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Travel Tips by ‘N’

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Less than three miles from Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, and less than 10 miles from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and U.S. Naval Station San Diego, the ecclectic neighborhood of Hillcrest has long been a home away from home for LGBT Marines and sailors. No matter your nighttime scene or your dining preference, you’ll find something for you in Hillcrest. Founded in 1907, Hillcrest began in the same way as many other gayborhoods across the country. Two factors encouraged young couples to buy their first homes and raise their families in Hillcrest. First, the housing was affordable and accessible to the middle class. Second, the neighborhood was close enough to downtown to be near the preponderance of jobs. By the 1920s, Hillcrest teemed, businesses flocked to meet the needs of the residents, and a community formed. Following WWII, many of the area’s original residents remained, and the neighborhood began to age disproportionately to the rest of San Diego. By the 1970s, property values had fallen drastically as the buildings and homes followed the same path as their owners. With a need for inexpensive housing and a safe place to congregate, San Diego gays and lesbians slowly gravitated towards Hillcrest. With the proximity of Balboa Park and a few gay-friendly bars, the population began to transform. Younger gays and lesbians, singles and couples, began buying and renovating homes and apartments, opening gay-friendly businesses, and the modern-day Hillcrest took shape.

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If you’re near the Hillcrest sign, you are a short walk from a wide swath of international cuisine. Restaurants with food from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe are all within two blocks, and the scents of chicken lemon grass from Saigon on 5th blend with the aroma of real curry from Kitima’s Thai Kitchen. Of course, equally tempting is the gourmet burger from Burger Lounge or Saigon on 5th, which offers authentic, fresh, and very affordable Pho just a couple of blocks from your favorite club.

Hillcrest is very convenient for the traveler because of its proximity to both the airport and to Hotel Circle, a congregation of major chain hotels ranging in quality from budget to upper-end business traveller. A cab from the airport to Hotel Circle runs about $25, and once settled, a cab from the hotel to most places in Hillcrest is about $12. If you stay in a hotel close to the intersection of Interstate 8 and California 163, you can hike about 15 minutes up the hill into Hillcrest, coming out right by Urban Mo’s Bar and Grill and saving yourself enough for a cocktail or appetizer. It is less historically significant than the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village or the Castro in San Francisco, though it has a story all its own. It is less flashy than South Beach in Florida, though a Friday night at Rich’s might lead one to think differently. It is certainly not as eclectic as 4th Street in Austin, but a walk down University Avenue emphasizes the unique commercial and architectural influences that make San Diego’s Hillcrest so special. If you are looking for a Los Angeles-quality scene without the attitude and with a touch of hometown America, consider Hillcrest for your next gaycation. Thanks to the many service members from across the country, Hillcrest is a sort of gay Mayberry set in 21st century California … and it’s all our own.

The Hillcrest sign is a local icon with a rich history located in the heart of Hillcrest. First erected in 1940, the sign has undergone numerous renovations and updates over the years, with the most recent version installed in August of 2011. The sign represents the sense of pride and community found in Hillcrest, serving as a beacon for visitors and locals alike. When the sign was taken down in 1983 to replace the neon bulbs, it took a full year to regain its perch. The excitement generated by its return in 1984 sparked the first annual (though at the time, unofficial) Cityfest. Now in its 27th year, Cityfest is one of San Diego’s largest street fairs. Each year, the sign is turned off and then symbolically relit for the Cityfest crowd, signifying a renewed commitment to the history and community spirit of San Diego’s iconic gayborhood. Visitors can find the Hillcrest sign at the corner of University 5th Avenue. For more information on the sign’s history and pictures, visit www.hillquest.com/fun/sign.htm

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For the ladies, Gossip Grill is the hottest place to start an evening, and it is right across the street from Baja Betty’s, which has the best margaritas north of the Mexican border. For those looking for a kicking club scene, look no further than Rich’s. Just a block down from Baja Betty’s and Gossip Grill, Rich’s always has the hottest DJs and go-go boys in town, spinning and dancing well into the night (Thursday is ladies’ night.) For those with more subtle preferences, Jake’s on 6th Wine Bar is a great place to have a nice conversation and enjoy the company of friends (and their fresh baked bread is exceptional!)

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The single-most influential organization for LGBT personnel in San Diego’s history is The Center, San Diego’s LGBT community center, located in Hillcrest. Started by Jess Jessop in 1971 with a simple answering machine, the Center has grown into the third-largest LGBT community center in the country. Offering counseling, resources, group activities, and specialized information for the diverse LGBTQ community (including youth, seniors, Latinos, African-Americans), as well as providing resources for the HIV positive community, The Center is a tremendous resource for the LGBT community. Historically significant to the nation-wide movement (second oldest LGBT community center in the nation), The Center is a must-see for every LGBT history buff visiting southern California. For more information, visit their website at www.thecentersd.org/ or drop in between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. Monday – Friday, or between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturdays at 3909 Centre Street in Hillcrest.

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In addition to the club and bar scene, Hillcrest is home to a weekly farmer’s market every Sunday from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m., with more than 125 vendors in attendance each week, rain or shine. The farmer’s market is located just off University Drive at 3960 Normal Street, San Diego, CA 92103, right behind the Hillcrest branch office of the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Nearby metered parking is free on Sundays, and the market is within walking distance of many great restaurants and shops. For more information, visit http://hillcrestfarmersmarket.com/index.html

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If Indie film and gourmet snacks are more your thing, check out the Hillcrest Cinema, one of three Landmark Theaters in San Diego. It is San Diego’s premier location for independent and foreign language films. Their snack bar features unique twists such as gourmet chocolates, espresso coffee drinks, and Italian soda. You can find Hillcrest Cinema at 3965 5th Avenue, and you can find more information, such as show times and prices, by visiting their website at http://www.landmarktheatres. com/market/sandiego/hillcrestcinemas.htm

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Historic Balboa Park is home to numerous museums, outdoor art displays, unique architecture, and plenty of green grass and beautiful tall trees. Once the cruising hub around which the gay population of San Diego thrived, Balboa Park today is a family friendly, beautifully manicured oasis in the heart of the city. Located just a few blocks down 6th Avenue from University Avenue (1549 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA, 92101), and thanks to San Diego’s year-round sunshine and cool Pacific breeze, Balboa Park is a perfect outdoor respite after a hard day of shopping. Check out www.balboapark.org for prices, exhibits, and hours.

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