Banker’s Hill is the quiet (when the planes aren’t flying over your head on their way to Lindberg Field airport down the slope) and upscale-ish residential area between Downtown San Diego and the (delightfully) gaytown that is Hillcrest. It is flanked by Balboa Park to the east and the San Diego International Airport (Lindberg Field)… and part of Little Italy to the west. It is a community of lush lawn and old-money Victorian Era houses that is usually overlooked by visitors who are keen on exploring the neighborhoods surrounding it. And so… this is the place Smorg goes to roam around when I am in an anti-visitor/tourist mode.
The east-west streets here are named for various plants… and arranged alphabetically from Ash St to the south (in Little Italy and Downtown areas) to Upas St to the north (border with Hillcrest). The main east-west thoroughfare being Laurel St, which warps into El Prado as it heads east past 6th Avenue and enters the west gate of Balboa Park. The main north-south streets are the one-way 4th, 5th, and 6th Avenues (5th Ave is the northbound one). Buses heading to downtown run on 4th and 1st Avenues, and buses heading to Hillcrest and beyond run on 5th Ave. These are the streets where the businesses are. Lots of upscale restaurants that can rival those in Gaslamp Quarters both in taste and in price. There are some not so upscale ones for people with a smorg-like budget, though… not the least of these is the Caliph on 5th Avenue… a semi-sleazy joint equipped with a life-size statue of Marilyn Monroe in the back (ahem!).
Banker’s Hill has a ‘hill’ in its name for good reason. The area is full of hills and canyons… which means that the minor streets have a way of dead-ending, and magically re-emerging back up on the other side. If you aren’t familiar with the area and try to explore it on-the-go… you’ve better have a street map with you or a really fresh pair of legs! Walking or bicycling is really the best way to get acquainted with Banker’s Hill, which was San Diego’s boomtown back in the 1890’s… There are many historical landmarks hiding everywhere that you’d miss driving through it in a car – not to mention all those commercial planes flying low over head every few minutes!
Anyhow, for those who haven’t been here before, in good walking shape, and have 2 or 3 hours to spend… here’s a good walking route through the area. It is best started sometime between 8 and 10 AM to avoid panting on the hills in the afternoon heat (and to be able to look west toward the bay and the airport toward the end of it without having that bright Californian sun in your eyes).
We start in Downtown San Diego at Broadway and 5th Avenue. If you wish, you can take bus 3 up 5th Avenue to Elm St, just across Interstate 5. This is pretty much the southern border of Banker’s Hill. Walk up either 5th or 6th Avenues (the latter has better view because its east side borders Balboa Park) to Juniper St and turn left (west). This gets you into the residential area. Oh, by the way, the landing planes cross 5th and 6th Avenue right around Ivy St here. It’s quite fun standing around in the middle of the block and have those jumbo jets go right over your head!
Turning right at 2nd Avenue there are many good looking houses to see. Don’t miss Keating House (Est. 1886) on your right! It is a well kept and beautifully ornate Queen Anne Victorian house that is now a pricey bed and breakfast. Turn left on Kalmia St, and then right on 1st Avenue. The fairy tale home precipitating before your eyes on the left side of the street is the Long-Waterman Mansion. Another colorful Queen Anne Victoria mansion built in 1889. It was the residence of the 7th Governor of California, John W Waterman, and is now a privately owned business.
Continuing north on 1st Avenue, be sure to look left (west) and spot the runway of Lindberg Field away down the hill. Those with plane-fascination syndrome will love walking west on Laurel all the way down to Pacific Hwy and the airport, with the commercial jets appearing to be flying in and out of the homes on the left side of the street! On the northwest corner of this intersection is another colorful Victorian Era house that used to belong to the prosperous HH Timken. We turn left here and go down Laurel St to Albatross St, and turn right – following the shady road until it turns dogleg right into Maple St. At the bend is a memorial plaque to Waldo Waterman, a noted aviator who made his first glider flight from this spot in July 1909, at the tender age of 15.
Turning left onto 4th Avenue from Maple, we spot another gorgeous Victorian Era semi-castle that is now the Britt Scripps Inn. This 1887 mansion used to be the residence of the Scripps newspaper clan, but is now a really rustically ritzy bed and breakfast. While I confess to being more attracted to the handsome camphor tree (it looks so temptingly climb-able!) than I am to the lavish structure, the whole complex is a looker worth taking a picture with… But… we’re moving on!
After half a city block’s worth of cautious walking north on 4th Avenue (no sidewalk on the left side of the road), we come to the white wood trestle Quince Street pedestrian bridge. Built in 1905, demolished and then refurbished in 1988 (after much howling by the local residents who weren’t keen on having to detour around the canyon to get from 2nd to 4th Avenue), this is one of the two pedestrian bridges in Banker’s Hill. Looking southwest from the top of it you can spot the San Diego Bay and even the hangar of North Island Naval Air Station on Coronado. Going across it to continue west on Quince St, the houses are a bit different from on the other side of the canyon. No big ornate mansions now, but still graceful early 1900’s houses with lush garden.
Turn right at 1st Avenue, and then left and down the hill on Spruce Street we come to another pedestrian bridge. This one is a suspension bridge built in 1925 across the wide Kate Session Canyon. It is 375 ft long and is open to foot traffic from 6AM-10PM. A favorite romantic rendezvous place for the locals, walking on the Spruce Street Bridge can be an interesting experience since it sways quite a bit in response to both the wind gust and to your walking steps. Looking around while you’re on it and you should get a good idea why people here are so nervous whenever the fire-friendly Santa Ana wind is blowing. The whole area is so filled with old overgrowth!
Getting to the other side, we emerge at the junction of Quince and Brant Streets. More early 1900’s houses as we walk west on Quince… all the way down the steep hill to Dove St and turning right (south). If the street looks a bit more alarming than before, at least you can look up and see the skyscrapers of Downtown in the distance. Don’t panic when Dove runs into Palm St and doglegs up the hill to the left, we are going down the steep set of staircases on the right of the corner instead… all the way down to drop onto Reynard Way just north of Arroyo – in the neighborhood of Mission Hill. There’s a bus stop nearby where you can hop on bus 83 back to downtown (to Broadway and Kettner, about 8 city blocks west of our starting point) on weekdays (no weekend service).
Else, hike south (go left) on Reynard Way, which soon turns into State Street on its way to Downtown. The plane lovers among us, though, may want to hang a right on Laurel St and then another right onto India St. Go up the ramp underneath I-5, and you will emerge on the long triangle island with great view of Lindberg Field‘s runway, the bay, and Downtown. A great spot to photograph commercial airplanes landing and taking off. Lindberg is the busiest single runway commercial airport in the USA, so you won’t have to wait long before a jet can be seen landing or departing the place (do mind your step on that steep island, though, or you might roll down on it and get flattened by one of those Californian drivers!).
Once you’ve had enough of the sight, head back south down India St, which goes all the way back into Downtown (it hits Broadway just east of Santa Fe Depot on Kettner). This street goes through the very pedestrian friendly neighborhood of Little Italy, and there’ll be plenty of good restaurants to refuel along the way… not to mention more overhead plane spotting as you pass between Juniper and Ivy Streets. For a quick recap of Banker’s Hill, click here for a slide show .