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Explore San Diego's

History & Heritage

The Birthplace of California

Photo By John Bahu

Take a walk back in time

From its Native American roots and Spanish Missionary heritage, to cultural milestones and military influence, San Diego's role and contribution in shaping the region, the country and the world can be found when exploring its complex and fascinating history.

In the Beginning

For an overview of San Diego's beginning, start at Old Town State Park. Known as the birthplace of California, Old Town features 17 museums and historical sites where visitors can learn about the first settlements in California and explore original structures built in the 1800s. Among Old Town's key historical sites is the new Iipay ~ Tipai Kumeyaay Mut Niihepok (Land of the First People) Area, which honors the legacy and traditions of the area's pre-European inhabitants, the indigenous Kumeyaay peoples.

For a comprehensive look at San Diego's history, head over to Balboa Park and the San Diego History Center located along the Prado. And history buffs will not want to miss a trip to the Cabrillo National Monument, where Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo stepped into history as the first European to set foot in California in 1542. From this vantage point you'll also enjoy sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and San Diego's dramatic skyline.

And no trip to San Diego would be complete without a walk through the historic Gaslamp Quarter. Begin your journey back in time at the Gaslamp Museum at the Davis-Horton House and discover how San Diego's colorful past mixes with the hustle and bustle of today's modern city. The Museum also offers self-guided and guided walking tours designed for both adults and children, and even a ghost tour!

If you like your history with a dose of celebrity, Coronado and the Hotel del Coronado should be on your radar. Built in 1888, and sporting its signature red turret roofs and wedding cake trim, this San Diego landmark has a colorful history filled with luminary guests including movie stars, national heroes, presidents, royalty and a resident ghost.

California's Missions in San Diego

To kick off your exploration of San Diego's missions, head a few miles inland to the Presidio Park to visit the Junipero Serra Museum, which showcases California's first mission, the Presidio (fort), and the story of the Kumeyaay Indians, the area's original inhabitants. Further North is the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala, considered the mother of the 21 missions that line the California coast as it was the first to be built. At the tip of San Diego's North County, in the community of Oceanside, you'll find the Mission San Luis Rey de Francia established in 1798. It’s called the King of the Missions since it’s the largest in California.

Military Pride

For an exhilarating lesson in San Diego's military history, head over the USS Midway Museum, and step aboard one of America's longest-serving aircraft carriers. Roam through the ship and 25 restored aircraft. Feel the surge of patriotism and pride for America's military service members as you experience what 225,000 Midway sailors felt aboard this "city on the sea." Check out more than 30 historical aircraft from World War II to present day on display at the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum. Visitors can also enjoy Open Cockpit Days and catch a glimpse of the most advanced modern-day aircraft overhead due to the museum's location next to Marine Corps Air Station.

Old West Out East

A great day trip for families is San Diego's East County community of Julian. Founded as a gold town and stage coach stop, several real mines still exist that welcome visitors to explore and even pan for gold.  The quaint mountain town is also well known for its apple orchards and delicious home-made apple pie.

Surf History

If you want to experience the golden age of California's surf and car culture, take a nostalgic car ride with the top down along the coast on Historic Highway 101, otherwise known as Coast Highway. The landscape around the roads may have changed, but the Pacific blue surf still remains, with surfers, kayakers, paddle boarders and boaters enjoying the cool Southern California waves every day of the year. Be sure to stop by the California Surf Museum in Oceanside to learn about how the sport transformed the Southern California lifestyle, and continues to shape and influence the region's culture today.

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