The historic Balboa Theatre is one of the best theaters in San Diego. (Photo: Jon Bilous, Alamy)
With oceans for miles and idyllic weather year-round, San Diego is best known for its abundance of beach-required activities. But once the sun sets (and those sunsets aren’t to be missed), the city comes to life in countless forms, especially inside some amazing theaters.
Whether you’re looking for live music, a great play or movie, San Diego boasts some of the best venues around town — many of which are historic and have a great story to tell on their own. Here are some of our favorites to experience.
San Diego is no stranger to live music, and that couldn’t be any more true than when it comes to rock and roll. Before A-list acts like Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Pearl Jam were selling out major auditoriums and festivals, they could be spotted at The Casbah, a tiny club in Little Italy that has been going strong since the late 80s.
It’s the same production team heading up bookings at Belly Up in Solana Beach, where big crowds gather for indie names, from Twin Shadow and Rufus Wainwright, to Guided by Voices and Okkervil River.
Because it’s a town built on beaches, it’s worth exploring San Diego’s favorite al fresco listening option, too: Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay. Positioned on Shelter Island, this local go-to packs the house year-round with heavy-hitting headliners (think Bob Dylan, The Temptations, and Huey Lewis and the News).
When those gigs sell out — which they inevitably will — skip the Craigslist craze and reach for a kayak, instead. Its bayside location (and big time sound) attracts anyone willing to paddle up to the action.
Be sure to catch a flick at the Gaslamp Quarter’s beloved Balboa Theatre, which originally opened its doors in 1924 as a vaudeville house. When its cinema program isn’t attracting visitors, it’s a variety of other spectacles, including the Mainly Mozart Summer Festival and performances by the California Ballet and San Diego Men’s Chorus.
If it’s luxe lounging you’re after, there’s no better place than Cinepolis, in the Del Mar Highlands Town Center, which features a full bar, wait staff, and 543 reclining seats.
If you’re looking to catch as many stars above you as there are on screen, leave it to this temperate city to provide possibilities.
Consider Cinema Under the Stars, an outdoor theater in Mission Hills that shows it all (new and classic films alike) while also thinking of it all (e.g. a weatherproof retractable roof).
For something a bit more traditional, it’s all about Dive-In Movie Night at The Pearl, a free weekly “cinema social” that screens crowd-pleasing blockbusters above an oyster-shaped swimming pool.
Considered by many to be the first modern commercial playhouse west of the Mississippi, Spreckels Theater just may be San Diego’s most historic landmark for performing arts. Since its 1912 opening in the city’s theatre district, it has hosted an array of productions featuring some of the century’s most talented entertainers, from Al Jolson and Will Rogers, to John Barrymore and Abbott and Costello.
A 10-minute drive due north will take visitors to The Old Globe Theatre, another notable drama destination that was modeled after Shakespeare’s Old Globe in London. From the classics (Sense and Sensibility; Love’s Labor’s Lost) to the modern day works (Picasso at the Lapin Agile — Steve Martin’s new comedy), there’s no shortage of stage appeal here.
Theater is taken just as seriously at The La Jolla Playhouse, and no wonder — actor Gregory Peck was one of its co-founders back in 1947. The venue is praised for the award-winning playwrights and actors it spotlights on the regular, along with its variety of ticketed genres, from musical comedies to noir whodunits.