Just north of Balboa Park, the uptown neighbourhood of Hillcrest is the beating heart of San Diego’s LGBTQ+ scene, its tree-lined streets brimming with lively gay bars, international restaurants and fab brunch spots. Stay here for the vibrant community feel, huge annual Pride parade and proximity to top San Diego attractions including the fine gardens, museums and architecture in Balboa Park and the iconic Spruce Street Suspension Bridge in nearby Bankers Hill. Read on to discover our favorite things to do in Hillcrest San Diego.
Immerse yourself in Hillcrest history with a wander through the neighborhood’s leafy streets. It won’t be long before you spot a traditional Craftsman’s house. These simple, rustic bungalows date to the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th Century and were originally intended as an antidote to Victorian ostentation. Well-preserved specimens can be identified by architectural hallmarks such as modest wooden exteriors, terracotta porches and wide oak doors.
The most famous of these is Marston House at the top of Balboa Park. Visit the museum here for a fascinating glimpse into the Arts and Crafts movements inside the private family home of George W. Marston, dubbed ‘the father of Balboa Park’ for his part in establishing this vast green space. Stroll beneath fragrant pine and eucalyptus trees and California Oaks in the museum’s five acres of mature gardens and pick up unique Arts and Crafts-influenced gifts including pottery and prints in the cozy shop, located in the former carriage house.
Hillcrest’s lively streets are abuzz with fine places to eat, drink and shop. Head to University Avenue for a mouthwatering variety of international restaurants serving up everything from steaming bowls of ramen and eye-wateringly spicy Thai curries to authentic Italian pizzas and aromatic Afghani kebabs. Nearby Fifth Avenue is the place for thrift-store fashions and a chilled brunch scene, while the Hillcrest Farmers’ Market rolls into Normal Street every Sunday, with nearly 200 vendors selling organic produce, handmade clothes and more, accompanied by live music and the intoxicating scents of street food.
It’s also around these central thoroughfares that you’ll find the hub of San Diego’s LGBTQ+ scene, with dozens of gay bars and clubs to choose from. Head to Rich’s for karaoke, games and dancing till late and to Urban MO's Bar & Grill for imaginative cocktails, themed evenings and weekend brunches. Hillcrest Brewing prides itself as 'the first gay brewery in the world’ and serves up a selection of its own concoctions including Crotch Rocket Irish Style Red Ale and Banana Hammock Scotch Ale alongside guest beers, cocktails and more.
The epicenter of San Diego’s annual Pride festival, Hillcrest welcomes around 300,000 revelers every July for a series of events including inspirational speakers, a 5k fun run, top-flight live music and entertainment and, of course, the legendary Parade, a colorful celebration that weaves through the neighborhood’s streets, leaving music, laughter and joy in its wake.
Hillcrest's location, bounded by Mission Hills, University Heights, North Park, Bankers Hill and Balboa Park, means there’s plenty more to see and do in the immediate vicinity. Head south along First Avenue to reach the Spruce Street Suspension Bridge in Bankers Hill. At 375 feet long, this discrete footbridge is an iconic local landmark with cracking views of the verdant Kate Sessions Canyon below. Those with a head for heights will find much to enjoy on a stroll across this feat of 1912 engineering. Those without may however wish to get their kicks elsewhere – strong gusts of wind have been known to make the bridge sway somewhat dramatically. Eek!
Over in Mission Hills, hedge enthusiasts will have quite the ball at the extraordinary Harper’s Topiary Garden. Here, the owners’ neatly trimmed bushes have become a piece of living art, with more than 50 expertly hand-coiffed sculptures in their front yard. The result is nothing less than magical. Look out for dinosaurs, surfers, a Buddha and all manner of other weird and wonderful shapes. The neighborhood’s quirky outdoor theater, Cinema Under The Stars, shows a program of classic and cult movies year-round, thanks to its retractable weatherproof dome and infrared heating.
Bordering Hillcrest to the south, Balboa Park is San Diego’s sprawling urban playground, covering some 1,200 acres. Inside, you’ll find the best museums and formal gardens in town.
You’ll recognize the San Diego Museum of Art from its elaborate Spanish Renaissance-style facade, just one example of some of the fantastic – and fantastical – architecture on display along the El Prado Boulevard. Statues of master painters Velázquez, Murillo and Zurbarán stand sentry over the grand entrance and their works loom equally large inside, along with major pieces from Goya, Monet, Canaletto and more.
Stroll the length of El Prado to admire the wildly diverse architectural styles on display, from Casa del Prado’s shaded cloisters and garlanded columns to the playful California Building with its colorful tiled dome, three-story belltower and enchanting mix of the Baroque, the Rococo, the Gothic and the Churrigueresque. Also worth seeking out is the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, an ornate Italian Renaissance confection that houses the the biggest outdoor organ on the planet and hosts free organ recitals every Sunday as well as evening concerts in summer.
Among the dozens of things to do in Balboa Park you can also – deep breath – meet thousands of cute critters at San Diego Zoo, ride painted beasts including a lion and a dragon on the park’s traditional century-old carousel, chill with an ice cream on the broad lawns in front of the picture-perfect Botanical Building, and meander zen-like among bonsai groves, koi ponds and cherry blossoms in the Japanese Friendship Garden.
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