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 spent quite a bit of time in Old Town.
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. But, the timeframe that 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.
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.
You can save on tickets, tours, and hotels through my affiliations. If you make purchases through the links in this post, I may be compensated.
What’s Open Right Now and Safety Tips
You may be surprised to know that Old Town San Diego is relatively open. Restaurants are offering modified outdoor and limited indoor dining per San Diego County regulations. Some, such as Cafe Coyote, offer curbside pick-up and to-go orders. All retail shops are open.
Indoor portions of the museums are closed but the garden area of La Casa de Machado y Stewart Historic House Museum, the Blacksmith, Woodshop, and donkey corral located in Seeley Yard, and the porch of the Robinson-Rose Visitor Center are all open. The Whaley House and Mormon Battalion Center are closed. You can walk through El Campo Cemetery and Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.
You’ll need to wear a face covering and practice proper distancing. Of course, in today’s environment, things are always subject to change so best to check with the Visitor Center when you arrive. All parking lots are open.
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 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 times over in the last several decades, I’ve listed a few must-see Old Town attractions in this guide (dining and shopping to follow) that showcase San Diego history and are fun for the whole family.
There are even more historic buildings and small museums, especially in the Old Town State Historic Park, that can be 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). 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.
It’s not a big museum complex, 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 the City of San Diego, CA. 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 was established by the California State Park System to preserve San Diego’s heritage during the 1821 to 1872 period. You’ll likely spend most of your time here exploring the historic buildings, museums, and businesses that showcase colonial life. Not to mention, kids will love burning off steam in the park’s central grassy area and the occasional living history demonstrations.
You’ll see the park name often abbreviated to Old Town State Historic Park, but it’s, of course, the same place. The main entrance lies at the intersection of Twiggs Street and San Diego Avenue.
Robinson-Rose House (Visitor Information Center)
Enhance your visit by picking up a map and learning more at the park’s Robinson-Rose Visitor Information Center. It’s located inside the Robinson-Rose house, a replica of the original two-story structure that was built with adobe on the first floor and wood on the second floor. Long story short, it was built in 1853 by a successful lawyer, Judge James W. Robinson who played a role in advancing the San Diego community at the time.
It’s also rumored to be haunted. Judge Robinson had a few skeletons in his closet that were revealed after his death, including a family that he had abandoned prior to arriving in San Diego. Visitors and staff report hearing mysterious footsteps, the lights flash, and some women have reported having their hair pulled.
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.
It displays several fascinating artifacts and information from the stagecoach/gold rush era of California history, including an actual vintage stagecoach (not a reproduction) and 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 enormous 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 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 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 construction of carriages. The shop’s yard also has horse-drawn buggies and carriages on display.
Step inside San Diego’s first schoolhouse. It’s just one room where all eight grades were taught that was heated by a wood stove. Kids will surely enjoy comparing this to their own school environment.
San Diego Union Building
This is one of the Old Town State Historic Park museums that may appeal to locals. It’s where our first newspaper, The San Diego Union (today our newspaper is called The San Diego Union-Tribune), was printed. In 1967, the Union-Tribune publisher had the building restored with the same model Washington Hand Press that was used to print our first newspaper here in 1968.
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. It 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. Thanks to an anonymous donor, admission 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 a vast selection of 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, home decor or accessories, in a variety of fun specialty shops full of colors.
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 State Historic Park and 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 and a weekend market.
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. About 40 vendors sell Mexican ceramics, San Diego souvenirs, colorful arts and crafts, blown glass, and other treasures.
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. The lively and colorful entry to San Diego’s Old Town community and its shops definitely captures Mexico’s warmth and is an attraction in itself.
Old Town Harney Street Artisan Market
Every Saturday and Sunday (except during special events), you’ll find San Diego’s largest artisan market where local artists showcase and sell their handmade clothing, jewelry, art, paintings, and much more. If you are visiting on the weekend, it’s an easy stop, and you never know what gifts and trinkets you might find to take home with you. It’s free to enter this market.
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 a fun dining experience, it’s a touristy area, you’ll come home full, and you will have spent a nice day exploring a historic part of San Diego, CA. I’ll highlight a few personal favorites because
Casa de Reyes
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 complimentary chips and salsa and ending perhaps with oversized margaritas, fajitas, tacos, burritos, or fresh guacamole.
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 totally authentic to the period, but it’s reliably fun and good for families, couples on dates, and anyone else.
Cosmopolitan Restaurant (Temporarily Closed)
If you want an atmosphere that is a little more upscale or authentic to the period, I recommend the Cosmopolitan Restaurant. The building, a hotel during the settlement era, was painstakingly renovated for historical accuracy, and the cuisine is consistent with that ethos. They also have a lovely outdoor terrace.
Old Town Mexican Café and Café Coyote
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. And the menu at each features more authentic Mexican flavors.
Old Town San Diego restaurants are also famous for their enormous margaritas (tequila is not in short supply here) and cocktails. It’s also wise to make reservations if you can since there are temporarily fewer tables available.
San Diego Old Town Events
In addition to the live strolling mariachis and Folklorico performances during the week, San Diego County residents and tourists from afar come to celebrate Old Town San Diego events. These experiences are free to attend and great for when you want to liven up your usual what to do in Old Town San Diego itinerary.
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 Old Town San Diego State Historic Park entrance, 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 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
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 different types of trolleys.
Public Transportation and Amtrak
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 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 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 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, 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
Old Town San Diego 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 State Historic Park Visitor Center & Museums:
October–April: 10 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
May–September: 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
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 also located adjacent to a residential and commercial area, which means there is also fairly extensive free street parking (that also fills up early). If you try 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 others to leave. We tend to park in lots C or D on Juan Street, where there is also a paid parking lot as well.
One final note: Old Town San Diego 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 on their San Diego vacation.
The Cosmopolitan Hotel resonates with visitors who would like to stay in a historic property in the center of Old Town. Some believe ghosts 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 free breakfast and parking.
One of our top picks is the Hilton Garden Inn San Diego Old Town because it is new, the service is fantastic, and guests love it.
What are your favorite things to do in Old Town San Diego?