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The Best of Hidden San Diego

Discover some of the most interesting things you've never known existed here.

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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 they are well worth discovering. Are there really midget houses? What happened to that sculpture that looked like a turd? What neighborhoods are connected by footbridges? Are there giant serpents in the middle of the desert? Is there really a bridge that plays music? Discover some of the best of Hidden San Diego right here.

1. The Legend of the Munchkin Homes

There's nothing like a a good urban legend to fuel the imagination, and San Diego has its own enduring one. It's not an overly known one, it seems, but if you've grown up here or gone to college in town, you've likely hear rumors of "the munchkin houses" or "the midget homes." Munchkin houses? you say? Ah, yes. And I must say, that I've had experience perpetuating this myth among my own friends in years past. Of which I will establish a backstory:

2. The Footbridges of Banker's Hill and Hillcrest

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. You would only come across them if you live in the neighborhood, and the old footbridges of Hillcrest and Banker's Hill give these neighborhoods a unique and special character.

3. The 25th Street Musical Bridge

All too often, public works of art have a polarizing effect - you either love it, hate it, or are indifferent to it. In San Diego, works of public art often become controversial - mostly because many proposed works which could elevate the city's desire to project a sophisticated image clashes with the reality that we're still a provincial and unsophisticated city at heart. So, we're often left with little works of art to discover and admire, rather than grand statements. And that's OK, as long as they're as clever as one you'll find on the 25th Street Bridge spanning the Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway (State Route 94) linking the neighborhoods of Golden Hill to the north and Sherman Heights to the south.

4. The Coronado San Dunes

In my opinion, the beach at Coronado is the best beach in San Diego. Maybe not for surfing, or for cruising the boardwalk (it doesn't really have one). But for the whole beach experience and setting, nothing beats Coronado - from the drive across the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, to the charm of the city, to the majestic backdrop of the Hotel Del Coronado to the beach, nothing compares in San Diego County. One thing I've always liked about Coronado beach are the sand dunes that front the central beach area just north of the Hotel Del. The dunes are quite high, topped with ice plant (or pickle weed as some call it), and form a maze-like barrier to the wide, sandy beach. Apparently, though, there's more to these dunes.

5. Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden

You've probably seen Nikki de Saint Phalle's public work here in San Diego, especially if you frequent Balboa Park. A few years back, the Mingei Museum hosted several of her whimsical sculptures, which often sort of kind of represent animal/human characteristics, and are painted in bright colors and often utilize mosaic or mirror tiles as well. Two of her pieces stand permanently in front of the Mingei, as well as one in front of the Hall of Champions. But it might be kind of a surprise that Escondido's Kit Carson Park, of all places, is where you'll find the only American sculpture garden and the last major international project by Niki de Saint Phalle (she died in 2002). It's called "Queen Califia's Magical Circle Garden," inspired by California's mythic, historic and cultural roots.

6. The Scripps Turd Sculpture

Public art is always subject to debate and in San Diego, the preference tends to run 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. Public art is always subject to debate and in San Diego, the preference tends to run 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.

7. Heritage Park's Victorian Village

Millions of visitors make their way annually into Old Town State Historic Park to take in the sights and play tourist. But I can imagine very few of those visitors - including a lot of local residents - have any idea that there is a unique and scenic park just steps away from the food and margaritas of Old Town. Heritage Park Victorian Village is located in Old Town, just beyond the main tourist hub of San Diego Avenue, is world's away from the rustic atmosphere of Old Town. Situated on a hillside just off Juan Street, Heritage Park takes you back to a more prim era of San Diego.

8. Old Mission Dam

If you went to school in San Diego while in the fourth grade, you 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.

9. Free Tuesdays in Balboa Park

Believe it or not, there are still things in life that feed the mind and soul and are free. And no, I'm not talking about the beach. I'm talking about Balboa Park, and if you've never stepped foot in any of the Park's wonderful museums and art galleries, well, you ave no excuse not to. Because I'm gonna let you in on a little secret: you can get in for free. Yes, I said FREE. As a public service to San Diego, most of the Park's museums and galleries offer free admission on Tuesdays every month.

10. Harper's Topiary Garden in Mission Hills

Some things just project whimsy, and a topiary is one of those things. Green shrubbery grown and trimmed into animals or shapes always bring fascination and smiles to anyone. Typically, you would see these garden trophies in large public venues like estates or parks or other public gathering places. And there's one 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 Harper's garden is more than that: over 50 creatures and shapes populating her hillside garden. And it's all done for the public's enjoyment.

11. The Bear Sculpture at UCSD

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. In fact, 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 it's doubtful many others in San Diego have any awareness of this unique and "cuddly" piece art. The sculpture is part of UCSD's Stuart Collection.

12. Galleta Meadows Estate Sculptures

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.
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