San Diego City Guide

By: Maya Kroth

San Diego Architecture & Landmarks

San Diego's long and colorful history is evident in its architecture. Though the area's native residents left little permanent trace on the city, the structures built by Spanish missionaries still remain, most notably in Old Town and at Mission San Diego de Alcala. The past also persists in the form of landmarks like Cabrillo National Monument at Point Loma.

The city's historic Gaslamp Quarter dates back to the Wild West saloon days of Wyatt Earp, and still retains much late-19th-century character in its architecture. Even modern buildings pay tribute to the city's stormy past: the newish downtown nightclub Stingaree cribbed its moniker from the name of San Diego's red-light district circa 1900.


Suburban areas uptown bear the mark of the development eras, with breathtaking Victorians still occupying much of Golden Hill (and honored in the eight-acre Heritage Park, which includes several late-19th-century homes and San Diego's first synagogue, Temple Beth Israel). Woodsy Craftsman homes, meanwhile, line the streets of nearby North Park. More recently, gentrifying areas boast new condominiums, which are either fascinating examples of modern design or "architorture," depending on your perspective.

Insider's Guide: The Best of Architecture & Landmarks in San Diego

Insider's Guide: The Best of Architecture & Landmarks in San Diego

The Gaslamp Quarter (bounded by 4th Avenue, 6th Avenue, Broadway, and L Street) is a 16 1/2-block national historic district filled with renowned Victorian-era architecture. The Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation conducts guided walking tours at 11 am every Saturday. You can also wander yourself, starting with the William Heath Davis Historic House Museum (410 Island Ave). Its structure has remained unchanged for 120 years and is an excellent example of historic, prefabricated saltbox family home, which is a small, square house with two stories in front and one in back.

The Backesto Building (614 5th Ave) was one of the first buildings in the Gaslamp District to be restored and features Classical Revival architecture. The Ingle Building (801 4th Ave) features a 25-foot stained-glass dome, and its original lion sculpture near the entrance reflects the building's old use as the Golden Lion Tavern.

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala (10818 San Diego Mission Rd) is California's first church and the first of 21 great missions. Its adobe walls and tile roof made it difficult for Native American Indians to destroy. This remarkable shrine, still an active Catholic parish, provides an interesting look into San Diego's Spanish heritage. The San Diego Trolley makes a stop just one block from the mission.

First Church of Christ Scientist (2444 Second Ave) was a unique creation of architect Irving Gill, who lined up the pews in a long horizontal axis instead of a vertical axis like other churches. It's considered his most famous church design and is now on the National Historic Landmark list.

The Marston House (3525 Seventh Ave) is an early example of San Diego architects William Hebbard and Irving Gill in the style of the American Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th century. The interior design is simple and it landscaped grounds are a blend of English Romantic themes and California influences.

The University of California San Diego offers some original architecture of its own, with architect William Pereira's spacecraft-like Geisel Library (9500 Gillman Dr). This eight-story, concrete structure is located at the head of a canyon near the campus's center. The two lower floors form a pedestal for the six-story stepped tower.

The California Tower (El Prado at Park Blvd) was built for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-16 celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal. Its 200-foot tower is part of the San Diego Museum of Man, and its 100-bell carillon chimes every 15 minutes.

The Serra Museum (2727 Presidio Dr) is a striking mission-style building constructed in 1929 and showcases Spanish and Mexican periods of Sand Diego's history. The building stands on top of the hill recognized as the site where California's first mission and presidio were established in 1769.

The Mount Soledad Cross (6905 La Jolla Scenic Dr S, La Jolla) and war memorial sits atop a peak in La Jolla, on a site offering 360-degree views stretching from the eastern valleys to La Jolla Shores and all the way to downtown and Coronado on clear days. The monument, which also includes hundreds of plaques dedicated to fallen US soldiers, is the subject of much debate among residents, who disagree over whether or not public land should display religious symbols. Whatever side of the argument you take, there's no denying this coastal perch is a magical place to visit.

The San Diego Historical Society maintains an excellent archive of information and photographs dating back to the city's earliest settlers. Even if you don't get a chance to visit the exhibitions at the Museum of San Diego History (Casa de Balboa, 1649 El Prado) in Balboa Park, take some time to browse the wealth of historical info available on the group's Web site.

Get the heebie-jeebies at Old Town's Casa de Estudillo (4001 Mason St) is a good example of a one-story adobe townhouse. Captain Jose Maria de Estudillo built the building in 1829 and it's rumored to be haunted, with staffers reporting apparitions of ghosts dancing, floating down hallways, and appearing in mirrors. Casa de Estudillo is now a museum complete with furnished rooms, a courtyard and a working kitchen.

Whether you're looking for discount shops or upscale boutiques, you'll find them in San Diego's shopping districts. On the next page, we'll take a look at the best spots to get in some retail therapy while visiting San Diego.