No trip to San Diego is complete without a stop at historic Old Town, known as the “birthplace of California.” Its charming streets are lined with dozens of iconic landmarks, museums, colorful shops and authentic Mexican restaurants—home to the city’s best handmade tortillas and tastiest margaritas.
Living History and Culture
On the hilltop overlooking Old Town is the site where, in 1769, Padre Junípero Serra established Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá. In 1774, Serra’s mission was moved to a location 6 miles east, but a colony of residents remained there, and the area became known as California’s first permanent European settlement. Today, the Junípero Serra Museum (2727 Presidio Drive) stands on that very same hill, overlooking the festive, historic neighborhood now called Old Town San Diego.
Old Town State Historic Park, a pedestrian-only area spanning six blocks, is home to more than a dozen of San Diego’s earliest buildings—some original, others reproductions—including a general store, Wells Fargo Bank, adobe homes and the first office of the San Diego Union, the city’s oldest newspaper. Stop in at Rust General Store for some old-timey candies before checking out Casa de Estudillo, the 1825 home of Spanish aristocrat Don José Antonio de Estudillo. Other historical structures include the recently renovated Cosmopolitan Hotel and Seeley Stable Museum, a reconstruction of the 1850s-era stagecoach stop that now houses a collection of vintage carriages. Park aides lead tours of the sites, leaving from the Old Town Visitors Center in the Robinson Rose building, located on the plaza (619.220.5422).
Adjacent to the plaza, Fiesta de Reyes (2754 Calhoun St.) is filled with restaurants and shops that celebrate Mexican and American history; don’t miss the Urban Seed, which not only has a huge selection of heritage vegetable seeds but also French antiques and elegant home décor pieces.
Up the hill at Harney and Juan streets you’ll find the Mormon Battalion, which tells the story of the church military unit that came west to help with the Mexican-American War, and Heritage Park, the site of seven restored Victorian buildings that were moved to this site from downtown San Diego after World War II to escape demolition due to modern development. The park also houses Southern California’s first synagogue, Temple Beth Israel, built in 1889.
More historical sites line San Diego Avenue, which leads out of Old Town State Park to the south. Construction on the still-active Church of the Immaculate Conception began in 1868 in an effort to replace the existing adobe structure with brick, but was not completed for 50 years. And visit the reportedly haunted Whaley House, built in 1857, if you dare.
Farther up San Diego Avenue, behind an adobe wall, is El Campo Santo, the city’s first cemetery, established in 1850, and the San Diego Sheriff’s Museum and Educational Center (2384 San Diego Ave.), built 100 feet from where San Diego’s original cobblestone jail once stood. It features exhibits displaying weapons and equipment used by the county’s 28 sheriffs over the past 150 years.
The Casa del Rey Moro Museum (2471 Congress St.) is a treasure of African world history, with a focus on the Afro-Spanish, Afro-Mexican and African-American heritage in Old Town and California. Afterward, take in a show at the Old Town Theatre (4040 Twiggs St.), home to the Cygnet Theatre Company.
Old Town’s many shops offer everything from authentic goods to touristy tchotchkes. You can browse the large collection of Mexican folk art atMiranda’s Courtyard (2548 Congress St.), or shop for women and children’s fashions made from eco-friendly cotton and alpaca at Wandering Sage (2415 San Diego Ave.). Next door, Gourmet Café has an array of chocolate truffles and other sweets.
On the back side of the park, Taylor Street is home to Bazaar del Mundo (4133 Taylor St.), a two-story emporium of international folk arts, fashion, jewelry and home décor. Wind down your shopping day at the Café Coyote Esplanade (2461 San Diego Ave.), home to such quaint shops as South American Imports and Old Town Candy Store.