Hidden San Diego: The City's Most Obscure Places to Visit

Balboa Park in San Diego

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San Diego has a lot of unique and interesting hidden places that might be unknown to the population at large, but are well worth discovering. Are there really munchkin houses? What happened to that sculpture that looked like a turd? What neighborhoods are connected by footbridges? Is there really a bridge that plays music? Discover some of the best of San Diego's less visited but nonetheless interesting and beautiful sites right here.

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    Heritage Park Victorian Village

    Victorian Houses in Old Town's Heritage Park
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    Millions of visitors make their way annually into Old Town State Historic Park to take in the sights and play tourist, but not all of them make it beyond the food and margaritas of Old Town. But you should because there is a unique and scenic park just steps away from busy San Diego Ave. in Old Town: Heritage Park Victorian Village. Situated on a hillside just off Juan St., Heritage Park takes you back to a more prim era of San Diego with stately old Victorian homes you can tour and even a teahouse.

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    The Footbridges of Banker's Hill and Hillcrest

    Wood cabled bridge over canyon.
    Barry Winiker/Getty Images

    San Diego isn't inherently a walking city. Suburban sprawl aside, even in the city's urban neighborhoods, getting from one area to another in a straight line is often stymied by the fact that San Diego's topography consists of canyons that cut off one street from another. In the old days, one solution was to bridge neighborhoods together — literally — by footbridges. Unless specifically seeking them out, you would likely only come across these footbridges if you actually live in the neighborhood, and the old footbridges of Hillcrest and Banker's Hill give these neighborhoods a unique and special character.

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    Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden

    Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden
    Mike Souza/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

    You've probably seen Nikki de Saint Phalle's public work, which has often been on display in San Diego, with two of her pieces located in front of the Mingei Museum. Her whimsical sculptures often represent animal/human characteristics with bright colors and mosaic or mirror tiles. It may come as a surprise even to art lovers that Escondido's Kit Carson Park is where you'll find Nikki de Saint Phalle's only American sculpture garden and her last major international project (she died in 2002). It's called Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden, inspired by California's mythic, historic, and cultural roots.

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    The Legend of the Munchkin Homes

    If you've lived in San Diego long enough, you've likely heard rumors of the munchkin homes, which were houses built very low to the ground. They got the nickname because the little people who played the munchkins in the Wizard of Oz movie were rumored to be staying in these houses when filming the movie in La Jolla. It is said to be just a rumor, though, and that the architect of the houses simply liked the low roofed style. You can see the one remaining house for yourself on Hillside Drive.

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    Coronado Beach Sand Dunes

    Sand dunes at Coronado Beach in San Diego
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    For the whole beach experience and setting, it's hard to beat Coronado, and one thing that stands out about Coronado Beach is the sand dunes that front the central beach area just north of the Hotel Del Coronado. The dunes are quite high, topped with ice plant (or ​pickleweed as some call it), and form a maze-like barrier to the wide, sandy beach.

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    Old Mission Dam

    Close-up of the Old Mission Dam in San Diego
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    If you grew up in San Diego, you likely studied the chain of California Missions, and in particular, Mission San Diego de Alcala. The mission is the birthplace of California and its Spanish roots, and it is the link to the past. But there is a hidden part of the mission that played an important part in the establishment of the mission settlement: the Old Mission Dam.

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    Free Tuesdays in Balboa Park

    Balboa Park Botanical Building in San Diego
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    Balboa Park is San Diego's gorgeous urban park that also is home to over a dozen museums. If you live in San Diego and never stepped foot in any of Balboa Park's wonderful museums and art galleries, well, you have no excuse not to because you can actually visit there for free. That's right. Every Tuesday, most of the museums within Balboa Park offer free entrance as a public service to residents of San Diego.

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    The 25th Street Musical Bridge

    You'll find the 25th Street Musical Bridge spanning the Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway (State Route 94) and linking the neighborhoods of Golden Hill to the north and Sherman Heights to the south. As its name suggests, the bridge has a unique quality: it plays music. The bridge is considered a public work of art and thanks to the chimes which can be rustled on the sides of the bridge you can treat yourself to an artful melody as you walk across it.

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  • 09 of 12

    Harper's Topiary Garden in Mission Hills

    Harper's Topiary Garden in Mission Hills
    F. D. Richards/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

    There's a fascinating topiary garden tucked away in a San Diego neighborhood. Known as Harper's Topiary Garden, this labor of love is the work of Mission Hills residents, Edna and Alex Harper. Sure, many private yards might have a bush or two shaped into a topiary, but the Harpers' garden is more than that: over 50 creatures and shapes populating their hillside garden, and the public are welcome to walk by and enjoy.

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    The Bear Sculpture at UCSD

    Bear sculpture on the campus of UC San Diego
    Leandro Neumann Ciuffo/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    It's hard to imagine that something 24 feet high and weighing 180 tons could qualify as hidden in San Diego, but this one does. The Bear sculpture by Tim Hawkinson is known to UCSD students, faculty, and staff who frequent the Academic Courtyard between the engineering and telecommunications buildings on campus, but many others in San Diego are unaware of this unique and cuddly piece of art. The sculpture is part of UCSD's Stuart Collection.

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    The Scripps Turd Sculpture

    Public art is always subject to debate and in San Diego, the preference occasionally runs on the less-than-sophisticated side. Statues of dolphins and fishermen will barely cause a ripple but anything remotely abstract will elicit cries of outrage. But there was one sculpture that, more than outrage, caused befuddlement along with a high-level of embarrassed chuckles, the Scripps Turd Sculpture, which is exactly as it sounds and makes for an amusing photo op.

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    Galleta Meadows Estate Sculptures

    Galleta Meadows Estate Sculptures
    Sam Howzit/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

    Somewhere in the harsh, sparse desert of Borrego Springs roam massive mammoths, serpent, saber tooth, Gomphotherium, camel, birds, and sloths. Really. And it's not some Hollywood movie set. In fact, it's one of the most awe-inspiring sculpture displays you may have never heard about. Dennis Avery, land owner of Galleta Meadows Estates in Borrego Springs envisioned the idea of adding free-standing art to his property with original steel welded sculptures created by artist/welder Ricardo Breceda, who is based in Perris, California.

Updated by Gina Tarnacki