USS Midway Museum in San Diego Harbor. Photo Credit: preserveamerica.gov

Planning a trip sunny San Diego? Between the beautiful beaches, world famous zoo, and theme parks, there is certainly no shortage of family fun to be had in this city by the sea. But did you know that San Diego is rich with historical importance, making it a great destination for combining learning with your leisure? Come with TravelingMom on a Historical Tour of San Diego…

San Diego is the oldest Spanish settlement in “Alta California”, so as you’dDisclosureTMOM imagine, it’s got history by the bucketful.  Home to LEGO Land, beaches of legend and amazing Mexican food, it has a rich and varied relationship with the armed forces, and still serves as home to more than 100,000 active duty military members and their families.  While most active duty bases are off limits to civilian personnel, you can still get a taste of the area’s military history and presence through a variety of tours, museums and site visits.

A great way to get a “seagull’s eye perspective” of the vast Navy presence in San Diego is to take a San Diego Harbor Tour.  With choices of North, South or Full Bay tours, you have the ability to view the fleet on equal footing…afloat.  Leaving from the heart of San Diego Harbor, a narrated boat ferries you past aircraft carriers, destroyers and guided missile cruisers, explaining how “Shelter” and “Harbor” Islands live up to their names.  You’ll duck by the expansive Coronado Bay Bridge and skim the coast of North Island Naval Air Station, round the Cabrillo Monument and discover the Submarine Base at Point Loma.  After marveling at the logistics necessary for busy commercial shipping traffic to coexist with military might, you’ll be scribbling your list of things to view up close as you debark the tour.

Hands-on exhibits at the MCRD Museum. My son the Marine testing them out on his little brother. Photo Credit: Lara DiPaola Scenic Route TravelingMom

Hands-on exhibits at the MCRD Museum. My son the Marine testing them out on his little brother. Photo Credit: Lara DiPaola Scenic Route TravelingMom

Near the top of that list should be a visit to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) Museum. If you flew into San Diego, you likely saw it from the air just before landing, and it’s gorgeous architecture may have belied it’s function.  MCRD’s Spanish Colonial Revival style was laid out and designed by famed architect Bertrand Goodhue, who also designed buildings in San Diego’s beautiful Balboa Park and at West Point’s Military Academy.  MCRD is an open base, and the museum is free and open to the public.  Focusing on the history of the Marine Corps in the 20th and 21st centuries and the corps’ presence in Southern California, the museum encompasses exhibits, galleries and a reference center complete with research library and archives.  The collection of ephemera and old photographs is not to be missed, and as the mother of a brand new Marine, I encourage you to check it out!

Not just the setting of a ‘70’s movie with Heston and Fonda, the USS Midway was the longest serving US Navy Aircraft Carrier of the 21st century.  Now a floating museum, this city at sea is open to the public and a wealth of history about naval aeronautics.  Visitors generally spend three to four hours aboard, engrossing themselves in the over fifty year history of the massive warship.  The 60 minute self guided tour, over 60 exhibits, two flight simulators, 29 restored aircraft, climb – aboard cockpits and so many other activities await your visit!  Strolling through the galley, the bridge or the crew’s sleeping quarters you may bump into a docent who’s eager to share memories of their time serving aboard Midway, and these encounters are the real gems of the experience.

Remember to include Old Town San Diego in your military walkabout.  After all, each generation of service member stationed in this fair city enjoyed their liberty and R & R in the welcoming hotels and cantinas of Old Town. Casa Guadalajara evokes that “old town” feel with some authentic Mexican favorites, a few “new world” twists and an entire menu of handcrafted margaritas. A Mariachi band strolls through this adobe walled restaurant lending to the experience.

The Whaley House. Photo Credit: Old Town San Diego Guide

The Whaley House. Photo Credit: Old Town San Diego Guide

From the Army soldiers who accompanied the first American settlers to the sailors of World War II, follow in their footsteps as you visit Colorado House, a former hotel now home to the Wells Fargo Museum, or the Cosmopolitan Restaurant, once home to the headquarters of Commodore Robert F. Stockton in 1846. Old Spanish churches and missions abound, and you may need to visit one after a trip to the Gold Rush era Whaley House, purported to be the most haunted in the United States.

As a Navy veteran, I’m keenly aware of the long and proud service of our nation’s military.  I hope to instill that knowledge and respect in my children, and try to make time during our travels to visit historical military sites with them. Not only a valuable part of their education and heritage, military tours can be fun!

Sightseeing is always enjoyable, but sightseeing with a theme can be instructional and educational as well.  Next time you’re visiting the Jewel of Coronado Bay, remember our military and take the opportunity to treat yourself to a tour of living military history.