Old Town San Diego, a historic neighborhood considered the birthplace of California, is among San Diego’s best attractions. It’s where Father Junipero Serra established the first of California’s 21 missions in 1769 which was the first permanent Spanish settlement in the region.
Today, visitors can also explore life as it was during the following Mexican-American period in the mid-1800s, when the Old Town area was the heart of San Diego, through historical edutainment. In addition, Old Town San Diego offers an attractive mix of popularized Mexican food, tourist-focused shopping, and occasional live entertainment that is especially fun for residents and visitors alike in our year-round sunshine.
Here, you’ll find 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. If you book sightseeing passes or tours using some of these links, we may be compensated.
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 and shopping, followed by a meal there. That’ll 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 than that spent in Old Town 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. If you’re staying longer than a day and or are a resident looking for more things to do in Old Town San Diego, I’ve also listed some fun events and festivities further on in the post.
Top Things to Do in Old Town San Diego
Having been to Old Town San Diego many, many times over in the last several decades, I personally think that there are a few must-see Old Town attractions. The others are mostly enjoyed as you walk by on your way to somewhere else. This map of Old Town is not to scale but will help you get the lay of the land and realize how close together things are there.
The Whaley House is a Greek Revival style house that was built in 1857. You can walk through it and look in each restored room (sometimes behind glass). At various times, it was simultaneously a general store, a courthouse, a residence, and a theater. It was also built on the site of a former graveyard, and the backyard was once the site of public hangings.
The Whaley House has also acquired a reputation for being one of the most famous haunted houses in the United States. Strange noises and sights have been reported that are perhaps the ghosts of Whaley family members or perhaps James “Yankee Jim” Robinson who was hung there for stealing a boat. In addition to a day or nighttime guided tour, haunted tours are available for booking as well.
The Whaley House museum complex is not big, so it’s easy for kids to tour in a half-hour or so. Speaking of kids, children ages 5 and under are free. But the general cost of admission is $10 per adult and $8 for seniors, military, children ages 6–12.
Whaley House tickets are included with the Go San Diego pass. It’s one of San Diego’s best-bundled attractions passes should you be visiting multiple popular attractions during your trip here.
Mormon Battalion Historic Site
The Mormon Battalion Historic Site in Old Town San Diego is a visitor center that honors the Mormon Battalion’s grueling journey. The overland march went along the Santa Fe Trail from Council Bluffs, Lowa region, to San Diego.
The Mormon Battalion was a group of around 500 Mormon saints who joined the United States Army in 1846. They did so to help provide financial support for their families and community.
There is a free interactive video tour to give you a better understanding of the significance of the Mormon Battalion. Here you will learn about the service, sacrifice and faith of the men who volunteered for the march and those who accompanied them. The tour will last around 45-minutes.
After the tour, you can explore demonstrations on gold panning and brick making, and historical artifacts from the past.
El Campo Santo Cemetery
The El Campo Santo Cemetery is in Old Town and is the second oldest cemetery in San Diego. As San Diego’s Old Town grew, the cemetery reduced in size, and many graves disappeared under the pavement. The cemetery today only represents a small chunk of the original cemetery that was once there.
In 1889, the people of Old Town established a streetcar line through a part of the cemetery, and later it became San Diego Avenue. By 1942, it was then paved over, leaving graves under the street and sidewalk.
Today, guests can go on an hour and 15-minutes Ghosts and Gravestones San Diego Tour. This tour walks visitors through the cemetery and by Old Town Trolley to others around San Diego. Guests can learn about the haunted history of the Old Town’s earliest residents and other historical tales.
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, part of the California State Park system, is where you’ll likely spend the bulk of your time. You will find the main entrance at the intersection of Twiggs Street and San Diego Avenue. The old homes, museums, and businesses here showcase what colonial life was like in San Diego. Not to mention, kids will love burning off steam in the central grassy area.
Wells Fargo History Museum (Colorado House)
The term museum likely makes the Wells Fargo Museum sound much bigger than it really is. It’s just a few rooms in a historic home on the grounds of the park called the Colorado House.
But, it displays a number of very fascinating artifacts from the stagecoach/gold rush era of California history, including an actual vintage stagecoach (not a reproduction) as well as lots of coins and other artifacts of life from the time.
As the title implies, it emphasizes the role of banking and Wells Fargo in California history. Is it, therefore, a little bit of corporate advertising? Sure. But it’s free to enter, it’s very well done, interesting, and not huge or overwhelming.
Casa de Estudillo
Casa de Estudillo is a vintage adobe home that has been restored with vintage furnishings to show how people actually lived on the site 150+ years ago. Frequently, people in vintage dress also perform period household tasks.
The gardens are beautiful as well. It’s a hidden gem in Old Town that many people miss because they get caught up in the shopping and the margaritas and the churros.
The Cygnet Theatre is located at Old Town State Historic Park and is one of San Diego’s leading theatre companies. They are well-known for providing guests with adventurous, thought-provoking live entertainment.
Cygnet Theater features a 246-seat theatre in the very heart of Old Town San Diego. Enjoy award-winning productions of contemporary and classic plays and musicals for the whole family. Many residents opt for a festive meal at an Old Town restaurant before or after a show.
The Seeley Stables was built by Albert Seeley, who operated a stage line between Los Angeles and Old Town, and between San Diego and Yuma. Seeley purchased the former Bandini residence in 1869, to provide a depot for his mail line. In addition, he enlarged the barn and erected new sheds.
He added a second wooden structure and renamed it the Cosmopolitan Hotel. The hotel served as a local center and stage stop. Today, it’s the only hotel within Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, haunted, and also home to a restaurant (more on all below).
The stable barn used to stable horses and house stagecoaches. By 1887, Seely ceased running stages except for the local line between San Diego and ocean beach. In the 1920s, the barn was later demolished.
In 1974, the Seeley Sable underwent reconstruction. Today, it houses rare artifacts and a collection of 19th-century transportation vehicles. This includes an ox-drawn cart, Concord stage, mud wagon, and tow-wagon freighter. A great step back into history to see how people got around in the 1800s.
Blackhawk Livery Stables
You can’t miss the large black “Blacksmith Shop” on the white 1860s building as you walk through Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. It’s still a working blacksmith shop and a place where you can also watch woodworking demonstrations.
Both trades were important in the making and repair of tools used for building the missions, horseshoes, and the construction of carriages. The shop’s yard also has horse-drawn buggies and carriages on display.
Junipero Serra Museum
Located above Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and near Bazaar del Mundo, the Junipero Serra Museum is one of San Diego’s most famous landmarks and has displays related to the history of the area. It’s located on the hill that is considered the site of California’s birth.
It looks similar but isn’t a part of the mission as it was constructed much later, between 1928-1929. Admission, thanks to an anonymous donor, is free to the public though they do accept donations should you feel so inclined.
Those seeking a bit of peaceful greenery will enjoy the 40-acre Presidio Park, which surrounds the Junipero Serra Museum. It’s home to some beautiful trails.
In addition to the spot where Junipero Serra planted a palm tree in the park when he first arrived in California, it’s also the site of the original Presidio (fort). No structures from the original presidio remain. However, the Presidio Cross near the Junipero Serra Museum is made from remnant tiles from the actual Presidio.
From some points in the park, guests will enjoy sweeping views over San Diego to the Pacific Ocean and even down to the San Diego river basin.
You can also take a walk up to Heritage Park on Juan Street to see six restored Victorian homes and Temple Beth Isreal — all from the late 19th-century.
The historic buildings were moved here from other parts of San Diego. One of the homes, Senlis Cottage, is open daily as a historic house museum. Temple Beth Israel was the city’s first synagogue and is also open for viewing.
Old Town San Diego Shops
Old Town is absolutely filled with shopping opportunities for tourists. You’ll find period-looking imported handicrafts, vintage candy (the kids will make a beeline for Cousin’s Candy Shop’s barrels full of taffy and rainbow of candy canes), modern T-shirts and postcards, hats or wind chimes, jewelry or art in a variety of specialty shops.
Dipping candles at Toby’s Candle Shop is another popular and fun thing to do for visitors to Old Town.
Vendors are all over Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, as well as just outside the park on the adjacent streets. You literally cannot miss the myriad shopping opportunities, even if you wanted to, but here are the three main areas filled with Old Town San Diego shops.
Fiesta de Reyes
Fiesta de Reyes is a group of 19 shops, three restaurants and the Cosmopolitan Hotel on the southeast end of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Live entertainment (mariachi band and folklorico dancing) happens on the stage here daily, that you can enjoy with a margarita. Check the schedule.
Old Town Market
Another popular shopping area is the Old Town Market. This shopping area is one you’ll see on the edge of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, across from Fiesta de Reyes. It has about 40 vendors who sell Mexican ceramics, San Diego souvenirs, colorful art, blown glass, and more.
Bazaar del Mundo
One central shopping area of note is called the Bazaar del Mundo. It’s essentially an open-air square with shops on three sides and a fountain, Plaza, and open-air restaurant in the middle. It is, as its website says, a lively and colorful entry to San Diego’s Old Town community, with shops that capture the warmth of Mexico.
Best Old Town San Diego Restaurants
As suggested at the beginning, Old Town is best experienced over 2–3 hours capped by a meal there, either lunch or dinner.
Popular Old Town San Diego restaurants include mostly Mexican restaurants. If you look at online reviews, they’re mixed for nearly every one of them but don’t let that dissuade you. The bottom line is that they are fun, it’s a touristy area, you’ll come home full, and you will have spent a nice day exploring a historic part of town. I’ll highlight a few personal favorites.
Casa de Reyes is the open-air family restaurant in the central square of the Fiesta de Reyes (mentioned above). It features popular Americanized Mexican food favorites, starting with the complimentary chips and salsa, and oversized margaritas, fajitas, burritos and the like.
The food is all served at tables outside under umbrellas and amid fountains and the colorful ambiance of Fiesta de Reyes. It may not be authentic to the period, but it’s reliably fun and good for families, couples on dates, and anyone else.
If you want something a little more upscale, or authentic to the period, then I would recommend the Cosmopolitan Restaurant. The building, a hotel during the period, was painstakingly renovated for historical accuracy, and the cuisine is consistent with that ethos. They also have a lovely outdoor terrace.
Just outside the park, on the adjacent San Diego Avenue, are two other longtime favorite Old Town San Diego Mexican restaurants: Old Town Mexican Café and Café Coyote. Both are famous for their cantinas and tortilla ladies who hand-make tortillas on a grill in/near the dining areas for all to see. These tortillas are delicious.
Old Town San Diego restaurants are also famous for their enormous margaritas (tequila is not in short supply here).
San Diego Old Town Events
In addition to the live mariachi and folklorico performances during the week, San Diego County residents and tourists from afar get together to celebrate historic annual Old Town San Diego’s events. And, they are free to enter.
If you’re looking for what to do in Old Town San Diego during the year that is different from your usual visit, here are some free entrance annual events.
Fiesta Cinco de Mayo
The annual Old Town Fiesta is one of the largest Cinco de Mayo celebrations. It’s a free entrance three-day weekend celebration.
Over 100,000 people come to enjoy the live entertainment and music. Many take part in the Lucha Libre wrestling and come to see the spectacular display of lowriders and other incredible looking vehicles.
This annual Fiesta Cinco de Mayo will feed your curiosity with soulful music and the history of Old Town.
4th of July Celebration
The Old Town San Diego State Historic Park hosts an annual 4th of July celebration. The Town provides a combination of 19th-century crafts, games, contests, and parades of how San Diego was back in time.
Enjoy activities like the pie-eating contest, egg toss, and cow chip throwing. All events are aimed at children and adults of all ages.
One highlight is the Fourth of July parade around the Plaza. Take a step back to the years of Wagon rides, music, period games, and more.
There is no admission fee to the event. Visitors experience a unique and fun glimpse into history, seeing how the early residents of San Diego would have celebrated their Independence Day. There will be a brass band playing followed by patriotic speeches and raising of the flag.
Dia de Los Muertos
The Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is an annual event celebrated in Old Town San Diego during November. This event is free and includes a traditional candlelight procession at sundown. It starts at the entrance of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, traveling down San Diego Avenue to El Campo Santo Cemetery.
There are street food stalls, vendors, and different activities on San Diego Avenue. Dia de Los Muertos is a celebration to honor the departed (learn why Day of the Dead marigolds are important to the celebration).
A popular Old Town celebration is the traditional Las Posadas. The annual event is based on the story of Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter in Bethlehem, and happens over Christmas time.
During the celebration, there will be a pinata for children, and at sundown, there will be s’ mores and a campfire to enjoy in the Plaza, a fun family festivity.
Getting There: Trolleys or Car
You can drive (we will discuss parking) or take one of our two different types of trolleys.
Old Town Transit Center is located 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 street. The MTS trolley lines that stop at this station very conveniently pass by the major hotels in Mission Valley as well as into downtown San Diego (and even 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.
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 12 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 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, and remains, one of the few perpetual downsides to a visit there.
See also: Guide to Car Services in San Diego
Best Time to Go and How to Find Parking
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.
The Park’s Visitors Center opens at 11 a.m. but many attractions open earlier, mostly by 10 a.m. (always check opening times prior to going in case they have changed). I’d recommend trying to get there by 9:30 a.m. as you can always walk around to get the lay of the land first.
Old Town San Diego Parking
By 10 a.m., especially on weekends, parking lots will fill up. Old Town San Diego is actually also located adjacent to a residential and commercial area, which means there is also fairly extensive free street parking as well (that also fills up early). If you try for street parking, the walk from your car to Old Town through residential streets (some hilly) becomes longer.
There are a few free, sizable public parking lots adjacent to Old Town. A good map of where to find these is here. But they fill up quickly each day and are then full of a perpetual handful of idling cars waiting for people to leave. The trolley is also an exciting and fun way to experience the area, particularly for children.
One final note: Old Town is not that large. So you don’t really need to concern yourself with which side of the park you end up parking your car. Everything is within walking distance, which is part of the reason why it’s a great place to spend a half-day.
You can read my full guide to Old Town San Diego hotels, but know that people do stay in this area when they would like to be near the Old Town Transit Station in a reasonably-priced hotel.
The Cosmopolitan Hotel resonates with visitors who would like to stay in a historic property in the center of Old Town. Some believe there are ghosts who are also checked-in which you can learn about in my round-up of haunted hotels in San Diego. Family-owned Old Town Inn may not be in a scenic location, but it’s one of our top San Diego budget hotels with excellent service and a lot included such as breakfast and parking.
One of our top picks is the new Hilton Garden Inn San Diego Old Town because it is new, the service is fantastic, and people love it.
What are your favorite things to do in Old Town San Diego?