The area now know as San Diego was discovered by the Spanish in 1602, when Sebastian Vizcaino arrived with his flagship the San Diego and explored the harbor that is now Mission Bay. But it was not until 1769 that the first Mission San Diego de Alcala was officially founded on Presidio Hill, the first of twenty-one Spanish missions to be established along the California coast. When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, San Diego came under Mexican rule for about twenty-five years.
But the Spaniards and Mexicans were not the only influence on this early town. In January 1847 another group of soldiers arrived in the San Diego area. They were members of the Mormon Battalion, a military group formed under the direction of Brigham Young on orders of the American President, James Polk, to help fight in the Mexican/American War.
In July 1846 this ragtag group of men, along with sixteen of the officers’ families, followed a southwestern route to the coast to complete what would be the longest march in military history. They encountered no battle with opposing forces, though a group of wild bulls caused them a few injuries. But no lives were lost and they were able to arrive and begin a mission of another type: the early colonization of what would soon be California.
From there, many of the men went on to help build nearby forts, both in Los Angeles and San Diego. Others joined John Sutter in northern California. By 1848, most had returned to their families who had already arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, but along the way they had built houses, tilled the land, and planted farms. And they had brought with them their faith.
Church growth in California had begun but would follow a slow path. Missionary work was attempted in 1849, but temporarily abandoned due to the Utah War. In 1850 when California applied for statehood, it was suggested by Brigham Young and other leaders that the State of Deseret (Utah) be combined with California, but it never came to fruition. Plural marriage at this time became a controversial issue for the Church on a national level, and California found itself sheltering many Mormon exiles and even petitioned Congress to accept the Saints. It was partly through these efforts that Utah established its own statehood in 1896.
The early twentieth century saw rapid growth of the Church in California. By mid-century, over thirty stakes had been formed and in 1990, San Diego was among the top ten U.S. counties with the largest Latter-day Saint communities. Today there are over 60,000 members in San Diego County.
A city of contrasts, of the old reflecting the new, San Diego should be visited not just for its theme parks and beaches, but for its historical offerings as well. Here we reveal the best of both worlds in a guide to help you make sure your trip is complete.
Four Places You Must See in San Diego
Though it may be tempting to spend all of your time basking in the sun at one of San Diego’s thirty beaches, here are a few other sights you’ll want to see.
San Diego Temple
The design and brilliantly white exterior alone are more than worth the ten-minute trip up from Old Town, not to mention the stunning interior.
Saints in Southern California as well as Mexico contributed to the beautification of the grounds before the temple was dedicated in April 1993. Primary children especially helped, watering flowers to be used on the site and in Mexico, handcrafting a rug for the First Presidency to stand on when they laid the cornerstone.
The birthplace of San Diego, the Old Town State Historic Park, will bring you back to the life that existed here until the mid-1800s. You can spend the good part of a day walking around the historic replicas of shops and businesses. Don’t miss the statue honoring members of the Mormon Battalion, built on what was once Fort Stockton, and the Mormon Battalion Museum itself. It’s all free of charge.
Parking can be a little challenging. Consider taking the Old Town Trolley or there’s even a walking tour that leaves at 2:00 p.m. daily from the visitors center.
This is no simple park we’re talking about here. It boasts walkways, gardens, historical buildings, museums, restaurants, and an ornate pavilion with one of the world’s largest outdoor organs (not to mention the San Diego Zoo). Many of the buildings were built for the Panama-California International Exposition held in 1915. El Prado, the park’s main street, and the distinctive Spanish-Mediterranean buildings are a photographer’s paradise. And if you’re a Shakespeare buff, don’t miss the replica of the Old Globe Theatre.
San Diego Scenic Drive
Ask for a map of the 59-mile San Diego Scenic Drive at the Visitor
Information Center for a perfect introduction to this exciting city.
In three hours, you can see many of the most important sights in
San Diego, but with twenty-seven stops along the way, it’d be best to
devote a whole day to allow for exploration and pictures.
Follow the road signs with the white seagull on a yellow-and-blue
background so that you don’t get lost.
San Diego Beaches
With seventy miles of beautiful coastline, San Diego is home to more
than thirty sandy beaches. Del Mar, one of the most popular beach
communities, offers numerous beaches, horseracing, fairgrounds, and
a picturesque village. Mission Beach is the center of the Strand, a
continuous two-mile stretch of beach.
A trip to San Diego wouldn’t be complete without a day at
Sea World. Arrive early so you can beat the crowds on the
thrilling Journey to Atlantis and Shipwreck Rapids rides.
Then have a game plan prepared to make sure you get in as
many shows as possible. Show times vary seasonally, so visit
seaworld.com or call 1-800-25-SHAMU before you go.
You won’t want to miss the dolphins, sea lions and, of course,
Shamu. Show times often overlap and seating can be first come/first
serve during the height of the season. Be sure to catch the
Cirque de la Mar, Sea World’s answer to the popular Las
Vegas spectacular Cirque de Soleil.
Often used for special events, Broadway Pier offers Harbor Excursion
walking tours and river shuttles. Just north of the pier is the Cruise Ship
Terminal, where majestic international cruise ships make their ports.
Past the terminal, you’ll reach a national historical landmark: Star of India,
the world’s oldest ship that still makes annual sea journeys.
South of Broadway Pier, you’ll find Navy Pier, where ships dock and
conduct free tours. Also located at Navy Pier is the museum which holds
the aircraft carrier, Midway.
Coronado Bay Bridge
Drive across the Coronado Bay Bridge, a 2.2-mile-long bridge with a
200-foot clearance that allows the tallest of ships from the nearby
naval station to pass. In 1970, this bridge captured the “Most Beautiful
Bridge” Award of Merit from the American Institute of Steel Construction
due to its graceful curve and sturdy towers.
Spanning five lanes, the Coronado Bay Bridge links Coronado Island
and the city of San Diego. It divides San Diego Bay into the North/Central
Bay and the South San Diego Bay. For a breath of fresh air, take this
route to Coronado, a quaint seaside town (with terrific beaches of its own)
just a few miles away from downtown San Diego.
San Diego Zoo
More than 3,500 animals call this world-famous zoo home. Officially
opened in 1916, the zoo was started with only a handful of animals
that had been brought for an exposition. Today the most famous
residents of the zoo are a pair of giant pandas received from the
People’s Republic of China. The zoo is also a botanical museum,
representing more than 6,500 species of flora from climate zones
all over the world. In fact, some of the plants are worth more than
A children’s zoo is scaled down to cater to a child’s perspective and
there is a petting area where kids can cuddle up to sheep, goats, and
other more common creatures.