A newbie takes a self-guided tour

By Natalie Dal Prau

When I relocated to San Diego last year, I knew very little about this town’s rich naval heritage. To gain a better understanding, I headed out with my family to some of the more prominent attractions in our area. Seeing history up close elicits a lot of complicated emotions. While my daughter enjoyed exploring ships and museum displays, my thoughts kept drifting to the countless sailors, researchers, and military personnel who worked hard and sacrificed in these very spaces.

My history lesson was both enlightening and sobering, and I walked away with a new appreciation for the brave men and women that continue to work hard at our naval bases here today.

The Maritime Museum of San Diego is a must-visit for those interested in learning about historic vessels, as well as the navy’s overall influence on our region. Here you can climb aboard the Star of India, the world’s oldest active sailing ship, along with several other vessels; check out countless models and artifacts and even take a naval history boat tour.

USS Midway Museum’s  Iconic Shooter on the Flight Deck | USS Midway Museum
USS Midway Museum’s Iconic Shooter on the Flight Deck | USS Midway Museum
USS Dolphin at the Maritime Museum of San Diego | Mark Albertazzi
USS Dolphin at the Maritime Museum of San Diego | Mark Albertazzi

Climbing down into the USS Dolphin submarine gave me a small taste of what sailors experienced living and working on the vessel. The close living quarters and tiny sleeping spaces are positioned right in the middle of countless buttons and controls that were once operated by naval and civilian researchers. Exploring the ship is a bit claustrophobic, but gives a fascinating glimpse into history.

Side note: If you visit the Dolphin with children, make sure to have them look through the periscope (although adults will appreciate the ship’s stunning view of the San Diego Bay just as much)!

Aboard the USS Dolphin | Mark Albertazzi
Aboard the USS Dolphin | Mark Albertazzi

The Swift Boat Naval History Tour at the museum is popular with both out-of-towners and locals alike. The 75-minute narrated tour gives passengers an overview of San Diego’s military history while cruising under the Coronado Bay Bridge and around Naval Base San Diego, Naval Amphibious Base, and Naval Air Station North Island. Families with high schoolers should consider taking the tour as a supplemental history lesson. Seeing these places in person is remarkable and gives a much better perspective than a textbook ever could.

Former Navy 50 caliber guns displayed at the Liberty Station Park
Former Navy 50 caliber guns displayed at the Liberty Station Park

The USS Midway Museum is another great stop for history buffs. The longest-serving aircraft carrier of the twentieth century now houses thirty restored aircraft and almost ten acres of exhibits and displays. Put yourself (literally!) in the pilot seat in the Air Combat 360 flight simulator, inspect World War II-era aircraft up close, or take a walk below deck, where sailors lived, worked, ate, and socialized. The Battle of Midway theater features a must-watch 15-minute film called Voices of Midway, which explains the events of the battle through the people who lived it. You could easily spend all day at the museum and still feel like there’s more to see, do, and experience.

Many of us have enjoyed the shopping and dining at Liberty Station, but how often do we stop to think about the location’s past? The Point Loma development was once home to San Diego’s Naval Training Center, and architectural artifacts are still present throughout the grounds. I took a virtual walking tour on Liberty Station’s website and was blown away by just how much history has taken place there, particularly during World War II. During the peak of the war, nearly 33,000 men lived at the training center. Sailors prepared for combat in the very spaces where we now leisurely stroll with our families—a fact that should not be taken lightly.

1492 N. Harbor Drive
San Diego

910 N. Harbor Drive
San Diego

2820 Historic Decatur Road
San Diego