The big cities of California are among the world’s most dynamic metropolitan areas. From entertainment and dining to tech and design, these urban hubs are global centers for innovation and creativity. But for all of their contemporary allure, San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles also boast unique and colorful histories. And to better appreciate all that they offer today’s traveler, nothing beats a journey into the past.
So let an expert be your guide: On the latest edition of the California Now Podcast, host Soterios Johnson speaks with three local historians who reveal where you can discover the historic secrets of these iconic Golden State cities.
Across the Millenia in San Diego
San Diego’s European history began with the arrival of explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542, an event commemorated at gorgeous Cabrillo National Monument, which overlooks the ocean and San Diego Bay from the tip of Point Loma.
But Bill Lawrence, president and CEO of the San Diego History Center, reminds visitors the city has a far deeper cultural history that extends back at least 12,000 years. “The Kumeyaay people have actually inhabited this place since time immemorial,” says Lawrence. “They continue to occupy the region, and San Diego has more federally recognized tribal nations than any other county in the country. Many of the tribes have amazing cultural centers. One is the Barona Band of Mission Indians whose cultural center tells their story in their own words.”
Above Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, the history center’s Junípero Serra Museum dates to 1929 and was built directly atop the buried ruins of the Presidio, a Spanish military garrison and California’s first permanent European settlement. Built in 1769, the site marked the beginning of San Diego’s long military tradition that has continued into the 21st century. Lawrence strongly recommends a visit to the USS Midway Museum aboard the historic aircraft carrier docked along the bayfront. “It’s one of the five best museums in the entire country,” he says.
History in Los Angeles? Absolutely
Anyone who claims there’s no history in Los Angeles needs to have a chat with Robert Peterson, a third-generation Angeleno and host of the Hidden History of Los Angeles podcast. From the free-roaming peacocks of Arcadia near Pasadena to the 1893 Bradbury Building and movie palaces in downtown’s Broadway Theatre District, L.A. is filled with discoveries. “It’s such an exciting time to dig into L.A. history because there’s just great stuff out there to read and learn about,” he says. “There are also a lot of things that remain undiscovered.”
Among his favorite attractions is Angels Flight, an inclined railway that quite literally connects the city’s past and present. Built in 1901, it climbs from Grand Central Market, the 1917 food hall that has been energized with a host of hip new vendors, to the shimmering glass towers atop Bunker Hill. “You’re surrounded by skyscrapers and then you look down and see the old downtown of Los Angeles.”
For many visitors Southern California means just one thing: Disneyland Resort. But long before he created Disneyland, Walt Disney had his studios in Silver Lake and lived in Los Feliz. Peterson says the merry-go-round in Griffith Park is where Disney came up with the idea for Disneyland. And the Tam O’Shanter, Disney’s go-to restaurant, is still in operation after nearly 100 years. “You can actually sit in Walt’s favorite booth,” says Peterson. “That’s the type of experience you can have in L.A.”
A Walk Into San Francisco’s Past
Everyone loves walking around San Francisco. But many visitors may not realize how easy it is to also travel between different eras of the city’s distinctive history—entirely on foot. Gary Kamiya, author of Spirits of San Francisco: Voyages Through the Unknown City, describes going from the Mexican era, to the Gold Rush, and all the way to Beat Generation of the 1950s on a gentle urban trek of under a mile.
Kamiya says that back in the 1820s when San Francisco was a “little, tiny, sleepy end-of-the-world hamlet” known as Yerba Buena, its main plaza was located at what’s now known as Portsmouth Square. The square was also where the United States flag was first raised in the city, and it retained its importance as the Gold Rush began. “When the Gold Rush hits, there’s this sort of psychedelic explosion of people rushing into San Francisco,” says Kamiya. “Portsmouth Square was the center of that too, lined with gambling dens and saloons, and houses of prostitution. So it became the epicenter of really one of the craziest cities in the history of the world.”
A few blocks away, Kamiya recommends exploring the Jackson Square Historic District. “It’s very compact,” he says. “You can walk it in just 20 minutes or so…You get this incredible collection, the finest collection left in San Francisco of Gold Rush–era buildings. It evokes the Gold Rush more than any other place.”
Though a bit of a leap chronologically, you’ll quickly reach North Beach, the historic heart of San Francisco’s Italian American community and ground zero for the 1950s Beat Generation. Times change. But Kamiya says North Beach classics from the heyday of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg survive, including Caffe Trieste and City Lights Books, founded by the celebrated poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died in 2021.