Yearlong sunshine, beaches for miles, and more attractions than you can fit in a week’s vacation—it’s no wonder tourists flock to San Diego in droves. In fact, there’s so much to see and do that you can personalize your trip based on your interests. If you’re a current or former member of the military, or simply a military enthusiast, you couldn’t pick a better vacation spot than San Diego, which is home to seven different military bases.
While its military bases are closed to the general public except for special events such as the Miramar Air Show, San Diego’s strong military presence means plenty of military landmarks to visit.
The 7 Best Military Landmarks in San Diego
1. USS Midway Museum
The USS Midway holds the distinction of being our longest-serving aircraft carrier of the 20th century, operating from 1945 to 1992. Today, this decommissioned aircraft-carrier-turned-museum is berthed at Navy Pier along San Diego Bay and sees more than one million visitors annually. With nearly full access to the ship, visitors can explore 60 exhibits on a self-guided audio tour, test out several flight simulators, and view dozens of restored aircraft that you can actually sit inside. Interactive storytelling docents — many of whom are Midway veterans — add informative charm, and the museum hosts about 400 active-duty military events onboard every year, which the public is welcome to observe. The museum is open 10am to 5pm every day. Active duty and reservist personnel receive free admission; retired military receive discounted admission. The Midway is walking distance to most of downtown San Diego as well as areas like Seaport Village so there's plenty to do nearby before or after your tour.
2. San Diego Air & Space Museum
One of Balboa Park’s many museums, the San Diego Air & Space Museum features a large collection of fully restored military aircraft from both World Wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Guided tours focusing on the history of aviation are available, and flight simulators will give you a taste of the freedom of flight. The museum also includes the International Aerospace Hall of Fame, which honors the behind-the-scenes heroes of aviation: the inventors, engineers, industrialists, and early pilots who made modern air travel possible. The museum is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Active military admission is free and (as with the other Balboa Park museusms) SD residents can visit for free on certain Tuesdays -- details here.
3. Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial
High atop Mt. Soledad in the beachfront community of La Jolla, this memorial was originally dedicated to veterans of the Korean War. Today, it includes war veterans from all branches of the military, from the Revolutionary War to today. The memorial features black granite plaques honoring individual veterans surrounding a 43-foot cross that can be seen for miles. The site also boasts gorgeous panoramic views of the ocean, the mountains, and everything in between. The memorial is open daily from 7am to 10pm and admission is free.
4. Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum
Located at MCAS Miramar, the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum is the only Marine Corps Aviation museum in the US. It features 29 restored aircraft from World War II to the present day, plus a museum filled with aviation memorabilia, art, and trophies awarded annually for outstanding achievement in Marine Corps Aviation. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9am to 3:30pm. Admission is free but donations are welcome...and as an added bonus you can pick up a Flying Leatherneck .50 Caliber Bottle Opener at their gift shop.
5. Liberty Station
From 1923 to 1997, the Naval Training Center in Point Loma served as a crucial training facility for Navy recruits. In 2000, the City of San Diego acquired the closed property and redeveloped it into a shopping, arts, and culinary district with several historic landmarks honoring its past. The original Spanish Colonial Revival Style architecture is intact, and the layout still closely resembles a Navy base, down to the parade grounds and chapel. The central grassy area adjacent to the flagpole in front of the old HQ building in particular is a must-see area as it is ringed with stone memorials to Navy ships, submarines, and crews lost in combat.
6. Unconditional Surrender sculpture
If you visit the USS Midway Museum, you can’t miss the iconic 25-foot Unconditional Surrender sculpture right next to it on the waterfront. Replicating the famous photograph of a sailor and nurse embracing in Times Square at the end of World War II, the sculpture is an extremely popular photo spot—on weekends, you might have to wait in line. While you wait, check out the nearby USS San Diego Memorial with a sculpture honoring the crew of the World War II-era light cruiser.
7. Kansas City Barbeque
This famous restaurant across from Seaport Village isn’t an official military landmark, but it’s part of military entertainment history. The bar scenes from the 1986 blockbuster movie Top Gun were shot inside, including the memorable jukebox serenade. The restaurant isn’t afraid to brag, either; dozens of mementos, autographed posters, and photos from the film are proudly displayed throughout.
Visiting the abundance of military sites and landmarks in San Diego is one way to honor the military. Another way is to buy the special military member in your life a gift from Bullets2Bandages. Our .50 Caliber Bottle Openers, Six Shooter Shot Glass sets, and all our other customizable items make great gifts. Buying from us is actually two gifts in one -- we donate 15% of our annual profits to veterans’ charities -- and for our charity partnered products we donate 40% from each sale back to the charity. Browse our selection today!
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Posted by Eric Montgomery
Following his graduation from the US Naval Academy in 2004, Eric served as a Marine Corps infantry officer for 7 years before joining Bullets2Bandages