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World Travel Guide > Guides > North America > United States of America > California > San Diego

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San Diego History

From a simple Spanish mission, San Diego has grown into a sparkling SoCal city.

There were already around 20,000 people living in the San Diego area when Europeans arrived. It’s thought the first coastal human settlements appeared here as much as 20,000 years ago.

But when explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed ashore in 1542, he wasn’t going to let a few thousand inhabitants stop him from claiming the area for Spain.

Unfortunately for Cabrillo, he didn’t get to enjoy his new conquest, dying four months later in the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara.

Sebastian Vizcaíno arrived 60 years later, naming the area after the Spanish monk San Diego de Alcalá.

In 1769, Father Junipero Serra established the first of several Catholic missions on a grassy knoll beside the Presidio, the Spaniards' fort and settlement.

By the 1820s, the population had risen to over 600, and residents began building homes outside the Presidio in what’s now known as Old Town.

Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821 and San Diego fell under Mexican rule for the next 25 years.

In 1846, the USA declared war on Mexico and California became part of the USA.

San Francisco furniture dealer Alonzo Horton knew an opportunity when he saw one. Snapping up 325 hectares (800 acres) of land for US$265 in 1867, Horton created New San Diego.

The new town boomed, helped by a local gold rush in the 1870s and the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in 1885.

In the 20th century, both world wars brought a large military presence to the city, while a move from agriculture to manufacturing saw the economy flourish.

By 1970, San Diego had become California’s second-largest city, with a population of 700,000.

That figure has since doubled and San Diego today is home to a young, educated and cosmopolitan population.

Did you know?
• In 1906, an 8.25-magnitude earthquake rocked San Diego, killing 700 people.
• Americans flocked across the border to Tijuana during Prohibition to drink and gamble.
The Cat in the Hat author Dr Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel) lived in La Jolla for nearly 40 years.

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Featured Hotels

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Hotel Solamar

A member of the hip Kimpton Hotel group, the 10-storey Hotel Solamar is a modern, stylish hotel in San Diego located in East Village, just one block from the Gaslamp Quarter and Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres. Excellent both for leisure and business, this 4-star hotel is artfully designed with 235 guestrooms characterised by modern, clean sophistication. A fourth-floor patio houses an outdoor splash pool with the poolside Jbar featuring DJ music and cabana seating at night. The hotel's Jsix Restaurant serves Asian-inspired Californian cuisine.

La Valencia

Beauty, elegance, and charm live inside the pink stucco walls of this property, known locally as La V. Stunning views of La Jolla Cove and the ocean act as backdrops in the richly appointed La Sala room (where martinis and tapas are served in the evening) and many of the 100-plus original guest rooms and 15 villas, each boasting a whirlpool tub, king-size bed, and personalised butler service. The hotel's exclusive =Sky Room , with just a dozen or so tables and a small bar, is one of the most elegant restaurants in San Diego. The sidewalk level Whaling Bar is a La Jolla institution where local nabobs mingle over steaks and martinis.

Gaslamp Plaza Suites

The Gaslamp Plaza Suites is a European-style, San Diego hotel built in 1913, with many elements of the original décor intact such as the sculpted Corinthian marble, Australian gumwood carpentry, hand-cut mosaic tiles and bronze and brass embellishments which can be seen throughout the hotel. The location is as central as it could get - in the heart of the Gaslamp District. Complimentary continental breakfast is served daily on the rooftop terrace overlooking the beautiful Downtown area of the city.

Sofia Hotel

One of the oldest hotels in San Diego's Downtown has been transformed into a chic boutique inn with 212 rooms that have the feel of urban studios with efficient Wi-Fi and access to Currant, one of lower downtown's most happening cafes. Some rooms are dark and noisy - ask to see a few before unpacking.

Hard Rock Hotel San Diego

Set smack at the foot of Fifth Avenue, across the street from the San Diego Convention Center at the edge of the Gaslamp Quarter, the 12-story Hard Rock attracts awe-struck sightseers ogling The Rock Shop (collectable Hard Rock gear), Nobu (chef Nobu Matsuhisa's entree into the SoCal dining scene), Maryjane's diner-style coffee shop and the Sweetwater Saloon - a sidewalk bar by day and happening dance club at night. Guests in the 420 rooms and suites are greeted with their choice of music drifting from speakers on the flat screen HDTVs. Red leather chairs and low white couches, swirly patterned rugs and square showerheads in the ceilings set a fun-loving mood, enhanced by Sleep Like a Rock beds.

Tower 23

Named for the lifeguard tower it faces, this ultra-hip Pacific Beach hotel has 44 slick rooms with rain showers, Egyptian cotton bedding, LCD screen TVs and H2O toiletries. Some suites overlook the boardwalk and beach and have private balconies. Wi-Fi is available throughout the property - checking your e-mail from a cafe table by the sand is just about as SoCal techie as you can get. The hotel's JRDN restaurant serves the freshest regional seafood and produce in a casual setting.