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Bars and galleries share the streets, just outside the heart of downtown.
Bars and galleries share the streets, just outside the heart of downtown.

San Diego by design Add to ...

Inland from SeaWorld and not far from the zoo, under the ever-present glare of the California sun, San Diego's Little Italy is quietly reinventing itself.

Once home to Italian tuna fishermen and their families, the neighbourhood went downhill in the sixties when these immigrant families flourished and migrated to the suburbs. But San Diego's burgeoning creative class filled the gap, living in turn-of-the-century row houses and warehouse loft conversions and spurring new development.

Today, old men gather to play bocce in Amici Park, around the corner from the slick new digs of architectural firms and boutiques stocking luxury housewares. A handful of wine bars and supper clubs provide the setting for a grown-up nightlife scene.

The neighbourhood's Kettner Art and Design District centres around Kettner Boulevard and India Street, where several art spaces and design shops are clustered. A weekly farmers market launched last year and the monthly wine-and-cheese-fuelled Kettner Nights draw crowds of locals seeking artisan bread, local produce or an affordable painting.

In a town best known for its kid-centric attractions, laid-back beach culture and ample conference facilities, Little Italy offers an alternative world of independent galleries, mid-century modern furniture, and mean, non-Starbucks espresso.

The Subtext gallery and bookstore.

Read between the lines Art openings here are populated by twentysomethings in vintage outfits and kooky plastic glasses - a look more common to Manhattan's Lower East Side than a SoCal surf town. Subtext gallery and design bookstore promotes young artists, many of whom work in the graphic and pop veins. Owners Don Hollis and Dylan Jones hand-pick their selection of limited edition toys and art. They also carry unique books on anything from obscure Japanese fashion crazes to Finnish furniture design to contemporary typography. 2479 Kettner Blvd.; 619-546-8800; subtextstore.com

Hip to be triangular R3 Gallery is shaped like a triangle and has, yes, three levels. All clean lines, concrete, wood and glass, the gallery showcases early-career artists working in sculpture, painting, photography and new media. The building, designed by local architect Lloyd Russell, is as much a work of art as anything hanging on its walls. By appointment only; 2421 India St.; 619-241-9779; r3gallery.com

Pen to paper Style-savvy stationery nerds gravitate to India Ink Papers for polished and pretty office supplies and writing materials. There is every imaginable colour and shape of cards, papers and envelopes for folks to go DIY with, and in-house designers create custom invites and stationery. Plus they offer buttery leather daybooks by Graphic Image, a huge selection of Lamy pens and pop art wallets by Pocketo. 1907 Columbia St.; 619-233-4203; indiainkpapers.com

Mad Men Mod The place for mid-century design classics by folks like Charles and Ray Eames or Arne Jacobsen, Boomerang for Modern was a pioneer in the area a decade ago. The shop is staged like a snazzy, three-floor apartment, accessorized with ceramic bowls, starburst clocks and throw pillows from the era. One half-expects to find Don Draper enjoying a scotch and cigarette on one of the sectional sofas. 2475 Kettner Blvd.; 619-239-2040; boomerangformodern.com

Skate culture The greatest skateboarder of all time, Tony Hawk, was born and lives in San Diego, where skateboarding is still seen as a viable mode of transportation by fortysomething dudes sporting cargo shorts and hoodies. Igloo Shop caters to skaters of all ages with a taste for design. There are limited-edition silkscreen prints and decorative table tennis paddles, snarky slogan T-shirts and, of course, skateboards. 640 W. Beech St.; 619-234-5855; iglooshop.com

Wearable wood You can't walk past the Fir Street Cottage Shops without being drawn in by the riot of colour. The wooden shingled cottages are painted indigo blue, turquoise and purple, and accented by sprays of bright pink flowers. Rosa Mariposa is olive green with chocolate brown mouldings and specializes in jewellery from Indonesia made of wood, fruit seeds and coconuts. 611 West Fir St.; 619-237-8064; rosamariposasd.com

For the cutting-edge condo With 8,000 square feet of space spread across three levels, Mixture Home stocks everything from colourful glass-blown bottles and scented candles to lighting that doubles as art and laser-cut felt placemats. And though it makes its home in a 1940s warehouse, the focus is very much on the latest in contemporary furniture and design objects. 2210 Kettner Blvd.; 619-239-4788; mixturehome.com

Knobs and knockers Contemporary design studios are a mainstay of the neighbourhood these days, so Architectural Salvage of San Diego, with its lovely cast-offs from bygone eras, is a welcome respite from all that sleekness. It's a cavernous archive of one-of-a-kind items such as iron doorknockers, crystal chandeliers, glass knobs and bathroom sinks. 2401 Kettner Blvd.; 619-696-1313; architecturalsalvagesd.com

Super mercato The area farmers' market, Little Italy Mercato, is a popular destination for foodies seeking live sea urchin from San Diego Kelp or artisan sopressata salami by local Knight Salumi. Families stroll with organic Viva Pop popsicles in hand, and raw foodists descend on the vegan Peace Pies stand. There's also jewellery, clothing and cookware, and often live music. Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; Date and India streets; littleitalymercato.com

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Where to stay LOW La Pensione Hotel 606 West Date St.; 619-236-8000; lapensionehotel.com. From $85. Built around a leafy central courtyard, it's a small, Euro-style gem. Rooms are a little snug, but the location is convenient. The hotel is decorated with old black and white photos of Italian street scenes. The in-house café, Caffe Italia, serves the best espresso in town. One caveat: Street noise can be a problem, so if you're sensitive, bring earplugs or ask for a room at the back.

W Hotel San Diego 412 West B Street; 619-398-3100; thewsandiegohotel.com. From $154. Sits pretty at the southeastern edge of Little Italy, offering plush rooms designed in the chain's signature, colourful boutique style, a spa, fitness centre and heated outdoor pool. RICE, a restaurant, serves Latin-Asian fusion. The rooftop bar comes complete with cabanas and sand that attract downtown workers at cocktail hour.

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