old historical towns guide

Old Historical Towns Guide

Old historical towns are a treasure trove of history and charm. They offer a glimpse into the past and allow visitors to experience life as it was in a bygone era. One such town is Old Town San Diego, considered the birthplace of California. This historic neighborhood is a must-visit attraction in San Diego, offering a rich history, preserved buildings, and a vibrant atmosphere.

Exploring Old Town San Diego

Old Town San Diego is steeped in history, with its roots dating back to the establishment of the first of California’s 21 missions by Father Junipero Serra in 1769. This mission was the first permanent Spanish settlement in the region and played a crucial role in the development of California.

During the mid-1800s, Old Town San Diego became the heart of the city. The Mexican-American period left a lasting impact on the town, and visitors can learn about life during this time through various attractions and exhibits.

Old Town San Diego State Historic Park

A visit to Old Town San Diego would not be complete without exploring the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. This park is a treasure trove of historical edutainment, featuring preserved and replica buildings that depict life from 1821 to 1872. As you stroll through the park, you can visit numerous free museums, browse through shops, and dine at restaurants that support the park’s efforts to preserve and interpret the culture of the era.

The Whaley House Museum

For those seeking a spooky experience, a visit to The Whaley House Museum is a must. Considered one of the most haunted houses in the nation, The Whaley House dates back to 1857 and offers guided tours for brave souls. If you have a Go San Diego pass, admission to The Whaley House is included.

Presidio Park

Presidio Park is a 40-acre park that holds historical significance in Old Town San Diego. It is where Spanish priest Junipero Serra planted a palm tree upon arriving in California. Take a leisurely stroll through the park and enjoy the tranquil surroundings while immersing yourself in history.

Old Town Market and other shops

If you’re looking to bring home a piece of Old Town San Diego, a visit to the Old Town Market and other shops is a must. Here, you’ll find 40 Mexican vendors selling blown glass, ceramics, and beautifully handcrafted trinkets. Take your time browsing through the stalls and find the perfect souvenir or cultural centerpiece to commemorate your visit.

Dining in Old Town San Diego

Old Town San Diego is renowned for its diverse dining options. While Mexican cuisine takes center stage, you can also find a variety of other culinary delights, including sushi and Italian food. Indulge in traditional Mexican dishes, such as handmade tortillas, huge margaritas, and mezcal tasting flights. Whether you’re a local or a visitor, dining in Old Town San Diego is a treat for the taste buds.

Planning Your Visit to Old Town San Diego

Before you embark on your journey to Old Town San Diego, there are a few things you should know to make the most of your visit.

Duration of Your Visit

A fun half-day spent in Old Town San Diego is about right. Plan for a couple of hours of sightseeing, exploring historic sites, shopping, and visiting museums. Afterward, treat yourself to a delicious meal at one of the local restaurants. Most people find that a few hours are sufficient to experience the best of this San Diego tourist attraction.

Best Time to Go and Hours

To avoid parking issues, it’s best to arrive at Old Town San Diego right as attractions and shops open each day, if not a little before. The museums and Visitors Center inside the state historic park are open from Monday to Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Note that all museums are closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

To ensure a smooth visit, aim to get there by 9:45 a.m. to secure a parking space. This will allow you to explore the area before it gets too crowded and plan your day accordingly.

Start at the Visitor Center

The Robinson-Rose Visitor Center is a great starting point for your adventure in Old Town San Diego. Located in the Robinson-Rose House, which has a long and varied history, the Visitor Center offers free maps, brochures, and even walking tours of the main attractions. If you’re traveling with kids, don’t forget to pick up a Junior Ranger packet for them to enjoy.


Most museums inside the state park are free, while others outside the park may have their own hours and ticketing fees. For example, if you want to visit The Whaley House, you can purchase tickets directly from the museum or use a Go San Diego pass for entry.

Restaurants: Mexican and More

When it comes to dining in Old Town San Diego, you’ll be spoiled for choice. From Americanized Mexican establishments to authentic Mexican eateries, there’s something for every palate. Don’t miss the Old Town Mexican Café and Café Coyote, which are known for their handmade tortillas and authentic margaritas. Venture beyond Mexican cuisine and explore sushi and Italian restaurants for a diverse culinary experience.

Shopping: From Souvenirs to House Plants

Old Town San Diego is a shopper’s paradise, with a wide range of options for finding the perfect souvenir. Artisan markets, tourist shops, and traditional vendors offer clothing, jewelry, home decor, and more. Immerse yourself in the vibrant colors and Mexican art style as you browse through the stalls. Whether you’re looking for a small trinket or a cultural centerpiece, you’re sure to find something that catches your eye.

Getting There: Trolleys, Public Transportation, or Car

Getting to Old Town San Diego is easy, whether you choose to drive or use public transportation. The Old Town Transit Center is a short walk from the heart of Old Town and provides easy access to trolley lines that connect to major hotels in Mission Valley and downtown San Diego. If you’re coming from further away, the Old Town Transit Center is also where you can catch the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train.

If you prefer a convenient sightseeing experience, consider the Hop-on Hop-off trolley by Old Town Trolley Tours. These trolleys allow you to explore various points of interest in San Diego, including Old Town, at your own pace. A one-day pass is included with the Go San Diego sightseeing pass.

If you choose to drive, be aware that parking can be a challenge, especially on weekends. Arrive early to secure a parking space in one of the public parking lots adjacent to Old Town. Alternatively, you can find free street parking in the surrounding residential and commercial areas, but these spots fill up quickly.

Unique & Random Facts About Old Town San Diego

As you explore Old Town San Diego, you’ll come across some unique and interesting facts that add to the charm and allure of this historic neighborhood.

It’s the Birthplace of California

Old Town San Diego holds the distinction of being the birthplace of California. Father Junipero Serra established the first European settlement in 1796, anchoring California missions to Spain. The area known as Old Town today was the site of his first settlement and played a pivotal role in the development of California.

Blacksmith Shop is the Oldest in California

Inside La Casa de Estudillo, one of the historic buildings in Old Town San Diego, you’ll find the oldest blacksmith shop in California. This shop dates back to the early 1800s and still operates today. Watch as the blacksmith crafts tools, horseshoes, and other items using traditional methods, and marvel at the historical artifacts on display.

More Than the Whaley House Is Haunted

While The Whaley House may be the most famous haunted house in America, it’s not the only spooky place in Old Town San Diego. The Robinson-Rose House, once a boarding house, is said to be haunted, with visitors reporting unexplained sounds and cold spots. The El Campo Santo Cemetery is also believed to be haunted, with ghost-like images and unexplained noises reported by visitors, particularly at night.

Kids Can Become Junior Rangers

If you’re visiting Old Town San Diego with kids, be sure to stop by the Robinson-Rose Visitor Center to pick up a Junior Ranger packet. This fun activity allows children to explore certain parts of Old Town State Historic Park and learn more about its history. It’s a great way to engage young minds and make the visit even more memorable.


Old Town San Diego is a must-visit destination for history buffs, food enthusiasts, and anyone looking to experience the charm of a bygone era. With its rich history, preserved buildings, and vibrant atmosphere, Old Town San Diego offers a unique and immersive experience for visitors. Plan your visit, explore the attractions, indulge in delicious cuisine, and bring home a piece of the town’s cultural heritage.

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