Ever since the early '90s, when magazines like Spin were proclaiming San Diego as "the next Seattle," the city has had a reputation for incubating a fertile music scene. So while stadium-filling headliners most certainly make their way through town, it's in the dimly lit dives and intimate clubs that you'll find the most exciting live music in San Diego. The city is littered with more than five-dozen clubs that host live music, and a long list of those have shows at least five nights a week. It's never hard to find a good band to see in San Diego, whether it's an up-and-coming artist at The Casbah, or a local showcase at Soda Bar. And while you're at it, settle in with a beer or a cocktail.
An Important Note
Because all of these venues serve alcohol, however, attendance is limited to those of age 21 or older. So these probably aren't the best places to bring the whole family. In any case, here are the best bars to see live music in San Diego.
The central city area of San Diego has a fertile live music scene, but a short drive up I-5 along the coast will lead you to Solana Beach's Belly Up Tavern. One of the longest running venues in San Diego County, the Belly Up opened in 1974, and has been consistently hosting excellent local and touring acts, which range from reggae legends like The Wailers to contemporary indie rock artists like Twin Shadow, and occasionally full evenings with artists such as Graham Nash or Rufus Wainwright. The venue has a capacity of 600, which makes it one of the bigger bars in which to catch a show, and the Wild Note Cafe next door offers a chance to catch a bite beforehand. And if you want to make a day of it, the beach is just blocks away.
Where: 143 S. Cedros Ave., Solana Beach, CA 92075
> Find out more about Belly Up Tavern
No music venue is more iconic to San Diego than The Casbah. Opened in 1989, it's been the central hub for rock music in town, acting as both a Ground Zero for up-and-coming local bands, as well as the premiere destination for touring independent acts. The list of bands that have played here is stunning: Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and The White Stripes, just to name a handful of bands that went on to play theaters and coliseums 10 times the size of this intimate club. And the level of talent that comes through is just as consistent today - owner Tim Mays also books shows at bigger venues like The Irenic and The Observatory, for those bands that have grown a little bit since playing The Casbah. The biggest buzz bands on tour will almost certainly play here, but make sure to get your tickets early - they sell out quickly!
Where: 2501 Kettner Blvd., San Diego, CA 92101
The Soda Bar hasn't been around nearly as long as The Casbah, but in just seven years, it's made a name for itself in town by keeping the calendar stacked with excellent shows. There's something happening every night of the week, and you could probably pick a random night and walk in to find something worth seeing, usually for a low cover charge (about $10 or less, depending on the show). They regularly put on showcase of great, young local bands, while they also play host all year to a long list of notable touring bands, which has more recently included Sylvan Esso, Cloud Nothings and Speedy Ortiz. About the name: You certainly can get a soda at Soda Bar, if that's what you're thirsty for, but they always have a lot of great craft beers on tap, including some local favorites like Green Flash and Pizza Port.
Where: 3615 El Cajon Blvd., San Diego, CA 92104
Only about one block west of Soda Bar, The Hideout is City Heights' other - newer - spot for a show on El Cajon Blvd. Opened in early 2014, The Hideout arrived as the latest in a long line of different bars to open with the same address, most recently as The Void (and before that, Eleven). But with a complete makeover, a new menu of delicious, affordable cocktails (I recommend The Mule, or The Rabbit Hole) and a steady lineup of great bands on its stage, The Hideout established itself quickly in San Diego's music scene. It's one of the best places in town to catch new and cutting edge bands before they sell out a bigger room. And they've also got some comfy booths to settle into if you want to chill with a cocktail during happy hour.
Where: 3519 El Cajon Blvd., San Diego, CA 92104