The cities of the United States’ west coast aren’t known for their long histories- not like those of the East coast or Europe, Asia, and Africa. Despite that, each and every place has a long history of human habitation, culture, art, and exploration. For San Diego, that story stretches back to the first human explorers to trek across the pacific coast, and then the era of stewardship by the Kumeyaay people. The city we know today, surprisingly, began to take shape as soon as the Spaniards arrived, and then American colonists.
The living stories of all these people remain on the land, and can be experienced in various ways by interested travelers. If you want to have a unique experience of San Diego, see if you can plan a trip that includes spots from throughout the city’s history. We will take you through some of our favorites, from pre-colonial times, to the emergence of tiki pop in the 1950s.
San Diego is currently a bustling metropolis known for its beautiful beaches, theme parks, and exceptional cultural attractions. But none of this would be possible without the stewardship of the indigenous people who call this land home. In particular, I will focus on the Kumeyaay people here. Although the pre-colonial history of California is full of many cultures and peoples who shaped and cared for its lands for thousands of years and who continue to do so today.
So, while my focus in this post is on history, please note that the Kumeyaay people still live in California. You can learn more about them on their website Kumeyaay.com, which includes an event calendar. One of the cool things that I learned while visiting, was that they had a historic surf zone event in August 2020 for the InterTribal Youth. I always love learning about shared loves among people, and riding the waves has long been one!
Now, for learning more about the history of the Kumeyaay people, there are a couple very good options.
First, the Barona Cultural Center and Museum focuses on the people of San Diego County, and it is located on the reservation. So, visiting is not only a great opportunity to learn. It also supports the reservation’s work to preserve and protect the history of its people. It is free to visit as well.
Second, if you are planning to visit Balboa Park (which you should), the Museum of Us has a permanent exhibit on the Kumeyaay people. It is $20 for an adult ticket to this museum, and this includes their other exhibits. They are all fascinating and well-done. Museum of Us is one of my favorite museums, and I am quite picky when it comes to this kind of attraction.
The Mission Era
Cabrillo National Monument has a statue commemorating the landing of the Spanish on the California coast. But as with much of the Southwest, Spanish explorers were only a small part of the historic influence that Spain had on the Americas. In the case of San Diego, the area was also home to many missions which were built in the 1700s to the early 1800s.
Many can still be visited today, but some are still used as places of worship. Be sure to do a bit of research before you go so that you know the visiting hours. If you do join a mass, please note that pictures should never be taken during services.
Once you’ve visited a few of these historic buildings, you will begin to take note of how the Spanish mission-style of architecture still influences Californian buildings to this day.
Colonial Old Town San Diego
Of course, Spanish colonists didn’t just build missions when they settled on Kumeyaay lands in what we now know as San Diego. They built places to live, stores to serve the needs of their growing community, and everything in between. Old Town San Diego preserves both Spanish and American colonial structures in a state park.
Nowadays, when you visit, you can do a variety of things. First, be sure to explore the whole site on foot to take pictures of the historic buildings. Then, you might consider eating at one of the many restaurants within and surrounding the park. There is also shopping and museums to be explored. And finally, the Whaley House is also on site, and is considered one of the most haunted houses in the United States. So, ghosts tours are also something that you might consider if you enjoy those kinds of stories, and the sometimes goofy experiences that come with group tours about them.
1888 – The Hotel Del Coronado
The Hotel Del Coronado is a San Diego icon, and its unique architecture stems from the late 1800s. At that time, the beachside town of Coronado was already popular with travelers from across the country, and beyond. The picturesque beaches, and beauty of the island have not waned, and it remains a playground for the rich in many ways. (Check the cost of housing on Coronado Island).
Nonetheless, I have always enjoyed visiting Coronado, to see the hotel, relax on the beach, and walk the town. Luckily, if you aren’t staying at the Hotel del Coronado, you can still explore its beautiful and historic interior. There are restaurants to be sampled, shops to be peeked in, and the lobby is a very cool space that is welcoming to all. Be sure to take in the majesty of this historic space. When I checked in late 2021, the prices for rooms at the hotel were up there at $600+ a night. So, if you are lucky enough to have the scratch to stay there, consider it. However, I’ve never been able to spend the night here, and nonetheless, I never regret visiting.
Luckily, there is more to do on Coronado Island than just check out the historic hotel. There is a beach that you can access past the Del Coronado. It’s pretty popular, but maintains its quality as a place to hang with family and friends.
You can also take a stroll down the town’s main street. There is a lot of good food places to try and plenty of window (and actual) shopping to do. Be sure to enjoy the other historic buildings as you go.
You can also make a loop drive out of your day and visit some other beachside areas as you go.
1902 – La Jolla Sea Cave
I was being a goofball the first time that I went into the La Jolla Sea Cave. And while I would still say that this particular location has the quality of a roadside attraction, if you are in La Jolla and can afford the visit ($10 for adults), it is pretty unique.
The cave is really a tunnel that has been built in the earth, connecting a sea cave to the lively street above. It was constructed in 1902 to facilitate a smuggling business, and survives today as a tourist attraction.
If you visit, you will walk down many steps in a narrow tunnel, down from the Cave Shop to the sea cave. Knowing that it was constructed for smuggling purposes, the structure of the tunnel makes a lot of sense, and I would bet you can imagine the sneaky activities that went on there when you visit (I sure did!). If you want a little more adventure, there are also kayaking tours of La Jolla’s sea caves.
La Jolla is also a shopping and restaurant district near the ocean. So, it is a nice place for some higher-end gifts and apparel, dining, and window shopping. Parking can be a bit of a struggle on busy weekends, though, so if you want to avoid some stress, come a little earlier in the day.
1915-1916 – Balboa Park
I have an entire post on Balboa Park, so needless to say, I think this place is well worth a visit. The area was technically turned into a city park in 1868, but it took a form similar to what we know now in 1915-1916 for the Panama-California Exposition. The intricate, Spanish-inspired buildings, nestled among gardens and massive eucalyptus trees, definitely speak of another time.
However, in our modern day, you can also experience cultures from all over the world, and learn about fascinating history and science. Like all of the locations in this list, Balboa is a gift from the past, a place that we continue to thoroughly enjoy today.
1930 – Crystal Pier and Pacific Beach
Crystal Pier is a uniquely built hotel that includes several sizeable cottages that were constructed over the water in 1930. Unsurprisingly, with upkeep and renovations, Crystal Pier remains an extremely popular place to stay. And luckily, the pier can be enjoyed by anyone (although the gates gave me pause when I visited). In conjunction with enjoying a long-lived dream from the 30s by walking the pier, there is plenty to do in the Pacific Beach neighborhood that surrounds Crystal Pier.
First, there is a beautiful beach (with bathrooms). And second, there is TONS of good food in Pacific Beach. In particular, I fell in love with the tiki speakeasy, Grass Skirt, and Afters Ice Cream. Although, admittedly, neither are from the 1930s.
1954 – Bali Hai
For dinner, drinks, and a nice, evening walk, Bali Hai is the place to go. I included this restaurant in my guide to tiki in San Diego. It is part of the living history of San Diego, as this restaurant opened its doors in 1954, and is a famed tiki destination. While I would personally say that it isn’t the picture of modern tiki experiences due to the lack of themeing, this is still a very cool destination in the city.
The Bali Hai is a classic place for date night or a classy dinner, and its round shape, second floor dining area, and sweeping wall of windows, makes it a beautiful place to dine as well. They are famed for their mai tais, and I very much enjoyed their dinner, although it was a bit expensive.
Although the restaurant has been kept up and remains a classy hang out, there are elements of the 50s that remain with it. If you visit, particularly as a tiki fan, you will enjoy the moment in history that this place represents.
I would suggest getting a reservation before you visit, and potentially request a table near the windows.
- Please note that San Diego does get hot in the summer, and that electricity and wildfires can be an issue. If you are visiting, please help the community conserve resources and protect the land.
- The best way to get around San Diego is via car. Although they have a more robust public transportation system than Phoenix, it will be very time consuming to take the bus everywhere and the train has limited reach.
- While American culture is pervasive due to movies and tv shows, if you are from out of the country and haven’t been before, please help us by remembering that the Hollywood portrayal of American life isn’t a reflection of our actual experience. Life is difficult, particularly for communities entrenched in the tourism industry. One way you can help is by giving local manners a try– being polite to local people while traveling is always important.
For more San Diego, be sure to look through our guide to the city. We live a short drive away, so while we aren’t local, we have visited many times.
If you are planning a more comprehensive California trip, you will also like our posts on natural, history, and culture across Southern California and the Channel Islands.
And if you’d like to save this particular post for later, consider pinning it! It is a huge help to our little, grassroots business.
Fun article! We just traveled to San Diego this summer, and as always, it is an easy and wonderful place to visit. Thanks for adding the Pin- now I have an easy way to save and revisit your articles.
Thanks, as always, Ann. I love getting your comments. If you guys end up trying any new spots based on this post, let me know. I would love to hear what you think about them.
Linda (LD Holland)
We have visited San Diego many times. But this was the first time I learned so much about the history of this fascinating area. I will certainly be far more aware when I see the signs of the past when we visit. We will certainly have to plan to visit La Jolla cave.
It was similar for me, I had been many times, but just recently learned about these spots. I love delving into the history of the city like this.
I love San Diego and visit often! Although I knew most of the history surrounding the Hotel del Coronado, I didn’t know most of the other history you shared. It’s really fascinating! Thanks for sharing 🙂
I have visited many times myself and just recently learned about these new spots. So, I was very excited to share!
Thank you so much for this article. I have learnt so much! So nice to get an understanding of the history and to recommend historical places. Balboa park looks so beautiful!
I love sharing about new places that others might not know about yet!
It’s so interesting learning about the history! I would love to stay at the Coronado…however it sounds like my budget would only allow a visit. I’m glad it was worth visiting! And we LOVE La Jolla cove! My kids especially love the sea lions 🙂
Same for me and my budget! I really enjoy walking around the hotel, and enjoying the beach outside the hotel. It is a great place to hang out.
I love this! I always enjoy finding out about local history. The West Coast of America may not have such long written history compared to Europe/Asia, but it doesn’t make it any less fun to learn how it cities like San Diego came to be.
p.s. I love things like the cave made by smugglers!
Thank you so much! I do look forward to times when we know more about the indigenous history here, because I know it is rich and we all lose out not knowing more about it.