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San Diego has an energetic art scene with a diverse range of influences — from our Spanish and Mexican roots, to our long tradition of seafaring, through current strengths in science and technology. You can fill an afternoon or an entire day touring the creativity in these artistic zones.
In the early 1970s, this residential community became host to the world's largest concentration of Chicano murals. The past decade has seen a resurgence of artistic spirit and cultural pride. Starting from Chicano Park, head south along Logan Avenue towards Sampson Street. You’ll find galleries, bookstores and brewpubs tucked between the local V.F.W. Hall and piñata supply. There are no chain stores here; these are locally-owned small businesses and hours can be variable. At Por Vida Gallery & Coffee, order a horchata cold brew and ask for insider tips on where to go next. There’s a good chance the barista is a local artist or craftsperson.
North Park is a prime example of the transformative power of architectural restoration, culinary creativity and a grassroots arts community. An eclectic array of farm-to-table restaurants, independent coffee shops, boutiques, galleries and street art can be found in the blocks around University Avenue and 30th Street. Visit the historic Observatory North Park, a 1929 theater transformed into a concert and nightlife venue. A popular event is “Ray at Night,” held on the second Saturday of each month. Local artists display their work, bands set up on the sidewalk and people dance in the streets.
The Gaslamp Quarter may be best known for its concentration of bars and nightclubs, but there’s much more to the neighborhood. Start at the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum, where exhibits and monthly walking tours tell the story of how this district evolved from its days of gambling and bordellos. From there it’s about six blocks to Sparks Gallery, housed in the 1924 Sterling Hardware Building. Local art is complemented by period light fixtures, Carrara marble and original maple floorboards. Wrap up with a show at the Balboa Theater, once a hotspot for vaudeville, now a restored charmer filled with Moorish and Spanish Revival detail.
Begin at the harbor, with the ships of the Maritime Museum of San Diego. The 1898 steam ferry Berkeley houses a variety of art exhibits on two decks and is an artwork in itself, with exquisite Victorian style in the stained-glass windows and lustrous wood benches. Floating nearby is the San Salvador, a replica of the 16th century galleon captained by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, the first European explorer to reach the West Coast. Other highlights include a Soviet submarine, the Star of India and the H.M.S. Surprise.
If you’re ready to burn off some calories, turn inland and head for Waterfront Park, stopping to admire three sculptures by internationally-acclaimed artist Niki de Saint Phalle. Then crank up the energy for a trek to Little Italy, once home to thousands of workers in San Diego’s tuna trade. It’s a little over a half-mile but there’s a noticeable elevation gain. End your jaunt with a gelato at one of the sidewalk cafes, then browse funky furniture shops, boutiques and art galleries.
Experience the ARTS DISTRICT Liberty Station, a growing destination for San Diego's creative types. Formerly a Navy training base, now waterfront parks surround art galleries, museums, restaurants and more. Watch a rehearsal of Malashock Dance or San Diego Ballet at Dance Place San Diego. Tap into your own creativity by taking a hands-on workshop at Bravo School of Art or the Recreational Music Center. Get your favorite comic book autographed at the San Diego Comic Art Gallery. On the first Friday of every month, the ARTS DISTRICT stays open late for a free artwalk, “Friday Night Liberty,” with special performances, exhibitions and events.
Balboa Park is an international destination for arts, science and culture. With 17 museums and more than 10 performance spaces, you can plan a route or just let serendipity guide you. The San Diego Museum of Art, Timken Museum, Mingei Museum, San Diego Art Institute and Museum of Photographic Arts will be at the top of anyone’s list, but lesser-known gems can be found at the San Diego History Center, which has an extensive collection of early 20th century plein air painters; at the Japanese Friendship Garden, where the Inamori Pavilion shows contemporary art inspired by Japanese culture; and at the San Diego Natural History Museum, which recently unveiled their collection of A.R. Valentien’s “plant portraits,” meticulous illustrations of California wildflowers.
First stop is the downtown branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, with a rotating calendar of top-flight exhibitions. Then make a swing through the historic Santa Fe Train Depot, a stunning example of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, as you head for the San Diego State University Downtown Gallery. There you’ll find regional, national and international artists, including SDSU faculty and students.
A few blocks to the west is Pae White’s lighthearted “Birds' Word's” sculpture/building, while a few blocks to the east is an unusual site for public art, the Federal Courthouse. Look for landscape design and a 32-foot prismatic winged obelisk by San Diego resident Robert Irwin, the iconic Light and Space artist. Finally, hoof it about a half mile south to The New Children's Museum, where you can engage your little one, or your inner child, with interactive exhibits.
The University of California, San Diego, is world-renowned for its scientific and engineering achievements, but innovation is everywhere. On the campus you’ll find the La Jolla Playhouse, a Tony Award-winning theater; the Stuart Collection of site-specific sculptures; and ArtPower, producer of cutting-edge music, film and dance. A notable landmark is the futuristic Geisel Library, designed by William Pereira, and a short walk away is the Salk Institute, Louis Kahn's serene architectural masterpiece.
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