5 Historical Stops In San Diego, California

San Diego Mission
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This is a guest post from Agnes Groonwald.

San Diego is known for its fish tacos, world-class surfing and some of the most consistently sunny weather in the United States. But it’s also a Southern California city with lots of historical value, some in places well-known to tourists and some a bit more off-the-beaten path. Let’s explore five historical stops in San Diego, and learn more about America’s finest city in the process.

1. Balboa Park

Balboa Park is on most San Diego itineraries as a must-stop, thanks to the San Diego Zoo and a variety of museums in the area. It’s also the backbone of San Diego’s history, and has experienced quite a bit of change over the years. 

Balboa Park started to look closer to the gardens and landscaping of today in the 1890s, thanks to local botanist and landscape architect Kate Sessions. By the time of the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition, many of the park’s iconic buildings had been built, all in preparation for that marquee event. 

White fronted buildings in Balboa Park
Balboa Park

Buildings constructed for the expo included the California Tower – climb all the way up for panoramic views of the park – Spreckels Organ Pavilion, the Cabrillo Bridge, and that world-famous zoo. 

Additional buildings, perhaps most importantly the Old Globe performing arts space, were constructed for the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition. The upkeep on the historical buildings in the park is impressive, and most serve as museums or gathering spaces for residents and visitors alike. Strolling through the park today and exploring the vast numbers of things to do in Balboa Park is a blast from the past. 

2. USS Midway

The USS Midway near the city’s vibrant downtown is a must for military buffs interested in seeing the longest-running naval aircraft carrier of the 20th century. The USS Midway was in service from 1945 to 1992, after which it became a fixture on the San Diego Bay, visible from quite a distance down the boardwalk in either direction.

A visit to the museum is very family-friendly, with flight simulators and all kinds of cubbies and sleeping quarters to crawl into to feel what it was like for navy personnel back in the day. On the top deck, view a variety of restored helicopters and aircraft: this is a highlight for many visitors because of the excellent San Diego views.

Outside of the USS Midway, painted grey and with the number 41
USS Midway

The carrier’s setting is impressive all on its own, even if you just want to take a look at it from the outside. You’ll have access to some of San Diego’s best restaurants from here, too, as you’re a short distance away from Little Italy, the Gaslamp Quarter and the shops of Seaport Village.

For more seaworthy fun, the nearby Maritime Museum is also a treat, featuring the iconic Star of India. The ship, which hosts pirate-themed events when the season’s right, has been operational since it was built in 1863, and is another fixture on the San Diego Bay.

3. Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument is a symbol of Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s first visit to San Diego’s shores in 1542, and in fact the first European expedition to this part of the country. He was looking for a northwest passage for Spain, eventually planting a flag on the eastern shores of Point Loma.

You’ll see a plaque and statue dedicated to the explorer at the highest point of the monument here, overlooking the bay below.

The Old Point Loma Lighthouse is another noteworthy historical spot in this park. It started operating back in 1855, but didn’t last long. The elevations here make for beautiful panoramic views, but terrible lighthouse conditions when you’re dealing with morning fogs.

The Cabrillo National Monument at the top of a hill
Cabrillo National Monument

The park is also a fantastic place to do some whale-spotting. If you’re there in the winter months, keep your eyes peeled for Pacific grey whales, on their way to the warm waters of Baja California. There are several platforms with viewfinders set up for you to use, but it can get crowded on weekends. 

Down below, low tides offer opportunities for some of the best tide pooling in San Diego. The winter months are ideal for spotting the critters of the tidepools here, as the water’s just too high in the summertime. If the parking lot at the bottom of the park is full, you’re not entirely out of luck for the tidepools. You can get there from the lots at the top by foot, but you’ll be walking along a road with steep drops on one side. 

Cabrillo is part of the national parks system, so expect to pay a fee to enter.

4. Mission Basilica San Diego De Alcalá

On top of its beautiful gardens and hilltop setting, the history at the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá packs a punch. This was the first Franciscan mission of its kind in the region, founded all the way back in 1769 by the Spanish friar Junipero Serra. The original structure burned down in 1775 in an uprising by the local indigenous tribe, the Kumeyaay people, but it was quickly rebuilt.

In the years that followed, it served as military quarters and breeding stables for the local horse population until it was returned to the Catholic church in 1862. Following years of restoration work, it was finally entered into the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1970.

Part of the Mission, with bells in the wall, steps and trees and plants in front
Mission Basilica San Diego De Alcalá

The mission is still a working church today, so you’ll need to take note of the mass schedule here ahead of a visit if you’d like to see the impressive interior. A self-guided tour will allow you to walk the grounds at your own pace, taking in the architecture and surrounding gardens.

(There are 21 Spanish missions in California, including the one at San Juan Capistrano.)

5. Whaley House

Sometimes San Diego history comes with a side of haunting. The Whaley House in the historic Old Town is well-known not only across the city for its paranormal activity but across the country for reports of spooky happenings there. Come for those stories and stay for its historical significance, as a visit to the Whaley House is worth it even without the spooky stuff.

The house was purchased by Gold Rush entrepreneur and local businessman Thomas Whaley in 1855. It served as a small shop where locals could purchase common household items and perishable goods, a courthouse, and San Diego’s first commercial theater. You’ll see an old flyer for the theater on your self-guided Whaley House tour. Pause and think about how nice it’d be to pay that little for theater tickets these days.

The house was a gathering place for years and stayed in the family name until the 1950s, when the county took over the home’s restoration.

Noticeboard outside Whaley House
Whaley House

If you’re here for the haunting, the ghost stories at the house are linked back to the public hanging of a local thief on the grounds and the eventual suicide of Violet Whaley, one of Thomas Whaley’s daughters. The home has been featured on several television shows, namely the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and the Biography Network’s The Haunting Of… so do with that what you will.

San Diego is full of historical value, especially if you know where to look. Even the more popular touristy spots have a background and importance to the history of America’s finest city. Take time to explore the city’s historical side. You can then have those fish tacos after.

Bio: Agnes is a regular person behind Travel on the Reg, a travel blog focused on sharing her collected wisdom and (hopefully) amusing truths about travel when it’s done in a regular way. A Chicago native, Agnes moved to San Diego, America’s Finest City, in 2014, and has been enjoying the sunshine ever since. You can frequently find her on the road, exploring all that her adopted state of California has to offer, and abroad, in more far-flung destinations. She loves it all.

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