-style homes that William Heath Davis had purchased and shipped from Maine in 1850. 

The museum features a rotating exhibit, lecture series, and various events. It’s open to the public from Wednesday to Saturday, and they also offer private tours on Tuesdays. 

Tip: Visiting in October? Kids get free admission to the Gaslamp Museum all month long!

Historic Balboa Theatre

Historic Balboa Theatre

The Balboa Theatre opened in 1926, showing movies and live vaudeville. Over the decades, the theater was almost gutted and demolished, but fortunately a group of advocates managed to save the building and have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The theater’s design combines Moorish and Spanish Revival styles, making it a great photo op, especially for architecture buffs, and much of its original elements have been thankfully restored. 

Balboa Theatre is now one of the top performing arts venues in San Diego, hosting jazz performances, ballet, and more. Check out their calendar and attend a performance at this San Diego landmark. 

Gaslamp Quarter Walking Tour

Gaslamp Quarter

A walking tour is always a great way to get the lay of the land and its history when you’re visiting a destination for the first time. Our Gaslamp Quarter Walking Tour takes travelers to see some of the best preserved Victorian architecture in the Gaslamp while diving into its darker history — including some ghost stories, of course.

Your journey includes landmarks like the Spreckles Theater, Horton Plaza Park, the US Grant Hotel, the Louis Bank of Commerce, and more. After the two-hour experience, your local guide will leave you with insider tips for more to do during your visit, whether you want to experience the nightlife, grab a bite to eat, or learn more about the history.

Gaslamp Artisan Market

For shopping or browsing local goods, head to the Gaslamp Artisan Market and support small businesses. The market brings over 70 vendors offering local products from clothing to art to home goods.

The outdoor market is held every Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. right in the Gaslamp Quarter. Find them on Fifth Avenue between Market and Island avenues. Portions of the streets will be closed to make it pedestrian-friendly during market hours, and it’s a great “local” experience for travelers to join in.

Entertainment and nightlife in the Gaslamp

Horton Grand Hotel

More than anything, the Gaslamp Quarter is known for being the go-to place in San Diego for dining, entertainment, and nightlife. The Gaslamp District is packed with restaurants, bars, and clubs of all kinds, from dives to high-end dining. You can find Tijuana-style tacos at Tacos El Cabron or splurge on steaks from Huntress.  

One landmark watering hole in the Gaslamp that I recommend is Tivoli Bar and Grill. This is the oldest bar in San Diego. The building dates all the way back to 1872 when it operated as a boarding house. It later became a saloon in 1885. Today, Tivoli is a classic dive bar. Order a local brew with a side of chicken wings and take in the surroundings — don’t miss the antique silver cash register on display. It dates to the 19th century.

Looking for other Gaslamp Quarter nightlife options? Here are a few more to check out:

Where should I park in the Gaslamp District?

Like many downtown areas, San Diego’s Gaslamp neighborhood doesn’t have lots of parking, and you’re not likely to find any that’s free. The better choice is taking the bus or trolley using the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System. It’s also pretty walkable. For example, it’s just over a mile from Balboa Park.

If you’re driving and looking to save, try the Park It On Market garage at Market Street and 6th Avenue. They do a $5 flat rate starting at 6 p.m. from Sunday through Thursday. But this offer isn’t good if there are special events like Padres games going on, so be sure to check before you go.

Is downtown San Diego the same as Gaslamp?

Good question, and it’s a common one. The Gaslamp Quarter is actually part of downtown San Diego. The Gaslamp is a historic 16.5-block neighborhood that runs from First Avenue to Sixth Avenue south of Broadway. It’s close to both the San Diego Convention Center and Petco Park downtown. 

How close is the Gaslamp Quarter to the beach?

While the Gaslamp Quarter is near the water and within walking distance of the port, there’s no beach in this particular part of the waterfront. The closest beach to the Gaslamp Quarter is Coronado Beach, located across the bay. It’s about a 10-minute drive away.

If you prefer, you can hit up Ocean Beach and Mission Beach to the north. These are about 15-20 minutes from the Gaslamp District. 

The Historic Heart of San Diego

Gaslamp Quarter

The Gaslamp Quarter is often called the Historic Heart of San Diego, and for good reason. In the Gaslamp, Victorian-era architecture mingles with modern skyscrapers. Chic restaurants and rooftop bars await after your walking tour.

Find out more about the history and magic of this district on our Gaslamp Quarter Walking Tour.