Old Town San Diego is considered the birthplace of California. In 1769, Father Junipero Serra built the first of 21 missions next to the Presidio — a Spanish fort on a hill overlooking the San Diego River. These missions became the cornerstone of California’s colonization. A community formed when Spanish soldiers began building residences below the hill in the 1820s. Today the area, located in the heart of the city of San Diego, contains historic sites, shopping, restaurants, and attractions within walking distance of each other.
At one end, Old Town State Historic Park is an odd but fun mix of history, modern shopping, and entertainment. Restored and reconstructed buildings house museums, shops, and restaurants, while staff in period costumes recreate San Diego’s past from 1820 to 1870. Entrance to the park is free. Outside the park, along palm tree-lined streets, Old Town Village contains a variety of shops, restaurants, and galleries, many also in restored buildings. As you walk through Old Town, the park and village blend into each other. The entire area retains an “old town” ambiance that feels far removed from the nearby high rises of downtown San Diego.
One can spend a couple of pleasant hours, an entire day, or several days exploring Old Town San Diego.
1. Walk Through History
Walking through Old Town State Historic Park feels like stepping back in time to the early days of San Diego. The more than 20 buildings along the wide pedestrian-only streets of the park create a small village that is easily walked. In the early 1800s, sun-dried adobe brick was the traditional building material. Several original adobes remain.
La Casa de Machado y Stewart has an extensive period garden. La Casa de Machado y Silvas was a restaurant in 1852. A restored original adobe mansion from 1869 now houses the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Other restored buildings include the first brick building built in San Diego in 1847 and a wood frame building from 1865 that was San Diego’s first public school. Reconstructed buildings include a two-story hotel, the home of California’s first sheriff, and a pre-frame house that had been accidentally put together inside out and served as a store, restaurant, and boarding house.
You’ll find more historic buildings in the village outside the state park. The Spanish architecture, stained glass windows, and interior wood beams of the Church of the Immaculate Conception make it a popular photography subject. Heritage County Park on the edge of Old Town contains restored and relocated Victorian homes as well as San Diego’s first synagogue.
2. Watch Period Demonstrations
Every Wednesday and Saturday, staff and volunteers at Old Town State Historic Park demonstrate activities that would have taken place in the 1800s. These living history demonstrations include blacksmithing, carpentry, and games. Activities on display vary from week to week and may include soapmaking, spinning wool, quilting, and weaving. And there may be music. When I visited, mountain men in period costumes sat in a circle beside an old covered wagon and played fiddles, banjos, and guitars. See Old Town San Diego’s history page for more information.
3. Visit Free Museums
Several of the buildings in Old Town State Historic Park house museums. In some, historic furnishings showcase the use of the building in the past and add to your feeling of having stepped back in time. Others contain a collection of historic artifacts and stories. The museums are free and relatively small, making it easy to pop in and out of several during your visit.
Seeley Stables, which was the Yuma/San Diego stage stop in the 1850s, houses a collection of vintage carriers and transportation memorabilia. Colorado House, originally a hotel, houses the Wells Fargo Museum showcasing the history of the stagecoach company. Displays include a historically furnished agent’s office and an 1868 stagecoach. There is an old jail at the back of the San Diego Courthouse. You can view the original print room containing a Washington handpress and the editor’s office in the San Diego Union Building. La Casa de Machado y Silvas recreates the Commercial Restaurant.
La Casa de Estudillo is an original adobe mansion owned by a distinguished family during the Mexican Period. The house is built around a courtyard. Rooms have been furnished in period style to tell the story of the Estudillo family. The grounds include a store (the family rented space to a shopkeeper) and an outdoor adobe brick oven.
You’ll find unique items including artisan wares, souvenirs, art, clothing, colorful Mexican handicrafts, and Indian jewelry in stores through the park and the village. You’ll find fresh homemade taffy, gemstones, minerals, and leather goods in Old Town State Historic Park. At Toby’s Candle and Soap Shop you can make your own candles. Old Town Market is an open-air courtyard offering handcrafted trinkets, clothing, and accessories traditional to the Mexican culture. The cluster of open-air stands and small boutiques in Bazaar del Mundo sells Mexican copperware and hand-crafted tiles among other items.
5. Tour A Haunted House
The brick Whaley House on San Diego Avenue was built in the Greek Revival style in 1857 as a family home for businessman Thomas Whaley. Rumors of ghostly residents have existed since the house was built. Purported ghosts include a drifter and thief who was hanged on the spot five years before the house was built, a young woman, a young girl, and Thomas Whaley and his wife, Anna. The house has operated as a museum since 1960 and interprets the period from 1857 to 1885 when the Thomas Whaley family lived in the house.
There are a couple of other historic buildings on the grounds. The Verna House, an 1870s French Mansard, houses the museum’s gift shop. The 1850 wood-frame and adobe Derby-Pendleton House was a prefab home built in 1850 in New Town San Diego (San Diego’s current downtown area) and moved to Old Town around 1851. It is not open to the public.
6. Experience A Taste Of Mexico
Behind a fountain in Old Town State Historic Park, a gateway with adobe side posts and a timber-beam top leads into a landscaped courtyard. Bright colors, stone pathways, mosaic tile work, sounds of Latin music, and mouth-watering aromas in Fiesta de Reyes evoke a feeling of Mexico. Nineteen independent shops invite you to browse through a variety of specialty items that include olive oil, handcrafted chocolate, jewelry, toys, garden items, art, jerky, and root beer. Soak in the atmosphere with some Mexican food and an oversized margarita on the patio of Casa de Reyes surrounded by lush gardens and with a view of the courtyard stage, where you may hear a mariachi band or see folkloric dancers.
Fiesta de Reyes bills itself as a place “where history lives and the fiesta lives forever.” You’ll certainly want to linger here and soak up that fiesta feeling.
7. Learn About Presidio History
Presidio Park is located just above Old Town State Historic Park. It is the site of the original Spanish presidio and mission. The Junipero Serra Museum in the park explores the earliest history of San Diego and the Presidio in a late 1920s building that was designed to resemble the early California missions. Museum entry is on a donation basis. Presidio Park also contains a number of walking trails in a natural refuge and The Old Historical Trail, a self-guided tour with interpretative signage.
8. Discover The Story Of The Mormon Battalion
The Mormon Battalion Center commemorates the journey of the Mormon Battalion — a group of 500 Latter-Day Saints from Council Bluffs, Iowa, who joined the U.S. Army in 1846 (during the Mexican-American War) and came to San Diego. Entrance to the free, accessible site includes an interactive video tour, viewing of historical artifacts, and demonstrations on gold-panning and brickmaking.
9. Go To The Theater
Each year the Cygnet Theatre group stages six or seven mainstage productions, ranging from classics and world premieres to Broadway-style musicals. The productions take place at Old Town Theatre, a 202-seat theater that opened in 1979.
10. Savor The Flavors
There is no shortage of restaurants in Old Town San Diego. Some have ground-level or second-story patios that allow you to fully soak in the atmosphere of Old Town while dining. Mexican cuisine is dominant, but you can also find other types of fare including Italian, American grill, fresh seafood, burgers, sushi, and even Victorian afternoon tea at the Cosmopolitan Restaurant in Old Town State Historic Park.
Start your visit at the Robinson-Rose House in Old Town State Historic Park. This building is a replica of one that was built in 1853 as a residence and law office. Robinson-Rose House now serves as the park’s visitor center. Inside you’ll find displays and background information about Old Town San Diego. The displays include a collection of ceramics found by archaeologists at the Presidio. Pick up brochures and maps to help guide your exploration of Old Town. You can also find an online map here.
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