San Diego is a great city. Discovered by the Germans in 1904, they named it San Diego, which of course in German means ‘a whale’s vagina.’ Or so I heard. Regardless, they have a ballpark that would make those Germans proud.
Other than maybe Sox Park in Chicago, no stadium has improved more over the years than Petco Park. They keep making small but purposeful improvements to the facility and gameday experience. The area around it gets better and better every year. The only thing lacking is meaningful baseball from the San Diego Padres,
No park has a better combination of food and beer concessions; Seattle is in the discussion but doesn’t outright beat it. No park has a better local scene; Chicago, Boston and Denver are in the discussion, but don’t outright beat it. No park can better guarantee the glorious weather of San Diego.
My guess is that the park goes largely under the radar because the Padres have not been nationally relevant this century. If this place was home to a perennial contender, more people would swoon over it. All it needs to become the best in baseball is a little more energy in the ballpark. Right now, the mediocre team and chill SoCal attitude result in a fairly lackluster vibe.
San Diego is my favorite American city. I would retire there except I didn’t make enough money to afford housing. But IF I did, I would probably be a Padres season ticket holder (in a shaded aisle seat on the first base line in the lower bowl) and spend my golden years in this fabulous place.
Exterior aesthetics 10/10; Interior & Concourse Aesthetics 9/10; Sightlines & seating 9/10; Amenities & entertainment 10/10; Flow 3/5; Celebrating history 4/5; Scoreboards 4/5; Grand entrance 4/5; Sense of place 7/10; WOW Factor 24/30. Total 84 points divided by 2 for 42.
Petco Park may well be the most original ballpark to come out of the last stadium boom. The place is carved up into neighborhoods with several outer structures away from the seating bowl. The concourses are open air and lead to several restaurants and bars. And with the all the development around the area, the outfield view went from a spartan one with a building or two, to a full urban village of hotels, condos and offices separated only by the greenery of the Park in the Park.
- The Padres purposefully used design elements that reflect the area in creating this marvelous-looking structure. The exterior is clad in beige Indian sandstone and stucco, evoking the cliffs of Torrey Pines. The white steelwork and railings evoke the sails of ships in nearby San Diego bay. And the blue seats nod to the ocean.
- The park was designed so restaurants, administrative offices and other amenities were pulled away from the seating bowl itself into other buildings surrounding the bowl. Doing so allowed the ballpark’s concourses to be open not only to the playing field but also to the city and the bay. Some of the views from the concourses are stunning, especially those in the higher levels.
- There’s lots of foliage decorating the concourses. Everywhere you look you see hanging ivy, Bougainvillea and jasmine plants spilling from the structure. It’s gorgeous.
- The Park in the Park is a novel concept, allowing for general admission seating on a grassy knoll in center field. There’s a small youth diamond behind the left field stands. On non-game days, it serves as a residential park, open to all.
- The Western Metal Supply Co. building, which had been scheduled for demolition, was saved and incorporated into the design of the ballpark. The southeast corner serves as the left field foul pole. This hundred-year-old brick structure doesn’t really fit into the overall theme and vibe of the rest of park, but it’s so cool, I forgive it. It now contains the team store, private suites, a restaurant and rooftop seating.
- There are tons of places to sit down and eat. In fact, Petco may be the best park to NOT watch the Padres. There are many sit-down eateries open to all ticket holders including five full-service restaurants/bars, two more fast-casual dining areas, an expansive outfield social space with over 50 beers on tap, a wine bar, a signature ocean view full-service bar, and a number of picnic areas. This doesn’t even include the exclusive stuff in the clubs and suites.
- While the team was the last to still have a dot matrix scoreboard, the current videoboard is big and nice.
- The park itself does a nice job with cantilevering the levels. This allows the upper levels to be closer to the field, while offering some shade for patrons in back rows of the covered bowls. The seats are angled aggressively to the infield. And foul territory is minimal, allowing for more intimacy. Sightlines are good.
- The Padres have a tasteful little Hall of Fame exhibit to commemorate past greats. Statues of Tony Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman are outside the stadium. And there’s a wall of all Cooperstown inductees who have spent a part of their career in San Diego in some fashion. These were all nice improvements made since the opening of the park.
- Navigating the neighborhood concourses is confusing. There seem to be stops and starts along the way. And circumnavigating the park is tricky. It particularly bad going from the outfield to the infield where a series of ramps (right) or stairs (left) are needed to switch levels. Fans may be tempted to give up and stay put, which is too bad given all there is to see in the park.
- And as great as the open-air concourses feel, they do take you away from the game. Views of the field are sporadic; you only see through breaks in the structure.
- The outfield view, while pretty good, doesn’t really scream San Diego. A few more prominent palm trees, or a faux mission or something would have better telegraphed it. For a while they had “the beach” in center (a giant sandbox just past the centerfield fence where unsuspecting kids would be playing with pails and shovels as baseball are being hit towards them), but it was moved to a more discrete concourse and replaced with a superior social area.
- The towers that separate the sections block the view from a few seats. And the Western Metal Supply Co building blocks a chunk of the outfield from some leftfield upper deck seats. New ballparks should be free of obstructed views.
Petco Park may be the only MLB stadium that should come with a map due to the confusing navigation issues. That aside, it’s a great venue to watch (and not watch) baseball.
I give the edge slightly to the Mets, but the Padres’ food offerings are hard to beat.
Almost everything of note is offered by a top-notch local institution rather than a stadium food provider. Even the hotdogs in the Budweiser deck are made with meat by local Tarantino Gourmet Sausage company. Some say that you can do a Taste of San Diego tour simply by having all your meals in the ballpark. Options include:
- Pizza Port: home to good pizza and even better craft beer
- Hodad’s: one of the best burgers in baseball from this Guy Fieri favorite
- Phil’s BBQ: until the Killen’s opens in Houston, this is the best in-stadium BBQ in baseball. The ribs and pulled pork are outstanding.
- Seaside Market: known for their Cardiff BBQ tri-tips aka Cardiff Crack
- Baked Bear: the ice cream sandwich is amazing
- Brigantine Seafood & Oyster Bar: this fish taco vet also offers fish and chips, clam chowder and the catch of the day
- Blue Water Seafood: seafood goodness including poke, chowder and sashimi
- Buona Forchetta: great Neapolitan pizzas from wood-fired ovens
- Lucha Libre: great Mexican dishes including the Surfin’ California Burrito, tacos and quesadillas
- Miguel’s Cocina: Surf N’ Turf Burrito, classic fish taco, carne asada taco, and chips & queso
- Board and Brew: sandwiches with a renown secret sauce
- Mercado Food Court: home to, among other chains, Rubio’s (another option for fish tacos)
- Gaglione Brothers: good cheesesteaks
- Carnitas’ Snack Shack: the best carnitas in San Diego
- Din Tai Fung: great Taiwanese pork buns
- Zenbu: a good sushi bar at the ballpark
- Wonderland Ocean Pub: a Mission Beach staple on the top level serving cocktails and casual bites in a chill open-air space
Choosing a favorite is genuinely hard. Throw a dart at the above, and you’ll eat something good. However, given the location, I’d probably choose a fish taco as the signature dish and among many great options, my personal fave were the those from Blue Water Seafood. Grilled to perfection and not too heavy allowing more room for some of that lovely craft beer.
The Padres sweep the concession category by getting perfect scores on both fronts.
San Diego may well be the best craft beer city in America. At the very least, it’s on the short list with Portland and Grand Rapids. So many great small breweries abound. And “large craft” San Diego breweries like Stone and Ballast Point shouldn’t be ignored because of their larger size or being bought out. There’s consistently great stuff being made here.
At the park there are 50+ beers on tap and more in cans and bottles. You have several options from AleSmith including an omnipresent .394 pale ale honoring the late Tony Gwynn. Ballast Point offers a dozen or so great options including a Petco-only Swinging Friar Ale. Pizza Port and Hodad’s both offer their in-home brews. And other SoCal brews are offered from Stone, Mike Hess, Karl Strauss, Mission Brewery, Resident Brewing (their Chasing Citra is killer), Belching Beaver (though not their ridiculously good peanut butter stout), Iron Fist Brewing, Red Trolley, Alpine Beer Co, Thorn, and Coronado Brewing. You can also get A-B owned craft from Elysian, 10 Barrell, Goose Island and Omission, as well as Sierra Nevada.
Petco Park Insider suggests a nine-inning line up of the Stone IPA, Ballast Point California Kölsch, Pizza Port’s Swami IPA, Mike Hess Grapefruit Solis, Modern Times Blazing World, Resident Chasing Citra, Coronado Weekend Vibes IPA, Ballast Point Sculpin IPA and the .394. Petco Park Insider must have a liver of steel (and a waterbed-sized bladder) to try that, but it sounds fun.
And the great news is they are all over the park. You may need to do some hunting to find a specific beer, but most stands sell something great.
There are some destination bars as well. The Craft Pier in the outfield, the Craft Row behind home plate, and the Craft Beers of San Diego stands are worth hitting. There’s also The Still by local distiller Cutwater if liquor is more your thing, and a few wine bars if you prefer the grape to the hop.
Completing the sweep of perfect scores in the 3 key non-baseball categories is the pre or post-game scene in and around Petco.
The park sits on the SE corner of the Gaslamp District. Since its construction, the area has been completely revitalized. There are 16 blocks of eateries and bars to the north and west of the park meaning you can spend a season here with minimal duplication.
Not all places have a ballpark vibe, but all have the fun, chill San Diego vibe. Whether you’re a long-time local or a well-behaved first-time tourist, you’ll be treated well.
Some of the establishments have come and gone but many have shown some staying power. Do a little research beforehand, or just pop into any place with a crowd. Weekends obviously buzz a little more. Some places worth considering that I’ve hit include: Bub’s, Tivoli (100+-year-old bar), Social Tap Eatery (sports bar), Neighborhood, Altitude Sky Lounge (atop the Marriott overlooking the park), Basic (good pizza), The Deck at Moonshine Flats (open air country bar), Fareweather (tiki bar), plus Mission Brewery, Half Door Brewing Co, and the Stone Brewing Tap Room (the latter being right next to the park).
If you’re coming in from out of town, just stay in the area and do everything by foot. The Omni next to the stadium is literally attached to Petco Park and allows you to go back and forth from your hotel room to the ballpark, though I’m not sure why you’d want to spend time in your hotel room instead of the park.
Concessions will set you back some, but tickets can normally be found for cheap. The net result is usually an average bill for the game.
The parking situation has gotten a lot better since the park first opened with many more options nearby. Alas, traffic is just a way of life in SoCal. But with all the great beer, it’d be a shame to drive.
All three trolley lines service the ballpark. If coming from the North, the COASTER stops at Santa Fe Depot (1.5 miles from the park in downtown San Diego), as does Amtrak coming from Orange County. And it’s a relatively short cab ride from the airport.
San Diego weather is as perfect as any climate in the country. Just be sure to bring sunscreen if coming to a day game. Man, I’d like to move here!
Here’s the only thing that keeps Petco from being the best baseball experience in the MLB. The atmosphere is super chill. Too chill. Now in fairness, San Diego is a chill place. And until very recently, the Padres have hardly been an exciting team. But it’s pretty tame.
Attendance is actually pretty good. The Padres regularly attract 28,000+ per game despite usually being out of contention by Mother’s Day. But everybody is just so damn content; I think sports fans need angst to generate atmosphere, and unless you’re thinking about your mortgage, it’s hard to be angsty in San Diego.
Everything is super pleasant. The ushers are nice. The place is clean. Between the fresh plantings and the sea breezes, it smells wonderful, but not like a ballpark.
There are usually several servicemen and women in attendance, and the team does a nice job acknowledging their service including playing the Marine Hymn on Sundays.
The level of baseball knowledge varies. It’s a similar feeling I get at Angel Stadium. You’re in a baseball hotbed, and sometimes you’re sitting by hardcore baseball people. But I’m surprised about how many show up who don’t really know what’s going on. There also seem to be a disproportionate number of people in attendance who do not know/adhere to the unwritten fan code; i.e. leave seats only between plays, quickly sit down so as not to block the views or others, pay attention to the game if you’re in foul ball territory, and never steal a ball earmarked for a kid. (The last one happened once when a grown-ass man lounged and knocked my then-10-year-old son down when he was about to catch a ball thrown to him by the visiting team. He apologized after the fact, but we never got the ball.)
In some ways, the park is so nice, the food is so good, the beer is so tasty, and the weather is so perfect, that the ballgame is ancillary to a large number of fans. I’m sure if the Padres ever had a run of sustained excellence, this may change. But generally, I leave Petco saying things like, “Man they’ve really stepped up their food game.” Or “It’s really nice there”. Or “Why don’t I live here?” As opposed to, “There’s nothing better than a Padres game.” And if you’re really close to the Number 1 slot overall in my baseball stadium rankings, that’s an issue.
OTHER FUN THINGS TO DO
Three fun San Diego eateries:
- Lolitas Restaurant (Ballpark. Local chain of quality Mexican eateries with one location across the street from Petco Park)
- Lucha Libre Taco Shop (Mission Hills. If you don’t get it at the ballpark, the restaurant is quite fun)
- Hodad’s (Ocean Beach. If you don’t order at the ballpark, make a trek to Ocean Beach)
Three places to imbibe before the game:
- Bub’s at the Ballpark (The busiest game day bar and a great beer list for a bro bar)
- Neighborhood (Gaslamp. Hipster pub with great beer list. There’s a speakeasy in the back for a more cocktail-y experience)
- Tipsy Crow (Gaslamp. Tri-level bar with lots going on including a good beer list)
One bar in the area worth hitting:
Pizza Port Ocean Beach. (The OB location is the closest one to the ballpark not in the ballpark.)
Three craft breweries in the area worthy of your time:
- Stone Escondido (The mother of all taprooms. Feels more like a winery. Amazing place 33 miles north of the park in Escondido.)
- AleSmith Brewing (Huge taproom of renown OG craft brewer 16 miles north of park in Miramar)
- Pizza Port (Renown local brewer with 5 locations, including one in Ocean Beach. New brewers may have passed it, but this Original Gangster still cranks out amazing brews nearly 30 years since its birth in Solano Beach.)
Three fun tourist attractions in the area:
- San Diego Zoo (with or without kids, the zoo never fails to delight)
- The Beach (Choose from Coronado – beautiful white sand, Ocean – fishing and bar hopping, Mission – a mile long with an amusement park, La Jolla Cove – snorkeling but little sand. Or hit them all.)
- Old Town San Diego (The site of the first European settlement in present-day California. Explore the State Historic Park, the shops and the Mexican restaurants).
As a ballpark traveler, I’m often asked to list my top 5 parks. Four are easy because they appear on most lists: the 20th Century classics of Fenway and Wrigley, and the 21st Century classics of Oracle Park and PNC Park. The fifth one used to be a tougher call.
But today, it’s firmly the amazing park in San Diego. In fact, it’s the second-best park in baseball. When I tell people that, they often say, “Petco Park? Really.”