Old Town is a neighborhood of San Diego, California. It is the oldest settled area in San Diego and is the site of the first European settlement in present-day California. The birthplace of San Diego, Old Town is a popular tourist district of historic buildings and Mexican-themed shops and restaurants. It contains Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and Presidio Park, both of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Old Town neighborhood has 10 hotels, 32 restaurants and more than 100 specialty shops. There are 12 art galleries and 27 historic buildings and sites, including Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, Presidio Park, and the Mormon Battalion Visitor Center. The area also contains Heritage Park, a county park showcasing historic buildings which were moved to the site from other locations, including several Victorian homes and San Diego’s first synagogue, Temple Beth Israel.
Old Town San Diego is the historic heart of San Diego. Created in 1769, Old Town San Diego was California’s first settlement with only a mission and a fort. It contains 230 acres (93 ha) and is bounded by Interstate 8 on the north, Interstate 5 on the west, Mission Hills on the east and Bankers Hill on the south. Sitting at the foot of Mission Valley, a major commercial center lining the San Diego River, home to several shopping centers, Qualcomm Stadium, and the Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the oldest of the California missions.
Old Town is conveniently located within walking distance of a major transit center, with the trolley, bus, trains and taxis available on site. There is also plenty of free parking throughout Old Town. Old Town has over 30 restaurants, most with great outdoor dining, and a quaint atmosphere plus there are more than 75 unique places to shop. This historic area is situated next to the State Park with 32 historic sites and shops.
Wander through lush gardens or browse at one of the many specialty shops for treasures from around the world. Indulge in authentic Mexican food at one of the many restaurants or dance to the strolling mariachis. Pause to reflect at the fountains at Fiesta de Reyes and in the Bazaar del Mundo and plan a day or two to visit the dozens of historic sites. Take a tour of a haunted building and many museums. Year round, Old Town is the place for food, folklore, and fun. Visit Old Town, celebrate San Diego’s heritage, and bask in early California ambiance.
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is in the center of Old Town. Here you can experience life from the early Mexican-American period of 1821-1872 through rich living history programs. Watch forms come to life at the blacksmith and woodworker shops, and read a newspaper from the 19th century. Witness the living legacy of California’s birthplace in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Its many preserved historic buildings and museums commemorate the early days of the town of San Diego from the period 1820 to 1870, allowing you to visit California’s history firsthand.
The Old Town San Diego Guide magazine is available at most hotels and visitor centers. It provides information about Old Town attractions, restaurants, shopping and the 10 hotels located in and over 30 more close to Old Town. The guide includes a fun map with a list of historic sites, reconstructed buildings, museums and more.
Before European contact, the Kumeyaay established the village of Cosoy (Kosa’aay) in the Kumeyaay language).The San Diego Presidio and Mission San Diego de Alcalá were founded in 1769 by Gaspar de Portolá and Junípero Serra on a bluff at the western end of the San Diego River valley adjacent to the village of Cosoy after the villagers had provided resources to the Portolá expedition. The Presidio and Mission constituted the first Spanish settlement in Alta California, the present day state of California.
In the 1820s the town of San Diego grew up at the base of the bluff, at the site commemorated by Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, while the Presidio fell into disrepair. In 1834 the Mexican government granted San Diego the status of a pueblo, or chartered town. However, the population of the town declined so much that in 1838 its pueblo status was revoked. One problem was the town’s location far from navigable water. All imports and exports had to be brought ashore in Point Loma and carried several miles over the La Playa Trail to the town.
The Old Town area remained the heart of the city of San Diego until the 1860s, when a newcomer to San Diego named Alonzo Horton began to promote development at the site of present-day Downtown San Diego. Residents and businesses quickly abandoned “Old Town” for Horton’s “New Town” because of New Town’s proximity to shipping. In 1871, government records were moved from Old Town to a new county courthouse in New Town, and Downtown permanently eclipsed Old Town as the focal point of San Diego.
In the 1910s, Old Town became one of the many San Diego neighborhoods connected by the Class 1 streetcars and an extensive San Diego public transit system that was spurred by the Panama-California Exposition of 1915 and built by John D. Spreckels. These streetcars became a fixture of this neighborhood until their retirement in 1939.
The Old Town San Diego State Historic Park maintains a collection of 19th-century homes and businesses that provide a glimpse into colonial life in San Diego. There are several types of tours to choose from. With a town as rich in culture as Old Town you could easily take more than one of these tours and gain multiple perspectives.
Within Old Town there are three Parks, all of which have historic sites operated as museums. Located at the northern end of Old Town, Old Town San Diego State Historic Park all of its museums are free to the public. The state park spans the decades from Californio rule to the Mexican Period and finally to the American Period.
See the 1825 Casa de Estudillo, one of the finest adobe haciendas in the state; view a rare original stagecoach at the Wells Fargo Museum; see a scale model of nineteenth century Old Town at the reconstructed Robinson-Rose House, one-time Lodge of the Freemasons and home of San Diego’s first newspaper The San Diego Herald; the Black Hawk Livery & Blacksmith; the San Diego Union newspaper building; and the first public schoolhouse in San Diego, the Mason Street School.
Seek out the old adobe ranch homes, schoolhouse and graveyard spread among the occupied areas of the neighborhood. Kit Carson was among the first pioneers to raise the American flag here in 1846. There are also numerous rumors of ghost sightings in the area—most persistently at the old Whaley House Museum on San Diego Avenue.
The Whaley House Museum is one of only two officially designated haunted houses in California. Constructed in 1856 on a former gallows’ site, the house was once home to the Whaley family as well as San Diego’s first theater and county courthouse.
Constructed in 1825, Casa de Estudillo unveils the lifestyle of a prominent San Diego family. Standing as the most famous of the original adobe buildings in Old Town, it’s furnished with representative items from the 16th to 20th centuries within its 13 rooms.
The Junípero Serra Museum in Old Town’s Presidio Park is one of the most familiar landmarks in San Diego, recognized as the site where California began. Neighboring Heritage Park showcases San Diego’s Victorian era with six restored houses from the 1800s and the city’s first synagogue.
The Mormon Battalion Visitors Center, a state of the art attraction complete with video tour, hands on computer information where you can also pan for gold. There are many more historic museums at the center of Old Town: the Whaley House Museum is believed by many to be the most haunted house in America in addition to housing the former county courthouse and San Diego’s first commercial theater;
The Old Adobe Chapel, San Diego’s former parochial church and setting for the famous wedding of “Ramona,” is now a city-owned museum; the Church of the Immaculate Conception was formally dedicated in 1919; El Campo Santo Cemetery is the final resting place of nearly 500 nineteenth century residents including the Indian leader Antonio Garra and the notorious boat thief Yankee Jim Robinson; and you won’t want to miss the Sheriff’s Museum.
Mission San Diego de Alcalá
Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá was the first Franciscan mission in The Californias, a province of New Spain. Located in present-day San Diego, California, it was founded on July 16, 1769, by Spanish friar Junípero Serra in an area long inhabited by the Kumeyaay people. The mission and the surrounding area were named for the Catholic saint Didacus of Alcalá, a Spaniard more commonly known as San Diego.
The first of the Spanish California missions, founded in 1769 by Junipero Serra for the purposes of converting the native peoples who lived in the area at the time. In its long history, the mission has been the site of the first Christian burial and the first execution in California, saw bloodshed between the Spanish settlers and native peoples, and served as an armory in the years following U.S. annexation of California before being restored to an active church in 1941. Today, Mission San Diego is an active Catholic parish and a museum dedicated to the history of the mission.
Presidio Park is a city historic park in San Diego, California. It is the site where the San Diego Presidio and the San Diego Mission, the first European settlements in what is now the Western United States, were founded in 1769. Perched on the hill above Old Town, this large park is the site of the old presidio (fort) that once protected the Spanish settlement of San Diego. The park contains canyons, tall trees, flowering plants, and grassy hillsides as well several memorials and historic landmarks, including the Junipero Serra Museum and the partially excavated presidio. The grassy lawns and hilltop views make it a great place to bring a picnic.
In 1907 George Marston, a wealthy department store owner and civic leader, bought Presidio Hill with the aim of preserving the historic site. Unable to attract city funding, Marston built a private park (planned by architect John Nolan) including the Serra Museum (designed by architect William Templeton Johnson) in 1925. Marston donated the park to the city in 1929. The park encompasses about 40 acres (16 ha) and has views of the city, the San Diego River valley, and the Pacific Ocean. The grounds are open for picnics and play. The facilities can be used for weddings and other special events. The spot in the park where Junípero Serra planted a palm tree when he first arrived in 1769 was declared a California Historical Landmark.
The Whaley House is an 1857 Greek Revival style residence, a California Historical Landmark, and museum located in Old Town, San Diego, California. The oldest brick building in San Diego is known as the most famous haunted house in town. During the Halloween season there’s a special night tours.
Built in 1856, the north room of the museum served as the County Courthouse in 1869. The structure includes period furnishings and other antique displays. The Whaley House was the home of Thomas Whaley and his family. At various times it also housed Whaley’s general store, San Diego’s second county courthouse, and the first commercial theater in San Diego. The house has “witnessed more history than any other building in the city”.
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, located in the Old Town neighborhood of San Diego, California, is a state protected historical park in San Diego. A historic district which encompasses most of Old Town and many of the area’s original Spanish structures from when the settlement was founded in the 18th century. The park is around nine square blocks, or almost 30 acres.
It commemorates the early days of the City of San Diego and includes many historic buildings from the period 1820 to 1870. The park was established in 1968. In 1969, the site was registered as California Historical Landmark #830. Then on September 3, 1971, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places as Old Town San Diego Historic District. In 2005 and 2006, California State Parks listed Old Town San Diego as the most visited state park in California.
Five original adobe buildings are part of the complex, which includes shops, restaurants and museums. Other historic buildings include a schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop, San Diego’s first newspaper office, a cigar and pipe store, houses and gardens, and a stable with a carriage collection. There are also stores, with local artisans demonstrating their craft.
Robinson-Rose House Visitor Center – To begin touring, the best place to start is the visitor’s center, which includes a model of what the area looked like in 1872, maps, information about touring, and information about the area’s history.
Altamirano-Pedrorena House – Built in 1869, as a family residence, but is now the site of a rock, gem, and jewelry shop
Black Hawk Smithy & Stable – Established in 1860. At the site, visitors can watch blacksmithing and other demonstrations
Casa de Estudillo – A beautiful historic adobe house that has been lovingly restored to its original appearance.
Light-Freeman House – Built in 1830, the house was an adobe saloon and provision stores until it became the American Hotel around 1856.
Mason Street Schoolhouse – Established around 1865, this was the first public school house in San Diego. The school offers daily tours, and visitors can sit at the desk and examine the books on display.
San Diego Courthouse – The original courthouse, which dates back to 1847.
San Diego Union Museum – The first office of the San Diego Union newspaper.
Seeley Stable Museum – A reconstructed stage coach stop with a collection of vintage carriages inside.
Known for its authentic Mexican cuisine, Old Town’s dining is lively and vibrant. For traditional flavors and techniques in an upscale atmosphere, head to El Agave. This second-floor hacienda-style hideaway boasts a mind-blowing tequila collection and a menu specializing in upscale dishes that celebrate indigenous Mexican ingredients. Café Coyote enchants with its festive décor, massive margaritas, strolling mariachis and open-air atmosphere.
You’ll also find authentic fare at Old Town Mexican Cafe y Cantina or any of the other local cantinas. Taste the expansive world of mezcals paired with Oaxacan bites at Tahona Bar. Explore even more of Tahona with reservations at Oculto 477, a neo-speakeasy bar adjacent to the iconic Campo Santo Cemetery graveyard.
Beyond the excellent Mexican cuisine, Harney Sushi offers creative Japanese dishes and sushi roll concoctions, such as the “Mike Check” roll featuring lobster, cilantro, garlic ponzu and wonton chips, as well as expertly prepared traditional nigiri.
Shopping in Old Town State Historic Park reflects the history of the 1800s and captures the essence of San Diego’s colorful past. A diverse selection of stores can be found in Old Town like Cousin’s Candy for fresh homemade taffy, Toby’s Candle Shop where you can make your own candles and the Johnson House specializing in millinery. Old Town Market Place, an open-air courtyard, is home to a variety of carts and shops that sell handcrafted trinkets, clothing and accessories traditional to the Mexican culture.
Nestled in the heart of Old Town State Historic Park, Bazaar del Mundo, a San Diego shopping and dining institution, is popular for food, folklore and fun. Translated as “marketplace of the world,” Bazaar del Mundo features award-winning restaurants and international shops with a dazzling array of ethnic clothing, jewelry, pottery, furnishings and many other treasures. Countless special events also make Bazaar del Mundo an attraction year-round.
In addition to the history and the attraction of three unique parks that make up Old Town there are many festivals and art shows that are held in the streets and parks. Live mariachi performers can be seen every day in old town as well as seasonal and special event shows throughout the year. View the events for the Fiesta de Reyes stage in Old Town State Park for when the Ballet Folklórico dancers perform, a wonderful spectacle of Mexican heritage that’s not to be missed.
The free annual Fiesta Old Town Cinco de Mayo is a three days with its bustling mercado, non-stop music and live entertainment, lucha libre wrestling, and a huge display of lowriders and other incredible autos.
The Historic Old Town 4th of July celebration combines a parade, crafts and activities of early San Diego to recreate an old-fashioned Independence Day celebrated on the frontier. Visitors can also compete in contests, such as cherry pit spitting or the egg toss, for handmade ribbons.
Old Town San Diego’s Día de los Muertos celebrates of the history, culture, and heritage of the region that honors one of its most important holidays. See Old Town State Park decked out for the season during Old Town Las Posadas with entertainment and holiday experiences for the whole family, including the traditional Las Posadas procession, which has been part of Old Town San Diego’s celebration of Christmas for more than 65 years. The day’s festivities wrap up with a campfire and s’mores in the Plaza.