Top 5 San Diego Spots to Explore the Birthplace of California

The new San Salvador, the Mayflower of the West! Photo credit: Jerry Soto

The new San Salvador, the Mayflower of the West! Photo credit: Jerry Soto

Did you know, San Diego was discovered by Europeans 473 years ago? Yep, only 50 years after Columbus and more than 200 years before the Spanish missions were started.

Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed his galleon ship, the San Salvador into San Diego Bay on Sept. 28, 1542 – going down in history as San Diego’s “first tourist.” He didn’t stay long, though, as there was no San Diego Zoo or LEGOLAND for the crew to explore. 😉

Today, tourists by the millions are drawn to our attractive sun-kissed shores in search of sun and fun, as well as the fascinating living history of San Diego.

Following are Top 5 places to step back in time and trace Cabrillo’s momentous discovery, and the founding of San Diego:

1. Maritime Museum of San Diego

San Salvador docked at the Maritime Museum. Photo credit: Jerry Soto

San Salvador docked at the Maritime Museum. Photo credit: Jerry Soto

Last month the Maritime Museum of San Diego launched a full-size, functioning replica of the San Salvador – the Mayflower of the West – much to the delight of landlubbers like me! The $6.2 million vessel took 5 years to construct (check out this cool time-lapse video of the ship’s construction) and can be seen docked at the museum’s pier on Harbor Drive. Plan is to have it open to the public (as in actually go onboard) later this year, hopefully by the holidays {fingers crossed}.

2. Cabrillo National Monument

Impressive statue of Cabrillo at Cabrillo National Monument

Impressive statue of Cabrillo at Cabrillo National Monument

Wonder what Cabrillo looked like or what he saw as he sailed into San Diego’s impressive natural harbor? Head to Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego’s only national park. There’s a 14-foot high statue of Cabrillo (originally envisioned as a 150-foot tall sculpture!) and incredible 360-degree, birds-eye views of the city. Also fun to explore are the Old Point Loma Lighthouse (one of eight original lighthouses on the West Coast), tide pools and bunkers from WWII.

3. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park

Folklorico dancers at Old Town State Historic Park

Folklorico dancers at Old Town State Historic Park

The Junipero Serra Museum on a hill overlooking Old Town, marks the spot where Spanish friars and soldiers established a presidio and the first Mission San Diego in 1769 (the original structures are no longer visible; the ruins are buried). Downhill, Old Town State Historic Park with its adobe buildings, old timey plaza and other sites, shows what life was like at San Diego’s first “downtown” in the 1800s. This is where the Wild West meets mariachis and our Hispanic heritage.

4. Mission San Diego de Alcala

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala

California’s first mission, Mission San Diego de Alcala in Mission Valley

In the aptly named Mission Valley near Old Town, is the second Mission San Diego de Alcala – which was moved here in 1774 to be closer to the San Diego River (makes sense). You can stroll through the mission and its beautiful gardens, chapel, church, a museum with original artifacts and an excavation site out back, believed to be the monastery.

5. Mission Trails Regional Park

Old Mission Dam in Mission Trails Regional Park. Photo credit: Ce Helton

Old Mission Dam in Mission Trails Regional Park. Photo credit: Ce Helton

Mission Trails Regional Park, one of the largest urban parks in the U.S., is just up the road from Mission San Diego. Highlights include the original Old Mission Dam, a state-of-the-art Visitor and Interpretive Center featuring exhibits dedicated to the Kumeyaay Indians who lived here 1,000 years ago and 60 miles of hiking trails including an awesome trek to the top of Cowles Mountain, the city of San Diego’s highest peak (1,593 feet).

See you in San Diego, and make your own history! 🙂

This entry was posted in Activities & Attractions, Arts & Culture, Beaches & Outdoors, Insider Tips and tagged , , , , by Robert Arends. Bookmark the permalink.
Robert Arends

About Robert Arends

I’m a native San Diegan and man of many hats: PR, roadside America traveler/backyard tourist (especially our mountains and Anza-Borrego Desert), photographer (motto: capture the moment!), music fan, sci-fi buff, tiki collector and constant gardener.
What would you do on your ideal San Diego day?
I would spend the day snorkeling in La Jolla Cove. It’s like swimming in a huge aquarium – Garibaldi fish, lobsters, sea lions, oh my!
If you were invisible, where would you go?
I’d go surfing in Coronado. I’ve never surfed, but have always wanted to. If I was invisible no one would see me fall (again and again! – LOL).
What is your favorite San Diego outdoor activity?
Walking the Prado in Balboa Park; feels like I’m in Spain. The architecture is amazing!  I also enjoy hiking Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to see the annual wildflowers and exploring the tidepools at Cabrillo National Monument.
Do you prefer burgers and beer or linguine and red wine?
Linguine and red wine (wine list, please!), with tableside views of San Diego Bay.
Latest music purchases for my iPod/MP3 player are…
Magic Man: Paris, Bear Hands: Giants, Capital Cities: I Sold My Bed, But Not My Stereo, Man Man: Head On, London Grammar: Nightcall (Freemasons Remix).
Follow Robert on Twitter @groovestar

2 thoughts on “Top 5 San Diego Spots to Explore the Birthplace of California

    • Hi Tomas,

      The nationality of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo is hotly contested in the academic world of history. Wikipedia has a good breakdown of the controversy:

      Cabrillo’s nationality has been debated for centuries. He was described as Portuguese by Spanish chronicler Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas; in his Historia General de los hechos de los Castellanos en las Islas y tierra firme del Mar Oceano, written 60 years after Cabrillo’s death, Herrera referred to Cabrillo as Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo Português. The Portuguese claim him as a national hero, and several locations in Portugal claim to be his birthplace. However, the source for Herrera’s description is unknown, and some historians have long believed that Cabrillo was from Spain. Harry Kelsey, in his exhaustive 1986 biography Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, writes that Cabrillo probably was born in Seville, Spain. In 2015, Dr. Wendy Kramer, a Canadian researcher, investigating a series of Spanish legal documents from a 1532 lawsuit, found that one of the witnesses in the lawsuit was named Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. That witness testified under oath that he was born in Palma de Micergilio, a town in the province of Córdoba in Spain. Other details of the witness’s biography match known facts about the explorer. Several historians of Cabrillo hailed the discovery as a historic find supporting the idea that Cabrillo was Spanish. However, a leader of San Diego’s Portuguese community cautioned that the new evidence must be carefully evaluated, and requested that copies of the documents be turned over to the Portuguese government for study.

      The most recent evidence does support his Spanish origins: http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/2015/sep/14/cabrillo-spain-settle-debate/

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