At elementary schools all over California, fourth graders have been making missions from craft supplies for years. My son constructed Mission San Diego Alcala (the first of 21 established in the state) last year, which made our visit all the more exciting and impactful. The city’s first downtown area and the true birthplace of California, San Diego is now famous for its pristine stretches of sandy shore and hip shopping and bar crawls through Pacific Beach. But once upon a time, San Diego was known for the historic sites, cultural lore, and the nearby Mission San Diego de Alcala.
The parks by themselves are enough to draw you into the heart of the city, where the local flora and fauna bloom year round, thanks to the balmy Mediterranean clime. Offering an escape to the botanist at heart or the happy camper, both Balboa Park and Anza Borrego State Park are Trip Advisor don’t-misses - welcome and waiting with a full lineup of bird watching tours, plant sales and workshops. With cruises docking year round, five star restaurants, theme parks, skating, kayaking, shopping, and more, there is something to satisfy the whole family. But on this particular stay-cation, we opted to explore the charm and ambience of Old Town San Diego and bonus! happened to book our stay during the lively, colorful Dia De Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration (Oct 31 - Nov 2). Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday of prayer and remembrance honoring the lives of friends and family members who have passed away. It is believed that the souls of the dead come back to visit their loved ones at this time. Contrary to popular belief, Dia De Muertas is not a sad time, but a time of happiness and celebration of life, which we discovered firsthand.
Best Western Plus Hacienda Hotel Old Town
Finding comfort, charm, and hospitality all in one place aren’t difficult when you’re staying in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Surrounded by colorful courtyards, patios, and gorgeous landscaping, a stay at San Diego’s Best Western Plus Hacienda Old Town proved to the perfect place from which to explore the area. Literally walking distance to entertainment, art galleries, family-friendly restaurants, and a locale adjacent to the historic Old Town Presidio: where California began.
This charming property boasts 200 spacious guest rooms appointed with handcrafted Santa Fe furnishings inspired by the simple elegance of the old Spanish missions which truly lent itself to the historic “theme”of our visit. Each guest accommodation includes a private balcony or shared courtyard with abundant seating areas to soak in the ambiance, access to a heated swimming pool and spa and on-site Old Town Tequila Factory Restaurant and Cantina.
Casa de Reyes Restaurant in Old Town State Historic Park
Everyone needs to eat, but not all meals were created equal. Whether it is breakfast, lunch, or dinner, drinks, or even a brunch you were after, Casa de Reyes is certainly the place to be. Serving up authentic Mexican fare, breakfast is served until noon, and all tortillas are handmade fresh daily. Platters to share, and all the classics ensure that dinner out with friends, coworkers, or family will never be dull. The stage in the middle of the Fiesta de Reyes plaza features free, live entertainment nightly. Every weekend Old Town’s favorite mariachi band and beautiful folklorico dancers make for an unforgettable dining experience.
Among the most popular dishes include the El Gran Fuego burrito stuffed with tender pork marinated in Mexican spices, chorizo, pineapple juice and guajillo pepper, pinto beans, chopped onion, cilantro and fresh habenero peppers. Seasonal specials range from the Agave Chipotle Chicken (a delicious bone-in, oven-baked half chicken rubbed with Mexican spices and topped with a chipotle agave salsa and served with Mexican-style quinoa and black beans) to the Salmon A La Diabla (salmon filet marinated in roasted salsa with chile cascabel).
Mission San Diego de Alcala
Of the 21 missions in California, San Diego de Alcala marks the birthplace of Christianity on the West Coast. Providing an important cultural and significant look at the start of Catholicism, the mission, which was founded in 1769 serves as an active community hub, parish church, and grandiose placeholder for the migration of faith from Spain to the United States. The California olive was first cultivated at the Mission in San Diego, and many thousands of children’s appreciation for California history.
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Presenting the best of California culture, San Diego’s Old Town State Historic Park gives visitors the opportunity to experience the history of its early connections to our storied present. Restored buildings from the interpretive period are complemented with early twentieth-century buildings designed in the same mode. Original adobe buildings are part of the park, which remains a favorite place for social gatherings and family-friendly historic activities, like the park’s working blacksmith shop.
Junipero Serra Museum
Operated by the San Diego History Center, the museum dedicated to Father Junipero Serra sits on the site of the very first European settlement: the very first permanent settlement in the state of California. Standing tall today, the site is one of the area’s most popular preferred wedding and event sites, with exhibits that present a time capsule of California’s most distinguished historical record: that of its original people, art, historical documents and more.
After an educational afternoon, we were off for to indulge in the entertainment of Belmont Park, the iconic beachfront amusement center with games, indoor children’s play center and rides including the Giant Dipper (a restored wooden roller coaster originally built in 1925) the Beach Blaster (I took a pass on this one, but I’m told this is one of the park’s most popular rides for adrenaline junkies - easy to see why as the ride swings passengers 60 feet in the air while spinning 120 degrees). Our family went with the decidedly “tamer” attractions - bumper cars, carousel, laser maze, rock climbing wall and zip line.
Developed originally by sugar magnate John Spreckels, Belmont Park opened its gates for the first time on July 4th, 1925. Though its moniker has changed over the years, from the Mission Beach Amusement Center to Belmont, it has always been an historic center for amusement in San Diego. Various cafes dot the park, from rooftops to taco stands, making Belmont Park the perfect spot for a day out in the idyllic San Diego sunshine.
Get Airborne! Family Fun Freefall at iFLY San Diego!
For an adventurous and exciting endeavor, our family decided to give indoor skydiving a try at iFLY San Diego in heart of Mission Valley. I say adventurous because this is as close to the real thing that I’m personally likely to experience (by choice anyway) and exciting because our 10-year-old son in particular could barely contain himself when he learned where we were headed.
iFLY allows flyers from age 3 to 103 to experience free flight in a state-of-the-art 14-foot wind tunnel. After we checked in and watched a brief tutorial, we suited up and awaited our turn while watching an instructor spin, flip and perform fancy trips flying around inside the tunnel (suffice to say it’s a skill attempted only after multiple visits and ample training).
Flying in tunnels like this is part of a fast-growing sport called bodyflight. As a mom, I was pleased to learn that an instructor would be by my son’s side the entire time, making sure he understood what he needed to do in order to fly on his own. Then for the last portion of the (approximately) two minute flight, the instructor amped up the fun quotient by holding my son’s hands and spinning them both up toward the top of the tunnel.
So how much fun was the flight? We hadn’t even made it out of the building when our son asked if he and a friend could celebrate his 11th birthday at iFLY San Diego. I’d say that’s a resounding endorsement.
iFLY San Diego is located at 2385 Camino del Rio North in Mission Valley. For information, call (619) 736-3348 or visit www.iFLYworld.com