Visitors often go to Old Town for shopping - some of the shops carry nice handicrafts. They may also go to have a big platter of tacos and enchiladas washed down with a margarita.
While you're there, try to look past all that at least for a few minutes. Poke around inside the historic buildings, imagining life in early California.
Why Is it "Old"?
Old Town San Diego was the first European settlement in what is now California. In 1769, Catholic priest Father Junipero Serra founded a Spanish mission here. By the 1820s, settlers moved closer to the water into the Gaslamp Quarter, leaving "Old Town" behind.
Old Town San Diego Historic Park
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.
The State Historic Park occupies nine square blocks and preserves many historic structures. Five of them are built of adobe bricks. They include California's first schoolhouse, the state's first newspaper office, a blacksmith shop and a stable. These preserved buildings, each a small museum in itself, give a glimpse of San Diego life from 1821 to 1872.
Shops sell mostly Mexican-style pottery, tinwork 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. They're a good way to learn more about California's early history.
Living History demonstrations of life in the nineteenth century are another fun way to connect with the past.
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, Holiday in the Park brings performance tours and recreations of the holidays in the 1860s.
Old Town San Diego Dining
Old Town area restaurants run toward the touristy side. Servers often wear ruffled Mexican dresses, taking orders while dodging strolling mariachi musicians. Portions are huge, so order conservatively, even if you think you're hungry enough to eat the entire menu.
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. 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 Market
This Old Town Market sits at the edge of the State Historic Park and provides more shopping opportunities. You can tour a reconstructed 1853 adobe house, a restored convent built downtown in 1908 and a new theatre. There's also a museum of archaeological artifacts.
More Old Town San Diego Sights
More historic sights are 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. Exhibits include 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.
Old Town offers a charming, romantic mix of whitewashed mud brick buildings and Spanish tile roofs. The wooden storefronts look like many Old West towns. In many ways, though, it's more a theme-park-style concoction than a slice of real history.
Don't misunderstand that. The state park does a good job of preserving the historic framework. It's the odd complement of manufactured Mexican-ness that seems manufactured. And it 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 cater to casual souvenir shoppers. And you can find much of the merchandise sold here at lower prices elsewhere.
Poll: What do you think of Old Town San Diego?
Details for Visiting Old Town San Diego
San Diego Avenue at Twiggs Street
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park website
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
By automobile, exit I-5 north of downtown at Old Town Avenue and follow the signs. Parking is free.
The San Diego Trolley (the train-style trolley that also goes to Tijuana) stops in Old Town. So does Old Town San Diego Trolley Tours (a motorized coach). 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.