San Diego may be better known for sun, surf and SeaWorld than for its art scene, but there’s plenty of culture in this California beach city — if you who know where to look. From the established art centers in Balboa Park to the eclectic galleries in hip North Park, we’ve got the scoop on art attractions, cool events and trendy places to eat in San Diego’s arty neighborhoods.
Party at Balboa Park
With 15 museums set amid verdant gardens, Balboa Park is a must-see for art lovers. This year, when the park celebrates its 100th anniversary, there’s all the more reason to visit. At the Museum of Photographic Arts, the U.S. premiere of “7 billion Others,” a multimedia exhibition featuring more than 6,000 video portraits of individuals filmed in 84 countries, runs through mid-September. Other museums worth investigating are the Mingei International Museum, exhibiting folk arts and crafts from around the world, and the grand San Diego Museum of Art, which showcases everything from Old Masters to contemporary creations. When you need a break, head for the recently opened Panama 66, a beer bar in the art museum’s garden that has a curated selection of local microbrews.
Go to the Library
Opened in 2013, San Diego’s new Central Library has become an architectural landmark in downtown’s increasingly cool East Village, near the San Diego Padres’ Petco Park. Designed by architect Rob Quigley and topped with a space-age dome, the nine-story structure houses more than 1.2 million volumes, an auditorium, a café and even a charter high school. On offer are several different tours, including architecture walks focused on the building’s design and art tours of the library’s 150-piece collection. Sessions are free, but reservations are required.
If you’re hungry after your library visit, head for Común Kitchen and Tavern, a sleek industrial space that’s the latest of San Diego’s “Baja Med” eateries, fusing Mexican, Mediterranean and California influences. Start with fried Brussels sprouts tossed with Caesar dressing or smoked mahi mahi atop arugula, then order a tostada or three heaped with roasted lamb and beans, grilled chicken with hominy, or beef heart tartare. When it’s time for a cocktail, wander over to the Gaslamp Quarter’s Rooftop600, the stylish terrace lounge at the Andaz San Diego.
Explore a Shipshape Art Center
Drive west of the airport to find what might be the region’s most unexpected arts destination: a former naval training center that’s morphed into an arts district, known as NTC at Liberty Station. Spots to seek out include the Visions Art Museum, which features textiles and contemporary quilts, and the newly reopened New Americans Museum, which showcases stories and art from newcomers to the U.S. The best time to go is on the first Friday of every month when the complex hosts Friday Night Liberty, an evening of open studios, performances and other free events.
Mangia in Little Italy
If you want to know more about San Diego’s food culture, head for Little Italy, a downtown district that’s become one of the city’s hottest dining areas. Go easy on the red sauce, though; it’s no longer just about the pasta and pizza here. One of the freshest don’t-miss destinations is Juniper and Ivy, where chef Richard Blais (winner of Bravo’s Top Chef All-Stars) and his team cook up dinner with a “left coast edge.” Sample anything from the raw bar (we highly recommend the Ensenada sea urchin with pomegranate), then share a salad of kale sprouts with a preserved lemon dressing or a bowl of linguine with clams and uni butter. Finish with the delicate tres leches cake topped with milk crisps, or go wild with the yodel, a substantial cylinder of chocolate cake stuffed with pudding and hazelnut brittle, sauced with hot chocolate.
Get Arty in North Park
Along University Avenue at 30th Street, the North Park neighborhood has an emerging art scene and some cool little boutiques. If you’re looking for leather goods or gifts from around the world, stop into Geographie Shop (we’re obsessed with the creative T-shirts from San Diego’s own Live A Great Story). Across the street, linger over a latte at Claire de Lune Coffee Lounge. Most area galleries are on nearby Ray Street, which hosts an art walk, Ray at Night, on the second Saturday evening of every month, with art shows, munchies and music.
Pig Out at the Shack
The Carnitas’ Snack Shack, that is. At this funky and deservedly popular Mexican-style meatery (look for the porcine sculpture on the roof), satisfy your carnitas cravings en route to or from the North Park shops. Line up at the order window, then find a seat in the shady garden and dig into a plate of tacos or a torta on a fluffy telera (sandwich roll), piled high with its fresh and juicy signature pork. If you’re a famished pig fan, order a triple threat sandwich filled with carnitas, schnitzel and bacon.
Flex Your Film Muscles at the Digital Gym
Like movies? Then see what’s showing at the Digital Gym, part of Media Art Center San Diego, which screens an eclectic selection of creative films. The new Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts dramedy While We’re Young shows on March 26. And yes, it serves freshly popped popcorn.
Linger in La Jolla
While La Jolla has some of the region’s loveliest beaches, there’s plenty to do beyond the coves and sands. Start your art explorations at the striking Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego; be sure to take in the ocean views from the sculpture garden behind the museum. Afterward, browse the galleries along Prospect Street, or see what’s on the concert calendar at the classy Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, which hosts free mini-concerts every other Monday at noon, as well as evening events from jazz to classical.
When it’s time for lunch, you can’t go wrong with a table on the Ocean Terrace at George’s at the Cove, which serves California modern fare such as Niman Ranch burgers and kale and lentil salad, overlooking the sea. If you’re in the mood for something more casual, nab a patio seat at Puesto Mexican Street Eats for its upscale approach to ceviche or mix ’n’ match tacos. You can also take your childhood milkshake craving South of the Border with a frozen horchata (a vanilla-cinnamon rice drink). Because when you’ve got art, entertainment and creamy treats, you might forget all about the beach.