San Francisco & San Diego Live Up to Their Names
California's history is full of "saintly" destinations, thanks to the many missions founded in the state centuries earlier. "San" is Spanish for "saint" and many missions--and eventually cities--would be named for saints. That makes it easy to explore the saintly sides and much more of San Diego and San Francisco.
Saintly San Diego The waterfront city of San Diego is not only California's birthplace, it's also the state's historic soul in many ways. Any visit should start by heading to Cabrillo National Monument on Point Loma, where California was first "discovered" by Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo aboard the San Salvador in 1542. He called the place he landed San Miguel.
The history of San Diego is indelibly linked to San Diego de Alcala (Saint Didacus of Alcala, Spain), for whom the area was renamed in 1602 when Sebastian Vizcaino was mapping the coast and celebrated mass honoring the saint. Didacus had several miracles attributed to him and was canonized in 1588. He was the saint to whom the Franciscan mission was dedicated--which would eventually develop into the modern city of San Diego.
The Mission San Diego de Alcala was originally located in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and was Father Junipero Serra's first California mission. It was founded in 1769 and relocated in 1774 to its present site six miles away in Mission Valley near the San Diego River.
Visitors can make reservations for a tour, attend mass in the original chapel, visit the mission's fascinating museum (and great gift shop), and stroll among the mission grounds--including the oldest known cemetery in California. The active church is a National Historic Landmark.
There are many other missions and "saintly" stops well worth a visit in the San Diego area, including: Mission San Luis Rey (the state's largest mission and also a symbol of early mission history); Assistencia de San Antonio de Pala (better known as Pala Mission and the only California mission still used as a school and place of worship by Native Americans); the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception (the oldest church in San Diego); the Immaculata Parish (at the University of San Diego); Santa Isabela (a sub-mission of Mission San Diego de Alcala); and Mission Trails Regional Park (encompassing almost 5,800 acres of natural landscape still much like it was when Cabrillo landed in 1542).
Much like California's early missions, the San Diego Museum of Man's mission is, "Inspiring human connections by exploring the human experience." Located in bustling Balboa Park--which is often called the "Smithsonian of the West" thanks to the vast number and quality of cultural institutions--the museum accomplishes this through a variety of special and core exhibits. Debuting in 2002, "Footsteps Through Time: Four Million Years of Human Evolution" represents a milestone in the museum's 95-year history.
Located across Balboa Park from the Museum of Man and actually a part of its offerings, Saint Francis Chapel is also well worth a visit. It was built to add a religious note to the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and features an alter with elegant modeled figures of the Virgin and Child--flanked by Saint Francis Xavier and, naturally, San Diego de Alcala.
Founding fathers and modern San Diegans have loved their beer for centuries and it's quite apparent at both Lost Abbey Brewing Company ("Inspired Beer for Sinners and Saints Alike") and Mission Brewery. Both breweries have popular tasting rooms.
Of course, the area that would become San Diego was home to men and women long before missions were even established--or beer brewed. Starting with the descendents of Asians who crossed the Bering Strait and later with Kumeyaay and other Native American tribes, there are now 18 Indian reservations in San Diego County--more than any other county in the nation. This history and culture is easily explored at places like the Barona Cultural Center & Museum and the Cupa Cultural Center.
The Old Town area of San Diego is another living legacy of California's birthplace. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park marks the site of the first Spanish settlement on the west coast and also represent's the city's Spanish heritage from 1821 to 1872, when Mexico gained independence from Spain and took over the area. Casa de Esudillo, Casa de Aguirre Museum, and Plaza del Pasado (including tasty Casa de Reyes restaurant) all provide an introduction to the this fascinating part of San Diego's history.
Presidio Hill is a short hike from Old Town. This is where California's Spanish settlers initially resided before building houses at the bottom of the hill. The Junipero Serra Museum on the Presidio showcases items left behind by its early inhabitants.
Other interesting areas worth exploring include: the Gaslamp Quarter (San Diego's "New Town" from the late-1800s); Coronado (home to famed Hotel del Coronado and great neighborhood walking tours); Julian (the heart of San Diego's mining days); Balboa Park (the cultural core of the city); the famed San Diego Zoo; and, of course, all of San Diego's waterfront, including downtown's fascinating Maritime Museum of San Diego (which will soon feature a full-sized, fully-functional, and accurate replica of Cabrillo's San Salvador).
Saintly San Fran Like San Diego, the history of San Francisco is inevitably linked to the establishment of a mission back in the 1700s. However, earlier inhabitants included Ohlone Native Americans and several famed explorers did pass by the strategic natural harbor, including Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo of San Diego fame and Sir Francis Drake.
The first must-see in saintly San Francisco is most definitely Mission Delores Parish. Originally founded on June 29, 1776 (yes, 1776) as Misión San Francisco de Asis--again, under the direction of Father Junipero Serra (who established a total of 21 missions in the state). It's the oldest building in San Francisco and the oldest intact mission chapel in all of California.
The still-active parish today is made up of the original Old Mission and the Basilica. The mission's cemetery is the final resting place for numerous Native Americans and many California pioneers. The beautiful gardens have been restored to what they would have looked like in the late-1700s.
It's appropriate for a city as diverse as San Francisco that Mission Delores is located in the midst of the Mission District, the Castro District, Lower Haight, Noe Valley, and Upper Market Street. Thus, there's a wide diversity of people who visit and worship at the birthplace of San Francisco.
California's first cathedral is also located in San Francisco. The Old Saint Mary's Cathedral is situated near the city's famed old Chinatown and modern financial district. The historic missionary church was dedicated in at Christmas Midnight Mass in 1854 under newly consecrated 36-year-old Bishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany from Spain.
The design was by architects William Craine and Thomas England, who created the cathedral to resemble a Gothic church from Alemany's Spanish hometown in Vich. It survived the huge 1906 earthquake and was renovated in 1909.
Less than two miles away, Saint Mary's Cathedral plays as modern counterpart to Old Saint Mary's. The contemporary design is befitting of the times and is well worth a visit (as is the gift shop).
Though his namesake Italian town is 6,000-plus miles to the east, Saint Francis of Assisi is also ever present in San Francisco in many ways. For instance, the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi is an urban oasis that includes the shrine and La Porziuncola Nuova (Lady Chapel), a scaled 2008 replica of Saint Francis's Porziuncola in Assisi.
Other interesting stops for Saint Francis fans might include: St. Francis Episcopal Church (look for the St. Francis statue in the pulpit niche); the St. Francis Yacht Club (host to the 2013 America's Cup); St. Francis Fountain (which claims to be the oldest ice cream parlor in the city); and the stunning Westin St. Francis (a grande dame on Union Square).
Though the city is filled with lots of saintliness, San Francisco has hosted its fair share of sinners as well. Many of them were residents at Alcatraz, the famed federal penitentiary from 1934 until 1963.
Still structurally intact, Alcatraz is just 1½ miles from Fisherman's Wharf. It's reached by frequent Alcatraz Cruises ferry service, with self guided tours of the cell house (the award-winning audio tour is excellent), main prison block, library, mess hall, and more. It's certainly an interesting way to end a saintly tour of San Francisco.
For more information on these saintly destinations, visit www.sandiego.org and www.sanfrancisco.travel.
Los Angeles in a Certain Light
Those who don't think the "City of Angels" is historic don't know their history. Long before the glitz and glamour now associated with the sprawling city, early Native Americans and then settlers foresaw an angelic city on a river by the ocean.
Of course, like much of coastal California, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo visited the area (around 1542) and a few other followed over the centuries. Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola then explored the area in 1769 with a plan to open a land route to the port of Monterey to the north. He established the first Spanish settlement in the area and the settlers named the local river Rio de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula ("River of Our Lady Queen of the Angels of Porcuncula).
Then, in 1781, a group of 11 families from Mexico (44 people in total) also settled near the river. Felipe de Neve, then Governor of Spanish California, named the settlement El Pueblo Sobre el Rio de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angelos del Rio de Porciuncula.
Over the years and decades, the name would eventually be shortened to the much more manageable Los Angeles--the City of Angels. The city was officially founded way back in 1781.
Without doubt, the Angels Flight® Railway is one of the most unique "angelic" activities one can do in L.A. or anywhere else on earth. Dubbed "The Shortest Railway in the World" and originally dating back to 1901, the Angels Flight is a funicular ride that runs just 298 feet. Two counter-balanced cars named Olivet and Sinai originally offered rides for just a penny.
It was originally designed to ferry prominent Bunker Hill citizens up and down the steep slope between Hill and Olive streets. It was dismantled in 1969, but revived, refurbished, and relocated a half-block south for its reopening in California Plaza in 1996. A ride on Olivet or Sinai now costs just 50 cents (or 25 cents for holders of Metro Passes) and is a quintessential...and angelic... only-in-L.A. moment.
So is "A Community of Angels," a huge project first conceived in 2000 by the Volunteers of America and the Catholic Big Brothers. Designed to be a large-scale public art exhibition, the project committee asked artist Tony Sheets (son of well-known California artist Millard Sheets) to design an angel's form that would be used as a mold for fabricating finished fiberglass sculptures that would be a simple canvas for chosen artists to then express their own style and creativity.
The result was more than 150 angels painted by emerging and established artists--installed throughout Los Angeles in 2001 and 2002. One specific sculpture, "Angel of Vision," was sponsored by El Arca Foundation and created for LAC+USC Medical Center by Eddie Rodriguez. In the design, he depicted adults and children standing in the heavens as an infant is touched by a being made of light. The sculpture still stands in the main entrance.
A list of all sculptures and their locations can be found at www.publicartinla.com. Many can be found in the 7th and Figueroa area, the Grand Wilshire Hotel (Wilshire and Figueroa), the Los Angeles Central Library (and nearby Bank of America), Pershing Square and environs, California Water Plaza, and the Staples Center.
The Staples Center is the home of NBA's Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers, but those in search of a more angelic experience will want to head to Angel Stadium to see the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Along with the ever present Angels logo featuring--naturally--a halo, visitors to Angels Stadium will find behind-the-scenes stadium tours and an Angels Team Store that's simply halo heaven.
For more information, visit www.discoverlosangeles.com