Blake Walsh

20 Best Things to Do in Hillcrest, San Diego

  • Published 2023/01/09

If you’re visiting San Diego City, you wouldn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to visit the vibrant uptown community of Hillcrest.

Hillcrest, now considered one of the premier commercial and social places in San Diego, owes its reputation to the history of the LGBT community in the area.

Since the early 1970s, the LGBT community has converted the once stagnating residential area into a base for social progress, giving Hillcrest its status today.

Known for its nightlife, abundance of shops to visit, inclusivity, and welcoming atmosphere, Hillcrest is a popular destination for everyone.

Want to know how to spend your time in Hillcrest?

Here are the 20 best things to do in Hillcrest, San Diego, that will fully immerse you in its light, cheery, and laid-back environment:

Tour the Historic Marston House

A trail lined with bushes leading to Historic Marston House

Artazum /

On the outskirts of Hillcrest and by the boundary of Balboa Park stands the historic Marston House, one of the quieter and laid-back places you can visit in Hillcrest.

The building can be found near Seventh Street since it was built in 1905.

It was donated to San Diego City in 1987 as a museum, and it’s now managed by the Save Our Heritage Organization.

An antique fountain in Historic Marston House

Artazum /

The five-acre land is filled with lush green grass and eucalyptus and pine trees and is a perfect place if you want to spend some peaceful time away from Hillcrest’s buzz and glitz.

You can avail of the Garden Tour, which takes you through the well-maintained formal gardens, or you can choose to spend time exploring the grounds, watching the trees, and pacing down the canyon paths.

Exterior and landscape of Historic Marston House

Artazum /

Start Your Day with a Hearty Breakfast at Snooze

The rich diversity of Hillcrest is best experienced through its numerous food and cafes that cater to everyone’s tastes.

One restaurant that you should consider paying a visit to is the Snooze eatery.

Located along Fifth Avenue and close to Village Hillcrest, Snooze is a popular destination that locals and tourists all flock to.

In fact, it’s so popular that the restaurant has already opened waitlists to accommodate everyone!

This roadside eatery appeals to patrons with its patio dining options, giving them a great view of the Hillcrest community.

The menu options include eggs, benedicts, pancakes, tacos, burritos, and sandwiches.

There are also vegan options if that’s what you’re looking for.

Snooze’s scrumptious meals are paired with an assortment of coffee and latte options, as well as fruit juice.

Take Part in the Annual Pride Celebration

Pride flag at Hillcrest

Nehrams2020, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The LGBT community has a very special place in Hillcrest, and they make the already wonderful Hillcrest culture even more vibrant.

Each year, Hillcrest holds an annual celebration of the LGBT community and hosts one of the largest Pride events in the country.

These events are held throughout the month and highlight different aspects of the LGBT community.

People with pride flags during the Annual Pride Celebration

aliciamariemassie /

The “She Fest” event celebrates the contributions of women, while “The Rally” gathers members of the LGBT community together to listen to speakers and recognize important LGBT icons.

Then comes “The Parade,” one of the biggest Pride marches in the United States and attracts around 300,000 attendees.

Colorful pride stage during the Annual Pride Celebration

aliciamariemassie /

Celebrations culminate with “The Festival,” a big summer festival that showcases different exhibits and cultural presentations, so you’ll be sure of a great time.

Whether you’re part of the LGBT community or attending as an ally, Hillcrest’s annual Pride celebration is a highlight you wouldn’t want to miss!

Watch a Unique Movie Experience with Cinema Under The Stars

When you’re in Hillcrest, gone are the days of the traditional cinemas found in malls and entertainment centers.

Pay a visit to Cinema Under The Stars along Goldfinch Street for a unique movie experience that truly fits Hillcrest’s vibe.

Cinema Under The Stars offers an outdoor theater with the comfort of an indoor setting, complete with limited seats for a more intimate feel.

It doesn’t disappoint, too, thanks to its 20-foot HD screen and surround sound, making each movie experience as immersive as possible.

Showtimes begin at 8 PM and feature classical and vintage movies that leave a memorable impression among viewers.

Sweeten Your Stay with Food from Little Nap

The weather in Hillcrest can get quite hot at times, and you might want to explore options to cool the heat while you’re out and about in the community.

Located on a corner by University Avenue is a cutesy shop named Little Nap that sells desserts and other sweets.

With their menu inspired by Japanese cuisine, Little Nap attracts lovers of Japanese culture for authentic Eastern flavors.

They also have sandwiches and baos that pair well with their desserts and refreshments, making them a great place to spend time with when the day gets too hot.

Shop around at Hillcrest Farmers Market

People shopping at Hillcrest Farmers Market

Edward O’Connor from San Francisco, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sundays are the perfect time to visit Hillcrest and shop around.

The lively Normal Street bustles even more with the opening of the Hillcrest Farmers Market, which hosts an impressive 175 vendors selling local produce, arts and crafts, gifts, and many more.

Since it opened last April 1997, Hillcrest Farmers Market has become the go-to for your shopping needs when you’re in the area.

Food options feature international cuisine, so you can find a new taste to explore.

There’s also weekly entertainment provided by local musicians, giving the Hillcrest Farmers Market a festive atmosphere.

If you’re bringing a car, there’s also free parking around the area, making visits much less of a hassle.

Drink Craft Beer at the Hillcrest Brewing Company

Marketed as the first gay brewing company in the world, patrons will feel right at home with Hillcrest Brewing Company’s different alcoholic beverages.

The bar was established in 2012 and is located near the corner of Normal Street and University Avenue.

Although they no longer brew their own drinks, Hillcrest Brewing Company still has a number of drinks for you, such as cider, cocktails, beer, and wine.

Watch out for their regular happy hours to get discounts on drinks!

They also double as a pizzeria with options for customizable pizzas, depending on what you fancy at the moment.

Their pride is in being a self-reliant kitchen that makes their own sauce, dough, and dressings.

Have a Fun Night at Urban MO’s Bar & Grill

Hillcrest is best known for its vibrant nightlife, and if you’re visiting the area, you shouldn’t miss out on an opportunity to party away at Urban MO’s Bar & Grill.

This roadside bar along University Avenue boasts patio seating and an upper deck, perfect for different groups of partygoers.

During the day, Urban MO’s Bar & Grill is also a restaurant that serves appetizers, salads, sandwiches, and dinners.

But they’re best known for their burgers which they claim are the best burgers in San Diego; customers have a good number of options to choose from.

During the evenings, Urban MO’s Bar & Grill hosts events such as drag performances.

They also have specialty cocktails decorated with plastic animals for a more exotic feel.

Although Urban MO’s Bar & Grill is a gay bar, it welcomes everyone to its doors.

Go on a Food Adventure with Taste of Hillcrest

It’s undeniable that Hillcrest’s diverse community also translates to the variety of food options you can find there.

With the Taste of Hillcrest, you wouldn’t need to worry about how you can taste all of the food that Hillcrest has to offer.

This annual event sees over 25 participating restaurants across the Hillcrest community, ranging from Italian and Middle Eastern to Asian cuisines.

Primarily a self-guided culinary tour, Taste of Hillcrest is a perfect time to bond with friends as you sample food from different places and maybe even add to your list of favorite restaurants.

Getting around Hillcrest also wouldn’t be a problem because the organizers will also arrange for free shuttle services that go around the neighborhood.

If that’s not enough, tickets also include a commemorative map of locations and a lanyard.

Have a Ramen Meal at the Tajima Ramen Bar

Exterior of Tajima Ramen Bar

TonelsonProductions /

Ramen is one of the most well-known and loved food items from Japanese cuisine, and here at Hillcrest, you can satisfy your ramen cravings at the Tajima Ramen Bar.

Thanks to its prime location along Sixth Street, the Tajima Ramen Bar is a good place to drop by after a day of exploring Hillcrest.

Their ramen meat options include the staples chicken and pork, but if you’re vegan, Tajima Ramen Bar also has something for you.

Some items on their menu also allow for customization, allowing you to mix and match according to your fancy.

For their drinks, they have traditional Japanese sake apart from their beer offerings.

If you don’t like alcohol, they have non-alcoholic options.

With Tajima Ramen Bar, you have access not only to their authentic Japanese menu but also to their merchandise, where you can buy souvenir shirts to make your visit even more memorable.

Celebrate the Summer Spirit during the Hillcrest Cityfest

Your trip to Hillcrest will not be complete if you don’t get to participate in the Hillcrest CityFest.

Venture to the streets of Hillcrest during the summer months and keep your eyes peeled for the Hillcrest CityFest, an annual event that brings together about 150,000 partygoers.

Hillcrest CityFest is an art and music festival and is considered one of the largest festivals in the area. Explore the neighborhood to get the most out of the artists, vendors, and attractions.

There will also be restaurants, establishments, and performers to make your stay even livelier.

With Hillcrest CityFest, you get to eat, drink, play, shop, and party!

Shop at the Hub Hillcrest Market

Along University Avenue, you will find a complex of buildings full of shops and stalls catering to most of your needs.

Called the Hub Hillcrest Market, the two-story area houses restaurants, cosmetics, and groceries.

Some of the shops you will find in this complex include the Aladdin Cafe, which features Middle Eastern cuisine and is a great spot to dine with friends.

For other hangouts with coffee lovers, the Coffee ‘N’ Talk cafe brews rich coffee and tasty pastries to pair them with.

There are also shops that focus on dental care, computer and technicals, yoga, beauty and cosmetics, and more!

At the center is the Ralphs Supermarket which also houses a pharmacy, wine and liquor, and a bakery.

Party at the Gossip Grill

Exterior view of Gossip Grill

RL0919, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Women run the world at Gossip Grill, a bar and restaurant that you can find along University Avenue and near the Hub Hillcrest Market.

Though it’s a restaurant by day, Gossip Grill transforms into a dance nightclub for ladies, complete with an outdoor patio bar to take in the Hillcrest atmosphere.

Although their primary audience is women, other genders are also pretty welcome in their doors.

On their menu are many options for beers, drafts, wines, and other drinks, so you can be sure to find something you’d like.

There are also themed nights every week which give special discounts to some menu items, such as meatloaf and nachos.

Events are regularly held within its doors, such as disco, bingo, and drag performances.

Join the Fun at Nightmare on Normal Street

Like a true home to the LGBT community, Hillcrest has a lot of themed events that bring together members of the LGBT community and allies alike.

When Halloween comes, Normal Street turns into a huge costume party where everyone dresses up as spookily as they can.

Joining Nightmare on Normal Street means you should also dress up for the occasion!

Who knows, you might even win the costume competition.

This nighttime event, of course, also has live performances and DJs to hype the crowd, as well as outdoor bars and food trucks for participants to line up to.

If you’re looking for a place to bring your friends to and show off your Halloween costumes, Nightmare on Normal Street is where you should go.

Attend the FilmOut San Diego LGBT Film Festival

Itching to watch movies from up-and-coming filmmakers?

Head down to University Avenue to attend Hillcrest’s annual FilmOut San Diego LGBT Film Festival!

Here, you get to watch film screenings that showcase LGBT themes, but there are also special screenings to feature non-LGBT films.

Since its inception, the FilmOut San Diego LGBT Film Festival has given the spotlight to the artistic contributions of the LGBT community.

The film festival is renowned across the world and invites local and international fans alike.

If you’re interested or curious about the movies, there’s also a Q&A portion with the filmmakers after the screening.

For movie junkies, the FilmOut San Diego LGBT Film Festival is a must-see.

Other Things to Do Nearby

Explore Balboa Park

Water fountain in the middle of Balboa Park

f11photo /

To the south of Hillcrest lies the huge Balboa Park, home to many museums, gardens, attractions, and the like!

For museums, you can choose from art museums like the Timken Museum of Art and Museum of Photographic Arts, science museums such as the Fleet Science Center, historical museums like the San Diego History Center, and much more!

Night lights of a botanical garden in Balboa Park

rpac78 /

Balboa Park also boasts a number of beautiful gardens like the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden and the California Native Plant Garden.

There are also attractions like the San Diego Zoo, which houses about 3,700 rare and endangered animals.

With shopping booths and places to eat and drink, Balboa Park is the perfect place to spend an entire day with friends and family.

Name sign of San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park

Thomas Carlson /

Visit the Spruce Street Suspension Bridge

People in the middle of Spruce Street Suspension Bridge

Roaming Panda Photos /

There’s no way you’d want to miss out on visiting the historic Spruce Street Suspension Bridge, just south of Hillcrest and pretty close by.

Built in 1912, the bridge has endured over a century and still stands today, perfectly safe for those who want to visit it.

History marker of Spruce Street Suspension Bridge

TonelsonProductions /

The bridge is sturdy, but it does sway slightly when the wind picks up or if there are a lot of people walking along its length.

You’ll be treated to a nice view overlooking the canyon 70 feet below.

The Spruce Street Suspension Bridge is one of a kind in modern-day San Diego, so be sure to pay a visit when you’re in the city.

Final Thoughts

Because of how memorable its scenes, establishments, and lifestyle are, Hillcrest is a difficult place to forget.

The multiple events in the area, which are inclusive and welcoming of everyone, create a unique culture that you’d want to come back to every time.

Hillcrest in San Diego is a treasure you should visit now!

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