People may write San Diego off as just a cheery beach town, but they would be wrong. The city has deep and enduring roots that reflect the spectrum of Southern California's multicultural vastness. Here's where to go to experience San Diego's overtures to its historical diversity.
1. Balboa Park. The apex of San Diego culture, these 1,200 acres encompass 15 museums, plus art galleries, botanical gardens and other cultural institutions. Often referred to as the Smithsonian of the West, this site was reserved in 1789 by Spain's King Carlos III for recreational purposes. Highlights at America's largest urban cultural park include the San Diego Museum of Art (displaying Old Masters and Asian art), the anthropological San Diego Museum of Man, and the San Diego Natural History Museum. Multicultural seekers will also enjoy Centro Cultural de la Raza, the House of Pacific Relations (representing 30 nations), the WorldBeat Center (which celebrates African cultures), the Japanese Friendship Garden and the Spanish Village Art Center.
2. Plaza del Pasado, in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, brings San Diego's early history to life with twice-daily tours given by storytellers in period costume. At this historic plaza, where San Diego's original Mexican pueblo was founded in 1821, visitors can taste authentic Mexican cuisine, watch artisans demonstrating their craft and enjoy festive performances by folkloric dancers and mariachi bands.
3. Little Italy. This inviting district filled with Italy-influenced cafes and restaurants, piazzas, art galleries, murals, boutiques and wine stores has existed since the 1920s. Annual parties like Carnevale (February) and Festa (October) draw thousands, while Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church is a beautiful landmark with Venetian-style religious paintings on its ceilings and walls.
4. Hillcrest. San Diego's hip gay district hosts the city's LGBT Pride Parade and Festival every July. The liberal-minded uptown locale has lively gay bars, an excellent farmer's market -- and Bronx Pizza, known for selling San Diego's best pie.
5. The missions. Mission San Diego de Alcalá, in Mission Valley, was the first of California's 21 missions. Mission San Luis Rey, California's largest mission, is in Oceanside.
6. San Diego Chinese Historical Museum, where San Diego's Chinatown once was, is now part of downtown's Gaslamp Quarter. Its exhibits tell the story of Chinese immigrants through art and artifacts. Outside, there's a water-accented Asian garden.
7. Cabrillo National Monument commemorates Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to land on America's west coast. He did so in 1542, effectively "discovering" San Diego. This NPS-operated site includes a regal statue of Cabrillo, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, marine tide pools and lots of military history. Every September, the Cabrillo Festival celebrates Mexican, Native American, Portuguese and Spanish heritages.
8. The Junípero Serra Museum, a major symbol of the city atop a Presidio Park hill, teaches about San Diego history during its Native American, Spanish and Mexican periods. Artifacts and a map mural document the journey of the father of all missionaries: Junípero Serra, who established California's missions in the late 1700s.
9. The African American Museum of Fine Arts has as its mission to educate about African-Americans arts and cultures. Its innovative exhibitions and interpretive programs do so, as do the many visiting artists lecturers, writers and performers.
10. Heritage Park exists to preserve San Diego's historic Victorian architecture including Italianate, Queen Anne and Classic Revival styles. The 7.8-acre county park is home to the Classic Revival-style Temple Beth Israel, which, in 1889, became San Diego's first synagogue. Now it's a registered city historic site.
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