25+ Historic Landmarks in San Diego to Visit (Guide)
San Diego County offers no shortage of things to do. Starting with its iconic oceanfront, ever-abundant daily doses of sun and incredible year-round weather, art galleries, concert halls, performance art theaters, running, hiking and bike trails. That list goes on. And did I mention amazing year-round weather?
Less people, though, may think history mecca when they think of San Diego. But So, a quick dose of reality is in order. That is, San Diego County is home to over 200 sites registered by the California Historical Resources Board as historically significant, as well as home to 140 sites listed as such by the National Register of Historic Places, which is overseen by the National Park Service.
History, of course, grounds you in the community in which you live and history-centric tourism of any sort can be a deeply meaningful experience. Historical exploration, too, often comes for free or on the cheap, and can often be done in tandem with other things you’ve already got planned for the day when you’re out and about. It’s easier to do that sort of thing when you’ve got a handy map, which is why we’ve created one for you!
Consider this a guide to bookmark and turn to anytime you’re out and about and looking for a historical sojourn for 30 minutes, an hour or a few hours. We’ve chosen sites which you may not necessarily see in your local tourism guides, though clearly not due to them not being of historic significance, hence them making these lists.
While museums often serve as repositories of history, so too is your own community, often hidden right in plain sight. Hopefully, we’ve done our job successfully, then, and this guide can serve as a launching point to make some of that history more visible in San Diego County.
The Thomas House is the oldest existing house in Escondido, built in 1886, and is the historic home of one of the founding fathers of the city.
“It was built for George Valentine Thomas, one of the five Thomas brothers, early promoters of Escondido,” explains its National Register of Historic Places entry. “It all started when the Thomas family formed the Escondido Land and Town Company and bought the 12,653 acres that became Escondido for $104,042.”
While currently maintained as a private residence, if you’re in the area, take a walk around the block and check out this relic of prime historical importance for the history of Escondido.
Julian Gold Rush Hotel
California is known by many as the final frontier of the Gold Rush, with a football team in San Francisco even named after it. The Robinson Hotel is the Gold Rush embodied in the form of a hotel, a place where gold prospectors lodged while hoping to, well, strike gold.
Established in 1897, what today is known as the Julian Gold Rush Hotel was then known as the Robinson Hotel. It was one of the first businesses in San Diego County to be operated by African-Americans, Albert Robinson and Margaret Tull Robinson.
The hotel has 16 rooms and now serves as a bed and breakfast. While there, it might be worth taking a trip to see the grave of Mr. Robinson, as well.
The Magee House is a worthwhile stop on Highway 101 in Carlsbad for those who are interested in the area’s history and gardening. Built in 1887 by Samuel Church Smith (one of the founders of Carlsbad Land and Water Company), the craftsman-style house is made of pre-cut lumber, ordered from a mid-Western catalog of pre-designed homes. It’s now home to the Carlsbad Historical Society’s museum and archives and open to the public.
The gardens surrounding the home are designed to demonstrate Carlsbad’s agricultural past including a Victorian Herb bed, a native Southern Californian bed, a Carlsbad commercial growers bed, a Patriotic Red, White and Blue bed and a nationally-registered Rose Garden. The latter includes about 225 rose bushes representing 15 families of rose. The rose gardens have been cultivated to reflect Carlsbad’s 2002 title of “An American Rose City”. One garden is modern roses and the other garden contains Old Garden roses and shrubs. A new miniature rose garden was planted in 2003. This magical garden is maintained by the members of the California Coastal Rose Society and established by Ivy Bodin of Vista but the rest of the gardens are maintained through the combined volunteer efforts and city staff.
The museum portion houses turn of the century style furniture and other items on display that reflect the lifestyle of the early settlers of Carlsbad who once owned the house.
When the home’s owner, Florence Shipley Magee died in 1974, she left the house and land (about 5 acres)–located just a block away from the beach–to the City of Carlsbad. She wished it to be used as a park and historical museum, which is exactly what happened. The home was recently refreshed with new paint and other touch-ups and remains one of the oldest in the area.
Guided tours of the museum and grounds are available with advance notice. The Carlsbad Historical Society has also developed a special tour for local third graders to learn about the city’s history on the grounds. December is a particularly popular time to visit as volunteers decorate the home for the holidays using native plant material–just like the early Carlsbad settlers did.
Support the Carlsbad Historical Society by visiting the Magee House or by becoming a member (a family membership is just $35 a year) which entitles you to attend the society’s lectures, social events, trips, and tours for its members as well as local students while supporting their overall efforts.
Carlsbad Santa Fe Depot
The Carlsbad Santa Fe Depot helped put the city on the map in Southern California and served as a key rail industry hub in the city’s formative years, but also played a role beyond that as a center of city activity, too. It opened to the public in 1887.
“Though built as transportation centers for people and freight, train depots often served other functions within a community,” details its National Register of Historic Places entry. “When it opened in 1887, the railroad shared space with the telegraph and Wells Fargo Offices. For a brief period from 1915-1920, it also housed the only general store in the community.”
Though it no longer serves as a rail hub, it still serves as a railroad to the past, without which Carlsbad as we know it today may not exist.
Mule Hill is the physical site of the final battle of the Battle of San Pascual, which was a pivotal and the bloodiest battle of the U.S.-Mexico War.
It “remains in its natural state, preserved today as part of the San Dieguito River Park,” explains the website San Diego History Seeker. “A plaque just off Highway 15, erected in 1950, gives a brief description of Mule Hill’s historical significance.”
With immigration and what to do about the issue a perpetual debate in U.S. political discourse, the Americanization School in Oceanside serves as a dose of history which connects to an ongoing historical debate both in San Diego County, but also more broadly in U.S. society. Constructed by renowned architect Irving Gill, the Americanization School was launched during a time of great change in the U.S. during the “Roaring 20’s,” with immigration and — in the case of the Americanization School — the role of assimilation, a burning issue in San Diego County at the time. Teaching recently-arrived Mexican-Americans U.S. culture and language, English, were key priorities of the school.
Today, what was the Americanization School now still serves as a community center, in this case as the Crown Heights Community Resource Center, where history is repeating itself, at least in one way. That’s because among its offerings are English As A Second Language Classes.
Mt. Woodson Castle
Registered simply as “The Castle” by the National Register of Historic Places, the name begs the rhetorical question with an obvious answer: who the heck wouldn’t want to go to a castle? Well, here’s your chance!
Now a popular wedding venue and luxury hotel, at its dawn Mt. Woodson Castle served as an ostentatious private home of dress-maker Amy Strong completed in 1921. At 27-rooms, the place is huge, sitting on 320 acres of land (unheard of in San Diego County today!), featuring architectural designs in both the interior and on the exterior of inspired by places and themes the world over.
“The Castle represents a unique architectural and artistic expression: a copy of a fourteenth century sundial on the ceiling of the smaller living room, a dutch oven besides the large fireplace in the large living room, a great deal of subdued decoration on the ceiling of the large living room and arched entry, including Indian carvings to ward off evil spirits, are successfully combined in this fantasy dwelling,” explains the National Register of Historic Places for the mansion.
Curious to see what it looks like, but not quite yet ready to commit to giving the place a look in-person? Take a virtual tour to help you settle that question.
A glance at Brick Row and you’ll feel more like you’re visiting a historic building in the midwest or east coast, rather than in the far west. That’s because Frank Kimball envisioned Brick Row as a locale for which to attract railroad industry businessmen from the east coast in his dream to develop National City, San Diego County’s second oldest city, into a key national rail hub.
With Brick Row’s construction in 1887, Kimball intended, for those familiar with east coast architecture, to live in these brick-constructed row house style townhouses. These townhouses prevail in cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston. San Diego County? Not so much. But they exist in National City, so come check them out and, while you’re there, take a broader stroll through National City’s Heritage Square.