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It’s like the Hollywood Bowl but with harbor views. 7 things to know about San Diego’s new music venue

A lighted bandshell at dusk on San Diego's waterfront.
The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park opened on San Diego’s waterfront in August 2021. It’s operated by the San Diego Symphony, which will play a summer season with various classical and pop guest performers.
(San Diego Symphony)

This just in: San Diego does things differently than Los Angeles.

Its downtown sits at water’s edge. It neighbors a foreign country. Its people support fewer major sports teams (one versus nine, countywide) and more military bases (nine versus three).

And instead of tucking its sleek new outdoor music venue into a fetching fold in the foothills, as the Hollywood Bowl’s builders did a century ago, the San Diego Symphony plopped it down on the waterfront. At the edge of downtown.

So when you sit in one of the red folding chairs or flop on the artificial grass of the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, you may be distracted by passing sailboats to your left. Or jutting skyscrapers to your right. Or the sun sinking into the harbor.

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You don’t hear many helicopters or sirens (well, I didn’t on the May night when I caught the orchestra playing works by Grieg, Rimsky-Korsakov and Bacewicz). A breeze comes off the water. The Shell’s layout is flatter than the Hollywood Bowl’s and simpler. And everything is closer together.

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Opened last August, the Shell is now in its first full summer season. Besides its core of classical artists, the lineup includes guest pop artists Common, Boyz II Men, Jennifer Hudson, Bernadette Peters and Pink Martini.

For an Angeleno, this new venue is a fascinating combination of familiar and novel. And that’s not a bad place to start when constructing a weekend away. Here are seven things to know before visiting the Shell.

1. It’s surrounded by water on three sides

The Shell, designed by Tucker Sadler Architects, looks like a giant clamshell with LED lighting. It stands on a 3.7-acre finger of land that reaches from downtown’s convention center into San Diego Bay. A few blocks to the north stands Petco Park, home to the Padres. To the south, across the water, there’s the almost-island of Coronado (whose ferry will drop you next to the Rady Shell).

The San Diego Symphony, which partnered with the Port of San Diego on this project, raised about 96% of its $85-million cost. The complex includes the performance venue and adjacent eating and drinking areas. Most of the park is open to the public most of the time, including morning yoga sessions.

2. There are no box seats

A nighttime view of the Rady Shell crowned in red light.
The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park uses folding chairs instead of permanent seating.
(Jenna Selby / San Diego Symphony)

The Shell’s seating is all folding chairs, which can be reconfigured (or carted away entirely) to accommodate crowds from 2,000 to 8,500, prices $20-$275. Over the venue’s first 28 concerts, average attendance was around 3,100. For the symphony performance I saw, the closest seats to the stage, the Marina area, were arranged with four-top tables, so people could eat before or during the performance. The price: $108 per person.

The Lawn section in back, first-come, first-served, is an elevated grassy expanse where up to 300 visitors can lay out blankets or beach chairs. (It was $20 per person for the performance I saw.)

But when pop acts rent out the venue, everything can change. For Olivia Rodrigo’s sold-out show on May 18, management pulled all the tables and chairs out of the way to make more room for the general-admission crowd of 8,500.

3. Unlike at the Bowl, you can’t bring your own picnic

The symphony people are eager to sell you dinner. Choices include pizza (Biga) and tacos (Lola 55), which you can eat in venue-adjacent Prebys Plaza or carry to your seat. There are also food cart soups, popcorn and picnic boxes. If you’re sitting in the Parkside or Marina sections, you can order in advance from a menu devised by chef Richard Blais and waiters will bring the meal, or drinks, to your table.

4. You can hear the orchestra rehearse for free

A conductor raises his arms.
Rafael Payare has served as music director for the San Diego Symphony since 2019.
(J. Henry Fair)

The orchestra usually rehearses two or three times before a performance, and those rehearsals usually are free to the public, usually between 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. There are seven scheduled from June 21 through July 2. For times and dates of upcoming rehearsals, check the symphony website.

By the way, if you spot a conductor with wild hair, it’s not Gustavo Dudamel. The San Diego Symphony’s music director is Rafael Payare, born in Venezuela 11 months before the L.A. Phil’s Dudamel was. Like Dudamel, he is a graduate of El Sistema, that country’s much-vaunted program for cultivating talented musicians.

If there’s no performance on the day you show up, there’s consolation. About two-thirds of Jacobs Park is open to the public every day. On nights when the venue is dark, it’s a picnic and sunset-viewing spot. The Shell’s backside was built with steps and a patio that face the bay.

5. The sound gets high marks

The San Diego Union-Tribune quoted cello superstar Yo-Yo Ma praising the Shell’s “incredible sound” during a performance last August. Also that month, Union-Tribune music critic George Varga wrote, “Thanks to the venue’s six illuminated sound towers, the music’s luxuriant sonic richness was as full, crisp and well-balanced on the turf lawn at the rear of the venue as it was near the stage and various points in between.”

6. Striking as it is, the Shell is not the first or only music venue on San Diego Bay

The symphony played summer concert series in a temporary facility at Embarcadero Marina Park South from 2004 to 2019. On nearby Shelter Island, Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay (next to Humphreys Half Moon Inn) has been staging summer concert series in its 1,400-seat outdoor theater since the early 1980s — offering just about every genre except classical music.

7. The neighborhood is full of weekend possibilities

Cars drive through the Gaslamp Quarter in the evening.
The Gaslamp Quarter is filled with dozens of restored 19th century buildings that have been converted into trendy bars, restaurants, offices, hotels and residences.
(John Gastaldo / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

If you go

Rady Shell at Jacobs Park

  • Address: 222 Marina Park Way, San Diego, CA 92101

  • Parking: The closest lot to the venue (Fifth Avenue Landing Lot A) costs as much as $35 per car. There is a designated ride-share drop-off spot at 222 Marine Park Way. The venue is a short walk from the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System‘s Green Line’s Convention Center trolley stop. You can also arrive by sea from Coronado, taking the 15-minute, $7 ferry ride from the Coronado Ferry Landing to the Convention Center landing next to The Shell.

  • Website: theshell.org

Within a mile of the Rady Shell, you’ll find the Gaslamp Quarter nightlife area, the San Diego Convention Center, Petco Park, the USS Midway Museum, the Seaport Village shopping area and many hotels, including the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego, the Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina, the Hilton San Diego Bayfront, the Omni San Diego Hotel (which connects to Petco Park), the Hard Rock hotel San Diego and the Hilton San Diego Gaslamp Quarter.

A few blocks farther north on the waterfront, you’ll find the Portside Pier complex (Brigantine, Miguel’s and Ketch restaurants), Waterfront Park (which includes a playground, fountains and artworks) and the Maritime Museum of San Diego, which includes four sailing ships, two steam-powered ships, two boats that do tours of San Diego Bay and a submarine. No submarine races, though.


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