San Diego’s Old Town San Diego State Historic Park conveys an authentic re-creation of the city’s glorious history between 1821 and 1872. Restored adobe homes, museums, landmarks, commercial shops, restaurants, informative park rangers and volunteers all bring the flavor of the past into the present. Don’t miss the opportunity to experience Old Town and to walk where San Diego’s founding fathers walked.
On September 28, 1542, Portuguese navigator Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo and his crew of Spanish sailors discovered San Diego’s beautiful natural harbor. Cabrillo recorded the position of the port he called San Miguel in his log and then set sail, never to return.
Sixty years elapsed before another European explorer set eyes on San Diego. On November 10, 1602, Don Sebastian Vizcaino and a small armada sailed into the well-protected harbor. But more than 150 years passed before New Spain finally saw the need to establish a settlement north of Baja California, Mexico. In 1769 New Spain directed Don Gaspar Portola and Father Junipero Serra to proceed northward from Loreto, Mexico, and to establish a colony and a mission in San Diego.
On July 16, 1769, Father Junipero Serra founded the first of 21 missions in California, the Mission of San Diego de Alcalá. The remains of that first mission can be seen in excavations in Presidio Park (31) above Old Town. A visit to Old Town, the historically significant birthplace of San Diego, and California, is a must. Here you will see California as it was in the early 1830s. It is truly one of the most worthwhile attractions in all of California. Plus, this is San Diego’s only major attraction offering free admission and free parking. So naturally, it’s San Diego’s most visited attraction.
For a brief overview of a few of the many historic sites in Old Town, take the one-hour walking tour, which departs from the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park Visitor Center (1) (619-220-5422) located at the Robinson-Rose Building. (The bold-faced numbers in the text refer to locations on the chapter map.) The park staff and volunteers, dressed in old-fashioned attire, conduct tours daily at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m and cost ($10) for adults and ($5) for ages 6-17. Payment by credit card only, no AE. These informative tours also provide anecdotes of San Diego’s Old Town history. The Visitor Center and most of the other historic buildings in the park are open daily: October–April Mon.-Thurs. 10 a.m.–4 p.m.; Fri., Sat., & Sun. May–September 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
You can also take the SAN DIEGAN’s self-guided tour. Travel at your own pace and discover fascinating historic sites, as well as where to shop and the best places to dine. We recommend allowing 3–4 hours to experience all that the park has to offer.
HOW TO GET THERE
If you prefer not to drive to Old Town, you can easily take public transportation. Buses, taxis, the Coaster commuter train and the bright red Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) Trolley (511) or [sdmts.com], all stop at the convenient Old Town Transit Center (4), which is located half a block from the heart of Old Town.
If you decide to drive, parking in Old Town is not a problem, except on holidays and often in the summer. There are seven major parking lots in Old Town. All of the lots are designated by shaded gray areas on the Old Town map in this chapter. Also, many restaurants have parking lots.
THE SAN DIEGAN TOUR
A good place to begin the SAN DIEGAN’s Old Town tour is at the Robinson-Rose Building (1). The original building on this site was the first commercial building in Old Town. Today, it’s home to the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park Visitor Center. Of particular importance is a fantastic diorama of Old Town as it looked in 1872. Press the button in front of the diorama for an audio guide narrating what life was like for the early residents of Old Town.
Just behind the Visitor Center is a reproduction of the 1869 McCoy House (2), a fascinating interpretive center that brings alive San Diego’s past. Friendly museum staff are on hand to answer any questions. Interactive displays and rare old photos of San Diego make the McCoy House a must-see historic museum in Old Town.
To the south past the Fiesta de Reyes (3) (see the Fiesta de Reyes walking tour in this chapter), is the highly recommended Seeley Stables (7), a reconstruction of the original 1867 stable. This replicated mini-museum features horse-drawn carriages and western memorabilia.
Facing the Old Town Plaza is the Cosmopolitan Restaurant and Hotel (6) at 2660 Calhoun St. (619-297-1874) for the restaurant and the hotel. They havhttp://sandiegan.com/fiesta-de-reyes/e a delightful patio and dining room featuring delicious Mexican food and delicious American cuisine. And for banquets, weddings and rehearsal dinners, this place is excellent. Upstairs overlooking the Old Town Plaza are 10 individually decorated rooms with bona fide antique beds for overnight accommodations. You can’t get any closer to Old Town’s authentic historical roots than staying here. See Restaurants.
Next door to the Cosmopolitan Restaurant and Hotel to the south is the must see Seeley Stables. It’s a reconstruction of the original 1867 stable. This replicated mini-museum features horse-drawn carriages and western memorabilia that accents what it must have been like to have stayed overnight at the Cosmopolitan Hotel and gone next door to get your horse and buggy to continue on your travels. They also have a fascinating display of native American artifacts. They are open daily.
Your next discovery should be La Casa de Estudillo (8). The house, which was the home of Jose Antonio de Estudillo, is an excellent example of an early Mexican home with its picturesque red-tiled roof and massive white adobe walls. Built on the plaza in 1827, this large hacienda is a wonderful example of how wealthy, early Californians lived.
The Old Town Plaza (9) (sometimes called Washington Square) is bordered by San Diego Avenue and Mason, Calhoun and Wallace streets. In the 1800s, as in Mexico today, the plaza was the cultural, social and recreational center of the town.
The remaining must-see historic sites are along the northwest side of the plaza (10). Many of these historic sites are home to delightful shops and stores.
As you continue along San Diego Avenue, history buffs will enjoy seeing a replica of San Diego’s first courthouse (11). This replica of the one built by the Mormon Battalion after the Mexican War of 1847 was San Diego’s first fired-brick structure.
Behind the courthouse on Mason Street just west of San Diego Avenue is the Mason Street School (12), San Diego’s first public school (see map). Built in 1865, it has been moved several times and now occupies a site close to its original location. Inside you will find antique wooden desks and schoolbooks.
Behind the schoolhouse is the Casa de Machado y Stewart (13), a modest two-room adobe house that has been entirely reconstructed to its original state. This must-see house now serves as a living history museum.Your next discovery should be the first home of the San Diego Union Museum (14). It is the oldest daily newspaper in Southern California that’s still in print.
Just outside the Old Town Market (15) at 4040 Twiggs St. is the Old Town Theatre (16) (619-337-1525) [cygnettheatre.com] which is home to the award-winning Cygnet Theatre Company. There’s not a bad seat in the house. The cozy theatre hosts an eclectic mix of classic and contemporary plays.
Just off San Diego Avenue on Harney Street is one of the best sushi restaurants in San Diego County. It’s Harney Sushi (19) at 3964 Harney St. (619-295-3272). They feature more than 40 sakes, 50 award-winning wines and more than 35 gourmet specialty rolls, making it the best of the best in Japanese dining.
In the next block back on San Diego Avenue is a landmark restaurant worthy of rave reviews. It’s the Old Town Mexican Café and Cantina (20) at 2489 San Diego Ave. (619-297-4330). This is more than just a place to eat. It’s the place to eat in Old Town. They are known for their award-winning carnitas, frosty margaritas and lively atmosphere. The famous “Tortilla Ladies of Old Town” are here too, making fresh tortillas daily in their sidewalk window. See Restaurants.
Next door is The Old Town Esplanade (21), home to Café Coyote and Cantina (21) (619-291-4695).
Farther down the street to the south is the Old Town Chamber Visitor Center (22) at 2415 San Diego Ave. (619-291-4903). They are a wonderful resource for accommodations and community event information. They are open daily.
This is as far as the walking tour goes to the south. Now it’s time to head back in the direction in which you came via the other side of the street.You might feel a shiver run down your spine as you visit the historic El Campo Santo Cemetery (24) circa 1849. Wooden markers and simple tombstones designate the final resting places of many of Old Town’s original residents. Ghost stories abound as well.
Down the street is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful Mexican restaurants in all of Old Town it’s Miguel’s Cocina (25) at 2444 San Diego Ave. (619-298-9840). This is one of six countywide locations, which attests to their popularity for delicious tasting meals. Special amenities are an outside patio fireplace, and their own parking lot.
A popular landmark restaurant with multi-locations throughout the city and regionally is Fred’s Mexican Café (26) at 2470 San Diego Ave. (619-858-8226). Fred’s is definitely not your traditional Mexican restaurant, yet it is totally popular for being in a word: funky.
At the corner of San Diego Avenue and Harney Street is one of over a half dozen historic sites belonging to SOHO (Save Our Heritage Organization). Since 1969 this civic minded organization has saved hundreds of historic buildings from destruction in the name of progress. San Diego’s first brick house, the Whaley House (27) (619-297-7511), was completed in 1857. This building served as a general store, courthouse, school, family residence, and the first commercial theater in San Diego. It is widely believed to be haunted! They are open daily throughout the year and from 10 a.m.–9:30 p.m. during the summer with guided tours after 5 p.m. Also see Historic Museums.
A block north of San Diego Avenue is Juan Street. It’s where you will find some of Old Town’s most popular and adored Mexican Restaurants. It’s also home to one of San Diego’s most impressive museums. A good place to start or conclude your tour of all that Juan Street has to offer is at the corner of Harney Street and Juan Street. See map.
Here at this corner is the beautiful Heritage Park (28) with its delightful collection of fully-restored turn-of-the-century Victorian homes. Each one has been moved to this location from various locations in San Diego when they were going to be razed to build a more modern building. Thus to preserve San Diego’s more recent past they have been totally restored to their original beauty and moved here. Some are open to the public. Two blocks further down Juan Street is a true local favorite. In fact it’s where the locals go to enjoy their favorite Mexican food. Since 1932 locals have been coming here to enjoy the festive atmosphere and delicious food. In fact, it’s celebrating 84 years in business as the oldest Mexican or American Restaurant in all of San Diego.
This is a well deserved recommendation for dining at the delightful La Piñata Mexican Restaurant (30) at 2836 Juan St. (619-297-1631). Expect to enjoy their cozy, festive dining room filled with colorful piñatas, (all are for sale) or dine on their romantic patio with its fireplace and bubbling fountain in a garden setting with chirping birds. It’s also a favorite spot for strolling mariachis, that come to Old Town to serenade guests. This romantic spot is also a favorite for rehearsal dinners and receptions. So become part of history and dine here. See Restaurants.
Last but not least, a tour of Old Town would not be complete without a visit to the Junipero Serra Museum (32) (619-232-6203) in Presidio Park (see map). This mission-style building sits 160 feet above Old Town, and is a tribute to Father Junipero Serra who founded 21 missions in California. The museum is open Sat. and Sun., 10 a.m.–4 p.m. with extended hours in the summer. And with its hilltop view it’s a perfect place for a wedding reception. Visit their website at [sandiegohistory.org].
FIESTA DE REYES
There is no place in Old Town quite like festive Fiesta de Reyes (3) for a unique dining and shopping experience the whole family will enjoy. Expect to hear the sounds of mariachi music and chirping birds against the backdrop of flowering red bougainvillea and the happy faces of friendly people.
The plaza is ideally located in the northwest corner of the Old Town Plaza at 2754 Calhoun St. (619-297-3100) and is home to 19 fascinating shops to peruse, a festive outdoor restaurant and several mini eateries. The centerpiece of the plaza is a raised stage where musicians play festive Mexican music and ladies wearing colorful traditional dresses perform folkloric dancing.
Benches are also provided to sit on while enjoying the entertainment. A great place to begin your tour of Fiesta de Reyes is at its main entrance on Calhoun Street, which fronts the Old Town Plaza. The shops are open daily 10 a.m.–10 p.m.
A great place to begin your walking tour of Fiesta de Reyes is at the immensely popular Temecula Olive Oil Company (619-269-5779), located on the left-hand side when you enter the courtyard from the Old Town State Park entrance. The tasting room offers complimentary samplings of their 25 flavorful olive oils and vinegars. Credit cards: AE, DISC, MC, VISA.
Next door to the west is Javiers Handcrafts and Unique Gifts from Mexico. This three room store is filled with affordable gifts you’ll adore. Credit cards: AE, DISC, MC, VISA.
Your next stop is Awesome Hot Sauce Shop, which is filled with 28 varieties of wonderful homemade hot sauces. Yes, their sauces are all homemade!
Your next must see discovery must be to visit Goldman’s Jewelry and Gifts Shop (619-294-4653). This one of a kind store has a nautical flair and offers a large variety of hand crafted sterling silver and gold jewelry featuring natural semiprecious stones to diamonds. Owner Susan Young, who has a silversmithing degree from San Diego State University, is often on hand to assist you in your jewelry selection. Also featured here are exquisite pieces from Taxco, Mexico, and Italy. Be sure to also visit Susan Young’s second location in the Plaza named Silver Lily Jewelry and Silversmith (619-299-5459). It features many eye-catching designs by the owner. Credit cards: AE, DISC, MC, VISA.
Your next discovery will be the Old Town Gift Company. Here you’ll find unique books, cards and maritime novelties. Of particular interest are cards depicting what took place in that year.
Then there is the Fiesta Cocina (619-293-3200), which means “party kitchen” in Spanish. This one of a kind store has hand-painted wooden dishware from Mexico and lots of items cooks love to own.
For the best in Mexican ceramic tile look no farther than The Tile Shop (619-297-0293). This store carries unusual street number tiles. Mix and match tiles to create the perfect souvenir for your home. You’ll love this place. Credit cards: AE, DISC MC, VISA.
Take a break from shopping by stopping at Viva el Cafe Espresso and Dessert Bar (619-299-2230) for an espresso boost! This cafe has a distinctive Southwestern twist compared to your standard Starbucks. So sit back and relax in a equipale, which is a Mexican-style rawhide chair, while you sip their popular Aztec Warrior drink. This delicious drink is a blend of espresso and spiced Mexican hot chocolate. Then peek into their dessert case and select a red velvet cupcake or a special Viva Brownie to enjoy with a hot beverage. Credit cards: AE, DISC, MC, VISA.
Always popular is Rose’s Tasting Room (619-293-7673) where you can enjoy a sip of your favorite wine and relax from your shopping adventure. Next on your list should be a visit to the Old Town Copper Shop. This store is filled with exquisite works of art made with copper, Don’t miss it!
Next door is the Garden Shop where you can buy pots to plant your plants. It’s a pretty shop.
A visit to Tienda de Reyes (619-491-0611) is also a must. Here you’ll find the largest selection of Day of the Dead merchandise, beautiful apparel, colorful jewelry and a wide selection of souvenirs.
If you have worked up an appetite they you’ll undoubtedly notice their Street Taco Stand next door to Tienda de Reyes. So grab a taco!
The next store on your walking tour is Geppetto’s A Child’s Fantasy (619-293-7520) featuring an impressive collection of games, toys and dolls. Geppetto’s has nine locations in San Diego County. They also do complimentary gift wrapping. Credit cards: AE, DISC, MC, VISA.
Next door to Geppetto’s is the immensely popular La Panaderia Bakery. Every day the bakers make these fried Mexican pastries, which are similar to American donuts and sprinkle them with sugar. Boy they are delicious!
Next door in the corner is the Silver Lily (619-299-5459), which is the sister store to Goldman’s Jewelry & Gifts store. Be sure to ask about their daily specials
Tucked away next to the Silver Lily is the Old Town House of Jerky and Root Beer. If you are a root beer lover you’re bound to find a root beer you’ve never tasted before.
Finally at the entrance where you started your shopping tour is a wheeled cart offering the best tasting roasted hot nuts you’ve ever tasted. It’s aptly named the Old Town Roasted Nuts. This outdoor stand offers cinnamon-glazed roasted almonds, cashews, peanuts, walnuts and more.
A great reason for visiting Fiesta de Reyes is to dine in their outdoor Casa de Reyes Restaurant. and at their Barra Barra Saloon. It’s a fitting conclusion to a memorable shopping excursion in historic Old Town, which is the most visited San Diego attraction.
But which restaurant should you dine in is always the question as both are so very good. If you want to be treated to live music while you dine, then you’ll want to dine at Casa de Reyes Restaurant (3) featuring music and Mexican folkloric dancing 12:15 p.m.–3 p.m. Sat. and Sun. and 10:00 a.m. p.m.–12:45 p.m. Mon.–Tues. Also featured is live mariachi music every Wed–Mon. nights. Ole! Credit cards: AE, DISC, MC, VISA.
Located just outside the Fiesta de Reyes southern entrance is the Barra Barra Saloon (5) (619-291-3200). The patio overlooking Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is the perfect place to enjoy the historical ambience with a fabulous meal and a frosty margarita. They also offer indoor dining in their two Southwestern-inspired dining rooms.
Be sure to take advantage of Barra Barra’s many food and drink specials offered throughout the week. Kids (10 and under) eat free everyday with a paying adult. Be sure to try the legendary “Best Margarita in San Diego… Only Six Bucks!” It’s served in a tall glass and is sure to grab your attention!
Shops, restaurants and live Mexican music make Fiesta de Reyes an unforgettable destination. Don’t miss this special Old Town attraction!
INT’L RESTARAUNT ROW IN MIDDLETOWN
Halfway between San Diego’s first settlement in Old Town and Alonzo Horton’s New Town, which is our present-day downtown San Diego, is the nearby International Restaurant Row in Middletown. What really put Middletown on the map was the opening of the famous El Indio Mexican Restaurant 75 years ago. Today it’s where locals and visitors in the know go to sample the best tasting cuisine in San Diego.
El Indio Mexican Restaurant (33), is at 3695 India St. (619-299-0333). From a small tortilleria in 1940, it has grown into a thriving business. They have been featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Many people skip the restaurants in Old Town, downtown and Hillcrest to come here for no-nonsense, authentic Mexican food. See Restaurants.
Surrounding El Indio are nearly a dozen very popular dining destinations including Shakespeare Pub & Grill, voted best English pub in San Diego. No less popular is Rubicon Deli featuring the best-tasting sandwiches you have ever tasted. They were voted best sandwich in San Diego. And no one should leave town without dining at Saffron featuring the best Thai chicken in town.
Nearby in the historic Mission Brewery Building is the San Diego showroom for the world famous Da Luca Straps at 2150 W. Washington St., Suite 209-B (858-733-1987) [dalucastraps.com]. As custom watch band wearers know, Da Luca Straps offer vintage-styled watch straps and handmade leather goods including wallets, belts and other accessories. Da Luca products are available in outlets worldwide, however the company was founded in San Diego, so they have opened their first boutique dedicated entirely to Da Luca products. Shopping in person is much better than online.