Explore San Diego’s Military History & Heritage This Memorial Day

Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start to summer. It marks the beginning of long sunshine filled days, water-soaked afternoons, and cool nights relaxing at barefoot bars and restaurants along the boardwalk. It brings with it the excitement of change, the thrill of the ocean, and an exhilarating number of activities and celebrations.

You have every right to summer indulgences – enjoying the feel of sand between your toes, ice cream dripping down your fingers, and the kiss of sun on your skin. But, it’s also important to remember that Memorial Day does more than mark the beginning of summer, it’s a time to reflect on and be grateful for the city’s rich military history, heritage, and culture. And to remember those who gave their lives and liberty, so you could have yours.

San Diego’s Kumeyaay Roots

With its Kumeyaay roots, Spanish Mission heritage, Mexican rancheros era, Mormon military legacy, and modern military history, San Diego has been shaped by wave after wave of cultural influences brought to bear through its military history.

The best place to learn about Kumeyaay Native Americans and their role in shaping San Diego, is at Barona Cultural Center and Museum in Lakeside. The Museum of Man in Balboa Park has an exhibit dedicated to the tribe and its history. You can also learn more about Kumeyaay in San Diego at Presidio Park in Old Town. You won’t want to miss the park’s dramatic bronze statue of The Indian on the way to Inspiration Point.

Old Town San Diego: Birthplace of California

Often acknowledged as the birthplace of California, San Diego’s Old Town neighborhood offers visitors one of the best overviews of the city’s historic path to the modern city it is today. Presidio Park and Old Town San Diego State Historic Park tell the stories of the era of Spanish missions and accompanying conquistadors, the ranchero era where missions were confiscated and the lands redistributed to wealthy Mexican rancheros, and the early pioneer experience and California statehood.

Old Town presents carefully preserved architecture, over one hundred specialty stores, twelve art galleries, thirty restaurants, seventeen museums, and twenty-five historic sites and original structures from the 1800s. It’s also home to the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, an iconic must-see where volunteers dress in traditional garb and act out scenes of the past while leading visitors on a tour.

Presidio Park was originally Fort Presidio, the first permanent European settlement. It is home to Junipero Serra Museum, which explores the history Kumeyaay Indians, Spanish explorers, and Mexican settlers via archaeological artifacts. You’ll also find numerous historical statues and murals commemorating the Mormon Battalion from the late 1840s. It was the U.S. military’s only religious-based unit and played a key role during the Mexican-American War. Look for the statue of a Mormon Battalion infantryman.

Traveling further up the coast you’ll find what many refer to as the mother of the 21 missions of California’s shore, the Mission Basilica San Diego de Acala. The largest of these missions, known as the King of the Missions is the Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, which was established in 1798 and is nestled in the North County town of Oceanside.

San Diego Military History Tucked into Neighborhoods

Hillcrest is home to Balboa Park, a cultural complex with over a dozen museums including the San Diego History Center, the San Diego Museum of Man, and San Diego Air & Space Museum where you can catch up on much of San Diego’s cultural and military history. The Veterans Museum and Memorial Center is adjacent to Veterans Memorial Garden and San Diego Vietnam Peace memorial garden in the park.

Cabrillo National Monument in the Point Loma neighborhood marks where Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo arrived as the first European explorer to the West Coast in 1542. It’s a great vantage point for overlooking Navy ships, submarines, and Coronado Island’s naval aviation hub. Liberty Station, also in the neighborhood, is the former Naval Training Center repurposed into a retail, dining, and cultural hub. The Navy’s Marine Mammal Program is located in the channel between Liberty Station and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. And nearby Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery holds the graves of many Medal of Honor recipients.

You’ll find the Naval Amphibious Base, where Navy SEAL candidates train, on Coronado Island. From Hotel del Coronado, lucky guests may see SEAL candidates during Hell Week completing “rock portage” where teams simulate landing boats on a rocky shoreline and carrying them out of the water above their heads. It’s also a flight line for aircraft landing at the island’s base. Mc P’s Irish Pub is a good place to hang out with off-duty members of the Navy.

Memorial Day Celebrations

Bordered by the Pacific Ocean much of the city’s history comes from its large naval community. Head to the Marina downtown for Legacy Week where you can hop aboard one of the longest-serving aircraft carriers, USS Midway Museum. You can meander through the ship and its twenty-five restored aircrafts and participate in a host of Memorial Day events and activities. Don’t miss Kids Adventure Discovery Zone, Meet the Aviators, and the Veteran’s Wreath Ceremony. Snap a photo next to the iconic 25-foot Unconditional Surrender sculpture nearby.

Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial displays over 4,800 granite plaque tributes to veterans mounted to a wall encircling a cross (for now) at this site overlooking San Diego. Although it is open to the public every day, each Memorial Day there are ceremonies and speakers honoring different aspects of San Diego military history. Catch this and other Memorial Day celebrations throughout San Diego County.

Memorial Day is a day to commemorate the U.S. men and women who have given their lives while serving in the military. It’s a day to show gratitude to them, to honor them, and to appreciate their sacrifices and those of their families. And with the city’s robust military community, it’s especially important to San Diegans. This holiday brings families, communities, and friendships closer through backyard barbecues, beachside bonfires, and an array of day-time activities. It’s a time where we mourn our losses with moments of silence and grand military displays, and celebrate all lives by reflecting on the military history and culture that’s defined us.

San Diego’s Military Celebrations beyond Memorial Day

Besides Memorial Day events and activities, visitors to San Diego at other times of the year can catch additional military-inspired events like Tuskegee Airmen Day earlier in May at the Veterans Museum. Fleet Week San Diego, which is the largest event in the country to celebrate and show appreciation for the military, is held each fall. MCAS Miramar Air Show is also in the fall, often coinciding with Fleet Week. It’s been voted “World’s Best Military Air Show” by the International Council of Air Shows. And, of course, there’s the exuberant San Diego Veteran’s Day Parade where visitors can watch active military, veterans, floats, military bands, and more.