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Historic Day Trips in the San Diego Area

Give your kids a fun, hands-on learning experience at these San Diego-area historic sites.

Credit: Mission San Luis Rey
Credit: Mission San Luis Rey

Written by Danielle Directo Meston

When it comes to family field trips, San Diego has no shortage of hands-on, educational spots that make learning fun kids of all ages. Whether you've got aspiring archeologists or history enthusiasts, there are plenty of places that'll inspire young minds. Here are four great historic day trip ideas that can be done on a single tank of gas or less.


Old Town San Diego State Historic Park  

4002 Wallace St.

San Diego

(619) 220-5422

Why Go? Considered the Golden State’s birthplace, this area is home to many free museums and historic sites (some recreated), plus a variety of modern-day shops and restaurants. From the site of the city’s first presidio, to a cluster of restored Victorian homes and even America’s (supposedly) most haunted house, there’s plenty to see and do in this charming district. 

Insider Tip: Plan your visit for a Wednesday or Saturday, when you can catch free Living History demonstrations of wool spinning, blacksmithing, carpentry, soap making, music and more. Take advantage of free parking at the CalTrans lot (at Sunset Street off Taylor Street). And don’t forget to stop by the Visitor’s Center at the Robin-Rose House to pick up free self-guided tour brochures.

Must Do: Pack a picnic lunch and head up to Presidio Park, which offers views of the city. The site is where San Diego's first military fort stood and is also home to California's first mission.

Fine Print: Visitor’s Center hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Museums are closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.  


Cabrillo National Monument

1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr.

San Diego

(619) 557-5450

Why Go? From a lighthouse, cool tide pools and kid-friendly hiking trails, this landmark located on the peninsula is the perfect place for little ones to discover history, marine biology and nature, all in one spot. Here, they'll discover what life was like for the native Kumeyaay Indians, learn about Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo's 1542 expedition of California and more.

Insider Tip: Pack lunch for the entire family or stop by one of the many local spots in La Playa before you head up to the monument, where food options are limited. 

Must Do: Be sure to visit the top of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, one of the first lighthouses built on the West Coast. Next, head over to the Assistant Keeper’s Quarters next door, which contains Victorian-era artifacts that once steered travelers towards their destinations.

The Fine Print: Hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and the park is open daily except on Christmas. Entrance to the park closes at 4:30 p.m., and all visitors must exit by 5 p.m. Admission is $5 per vehicle and $3 for walk-ins, bicyclists and motorcyclists, and tickets are valid for five days.


San Diego Natural History Museum

1788 El Prado

San Diego

(619) 232-3821

Why Go? While Balboa Park boasts a bevy of visit-worthy attractions, the four-story Natural History Museum is definitely a must-do for kids who are curious about everything from dinosaurs to plant life to gems. Catch a 3-D movie on the first floor, watch scientists study and prepare specimens in the research demonstration lab on the third floor and view the rotating photography exhibit on the fourth floor.

Insider Tip: Beat the crowds and arrive before 11 a.m., when you can enjoy plenty of parking in the surrounding lots. Head to the Camp-o-Saurus play area in the atrium. There, little ones can play safely with other fellow dinosaur lovers while adults have a chance to sit down and relax.

Must Do: Inspire your budding archeologists and be sure to head to the second floor, where the museum's impressive collection of dinosaur fossils are housed.

The Fine Print: Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $17 for adults; $15 for seniors over 62; $12 for teens from 13 to 17, military personnel and college students; $11 for kids from 3 to 12; and free for children under 2.


Mission San Luis Rey

4050 Mission Ave.

Oceanside

(760) 757-3651

Why Go? Located north of San Diego in Oceanside, the mission's museum boasts artifacts from the area's Native American, Spanish, Mexican and colonial American pasts. The mission is also home to California's first pepper trees and northern San Diego County's oldest cemetery.

Insider Tip: While photography is allowed on the grounds, flash is not permitted inside the museum and the church.

Must Do: Discover the mission’s Lavanderia, an open-air laundry and bathing site where water once ran from the mouths of carved stone gargoyles and through an irrigation system for the mission's fields and gardens.

The Fine Print: Museum hours are Monday to Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The museum is closed on major holidays. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $3 for children under 18 and free for kids under 7.

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