Historic Gaslamp District Walking Tour (Self Guided), San Diego

San Diego has taken extra efforts to preserve the architectural beauties of times gone by. Historic preservation is, in itself, a major effort and the Gaslamp Quarter – which features one of the largest collections of Victorian commercial architecture in the western US – deserves its due for a job well done.

There are some great restored museum buildings to see, old hotels with a history to tour, and restaurants/cafes in historic buildings that have taken on a new attitude and life. Particularly notable are the Horton Grand Hotel and the Louis Bank of Commerce building (the "Queen of the Gaslamp"). Follow our self-guided walk to explore this charming district – the life and vitality of urban San Diego.
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Historic Gaslamp District Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Historic Gaslamp District Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » San Diego (See other walking tours in San Diego)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 8
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.5 Km or 0.9 Miles
Author: doris
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Gaslamp Quarter Archway
  • Gaslamp Museum
  • Horton Grand Hotel
  • San Diego Chinese Historical Museum
  • Old City Hall
  • Keating Building
  • Louis Bank of Commerce
  • Balboa Theatre
Gaslamp Quarter Archway

1) Gaslamp Quarter Archway

Officially completed and dedicated in 1989, this archway was symbolic as a declaration that the City of San Diego was committed to continuing the redevelopment of Downtown, while also serving as an icon for other cities to look to the Gaslamp Quarter as an example of successful redevelopment. With a total weight of six tons, the archway uses neon, incandescent and fluorescent light fixtures to present a beautiful, vibrant night-time display.

Despite being on the entryway arch and all official city signage/banners, "Gaslamp Quarter" is rarely used by locals; in fact, the use of "Gaslamp District" is so pervasive by locals that it has become a shibboleth to determine who is a San Diegan and who is a tourist. Upon first visit here, you'll see many of the big city downtown things. The feeling itself with all of the people and lights, resembles a walk down the Vegas Strip (though, admittedly, nothing will compare to the actual Strip).
Gaslamp Museum

2) Gaslamp Museum

The tour of the Gaslamp Museum at the Davis-Horton House covers two floors of the grand historic home where the concept for the "New San Diego" began. Touring the location takes ~30 to 60 minutes, but in that time you can see exhibits that retell the story of the downtown area's early settlers and get a glimpse of what the dream was to be for San Diego.

Looking at the 1st-floor parlor and seeing the small keyboard against the wall speaks of the paucity of entertainment and how families made do with what they had. Life was so much simpler in the 1850s – but then, with gas lamps and no electricity, the household pretty much got up with the rising sun and retired with its setting.

The distillery upstairs – whose intended purpose was to circumvent prohibition regulations – is an intricate affair, with quite an elaborate system which presumably was highly effective. One may also have a sneak peek of the attic access where a German WWII spy allegedly sent signals (carrying logistical information) to the off-shore submarines.

The saltbox-style house had been a Civil War (Union side) headquarters in its early past, as well as a hospital (1873) with five beds upstairs; the then-owner had a county contract for $1 a patient (daily) and treated TB cases mostly. The bathroom and kitchen always tell such interesting stories about how these centers of the home's most important functions were utilized.

Outside, the shady little courtyard pays tribute to famous dogs recognized for their role in the community (they were loved for sure), and there is also a lower-level gift shop that will allow a chance to enjoy some unique souvenirs.

Entry price varies by whether an audio guide is requested and includes admission to the Chinese Historical Museum nearby.

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sat: 10am–4:30pm; Sun: 12–3:30pm
Horton Grand Hotel

3) Horton Grand Hotel

Located across the street from the Gaslamp Museum, this brick building is so worth a drop-by and look-see. A restoration of two historic hotels – the Grand Horton and the Brooklyn-Kahle Saddlery – that were joined together in a truly seamless manner, while the courtyard between them is brick-paved and tree-lined, evoking a New Orleans vibe.

Built in 1887 as part of a building boom that followed the opening of the city's first transcontinental railroad connection, the Grand Horton was a luxury hotel with a design based on Vienna's Innsbruck Inn and featuring an Italianate Victorian style. Built around the same time as the Grand Horton, the Brooklyn-Kahle Saddlery was a less formal hotel that combined Western/Cowboy and Victorian styles.

Both hotels were scheduled for demolition in the 1970s when the City of San Diego purchased them to build the Horton Plaza shopping center on the site. They were dismantled brick by brick, with each brick numbered, catalogued, and stored. In 1986 they were rebuilt into an entirely new hotel at the present location at Fourth Street and Island Avenue.
San Diego Chinese Historical Museum

4) San Diego Chinese Historical Museum

One of a kind in San Diego, the Chinese Historical Museum tells the story of the people who came to Chinatown in the 1800s to work in gold mines, fish for tuna, and build railroads. By the Exposition of 1915, many of the original immigrants were already on their way back to China, leaving only the most prosperous folks behind. That notwithstanding, the museum does a great job of telling the story of all people through artifacts and a courtyard garden with sculptures and a koi pond.

There is so much culture, history and wisdom to absorb from a 10,000-year society, but this museum puts you on a great path. At 9am on Saturdays all are welcome to a free Tai Chi/Qi Gong class. There's also an active monthly lecture program at a nearby building and a special exhibit, plus small gift counter, in the annex across the street. Admission is a real deal and includes all three venues. On a side note, they offer tours in English and in Mandarin, which can be nice for some.

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sat: 10:30am–4pm; Sun: 12–4pm
Old City Hall

5) Old City Hall

This old beauty in the heart of Gaslamp Quarter is a classic example of Florentine-Italianate architecture, which was originally developed back in the 1860s by the City of Florence, and which this location does well to capture.

The two-story structure was built in 1874, but 13 years later two more stories were added. The City of San Diego purchased the property in 1891 and turned it into governmental offices, with upper floors taken by the Mayor and staff (the Police Dept. took up the 1st floor). Notably, the ladies room on the lower level includes a stall with quite unusual decor. As it turns out, when a wall was removed, they decided to leave the secret exit (used by former officials) on place and dressed it up.

In these times, the privately-owned building is home to a restaurant and bar, some retail locations, and loft apartments on the top floors. It turns into a full-on club around 10:30pm, so if you're looking for a leisurely dinner, give yourself ample time.
Keating Building

6) Keating Building

In its over 100-year history of existence, the Keating Building was, at one time, a bank, but now, as the first hotel venture of Pininfarina, the master designer behind Ferrari and Maserati, it boasts 35 loft-style guest rooms and a nightclub/lounge downstairs (SWAY), which still has the original steel vault used by the former bank – a fun historical perk.

The five-story structure was built by Fannie Keating as a tribute to her late husband, George – one of the principle owners of Smith and Keating, the famous 19th-century farm equipment supply company. A classic example of Romanesque Revival style, it had all the modern amenities for the time, such as spacious floor plans, steam heat, and a wire cage elevator (the first, and still longest running, elevator in San Diego), making it one of the most prestigious and sought after office spaces.
Louis Bank of Commerce

7) Louis Bank of Commerce

Builders of the Hotel del Coronado and of the Keating Building, the Reid brothers can also take credit for this Baroque Revival treasure: a stately, four-story twin-towered Victorian structure nicknamed the "Queen of the Gaslamp". Constructed in 1888, it was the city's first granite building, but what sets it apart is rather the ornate nature of the trim work. Of special note are the ornate bay windows that project from the façade – you won't see many better examples than this!

Having started out as the official headquarters of the Louis Bank of Commerce, the building was used for banking purposes until 1893, when famous entrepreneur Isidor Louis opened an oyster bar that used to be frequented by such famed people as Wyatt Earp. In fact, there has been some speculation as to how involved Wyatt may have been in the local operation of a particular business inside the location. The upper floors were turned into what used to be known as the Golden Poppy Hotel – a famous house of ill repute that was ran by fortune teller and psychic Madame Cora. Part of what made it so famous was that the girls would wear dresses that matched the color of the room they used to service their clients.
Balboa Theatre

8) Balboa Theatre

A real gem of San Diego's Downtown area, the historic Balboa Theatre was built in the 1920s, during a time in American history when people loved grandiose-style movie houses – this one has waterfalls flanking the stage! Spanning two streets, it has a seating capacity of 1600, which is almost unheard of in modern-style theatres – just try and find an IMAX that big.

During WWII, the building was converted into temporary housing for the U.S. Navy. After the war, it did not do well, and almost fell into disrepair. Local attempts were made during the 1970s to bring some attention to the old theatre by listing it on the official City list of historic locations. It was opened for a few years as a movie house, but then had to be closed again for lack of sufficient business. In 1985, at long last, the City of San Diego purchased the building and restored it; by 2008, it had reopened for live musical events and concerts – a colorful, feel-good venue to catch a show.

There is plenty of friendly staff and clean bathrooms; bars are located on each floor and ushers at every door.

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