From the time a certain Father Marcos and his troupe came to San Diego in 1539 on a gold-hunting escapade, looking for the mythical “Seven Cities of Cibola,” the city has had a picaresque charm, conjuring up a rogues gallery of horsemen, leather-necked fisherman, soldiers, explorers, and aviators. Transitioning to American rule from Mexico after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, it wasn’t until the Santa Fe Railroad made San Diego its western terminus that the population of the city started to grow, reaching 40,000 by 1887. Never an industrial powerhouse, San Diego has always traded on its two great sources of natural endowment: the ocean and a temperate climate throughout the year.
Lacking the cobblestone charm of its east coast brethren, and without waves of immigration stoking industrial booms through the years, San Diego and Encinitas’ historic charm is quietly revealed rather than blatantly obvious. That San Diego and Encinitas are not normally associated with great historic sites, makes it that much more interesting to seek them out. Here then, are 11 places and sites that are worth exploring:
Old Town | San Diego
With San Diego being described as “the birthplace” of California, there is much expected history in this beautiful city. San Diego Bay was discovered by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo in 1542 and fell under, first Spanish and then Mexican rule. This explains the heavy Mexican influence you see in San Diego today. The first original town in San Diego is now recognized as Old Town San Diego State Historical Park. If this is your first trip to sunny San Diego, Old Town is definitely worth checking out. It features great restaurants, retail shopping, mariachi bands and the notoriously haunted Whaley House Museum. Old Town San Diego is a must see if you’re visiting for the first time or have guest in town.
Cabrillo Bridge | San Diego
Built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, the Cabrillo Bridge was the first arched cantilever structure in the State. Spanning 916 feet and raised 120 feet about Route 163 the bridge was designed by Thomas E. Hunter of San Francisco to echo similar structures in Spain and Mexico. While not particular imposing by todays standards, Cabrillo is a San Diego icon for both pedestrians and drivers, providing a link between Balboa Park and the neighborhoods to the north. The narrowness of the bridge is accentuated by the curving approach of 163, also quite narrow, and there is an unmistakable grace provided by its seven arches and the way the stately Eucalyptus trees have matured around it. Cabrillo was dedicated on April 12, 1914 by the then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would come back to visit in 1935 when he was President. The bridge has been recently renovated, and is open to pedestrians heading to and from the park.
San Dieguito Heritage Museum | Encinitas
Jump cut to North County since this is a survey article, and we are traveling in no particular order, the Heritage Museum is not much to look at from the outside, but holds the keys to Encinitas’ past inside. A nifty display of primitive skateboards greets visitors, not much more that plank and wheels that were good enough to give the sport its initial push. The legends and origins of surfing in North County can be seen in a gem of a mini-documentary on the museum’s web site. The film is called “Legends and Legacies,” and stars Helen Benson, a champion surfer from the fifties, who barely seems to have aged in the past century as she recalls the halcyon days of Moonlight Beach, when the amenities were barely more than a Palapa and a small snack bar. The waves seem to caress the surfers as they glide on to their massive longboards, and this little film is quite a treat.
Leichtag Foundation/Ecke Ranch | Encinitas
Still housing the Ecke family home, now called the Ranch House, this 67 acre property in Encinitas, once the home of the Ecke’s Pointsettia flower business, is what remains of a sprawling farm and estate assembled by the Ecke family after they moved down from Los Angeles in search of an ideal place to relocate. The property was purchased by the Leichhtag Foundation several years ago, and in keeping with a deal worked out by the Eckes and the city, it retains its agriculture purpose, albeit with a modern twist that also incorporates Jewish philanthropic and food justice traditions. Property tours are available to the public every other Tuesday, and walking the property seems to encapsulate the history of Encinitas. On the eastern edge of the property, old farm equipment sits idle, a veritable museum of forgotten tractors. The Ranch now is home to a fascinating mix of users, many of whom are seeking to improve urban farming techniques. In addition to a small experimental vineyard, the Leichtag Foundation has begun to cultivate and urban foraging path, with fruits and vegetables available to the public who will be able to access the food.
Mission Bay Park | San Diego
Once tidal marshland, Mission Bay Park’s 4,235 acres of land and water (46% and 54% respectively) make it the countries ninth largest municipal park. It is also the country’s largest man-made aquatic park. After some early efforts to create a fishing and hunting reserve in the bay, the San Diego chamber of Commerce recommended developing the property not a tourism and recreation center. The property was conveyed from the State of California to the city with a number of restrictions, notably one that limits private commercial activity to 25% or less of the land area and 6.5% or less of the water area. Mission Bay Park’s clam waters are a nice counterpoint to the rough coastal surf, and it boasts an amazing 27 miles of shoreline and 19 miles of sandy beaches. Some of the Park’s attractions include Sea World, the Mission Bay Aquatic Center, and the Mission Bay golf course, th only course in San Dego with night lighting.
Swamis Beach and Self Realization Center | Encinitas
Back north to Encinitas (hopefully you have unlimited rental car miles,) the “Swamis” complex encompasses the City-owned surf spot and the Self-Realization Center, a large, multi-structure complex that houses a center of spiritual enrichment.
Swami’s beach was originally Noonan’s point, after James Noonan purchased the property for $1000 in 1887. The iconic Self-Realization Center adjacent to Swamis, is the latest incarnation of a series of buildings that began in 1937 with the construction of a hermitage built for Paramahansa Yogananda. Today, the Center attracts an eclectic group of people seeking spiritual guidance and focus, offering ecumenical programs drawing from the realms of meditation, Yoga, Christianity, and other religions and disciplines. Swami’s beach, the inspiration for the Beach Boys’ classic tune “Surfin’ USA,” is one of the leading–if not the leading–San Diego surf beach.
3500 Block Seventh Avenue (west side of Balboa Park); a.k.a Thos. T. Crittenden subdivision
Pack your boards and put on your button down shirt to discover a micro-historical neighborhood that is a chip shot away from Balboa Park, in fact virtually inside the park in the case of the Marston House, San Diego’s finest Craftsman-style residence. A group of about a dozen homes on this single block can easily convince a visitor that San Diego does, in fact, have a rich tradition of American vernacular residential styles. Not far to the north, Mission Hills is a virtual laboratory of craftsman architecture, but this little stretch of Seventh is a great little detour and is evocative of the first wave of grandeur to sweep the city.
Fun Facts: Kate Sessions, the First Lady of San Diego horticulture, recommended the installation of pink-tinted sidewalks, as she did not like the glare of concrete. Sections of the original sidewalks are still around today. George Marston, who was involved in the founding of Balboa Park and the San Diego library system, was ahead of his time. In addition to developing a generator before the advent of the electric grid as we know it, he had two electric cars.
San Diego Botanic Gardens | Encinitas
The San Diego Botanic Gardens was founded by a Missouri-born and bred couple, Ruth and Charles Larabee, who purchased 26.5 acres of land in Encinitas in the 194os. Charles was an avid horticulturist and Ruth had a strong philanthropic bent, ultimately bequeathing the property to San Diego with the stipulation that it be used for a public purpose. The name of the Gardens is a bit of a misnomer since Encinitas is not technically within San Diego city limits. The property is part of the emerging “agriculture lifestyle” district between Saxony and Quail Gardens Roads and Encinitas and Leucadia Boulevards. The Botanic Gardens is organized around an enchanting group of specialty gardens, including Australian, African, Bamboo, and Bird and Butterfly, and the Hamilton Children’s Garden. The SDBG promotes sustainability and water management throughout the park, and it uses energy conservation measures such as weather-sensitive controllers to monitor and limit water use.
Liberty Station | Point Loma
Point Loma, perhaps more than any San Diego community, is rich in history, particularly that tied to maritime and military influences. The Old Point Loma lighthouse, dating from the middle of the 19th century, is a charming relic from Point Loma’s early relationship with the sea. Not long after he dedicated the Cabrillo Bridge in 1914, FDR was back for another scouting mission, this time for a new Naval training center. By 1921, construction began on Liberty Station in Point Loma, and the first recruits arrived in 1923. The lead architects, Lincoln Rogers and Point Loma native Frank W. Stevenson, took their initial design cues from Bertram Goodhues’s California Pavilion built for the 1917 California Exposition. At its peak during the war years of 1941-1945, Liberty Station housed 33,000 sailors. Today, the project is a mixed-use development that retains the feel of a campus, with 50 buildings having been restored, along with spacious courtyards and lawns.
La Paloma Theater | Encinitas
This 1928 landmark is an extraordinary relic. Not only does the theater date from the advent of talking pictures in the late 1920s, but it retains the look and feel of an old theater, having experienced limited renovations through the years. Mary Pickford allegedly biked in ten miles or so from Fairbanks Ranch to attend La Paloma’s premier–the unforgettable “The Cohen’s and Kelly’s in Paris.” Venues like La Paloma are a vanishing breed in America, and this is a wonderful throwback preserved in the heart of Encinitas.
Balboa Park | San Diego
When George Mason travelled to New York and San Francisco, he was inspired by Central and Golden Gate Parks, and aspired to create a similar one in San Diego. For a city that has a national reputation as a sun and surf mecca, Balboa Park is a treasure that measures up to the standards Mason originally set out to fulfill. With seventeen museums, specimen gardens, a golf course, the San Diego zoo, the legendary Spreckels Pipe Organ, the historic Prado, and dozens of other attractions, Balboa Park is the heartbeat of the city where its diversity and beauty can be fully explored.
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