The more things change, the more they stay the same in San Diego’s popular Hillcrest neighborhood. As San Diego began to prosper in the mid-1900s, Hillcrest met a growing demand for affordable housing in proximity to downtown’s booming business district and an exploding defense industry around the port. Today, Hillcrest remains one of San Diego’s best real estate values for professionals and working-class residents alike.

The old, single-level, single-family, Craftsman-style homes have been well-maintained with lovingly tended gardens that reflect pride in ownership and a respect for aesthetics. As you explore the commercial center around Fifth Ave. and University, you’ll still find iconic ’50s style restaurants and storefronts. But, where the majority of residents in this seemingly status quo neighborhood were once conservative, middle-class families, today Hillcrest is home to a prominent gay and lesbian community.

Cruising around
The best way to get around Hillcrest and its nearby neighbors, Mission Hills and University Heights, is by car. Laurel Avenue runs directly from the airport through Hillcrest, and straight into the heart of Balboa Park. Heading north on 5th Avenue will bring you to the heart of Hillcrest at Washington and University. From here you can park and explore on foot.

For visitors, the most interesting attraction in the Hillcrest area is 1200-acre Balboa Park, with its many museums, indoor and outdoor theaters, public sports complex, parks, playgrounds and, of course, the renowned San Diego Zoo. Originally erected for the 1915-1916 Panamerican Exposition, the beautiful Moorish-style buildings were intended merely as temporary housing for the fair’s exhibits. Now these elegant facades, foyers and fountains welcome visitors to a variety of permanent museums and attractions. Here are a selection of favorites:

The San Diego Museum of Art boasts a small-but-excellent fine arts collection, including Renaissance paintings, Asian artifacts and bronze sculptures, plus high-profile touring exhibits of all-kinds.

The anthropologically-oriented Museum of Man combines permanent exhibits on local indigenous populations with such diverse visiting themes as Egyptian mummies, weapons of war and voodoo magic.

The Fleet Space Theater offers IMAX movie screenings, planetarium shows and an interactive science center. If you’ve never experienced the thrill of an IMAX movie, don’t let the opportunity pass you by.

The Old Globe Theater presents the works of Shakespeare and other plays in an intimate venue that replicates its 16th-century London namesake. Don’t be surprised to catch one of of your favorite Hollywood stars spending their summer sabbatical on the stage here.

If mummies and Macbeth aren’t what you’re after, try one of these alternatives: the Aerospace Museum, Mingei International Museum, Museum of Photographic Arts, Hall of Champions, Model Railroad Museum, Botanical Museum or Japanese Friendship Garden among others.

The San Diego Zoo needs no introduction. Well-publicized for its pioneering work in animal preservation and captive breeding, most visitors are already familiar with our zoo from television and magazine documentaries, but there’s nothing like experiencing it for yourself.

Inside tips
The most popular dining and shopping hotspots in Hillcrest are concentrated in “The Village” area bounded by Washington and University, between Fourth and Fifth Avenue, but some of the most rewarding are out-of-the-way surprises scattered throughout the neighborhood. Enthusiastic supporters of the arts, Hillcrest’s gay community has helped launch and patronize a number of excellent restaurants, cafes, art galleries, bookshops, boutiques and furniture stores. A Hillcrest landmark, the old Ken Cinema movie theater on Adams Avenue screens an eccentric offering of films, both classic and obscure (619-283-5909 for program info). Of special interest to visiting gays, metro-sexuals and adventurous straight folk are the collection of predominantly gay bars, salons, lingerie and adult book stores, and mid-summer’s annual Lesbian and Gay Parade.

No visit to our fair city would be complete without a visit to the world-famous San Diego Zoo 619-234-3153. The zoo and its sister property, the Wild Animal Park in Escondido, are open daily. The Zoological Society is a non-profit organization, and the admission prices are refreshingly reasonable by theme park standards. You can catch the main highlights at the zoo in an hour-long guided bus tour, or pass an entire day wandering through the organically-designed exhibits. Kids will enjoy the Children’s Zoo where the nursery often boasts a newborn gnu, a litter of leopards or other cuddly creatures.

At Balboa Park and at the zoo, parking can be challenging, particularly on weekends and during the summer, but at least it’s free. On certain days of the month?traditionally Tuesdays?admission is free at certain museums throughout the park (with some restrictions). If you have the luxury of choosing a day for our visit to Balboa Park, it’s certainly worth checking ahead. Each of the park’s unique museums has its own hours of operation and information website, but you can start your search at or by calling the Visitors Center at 619-239-0512. For special exhibits at the Museum of Art, program listings at the Space Theater, plays at the Old Globe and other special events, you’ll want to check ahead for reservations and tickets. A special treat after a long day on your feet is the Prado Restaurant in the center of Balboa Park. And make sure to browse the gift shops of the various museums you visit, as well as the Zoo. Beside the usual fare of souvenirs, each shop carries a wonderful selection of unique items.

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Getting there

From the North: Take 163 south to University Avenue, which places you in the heart of Hillcrest. If you are heading to Balboa Park, continue south on 163 to Park Boulvard. Exit and left onto Park and follow signs.

From the South: Head north on the 5 freeway to the B Street/Pershing exit and exit onto Pershing. Turn left Florida Drive, left on Zoo Place, and right onto Park Boulevard. Balboa Park will be on your left. To explore Hillcrest, continue on Park and turn left onto University.

Homes in Hillcrest