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Southern California is known more for its trendsetting modernity than for its rich history. But well-planned travel can reveal the wealth of events that have taken place in the region. Here are eight of San Diego's most interesting historical experiences.

1. Go to where it all started, along the banks of the San Diego River at Old Town State Historic Park. Visitors learn about San Diego as a Spanish settlement, a Mexican pueblo, and a growing American city. The park has buildings preserved from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and hosts folkloric dance shows weekly. Free guided tours are available daily at 11am and 2pm. (tel. 619/220-5422; www.parks.ca.gov)

2. The museums of Balboa Park provide a wealth of history-themed experiences; they include the Museum of San Diego History, the San Diego Natural History Museum, the Veterans Museum & Memorial Center, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, the San Diego Automotive Museum, the Marston House, the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum, and Centro Cultural de la Raza. On Tuesday, a rotating group of Balboa Park museums offer free admission. (tel. 619/239-0512; www.balboapark.org)

3. Hotel Del Coronado has been the place to stay while visiting San Diego for more than 120 years. Much has happened at "the Del" in that time, including filmings, visits from a steady stream of celebrities and dignitaries, and the makings of a ghost story. (tel. 800/468-3533; www.hoteldel.com)

4. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to set foot on what became the U.S. West Coast. Cabrillo National Monument marks exactly where this happened in 1542. In addition to commemorating the explorer's achievement, the surrounding park is home to Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which has stood since 1855, as well as dated fortifications, reminiscent of the point's military role, from the 1850s. (tel. 619/557-5450; www.nps.gov/cabr)

5. Experience timeless thrills on Belmont Park's Giant Dipper Roller Coaster in Mission Beach. Built in 1925, the wooden ride provides excitement and history that's difficult to find in modern amusement parks. (tel. 858/488-1549; www.giantdipper.com)

6. Past meets present in the Gaslamp Quarter. The district's history dates back to the late 1800s, with influences from famous figures like Wyatt Earp. Recent efforts to revitalize the area have created a National Historic District that's also one of San Diego's most happening social scenes. Walk the streets and marvel at the Victorian architecture (guided tours are available), then revel in the city's vibrant nightlife. (tel. 619/233-5227; www.gaslamp.org)

7. Mission San Diego de Alcalá is the first of California's 21 missions. It was founded by the venerable Junipero Serra in 1769, signifies the birth of Christianity in the West, and has a history that's relevant to Native Americans, Spaniards, Mexicans, and modern-day Americans. (www.missionsandiego.com) A short drive up the coast takes you to Mission San Luis Rey. This "king of missions" was completed in 1798 and is the largest and most ornate of California's missions. (www.sanluisrey.org)

8. Climb aboard to take a dip in the city's rich nautical history at the Maritime Museum of San Diego. Visitors get a hands-on tour of a world-class collection of historic ships that includes the Star of India, the world's oldest seagoing vessel. Exhibits' themes include ocean-based exploration and commerce. (tel. 619/234-9153; www.sdmaritime.com)

Additional reporting by Tim Andrews