I’ve had the opportunity to visit Little Italy many times, and each time, I discover something new. It is time to share with you why I think your visit to downtown San Diego should include Little Italy. This is a perfect addition to my ‘Dine & Do’ series because Little Italy is a prime location for dining and doing!
San Diego’s Little Italy was established in the 1920’s. This Italian neighborhood has grown and flourished in the last two decades, mostly because of the dedication of its residents and business owners. A walk into Little Italy today will convince you to stay and enjoy it for awhile. It is a vibrant neighborhood with tree-lined streets, boutiques, art, upscale residential units, quaint bungalows, an incredible foodie scene, several beautiful piazzas, and the Our Lady of the Rosary church at the heart of it.
Little Italy is a place where people gather. You’ll see residents sitting on their front porches or out walking their dogs, children playing in a piazza, and friends meeting for dinner at a sidewalk cafe. My impression is that Little Italy is like the living room of San Diego, and all are welcome! Come explore it a little with me…
Strolling Through Little Italy
Little Italy is best seen on foot. It is designed for strolling! There’s even a prescribed ‘One-Mile Walk’ created by the residents to give visitors a workout that does not cross any intersections or stop lights.
Most of my walking begins at Amici Park because that’s where I usually park my car. Parking is free after 6:00 pm, and even if I arrive earlier in the evening, it’s only $1.25 per hour.
You might want to extend your stroll all the way to the waterfront, as it is only a few blocks away. Pay attention to the details as you walk…jacaranda trees in bloom with purple flowers, pretty flower baskets along balconies and on porches, decorative trims, brightly painted buildings, and lots of unique architecture. Even though exploring by foot is optimum, we always see people on scooters and bicycles, too. And you’ll probably see plenty of photo ops as well!
Parks and Piazzas
Little Italy has some beautiful piazzas — places where you can sit and visit, enjoy the views, even see a performance. Some commemorate special events or people, and the largest piazza is an entire city block long with bistro-style tables and chairs and a beautiful European fountain! Since I had a hard time finding some of them, I’ve pinpointed them on a map, along with a few other locations we enjoy in Little Italy. There’s Pescatore (tribute to the Tuna Fishing Industry), Basilone (war memorial), the Villaggio, and Piazza Della Famiglia (the new centerpiece of Little Italy).
Amici Park is a neighborhood park at the edge of Little Italy. It’s quiet and perfect for meet-ups with friends. It’s a good starting place for a self-guided tour of Little Italy. You can watch residents playing Bocce Ball, throwing balls for their dogs and relaxing at the dog park, or playing a game of chess. During the weekly Saturday Mercato, Amici Park is often the location of a local musical performance as well as many artisan craft booths.
Across from the harbor and adjacent to the San Diego County Administration Center is the Waterfront Park, a public park with Niki de Saint Phalle sculptures, water fountains, splash pad, an extensive playground, and large grassy expanses with beautiful garden areas and restrooms.
Architecture and Beautiful Views
I love the juxtaposition of old and new in Little Italy, and there’s nowhere it’s better seen than in the architecture. With tiny cottages, adobe buildings, quaint storefronts, sleek and modern apartment buildings, and rooftop restaurants, there’s a mix of modern and traditional, beautiful and functional. Even the gorgeous Beaux-Arts/Spanish Revival-style County Administration Building adds to the beauty of this neighborhood.
Some of the best views can be found at rooftop restaurants. We really enjoyed this view from the Glass Door Restaurant with both indoor and outdoor seating.
The Heart of Little Italy — Our Lady of the Rosary
Built in 1925, Our Lady of the Rosary Church is the resident Catholic church for Little Italy. It is at the center of their traditions, weddings, funerals, and community worship. They wanted to build a church that would help the Italian immigrants feel more at home. So it is built in a traditional Italian style and was decorated by Venetian painter, Fausto Tasca, and Italian sculptor, Carlos Romanelli. Take a peek inside if you get the chance!
The Best of the Foodie Scene
It just makes sense that you’d find Italian dining in Little Italy, but that’s not all. Dining styles and cuisines vary greatly, with the Kebab Shop, Shino Sushi & Kappo, the Prep Kitchen (a mix of fresh California cuisine), and Queenstown (New Zealand fare). My personal favorites are Italian, however, and include Isola Pizza Bar, Solunto Restaurant & Bakery, and Mimmo’s Italian Village
If you’re looking for desserts, you can’t afford to miss Extraordinary Desserts – a fine gallery of the most exquisite-looking desserts you’ve ever seen! You can certainly buy them and eat them, but just looking at them brings sheer delight. Many are decorated with beautiful arrangements of flowers. There’s also Frost Me Cafe & Bakery, Salt & Straw for artisan ice cream, and Pappalecco’s for the best gelato.
Little Italy Mercato
Every Saturday, you’ll find one of my favorite Farmer’s Markets — the Little Italy Mercato! It spreads out along Date Street, between Kettner and Front Streets, and lasts from 8 am to 2 pm. Plan to spend a few hours shopping, sampling delectable treats, enjoying the musicians on street corners, and feeling the vibe. Residents do their grocery shopping here, often pulling small wagons behind them to collect their treasures. The energy is contagious, the sights and colors and scents are amazing, and once you’ve been, you’ll want to keep coming back.
One of the things that makes Little Italy so appealing is its proximity to the waterfront. Many of the rooftop restaurants and apartment buildings have views of the harbor, and the Waterfront Park is a wonderful place to begin your explorations of San Diego’s harbor. If you’re ready to move on from Little Italy, be sure to check out ‘Doing the San Diego Harbor‘, a walking tour that follows the waterfront.
Little Italy hosts several special events throughout the year, including The Taste of Little Italy in June, plus a chalk art festival, summer film festival, Christmas tree lighting, and several more. It seems there is always something going on during weekends, and you may find dancing in the street, a musician belting out lovely Italian songs, or a street full of Lamborghinis!
Fun facts about Little Italy
- Cross streets in Little Italy are alphabetical and named after trees, from south to north. There’s Ash, Beech, Cedar, Date, Elm, Fir, Grape, Hawthorn, Ivy, Juniper, Kalmia, and Laurel. The main street of Little Italy is India Street.
- Little Italy’s beginnings were closely tied to the tuna fishing industry and at one time had 6000 Italian residents.
- Parking is relatively easy to find in Little Italy. On Saturdays, park free at the Washington Elementary’s Parking lots at W. Fir & State streets, and also at Union & W. Date streets. You can park for only $5.00 anytime after 5:00 pm weekdays or all day on Saturday or Sunday at 610 W. Ash.
- Little Italy has a beautiful website with event schedules and information about businesses.
- There’s a Firehouse Museum and Mee Shim Fine Arts Gallery if you’re looking for more places to explore.
I do hope you’ll make the time to explore Little Italy. Even if you’ve been before, it’s growing and changing all the time, for the better. Go again and see the new Piazza della Famiglia, or try new restaurants. And if you enjoyed this post, check out more San Diego features in my ‘Dine & Do’ series:
Be sure to share so others can enjoy as well!