- Hours: Open daily
- Reservations: Not required
- Cost: No admission charge
- Location: North of downtown near the intersection of I-8 and I-5
- How Long: Allow a few hours
- Best Time to Visit: During the day to tour historic buildings and shop, in the evening for dinner or a ghost tour
- Hotels Nearby
Why Is it "Old"?Old Town San Diego, the first European settlement in what is now California, is often called the state's birthplace. In 1769, Catholic priest Father Junipero Serra founded California's first Spanish mission here. The mission eventually moved further inland and 1820s settlers moved closer to the water into the Gaslamp Quarter, leaving "Old Town" behind.
Today's Old Town San Diego centers on the oldest area of the first settlement. It includes a state historic park and related historic sights outside the park.
Old Town San Diego Historic ParkThe State Historic Park occupies nine square blocks and preserves many historic structures including five built of adobe bricks. Other buildings include California's first schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop, the state's first newspaper office and a stable. These preserved buildings, each a small museum in itself, give a glimpse of San Diego life from 1821 to 1872.
Interspersed between museum buildings, you'll find shops, with emphasis on Mexican-style pottery, tin work and the like. If you just want to stroll and shop, it will be easy, and you can extend your route outside the park and down San Diego Avenue.
Even if you're a history buff, it takes a concerted effort to stay focused on the historical buildings in Old Town San Diego. Free, guided tours of Old Town San Diego that leave the visitor center daily are a good way to learn more about California's early history. A fun way to connect with the past is during the Living History activities held every Wednesday and Saturday, with demonstrations of nineteenth-century activities.
If you enjoy a good ghost story, try evening ghost tours that start in front of Casa de Reyes.
The park celebrates lots of holidays and historic events. Check the schedule at their website. During December, you can enjoy Holiday in the Park, with special activities that may include performance tours and recreations of the holidays in the 1860s.
Old Town San Diego DiningPopular restaurants both inside and outside the state park tend to be touristy, with waitresses costumed in flouncy Mexican dresses dodging strolling mariachi musicians. Portions are huge, so order conservatively, even if you're very hungry.
In the northwest corner of the historic town square, you'll find more restaurants and shops at Fiesta de Reyes. Patio dining here is pleasant any time of day, and the Mexican food never seems to change even though the name of the place does with some regularity.
Bazaar del Mundo, once located here is now at Taylor and Juan Streets.
Old Town San Diego MarketThis Old Town Market sits at the edge of the State Historic Park and provides more shopping opportunities. It includes a reconstructed 1853 adobe house, a restored convent built downtown in 1908 and moved to Old Town San Diego in 1940, and a new theatre. There's also a museum of archaeological artifacts.
More Old Town San Diego SightsMore historic sights can be found in the area, but outside the confines of the state park:
- Whaley House: One of two certified haunted houses in California, just two blocks down San Diego Avenue.
- Junipero Serra Museum: Built on the site of the California's Spanish mission, it honors the Father of the Missions, exhibiting artifacts from the early settlement. Two blocks up Mason Street from Calhoun.
- Mormon Battalion: Tells the story of a 2,000-mile march to aid United States troops during the Mexican-American War. Near the intersection of Juan and Harney.
- Sheriff's Museum: Celebrating the history of law enforcement. On San Diego Street just past Arista, next to the El Campo Cemetery.
- Heritage Park: Seven Victorian-styles homes built between 1887 and 1910, preserved in a park setting. Juan Street at Harney.
ReviewOld Town offers a charming, romantic mix of white-washed adobe (mud brick) buildings and Spanish tile roofs with the kind of wooden storefronts you might see in any Old West town, but in many ways, it's more a theme-park-style concoction than a slice of real history. Don't misunderstand - the state park does a good job of preserving the historic framework, but the odd complement of manufactured Mexican-ness has little to do with what Old California was or what San Diego is.
We rate Old Town San Diego 3 stars out of 5. Its historic buildings are interesting, but otherwise the shops are very touristy and you can find much of the merchandise sold here at lower prices elsewhere.
Poll: What do you think of Old Town San Diego?
- Yuck! Just say no to this flea-bitten tourist trap
- So-So More fun than a night in jail, but you might enjoy a good nap more
- OK Some find it interesting. I didn't
- Good It's not a big deal if you miss it
- Great I really liked it. I think you will, too
- Awesome! It's a must-see sight I recommend to everyone
Getting to Old Town San Diego
San Diego Avenue at Twiggs StreetBy automobile, exit I-5 north of downtown at Old Town Avenue and follow the signs. Parking is free.
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park website
The San Diego Trolley (the train-style trolley that also goes to Tijuana) and Old Town San Diego Trolley Tours (a motorized coach) both stop here. Save time. Order your trolley tour tickets from Viator.com. They guarantee the best price, and you get a print-at-home voucher right away.