The yearly arrival of Comic-Con International brings legions of fanboys and fangirls to San Diego every July for a celebration of swords, superheroes, and sci-fi fare.
The annual convention, which got its start in 1970, now ranks as one of the largest events of its kind in the world, attracting more than 160,000 attendees to the San Diego Convention Center and surrounding Gaslamp Quarter every summer. What originally began as an event catering to comic-book fans has grown into a massive, multimedia affair that attracts top Hollywood studios and television networks looking to connect fans with the next (or current) blockbuster or hit series. For one week every July, downtown San Diego turns into fandom central.
Whether you’re attending for the first or 20th time, or are simply looking for the best people-watching spots, these tips will make your Comic-Con experience a memorable one.
Comic-Con events you don’t need a badge for
The number of events happening outside the convention center grows every year, and many of the pop-up attractions don’t require a pass to attend.
Local breweries often get in the spirit with events like Hop-Con: The Wootstout Festival, which celebrates San Diego's status as the center of the nerd universe. Given San Diego's reputation as “the Craft Beer Capital of America” with more than 150 breweries, microbreweries, and brewpubs calling the county home, the team-up of local breweries and the Comic-Con crowd is a natural fit.
The schedule of events is updated frequently—right up to and throughout the show, in fact—so keep an eye out for information about fan parties and meet-ups being held during the week, as many of them are open to the public. Many of the media outlets covering the show will host (or cohost) parties and after-hours events during the convention, with details provided on their websites, their booths inside the show, or at pop-up locations around the convention center. Bookmark the Unofficial Blog’s Guide to Comic Con and the Comic-Con Blog for the most up-to-the-minute schedules of events.
Where to go for the full Comic-Con experience
Much of the area surrounding the San Diego Convention Center will be in full-on Comic-Con mode throughout the show, but there are a few local landmarks you’ll want to visit to make your experience complete.
The claim to fame for Kansas City Barbeque, which is located a few blocks north of the convention center, is that it’s where the famous Tom Cruise “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” scene from Top Gun was filmed. Even if you’re not a fan of the 1980s flick, the popular bar and restaurant provides excellent people-watching opportunities from its patio, which happens to sit along one of the main routes to and from Comic-Con.
A trip to Comic-Con isn’t complete without a stop at Tin Fish Gaslamp on Sixth Avenue. Famous for its fish tacos, the restaurant is another popular gawking location that offers a great view of both the Comic-Con crowds and the harbor, and you’re likely to spot more than a few comic creators and guests of the show enjoying a quick bite during the weekend.
On that note, if you’re looking to hobnob with Comic-Con royalty, the surrounding hotel bars and lounge areas are popular meeting places for the show's guests and attendees once the convention center closes its doors each day. The common areas at nearby hotels like Manchester Grand Hyatt can offer a great opportunity to extend the Comic-Con experience after the sun goes down.
What to look for inside Comic-Con
If you’re fortunate enough to have a badge to the convention, check the Comic-Con website for the show’s schedule of programming, which is typically released two weeks before the show and tends to be updated as changes occur. Below are a few must-sees, regardless of what you’re planning to do during the show.
Hall H is where all the big movie studios reveal footage and make major announcements, so you typically have to line up extremely early—sometimes a full day—to gain access to particular events. In recent years, the Comic-Con staff have occasionally issued wristbands to attendees lining up far in advance of Hall H events, so it's worth asking Comic-Con staff (either via email in advance or on-site when the show starts) about the best way to ensure you'll get a seat this year.
The annual Comic-Con Masquerade costume contest is typically held on Saturday evening during the show, and attracts some of the most creative cosplay artists you’ll find at any convention. Sure, you’ll see a mass of Spider-Man and Harley Quinn costumes wandering the halls, but these elaborate costumes will rival anything you’ll see in a blockbuster movie.
If you’re looking for your favorite comic artists and illustrators at the show, make your way to Artists’ Alley. Many artists take commissions at the show, and some even do free sketches.
Finding your own Comic-Con HQ
If you don’t already have accommodations booked for the show, the challenge of finding a hotel room could prove difficult—but not impossible. Check Comic-Con’s website for the latest information on availability. The site gives a list of participating hotels and tells you the current status of those offering special Comic-Con rates and room packages.
Given the early rush to reserve as many rooms as possible, there will typically be quite a few cancellations in the lead-up to the show. Call hotels directly to enquire about room availability—the hotels farthest from the convention center are likely to free up earliest. When investigating room availability, keep San Diego's mass transit system in mind—the downtown trolley heads east and south to La Mesa, National City, and Chula Vista, while the Coaster connects to North County beach towns Solana Beach, Encinitas, Carlsbad, and Oceanside. Both are viable options to reach the convention center without driving, with more potential for hotel availability.
Helpful Comic-Con tips
• If you can wait to buy souvenirs (and it’s not in danger of selling out), do it on Sunday. All the vendors will be motivated to sell the last of their merchandise so that they won’t have to ship it home. If you want to buy anything exclusive to this year’s show or commission an artist for a drawing, however, do so as early as possible.
• Bring these essentials for a comfortable experience: A refillable water bottle, poster tubes to protect any art you buy, sunscreen (in case you end up waiting in line outdoors for an event), an extra phone charger and battery, and comfortable shoes.
• When you do need a break from the crowds, venture outside the main convention hall in the direction of some of the smaller panel rooms, and you’ll find some relatively quiet hallways with space to sit on the ground and possibly an outlet for charging your phone.