Every city has stories to tell. In San Diego, those stories revolve around Sicilian tuna fishermen, Japanese seasonal laborers and scared early Spanish settlers living in an alien land. Each of these groups traveled far from their homes to create new lives while still staying true to the traditions of their old ones.
San Diego delights in its hodgepodge of cultural influences with several heritage-focused attractions. Groups can not only learn about these hardworking early Americans, but also turn the information into tangible memories with workshops such as a traditional Italian ravioli cooking class.
Instead of a surface visit of the city, travelers can experience the heart of San Diego through a visit to these four culturally significant attractions.
Old Town State Historic Park
When guests watch soap-making, fiber arts and print techniques at Old Town State Historic Park, they witness the same methods used by the first permanent Spanish settlement in California. The park uses costumed interpreters to produce newspapers, quilts, soap and other items used by this brave 1800s community on Living History days.
“Groups coming will get a really great look at the founding of California and what life was like for early settlers in the region,” said Candice Eley, director of public relations for San Diego Tourism Authority. “There are a variety of tours at Old Town, so groups can find something that really works for them.”
Park rangers give tours of the park’s 17 historic points of interest, dating from 1821 to 1872. Five original adobe buildings include San Diego’s first newspaper office, cigar shop and one-room schoolhouse.
Visitors can also wander into a working blacksmith shop, listen to live music and pet friendly burros.
The park enlightens groups on how San Diego transformed from a Spanish colony to a Mexican pueblo to an American settlement. Once visitors finish touring the park, they can explore the rest of Historic Old Town San Diego outside the park. The district offers numerous Victorian homes, a professional theater, museums and galleries.
Japanese Friendship Garden
In 1915, the San Diego Japanese Association wanted the local Japanese community represented in the Panama-California Exposition held in Balboa Park. Many Japanese labored in citrus groves and other agricultural fields in the area. So the organization built a Japanese tea pavilion that stood out among the rest of the exposition’s Spanish Colonial architecture.
Today, the original pavilion has expanded into the 11-acre Japanese Friendship Garden, which stands within the larger Balboa Park as an expression of amity between San Diego and its sister city Yokohama. The Zen garden uses the basic elements of trees, shrubs, rocks and water to create a harmonious and meditative experience.
Groups exploring the winding paths past the garden’s exhibit house, koi pond, bonsai exhibit, ceremonial gate and wisteria arbor can either stroll at their own pace or follow a docent.
“The garden’s docents are great opportunities for groups,” said Eley. “The docents are very knowledgeable about the history of the gardens, which visitors wouldn’t know about just by walking on their own.”
Visitors can also discover the city’s Japanese legacy through exhibits, the Tea Pavilion restaurant and a private collection of Japanese artifacts. The park also hosts workshops with topics such as sushi-making, bonsai, calligraphy and conversational Japanese.
For the Centennial Celebration of Balboa Park in 2015, the garden recently added nine acres that include a 200-cherry-tree grove, a children’s garden and an outdoor amphitheater.