Located in the heart of San Diego, Old Town was the first European settlement in California. Today it’s packed with well-preserved history and a charming atmosphere of Spanish and Mexican culture, From the quaint Victorian homes, to the old stables, theatres, blacksmiths and schoolhouses, this is one of the most historic places in the United States.
It’s also one of the most exciting, with tons of fantastic events, mariachi music, traditional dancing, colourful shops and delicious Mexican cuisine spilling out on the streets at every turn. If you’re dreaming of a trip to San Diego, read on to discover all the best things to see and do in Old Town San Diego.
What is there to do in Old Town San Diego?
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
This state-protected historical park is one of the top highlights of Old Town San Diego and one of the most visited state parks in California. Commemorating the first settlement of San Diego, the park stretches over nine blocks and is filled with fascinating structures from 1820 to 1870.
You can see a collection of 19th-century homes and businesses, including the state’s first newspaper office, a stable, blacksmith, and the first schoolhouse in California. Here are some of the top highlights of the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.
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Casa de Estudillo
Image credit: Beyond My Ken / Wikimedia Commons
Make a trip to Casa de Estudillo, a vintage adobe house built in 1825. It’s been beautifully preserved and now showcases the lifestyle of the prominent San Diego family that once lived here. See how people lived over 150 years ago, with 13 rooms, actors dressed in vintage clothing, and lovely gardens to explore.
Wells Fargo History Museum
Stop by the Wells Fargo History Museum in Colorado House where you can see an actual vintage stagecoach. There’s also lots of coins and artefacts from the historic era.
Catch a film at the Cygnet Theatre, famed for its award-winning productions of classic and contemporary plays and musicals. Kick back and get comfortable in the 246-seat theatre at the heart of Old Town San Diego.
Explore the Seeley Stables, once used as a depot for a mail line in the 1800s. It now holds rare artefacts and 19th-century vehicles including a Concord stage, ox-drawn cart, mud wagon and tow-wagon freighter.
Blackhawk Livery Stables
Continue your journey back in time at the Blackhawk Livery Stables, a still working blacksmith shop. Here you can watch woodworking demonstrations and see the carriages and horse-drawn buggies on display.
What time does Old Town San Diego State Historic Park open?
The State Historic Park opens from 10am to 5pm every day from May to September. It opens from 10am to 4:30pm every day between October and April. You can find more information on the current opening hours and more here.
Mission San Diego de Alcalá
Known as the ‘Mother of Missions’, San Diego de Alcalá was the very first mission in California. Built in 1769 by Spanish friar Junipero Serra, it now houses a fantastic cultural centre and active church. We’ll take you on a tour around the grounds and relive the history and traditions of the last 250 years.
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Whaley House is the oldest brick structure in San Diego and one of only two official haunted houses in California. Built in 1857 on a former gallows site and graveyard, it was once the home of the Whaley family. It also once housed the county courthouse and San Diego’s first theatre.
Today this Greek Revival style house is furnished with Whaley family heirlooms and period pieces. Take a walk through this historic house and keep a lookout for strange noises and spooky sightings… you never know what kind of ghosts may be floating around these walls.
Mormon Battalion Historic Site
This site honours the gruelling journey of the Mormon Battalion, the US military’s only religious-based unit. The group of around 500 Mormon saints marched over 2000 miles for service during the Mexican-American War, walking along the Santa Fe Trail to San Diego.
Today, this site is a museum telling the story of the Mormon Battalion with excellent exhibits and a free interactive video tour. There is also fantastic demonstrations on brick making and gold panning.
The 40-acre Presidio Park is one of the most peaceful green spaces in San Diego, with beautiful trails and nature. It’s here you can find the spot where Junipero Serra planted a palm tree when he first arrived in California.
It’s also the site of the original Presidio fort, marked by the Presidio cross made from remnant tiles of the fort. Take a walk through the park for panoramic views over San Diego out to the Pacific Ocean and the river basin.
Junipero Serra Museum
Surrounded by the lush greenery of Presidio Park, the Junipero Serra Museum pays tribute to the founding of San Diego. Built in a Spanish Revival style in 1929, the museum is set on the hill considered the site of California’s birth. You can explore a bunch of fantastic exhibits here, including artefacts from the early settlement.
You can’t miss Heritage Park when you visit Old Town San Diego. Located on Juan Street, you’ll find six beautifully restored Victorian homes from the late 19th century, and Temple Beth Israel, the city’s first synagogue. One of the homes, Senlis Cottage, is open as a historic house museum, and the synagogue is also open for viewing.
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Where to eat and drink in Old Town San Diego
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Old Town San Diego is famed for its vibrant dining scene. We’ll take you on a Food and History Walking Tour to soak up both the history and the Mexican foodie specialities.
Enjoy a tequila tasting and a demonstration of tortilla making, all backed by the melodic tunes of mariachi music. One of our favourite spots is Casa de Fred’s, with fresh Mexican dishes, the best margaritas and a fun atmosphere.
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Shopping in Old Town San Diego
Shopping in Old Town San Diego is an experience in itself, with a diverse range of stores that capture the history of San Diego. You can get some homemade taffy and rainbow candy canes at Cousin’s Candy. Or make your own candles at Toby’s Candle Shop, or shop for hats at the Johnson House. Here are some of the best spots in Old Town San Diego where you can shop ‘til you drop.
Fiesta de Reyes
Located at the southeast end of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, you’ll find dozens of shops and restaurants at Fiesta de Reyes. There’s also plenty of live entertainment including mariachi bands and folklorico dancing happening daily.
Old Town Market
Right across from Fiesta de Reyes, you’ll find the Old Town Market, another popular shopping area. There are around 40 vendors across the open-air courtyard selling everything from Mexican ceramics and blown glass, to traditional clothing and colourful artworks.
Bazaar del Mundo
This lively square is a San Diego shopping and dining institution, with shops and open-air restaurants on all sides. The name means ‘marketplace of the world’, and you’ll discover all kinds of arts, crafts, clothing, pottery and jewellery.
How to get to Old Town San Diego
You can get to Old Town San Diego on the light rail electric train that locals call ‘the trolley’. It’s only a 15-minute ride north of downtown San Diego.
You can visit Old Town San Diego on one of our new Near Not Far Limited Series of trips San Diego, Palm Springs and Orange County Beaches. What is your favourite thing to do in Old Town San Diego? Let us know in the comments below!
Main image credit: Prayitno Photography / Flickr