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Top 10 Historical Facts about San Diego

a large body of water with a city in the background

San Diego is a dream tourist location for many apparent reasons. The proximity to the shore makes this a great beach vacation, and all the city’s entertainment, dining, and lodging offerings are well worth the visit. However, there are some fun historical facts you may still need to learn about San Diego. Let’s look at the weird, whacky, and incredible history of San Diego and some of the lesser-known locations you have to see to believe. 


1. The Birthplace of California

People have been living in California for thousands of years, notably the Kumeyaay, who still live in the area to this day. Europeans first landed in San Diego in 1542, and the area gained the name we now know in 1602. However, the area was not colonized by Europeans until 1769, and further in 1774, with the arrival of more colonists. 


When California became a state in 1850, San Diego only had 650 residents, a much lower number than the over 1.32 million people who now call the area home. The history of San Diego goes much further back than the first Europeans to land in the area, though, and you can learn more about the Native Americans who first called this area home on their website


2. Home of Historic Roller Coasters and Amusement Parks

San Diego has had a history of ups and downs; we don’t just mean the city. San Diego has been home to countless amusement parks and is still home to the oldest roller coaster in California. The Giant Dipper, or “the Dipper” as it’s sometimes called, was built in 1925. This wooden roller coaster is fast approaching its 100th anniversary and is still operational. Located in Belmont Park, you don’t want to miss this fast-paced part of San Diego’s history. 


3. The Star of India

While the Star of India was initially built in the Ramsey Shipyard on the Isle of Man, this sailing ship now calls San Diego home. Holding the title of the oldest active sailing ship in the world, the Star of India has been sailing the seas since it was built in 1863, just 13 years after California became a state. This incredible piece of history sailed around the world 21 times, got trapped in Alaskan ice, and still sails the world to this day. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of this beautiful piece of nautical history in the San Diego harbor while you check out the rest of the San Diego Maritime Museum. 


4. Herschell-Spillman Carousel in Balboa Park

This gorgeous carousel was made in 1910 and is over 110 years old. While this carousel has made the tour of San Diego theme parks, it’s come to rest in Balboa Park. Called a “menagerie carousel” due to its wide range of animals, this carousel allows visitors to cruise on a cat, frolic on a frog, or hurry along on a hog, as well as countless other individually sculpted carousel pieces. 


While the carousel is closed for repairs as of November 2022, it should be back soon as beautiful as the day it first opened over 110 years ago. 


5. The Whaley House

While we’re a bit past the Halloween season, Halloween is at The Whaley House every day. Built on an execution site, this once-home-now-museum claims the title of America’s most haunted house.  


When Thomas Whaley built this home in 1856, he paid little attention to the rumors about horse thief execution sites, claiming his home “will be the handsomest, most comfortable and convenient place in town or within 150 miles of here.” However, legends say that notable horse thief Jim Robinson never moved on to the afterlife, and Thomas Whaley and his family were so enamored with their new home they, too, decided to “extend their stay” long after death. Be sure to visit this historic home when you visit San Diego if you dare.  


6. Wyatt Earp

Famed gunslinger Wyatt Earp reportedly lived in San Diego for seven years. This famous face of the Wild West spent his time at the Horton Grand Hotel, a now-historic hotel that you can still visit today. This hotel is close to downtown and offers lodging at reasonable prices, meaning you can experience some of the same charms that convinced Wyatt Earp to stay for so long. 


7. Home of the First Comic-Con

While this is part of the more recent history of San Diego, this city was home to the first Comic-Con International in 1970. In 1970, only 100 people attended the con, a surprisingly low number compared to the over 130,000 attendees that visit this convection every year. From costume contests and vendors to celebrity guests and panels, you don’t want to miss out on this yearly event for all things nerdy. 


8. Spirit of San Diego—er, St. Louis

The history of flight is fascinating, so the San Diego Air and Space Museum is a must-visit location on our list. Not only are there countless fascinating scientific facts and exhibits to visit while you’re here, but also, this museum is home to the only replica of the Spirit of St. Louis


In 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis made history by completing the first-ever New York to Paris transatlantic flight. This monument achievement is commemorated in the San Diego Air and Space Museum with a perfect replica of his plane. There are other incredible replicas to check out in the museum, too, so make sure to check them out on your next visit.  


9. Triathlon Central

While very few people who have completed a triathlon wonder exactly where they first originated (though some may complain enough to claim they were invented somewhere nefarious), the first-ever modern triathlon originated in San Diego. While the invention of the triathlon has been traced back to France by some historians, the swimming/biking/running event we know of today started in San Diego in 1974 with 46 participants. 


Event founders Jack Johnstone and Don Shanahan claim the event was not inspired by the French triathlon, though this has been hotly debated. Whatever the origin of the triathlon, we know that the modern triathlon was first run in San Diego, making it the city of birth for this athletic event. 


10. Welcome to the Hotel Del Coronado

Built in 1888, the Hotel Del Coronado was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977, shortly before this hotel’s 100th anniversary. This wooden beach house is an iconic part of San Diego and is worth visiting. Not only can you enjoy a slice of history at this incredible hotel, but you can also enjoy the California shoreline as you’ve never seen it before. 


If you’re looking for more exciting things to do in San Diego, check out one of our tours. At Best Coast Tours, we offer guided tours of landmark areas in Southern California, from San Diego and LA to a wine tour of Temecula Valley. Our tours offer flexible pickup locations, experienced tour guides, and comfortable transportation, making them the perfect way to explore everything Southern California offers. Contact us today to make a reservation or to find out more.