A city rich in history and culture, there are some excellent San Diego historical sites and landmarks.
Because of San Diego’s pivotal role for so many groups throughout history, the city has tons of historically significant places. Many of these are the best things to do in San Diego.
In fact, The Kumeyaay (the first inhabitants of the land), the Spanish (who used the city as the launching point for their conquest of California), Mexicans, and U.S. settlers have each left their indelible marks on the city.
As a San Diego local, I’ve had the privilege to explore many of the sites, so here are the best San Diego Historical sites and landmarks!
Table of Contents
- 31 Famous San Diego Landmarks
- Balboa Park
- Gaslamp Quarter
- Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
- Mission San Luis Rey
- Cabrillo National Monument
- Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial
- USS Midway Museum
- The Star of India
- Whaley House Museum
- La Jolla Cove
- La Jolla Children’s Pool
- Chicano Park Murals
- Barona Cultural Center and Museum
- Self Realization Fellowship Hermitage & Meditation Gardens
- Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park
- Torrey Pines Gliderport
- Petco Park
- Coronado Bridge
- Torrey Pines State Reserve
- Mission San Diego de Alcala
- Presidio Park
- Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery
- Windansea Beach Hut
- Immaculate Conception Church
- Belmont Park
- Mormon Battalion Historic Site
- San Diego Zoo and Safari Park
- Marston House
- Spruce Street Suspension Bridge
- Cardiff Kook Statue
- La Casa de Estudillo
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31 Famous San Diego Landmarks
Stroll through Balboa’s 1,200 acres of historical buildings and gardens.
The expansive grounds of Balboa Park contain history in every square foot of its 1,200 acres. Most of the park’s Spanish-style village of museums, galleries, and gardens were constructed in the early 1900s for the Panama-California Exposition, in celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal.
Many of the top San Diego landmarks are scattered throughout the park, including the often-photographed Botanical Building, the California Tower, the San Diego Historical Society, and my favorite spot, the colorful Spanish Village Art Center.
Visit one of San Diego’s oldest neighborhoods and buildings that now house trendy bars and restaurants.
These days, the historic Gaslamp Quarter is recognized as being the epicenter of Downtown San Diego’s bustling restaurant and nightlife scene.
But the neighborhood is most importantly a historical landmark. In fact, it was the second neighborhood to be developed in San Diego after Old Town and was named for its cutting-edge 50 gas lamps that lit the streets.
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Immerse yourself in San Diego’s first Spanish neighborhood, which has retained its original charm and culture.
As its name suggests, Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is indeed San Diego’s oldest neighborhood and, even more impressively, the first European settlement in California.
Located in the center of San Diego, the quaint streets and Spanish-style architecture will transport you to 1769 where you can take in some Hispanic culture, art, and food. The park even contains some original historic buildings and houses and buildings from the 1800s that showcase San Diego’s history.
Mission San Luis Rey
Tour an original Spanish Mission, which is still in operation as a church today.
Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, also one of the best things to do in Oceanside, is one of the original Spanish Missions that span California and dates back to 1798. In its heyday, the church and surrounding agricultural grounds comprised 850,400 acres, making it the largest of all the California missions.
Today you can still attend mass in the mission’s church, tour the historical grounds, and check out the San Diego museum on the grounds.
Cabrillo National Monument
Retrace the footsteps of the first European to step onto what is now the West Coast of the U.S.
The Point Loma peninsula juts out into the Pacific Ocean, separating Mission Bay and San Diego Bay. It’s also home to Cabrillo National Monument, which pays tribute to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to set foot in California.
Just past the monument lies the picturesque Old Point Loma Lighthouse and tide pools, where you can hunt for hidden sea life.
Mount Soledad National Veterans Memorial
Honor U.S. troops at this moving hilltop memorial.
The Veterans Memorial at Mt. Soledad is one of the most unique in the country as it honors all veterans, both living and deceased, starting from the Revolutionary War up until the present. Seeing the incredible quantity of names carved into the wall is highly moving.
The monument sits atop a hill in La Jolla from which you get panoramic views of the city, La Jolla Cove, and La Jolla Shores, making this San Diego site one of the top places to visit in San Diego for sunset watching.
USS Midway Museum
Experience U.S. Naval wonders at this museum located aboard an aircraft carrier.
The USS Midway Museum consists of 10 acres worth of exhibits and 30 restored aircraft all housed on a retired aircraft carrier ship harbored at the Navy Pier. The massive ship alone is a San Diego landmark, showcasing the naval and maritime history of San Diego.
The museum can be found on the Embarcadero, a walkway that runs along the San Diego harbor near Downtown San Diego.
The Star of India
Board and tour the oldest operating sailing ship.
Located in front of Seaport Village in downtown San Diego, the Maritime Museum of San Diego docks and displays a collection of restored historic ships. The most famous of which is the Star of India, the world’s oldest operating ship.
From its construction in 1863 to the current day, the ship has had an incredible life, including circumnavigating the globe 21 times.
Whaley House Museum
Tour one of San Diego’s oldest homes and the most haunted house in the U.S.!
In 1856, Thomas Whaley began constructing his family home, aiming to create the “handsomest, most comfortable and convenient place” in Southern California. Thomas would be proud to know that his home would become one of the most famous landmarks in San Diego.
The home served many roles throughout its long history, but today it is most famously known as the most haunted house in America thanks to the numerous deaths that occurred in its walls.
The building remains one of San Diego’s most iconic historic landmarks and you can visit the house and historical museum that showcase the city’s history.
La Jolla Cove
Visit the iconic protected cove, home to abundant seals, sea lions, and sea birds!
La Jolla Cove creates a protected marine habitat for tons of native San Diego wildlife, including playful sea lions, seabirds, fish, and even sea turtles. Because of its natural beauty, the cove is one of the most visited San Diego landmarks.
The cove can be enjoyed from the shore, or take a kayak or snorkeling tour of the area to explore the hidden sea caves and search for elusive marine life in otherworldly kelp forests. If you’re lucky you’ll spot a friendly leopard shark or two.
La Jolla Children’s Pool
Walk out into the waves on this unique and historic sea barrier wall!
The children’s pool is a small cove protected by a sea wall that was constructed in the 1930s to create a safe place for kids to swim. It turned out, however, that the California sea lions and harbor seals had other plans, and quickly occupied the sandy beach and surrounding rocks.
While the seals and sea lions have claimed the sandy area, you can still take advantage of the historical landmark. For a great view, walk out onto the sea wall which offers unparalleled sights of the quirky, playful animals and beautiful pacific ocean.
Chicano Park Murals
Celebrate San Diego’s rich Chicano culture through free art and history.
Located in Barrio Logan, beneath the underpass of the I-5 freeway and Coronado bridge, the Chicano Park Murals are the largest collection of outdoor murals in the U.S. They’re also one of the coolest places to enjoy free public art, culture, and history in San Diego.
The 7.4-acre public space was created when the construction of the overpass displaced many Barrio Logan residents, many of whom were Hispanic. After a peaceful demonstration, the public space was designated, and then the murals celebrating Chicano culture were painted.
The park was designated as a national historic landmark in 2016.
Barona Cultural Center and Museum
Pay homage to the Kumeyaay Tribe, the First People, and the original inhabitants of San Diego at this museum.
Long, long before the Spanish began colonizing what is now San Diego in 1769, the region was inhabited by the Kumeyaay people, called Diegueños by the Spaniards.
Located in East County, Barona Cultural Center is one of the most unique of San Diego’s many museums. It’s the first museum on a San Diego reservation that interprets and shares the rich culture and history of the Kumeyaay and their land.
This is an awesome way to both learn about San Diego’s important history, as well as support the Center’s efforts to preserve and share the Kumeyaay culture and way of life.
Self Realization Fellowship Hermitage & Meditation Gardens
Explore this iconic temple that holds meditation gardens and occasional community events.
Driving along Pacific Coast Highway in Encinitas, it is impossible not to notice the extravagant white and gold temple spires of the Self Realization Fellowship. You can visit the temple grounds and stroll through tranquil meditation gardens, attend a service, or even spend a few days at a retreat.
Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park
Explore the historic, Spanish-style ranch of American Actor Leo Carrillo
The historic Spanish-style ranch was originally the home to Hollywood actor Leo Carrillo, but when the land was turned over to the City of Carlsbad to develop as a park, the ranch was virtually forgotten. It wasn’t until years later that the historic buildings were rediscovered and their educational potential was realized.
Now the Leo Carrillo Historic Park invites visitors to enjoy the original, hand-constructed buildings and 27 acres of the surrounding landscape.
Torrey Pines Gliderport
Watch paragliders soar above the iconic Torrey Pines sea cliffs
The Torrey Pines Gliderport sits atop the Torrey Pines cliffs and is the takeoff point for thrill-seeking paragliders. You’ll often see the iconic gliders swooping around the cliffs, but watching them launch into flight is even more extraordinary.
Watching the sunset at the Gliderport is an unforgettable sight and is one of my favorite date ideas in San Diego.
Cheer on San Diego’s baseball team in their home stadium, Petco Park
Petco Park has made its name as a San Diego landmark. The giant stadium is home to the city’s beloved Padres baseball team and draws spectators from all over San Diego County. Not only can you cheer on the team, but also sample tons of local San Diego craft beers and food.
Because of the many bars and restaurants, Petco Park is often referred to as the best baseball stadium for people who don’t care about baseball.
Drive over one of San Diego’s most recognizable landmarks.
Coronado Bridge, which spans the San Diego Bay to connect downtown San Diego with Coronado Island, is one of the most recognizable features in San Diego. If you’re flying into the city, the giant blue bridge is most likely the first thing you’ll notice as you land.
Driving over the bridge is a must, but you can also get unbeatable views of the bridge and the city’s skyline from Ferry Landing.
Torrey Pines State Reserve
Hike around the most stunning coastline in San Diego.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve lies just north of La Jolla. A preserved piece of the natural beauty of San Diego County, it contains some of the last remaining undeveloped California coastlines in the city.
The reserve is full of incredible clifftop views of the Pacific and San Diego hiking trails that give you a sense of what the San Diego chaparral must have looked like before it was settled.
If hiking isn’t accessible to you or you want to experience the views without hiking, you can also drive into the reserve and take in the views just off the central parking lot.
Mission San Diego de Alcala
Take in California’s first Spanish mission
Known as the mother of missions, this San Diego mission is a piece of California’s earliest history. Founded in 1769, it was the first of the 21 missions along the coast of California.
Today, the church still holds masses and there is a museum on the grounds where visitors can learn about the mission’s long history.
Take a step into history at the site of the very first Spanish settlement in California.
Presidio Park was established in 1769 as the first European fort and settlement in what’s currently the Western U.S. Initially used by the Spanish as a base during their conquest of California, Presidio Hill was eventually abandoned.
A private owner later restored the historic park and also founded the Junipero Serra Museum where visitors can peruse San Diego and California history. Nowadays, the park is a gorgeous setting to stroll through and enjoy a beautiful San Diego day.
Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery
Visit the stunning federal military cemetery that looks out over the bay.
Located on the Point Loma peninsula, Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery was one of seven national cemeteries created between World Wars I and II. The grounds sit atop hills that look out over the city, San Diego Bay, and the Pacific Ocean.
As a veteran, it was considered an honor to be buried at this historic and beautiful cemetery and it is a moving experience to stroll the grounds.
Windansea Beach Hut
Sit beneath the historic beach hut that perches on the cliffs of Windansea beach.
Windansea beach is one of San Diego’s many wonderful beaches. Located just south of downtown La Jolla, it’s known for its unique mix of sandy beach and rocky cliffs.
It’s also the location of the historic Windansea Surf Shack. It might just look like 4 pillars with a thatched roof perched on a rock, but it’s actually one of the oldest and most well-known beach landmarks in San Diego.
The hut was constructed in 1946 and has been destroyed a couple of times by storms and fire, but it stands proud today as one of San Diego’s beloved historical landmarks.
Immaculate Conception Church
Walk through the halls of the church that performed the first Holy Mass in California.
The Immaculate Conception Church lies on the site of the first Catholic mass given in California, given by Junípero Sera himself in 1769. At the time, there was no church, just a cross planted in the ground overlooking a small settlement that is now Old Town San Diego.
In the mid-1800s, the church was constructed and still stands, holding masses today.
Enjoy light-hearted fun and history together at this historic attraction park.
Belmont Park is a historic amusement park, recognizable for its iconic old wooden roller coaster, the Giant Dipper. The park, located right on Mission Beach, was built by sugar magnate John D. Spreckels back in 1925.
The top of the roller coaster provides fantastic views of Mission Beach and Mission Bay. The amusement park also has a boardwalk with restaurants, rides, an arcade, and shops so you can easily spend a day exploring.
Mormon Battalion Historic Site
Visit the memorial to the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who served in the Mexican -American War
The Mormon Battalion Historic site was constructed to commemorate the 500 Latter-day Saints who joined the United States Army in 1846 to serve in the Mexican-American War. The Mormon Battalion marched nearly 2,000 miles across the southwestern United States, along the way improving trails, building forests, and witnessing the discovery of gold.
The site features interactive tours, historical artifacts, and gold panning and brickmaking demonstrations.
San Diego Zoo and Safari Park
Enjoy the wonder of wildlife at San Diego’s world-renowned zoo.
The zoo holds the title of the most popular and famous San Diego attraction. The world-renowned zoo is located in the heart of historic Balboa Park and is one of the largest and top-rated zoos in the world.
The 100-acre park is home to over 4,000 animals, including elephants, giraffes, lions, and polar bears.
Visit this historic house and garden which is now a museum dedicated to life in early San Diego.
The Marston House, located on the edge of Balboa Park, is considered one of California’s best examples of craftsman architecture. It was designed at the beginning of the 1900s by famous San Diegan architects William Hebbard and Irving Gill.
The house has since been converted into a museum and in addition to the historic displays, it boasts five acres of charming gardens and a gift shop.
Spruce Street Suspension Bridge
Find the hidden historic bridge that has become a staple San Diego landmark
The Spruce Street Suspension Bridge spans the Arroyo Canyon near Balboa Park and is one of San Diego’s often-overlooked, but must-see historic sites. The 375-foot hanging bridge was built in 1912 and offers beautiful views of the valley that lies 70 feet below.
Cardiff Kook Statue
Check out what the ever-evolving statue is wearing today.
Cardiff, located in Northern San Diego County, is home to one of San Diego’s quirky locals, a statue locally called the Cardiff Kook (officially “The Magic Carpet Ride”).
The kook gets dressed up in a continually rotating display of whacky, themed costumes. He has become a San Diego legend… Visit the kook to see what fun costume he’s currently in!
La Casa de Estudillo
Wander through one of the oldest Mexican-Spanish style adobe homes in California
When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the soldiers began to inhabit the land outside of the fortified walls of the San Diego Presidio. Homes began to pop up in the area, one of which was La Casa de Estudillo (The Estudillo House) which is now recognized as one of the finest surviving examples of the prototypical Spanish-Mexican adobe style houses.
Throughout its history, the house has served as everything to a residence, a town hall, and a chapel, and is now a museum recognized by the National Register of Historic Places.
Thanks for reading my picks for the best San Diego historical sites and landmarks! For more tips, check out my guide to the best areas and places to stay in San Diego.
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