Split along its length by the San Diego River, Mission Valley lies just east of downtown and around eight miles from the golden California coast. This vibrant neighborhood is a shoppers’ paradise, with some of the city’s biggest malls as well as plenty of lovely parks to stroll and relax in. It’s great for hikers too, with easy access to Tecolote Canyon National Park and the rugged hills and canyons of the Mission Trails Regional Park to the east. Read on to discover our favorite things to do in Mission Valley San Diego.
Immerse Yourself in Mission Valley History
Just east of Interstate 15 lies the Mission San Diego de Alcalá, a beautiful sugar-white church that has stood on this site since the 18th Century, and from which the valley takes its name. Tours of this working church – the oldest building in California – are available Monday through Friday, allowing you a glimpse into its long history. Visit the remains of the friars’ lodgings at the southern end of the compound and pause among vibrant purple bougainvillea, spiny yucca plants and fragrant pine trees to admire the mission’s gleaming white facade, with its Insta-perfect tower containing five bells and topped with a wooden cross.
In the gift shop, pick up a free guide to the church’s artworks then step inside to admire the grand wooden altar as well as paintings and statues that date from the 15th Century to the present day. There are also many museum artifacts relating to the mission’s past, including clothing, tools, pottery and weapons plus photos of local photos of Kumeyaay elders.
At the other end of the valley, Presidio Park allows you to walk in the footsteps of the first European settlers on the site where the Mission San Diego de Alcalá was first established by Junípero Serra and Gaspar de Portolá in 1769. And it’s from Serra that the park’s museum takes its name. Step inside to immerse yourself in San Diego’s heritage, from the indiginous Kumeyaay people through Spanish explorers to Mexican settlers. Then climb the Junípero Serra Museum’s famous tower, from where the sweeping views across the park’s manicured lawns to the Old Town and Pacific beyond are really quite something.
Shopping and Entertainment
If your idea of a good time is shops, shops and more shops, then Mission Valley is likely to be right up your alley. It boasts not one, not two but three mega-malls: Fashion Valley, Westfield Mission Valley and the Hazard Center.
Fashion Valley is a huge – and we mean biggest-in-San-Diego huge – open-air mall that cover some 40 acres. So you might want to make a shoe store your first port of call, in order to slip into something a little more comfortable. Good news: there are plenty to choose from. This is the place for budding fashionistas, where luxury brands including Cartier, Fendi and Louis Vuitton rub shoulders with major department stores like Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s. There are also plenty of cafés and restaurants for punctuating your shopping odyssey with well-earned breaks, and a cinema showing all the latest blockbusters.
Golfers can get in the swing of things at the Riverwalk Golf Club, an 18-hole championship course that’s just a hop and a skip from Fashion Valley. Here, mature oak, palm and eucalyptus trees catch the coastal breezes as players face-off against gently rolling fairways with close to 70 hazardous bunkers. And all against a beautiful backdrop of picturesque wetlands and water features, including three lakes and the San Diego River. Bliss.
Into the Valley
Follow Mission Valley east and you’ll soon reach the ruggedly handsome Mission Trails Regional Park. At over 7,000 acres it’s one of the largest urban parks in the United States, with dozens of excellent walking trails to choose from. The most popular of these takes you 1,593 feet up to the summit of Cowles Mountain where, here at the highest point in San Diego, you can take in dizzying 360-degree panoramas of the city and beyond. And, if you want to get a little more off the beaten track, fear not: there are over 60 miles of trails available throughout the park, meaning it’s not difficult to achieve a sense of near-isolation, with just the colorful wildflowers and maybe the odd hummingbird or rattlesnake for company.
A little north of Mission Valley, Tecolote Canyon National Park also makes for a fine day out. Grab a picnic and take the six-mile Tecolote Canyon Trail, which weaves a fairly flat and unchallenging route through the valley, keeping your eyes peeled for the elusive creatures that lend the canyon their name (tecolote is the Spanish word for owl).
Mission Valley also provides great access to the 4,600 acres of waterways, beaches and islets that make up the huge aquatic playground that is Mission Bay. Explore the shoreline by bike or live a little and get a drenching on the water. There are sports galore to try here, from the high-octane to the positively sedate: go jet skiing and surfing, or cruise elegantly across the bay on a paddleboard. Child-friendly beaches here are also great for sandcastle-building and picnic-eating, though perhaps not at the same time.
Speaking of activities that will keep the kids entertained, Mission Bay also just so happens to be the location of SeaWorld San Diego. Go for the incalculable multitude of sea creatures great and small, and stay for high-energy thrills from the likes of the river-rapid log ride and – if you’re game – the fastest and highest roller coaster in San Diego. Kids will love meeting great beasts of the sea, including loggerhead turtles, killer whales, reef sharks and the elusive Giant Pacific Octopus in the 19 aquariums here, and there are touch pools where you can get up close to some of the ocean’s friendlier critters, such as rays, crabs, cleaner fish and (harmless!) bamboo sharks.