7 Amazing Experiences at San Diego’s Historic Liberty Station

There’s no other place like it: a historic landmark transformed into a rich and rewarding experience for the whole family — and in a city blessed with great weather year-round. Liberty Station was constructed from the buildings and grounds of the Naval Training Center (NTC) in San Diego, California. Of the original 300 buildings, 64 make up the station. all but 10 have been restored and reused. From its inception in 1923 until it closed in 1998, the NTC turned two million recruits into naval servicemen who went on to serve their country.

USS Recruit at Liberty Station in San Diego

The USS Recruit, the ship that never sailed, was used to train recruits.

Photo: Carol Colborn

1. The story: NTC Park, USS RookieAnd Gate One

One of the sailors trained here was my cousin, an electrician who worked on several “classified” nuclear submarines. All of these ships are commemorated in two rows of black squares that cover each side of the Naval Training Center Park that borders Liberty Station. Large naval guns are ahead. NTC Park is now a place for family sports, walks and just watching the undersides of planes as they take off from the nearby San Diego International Airport.

The ship through which all naval officers underwent rigorous training is fondly called Rookie, the ship that never sailed. It stands as a proud monument near NTC Park. At the north end of Liberty Station is Gate One, the only gate left open after curfew back then, and now a pedestrian-free entrance. Former prison cells are attached to its two sides. As you enter the gate, you’ll see a large anchor, the Liberty Station logo prop, outlined by flowering shrubs on an expansive green lawn.

Liberty Public Market, San Diego

Liberty Public Market

Photo: Carol Colborn

2. Liberty Public Market

The former Mess Hall

There were — at its height — 40,000 soldiers who ate their meals in what is now Liberty Public Market. It has been repurposed as a modern dining room with 22 food stalls serving different cuisines. Almost everything has been left close to its original condition. In fact, in the section called the Mess Hall, where there are bars that provide refreshment options, the murals painted by artists and naval recruits are still on the upper walls. There are also local craft, clothing and jewelry vendors.

The Church on the South Promenade at Liberty Station in San Diego

The church on the South Waterfront

Photo: Carol Colborn

3. North, Central and South Waterfront

Former Parade Grounds

The old main buildings are arranged in two rows between which were once parade grounds which have been suitably configured as spacious areas for family events. There are three sections: North, Central and South. Sidewalks are provided around the manicured lawn.

The North Promenade has an 88-foot pine tree that dazzles with bright lights for the Christmas season that begins the Friday after Thanksgiving.

The historic white church, where many soldiers were married and their children baptized, stands on the South Promenade. Behind the Dick Laub NTC Command Center is the main promenade. There is a reflecting pool, a rose garden steeped in history and three outstanding art installations: ‘Facetime’, ‘Tesselation’ and ‘A Dime to Call Home’. Between the central and south walks is a “Greetings” mural for a commemorative Instagram photo.

A covered walkway with art by Hugo Crosthwaite

A covered walkway with art by Hugo Crosthwaite

Photo: Carol Colborn

4. The Arts District And Historic Decatur Road

The Arts District on Historic Decatur Road, Liberty Station’s main thoroughfare, is home to art galleries, studios, art spaces, art clubs and museums where families can enjoy themselves or stage events. There are three museums in one building: the San Diego Watercolor Society which hosts workshops and exhibits of the medium, the New Visions Museum for quilt and textile artists, and the New Americans Museum dedicated to the experiences of people like me, immigrants to it. Promised Land. And you’ll love the Hugo Crosthwaite murals that adorn the covered walk from Liberty Public Market to Barracks 41. Most of the buildings have these front walkways, and the various artists’ chairs provide occasional resting spots.

The Lot, six cinemas with a bar and lounge in front

The Lot, six cinemas with a bar and lounge in front

Photo: Carol Colborn

5. The lot

Entertainment options include The Lot, formerly Luce Auditorium, where recruits enjoyed concerts, comedy and more. It is now six cinemas showing the latest films with a bar/lounge out front.

San Diego Vintage Collection Art and Craft Show at Liberty Station

San Diego Vintage Collection Art and Craft Show at Liberty Station

Photo: Karen Dole/Shutterstock.com

6. Events at Liberty Station

Throughout the year, special events are hosted at Liberty Station. Two popular examples are ‘Octoberfest’ and ‘Halloween at the Station’ during the fall. An annual “Season’s Greeting” also includes the Lighting of the Holiday Tree, Hannukah Menorah Lighting and a Nutcracker Tea Party. Last summer, the Arts District put on an outdoor summer music series. Individual vendors and businesses also sponsor their own events. A calendar of events is maintained so you don’t miss a thing. Next year, there is an annual Liberty Station centennial celebration.

Colorful plants in Pigment.  Liberty Station, San Diego

One of my favorite sections on Pigment

Photo: Carol Colborn

7. Shops at Liberty Station

For me, the ultimate entertainment option is shopping. Since there is a preference for local businesses, the shops create a very interesting variety. I started at the stalls of the Liberty Public Market and ended up at the Sea Hive, a collection of 30 or so retailers. There are 21 other stores, but I spent a lot of time at Pigment.

Colour

Pigment is a curated plant and garden store. I looked for suitable options for many projects around the house in the nurseries at Home Depot or Lowe’s. In this wonderful store, I found many interesting possibilities. There is a beautiful plant with yellow stems (my favorite color; the plant lady said there is also a red variety). The store has separate sections, each focusing on a pigment color such as pink, salmon or yellow. I liked the neon section because I’ve been looking for neon plants to light up my living room for a long time. Another section had varieties of hanging cacti for my pergola.

Solare Restaurant and Lounge.  Liberty Station, San Diego

Solare Restaurant and Lounge

Photo: Carol Colborn

The best restaurants in Liberty Station

Solare

After walking the boardwalks and the Arts District, my husband and I had an intimate dinner at the upscale Solare on Historic Decatur Road. An excellent charcuterie board accompanied red cocktail wines, followed by divine swordfish and sea bass. We finished with coffee and chamomile, skipping the sinful dessert.

Presley

The next day we had lunch at The Presley, a new restaurant added to the over 50 restaurants, cafes and food vendors around Liberty Station. I loved the atmosphere, especially the romantic almost boho corners around the spacious gardens outside.

Moniker General

Kids will love the Mini Donut Place. But it was at the Moniker General where my husband stayed. We really liked the corner called “Better Together”.

The Stone Brewery

He also would have liked The Stone Brewery, craft beer makers and the biggest food place in Liberty Station, but it was closed for renovations. His brewing stations were visible from large display windows.

The entrance to the Women's Museum of California

The entrance to the Women’s Museum of California

Photo: Carol Colborn

Exciting day trips from Liberty Station

The rest of San Diego

There are already many resources for a rich and rewarding family experience at Liberty Station. But if you have more than a weekend, or if you like to fill your days with activities, there are other exciting places to explore in Old Town San Diego, just 10 minutes away. Downtown San Diego with Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo, Seaport Village, Seaworld, Gas Lamp Quarter and other attractions are just 5 minutes away.

Cabrillo National Monument

So is Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma, which honors 16th-century explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and features the Old Point Loma Lighthouse built in 1854. The Bayside Trail is two miles with spectacular views of San Diego Bay and the Coast Tidepool Trail leads to the unique ecosystem in Southern California.

California Women’s Museum

The California Women’s Museum, formerly part of Liberty Station, is just 15 minutes away. The learning center at the Jacobs Center in Euclid provides interactive workshops on the history of women who pushed for needed social change through grassroots activism. I especially liked the delicate pink flowers coming from the roof line.

La Jolla

And in just 5 minutes more, La Jolla – including the Cove, Scripps Park and the Children’s Pool – covers the shoreline within striking distance of downtown restaurants and shops. Part of the La Jolla Underwater Park and Ecological Reserve, there is an abundance of wildlife, including the popular seal colony. Activities include snorkelling, open sea swimming, diving, kayaking, paddle boarding, cycling and coastal walks.

And just when we thought we’d seen it all, a Glider Port at Torrey Pines caught our fancy. Liberty Station is just the place to be for a rich and fulfilling family experience.

The best hotels near Liberty Station

We stayed at the cozy Town and Place Suites by Marriott in the Liberty Station extension, surprisingly quiet despite being next to San Diego International Airport. It was also right across the street from Spanish Landing Park. The Hampton Inn and Suites by Hilton was also there, while The Courtyard by Marriott and Homewood Suites by Hilton are both on Laning Road in Liberty Station.

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