Landmarks in San Diego: 17 Must-See Sights

A land of naval aviation, sparkling Pacific Ocean beaches, and rich Mission history, it’s no surprise that San Diego has earned the nickname of ‘America’s Finest City.’

This bustling Southern California hub of surf and sand is home to countless San Diego landmarks. Famous landmarks in San Diego are way more than tourist traps. These iconic historical sites foster connections between the past and present. Follow along as we dive into the 17 most famous landmarks in San Diego.

From the USS Midway Museum where visitors can see how real sailors lived, slept, and ate during WWII to the stunning San Diego Bay views afforded by the Cabrillo National Monument. Every inch of this SoCal city overflows with heritage and culture.

Trot down the cobblestone streets of the Gaslamp Quarter and sneak in rounds of tequila and tacos. Or set your sights on a day of museum hopping in Balboa Park.

Wander through Spanish colonial missions, or observe the furry residents of one of the country’s premier zoos.

Ready to uncover the most iconic San Diego monuments and landmarks? Read on…

aerial view of san diego skyline during daytimeIconic San Diego Landmarks

Lighthouses, haunted houses, and world-renowned museums, oh my! Intrepid travelers from all walks of life will find lots to love in this city by the Bay.

Take a whole day (or two) to traverse Balboa Park and spot fossils and the Old Globe Theater. Or get cozy with cracker jacks and craft beer at Petco Park. San Diego landmarks offer a little something for everyone.

Balboa Park

A cultural, natural, and historical oasis, Balboa Park is a must-visit for any San Diego itinerary. Measuring over a thousand acres, Balboa is considered one of the country’s most renowned urban parks. originally constructed in 1868, today the park boasts 17 museums, countless gardens, and of course the world-famous zoo.

Snap a selfie in front of the ubiquitous California Tower or find your zen in the meticulously maintained Japanese Friendship Garden.

For some wild wonder, book your entry to the San Diego Zoo and observe cuddly koalas, cheetahs, and grizzly bears. Or, take your travels to the African Plains with an open-air safari at their sister park – San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

In the mood for some prehistoric learning? Marvel at dino bones, gems, and flesh-eating beetles when you explore the natural history of southern California at the San Diego Natural History Museum. From Foucault’s swinging pendulum to the Baleen Whale evolution, there are endless oddities to uncover.

External view of lily pond at Casa de Balboa in San Diego, California, USAHotel del Coronado

A legendary part of the San Diego landscape, this National Historical Landmark has long captured the imagination of the American public. Displaying fairy tale features and an impressive history of notable guests, the Hotel del Coronado red turrets cannot be missed.

For more than 130 years visitors have flocked to this resort to celebrate the seaside charm and the natural beauty of California. Over the years the Del has hosted everyone from U.S. Presidents to Wizard of Oz author Frank L. Baum. In addition, the Coronado served as the setting for the classic Marilyn Monroe flick Some Like It Hot.

Gaslamp Quarter

Equal parts educational and entertaining, the Gaslamp Quarter may just be one of our favorite San Diego landmark neighborhoods. Home to loads of mouth-watering restaurants, bars, and the USS Midway Museum, every inch of this 16-block oasis oozes charm.

Stroll around and soak in the Victorian-era buildings during the day, then return at night for ice-cold cocktails and craft beer. Leave the touring to the professionals and revel in even more downtown sights with an Old Town Trolley Tours San Diego: Hop-On Hop-Off tour.

view of gaslamp quarter street at night in san diego
photo credit: Gaslamp Quarter via Facebook

Old Town San Diego State Historic Park*

Rooted in the past but providing a bridge to the present, the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park makes its home on the ancestral lands of the First People, the Kumeyaay. Locals and visitors can pilgrimage here to see the converging cultures that transformed San Diego from a Kumeyaay village to a Mexican pueblo to an American Settlement.

Take your time observing the five original Adobe buildings, or swing by the Historic Plaza for special events and activities. Visitors are encouraged to see the inner workings of the plaza’s blacksmith shop, pet the park’s burros, or frequent the museum. Glean the essentials for daily life in 1865 from a costumed ‘school teacher,’ or see a reproduction of a Seeley Line Mud Wagon.

*Old Town is also called the Mission San Diego State Historic Park.

La Jolla Cove

La Jolla Cove and the nearby Children’s Pool are known mainly for their flippered fans. Come here to spy basking seals and sea lions, or bring along a bathing suit and goggles to explore the sea caves and marine life.

Related Post: Things to Do in La Jolla California – 9 Must-Try Activities

For a more beachy escape, seek out La Jolla Shores. This mile-long crescent of sandy wonder is a favorite of swimmers and surfers alike. Those travelers looking for even more aquatic education can also plan to make a pit stop at the famed Scripps Institute of Oceanography Pier.

opening of Sunny Jim Sea Cave La Jolla Sea Cave taken from inside cave with view of ocean during sunset in San Diego, California, USA
photo credit: Shalika Weerasingha via Facebook

Seaport Village

A slower pace of life plus a fresh from-the-sea supper make a stop at Seaport Village an enticing option. This well-loved landmark offers the perfect excuse for a day of coastal retail therapy and sweeping sea views. Seaport Village has been dazzling tourists with its nautical vibes, extensive culinary treats, and art galleries for over 40 years.

This quaint enclave of seaside retail, dining, and entertainment can be found opposite Coronado. Let the coastal breeze caress your skin as you capture jaw-dropping views of the Bay and the Coronado Bridge. Stock up on chic souvenirs and homemade fudge, or grab an outdoor table and chow down on a hearty lunch of fish and chips, lobster rolls, and ceviche.

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Avid outdoor enthusiasts will also want to hit up the landmark Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve located at the Northernmost part of La Jolla. Here visitors can immerse themselves in the staggering beauty of Mother Nature. As displayed by 300-foot sea cliffs, natural vegetation, and the rare Torrey Pine.

Related Post: Torrey Pines Hike San Diego: What You Need to Know for Your Outdoor Adventure 

This site of rugged wilderness holds the honor of being home to our country’s rarest pine tree – Pinus torreyana. Hikers can choose from several trails as they observe these towering pines as well as picturesque, pueblo-style structures, a visitors center, and interpretive displays.

For an even more unique Torrey Pines tour, opt to visit during spring and witness the smatterings of wildflowers as well as conveys of California Quail.

Razor Point Trail at Torrey Pines State Reserve - San Diego, California, USA
photo credit: Millie Wong via Facebook

Petco Park

Take me out to the ballgame! A true San Diego County staple, lovers of America’s favorite pastime will not be able to pass up the opportunity to frequent this sports-themed landmark and home to the Padres. Located in downtown San Diego, the dazzling MLB ballpark offers daily and pregame tours.

Get a behind-the-scenes look at America’s #1 ballpark, peek at the Press Box, and even see the Padres Hall of Fame. Besides baseball, visitors can also check the Petco Park schedule for live concert events here.

USS Midway Museum

Prepare for landing! Pay your respects to San Diego’s longstanding history with the sea when you take in over 60 exhibits and displays at the USS Midway Museum. Featuring the longest-serving U.S. Navy aircraft carrier of the 20th century, this museum is home to over 30 restored aircraft and helicopters.

Guests can hear the full story of the battle of Midway via immersive film or hit the Flight Deck’s bridge to see where the Captain would oversee flight operations. Peek at genuine WWII aircraft, see where the sailors would sleep, or test out your aviation prowess with a flight simulator ride.

Entrance to the USS Midway Museum in San Diego CaliforniaMurals of Chicano Park

It’s no secret that San Diego has a lengthy history of Mexican influence. Nowhere is the Chicano pride more on display than Barrio Logan. Considered both the literal and metaphorical heart of the area. This hub of Latin American culture and pride overflows with artistic talent.

In 2016, Chicano Park was designated as a National Historic Landmark. Today visitors can learn about the Mexican American experience as they soak in the largest collection of Chicano murals in the world. In total, the park contains over 100 paintings on seven acres.

Guests can weave and wander through gardens, sculptures, playgrounds, and outdoor worlds of staggering genius. Designed by local, state, and internationally known artists, visitors can identify elements and aspects of Chicano culture throughout the murals. Spot everything from Aztec-inspired deities to depictions of important historical figures such as Cesar Chavez and Frida Kahlo.

The murals utilize both plant and animal imagery to tell the story of revolutionary struggles, immigration, and feminism. This well-loved park is also the site of various music and Aztec dance festivals, the most important being Chicano Park Day held each April to celebrate the park’s beginnings.

Coronado Bridge

The engineering inclined may already have the famed Coronado Bridge on their radar. However, for the initiated, this iconic bridge, also known as the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, links the former to the latter.

Made famous for its unique bend design, it is often named one of the most beautiful bridges in the U.S. For an arresting sight, book a San Diego City Lights Night Tour and take in the bridge after dark.

Aerial view looking over Coronado Island and the bridge that leads to the mainland at dusk near San Diego, California, USASan Diego Monuments

Colonial Spanish architecture, discoveries by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, and America’s Most Haunted House. Monuments in San Diego are nothing if not diverse. Whether you are in the mood for spine-tingling chills, old Missions, or historic statues there’s no stone unturned when it comes to America’s finest monuments.

Whaley House Museum

Built in 1857 this family estate sits on the location of what was once the former gallows for the city of San Diego. While the Greek Revival-style residence of the Whaley House Museum may appear unassuming.

However, over the years this oldest brick structure in Southern California has been plagued by many ghastly occurrences. The Whaley family’s history was riddled with death and suicide. Leaving many to believe they were cursed by malevolent forces.

Regarded as a quintessential San Diego monument, the occult-obsessed can book one of the museum’s many ghost tours or take a self-guided day tour. For a truly chilling adventure, muster up some gumption to take part in an after-hours paranormal investigation.

exterior view of the whaley house museum in old town in San Diego, California, USASan Diego Mission Church

Known as the most famous mission in America’s Finest City, the San Diego Mission Church, or San Diego de Alcala was the first of 21 Spanish Missions established in part by Father Junipero Serra. Founded in 1769, this stately church is often referred to as the ‘Mother of the Missions.’

Related Post: San Diego at Night: 18 Best Nightlife Activities

The original church was burned during an Indian uprising. Thus the current church was restored and moved to a new inland location in 1931. Presently, the Mission is open to the public daily and features a museum, gift shop, archaeological ruins, and tempting gardens.

Within the museum walls, you can stumble across art as well as original mission records written in Father Serra’s handwriting. Worshippers can also take part in services which are held daily in the original mission chapel.

Cabrillo National Monument

It was a time of sea exploration, adventure, and discovery. The world and San Diego Bay looked very different in 1542. It was during this blustery September that Juan Rodgriguez Cabrillo would land in San Diego.

The Cabrillo National Monument commemorates this landing. And can be found at the Southern Tip of the Point Loma Peninsula in San Diego. Well worth a visit due to its military history alone, Point Loma played an integral role in both WWI and WWII. Furthermore, the 1855 Point Loma Lighthouse can also be found here.

Make your way to this picturesque structure for harbor views. Or try hiking the two-mile Bayside Trail for San Diego Bay scenery. Visiting during the winter? Be sure to check out the Whale Watch Overlook to spot the perfect Gray Whales embarking on their annual migration.

*Looking for more Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, the west coast of the United States information? Check out the full history here.

Close up view of the Cabrillo National Monument with the skyline in the background in San Diego, California, USA

San Diego Hotels

Can’t wait to spot the La Jolla sea lions or strut your stuff a la Marilyn at the Hotel del Coronado? Before you embark on your San Diego bucket list of landmarks, it’s time to reserve your dream San Diego lodgings.

Take a reprieve in downtown San Diego or feel the sweet ocean breeze at a Mission Beach resort. Splash around in a spacious pool in Old Town or indulge in spa treatments and outdoor movie screenings in Escondido.

Whatever your vacation parameters, we offer San Diego Hotels and Resorts for every style and budget.

Aerial view of Tuna Harbor Park and Embracing Peace Statue in San DiegoIt is only by honoring the past that we can fully embrace the future. Make the most of your time in San Diego when you reflect on the legacy of California’s second-largest city.

A swirling melting pot, every San Diego landmark serves to enlighten and educate thanks to riveting historical or cultural significance.

Step foot into the city’s 1,200-acre backyard and catch a glimpse of dino fossils and rattlesnakes at the Natural History Museum. Or, watch modern expressions of Aztec warriors and Frida Kahlo bloom across the concrete in Chicano Park.

Get the daylights scared out of you as you wander around the cursed Whaley House after dark. Or savor a heart-pounding hike to the Point Loma Lighthouse.

All Set to Uncover Your Favorite San Diego Monument or Landmark?

Tell us, which landmark San Diego would you visit first?

Leave a comment below!

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Written by Isis Maya Nissman

A New York native, Isis-Maya spent most of her professional life working in TV production until a vacation whisked her away to Central...

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