San Diego’s sea, sun, surf and spa offerings have always beckoned to vacationers but a traveler with an interest in heritage, history and Hispanic explorers will also find a week’s worth of activities with nary a trip to the beach.
Here’s a blueprint – by century – to visit modern day San Diego with an eye toward the past.
Learn about the Spanish galleon that brought Explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo on Sept. 28, 1542 – the first European to set foot on the West Coast – at The Maritime Museum of San Diego. Tour the ship museum, the San Salvador,or board it andsail on it via a Pacific Heritage Tour. This floating museum, actually, a collection of historic vessels docked in the San DiegoBay for tourists to visit, has added this 11th ship, a historically accurate replica of the founding ship of San Diego and of the State of California. This working replica of the San Salvador, considered the “Mayflower of the West,” stands 60 feet tall and took the Maritime Museum five years to construct. Visitors: in addition to moving from one ship to another, via a series of interconnecting mini bridges, accept the upgrade and take a harbor tour on the 1914 Pilot boat with a 45 minute history bay cruises tour.
Overlooking Old Town San Diego is the Junipero Serra Museum founded in 1769, when Spanish Franciscan missionary Father Junípero Serra established the site of the first permanent European settlement — in what is today the State of California– the mission and presidio (fort) atop Presidio Hill.
An ideal base for visiting old San Diego is the Cosmopolitan Hotel, an 1800s hotel, located in the Old Town area of the city. My room had a pull handle toilet and no TV, keeping with the step-back-in-time theme. The Cosmopolitan, a boutique hotel with old world charm and an outdoor garden terrace restaurant, was originally Casa de Bandini, the mansion of the Juan Bandini family.
A full day of exploration in the recreated, restored Old Town San Diego village included visits to the Wells Fargo History Museum, the first San Diego Courthouse, La Casa de Estudillo, Rust General Store, The McCoy House and the Casa del Rey Moro African Museum.
At the Fiesta de Reyes Plaza, lunch at the stand was $7 for 2 tacos, enjoyed while taking in the mariachi trio on stage who delighted the crowd and in particular, one anniversary couple who got up to dance to Como Pasan Los Años. Other songs included Mexican favorites as well as favorites of a decidedly non-Mariachi origin including Hotel California, but fitting I suppose given the location.
Nearby, I also toured The Whaley House Museum, San Diego’s first two-story brick structure, built in 1856-57, with a haunted reputation. I also enjoyed The Sheriff’s Museum with its 1850s jail and modern day video about 20th century criminal activities.
The day ended with dinner at the Cosmopolitan Hotel and an evening at the old-timey Cygnet Theater taking in a live performance, Broadway style of Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy at the off-off-off-off Broadway price of $45. (Still humming lyrics to this day “Funny, you’re a man who goes traveling….small world, isn’t it?)
Old Town San Diego, considered the birthplace of California, and overseen by California State Parks, also offers “Living History” demonstrations of activities that took place in the 1800s like quilting and blacksmithing.
Balboa Park, once the home of the 1915-16 Panama California Exposition, now is a 1100 acre complex of museums, theaters, gardens and the Zoo. The Botanical Garden, Natural History Museum with its Whales 3D movie showing in the giant-screentheater and lunch at The Prado outdoor patio took a good part of the day.
A modern-day store, with a 1940s vintage wear sensibility is Tatyana, with evening wear perfect for a swing dance outing. Located in the Gaslamp Quarter, this area is also home to modern trendy restaurants such as Grant Grill located in the 1910 US GRANT Hotel.
No foodie San Diego visit would be complete without dinner at Juniper & Ivy, an award-winning new restaurant, opened in2014 in the Little Italy section of San Diego. Menu highlights for me: BBQ carrots with Jalapeño Chimicurri and their famous Bajayellowtail.
Other dining stand-outs included fresh catch of the day Baja California halibut at the waterside Fish Market restaurant and brunch at the Searsucker.
The Cosmopolitan in Old Town is conveniently located for last day return trip to the Airport. My step back in time vacation was capped by a 10 minute Uber ride to make the flight while wishing a stage-coach had been available.
By Lisa Skriloff