Old Town San Diego is a historic neighborhood considered the birthplace of California and one of San Diego’s best attractions. I live in San Diego and have been exploring and eating in Old Town for thirty years now.
It’s where Father Junipero Serra established the first of California’s 21 missions in 1769, the first permanent Spanish settlement in the region. But, the timeframe you’ll learn about most during your visit is the following Mexican-American period in the mid-1800s, when Old Town was the heart of San Diego.
You’ll explore what life was like back then through historical edutainment, preserved and replica buildings, and museum exhibits.
But that’s not all there is to do. The neighborhood’s attractive mix of popularized Mexican food, tourist-focused shopping, and occasional live entertainment can be fun for both locals and visitors, especially on sunny days (of which there are many in my city).
Some might argue that these activities make Old Town San Diego a bit too touristy. Maybe, but it sure can be a fun day out.
In this guide, I’ll share tips for planning a visit, including what to do in Old Town San Diego, our favorite Old Town San Diego restaurants, and other important logistics for your visit.
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Here are some of the top highlights in Old Town:
- Old Town San Diego State Historic Park: Let the kids run through the grass while you enjoy the historic buildings and replicas depicting life from 1821 to 1872. This area encompasses numerous free museums as well as shops and restaurants that support the park’s efforts to interpret or replicate the culture of this timeframe.
- The Whaley House Museum: Tour one of the nation’s most haunted houses dating back to 1857. Tickets are also included if you have a Go San Diego pass.
- Presidio Park: Enjoy wandering through the 40-acre park where Spanish priest Junipero Serra planted a palm tree upon arriving in California.
- Old Town Market and other shops: Take home a traditional souvenir or cultural centerpiece from one of 40 Mexican vendors selling blown glass, ceramics, and beautifully handcrafted trinkets.
- Dining: Eat traditional and modern Mexican cuisine but also some of San Diego’s sushi and even Italian food — housemade tortillas, huge margaritas, mezcal tasting flights and so much more.
What to Know Before You Go to Old Town San Diego
Old Town doesn’t have a proper address because it’s its own neighborhood surrounding a state park. That being said, you can get there pretty easily by driving or catching a trolley.
Put Old Town San Diego into your car’s GPS, or use the Old Town State Historic Park Robinson-Rose Visitor Center address (4002 Wallace St, San Diego, CA 92110).
Duration of Your Visit: 2–3 Hours Plus a Meal
A fun half-day spent in Old Town San Diego is about right. Plan for a couple of hours of sightseeing, historic sites, shopping, and museums, followed by a meal.
That will make for a great morning and a lunch or a great afternoon and an early dinner. Most people (especially kids) won’t find more time necessary.
The good news is that it’s more than enough time to see the best of this San Diego tourist attraction, and you’ll love it.
Best Time to Go and Hours
If you’re driving, the surest way to avoid parking issues is to get to Old Town right as attractions and shops open each day, if not a little before.
Old Town San Diego museums and Visitors Center inside the state historic park are open from Monday—Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. All museums are closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
I’d recommend trying to get there by 9:45 a.m. in order to find a parking space (more details on this below), as you can always walk around to get the lay of the land first.
Start at the Visitor Center
The Visitor Center in the Robinson-Rose House was built in 1853, demolished in 1900, and rebuilt sometime around 1989. Throughout its lifetime, it’s served as a law firm, medical office, jail, boarding house, school, and more.
It’s also a great place to start your adventure in Old Town because you can grab free maps and brochures, and even sign up for a walking tour of all the main attractions.
I suggest making this your first stop, especially if you’re traveling with kids (the Junior Ranger maps are here) and want a starting point that’s easy to find your way back to.
Museums inside the state park and a handful of others outside the park are free. Museums outside of the park will have their own hours and ticketing fees.
For example, you’d buy tickets for Whaley House directly through the museum or use a Go San Diego pass to enter.
Restaurants: Mexican and More
Old Town San Diego is among the best places to get great Mexican food. From Americanized establishments to authentic Mexican eateries, you can get your fill of tacos, burritos, taquitos, and more here.
Just outside the park, you’ll find Old Town Mexican Café and Café Coyote. These old-time Mexican joints serve up handmade tortillas daily, and their famous cantinas are fun for an authentic margarita.
BEst Old Town San Diego Restaurants
Shopping: From Souvenirs to House Plants
You’ll have no shortage of souvenir options in Old Town. The San Diego historic site features artisan markets, tourist shops, and traditional vendors who sell a wide range of clothing, jewelry, home decor, and other treasures.
Kids and adults alike will be able to find a culturally infused trinket to take home. If you’re a fan of Mexican art style and bold colors, then you’re in for a treat.
BEst Shopping in Old Town San Diego
Getting There: Trolleys, Public Transportation, or Car
There is no one Old Town San Diego address because it’s an entire neighborhood plus the State Park. If you pop in Old Town into GPS, directions to the area should automatically pop up.
Alternatively, you can use the address for Old Town State Historic Park Robinson-Rose Visitor Center, 4002 Wallace St, San Diego, CA 92110.
You can drive (we will discuss parking) or take one of our two types of trolleys.
PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION AND AMTRAK
Old Town Transit Center is just a few yards from the heart of Old Town. It’s a very short, pleasant walk of just a few minutes, requiring you to cross only one city street.
The MTS trolley lines that stop at this station very conveniently pass by the major hotels in Mission Valley and make stops in downtown San Diego, all the way to the Mexico border.
This is also where you would catch the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train, making a day trip to Old Town San Diego doable for those who live in Orange County and Los Angeles.
OLD TOWN TROLLEY TOURS
The Hop-on Hop-off trolley by Old Town Trolley Tours has a designated stop in Old Town. The beauty of this San Diego tour is that you can literally hop on and off at popular points of interest around San Diego (also including the USS Midway Museum, Balboa Park, Little Italy, and more) at your leisure.
These orange and green trolleys run every 30 minutes and are an excellent way to sightsee around the city without a car. A one-day pass is included with the Go San Diego sightseeing pass.
If it’s convenient for you, I recommend taking a trolley because parking a car in Old Town has been, for decades, one of the barriers to visiting.
OLD TOWN SAN DIEGO PARKING
By 10 a.m., especially on weekends, parking lots will fill up. Old Town San Diego is also located adjacent to a residential and commercial area, which means there is also fairly extensive free street parking (that also fills up early).
A few free, sizable public parking lots are adjacent to Old Town. It’s worth looking at the map with parking lots before you go. Lots fill up quickly each day and are full of a perpetual handful of idling cars waiting for others to leave.
We tend to park in lots on Juan Street, where there is also a paid parking lot.
One final note: Old Town San Diego is not that large. So you don’t need to concern yourself with which side of the park you end up parking your car. Everything is within walking distance, which is why it’s a great place to spend a half-day.
See also: Guide to Car Services in San Diego
BEst Hotels in Old Town San Diego
Unique & Random Facts About Old Town San Diego
It’s the Birthplace of California
San Diego Old Park became the birthplace of California when Father Junipero Serra established the first European settlement in 1796. He helped anchor California missions to Spain; his original mission was built overlooking the San Diego River.
The area known as Old Town today is what housed his first settlement. Now, you’ll find plenty of information about Junipero Serra’s influence on California and the impact of his Old Town legacy on San Diego.
Blacksmith Shop is the Oldest Blacksmith Shop in California
Old Town San Diego is home to the oldest blacksmith shop in California. It’s located inside La Casa de Estudillo, built in the early 1800s, and still operates today.
Visitors can watch the blacksmith crafts tools, horseshoes, and other items using traditional methods. Look out for several historical artifacts, including a 19th-century anvil and bellows.
More Than the Whaley House Is Haunted
While The Whaley House is the most famous haunted house in America, a few other sites in Old Town are known for ghosts.
Robinson-Rose House was once a boarding house and the site of several tragic deaths, including a young girl who met her fate by falling down the stairs. Visitors report unexplained sounds of footsteps and cold spots in the house.
El Campo Santo Cemetery dates back to the mid-1800s and is the final resting place of many of Old Town’s earliest residents. Visitors have reported seeing ghost-like images and unexplained noises, particularly at night.
Kids Can Become a Junior Ranger
Stop by the Robinson-Rose Visitor Center to pick up a Junior Ranger packet. It’s fun for kids to fill out as they explore certain parts of Old Town State Historic Park.