Planning a sweet SoCal escape? There’s one destination that’s a must-see: Old Town San Diego. Set in the city’s northwest area, San Diego’s Old Town is steeped in history. The homeland of the Kumeyaay people for thousands of years, San Diego became the site of the state’s first Spanish settlement.
Today, California’s birthplace is a beautiful blend of past and present, alive with the sights and sounds of the indigenous, Spanish, and Mexican cultures that have shaped it.
Immerse yourself in Old Town San Diego’s rich legacy at fascinating museums and colorful cultural events. Step back in time at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, where it all began.
Explore beautifully-restored 19th-century homes in Heritage County Park. Stroll through Old Town San Diego’s sun-dappled plazas and lush gardens. Browse one-of-a-kind shops for handcrafted treasures.
Kick up your heels to the festive sounds of strolling mariachis. Get your tastebuds dancing with incomparable Mexican cuisine, and quench your thirst with a frosty margarita.
Ready to taste the best of Old Town San Diego? Dig in with this complete guide to discover what to see & do and where to eat & drink!
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What to see & do in San Diego’s Old Town
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Old Town San Diego is a community steeped in history – and its rich past is brought alive in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Overlooking the picturesque San Diego River, this is California’s most popular state park.
Step into the past and get an up-close look at Old Town San Diego’s legacy. View amazing historic buildings and fascinating museums dating back to the 1820s. Take a stroll through Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, and you’ll get intriguing glimpses into life as it was lived during the colonial period.
Take a family-friendly guided tour to learn about San Diego’s deep indigenous, Latin, and European roots. Trace the path of San Diego’s fascinating transformation from an 18th-century Spanish mission to an American state a century later.
Take in the graceful beauty of the park’s preserved adobe buildings. Saunter through San Diego’s first public schoolhouse. Get an inside look at the inner workings of the San Diego Herald, the Black Hawk Livery & Blacksmith, and other early businesses that were the pillars of California’s Birthplace.
Mormon Battalion Historic Site
Want to explore a truly unique piece of American history? Head for the Mormon Battalion Historic Site, a tribute to the 500-strong battalion of Latter-day Saints who joined the US Army in 1846 during the Mexican-American War.
Tour the Mormon Battalion Historic Site, and you’ll learn about an amazing 2,000-mile journey from Iowa to the Pacific Coast – the longest infantry march in history. Track this six-month-long expedition on a guided interactive tour that offers fascinating insights into a historic trek that would shape the future of the not-yet-born United States of America.
The Mormon Battalion didn’t engage in combat, but they played a key role in the opening up of the American West. True trailblazers, they pioneered the first major wagon route to the Pacific coast.
Later, they helped build Sutter’s Mill, the site of the 1848 gold discovery that set off the largest migration in American history. Want a close encounter with the California gold rush experience? Try your hand panning for gold at the Mormon Battalion Historic Site!
Whaley House Museum
What do stately elegance and reports of paranormal activity have in common? Topping the list is the Whaley House Museum, a San Diego Old Town icon. Built in 1857 by Thomas Whaley, one of San Diego’s earliest settlers, this California Historical Landmark is the oldest brick structure in the state.
The Whaley House Museum was more than a wealthy family’s home. It became a community hub that housed a general store, the county courthouse, and San Diego’s first theater.
Stroll the grounds and take in the beauty of the museum’s Greek Revival architectural style. Cross the threshold and step back in time as you explore the building’s authentic 19th-century décor and preserved artifacts.
But don’t get too comfy. This site has a spooky reputation – so if you’re up for a spine-tingling experience, you’ll want to stick around to explore the Whaley House Museum’s ghostly pedigree. Built on a former gallows site, this building is one of just two officially designated haunted houses in California. Rumor has it that restless spirits still roam the hallways.
Want to check it out? Take the spooky evening tour—if you dare!
If you want to view the Birthplace of California up close, make tracks for Presidio Park, one of San Diego’s most popular attractions. Set on a hilltop overlooking the Old Town and Mission Valley, this National Historic Landmark is the original site of San Diego Presidio and the San Diego Mission, the first European settlements in the Western US.
Walk in the pioneering footsteps of Gaspar de Portola and Junipero Serra as you explore 40 acres of beautiful green space. Ramble the hiking trails and take in majestic views of the San Diego River Valley and the Pacific Ocean below. Stroll among the memorials that trace the site’s fascinating history.
While none of the original buildings at Presidio Park remain, a fenced-off area offers glimpses of the foundations of the chapel, walls, and other structures dating back to 1769.
Junipero Serra Museum
If you want to dig down to the roots of California’s intriguing history, put the Junipero Serra Museum on your bucket list and pack your spade. Set atop a hill in San Diego’s Presidio Park, the Junipero Serra Museum is one of the most-visited landmarks in the state – the spot where Father Junipero Serra built California’s first fort and mission in 1769.
Marvel at the beauty of the building’s Spanish Revival architecture, designed to resemble the early missions that once dotted Southern California’s landscape. Then step inside the Junipero Serra Museum to take a journey into the past.
Immerse yourself in touchscreen technology and interact with exhibits that track this site’s earliest history. View fascinating video interviews with historians and cultural experts who provide detailed insights into the area’s history and early inhabitants.
Absorb the stories of the Kumeyaay people, who inhabited the area for thousands of years. Learn about the impact of the Spanish arrival, life in California’s first European settlement, and the opening up of the West Coast.
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End your visit by climbing the steps to the museum’s iconic tower, and savor splendid views of a landscape that played a pivotal role in American history.
Heritage County Park
If you’re a fan of architectural treasures, head for Heritage County Park, and you’ll strike gold. This charming neighborhood is home to a rich array of Victorian styles, including examples of everything from Italianate to Queen Anne to Revival gems.
The beautifully-preserved buildings in Heritage County Park are steeped in history, bringing alive a range of colonial life experiences. Step inside Senlis Cottage for an inside glimpse into homelife for the working class in the 1880s. Without amenities like electricity, gas, or water, this humble building is the epitome of bare-basics living.
Explore what life was like at the other end of the economic scale. The Sherman-Gilbert House, built in 1887, was home to the cousin of General William Tecumseh Sherman. Take in embellishments like the widow’s walk and circular windows, then step inside and explore the equally elaborate interior.
Head over to the 1889-built Christian House, a graceful home that features multiple chimneys, a corner turret, and a veranda that encircles the entire building.
Want more? Explore Heritage County Park’s other intriguing 19th-century homes, including Bushyhead House, McConaughy House, and Burton House.
Don’t miss the Temple Beth Israel, San Diego’s first synagogue. It’s a beautiful example of the Victorian architectural style that was prized by wealthy San Diegans in the late 1880s and 1890s. It’s still alive and well, hosting bar Mitzvahs, weddings, and receptions.
Casa Del Rey Moro African Latin Museum
Ready for a deep dive into African history? Take the plunge at the Casa Del Rey Moro African Latin Museum. This “House of the Moorish King” opens the door and invites you on a journey 6,000 years into the past.
The Casa Del Rey Moro African Latin Museum takes you on a fascinating journey through ancient, colonial, and contemporary historical eras. Explore the cultural paths of the African-Spanish, African-Mexican, and African-American diasporas.
Marvel at the museum’s amazing collection of artworks, weavings, and other artifacts gathered from African countries around the world. Immerse yourself in African history and culture at the Research Center, where you can browse thousands of books, recordings, and articles detailing thousands of years of history.
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Explore a rich array of subjects ranging from the Ancient Nile Valley Civilization to African-American pioneers in San Diego. Check out the bookstore to browse a treasure trove of historical and cultural materials.
Immaculate Conception Church
If you want to dip into the wellspring of the Catholic faith in California, plan a trip to the Immaculate Conception Church in Old Town San Diego. On this spot in 1769, Father Junipero Serra planted a cross marking the site of the first Spanish Mission in what would later become the United States.
When you enter the Immaculate Conception Church, you’ll stand on the historic site of the first Holy Mass celebrated in California. The church cornerstone was laid in 1851, and the chapel was completed in 1858.
This extraordinary venue has survived many challenges, including earthquakes and a devastating Old Town Fire. The church that Father Serra dreamed of in 1769 was finally completed in 1917 and opened its doors for public Masses.
Today, the church is known simply as the Old Adobe Chapel and serves over 300 local families – and travelers from around the world.
Bazaar Del Mundo
There are plenty of spots to shop ‘til you drop in San Diego, but Bazaar Del Mundo is in a class of its own. It may be nestled in the heart of a bustling metropolis, but when you step onto the cobblestoned courtyard of this charming outdoor market, you’ll be transported back to another time.
Bazaar del Mundo is a shopping oasis that exudes the warmth of Old Mexico. Take your time to savor its colorful sights and festive sounds as you browse a one-of-a-kind collection of locally owned and operated shops – each with its own unique theme.
Explore a vibrant array of colorful boutiques. Discover Latin American specialty items sourced from around the world. Whether you’re looking for handcrafted jewelry, clothing, folk art, or home décor, you’ll find a treasure to take home with you!
This destination is meant to be a treat for all the senses, so give those feet a break and snag a spot at one of the courtyard patios. Dive into some tasty Mexican cuisine, quench that thirst with a mega margarita, and savor the sounds of strolling mariachis.
Where to eat & drink
There’s no better place to dig into San Diego’s vibrant culinary scene than in Old Town, where you’re guaranteed to find eats that are fresh, authentic, and delicious.
Looking for the perfect way to fuel up for the day? Head for The Congress Café. This iconic neighborhood spot is renowned for its all-day breakfasts, scrumptious sandwiches, and formidable coffee selection – all served in a laid-back SoCal setting. How about huevos rancheros and Mexican Spiced Mocha to start your day?
If you’re looking for some local color, Casa Guadalajara is for you. This vibrant venue features festive décor and strolling mariachis. Take a seat on the patio, dig into some award-winning Mexican cuisine, and sip on a signature “Birdbath Margarita.”
If you’ve got a hankering for traditional Mexican fare served with a side of entertainment, snag a spot at Casa de Reyes. Bring the whole family to enjoy traditional Mexican dishes while you’re treated to the sights and sounds of lively mariachis, Folklorico dancing, and onstage entertainment.
Up for a rockin’ good time? Cruise on over to Rockin’ Baja Lobster Old Town. Inspired by the dishes of Baja’s fishing towns, this long-time neighborhood favorite pulls out all the stops when it comes to seafood. Nibble on appetizers like tuna tostadas, or go epic with entrees like the Surf & Turf Platter.
When you’re ready for refreshment of the liquid variety, you can’t do better than Cafe Coyote, an Old Town favorite for more than three decades. Enjoy a patio breeze as you savor your beverage of choice. And check out a menu that features tasty offerings like their famous Cafe Coyote Quesadilla, a fresh hand-made tortilla packed with grilled margarita chicken. Mmm!
Looking for a friendly, funky bar? That’s exactly what you’ll find at Hungry’s Kitchen & Tap. Set in a renovated 19th-century building, this drink & nosh spot is a favorite with visitors and locals alike. With its casual vibe, excellent basics like burgers and tacos, great beer and cocktail selection, and live piano player, it’s the perfect place to kick back with your crew.
Quiet quaffing spots can be hard to find, but Rose’s Tasting Room makes it easy. Wine lovers and beer enthusiasts alike will find their happy place in this cozy, colorful hangout. Specializing in San Diego-area beers & wines, Rose’s invites you to give your tastebuds a workout indoors or on the patio – and browse a great collection of linens, coasters, and glassware while you’re there!
If you like your cocktails with a twist of Spanish goth, slide over to Oculto 477. This hidden gem is a 21st-century speakeasy, so before entering, you’ll have to confess your sins. (Really!) Once inside, enjoy the intimate ambiance (it only seats 25) as you sip a concoction that might have been made from a 100-year-old recipe. Talk about a throwback!
Where to stay
Travelers to Old Town San Diego visit for a reason: they want a taste of history. Fortunately, the Old Town neighborhood has plenty of great accommodation options, making it one of the most popular neighborhoods to stay in San Diego.
Enjoy a homey vibe and great value at Old Town Inn. Dating back to 1945, this family-owned Spanish-style inn is a longtime favorite with visitors. Take your pick of everything from retro 50s-era rooms to ultra-modern Jacuzzi suites. Fuel up for your day with a dip in the outdoor pool, followed by a hearty complimentary breakfast.
Major attractions, including SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park, and Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, are just minutes away.
If you want to hunker down in the shelter of some historic walls, check in at the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Dating back to 1827, the original state-of-the-art adobe building has been resurrected to offer a truly unique bed-and-breakfast experience.
Luxuriate in Victorian-style bedrooms and baths, and savor your private dining room – all furnished with elegant 19th-century antiques. Be sure to check out the saloon, embellished with Wild West décor.
For all the modern amenities served up with a SoCal vibe, book into Best Western Plus Hacienda Hotel Old Town. This charming Mission-style hotel combines old-world charm with modern ease.
Get pumped up in the fitness center, or take a dip in the heated outdoor pool. Then treat yourself to delicious authentic Mexican cuisine at the hotel’s Old Town Tequila Factory. Snag a patio seat to take in spectacular views of the city.
Savor a perfect blend of quality and convenience at Courtyard San Diego Old Town. Ideally located less than 4 miles from San Diego International Airport, you’ll also be just minutes away from the heart of Old Town and within easy reach of loads of dining and shopping options.
Enjoy spacious rooms, complimentary Wi-Fi, and premium TV channels. Stay on top of your game in the 24-hour fitness and outdoor pool. Fuel up or wind down at the Bistro, the hotel’s on-site restaurant.
Set on the edge of Presidio Park, the Hilton Garden Inn San Diego Old Town/Sea World Area will give you easy access to top San Diego attractions like SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo, both within five miles.
Get your adrenaline going in the fitness center or outdoor pool. Enjoy breakfast or dinner at the hotel’s on-site restaurant, or treat yourself to room service.