The infinite variety of San Diego’s shopping reflects the medley of its history and the creativity of its present-day artisans.
San Diego’s history incorporates Portuguese and Spanish exploration, early American colonization and influences from its next-door neighbor, Mexico. This patchwork comes alive in the crafts of local artisans. To take a piece of San Diego home is to partake of its multicultural milieu.
On September 28, 1542, Portuguese navigator Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo and his crew of Spanish sailors discovered the area’s beautiful natural harbor. When the Spanish returned over 200 years later, they settled in what is now called Old Town. In the late 1800s, enterprising Alonzo Horton bought 1,000 acres along the harbor and distributed lots to anyone who agreed to build on them. This “New Town” became today’s downtown district—an ideal place to start shopping.
Begin in the 16-block Gaslamp Quarter, where Wyatt Earp, ladies of the evening and gamblers once roamed. Impeccably restored turn-of-the-century buildings house boutiques and galleries sandwiched between ethnic restaurants and nightspots.
Taboo Studio (542 Fifth Ave.) offers contemporary jewelry and metal work from a rotating cadre of more than 60 artists. A recent exhibit showcased Arline Fisch, a San Diego State University professor of metallurgy known for her fish motifs. “Fish by Fisch” featured fish pendants ($200 and up), a single fish-line necklace ($35 per strand) and a silver crochet chain rope necklace ($1,500).
Descend a winding staircase into Janina’s Posh Pieces (647 G St.), a gallery filled with hand-blown glassware, colorful art-deco pieces, bold sculptures and one-of-a-kind pottery. Proprietor Janina Roberts’ collection includes a hand-painted desk ($1,800) and vase ($52) by Heather Roddy, featuring the artist’s signature red-maned woman.
Continue your shopping exploration by boarding the fire-engine-red electric San Diego Trolley and disembark at Old Town. An ideal time to visit is during the annual Fiesta Cinco de Mayo—but shopping is good anytime.
El Centro Artesano (2637 San Diego Ave.) resembles an open-air market. Terra-cotta pieces from Tijuana include an Aztec calendar ($14), a decorative Mexican figure with removable sombrero ($39) and a standing outdoor fireplace ($120). Easier to pack is a Southern California wind chime. Sandblasted sea horse and shell chimes cost $34. Picotte’s red wood and steel chimes, considered the Rolls-Royce of wind chimes, promise to be “accurately tuned to pentatonic scale” ($40 to $140).
Located within Old Town is Bazaar del Mundo, a self-contained collection of 16 shops surrounding a festive, flower-filled courtyard with splashing fountains, mariachis and patio restaurants. Bazaar del Mundo’s Fabrics & Finery shop features Guatemalan fabrics and Indian silks woven by local designer Margaret Piatt into colorful creations including a short vest ($189), long vest ($389) and short jacket ($389). Occasionally, seamstress Berenice Sanchez makes popular three-tiered skirts ($100 to $130) on a sewing machine at the shop’s entrance.
Enjoy the best view of the city while aboard San Diego Harbor Excursion’s pedestrian and bicycle ferry, departing every hour on the hour, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., from the downtown pier where Broadway Street meets the bay. Arrive in Coronado, where island shopping is easy whether on foot or from the comfort of the Coronado Shuttle.
A small boutique called Zazen (1110 First St.) brims with treasures hand-selected by owner Kate Stromberger. The boutique carries clothing, from custom weaves to linen/hemp combinations, and a variety of jewelry.
San Diegan jeweler Alexia Markarian specializes in “saints imagery pieces.” Makarian’s metal bracelets range from her “circle of mysteries” piece, made of coins, tokens, medallions and charms collected from around the world ($50), to a 2-inch metal-applied-to-wood cuff bracelet ($160).
The boutique’s pièces de résistance are 80-year-old Coronado resident Margaret Swanson’s antique-style suitcases ($149), beautifully decoupaged with remnants from the past.
The historic Hotel del Coronado houses the Sue Tushingham McNary Art Gallery. McNary is one of Southern California’s most widely collected and respected artists; her San Diego vistas range from a gold-framed miniature ($35) to an original unframed acrylic Del Coronado scene ($3,900).
San Diego’s history lives on in its boutiques, galleries and open-air markets. For more information, call the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau at 619-232-3101, or access www.sandiego.org.
Cynthia Dial is a travel writer from San Diego. Her own shopping bag has included a gold Egyptian cartouche, a Greek flokati rug and a bottle of Portuguese wine.