15 Famous Landmarks in San Diego, California Not to Miss


7 min read
Aerial of boats near a shoreline with tall and modern skyscrapers on a sunny day
San Diego is located on the shore just south of Los Angeles

With stunning beaches, a bustling city, and pleasant weather year-round, San Diego is a fantastic place to visit on a beautiful coastline, just south of Los Angeles. This gorgeous beach city offers aquatic attractions, a flourishing urbanscape with historical heritage, culture, and art, and great dining and nightlife options.

There's so much to explore in terms of natural landscapes, museums, and history. In fact, San Diego is commonly known as the "Birthplace of California" because it was the first place Europeans visited and settled on the West Coast of the United States.

Whether you're traveling to San Diego for a short trip or an extended vacation, these are 15 famous landmarks in San Diego, California, that you should not miss!

  • 15 landmarks

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15 Famous San Diego Landmarks

San Diego Landmarks Map

Using the map of San Diego landmarks, you can explore all the landmarks.

Spanish era old church with palm trees and plants around under a clear sky
Old Town is a rich historical site with lots of Mexican handicrafts and other shops

Old Town San Diego State Historic Park

This place gives San Diego its title as the "Birthplace of California." Also known as Old Town, this San Diego landmark features museums and historical sites that teach travelers about the first settlements in California. Moreover, it is a recreation and representation of life during the early American and European era from 1821 to 1872.

Inside the park, plenty of shops sell authentic Mexican handicrafts, textiles, and local spices. Additionally, you can visit a working blacksmith, explore various art studios, listen to Mariachi music, and enjoy a meal outside on one of the many restaurant's patios.

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The lush green Balboa Park is one of the famous landmarks in San Diego, California
The beautiful Balboa Park is one of the famous landmarks in San Diego, California

Balboa Park

Balboa Park is a must-visit landmark in San Diego. This massive park contains historical structures, various museums, gardens, theaters, shops, and green spaces. Initially created for the Panama California Exhibition of 1915-1917, most Spanish-styled buildings remain from that event.

You could easily spend a day exploring all the gardens and museums here. If you want to take a break, you can have lunch at the cafe or at one of the stands. Moreover, the famous San Diego Zoo is located within the park, making it easy to tack onto your itinerary.

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San Diego Museum of Art

Located in the grand and beautiful Balboa Park, the San Diego Museum of Art is the region's most extensive and oldest art museum. Its exterior imitates the 17th-century University of Salamanca.

The museum's nationally renowned collection includes Spanish and Italian artists. It also permanently exhibits South Asian paintings and American art from the 1800s and the 1900s.

This is the perfect place for a rich and diverse cultural experience. While you're here, look out for special exhibitions from around the world or cultural-educational programs that the museum features.

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Cute sea lion and a white bird sitting on an artificial pool rock
San Diego Zoo is one of the largest zoos in the US with a rich biodiversity

San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park

The San Diego Zoo is the top San Diego landmark and one of the largest zoos in the US. From native to exotic species, you can see all kinds of animals here. Additionally, there is an extraordinary floral collection within its grounds.

The San Diego Zoo is also conservation-focused instead of profit. This means that the animals' habitats are suitable, and they are managed well.

If you want an African-style safari experience, visit the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. It is located north of San Diego in San Pasqual Valley. This park has free-roaming animals and offers a more special wildlife-watching experience.

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Under some clouds, a long bridge spans a bay with several parked boats
San Diego Bay offers whale watching tours and interesting historical sites

San Diego Bay and San Diego Harbor

The city of San Diego lies along a bay, so another can't miss attraction is its waterfront! You can walk along San Diego Walk or take a boat cruise at San Diego harbor, all while soaking in the sunshine and fresh air.

There are various boat tours you can choose from. You can learn about the city's history, visit the different historic buildings in San Diego, see its skyline, view the marine animals, or cruise under the Coronado Bridge that spans San Diego Bay.

Moreover, depending on the season, you could also take a boat to go whale watching!

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Old wooden house over water with rocks at the bottom, under an overcast sky
Seaport Village, with its shops and eateries on the sea, is right on the water

Seaport Village

Adjacent to the Bay, Seaport Village is a charming area to explore and spend an afternoon. Right on the water, Seaport Village comprises unique shops and restaurants with waterfront patios. You can buy anything from hot sauce and socks to candy and ice cream in this bustling neighborhood.

Additionally, you can also watch the outdoor stage that showcases various performers. Seaport Village is close to many other attractions, too. So it can be an excellent place to take a break, eat, and enjoy the city.

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An aircraft carrier with helicopters on top on a sunny day
USS Midway Museum is one of the longest-serving aircraft carriers until 1992

USS Midway Museum

If you plan on visiting Seaport Village, you'll probably come across one of the US military's most prominent and longest-serving aircraft carriers: the USS Midway. Decommissioned in 1992, the ship rests permanently at Navy Pier.

As one of the most historic places in San Diego, this museum highlights the history of this significant vessel through its exhibits and restored aircraft.

Take a self-guided audio tour, watch a show at the theater, or try the onboard flight simulator. See how the hundreds of thousands of military personnel lived in this floating city!

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Colorful buildings with tall trees in front on a late afternoon
Gaslamp Quarter is formed of 16 blocks with boutiques, galleries, and bars

Gaslamp Quarter

Developed by William Heath Davis, the Gaslamp Quarter showcases the beauty of this waterfront city. Comprising 16 blocks from Broadway to the Bay, you can explore this national historic district by walking or on a bike taxi.

Initially home to casinos, salons, and other buildings during its early years, it now includes excellent shops, high-end boutiques, galleries, restaurants, and a bustling nightlife. Come here to enjoy one of the most popular places in San Diego!

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White statue with a cross on top overlooking the ocean under a clear blue sky
The Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo National Monument lies on top of Point Loma

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo National Monument

The Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo National Monument is located at the southernmost tip of Point Loma. Overlooking the city and San Diego Bay, this monument honors Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, the first European to discover San Diego Bay.

The locals of Southern California consider this as one of the most famous historical places in San Diego with high heritage value.

Moreover, while you're at Point Loma, make sure to visit the other various attractions and California landmarks. You can tour the historic Point Loma Lighthouse, see the Sunset Cliffs, relax at Point Loma Beach, go tidepooling, or watch the sunset!

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Aerial of waves crashing on a sandy shore with sea lions resting on it
La Jolla Cove is a small beach rich in underwater marine life

La Jolla Cove

This landmark is a small cove beach surrounded by cliffs in La Jolla, a seaside district in the northern part of San Diego. The area around the Cove is full of high-end shops, businesses, and restaurants.

La Jolla Cove is part of the aquatic reserve, so its underwater marine life is rich and diverse. The beach area is relatively small during high tide, but you can explore the tide pools during low tide.

Make sure not to confuse it with La Jolla Shore Park to the north of the Cove, although you should visit both! You can kayak to the nearby caves from La Jolla Shore Park.

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Big cross on top of stairs under a cloudy sky
The Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial is perched atop a hill in La Jolla

Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial

Located on the top of a hill in La Jolla, Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial spans from the Revolutionary War to the present War on Terrorism. The building's design and circular pathways lead up to the large cross at the top, which is a respectful tribute to the lives of all veterans.

In the memorial, there are granite walls with photos and small biographies attached to the names. After reading the various plaques, you can walk on the hiking paths to experience spectacular panoramic views of the city.

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White church with Spanish-era architecture and trees nearby and a clear sky
Mission San Luis Rey, built in 1798, is a National Historic Landmark in San Diego

Mission San Luis Rey

Founded in 1798 and home to the Franciscan Friars, Mission San Luis Rey is a National Historic Landmark that still operates today. Part of a number of religious and historic buildings in San Diego, this one is the largest of the Californian Missions and is rated as one of the Seven Wonders of San Diego County North.

Visitors are welcome to experience the beauty and tranquility of this old Mission by visiting the museum, exploring the cemetery, attending a retreat, or even volunteering. Here, you can discover all the numerous historical and spiritual experiences that Mission San Luis Rey offers!

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A white church with a bell tower, a wooden door, and plants at the front
San Diego Mission Church was constructed in 1769 by Father Junipero Serra

San Diego Mission Church

Although it isn't the largest, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala holds the title of the first Franciscan Mission in California. This prestigious place is also known as the Mother of the Mission. Initially, home to the Kumeyaay Indians, this site was established in 1769 by Father Junipero Serra.

From 1846 to 1862, the military used the Mission after years of operating. After a signed proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, the various Missions turned into the Roman Catholic Church. Currently, this Mission now functions as the San Diego Mission Church.

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Paraglider flying over a rocky coastline on a cloudy day
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a 1500-acre park north of San Diego

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is located north of San Diego, just past the University of California, San Diego. These 1,500 acres of land were preserved as San Diego developed, making it one of most primary and wildest areas in Southern California!

This park comprises the maritime chaparral, the Torrey pine, unspoiled beaches, and a lagoon. At Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, you can easily spend a day hiking the many trails or relaxing on the beaches!

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Whaley House Museum

Located on San Diego Avenue, the Whaley House Museum is a state historical landmark. The Department of Commerce recognized the Whaley House as haunted in its brochure of haunted locations in the US.

The house belonged to Thomas and Ana Whaley, along with their six children. The family moved in and out of the house until the suicide of their daughter. After being vacant for over two decades, the Whaley son restored the building and turned the home into a tourist attraction.

After its restoration, the rest of the Whaley family lived in the house and subsequently passed away on its grounds. This history designated the Whaley House as a haunted house.

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Conclusion

So, there you have it! Some famous and historical landmarks in San Diego, California, you must see at least once!

There are even more relaxing, historical, cultural, and hidden gems in this Southern California city, but the ones mentioned above can help you get started!

This article was edited by Loredana Elena.

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Written by Ann Chang

wanderfulchange WRITER Currently based in the US, I'm a nomad who has lived and worked in Chile, Taiwan, and the UK, exploring North and South America, Asia, and Europe. I love the outdoors, museums, and chilling in cafes!