Historic Sites in San Diego
San Diego, woven together by perfect threads of entertainment, adventure, world-class attractions, 70 miles of beautiful coastline and perfect outdoor living. For the discerning traveler, there is more, a historic adventure into the Mexican heritage and colonial life of the “birthplace” of California, Old Town San Diego. From San Diego’s first one room school house to the notable Victorian homes restored to their original splendor, San Diego boasts a colorful and interesting history worth discovering. Trolley Tours and Harbor cruises are a great way to see the sights and learn a little about our history at the same time.
Lush gardens, world-class museums, historical Spanish Colonial revival buildings and San Diego’s top attractions await you in Balboa Park. A rich ethnic diversity is reflected in the parks many attractions from the San Diego Museum of Man and San Diego Natural History Museum to the Mingei International Museum displaying folk art from around the world. Explore the manicured gardens and canyon pathways of Marston House, built as the home of one of “San Diego’s First Citizen”, George W Marston in 1905. Stroll along the vibrant mosaic walkway and through the sculpture garden at the inspiring Spanish Village Art Center and admire the works of artists from around the world, dating back 7000 years at the San Diego Museum of Art. Watch aviation history unfold at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, view the memorabilia of sporting heros at the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum and check out Frank Sinatra’s Austin at the San Diego Automotive Museum. The San Diego History Center showcases the city’s unique history and the San Diego Model Railroad Museum is the largest in the world.
Old Town State Historic Park
Established in 1968, the Old Town State Historic Park preserves San Diego’s rich heritage. Step back in time to the 1800’s as you stroll the streets lined with original adobes, historical buildings such as the first schoolhouse and blacksmith shop, museums, exhibits and living history demonstrations. Historic treasures include Casa de Estudillo, one of the finest adobe haciendas in the state, the Wells Fargo Museum home to a rare original stagecoach, Mason Street Schoolhouse and the officially designated haunted Whaley House dating back to 1856. The collection of 19th -century homes and living history demonstrations gives visitors a glimpse into colonial life in San Diego. Other historical sites include the Cosmopolitan Hotel, Old Adobe Chapel, Victorian Village Heritage Park, the La Casa de Machado y Stewart Museum and the Mormon Battalion Historic Site.
Just up the hill from Old Town San Diego Historic State Park is Heritage Park, home to several of San Diego’s restored Victorian Homes relocated to preserve San Diego’s historic Victorian architecture, including the historic synagogue Temple Beth Israel.
Overlooking Old Town San Diego, Presidio Park is one of the most familiar landmarks in San Diego where Father Junipero Serra founded the first San Diego Mission up on Presidio Hill back in 1769. Once a home to the Kumeyaay Indians and early pioneer priests, this was the base of operations for the Spanish colonization of California. Discover the tales of a bygone era at the Junipero Serra Museum, an iconic regional landmark and visit the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá, rebuilt in 1931 in a new location, atop a hill east of downtown San Diego. Picnic in the nearby Pioneer Park, scenically placed atop a 19th century catholic cemetery,
Gas Lamp Quarter
The historic heart of San Diego is the Gas Lamp Quarter, a national historic district where the colorful past reveals itself in Victorian architecture, galleries, theatres and museums. Explore the streets on a walking tour admiring buildings dating back to 1874, such as the Old City Hall, Keating Building and the Baroque Revival Louis Bank of Commerce. Step back in time at the Gaslamp Museum at Davis-Horton House, the Gaslamp’s oldest and most haunted building. History abounds at the Horton Grand Hotel and The Grant Hotel, a palatial and historic icon listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A short distance away is Chinatown, with twenty-two historical buildings including the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum dating back to the 1800’s and Little Italy, originally an Italian fishing neighborhood where cool stores and buzzy eateries line the restored streets. Not only the heart of historic San Diego, the Gas Lamp Quarter is a foodie’s paradise, wine lovers haven and San Diego’s cosmopolitan playground.
Cobblestone pathways meander through Seaport Village, a scenic and historic harbor village with spectacular views of Coronado Bridge. Wander the streets browsing the eclectic shops, relax lakeside for a picnic and dine al-fresco at a bayside eatery. Ride the hand-carved historic carousel, and visit the Star of India, the oldest active ship in the world dating back to 1863. A stroll along the scenic waterfront trail will take you past one of the grizliest historic sites in San Diego, Dead Man’s Point, marking the burial site of the sailors of Juan Pantoja’s 1782 expedition to San Diego Bay. At the Broadway Pier lies the giant aircraft carrier, the USS Midway. A fascinating adventure for both kids and adults with flight simulators and restored vintage aircraft on the flight deck.
The hilly seaside community of La Jolla ‘The Jewel of San Diego” was incorporated as part of the City of San Diego in 1850. Take a wander into the small wood-shingled store tucked away on Coast Boulevard to discover a tunnel built in 1902 descending down 145 steps to Sunny Jim’s Cave, the only accessible of La Jolla’s seven sea caves, a historical landmark in California named by Frank Baum, the creator of the Wizard of Oz. Enjoy panoramic views of the city as you pay your respects to the veterans at the historic Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial, a landmark that has been the center of a 25 year long controversy and the story behind the urban ‘Legend of Munchkin Land’ and the ‘Last Home of Dr. Seuss’. Explore the trails and ancient volcanic tide pools at Scripps Coastal Reserve, climb the trail to the Knoll for views across the Pacific Ocean.
Point Loma is not only one of the most historically significant neighborhoods in San Diego, it offers the most stunning views of San Diego and the Pacific Ocean as far as the eye can see. It is here that Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first landed in the US in 1542 on his incredible ‘Voyage of Discovery’, marked today by the Cabrillo National Monument perched high on the cliffs at the end of the peninsula. Discover the history of the famed explorer at the museum and wander through the Old Point Loma Lighthouse built in 1854. En route to Point Loma, stop off at Ocean Beach to view one of San Diego’s secrets, Rum Runners Cave, once used to smuggle alcohol during the prohibition era. A visit to Sunset Cliffs in Point Loma you can view the Villa Surf Ruins, a once grand and notorious residence with expansive views of the Pacific, destroyed by fire in 2013.
Cross the spectacular Coronado bridge to discover the glamor of a bygone era once the vacation destination of presidents and kings, the famous and the infamous. From the charm and elegance of the Hotel Del Coronado to the historic home of Frank Baum, famous author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Local tip! From the sidewalk, see if you can spot the face of the Wicked Witch peering out from the side of this home.
There is still more …
If you are out on a neighborhood stroll, add a little adventure and head to Spruce and Front Streets for a visit to the historic Spruce Street Suspension Bridge. Another city icon is the Red Fox Steakhouse and Piano Bar in The Lafayette Hotel on El Cajon Blvd, dating back to 1560. Once an old inn in England, shipped to the USA in 1926 as the actress Marion Davies’ Ocean House. About an hour from San Diego is the picturesque town of Julian, a registered historic Landmark, a great day trip for history buffs that have the time! Gold panning, museums, abandoned migrant camps, antique shops, orchards and ranches.
“A country without a past has the emptiness of a barren continent;
and a city without old buildings is like a man without a memory. ”
- Graeme Shankland -