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Best of San Diego 2023: Arts & Culture

The city's art scene is alive as ever with new music venues, art galleries, creative spaces, and live music
Photo Credit: Erik Jepsen

By SDM Staff & Contributors

Blacktronika Festival Irreversible Entanglement

Group Irreversible Entanglement performing at the Blacktronika Festival this last year

Photo Credit: Erik Jepsen

Best Goose

San Diego Rally Goose

Geese aren’t usually immortalized on baseball mugs, but most geese aren’t the San Diego Rally Goose. After the live bird crashed Dodger Stadium in game two of the NLDS—a game the Padres won 5-3 to tie the series—the Friars went on to take the next two at Petco Park and advance to the NLCS for the first time since 1998. You’re so fly, San Diego Rally Goose. –WR

Best Out-Of-The-Box Ballet

The Rosin Box Project

Contemporary ballet company The Rosin Box Project is named for the receptacle of powder that’s dusted onto dancers’ shoes for better grip, but their innovative choreography implores audiences to think outside the box. At the Liberty Station studio, professional classical and contemporary dancers express themselves in multi-sensory performances under the creative guidance of artistic director Carly Topazio. The company’s flagship series Debuts runs Aug. 24–26, showcasing local and international choreographers making their contemporary ballet premiere. –KO

Birch Aquarium Oceans at Night

Birch Aquarium Oceans at Night

Best Place to Drink Like a Fish

Birch Aquarium’s Oceans at Night

Birch Aquarium gets it: Parents need playtime, too. A new monthly 21-plus experience transforms the aquarium into a bustling space with vibrant live music, glow-in-the-dark cocktails, face-painting, and games galore. Need a romantic moment? Take in a perfect sunset view on Tide Pool Plaza. Miss adult conversation? Learn about jellyfish, coral, and sea anemones’ radiant bioluminescence without the kids constantly asking, “Why?” –CG

Best Local Cred Booster From a Non-San Diego Band

Dia De Los Deftones

Sacramento alt-rock/metal icons Deftones have made San Diego a go-to tour stop since the ’90s, but somehow they’ve since only managed to make each visit more memorable, thanks in large part to their annual Dia De Los Deftones festival at Petco Park. Held each (non-lockdown) November, the band’s self-curated fest has seen them share the stage with the likes of Chvrches, Turnstile, Freddie Gibbs, and JPEGMAFIA, boosting artists on the rise while making our own backyard the venue for one of the best single days of live music in any city. –JT

Oolong Gallery Art Solana Beach

Oolong Gallery Art Solana Beach

Photo Credit: Margo Yinger

Best Free Art Lesson

Oolong Gallery

Cardiff transplant Eric Laine founded his airy gallery in Solana Beach with the mission of turning San Diego into an art town. Step one: Bring in boundary-pushing creatives from all over the world. Step two: Teach visitors the “why” behind the cool. Laine and his knowledgeable staff offer insight and context as you eyeball paintings and sculptures from artists like Taylor Chapin, Jerry Hsu, and Minga Opazo. –AR

Best Event To Jazz Up a Weeknight

Panama 66

You don’t have to be a hipster to appreciate the special vibe at Panama 66 each Wednesday night. Linger in the dog-and kid-friendly sculpture garden and order excellent craft beers, creative cocktails, and small plates made with local ingredients. Free jazz begins at 7 p.m. with the Young Lions, some of SD’s most talented youth musicians. The subsequent jazzy jam session, curated by trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos (2023 winner of San Diego Music Awards’ Album of the Year), is sure to get your toes tapping. –CG

Steve Aoki Performing at The Sound Venue

Steve Aoki Performing at The Sound Venue

Best New North County Noise

The Sound

Nearly 50 years after local institution Belly Up Tavern opened in Solana Beach, it finally got a sibling—one three times as large. The Sound, a new 1,900-person-capacity concert hall operated by the Belly Up and housed on the San Diego County Fairgrounds, brings a much-needed mid-size venue to North County. With a state-of-the-art sound system and the space to accommodate headliners such as M83 and The Flaming Lips, it’s a thrilling addition to the live music landscape. –JT

Best Radio Playlist Reboot


Scant few locals of a certain age lack fond memories of hearing new-wave hits by Oingo Boingo and The Cure on 91X in the ’80s, even if the format has undergone a few phases of metamorphosis in the years since. After celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, however, the station charmed its way back to the FM presets with a so-called return to its roots, bringing bands like The Clash and INXS back into regular rotation while leaving plenty of space for next-gen artists such as The National and Wet Leg. That kind of musical omnivorousness is refreshing to hear. –JT

Best Festival That Started as Homework


When DJ, producer, and professor King Britt introduced his UCSD lecture course, “Blacktronika: Afrofuturism In Electronic Music,” his homework assignments asked students to experience a spectrum of Afrofuturist performances firsthand, to actually feel what they’re studying. Thus one of the city’s most interesting and distinctive new festivals was born, debuting virtually in 2021. A year later, it made its in-person premiere. Having hosted the likes of singer-songwriter Xenia Rubinos and free-jazz group Irreversible Entanglements, it’s an experience that transcends dusty fields and beer gardens, connecting ancestral history directly to bodies moving to the rhythm. –JT

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Best Soundtracked Park Hang

Winyl Club

Fancy some left-field jazz with your skin-contact riesling? Perhaps some ’90s R&B with your rosé? Then free up your Wednesdays for a different kind of wine pairing. This seasonal, epicurean happening posts up at the edge of Balboa Park weekly from 2 p.m. til sundown and is prime real estate for anyone looking to unwind. Run by a collective of vinyl and wine enthusiasts, selectors spin while spectators sip in a sea of blankets sporting dining options that run the gamut from makeshift charcuterie boards to full-on tablescapes. –DA

Best Strip-Mall Listening Lounge

Convoy Music Bar

Vinyl sounds better with a cocktail—lack of hard science be damned. Which makes the concept behind Convoy Music Bar, a lounge fashioned after Tokyo-style listening bars, a welcome import. Featuring a custom hi-fi sound system from Japan and a curated selection of platters for nightly DJs to drop the needle on, as well as spirit-forward drinks with Asian ingredients, the intimate hangout is the best bet for a night of being intoxicated by sound. –JT

The Mudd House

The Mudd House

Best Place to Get Your Hands Dirty

The Mudd House

High school pottery class just got an upgrade. Tucked along the 101 in Leucadia, this charming ceramics studio is here to host your next hobby. With multi-week wheel-throwing workshops, DIY hand-building sessions, and solo or group pottery lessons, the woman-owned hotspot is a clay-filled, choose-your-own-adventure artistic endeavor. If arts and crafts aren’t your jam, The Mudd House’s talented potters have plenty of ready-made vases, bowls, and mugs to spruce up your space— sans messy hands. –ER

Best Karaoke Joint (Without a Stranger’s Take on “Eye of the Tiger”)


Book a private, Asian-style karaoke room that can hold up to 50 guests and zero randos drunkenly wailing songs from Rocky. HIVE serves signature cocktails, beers on tap, and carafes of soju (an alcoholic beverage popular in Korea) to thirsty performers. Late-night cravings are kept at bay with Korean-inspired appetizers for noshing (think bulgogi fries, kimchi pancakes, and spicy fish cakes). The time goes by quickly, so make sure you reserve a room for at least a couple hours. –MK

Monstrate Winery Fallbrook

Monstrate Winery Fallbrook

Best Spot to Laugh Under the Stars

Monserate Winery

What better way to enjoy a stand-up show than under the stars with a glass of an estate grown red blend In hand? While it’s not unusual for bars, breweries, and restaurants to host small comedy nights,Monserate Winery in Fallbrook kicks it up a notch by partnering with the Comedy Store La Jolla to bring in bigger names like Michael Yo (America’s Got Talent; The Yo Show) and Sarah Tiana (Reno 911!; Crashing). They also host live music, salsa classes, and other events—all of which makes the drive up to Fallbrook worth it. –JI

Best Woman-Run Creative Studio Moonlighting as an Arts Space


Owned and curated by local DJ, design maven, and ad agency vet Danielle Higgins, this City Heights catch-all arts space has quietly hosed some of the city’s best shows since it found its home on Winona and El Cajon five years ago. The eccentric studio-cum-venue fosters the growth of a femme-forward and emerging artists. With everything from hip-hop to the avant-garde packing their modest-sized house, they’re poised to lose their underground status real quick. –DA

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