Old Town, 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 the 21 California Missions, Mission San Diego de Alcalà¡, in 1769 which was the first permanent Spanish settlement in the region. Today, the park enables visitors to explore life as it was during the Mexican-American period in the mid-1800s.
In addition to historical edutainment, Old Town is an attractive mix of popularized Mexican food, tourist-focused shopping and occasional live entertainment that is especially fun for residents and visitors alike in San Diego’s year-round sunshine.
Here, you’ll find tips for planning a visit to Old Town including what to do, where to eat and other important logistics.
Duration of Your Stay: 2-3 Hours Plus A Meal
A half-day spent in Old Town 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’s more than enough time to see the best of what’s there and you’ll love it.
Old Town’s Best Attractions
Having been to Old Town many, many times over the last several decades, I personally think that there are three must-see Old Town attractions. The others can mostly be seen and enjoyed as you walk by it 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. One thing to note is that Old Town State Historic Park is where you’ll likely spend the bulk of your time. The homes 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.
The Whaley House
The Whaley House Museum is a 160-year-old house, which still stands and you can walk through it and look in each restored room. 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. So, the Whaley House has also acquired the reputation for being haunted. In addition to a day or nighttime guided tour, haunted tours are available for booking as well.
The Whaley House Museum is not big so it’s easy for kids to tour in a half-hour or so. As is typical, they have differing ticket prices for kids, adults and seniors, and some younger kids are free. But the general cost of admission is $6-8. Tickets are included with the Go San Diego Card, one of San Diego’s best bundled attractions passes should you be visiting multiple popular attractions during your trip here.
The Wells Fargo History Museum
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 does it emphasize 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, very well done, interesting, and not huge or overwhelming.
Casa de Estudillo
Casa de Estudillo is a vintage adobe home which 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.
Junipero Serra Museum
Located above Old Town 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. But it is not a part of the mission as it was constructed much later between 1928-1928. 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 nice trails in addition to the spot where Junipero Serra planted a palm tree in the park when he first arrived to California and is the site of the original Presidio (fort). Not 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.
Shopping in Old Town
Old Town is absolutely filled with shopping opportunities for tourists, whether that be 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. 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 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.
One central shopping area of note is called the Bazaar del Mundo, 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.
Another popular shopping area is Old Town Market. This shopping area is one you’ll see when exploring Old Town State Historic Park and it has about 40 stores filled with Mexican ceramics, San Diego souvenirs, colorful art, blown glass and more.
Special Religious Interest
Beyond the highlights and the extensive shopping opportunities mentioned above, Old Town also features a handful of other attractions that may be of particular interest to some visitors, including the Church of Immaculate Conception, and the Latter-day Saint Battalion Historic Site.
Best Old Town Restaurants
As suggested at the beginning, Old Town is best experienced over 2-3 hours capped by a meal there, either lunch or dinner.
There are a myriad dining options, but I’ll highlight a few personal favorites. The Casa de Reyes is the open air family restaurant in the central square of the Bazaar del Mundo (mentioned above). It features popular Americanized Mexican food favorites, starting with the complimentary chips and salsa, and oversized margaritas and fajitas and burritos and the like, all served at tables outside under umbrellas and amid fountains and the colorful ambience of the Bazaar del Mundo. It’s not in any way authentic to the period. But it’s reliably fun and good, for families, couples on dates, or anyone.
If you want something a little more adult and/or upscale and/or authentic to the period, then I would strongly recommend the Cosmopolitan. The building, a hotel during the period, was painstakingly renovated about 15 years ago for historical accuracy and the upscale cuisine is consistent with that ethos. Just outside the park, on adjacent San Diego Avenue are two other, longtime favorite Mexican food restaurants: The Old Town Mexican Café and the Café Coyote y Cantina. Both are famous for their tortilla ladies who hand-make tortillas on a grill in/near the dining areas for all to see. These tortillas are delicious.
Getting There: Trolleys or Car
You can drive or take one of our two trolleys. The Old Town trolley stop is located just a few hundred yards from Old Town itself; a very short, pleasant walk of just a few minutes, requiring you to cross only one street. And the MTS trolley lines very conveniently run by the major hotels in Mission Valley as well as into downtown San Diego (and even to the Mexico border).
The Hop-on Hop-off Trolley by Old Town Trolley Tours stops at Old Town. The beauty of this San Diego tour is that you can literally hop on and off at 10 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.
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. There are a few free, sizable public parking lots adjacent to Old Town. But they fill up quickly each day and are then full of a perpetual handful of idling cars waiting for people to leave.
See also: Guide to Car Services in San Diego
Best Time to Go
If you’re driving, the most certain way to avoid parking issues is to get to Old Town right as attractions and shops open each day.
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.
By 10 a.m., especially on weekends, parking lots will fill up. Old Town is actually also located adjacent to a residential and commercial area as well which means there is also fairly extensive, free street parking as well (that also fill up early) though the walk from your car to Old Town through residential streets (some hilly) becomes longer.
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.
What is your favorite thing to do in Old Town San Diego?