Your Guide to San Diego's Historic Old Town

September 2, 2014

This fun, colorful and historic destination should be on every visitor’s to do list while in San Diego

Mariachi music, California’s first mansion, America’s most haunted house, and enough margaritas and Mexican food to have you saying “Ay caramba!” are all a part of what you’ll experience in Old Town, San Diego.

The Birthplace of California

In 1769, Spanish Missionaries came to San Diego to establish the first of the 21 missions in California. Upon arriving to the area for the first time, they were challenged with a the lack on natural resources in San Diego, and sought out to build the mission and fort near the river on a hilltop overlooking today’s State Historic Park of Old Town. Since then, the original mission has been moved 6 miles east to its current location, but the essence of the early Spanish missionaries, Mexico’s independence from Spain, and the introduction of American capitalists are properly represented in the historic park. To learn more about the history of the area, you might want to join the Tequila, Tacos and Tombstones tour. It is a walking tour that will give you insight to the history including some stories of the unrested souls that continue haunt the town. You will also taste samples of Mexican cuisine at four of the local restaurants.

A Fiesta in Your Mouth!

Old Town is home to over 20 restaurants, many of which serve Mexican cuisine. If you want an authentic restaurant with dishes that are difficult to find in other parts of the country, you must try El Agave: a tequila museum, and an upscale restaurant known for their variety of moles. If you are interested in a more relaxed environment, head over to Café Coyote where you’ll see women making fresh tortillas, and where the margaritas are the size of fish bowls!   Live music is enjoyed in the area of Fiesta de Reyes where the dining patio faces the stage for a relaxing and entertaining experience.
For those of you who love a great deal, and you don’t mind the crowds, Taco Tuesday in Old Town is a great time to take advantage of dollar tacos and drink specials! There will be lines at places like Fred’s Mexican Café, Miguel’s, Café Coyote, and Old Town Mexican Café, so be sure to arrive early to avoid long wait times to be seated at your table.

The State Historic Park

While Old Town is a regular neighborhood in San Diego with shops and restaurants, a large part of the area is a registered state historic park that was designed to represent early-day California. San Diego Ave. turns into the pedestrian park, where you’re automatically transported back into the time when San Diego was barely a small town. The park was established in 1968 and showcases some original adobe buildings in addition to many replicas of some of the most iconic buildings that were built between 1820 and 1870. There are many free museums to check out such as the Casa de Estudillo (California’s first mansion), the Seeley Stable Museum, and the Visitor’s Information Center where you’ll find a diorama of historic San Diego. The buildings all surround a large, grassy plaza where you can relax on picnic tables and watch kids run around. On the weekends, the Seeley Stable Museum offers stagecoach rides around the plaza.

The Historic Park Shops

Within the park, you will also find unique stores that are modeled to make you feel like you living in the 1860s. Everyone who works in the park must wear period attire, and some of the items for sale are common items that may have been found in the stores back then! My favorite shops within the park are Rust General Store and Racine and Laramine Tobacconist, which is partially a museum with many historic hand-carved pipes of all types.

Old Town Hauntings

If you’re in this area at night, beware that the streets of Old Town are said to be haunted! I think it’s fun to take photos of people or landmarks with the flash on to see how many orbs come out in the photos. If you want a better chance of finding ghosts, I would suggest visiting The Whaley House Museum, also known as America’s most haunted house. The Greek Revival home stands tall on San Diego Ave., and if you decide to take a tour inside, you may just hear, smell or see some of the characters that continue to haunt the home. If you want to take your ghost hunting to another level, there are several ghost tours in the area.   The most popular ghost hunting tours are at 9pm and 11pm at night, and they are offered through Old Town’s Most Haunted.

Annual Old Town Events

The annual Mexican celebration of Dia del los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead on Nov. 1st and 2nd, is always celebrated in Old Town. Most of the local business will have beautifully decorated altars that are designed to remember to those who have passed away. You may take a self-guided tour of the altars, get your face painted to look like a skeleton, and march with the procession along San Diego Ave. to the cemetery where people leave flowers and candles for the dead. It’s a fascinating celebration, and very unique to Mexico and this area in San Diego.

Another fun event is Cinco de Mayo, Old Town’s largest event of the year! Streets are closed, and many vendors come out to sell Mexican merchandise. A couple of stages are set up for Latin-style bands and Mexican folklore dance groups. It’s a Mexican celebration not to be missed, but be sure to arrive on the Trolley because parking in Old Town can get really bad.

The Mexican heritage and history in San Diego plays a big part of our culture today. Old Town represents the very beginning of California, and a visit here will give you a better understanding of the relentlessness of our ancestors. San Diego was not an easy place to settle in, but the Mexico Spaniards made it happen, and without them, this area may not have been as easily built up on by the pioneering Americans.

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