Anyone visiting San Diego’s charming, restaurant-blessed Little Italy knows. Exercise caution or you may return home wider than you are tall. It’s oh so easy to do. The honey-drizzled Ligurian focaccia di Recco at Davanti Enoteca. The seared wagyu at Born & Raised. The souffled pancakes at Morning Glory!
The restaurants — both the Italian ones and the non-Italiano — in this 48-square block area are irresistible. But Little Italy’s location, tucked so close to the waterfront and with a fine hotel right in its midst, makes it a wonderful base for exploring the city on foot. And the more you walk, the more pastries and pasta you can enjoy in, say, the Piazza della Famiglia. The 10,000-square-foot Italian-style plaza opened a year before the pandemic, wooing passersby with its market hall, pedestrian-only expanse, umbrella-shaded cafes and splashy fountain. And more restaurants.
So on this particular sunny weekend, we’ve tied our tennies and headed out, determined to get some steps in — after a stop, of course, at James Coffee to pick up creamy, iced honey-cinnamon lattes. (If croissants, tarts or lavender lemon blueberry cupcakes are more your breakfast style, we won’t judge. The charming Frost Me Cafe in the Piazza della Famiglia has all those things and espresso, too.)
We’re headed for the waterfront, a 15-minute stroll away, eager for a blast to Little Italy’s maritime past — and California’s too. A century ago, more than 6,000 Italian families lived and worked here in this Italian quarter, many of them in the fisheries that made San Diego the tuna capital of the world. Canneries dotted the docks from the end of Laurel Street to Barrio Logan. By the 1930s, San Diego historians say, commercial tuna fishing had joined the Navy and aerospace as the region’s three largest industries.
Today a 12-acre park runs along the waterfront near Little Italy, offering interactive fountains with kid-friendly splash zones, colorful playgrounds and grassy public expanses — and the spectacular sight of historic ships tied up to the docks.
The ships are part of the Maritime Museum of San Diego, whose treasures include the 19th century Star of India; the Californian, the state’s official Tall Ship; and a meticulously reconstructed, working replica of the San Salvador, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s 16th century galleon. When the Spanish conquistador dropped anchor in San Diego Bay in 1542, he became the first European to explore what is now California.
Time your visit right, and you can not only explore the ships, you can set sail on some of them, too. On this particular day, we’re hoping to take a historic harbor tour aboard the Pilot, a 1914 pilot craft that guided all the huge commercial ships entering and leaving San Diego Bay for more than eight decades. It’s quite possibly the best deal in San Diego — $15 plus museum admission for a trip out on the glistening, sun-dappled waves, sea breezes in our hair. What could be better?
Well, four more people for starters. It’s shoulder season — you won’t have this problem this summer — and there aren’t enough passengers to cast off.
So as we wait for more would-be sailors to join us, we browse the exhibits, exploring maritime history from the era of Cabrillo through the age of the great sailing ships and steam-powered vessels, the rise of the U.S. Navy presence in California and the commercial fishing era, when tuna was king.
We revel in the tales of the Star of India, the world’s oldest active sailing ship. Built on the Isle of Man in 1863, the windjammer went on to circle the globe 21 times. The ship’s first journey was a trip to India that involved a collision — and then a mutiny. On its second trip, it encountered a cyclone so intense, the ship barely survived. (We’re astonished there was a third voyage, let alone 21 of them.)
Today, you can explore the officers’ quarters and the fine, wood-paneled dining room, gaze up into the rigging, scramble below deck and, of course, pose for selfies at the giant ship’s wheel — or next to one of the kraken tentacles creeping up the masts.
The latter is a teaser for an exhibit devoted to mythic sea monsters housed in the hold of the ship — er, the exhibit is in the hold, not the monsters. Not to our knowledge, anyway. A guaranteed kid-pleaser, this summer’s exhibit combines science and lore with a few cheeky asides, such as the antique bookcase holding volumes of “Moby Dick,” “Wuthering Depths” and “Tess of the D’Underwatervilles.”
Kraken aside, shipboard tableaux on both the Star of India and the San Salvador offer just enough detail to convey life aboard ship. It’s up to your imagination to fill in the rest. Those conquistador helmets and swords tossed so casually on a bunk aboard the San Salvador? Clearly, the hatless owner is down in the galley, checking to see if tuna is on the menu — perhaps served with a nice tempranillo.
We pause to check on the passenger progress at the Pilot — none! — before boarding a restored steam-powered ferry from 1898. The Berkeley comes by its name honestly. It may be in San Diego now, but it plied the waters of San Francisco Bay for 60 years. In the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, the crew spent days and nights rescuing survivors from the shores of the burning city and taking them to safety. It’s a beautiful ship, filled with airy spaces, glossy woodwork and stained glass.
There may not be enough passengers for that Pilot cruise, but on the upside, having these spectacular ships to ourselves on a quiet day is heaven. And next time, we’ll be better prepared — we’ll bring the whole family! — and try one of the other “On the Water Adventures.” There’s a 75-minute naval history tour aboard a Vietnam War-era Swift Boat, and a four-hour sail on the Californian, its Tall Ship sails unfurled to catch the breeze. And the San Salvador is embarking on two, multi-day ocean voyages this summer where even non-sailors can hoist the sails, tie knots and learn about Channel Islands island archeology and Spanish maritime history.
Meanwhile, dinner awaits back in Little Italy at Ironside, the hip nautical-themed restaurant where piranha skulls line an entire wall (yes, really!), the mai tais are served in fish goblets and the lobster rolls delight. Ahoy, matey!
If You Go
Maritime Museum of San Diego: The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily at the Star of India Wharf, 1492 N. Harbor Drive. Admission is $10-$20, with optional add-ons including a historic harbor tour ($15). “On the Water” adventures range from a Swift Boat naval history cruise ($20-$40, including museum admission) to a Tall Ship sailing trip ($25-$119). The San Salvador Channel Islands voyages ($2,259) will be Aug 21-26 and Aug 27-Sept 1. Find details at https://sdmaritime.org
James Coffee: This espresso bar and roastery opens daily at 7 a.m. at 2355 India St. in San Diego; https://jamescoffeeco.com.
Frost Me Cafe and Bakery: Opens daily at 7 a.m. at 555A W. Date St.; www.frostme.com
Ironside Fish & Oyster: Open daily for lunch and dinner (reservations recommended) at 1654 India St.; https://ironsidefishandoyster.com.
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