10Best Itinerary: Enjoy a Day in San Diego's Colorful Little Italy Neighborhood

Be Italian for a day while exploring this happening neighborhood

By ; published Monday, April 9th, 2012
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If the aroma of freshly baked bread, steamy espresso or roasted garlic doesn’t give it away, the colorful banners which dot the streets along the Northwest corridor of San Diego’s downtown district clearly announce to visitors that they have reached “Little Italy."  This neighborhood was recently named one of the top ten "Little Italy" communities in the United States by USA Today.

Get an authentic taste of Italy in San Diego's historic Little Italy neighborhood. Dancing in the street is part of the colorful Sicilian Festival held each May.
Photo Credit: Joanne DiBona

This is a perfect neighborhood for a walking tour.  If you just want to stroll the streets of the district and enjoy the ambiance on your own, you’ll find plenty of specialty shops, restaurants, parks, and piazzas to while away an afternoon. For an in-depth tour of the neighborhood, Anthony with Little Italy Tours will bring the history of the neighborhood alive with his personal commentaries and historical anecdotes.

Little Italy is one of San Diego’s oldest ethnic neighborhoods. The first wave of Italian immigrants arrived in the area in 1906, many fleeing the devastation caused by the San Francisco earthquake. With a climate and terrain very similar to their native Italy, most of these immigrants liked what they saw and invited family and friends to join them in their new location.

One of San Diego's most historical neighborhoods, Little Italy beckons with its mix of urban chic and Old World ambiance.
Photo Credit: Joanne DiBona

These Italians, who started to form a community around the bay, were mostly fishermen by trade and hailed from Genoa, Naples or Sicily. At the time, tuna were prevalent in the waters off San Diego’s coast. In 1910, the first tuna cannery opened in San Diego and the tuna industry began to grow at an explosive rate. Attracted by news of this industry, thousands of Italians moved to San Diego in the 1920’s. By 1930, more than 6,000 Italian families lived in Little Italy, making it the city’s largest ethnic neighborhood at the time.

This wall mural, one of many in the neighborhood, celebrates the Italian immigrants who worked in San Diego's tuna fishing industry.
Photo Credit: Joanne DiBona

While it enjoyed decades of prosperity and peace, Little Italy was not to remain intact forever. With the decline of the tuna industry beginning in the 1950s, and the construction of a freeway that dissected the community, many of the families left San Diego to pursue other work or find other homes.

In the early 1990’s, redevelopment efforts began that transformed the neighborhood into the colorful, urban chic community it is today. Old warehouses were converted into trendy retail spaces; residential properties were renovated or constructed in a style to complement the distinctive character of the neighborhood.  Tiny cottages from the early 1900’s took on a new life as specialty shops or as offices for professional businesses.

Specialty shops of all kinds can be found in restored vintage cottages throughout the area.
Photo Credit: Joanne DiBona

Food, glorious food, is everywhere you turn in San Diego’s Little Italy.

Intimate restaurants provide the cuisine and ambiance of a visit to Italy.
Photo Credit: Joanne DiBona

The neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, India Street, is lined with a variety of authentic Italian restaurants and cafés in every price range--as are the many side streets which branch out for blocks from the main street. It’s also the place where Italian cooks go to find those special ingredients they can’t get in any other part of town.

Little Italy's restaurants feature dishes using recipes handed down for generations.
Photo Credit: Joanne DiBona

There is nothing more romantic, or delicious, than an evening meal under the stars in any one of many neighborhood restaurants.
Photo Credit: Joanne DiBona

Located just a few blocks from San Diego Bay and a mile from San Diego’s downtown core, Little Italy is readily accessible by the city’s trolley system. The neighborhood “feel” --so close to the city’s pulsating downtown scene-- is part of this district’s huge appeal among both residents and tourists alike.

Colorful architecture with an Italian theme helps define San Diego's Little Italy neighborhood.
Photo Credit: Joanne DiBona

Special events all year round attract tens of thousands of visitors to the community. Each May, the nation’s largest Sicilian Festival, a colorful and popular event that celebrates the culture and heritage brought to Little Italy by Sicilian immigrants in the 20th century, descends upon the area with its pageantry and incredible Sicilian cuisine. In October, the Little Italy Festa celebrates Columbus Day with a variety of festivities. Each Saturday morning throughout the year, a lively Farmer’s Market lines several blocks, featuring a wide variety of fresh produce and everything from Italian olives to fresh pasta to traditional homemade Italian sweets.

Chalk art is a popular part of every street festival.
Photo Credit: Karyl Carmignani

For a true taste of Italy in America, make sure you add a visit to San Diego's vibrant Little Italy to your vacation itinerary.

Little Italy takes on a warm glow when evening falls.
Photo Credit: Joanne DiBona

 
 

  About Joanne DiBona:

San Diego's Little Italy is near and dear to Joanne's heart. She met her husband Tony, who was born and raised in the large Sicilian community there, one romantic night in a local restaurant. For the past two decades, she hasn't stopped writing about and photographing her favorite San Diego neighborhood.

Read more about Joanne DiBona here.
 for all of Joanne's fresh San Diego content
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