There is no other place like it: a historic landmark turned into a rich and rewarding experience for the whole family — and in a city blessed with great all-year-round weather. Liberty Station was built 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 repurposed. From its inception in 1923 and before it closed in 1998, the NTC turned two million recruits into naval servicemen who went on to serve their country.
1. The History: NTC Park, USS Recruit, And Gate One
One of the naval servicemen who were trained here was my cousin, an electrician who worked on many “classified” nuclear submarines. All those ships are memorialized in two rows of black blocks lining each side of the Naval Training Center Park bordering Liberty Station. Large naval guns line the front. The NTC Park is now a place for family sports, walks, and just watching the underbellies of planes as they take off from the nearby San Diego International Airport.
The ship through which the naval servicemen all underwent rigorous training is fondly called Recruit, the ship that never sailed. It stands as a proud memorial near NTC Park. At the northern end of Liberty Station is Gate One, the only gate left open past curfew then, and now a non-pedestrian entry. Attached to its two sides are former prison cells. As you enter the gate, you will see a large anchor, the mainstay of the Liberty Station logo, outlined by flowering shrubs on an expansive green lawn.
2. Liberty Public Market
The Former Mess Hall
There were — at its peak — 40,000 servicemen who took their meals at what is now the Liberty Public Market. It has been repurposed as a hip dining area with 22 food stalls serving different cuisines. Almost everything is left near its original state. In fact, in the section called Mess Hall, where there are bars providing refreshment options, the murals painted by artists and naval recruits are still on the upper walls. There are also local sellers of crafts, clothes, and jewelry.
3. North, Central, And South Promenade
Former Parade Grounds
The old central buildings are laid out in two rows between which were once parade grounds which have been fittingly landscaped as wide spaces for family events. There are three sections: North, Central, and South. Sidewalks are provided all around the manicured lawns.
The North Promenade has an 88-foot pine tree that dazzles with bright lights for the Christmas season beginning the Friday after Thanksgiving.
The historic white church, where many servicemen were married and their children baptized, stands at the South Promenade. Behind the Dick Laub NTC Command Center is the Central Promenade. There is a reflecting pool, a rose garden with great history, and three outstanding art installations: “Facetime,” “Tesselation,” and “A Dime to Call Home.” Between the Central and South Promenades is a “Greetings” mural for an Instagrammable souvenir photo.
4. The Arts District And Historic Decatur Road
The Arts District on Historic Decatur Road, the main artery of Liberty Station, is home to art galleries, studios, artistic venues, art societies, and museums where families can have fun or stage events. In one building there are three museums: the San Diego Watercolor Society which hosts workshops in 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 this land of promise. And you will love Hugo Crosthwaite’s murals that adorn the covered walk from the Liberty Public Market to Barracks 41. Most buildings have these walks fronting the promenades and varied artist’s chairs provide occasional resting spots.
5. The Lot
Entertainment options include The Lot, formerly the Luce Auditorium, where recruits enjoyed concerts, comedies, and more. It is now six cinemas featuring the latest movies with a bar/lounge in front.
6. Events At Liberty Station
All year round, special events are hosted at Liberty Station. Two popular examples are “Octoberfest” and “Halloween at the Station” during the fall. An annual “Salute the Season” also includes the Holiday Tree Lighting, the 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. An events calendar is kept so you don’t miss anything. Next year, there is a year-long celebration of Liberty Station’s Centennial.
7. Shops At Liberty Station
For me, the ultimate entertainment option is shopping. Since there is a preference for locally owned businesses, the shops make for a very interesting variety. I started at the stalls in the Liberty Public Market and ended at the Sea Hive, a collection of 30-odd retailers. There are 21 other shops, but I spent a lot of time at Pigment.
Pigment is a curated plant and garden store. I had been looking for suitable options for several projects at home in the nurseries of Home Depot or Lowe’s. At 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 like pink, salmon, or yellow. I loved the neon section because I had long been looking for neon plants to brighten my living room. Another section had varieties of hanging cacti for my pergola.
Best Restaurants At Liberty Station
After walking around the promenades and the Arts District, my husband and I had an intimate dinner at the posh Solare on Historic Decatur Road. An excellent charcuterie board accompanied red wines for cocktails, followed by divine swordfish and sea bass entrees. We finished with coffee and chamomile tea, skipping sinful dessert.
The next day we lunched at The Presley, a new restaurant added to the over 50 restaurants, cafes, and food vendors around Liberty Station. I loved the ambiance, especially the romantic almost boho nooks around the spacious gardens outside.
Children will love Mini Donut Place. But it was at Moniker General where my husband lingered. We loved the nook called “Better Together.”
The Stone Brewery
He would have also liked The Stone Brewery, makers of craft beer and the biggest eating place in Liberty Station, but it was closed for renovation. Its brewing stations were visible from large display windows.
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 packing your days with activities, there are other exciting places to explore in Old Town San Diego only 10 minutes away; Downtown San Diego with Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo, Seaport Village, Seaworld, Gas Lamp Quarter, and other landmarks is just 5 minutes more.
Cabrillo National Monument
The same is true for the Cabrillo National Monument on Point Loma, which honors the 16th-century explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, and has the Old Point Loma Lighthouse built in 1854. The two-mile Bayside Trail has spectacular views of San Diego Bay and the Coastal Tidepool Trail leads to the unique ecosystem in Southern California.
Women’s Museum Of California
The Women’s Museum of California, previously part of Liberty Station, is just 15 minutes away. The educational center at the Jacobs Center in Euclid provides interactive workshops on the history of women who pushed for necessary social changes through grassroots activism. I especially loved the delicate pink flowers cascading from the roof line.
And at just 5 minutes more, La Jolla — including the Cove, Scripps Park, and the Children’s Pool — covers the coastline on a steep grade from the restaurants and shops of downtown. Part of the La Jolla Underwater Park and Ecological Reserve, there is ample wildlife, including the popular seal colony. Activities include snorkeling, open-water swimming, scuba diving, kayaking, paddle boarding, biking, and coastal walks.
And just when we thought we’d seen everything, a Glider Port In Torrey Pines caught our fancy. Liberty Station is just such a great place for a rich and rewarding family experience.
Best Hotels Near Liberty Station
We stayed at the comfortable Town and Place Suites by Marriott at the extension area of Liberty Station, surprisingly quiet despite being beside the San Diego International Airport. It was also right across 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 at Liberty Station.