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Everything You Need To Know About San Diego’s Old Town

July 13, 2023
San Diego Old Town

At first glance San Diego’s Old Town appears to be a collection of rustic shops and festive restaurants, the perfect place to spend a sunny afternoon. 

And it really is a great destination to enjoy a good meal and purchase a souvenir or two. But this is also the birthplace of California. Scattered throughout Old Town are historic buildings, tiny museums, and even a cemetery, all giving you a glimpse of life in the early 1800s.

What is Old Town?

San Diego Old Town

At the heart of Old Town is the state historic park

Here you’ll find structures dating back to the early 1800s combined with reconstructed buildings, all well documented with signage about the residents of these homes and owners of the businesses. The park walks you through layers of history of how the region began as Spain, transitioned to Mexico, and finally joined the United States.

Surrounding the state historic park are loads of restaurants, shops, parks, and attractions. You can pop in for an authentic Mexican meal or spend an entire day exploring all the area has to offer.

I’ll share tips on everything to see and do, but first here’s a little history on this fascinating corner of San Diego.

The history of Old Town

Courtyard in Old Town San Diego
Credit: Wendy Lee

In 1769, Father Junípero Serra arrived in the area now known as San Diego to establish the first permanent European settlement in California. He built the first of 21 missions next to the Presidio, a Spanish fort perched high on a hill overlooking the river below.

When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the fort was abandoned and a new community was established at the base of the hill. Over time this modest village grew to add large adobe homes, shops, a school, and a courthouse. 

In 1848, California became part of the United States, and this village thrived for another 19 years. However, when Alonzo Horton bought 900 acres of land by the ocean, the center of commerce moved and eventually took on the name, San Diego.

How to get to and around Old Town

Historic Old Town San Diego
Credit: Wendy Lee

Located in the heart of San Diego, Old Town is easily accessible by both car and public transportation. The nearby transit center is a hub for Amtrak trains, the San Diego Trolley, and several bus lines. There are many parking lots — both free and paid — throughout the area. 

Once you’ve arrived, Old Town is very walkable and mostly flat.

What to see in and around Old Town

Old Town San Diego

You can spend days seeing all the historic sites located in Old Town, but here are few sights to consider for your first visit.

Robinson-Rose Visitor Information Center

At the heart of the Old Town State Historic Park is the Robinson-Rose Visitor Information Center. 

While the original Robinson-Rose home was demolished around 1900, the park service reconstructed it 1989 to serve as the visitor center. Here you’ll find a large diorama of Old Town as it would likely have looked in the late 1800s. 

Park staff are available to answer questions and a bookshop offers a selection of literature about California’s early history.

La Casa de Estudillo

If your time in Old Town is limited, be sure to check out La Casa de Estudillo which has been described as the finest example of a Mexican adobe townhouse in the United States. 

Built between 1829 and 1929 by José María Estudillo, this home has 12 rooms surrounding a large courtyard and was the center of social life in the village.

Whaley House Museum 

Ghost seekers should head to the Whaley House Museum, nicknamed America’s most haunted house for the many family members known to have died inside. Designed and built by Thomas Whaley in the mid-19th century, this house served as a home, theater, general store, and courthouse over the years. 

You can get tickets to the museum on-site or online.

Presidio Park

In under 10 minutes, you can walk to the lovely Presidio Park and enjoy the 40 acres of green space. This was where Father Serra established the first mission, and you can visit his namesake museum, the Junípero Serra Museum. If you’re not feeling like dining in one of Old Towns’s restaurants, the park is the perfect spot for a picnic.

Where to eat in Old Town

Old Town

One of the best reasons to go to Old Town is to eat. And while there are restaurants serving food from around the world, by far the most popular cuisine here is Mexican. You’ll enjoy a variety of authentic Mexican dishes at these classic locations.

Casa de Reyes

Located in the heart of the shopping area, Fiesta de Reyes, is a long-time San Diego favorite, Casa de Reyes. With mostly patio seating, you’ll feel like you’re dining in the colorful plaza of a Mexican city. They serve all your favorites, including tacos, enchiladas, and fajitas. 

Local tip: Wash it all down with a generously portioned margarita.

Casa Guadalajara

Casa Guadalajara

If you’re dining at Casa Guadalajara on a weekend, you’ll certainly be serenaded by a mariachi band. This popular restaurant is well known for their house-made flour and corn tortillas. Popular menu items include Ensenada fish tacos, carne asada, and chicken tamales.

Old Town Mexican Cafe

One of the oldest and most popular restaurants is Old Town Mexican Cafe. This is the place to come when you’re craving carnitas, pozole, and roasted chicken, all served with house made salsa and tortillas. 

Local tip: For good deals, check out their happy hour.

Tips for spending a perfect day in Old Town

Old Town Market

If this is your first time in Old Town, allow at least two hours to explore, and then definitely leave time to dine. 

Between the attractions and restaurants are plenty of shops selling artisan goods alongside classic souvenirs. A few of the most popular shopping spots include Fiesta de Reyes and Old Town Market.

Colorful Pots in Old Town San Diego
Credit: Wendy Lee

Old Town just might be one of the most budget-friendly destinations in San Diego. With loads of free parking and free admission to most historic spots, you won’t break the bank.

Weekends get busy in Old Town year-round, but that actually adds to the festive mood of the place. If you’d prefer to explore during a quieter time, arrive early on a weekend, or try coming on a weekday instead.

Visiting Old Town and San Diego

Old Town Market San Diego

The touristy parts of San Diego are actually fairly close together, so you can easily hit several popular attractions in one day including Balboa Park, the Gaslamp Quarter, and the Embarcadero.

Better yet, why not explore the city with a local? We’d love to show you around “America’s Finest City.”