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San Diego History Adventures

Discovering the past in the present

San Diego history comes alive at Old Town State Historic Park, the "birthplace of California," as well as Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside and other historic landmarks in San Diego County. 

Going Back in Time

Going Back in Time

As the birthplace of modern-day Alta-California, San Diego brims with history. Here you'll find a wealth of historic sites and a rich mix of cultural traditions, with roots stretching far back into the region’s past. Read on to learn more about the fascinating heritage of California’s Brightest City. 

Coronado

Built in 1888, the Hotel del Coronado is one of the few surviving examples of the wooden Victorian beach resort, and a testament to the grandeur of the age. A National Historic Landmark, The Del boasts antique beauty and historic charm with its Queen Anne architecture and details like its original cage elevator, still hand-operated by an attendant. Filled with historical displays and photos of the hotel's legendary construction, its romantic past and old Hollywood connections, including its role as the backdrop for the wildly popular film Some Like it Hot, the Hotel Del Coronado is a treasure with many stories to tell. Docents of the Coronado Historical Association lead historic walking tours of Coronado on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Downtown

Built in 1863 and considered the unofficial symbol of the San Diego waterfront, the Star of India is a full-rigged iron windjammer and part of the Maritime Museum of San Diego. Fully restored in 1963, she sails at least once a year and is the oldest iron-hulled merchant ship still floating. Unlike many preserved or restored vessels, her hull, cabins and equipment are nearly 100% original. For an unforgettable adventure, visit the USS Midway Museum, one of America's longest serving aircraft carriers featuring more than 60 exhibits and a collection of 29 restored aircraft. Self-guided audio and docent tours are available. These vessels are just two of the many see-worthy sites along San Diego’s Embarcadero, historic location of the city’s once-mighty tuna fleet and a perfect place to stroll and explore the many memorials and public artworks along the way.  

Gaslamp Quarter

William Heath Davis was the first person to try to establish a "New Town" in what is now downtown San Diego because it was closer to San Diego Bay than the original Old Town, but his attempt ended in failure. His house, now the Gaslamp Museum at the William Heath Davis House, is the Gaslamp Quarter's oldest surviving structure, which was shipped around Cape Horn and assembled in San Diego in 1850. Each room represents a historic period and is filled with fascinating and amusing stories about its famous inhabitants. There’s even a ghost tour.

La Jolla

Located at the top of Mount Soledad in La Jolla, the Mt Soledad Veterans Memorial pays homage to the veterans who have served our country through stories told in black granite stone. The area is also the starting place for many area tours and offers spectacular views of the La Jolla coastline.

Point Loma Peninsula

A visit to Cabrillo National Monument brings to life the birth of California in 1542, when Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to set foot on the West Coast of the United States. Once you've explored the exhibits and checked out the films and ranger-guided programs at the visitor center, tour the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which has been restored to its 1880s appearance, and the Assistant Keeper's Quarters, with its history of the lighthouses at Point Loma. Each September, visitors can relive a paramount moment in California's history with the reenactment of Cabrillo's fleet landing in San Diego Bay at the annual Cabrillo Festival.

Just a few miles away in Loma Portal is Liberty Station, a thriving, 361-acre retail, dining and cultural arts hub built on the site of the former Naval Training Center, where nearly 3 million service members passed through from 1923 to 1997. Amid the restaurants, shops and artist studios, you can still visit many of the original buildings and installations, from the old commissary and mess hall to the USS Recruit, a landlocked mockup of a Navy ship used to train sailors-to-be.

Mission Valley & Old Town

Old Town State Historic Park marks the site of the first Spanish settlement on the U.S. West Coast and brings to life San Diego as it was between 1821 and 1872. The six-block park features 12 acres of historical sites, including an adobe, schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, San Diego's first newspaper office, a stable with carriage collection and more. Complimentary, guided walking tours depart daily at 11 a.m., during which guests learn the unique history of the park as well as the mysterious tales of hauntings that are said to have occurred there through the years.

Atop Presidio Hill, which rises above Old Town, stands the Junipero Serra Museum, named for the Spanish Franciscan friar who led the founding of California’s first mission on this site. While the distinctive Spanish Colonial Revival building that houses the museum was not built until the 1920s, its exhibits document the mission period as well as the much earlier Kumeyaay settlement of Kosaii.

The first of twenty-one California missions, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá in Mission Valley was built by Serra in 1769 and still holds services daily in the original mission chapel. Nicknamed "The Mother of Missions," Mission San Diego de Alcala was originally built on Presidio Hill in Old Town, but was moved in 1774 to its present location. A small museum behind the chapel displays some of Father Serra's historical articles and records.

East County

A trip to the mountain town of Julian provides a glimpse of San Diego's short-lived gold rush. Tour the intricate path of tunnels at the Eagle and High Peak Mine, one of Julian's first gold mines, with guides who also share tales of the life of early Julian residents. Then visit the Julian Pioneer Museum, which showcases objects left behind by early Julian residents including clothing, household and mining equipment, Victorian-era pianos and Indian artifacts.

The rest of East County’s wide-open backcountry is ideal for exploring on a road trip into the San Diego region’s past. Check out Historic Highway 80, which takes you to such fascinating sites as the 70-foot-tall Desert View Tower, built 100 years ago as a tribute to early pioneers. Or drive Historic County Route S2 to Vallecito County Park, built around a reconstruction of the Historic Vallecito Stage Station.

North County Coastal

Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in Oceanside was the largest and richest of all 21 California missions, so it’s often referred to as the "King of the Missions." A tour of the museum begins with exhibits of the Luiseno Indian culture, and traces the arrival of the Spanish Franciscan missionaries in the early stages of the mission settlement.

With more than 450 vintage instruments, historic photographs and hands-on instruments to play, visitors can make their own music at the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, while learning about the history of American music and its pioneers.

The Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park, also in Carlsbad, takes in old adobe buildings, antique windmills, a reflecting pool and many other vintage structures. A former working ranchero once owned by actor Leo Carrillo, the park is a place for visitors to explore and experience California history; children also will delight in the dozens of brilliant peacocks that call the ranch home. Entry is free and self-guided tours are available during open hours; building interiors are only available during guided tours on Saturdays and Sundays.

The history of surfing — and its massive cultural impact — receives a fitting Southern California salute at the California Surf Museum in Oceanside. Dive into an exploration of this ever-evolving sport and its fascinating past (and personalities) through exhibitions of vintage boards, magazines, trophies and other treasures. The museum, founded in 1986 and located just blocks from the beach, also hosts numerous special events throughout the year.


Discover more about San Diego's Missions and Air Shows & Aviation Museums!

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