Historic Sites

Every city has its own unique feel and vibe, which is determined by a number of things. The local historic sites are no doubt one of the largest contributing factors to the aura that surrounds a city. When in San Diego, users recommend paying a visit to Gaslamp Quarter, in the Gaslamp Quarter area to get a feel for what truly makes up the city.


The picturesque town of Julian, itself a registered historic landmark, got its start during a minor gold rush in the 1870s. Located about an hour out of San Diego, it's a great destination for a day trip. Visitors can enjoy gold panning, carriage rides, browsing through the museum, touring a candy factory, or shopping at the town's quaint antique shops, modern art galleries and gift boutiques. There are ranches for horseback riding and orchards for apple picking, plus nearby Lake Cuayamaca and Cuyamaca Rancho State Park for hiking, boating and camping. You can pick up a map and information at the chamber of commerce office.

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Established in 1769 by Father Junipero Serra, this beautiful mission once served as home to early pioneer priests as well as the Kumeyaay Indians. Its museum tells the story of the mission's formative years. Lovely grounds complete with gardens and padre's cell.

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Balboa Park
Marston House

This 1905 Arts & Crafts-style mansion was home to George Marston, one of the original developers of Balboa Park, Presidio Park and Junipero Serra Museum. The massive brick-and-stucco structure boasts impressive interior woodwork featuring redwood, oak and pine. Five acres of beautiful grounds are also part of the lovely estate. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Docent-led tours are available.

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Villa Montezuma

[Closed for restoration; no completion date set.] Built in 1877 by concert pianist and novelist Jesse Shepard, this elaborate Victorian mansion houses an impressive display of European and American antiques, leaded glass windows, masterfully carved ceilings and borders, and elegant marble fireplaces. Although located in a somewhat neglected part of town, the home provides an intriguing glimpse into the former lifestyles of San Diego's high society. Although the home is not open to the public, it does make for an impressive sight from the street.

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This 16-block section of downtown is a national historic district filled with specialty shops, art galleries and restaurants. Numerous theaters and nightclubs call the Gaslamp Quarter home, so there's plenty to do after the sun sets. It's also an excellent neighborhood for checking out some of the city's early Victorian architecture. Visit the William Heath Davis House, which has exhibits detailing Gaslamp history, to learn about the district's colorful past. 4th and 6th Avenues from Broadway to Harbor Drive.

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Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Photo courtesy of Joanne DiBona

Find out what life was like in Mexico and early America back in the 1800s. This spot is where the city of San Diego was born, and it contains historic treasures unearthed by archeologists over the years. The historic park includes several original adobes as well as a schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, carriage collection and a museum filled with artifacts.

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A National Historic Landmark, Mission San Luis Rey was originally established in 1798, and was California's largest. The 56-acre site today encompasses a number of buildings, including the church completed in 1815; a museum housing artifacts of Native American, Spanish, Mexican and US military origin; and a retreat center. The grounds are carefully maintained with gardens, a cemetery and an outdoor laundry area called the Lavanderia.

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Whaley House

This Old Town complex of historic buildings consists of the 1856 Whaley House, the 1870s Verna House, and the circa 1850 Derby-Pendleton House. The Greek Revival Whaley House was the first two-story brick structure in San Diego, and during its heyday served as a family residence, theater, county courthouse, and general store. Don't be surprised if you spot a ghostly apparition or two – it's said to be the most haunted house in the US. After hours tours are available (make reservations at least two weeks in advance, minimum of two people), and last one to three hours.

Local Expert tip: The docents are amazing story tellers so take advantage of their knowledge.

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The aircraft carrier USS Midway, which served from 1945-1992, offers a fascinating glimpse into life aboard a giant ship. Take the self-guided audio tour through the ship, then check out some two dozen aircraft on the flight deck and experience the simulator ride. Docents, some of whom served on the ship while it was active, are on board every day to answer questions and can occasionally be persuaded to relate a funny or interesting story or two.

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Cabrillo National Monument
Photo courtesy of Joanne DiBona

Named for famed Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo, who in 1542 landed in San Diego Bay, this complex includes a museum that accurately depicts Cabrillo's exploits and those of other early explorers. Also on-site is Point Loma Lighthouse, towering 433 feet above the ocean. Arguably the best location in San Diego for spectacular views of the Bay and of the city's skyline.

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