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Spend a Day at San Diego's Little Italy

Spend a Day at San Diego's Little Italy
Spend a Day at San Diego's Little Italy

© Joe Wolf

Once a fishing village that was home to over 6,000 Italian immigrants, San Diego’s Little Italy is now a bustling waterfront neighborhood and a culture-rich culinary center of “America’s Finest City”. Specialty food shops, coffee houses, and Italian restaurants with al fresco dining line the streets of this vibrant region, and a mural, statue or fountain anchor almost every corner.

Established in the 1920s by workers in the city’s booming tuna industry, the region flourished as a vibrant Italian community for several decades. Its popularity diminished as the tuna industry declined, but the region experienced a revival in the early 1990s when local business owners and residents started the Little Italy Foundation, which funded the region’s overhaul by creating the fountains, murals and events that make the region so lively.

Today’s Little Italy maintains the deep-rooted Italian traditions of its founders: restaurants abound, the smells of pizza and espresso waft through the air, Italian music softly plays from its shops, and a warm sense of community resonates throughout the streets. In an endearing throwback to an earlier time, elderly Italian men can still be seen at local coffee shops, sipping espresso and speaking their native language.

Little Italy Events

Staying true to the Italian love for food and festivals, the Little Italy Foundation hosts numerous events, including the following celebrations:

Carnevale: Little Italy’s Venetian celebration of Fat Tuesday increases in popularity every year: in 2010, over 12,000 participants (many dressed in traditional Venetian costume) celebrated Mardi Gras Italian style.

Little Italy FESTA!: Over 100,000 attendees and hundreds of vendors fill the streets of Little Italy every fall for this festival of Italian food, culture and music. Highlights include a cannoli eating contest, a stickball expedition game, three stages with live music, a children’s fair, and Gesso Italiano (Italian chalk) where local artists transform an entire street into a work of art.

Little Italy Mercato: Perhaps the most famous event in Little Italy is the weekly Mercato, or farmer’s market, held each Saturday morning. Vendors offer up local produce, homemade baked goods, and artisan crafts to the tune of live music from local artists.

Mission Federal ArtWalk: Little Italy hosts San Diego’s largest outdoor art festival every year in April. Over 350 artists showcase their paintings, photographs, and sculptures while mingling with patrons. Young aspiring artists can participate in the Kid’s Walk, which includes arts and crafts for the entire family.

Sicilian Festa: Little Italy transforms into “Little Sicily” each May during this festival that celebrates the food, music, and dance of Sicily.

San Diego Italian Film Festival: The San Diego Italian Film Festival is a non-profit organization that works in conjunction with the Little Italy Association to promote Italian culture and film. Each October and November, a variety of venues throughout the region screen Italian films with English subtitles.

Taste of Little Italy: Held each May and November, patrons sample the dishes of over 30 Little Italy restaurants for a reasonable price.

Little Italy Local Attractions

Even when no event is scheduled, Little Italy’s local attractions draw visitors to the region. Many visit the area to enjoy the fountains, boutiques, and rows of Italian restaurants, to participate in a game of bocce ball at Amici Park… or to just grab a slice of pizza as they take in the sights and sounds of one of San Diego’s most historic and charming neighborhoods.

Amici Park: A Bocce court, small amphitheater, and a large green field make up this small yet popular park. Students attending the adjacent Washington Elementary School use the park’s playground during school time; in the evening it transforms into a dog park and soccer field for locals and their canines to enjoy some exercise.

  • Location: Corner of Date and State Streets

One-Mile-Walk: Those in need of San Diego sun and a workout utilize the One Mile Walk: a path along the streets of Little Italy that does not pass any major intersections or stop lights. Marble signs embedded in the ground each 1/8 mile inform joggers/walkers of their progress.

Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church: Construction of this landmark began in 1923, and the church was consecrated two years later. Today, Our Lady of the Rosary remains a centerpiece of the Italian Catholic community and a staple of Little Italy. Venetian Fausto Tasca painted the church’s stunning walls and nine canvases depicting the Apostles and Evangelists, the Crucifixion, and the Last Judgment, while Italian sculptor Carlo Romanelli crafted the statues of Our Lady, the Sacred Heart, St. Anne, and St. Joseph.

  • Location: 1629 Columbia Street (entrance on the corner of State St. and Date St.)
  • Phone: 619-234-3559
  • Website: www.olrsd.org

Piazza Basilone: It seems fitting that the city with the largest naval base on the West Coast dedicated a plaza to those who have lost their lives at sea. Built from donations by local residents and businesses, Piazza Basilone’s fountain and landscaping provide a peaceful piazza for locals and tourists and a touching dedication to those “that never came home”.

Public Art: Nine touching murals depicting the lives of Italian immigrants and families color the walls of several buildings in Little Italy and add color and charm to an already vibrant part of the city. Of particular interest is the mural I Pescatori on the west wall of the Convention of Visitor’s Bureau Building at 2215 India Street. As a tribute to the Italian fisherman who founded the region, the mural is painted in hues of ocean blue and depicts fisherman hauling large tuna into their boat.

Attraction Information

  • Location:
  • In between Columbia and Middleton streets, between Interstate 5 and the Embarcadero.
  • Metro Stop:
  • Blueline County Center/Little Italy stop (one stop after the Santa Fe Depot)
  • Contact:
  • Little Italy Association of San Diego
  • Location: 1668 Columbia Street San Diego, CA
  • Phone: 619-233-3898
  • Website: www.littleitalysd.com
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