Although San Diego was “born” in the area now referred to as Old Town, below the site of the first Spanish mission, in the 1850s developers William Heath Davis, Andrew Gray, and later Alonzo Horton purchased raw bayfront property with dreams of a new city. Their plan hit paydirt in the 1870s when a brief but prosperous gold rush in nearby Julian helped develop today’s downtown. Although the area south of Broadway had become derelict a century later, in 1974 a two-by-eight-block strip was coined the Gaslamp Quarter and designated as a historic district, celebrating the wealth of Victorian buildings that blossomed in the years leading up to WWI.
Start your walk at Fourth Avenue and Broadway, at (1) Horton Plaza (south side of Broadway, between Fourth and Third Avenues), a half-block park created in 1871 by the modern city’s founder. It was the hub of the city for decades, used by President Benjamin Harrison and others to address the community. Today it is anchored by an Irving Gill-designed fountain, added in 1910 when the (2) U.S. Grant Hotel (326 Broadway; www.usgrant.net) across Broadway opened. The hotel was for many years the city’s top spot, slept in by some 13 U.S. presidents. It was purchased and extensively renovated by the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Indians in 2003, reopening in 2005.
Immediately south of the park is the (3) Horton Plaza Shopping Center (324 Broadway; www.hortonplaza.com), a complex that opened in 1985 to raves for its playful village architecture, designed by Jon Jerde. Luring San Diegans downtown to shop for the first time in a generation, the shopping center was the principal catalyst behind the historic Gaslamp’s renaissance. The complex wraps around the Balboa Theatre at Fourth and E Street, a 1924 classic with a tiled dome, subject of a $26.5 million restoration that finished in 2007.
Continue south down Fourth Avenue, which marks the western edge of the Quarter. On the southeast corner of Fourth and Market Street is the (4) Hotel Lester (401 Market Street), a 1906 building that housed a saloon, pool hall, and lodging once favored by prostitutes. On the southwest corner is the (5) Frey Building (345 Market Street). Although dominated by a Starbucks today, this 1911 structure was first a hardware store, then a Chinese restaurant, and in the 1950s it became Crossroads, the city’s first jazz club. Just past Crossroads in the middle of the block is the (6) Royal Pie Bakery building (554-560 Fourth Avenue), also from 1911, where sweet potato pie and steam crackers were crafted (today a home to several restaurants). The upper floor was originally the Anchor Hotel, a house of ill repute run by Madam Cora—closed down in 1935 for “rampant immorality.”
The northeast corner of Fourth and Island Avenues is the (7) William Heath Davis House (410 Island Avenue), downtown’s oldest surviving building. Prefabricated in New England in 1850 and shipped around Cape Horn, this “saltbox” family home was originally located at Market and State streets and relocated to the Gaslamp in 1984. Lived in by Alonzo Horton in 1867, it is now home to the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation (www.gaslampquarter.org), and guided tours are available Tuesday through Sunday.
Take a right on Island, passing the (8) Horton Grand Hotel (311 Island Avenue; www.hortongrand.com), an unusual merger of two 1886 Gaslamp hotels that were slated for demolition and moved to this site in 1981, where they were joined by a glass atrium. Wyatt Earp lived in the former Brooklyn Hotel—the western half—for most of his seven years in San Diego. Take a left on Third Avenue and toward the end of the block at 429 Third you’ll spot the 1888 (9) home of Ah Quin (433 Third Avenue), one of the first Chinese merchants in the city, who became known as the “Mayor of Chinatown.” Across the street is the (10) Chinese Mission (404 Third Avenue), now the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum (www.sdchm.org), where Chinese immigrants studied English. Keep an eye out in this area of the Gaslamp and you’ll spot other Chinatown influences.
Take a left on J Street and go east two blocks to Fifth Avenue. The area here was most impacted by the development of the (11) San Diego Convention Center (111 West Harbor Drive) in 1989 (expanded in 2002), located just south on reclaimed land—Harbor Drive was once the waterfront. This is ground zero for a plethora of 21st-century condo projects and upscale hotels to greet the meeting crowds.
Take a left on Fifth and head north. The (12) Metropolitan Hotel (southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Market Street) dates to 1886 and looks, at first, vaguely contemporary—note the telltale 19th-century columns on the street level. On the northwest corner is the (13) Backesto Building (614 Fifth Avenue), from 1873; originally a one-story structure, the building grew classical and Victorian details—and a second floor—during its first 15 years. This area of the Gaslamp was better known as Stingaree, the red light district, replete with opium dens and gambling saloons.
Continuing north you’ll spot the charming (14) Yuma Building (633 Fifth Avenue); it was built in 1882 by Captain Wilcox, and like the Bakesto, it started as a single-story brick structure that was added to as the area prospered. It was also one of the first Gaslamp properties to be adapted for contemporary purposes, in the 1980s, and the upper floors are an urban townhouse. At the southwest corner of Fifth and G Streets is a (15) Florentine Italianate building (433 G Street) dating to 1874. The second and third floors were added to house the city’s library in 1887, and in 1890 it became City Hall. Kitty-corner is the (16) Pacific Gaslamp Theatre (701 Fifth Avenue), a 1997 addition, which was the first major attempt to integrate a large-scale contemporary structure into the historic setting.
Continue along Fifth to F Street—the (17) Spencer-Ogden Building (770 Fifth Avenue) on the southwest corner is one of the Quarter’s oldest, dating to 1874. It has been home to a number of businesses through the decades, including druggists, real estate agents, and a dentist known as Painless Parker; it is also the oldest structure continuously owned by the same family. Across the street on the northwest corner, the (18) Keating Building (432 F Street), dating to 1890, is the epicenter of the Gaslamp’s revival—in 1975 Croce’s restaurant, owned by the widow of music legend Jim Croce, was an early stakeholder. Further along Fifth is the (19) Louis Bank of Commerce (835 Fifth Avenue), a four-story baroque revival that was downtown’s first granite structure—today it is one of the most distinguished buildings. Built the same year as the Hotel del Coronado, the ground floor has been home to a bank, a 24-hour ice cream parlor, and an oyster bar frequented by Wyatt Earp, while upstairs was the Golden Poppy Brothel, run by a fortune teller.
Take a left on Broadway to return to your original starting point at Horton Plaza.
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