San Diego isn't exactly known as a city of neighborhoods, but they do exist in this bastion of suburbia. Here is our guide's Top Picks for urban neighborhoods, based on purely subjective intangibles and tangibles such as whether the neighborhood is pedestrian friendly, has an interesting mix of businesses and restaurants, is close to public transportation, and the cool factor.
New York has Greenwich Village. San Francisco has the Castro. Vancouver has the West End. And San Diego has Hillcrest, our closest thing to a diverse, lively, hip and colorful neighborhood. This gay-friendly 'hood just north of Balboa Park is a mix of apartments and bungalows mixed with a pedestrian-friendly business district. Best Bets: Landmark Cinemas, any restaurant.
Bus Routes: 1,3,11,16,25
This upscale enclave on the southeast rim of Mission Valley is picturesque, with attractive (and pricey) Spanish-styled homes for upwardly mobile yuppies. It's a peaceful pocket amid the hubbub of the inner city. There's a tiny business district along the single main artery Adams Ave. Best Best: The venerable Ken Cinema, the Ken Club bar, Kensington Video, Ponce's Restaurant.
Bus Route: 11
The most sprawling of the urban neighborhoods, North Park is a hodgepodge. Cozy, tidy pockets of Craftsman homes on the north edge of Balboa Park (hence the name), dense apartments, and the pre-interstate retail stretches of University Ave and El Cajon Blvd. define North Park. Best Bets: "downtown" North Park (30th & University), Red Fox Lounge, Chicken Pie Shop.
Bus Routes: 1,2, 6,7,908,15,19,115
As you head west on Washington Street, Hillcrest turns into Mission Hills, and the aura becomes more staid and low-key. With its grand homes with manicured lawns and winding hilltop streets, Mission Hills is for the decidedly well-to-do, yet it doesn't have the snooty essence of La Jolla. Yes, I could picture myself living here.Best Bets: Mission Hills Nursery, Phil's BBQ.
Bus Routes: 3,908,16
University Heights is located between Hillcrest and North Park. Similar in ways to both (not as lively as Hilcrest; not as worn as North Park), it is a mix of Craftsman bungalows and apartments. Its small retail area is at the north end of Park Blvd. where it turns into Adams Ave. Best Bets: Adams Avenue Grill, Twiggs Coffee House, Parkhouse Eatery, Trolley Park.
Bus Routes: 1,11,15,115,990
Or "Abnormal" Heights, as it's sometimes referred to. Bookended on the west by University Heights and Kensington on the east, Normal Heights completes the Adams Avenue 'hood trifecta along the main drag. Crowded, diverse apartment dwellings on the south side of Adams, quiet single-family homes on the north side. Best bets: The Ould Sod pub, Antique Row, Lestat's Coffee.
Bus Routes: 2,11/11A
Little Italy has always been a neat ethnic enclave within downtown, but only in the past year or so has it become a bonafide "cool" neighborhood, thanks to the addition of new condo highrises. Plus, the business district has been refurbished, including it's own nifty street-spanning neighborhood sign. Best Bets: India Street, Mimmo's Italian Village, Indigo Grill, Filippi's.
Bus Routes: 50, 150, 810, Trolley
Golden HillWith its once stately old mansions, quaint bungalows and apartment buildings, Golden Hill is enjoying a rejuvenation. On the southeast end of Balboa Park, Golden Hill (and adjacent South Park) has some fine views of downtown and pockets of really cool neighborhoods, like Burlingame. Best Bets: Turf Supper Club, The Big Kitchen, M-Theory Records, South Park Grill. Bus Routes: 2,6,19
East of North Park is San Diego's true melting pot, City Heights. The newly emigrated is found here: Hispanics, Southeast Asian, Somalian...you name it. Drive down stretches of University Ave. and watch the storefront signs change from Spanish to Vietnamese to Ethiopian. It can be rough at times, but it's also the American Dream. Best Bets: any Asian market.
Bus Routes: 1,2,6,7,908,15,19,115
Ocean BeachO.B is more like a town within the city, but I'll include it here because it has a little business district and it truly does have a neighborhood feel, albeit one steeped in the '60s and '70s. Ocean Beach has resisted gentrification, and for that it should be commended. Because it wouldn't be O.B. if it didn't have it's funky charm. Best Bets: The O.B. Pier, Dog Beach, Winston's. Bus Routes: 923,35