Talk about a show-business triple threat: The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park in downtown San Diego offers excellent acoustics, gorgeous scenery, and unbeatable local cuisine.
Located at the Embarcadero Marina Park, the outdoor home of the San Diego Symphony makes a dramatic first impression, thanks to a conical stage that resembles a seashell and coral-like red seats set against a sloping green turf lawn. The 57-foot-high concert shell, inspired by a venue at London’s 2012 Summer Olympics, was designed to offer acoustics on par with a world-class concert hall—just one that happens to be outside. By day, the pearly shell exterior blends in with the white yachts and sailboats bobbing on the neighboring marina, but after dark it turns into a projection screen of colors and images. Many performances end with fireworks that shoot from the stage’s towers.
The showstopping Shell is the latest magnetic development to the once-sleepy downtown San Diego. Its neighbors include the Gaslamp Quarter, the San Diego Convention Center (host of Comic-Con), the San Diego Padres’ home field, Petco Park, and the USS Midway Museum.
“It’s spectacular,” former San Diego City Manager Jack McGrory told San Diego magazine at the Shell’s debut in 2021. “The Shell is bigger than San Diego—it’s an international music venue.” The $85 million project, spearheaded by McGrory and his wife Una, was funded entirely by private donations, and the names displayed around the park offer a who’s-who of San Diego philanthropy—from the Rady family (who established the city’s children’s hospital) to Irwin Jacobs (the founder of Qualcomm) and the Prebys real estate family.
Besides the San Diego Symphony and its Pops series, the Shell hosts special guests and touring acts such as Yo-Yo Ma, Common, the Indigo Girls, and Jason Mraz. The venue seats up to 10,000, but depending on the show, the number of folding chairs and tables can vary a lot, and provide a much more intimate experience. For some shows, you can even bring your own folding chair or blanket, or buy a picnic-ready blanket at the park. Thanks to the terraced lawn, every area has a nice view of the stage and beyond.
While you can‘t bring in your own food and drinks, the Shell offers a complete dinner-and-a-show experience. The Shell Provisions program focuses on locally sourced ingredients and features San Diego chefs and restaurants, including Top Chef alum Richard Blais. For a true sit-down dinner, book a seat in one of the three front audience sections (Marina, San Diego, or Parkside), comprised of tables that seat up to six. Choose from Blais by the Bay dinners—including entrees such as short ribs, salmon, or a double-cheese Blaisburger—or Blais Picnic Boxes, stocked with charcuterie boards, chicken sandwiches, and chocolate chip cookies.
Everyone in the audience, meanwhile, can order food, beer, or wine from the Shell’s Street Food Pavilion and food carts, picking up gourmet concessions from offshoots of local restaurants such as Urban Kitchen Market, Biga, or Lola 55(think carnitas tacos, lobster-and-shrimp rolls, wood-fired pizzas, or Korean-chicken sandwiches). Order from an onsite kiosk or by using the Rady Shell app, and you’ll be alerted when your dinner is ready.
The green space at the Rady Shell is open daily, even when there’s not a concert. Park in the paid public lot at the Embarcadero and take a stroll to get the skyline-and-bay views all to yourself, or enjoy your own picnic on the lawn. Steps away on the pier, a kiosk selling coffee, burgers, and tacos is open on weekends.