Looking for fun things to do in Old Town San Diego? The extensive list below offers plenty of ideas, from immersing yourself in the area’s rich heritage through museums and tours to indulging your creative side with workshops and craft-making.
This vibrant historic district is considered the birthplace of California, and time spent here can be both fun and educational, with a hands-on angle. And, there’s great shopping and food, too.
Nearly every type of tourist visits Old Town San Diego attractions, from families and business travelers to history buffs and ghost hunters. Since many activities are free, it suits various budgets, too. Below, we discuss which of the many things to are worth space on your itinerary.
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1. Start at the Robinson-Rose Visitor Center
- 4098 Mason St, San Diego, CA 92110
- (619) 220-5422
As Old Town’s visitor center and park headquarters, the Robinson Rose House is a great place to start. Here you can learn about many interesting things to do in Old Town San Diego, view museum exhibits, and join walking tours. Pick up some of the brochures that talk about local attractions.
Among the highlights at this museum are the miniature model displays of what Old Town looked like during San Diego’s early days. Tour guides dressed in period clothing share stories of fascinating people who lived here back then.
You’ll also learn the history of the building itself, a reconstructed replica of a grand house built by James W. Robinson, a successful lawyer in the 1850s. You might even experience a bit of the paranormal since this building is reportedly haunted, like some other Old Town structures.
2. Become a Junior Ranger (And Other Kids’ Activities)
The California Department of Parks and Recreation has a Junior Ranger program for kids, making exploring state parks even more fun.
You can pick up a free booklet at the Robinson-Rose Visitor Center to fill out as you explore the park. Don’t forget to turn it in for an award at the end of your visit.
Also, don’t forget to print the free scavenger hunt sheet and bring it with you. I also like this coloring booklet, which is a few pages long. If you know you will visit Old Town San Diego, have the kids color it in advance so they can spot familiar signs and buildings while there.
3. Take a Self-Guided Walking Tour
- Old Town Plaza, San Diego, CA 92110
If you’re unsure where to begin, take a free, self-guided walking tour through the historical places in Old Town. California Parks and Recreation has outlined tours starting at Robinson-Rose House, which range from an hour to two and a half hours. You can take a look online at recommended stops or grab a tour map at the visitor center for a small fee.
This walk through history passes by many historic buildings. There’s the Johnson House, built in 1870 by George Alonzo Johnson, a steamboat captain on the Colorado River. The Mason Street School, built in 1865, was the first publicly built schoolhouse in San Diego County. Many buildings are open with free admission and even have their own brief, free tours.
4. Visit the Free Museums in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
- Various locations
So many things to do in Old Town San Diego are free of charge — including many of the unique museums found here.
Check with the Old Town Chamber of Commerce and Robinson-Rose Visitors Center to learn which museums are free and what their hours are. The list is extensive; we’ve included a few here.
The McCoy House was built in 1869 by Irish-born immigrant James McCoy—who became fluent in Spanish—as a wedding gift for his wife, Winnifred. James served as county assessor, city sheriff, and state senator. The museum offers a detailed glimpse into life in the area in the late 1800s.
La Casa de Machado y Silvas is another wedding present—this one from a father to his daughter—built in the early 1840s. La Casa de Machado y Stewart is an adobe house that was lived in until 1966 but has since been restored to its 1830s character.
And, there are a few others that are free and mentioned below. Be sure to visit Old Town’s free museums to learn about San Diego’s multicultural history.
In addition to being a fascinating museum worth visiting, the First San Diego Courthouse in Old Town — built in 1872 — is a popular spot for special events commemorating the region’s culture, history, and noteworthy individuals. You may experience living history demos, live music, dancing, and more just outside this old courthouse.
5. Go Shopping
- Various locations
You’ll find over a hundred shops in Old Town, San Diego, some in market centers that house multiple stalls and others in historic buildings around the park.
At Old Town Market alone, you can browse 40 unique indoor and outdoor shops selling goods from Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru, Vietnam, and other regions.
Shopping at Bazaar del Mundo is a special treat, because of the unique treasures you’ll find and the colorful setting that immerses you in Old Mexico’s charm. Purchase fair trade merchandise from around the world, including folk art, jewelry, fashion, and home décor.
Throughout Old Town, you’ll encounter a wide selection of specialty shops that draw you in. Cousin’s Candy Shop sells old-fashioned sweets, including saltwater taffy and homemade fudge.
Find lovingly restored antiques at The Johnson House, Marine Antiques, and West Sea Co Nautical Antiques. At Tinsmith, you’ll find exquisite star lamps and other tin-punched decorative items to bring home.
6. Walk Through a Famous Haunted House — Whaley House Museum
- 2476 San Diego Ave, San Diego, CA 92110
- (619) 786-1143
One of the most popular things to do in Old Town San Diego is to visit the Whaley House Museum. It was the former home of a pioneering family, but it’s widely regarded today as one of the most haunted houses in North America, thanks to the multiple deaths that occurred on the premises.
The Greek Revival-style 1850s house is the oldest brick structure in Southern California. It served as a general store, courthouse, and private residence. Upstairs, you’ll find San Diego’s first commercial theater.
A California Historical Landmark, the Whaley House has been featured on numerous ghost-hunting shows, including America’s Most Haunted and Ghost Adventures. Visitors can take a daytime self-guided, self-paced tour, or an evening guided tour.
7. Dine on Mexican Food and More
As a dining destination, Old Town offers some of the best Mexican restaurants in San Diego County and other noteworthy eating establishments, including great sushi places.
Whatever you crave, you’ll find great eateries in Old Town, along with a vast selection of specialty margaritas and both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages—like the popular horchata.
For many people, dining al fresco in vibrant outdoor areas is one of the favorite things to do in Old Town San Diego. Many restaurants here offer patio dining, with beautiful flowers, bubbling fountains, and firepits to add to the ambiance.
An example of the diverse selection to be found in Old Town includes:
- Casa de Reyes: A vibrant restaurant serving favorite Mexican dishes, including rolled tacos, tostada salads, burritos, tamales, and much more.
- Tahona Bar: Gather with friends for an upscale dining experience in an establishment that celebrates mezcal. Tasting room available by reservation.
- Harney Sushi: This elegant sushi place offers a wide selection of traditional and contemporary sushi creations and cooked Japanese specialties.
- Congress Café: Open for breakfast and lunch, this cozy café with a lovely outdoor seating area serves Venezuelan favorites, including arepas and cachapas.
8. Old Town Urban Market
A relatively new addition to the Old Town scene, this marketplace is located just outside of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.
You’d go there to eat though there will be retail shops there soon. And it’s worthwhile. From the drip-your-own bone marrow on tacos at Tuetano Taquería and ceviche at Mar Rustico to the delectable elote from Elote and soon donuts from Barrio Donas, it’s a place for foodies.
You’ll eat on a covered patio that isn’t big, so get there early. Everything is counter-order, so you could grab it to go for a picnic in Old Town State Historic Park.
9. Shop and Eat at Fiesta de Reyes
- 2707 Congress St, San Diego, CA 92110
- (619) 297-3100
Fiesta is a great way to describe this vibrant section of Old Town, where you can shop, dine, and enjoy free, live musical performances in a unique setting. Fiesta de Reyes is Spanish for “celebration of kings,” and you can celebrate like royalty without breaking the bank.
Here you can enjoy several Old Town San Diego attractions without having to walk far since everything is close together yet far enough apart to give you that satisfying sense of exploring a vibrant district. Mariachi musicians and folklorico dancers entertain visitors most weekends.
Dine in comfort on the lush garden patio of Casa de Reyes or within the attractive, hacienda-style surroundings of Barra Barra Saloon. Both places serve authentic Mexican cuisine, from standard favorites to new creations and a large selection of margaritas.
Shop at one of the unique outlets, such as Treasures of Mexico, Old Town Jerky & Root Beer, and The Tile Shop.
10. El Campo Santo Cemetery
El Campo Santo Cemetery dates back to 1849 and is/was the final resting place of many early San Diego residents, including members of prominent families such as the Estudillos and Fitchs.
Over the years, the area’s development changed the boundaries of the cemetery. Some bodies were relocated and paved over while others remain buried as intended. This has said to have disturbed some trapped souls and trigger some paranormal activity.
Part of the cemetery was restored based on old records and visitors today can walk through remaining gravesites.
11. Walk Up to Presidio Park
- 2811 Jackson St, San Diego, CA 92110
An idyllic spot to have a picnic and let the kids play awhile, Presidio Park overlooks the Mission Valley area and beyond. It’s about a 7-minute walk from the Robinson-Rose Visitor Center.
Several viewpoints present gorgeous views — you can see Mission Bay and the coast — while nature surrounds you, with a large collection of beautiful, mature trees spread throughout the park.
This hill is steeped in history. As you walk the grounds, you’ll find statues, memorials, and markers commemorating past influencers and events from San Diego’s past. It was the site of a fort and church that date back to 1769, and this spot served as the capital of Baja California when Mexico owned the land.
You’ll find several walking trails throughout Presidio Park, some more challenging than others. It’s usually not crowded here, giving you space for quiet contemplation.
12. Visit the Mormon Battalion Historic Site
- 2510 Juan St, San Diego, CA 92110
- (619) 298-3317
This historic site commemorates LDS church members who served in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 as part of the U.S. Army’s Mormon Battalion. While stationed in the area, these volunteer soldiers and their families built water wells and a courthouse in Old Town.
The center offers free tours daily, showing glimpses of what life was like in the region during the mid-1800s. The tour lasts 45 minutes and includes an interactive video about the battalion, plus a look at various artifacts. You’ll want to allocate an hour to an hour and a half to participate in everything the center offers.
All areas of the museum are wheelchair accessible. For visitors’ convenience, the site has a small parking lot in the back—like the museum, parking is free. Be sure to check out the lovely views from the window as you walk by.
13. Watch a Performance at Old Town Theatre
- 4040 Twiggs St, San Diego, CA 92110
- (619) 337-1525
- Call or check online for shows and hours
The Cygnet Theatre company runs one of the most unique Old Town San Diego attractions where you can enjoy everything from Shakespeare plays to more contemporary musicals. Housed in a building still called the Old Town Theatre — on a site that used to be a barn — the Cygnet Theatre presents live performances inside a one-of-a-kind theatrical setting.
An interesting historical tidbit: between 1986 and 1991, the theater served as a stage for student productions. Among the alumni from this period are actor and singer Jamie Foxx and actor John Barrowman (of Doctor Who fame).
Today you can catch theatrical productions like El Huracán, a multi-generational lyrical tale about the power of forgiveness, or cabaret-style entertainment.
Check the website to see what’s playing and learn about special performances, such as those offering ASL interpretation or evenings dedicated to the LGBTQIA community. Assisted listening devices are available free of charge.
14. Admire the La Casa de Estudillo, a Historic Adobe House
- 4000 Mason St, San Diego, CA 92110
- (619) 220-5422
- Open Daily: 10 a.m.– 5 p.m.
As one of the carefully restored historic adobe houses in Old Town San Diego, La Casa de Estudillo dates back to 1827 and is a lovely example of Spanish Colonial architecture. Once a center of social gatherings and religious observations, this museum was the home of a distinguished 19th-century family.
Built by comandante José María Estudillo and his son, lieutenant José Antonio Estudillo, this 12-room house has a beautiful inner courtyard that invites introspection. Now a part of the California State Park system, La Casa de Estudillo is a museum worth visiting for its depiction of multicultural life in the early 1800s.
Several rooms with period pieces, including canopy beds, carved tables, and upholstered chairs are open for public viewing. You’ll see a set table next to a fireplace in the dining room while and another room houses working tools of the time, including a large spinning wheel. Other highlights include an outdoor oven and a bell tower.
15. Make Candles at Toby’s Candle Shop
- 2645 San Diego Ave, San Diego, CA 92110
- (619) 297-5426
- Open Daily: 10 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Many things to do in Old Town San Diego are hands-on. Making your own candles at a historic candle shop is certainly one of these activities. At Toby’s Candle & Soap Shop, you can buy beautiful candles if you don’t have time to make one.
A little about the shop. It was established in 1981 by burgeoning candle-making enthusiasts who began to teach candle carving techniques throughout Southern California malls and even at Knott’s Berry Farm. Toby’s Candles has been in Old Town since 1992.
Your candle-making experience is an opportunity to make your own beautiful gift for yourself or a friend. The shop welcomes walk-ins, but reservations are needed for groups of ten or more.
If you’re short on time, the candle dipping process is your best option; it doesn’t take long but is very satisfying. If you have more time, make your own sand wax candle. You will need at least twenty minutes for this fun project.
16. Spend a Night at the Cosmopolitan Hotel
- 2660 Calhoun St, San Diego, CA 92110
- (619) 297-1874
If you want to immerse yourself in this historic district to have more time to enjoy all the Old Town San Diego attractions that are available, spend a night or two at the Cosmopolitan Hotel. This historic hotel provides a first-class experience that takes you back in time.
In your room, you’ll be surrounded by vintage antique furniture, each piece a true work of art. With just ten rooms to tend to, the hotel staff can deliver attentive, personalized service to every guest.
This bed and breakfast establishment serves homemade pastries with hot coffee and tea in the building’s old-fashioned saloon. For many guests, one of the best parts of staying here is getting away from it all — there are no phones or TVs in the rooms, although you will have access to WiFi.
Relax and enjoy your stay at the Cosmopolitan, once the home of Peruvian-born Juan Bandini, a California politician born in 1800 who helped shape San Diego and was known to throw great parties.
17. See Stagecoaches and More at Seely Stable Museum
- 2648 Calhoun St, San Diego, CA 92110
- Friday – Sunday: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
- Closed Monday – Thursday
A favorite among kids, the Seely Stable Museum houses a collection of old coaches, wagons, and buggies, each lovingly restored and cared for at this unique museum dedicated to California’s stagecoach history.
Learn how mail, goods, and passengers were transported across the country before the railroad lines were established. Stagecoach travel was a perilous way to journey between places, but the California gold rush encouraged travelers to venture west despite the dangers. At the museum, you’ll see maps showing old stage routes—the preferred travel mode before the days of train tracks and freeways.
By the way, the museum is named after Albert Lewis Seeley, who, at 17, became a stagecoach driver and established the United States Mail Stage line. He continued growing his business by expanding stagecoach routes to transport mail and passengers between San Diego and Los Angeles, San Diego, Yuma, and other itineraries.
18. Take the Old Town Trolley Tour
If you’re unsure what to do in Old Town San Diego, a good place to start might be getting there via the Old Town Trolley. This hop-on, hop-off experience runs through several parts of San Diego and includes eleven stops. You can hop off and shop, eat, or sightsee before hopping back on and continuing with your tour.
Buy a ticket once, and then spend the rest of the day conveniently hopping on and off. In addition to taking you through Old Town, the trolley-style tour bus takes you through the Embarcadero, Seaport Village, Barrio Logan, Coronado, Balboa Park, Little Italy, and more. A great way to see it all at your own pace.
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19. Look Out for Living History Demonstrations
- 4002 Wallace St, San Diego, CA 92110
- (619) 220-5422
- Wednesday and Saturday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. (check the schedule before you go)
As part of the California Department of Parks and Recreation, Old Town makes living history programs available to all ages. People wear period clothing, answering questions about the region’s history for memorable, interactive exchanges. Live demonstrations bring San Diego’s history alive for locals and visitors alike.
On a Wednesday or Saturday, see living history demonstrations of everything from furniture building to quilting. Demos vary from week to week. You might learn how people used to spin wool into thread and see old blacksmithing techniques in action.
At the Kosay Kumeyaay Market, the traditions of the region’s first peoples are preserved and demonstrated. You might see time-honored basket weaving techniques or perhaps other artisans at work.
As you browse Old Town, you may encounter various living history demonstrations, re-enactments, performances, and mini-talks. If you see someone in period clothing, feel free to ask questions about what life was like here in the past.
20. Sip San Diego’s Best at Rose’s Tasting Room
- 2754 Calhoun St San Diego, CA 92110 (inside Fiesta de Reyes)
- Note: All guests must be ages 21+
I feel like Rose’s is a bit of a hidden gem. After all, you’re in the birthplace of California and perhaps focused on the activities it’s famous for — fishbowl margaritas, Mexican food, free museums, a grassy park, Whaley House, etc.
But you may be surprised to know that there’s a little tasting room with indoor and outdoor seating that will allow you to taste some of the craft beer San Diego is famous for (did you know that we’re a craft brewery destination) in addition to some wine made in San Diego (yes, it’s good). And, they even offer a few cocktails on the menu.
It makes for a lovely stop in between sights. Old Town San Diego, we think, is best experienced on a sunny day when you’re not in a rush. And, you may find yourself enjoying sips and suds at Rose’s for longer than anticipated.
What do you think are the best things to do in Old Town San Diego?