7 San Diego Hidden Gems

categories: Southern California

San Diego is a top tourist destination and these 7 informal and friendly activities need to be on your radar. Sure, there are many popular tourist spots but these chosen places around San Diego County may surprise you. In fact, you’ll want to return and explore more in the uncrowded and inexpensive attractions. Take in the sunshine and have a wonderful and relaxing time as you visit sites which will become your new favorites.

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Flagship Ferry

Coronado Ferry

San Diego, known for sunny days and a calm bay, offers a fast and scenic way to visit two popular areas. The adventure begins on the Flagship Ferry which is a classic wooden ferry and motors all day from either San Diego’s Broadway Pier or the Convention Center to Coronado Island and back. Sit inside or stand on the outside deck during the quick 15-minute ride. Just $5 one way and the panoramic views of the Coronado Bridge, moored mega yachts, and the Navy fleet are stunning to see. The day I rode from the Convention Center to the Coronado Ferry Landing, serious bike riders brought their bikes onboard, and off they rode once we docked. Both sides of the bay have plenty to discover with shopping, restaurants and walkable areas. Smell the fresh air, hear the waves and forget your worries during the short journey on the bay.

Flagship Ferry to Coronado

Flagship Cruises and Events also offers extensive narrated tours about the bay for one and two hours which includes the history of the waterfront. For those seeking a thrill, the Patriot Jet Boat will take you on a high-speed ride with fast twists and turns on the water. You’ll be glad you put on a plastic poncho when the water sprays high and wide.

Check Flagshipsd.com for ferry schedules. CoronadoVisitorCenter.com and SanDiego.org offer many tips and suggestions for visiting both cities.

Old Town Model Railroad Museum - San Diego

Old Town Model Railroad Depot

2415 San Diego Ave, San Diego, CA.

The Old Town Model Railroad Depot in historic Old Town will keep you fascinated as you watch the model Super Chief and BNSF coal train clacking on the trestles and navigating railroad tracks. Wander around the different miniature displays of villages and landscapes set on waist-high platforms. With 2000 square feet, continuous trains travel around the tracks, through tunnels, and sound off horns. Make it a point to look for the little lake at a campground, a drive-in diner, hospital, jail, and the lively nighttime activities. The O-gauge (Lionel size) trains and villages are changed periodically by dedicated collectors. The adventurous museum is good for any age as all my family can attest to. Take the time to look around and catch all the details, even the tongue-in-cheek signs.

Admission is free and donations are encouraged. Afterward, walk around Old Town for lunch in one of the many festive Mexican restaurants where Mariachi bands stroll among diners sipping frosty margaritas.

OldTownTrains.com lists dates and hours to hear the whistle blowing. Old Town Model Railroad Depot Facebook and Instagram post current trains running and city and landscape scenes.


Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum

Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum

4203 Anderson Ave, San Diego

This historical military museum near Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, San Diego is not to be missed. The Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum shows the history of Marine aviation with vintage aircraft and retired volunteers telling their military stories. The display of A-4 Skyhawks line the field near the entrance and inside the building old uniforms, weapons, and tributes to honored Marines are proudly displayed. On the other side of the building are many different aircraft which served the military throughout the years. Volunteers relish in telling about their years of USMC experiences and assisting visitors by explaining all the displays. Families often visit for the kid’s hands-on activities and the day I toured the museum, a retired Marine aviator explained the types of aircraft on display to me. The museum has the world’s largest collection of vintage Marine aircraft and is the keeper of much of America’s aviation history. Get up close and inspect a military plane, helicopter or fighter jet and imagine what the pilots experienced during combat. Plan your visit for open cockpit days and prepare for the suspenseful ejection seat wearing a helmet and communicating with a pilot. Scheduled open cockpit days can be found by texting FLYUSMC (42828).

FlyingLeathernecks.org lists dates and hours of operation. Admission is free. Follow directions to the museum and be careful to not enter the active Marine base. The big museum sign is at the street entrance and easy to follow.

California Surf Museum

California Surf Museum

312 Pier View Way, Oceanside, Ca

7 San Diego Hidden Gems | Things to do in San Diego for families and people of all ages #san-diego #CALIFORNIA #travel #trip #vacation #families #kids #adults #museumThere’s a little surfer in most of us so checking out the California Surf Museum in Oceanside is so cool! Old surfboards, the history of old-time surfers, and lots of memorabilia are worth browsing in this compact museum. See how surfing has evolved from longboards, shortboards, body surfing, and boogie boarding. Did you know surfing is California’s official sport and has become a 2020 Olympic event? The museum displays all things surf-related and surfer dude docents love to talk with guests. You can find the history of surfboard designs, famous surfers, and how the sport has progressed through the years.

An original box camera that had been used to take pictures while secured on an old board is on display as well as the scientific predictions of wave activity. Young surfing champion Bethany Hamilton who was bitten by a Tiger shark while surfing in Hawaii has her destroyed board on display and her documented story is posted for all to read. The adaptive surf area is inspiring, and the paddle-out memorial wall cherishes loved one’s ocean spirit. The museum attracts people worldwide and you’ll gain a new appreciation for the sport after touring the museum.

Walk a short distance to the Oceanside pier and watch surfers catch a wave and see why it’s the endless sport. The woman I spoke with in the museum had a serious reminder, talk with the lifeguards and find out where the dangerous rip currents are, and look for the flags signaling areas for surfers or swimmers.

SurfMuseum.org lists hours and the inexpensive entrance fees.

Living Coast Discovery Museum

Living Coast Discovery Center

1000 Gunpowder Point Dr, Chula Vista, Ca

Discovering San Diego’s wildlife is exciting for the entire family at this small but comprehensive nature center 10 miles south of downtown San Diego in Chula Vista. The bayfront and marsh wetlands make for a perfect setting to visit the indigenous habitat and protected refuge on 3 acres. And it’s the perfect setting for birdwatching. Nearly all the species are local and besides petting a ray in the water, see a Golden Eagle and Bald Eagle up close. You can watch the turtles, little sharks, and birds being fed and for an extra fee, feed them yourself.

What’s nice about this adventure, is rain or shine, there is plenty to experience regarding outdoor life and plenty to learn about the conservation of the natural environment. The popular turtle lagoon is near the outside entrance and I saw children excited to watch the turtles swim up close and fearless. It will surprise some that in the nearby bay, there are about 150 turtles that navigate the low and high tides.

Take a walk on the designated shoreline trail to see nature up close and views of San Diego’s sweeping bayfront. Various walking tours conducted by guides are held on certain Saturdays for people who can’t wait to see an osprey, snowy egrets, and local flora and fauna. Choose these tours or a different guided tour to learn about wildlife. The website TheLivingCoast.org has all the necessary information including hours and pricing.

The grounds and shuttle to the center are accessible so everyone can enjoy their adventure and it’s the perfect place to bring your lunch.

Heritage Museum burial suit

Heritage of the Americas Museum

12110 Cuyamaca College West Drive West, El Cajon, Ca 619.670.5194

An impressive South Dakota headdress and a jade burial suit are just a few of the many artifacts on display in this east county museum. It’s located 20 miles east of downtown near Cuyamaca Community College in Rancho San Diego and what you’ll see is well worth the drive.

The museum may appear small if you’re used to big city museums but be prepared to be enlightened in each of the four wings. Let’s start with the Archaeology wing. The Olmec pottery mask and hands date from 1200-400 BCE from the Mesoamerica region. No ordinary pottery, it symbolized the mind and creativity in the regions of Central America and Southern Mexico. You’ll see a hanging mirror which is an Aztec Obsidian Mirror. The mirrors were often cut into discs and polished by the Aztecs for different political and religious meanings. A person wearing the disc would represent leadership.

Local Kumeyaay indigenous people who were living in San Diego County (among other regions in the Southwest before the Spanish invaders), used pottery for cooking. An old picture shows a woman with the pottery vessels and the durable clay pots on display are made in variegated colors of light blues and grey which are timeless.

Wait until you see the art wing with hand-painted portraits and remarkable western artworks. But somewhat hidden, is a long display case with a jade burial suit. 2000 years ago, in China, burial suits were meant to give everlasting life. This suit was not intact when discovered but carefully pieced back together. The suit covers the entire body including the head, hands, and feet and I found it fascinating.

The anthropology wing is lively and dramatic with its Native American artifacts. The large Sioux headdress from South Dakota is very impressive. Frames holding bone and beaded necklaces, trade bead necklaces, and Chippewa beaded bags are colorful and detailed hand works. Spirit-filled Kachina dolls from the Pueblo community were meant to look like the masked dancers who performed during ceremonies. The carved and colorful dolls were given as gifts to children to instill the symbolic traditions of ceremonial dances.

Meteorites are found in the Natural History section and an ammonite from the Sahara Sea in Morocco is intact. For those who like insects, old ones are described in sealed cases including a prehistoric bee. Look for the fossils and natural items which roamed the earth thousands of years ago. Tourmaline minerals from San Diego County are also on display.

Roaming around the museum, director Brittany Gardner told me each item has a story and represents our past. Very true and fascinating.

www.heritageoftheamericasmuseum.com has information about opening hours and entrance fees.

Museum of Making Music

Museum of Making Music

5790 Armanda Dr, Carlsbad, Ca 760.438.5996

Tap your toes and sing a melody in the Museum of Making Music highlighting something for everyone (even if you’re not musically inclined). If you played a musical instrument in the high school band, chances are you can find a similar one on display in this Carlsbad museum. The museum located in North San Diego County offers hands-on experiences for kids and adults with many musical instruments. Who can resist strumming the strings of a guitar and imagining being a rock star? Or tapping on bongo drums like Ricky Ricardo? I saw the excitement in kids as they ventured from pounding the gong to playing the synthesized keyboard. Quite possibly, a future musician is being developed after they have read the sign “play me”.

Encased historical displays showcase the different periods of music throughout the years. Look at the Reed organ which was used in silent movies and how music evolved through good times and struggling times in the US. Waves of immigrants during the late 1800s brought their own songs and instruments and greatly influenced the music scene in America. Press a button and hear popular music from special time periods and notice when electronic technology changed the scene.

The museum’s parent organization is the National Association of Music Merchants, known worldwide as NAMM. The building which houses the museum is the international headquarters for NAMM which serves the multi-billion-dollar music industry in many capacities and oversees the world’s largest trade show near Los Angeles. NAMM generously oversees the museum to spread the word about the various facets of the music industry and how it influences all of us. Concerts are held in the auditorium and music lessons are available for the novice and those who want to pick up an instrument once again.

Activities and music appreciation abound for individuals and families and the website MuseumOfMakingMusic.org has current information to plan your visit. Please note the museum is closing in the fall for renovations.

In these modern times, check the internet for possible discounts and promotions for the museums.

Disclaimer: I was a guest of Living Coast Discovery Center and the Museum of Making Music, as usual, my opinions are my own.</em

7 San Diego Hidden Gems | Things to do in San Diego for families and people of all ages #san-diego #CALIFORNIA #travel #trip #vacation #families #kids #adults #museum

M'Liss Hinshaw

by M'Liss Hinshaw

M'Liss became a freelance travel writer after retiring from county service in San Diego, her home town. When traveling, her husband assists her with photography and together they explore new places and don’t mind revisiting our favorites. She says "travel is a window to the world and we like to open the window for others."

2 Responses to “7 San Diego Hidden Gems”

Maggie Espinosa


Great article! I didn’t know about the Old Town model railroad depot. I’ve only been to the one in Balboa Park. Flying Leatherneck is cool. And I love the heritage museum in East Cty. I did a book signing there. Thanks for sharing all these great tips!

Chris Christensen


I learned something from this post too Maggie.

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