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Best Places to See Cultural Art

Take a tour through San Diego's rich and diverse landscape

San Diego weaves together many influences, beginning with indigenous people including the Kumeyaay/Diegueño, Luiseño and Cahuilla, continuing through the eras of Spanish and Mexican governments. Chinese and Japanese immigrants began arriving between 1860 and 1880, while the Filipino population boomed as a result of World War II. More recently, the region has become home to Iraqi and Somali communities. This mixture means that you can find delectable food, lively festivals and thoughtful museums. Here are five to get you started.

New Americans Museum

A poignant exhibit, "What We Carried," consists of large-scale photographs of Iraqi and Syrian refugees with the items they were able to take with them when they fled. It will be on view until September 2017. Exhibitions on view in 2018 examine the impact of internment camps on Japanese Americans and include the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibit, “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation.”

Where: 2825 Dewey Rd, San Diego, CA 92106

San Diego Chinese Historical Museum

The white brick building with red trim stands out among downtown’s high-rises, an enormous stone lion marking the entrance. Built in the 1920s, it served as a Chinese mission and school for four decades. Rescued from demolition and moved to its current spot, the museum packs a lot into a relatively small space. Items range from a large 19th century warlord’s gilt and red-lacquered alcove bed to a tiny ivory sculpture of a woman, used by Chinese doctors to diagnose female patients. Eight clay opera figurines are wonderfully expressive and extraordinarily rare, considering that the complete set has survived intact since the late 1800s/early 1900s. Exhibits describe the time when the Gaslamp Quarter was known as Stingaree, and Chinese laundries mixed with opium dens, gambling halls and saloons with names like Old Tub of Blood. After you tour the historic building and tranquil garden, stop by the museum’s other location across the street. It houses rotating exhibitions of contemporary art.

Where: 404 Third Ave, San Diego, CA 92101

Japanese Friendship Garden

There are few events more enchanting and joyous than the Friendship Garden’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival, held in March. As you follow a path that winds down a hillside, you descend into a canyon of pink blossoms, stopping to rest at benches by the rippling creek. Year-round, the garden offers a look at Japanese art and culture, with displays of traditional and contemporary ceramics, painting, textiles and crafts, along with its popular bonsai and koi collections. Be sure to see the Inamori Pavilion at the bottom of the hill. It's an exquisite building designed by Kotaro Nakamura, director of San Diego State University's School of Art + Design.

Where: Balboa Park, 2215 Pan American Rd East, San Diego, CA 92101

Barona Cultural Center

Many first-time visitors focus on San Diego’s vibrant urban core, but the rugged backcountry is equally beautiful. About 40 minutes from downtown is the Barona Indian Reservation, home to a resort, casino and cultural center. Stepping into the museum, you’re greeted by the sound of bird calls and the scent of handcrafted soap made from California sage and juniper berry. Exhibits trace the history of the Barona tribe and development of their skills in ranching and horseback riding, along with examples of art and artifacts. One exhibit, “Stones in the Meadow,” explains how local architect Irving Gill came to design a church and cottages for the reservation. Tours of the church are available; call (619) 443-7003 for more information.

Before you leave, be sure to notice the friendly “‘Iipay Man” giving you a wave. It is a replica of a pictograph that still exists in an undisclosed site. It serves as the museum’s logo because “he reminds us that behind simple things are profound thoughts, complex rituals — a world of unspoken depth hidden in time.”

Where: 1095 Barona Rd, Lakeside, CA 92040

Chicano Park

Located under a freeway overpass, the park has more than 80 murals on seven acres dotted with sculpture, picnic tables and a playground. It’s a sprawling, inspirational record of cultural pride and a neighborhood that just wouldn’t give up. In the 1970s, the area was slated to become a police station. Residents banded together and insisted on the park they’d been promised. They painted the towering concrete abutments with symbols, legends and heroes, beginning with Pre-Columbian imagery and continuing through contemporary struggles for civil rights. One mural, "Varrio Si. Yonkes No!," refers to the auto junkyards ("yonkes") that were encroaching on homes and schools. Other murals honor Cesar Chavez, Father Miguel Hidalgo, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata and local leaders.

Where: 1949 Logan Ave, San Diego, CA 92113

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