The Old Town neighborhood is special to San Diego, because it is the city’s birthplace. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park gives visitors a taste of San Diego’s Native American, early pioneer, and Latin American cultures and tells the story of its historic roots. The carefully preserved architecture, more than one hundred specialty stores, thirty restaurants, twelve art galleries, and twenty-five historic sites and buildings that make up Old Town offer an experience you won’t soon forget. Be sure to visit the Bazaar del Mundo, Old Town Market, and Fiesta de Reyes for truly unique shopping experiences. The brave hearted can also visit the Whaley house, known as the most haunted place in the nation with countless documented paranormal experiences. Most come for a few hours of fun and are pleasantly surprised when they end up spending an entire day enjoying all the Old Town neighborhood has to offer.
Old Town History
When explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first arrived in the area of Old Town in 1592, the Kumeyaay Indians had already been living there for an estimated 9000 years. By 1769, Father Junipero Serra led the establishment of 21 Spanish Missions in the area, beginning the colonization of California. From 1821 to 1872, Old Town transitioned from being a small Mexican Pueblo to the establishment of an American settlement with the planting of an American flag in the Old Town San Diego Plaza in 1846. By the 1880s, ambitious businessmen like Alonzo Horton were well into a plan to move Downtown San Diego from Old Town to New Town on the shores of San Diego Bay, where it is today. The 1800s, these are the years that form the basis for today’s Old Town tourism. In 1968, the State of California declared the area a historic park to preserve this period.
Old Town Highlights
One must-see of Old Town is the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park where volunteers in traditional dress play out scenes and lead visitors through a tour that explains the neighborhood’s historic sites. On the guided tour you will learn about many of the historic buildings from the 1820s to the 1870s. While exploring the plethora of neighborhood museums and historic sites, you will get an inside look at the progression from Kumeyaay Indian territory, to Spanish rule, to the period of Mexican Authority, to American settlement. Many of the museums have interactive exhibits that showcase the area’s rich history. You won’t want to miss this iconic park that is part of the National Register of Historic Places and is the most visited state park in all of California.
Presidio Park is another one of California’s historic parks in the Old Town neighborhood located on a hill above and behind the State Park. It is the historic root of Old Town and what is now San Diego. The park, which was once a fort, was San Diego’s first European settlement. Visit the Mormon Battalion Historic Site where you can see unique artifacts, take a free cinema tour, pan for gold, learn the brick making process, and get a free photograph at the end. This is a one-of-a-kind interactive experience. Don’t miss the Pattie Memorial, formerly known as Witches Tower, and the Junipero Serra Museum – both purported to be haunted. Presidio Park is also one of the best places in San Diego for panoramic views of the city. Bring your camera and get great shots of Mission Valley from one side of the park, and equally impressive shots of the Pacific Ocean from the other side of the park.
The infamous Whaley House is known as the most haunted house in America due to the countless documentations of paranormal occurrences showcased on television shows, and in documents, books, and publications. The mysterious Whaley House has been surrounded by tales of hauntings from the very beginning when Thomas Whaley bought the property where the town meted out justice with public hangings, and built his mansion right on top of the site. Several deaths took place in the house itself over the years including a small child who died from scarlet fever, and young woman who committed suicide, and several other family members who died of old age. Visitors can take historic daytime, nighttime, and even ghost hunting tours of the mansion. Old Town Trolley Tours offer a nighttime haunted tour that includes a stop at the Whaley House.
Old Town Things to Do and See
You’re in Old Town for the excitement of the culture, so why not book your stay here for the complete experience? The Old Town Cosmopolitan Restaurant & Hotel, better known as The Cosmo, is just the place to get the 1870s experience. The bed and breakfast has 10 rooms that are decorated with period antiques. One cool feature is the private baths attached to each room; one has a pine wood tub, one a hammered copper tub, and a few have porcelain claw foot tubs. Be sure to request a room that opens onto the spacious veranda with epic views of Old Town and beyond.
There are many things to enjoy while visiting Old Town; paranormal sites, rich history, specialty shopping, and delicious food. For the old world flavors of Mexico, stop in at the Old Town Mexican Café where dinner is equal parts a cultural and culinary experience. If you’re lucky, you may be around for the wildly popular tequila dinner showcases that happen four times a year. Aside from the daily treasures you’ll discover while exploring Old Town, if you visit during one of the many holidays you will be in for a special treat. From the over-the-top Cinco De Mayo celebration to the annual Dia de Los Muertos, you’ll find community fiestas exhilarating and action-packed in this neighborhood.
Another event to check out is the Old Town Art Festival in October. The free weekend event transforms Old Town into a feast for the eyes. The colorful arts and crafts juried show draws over 100 artists from around the world. Visitors are amazed by paintings, jewelry, quilts, sculptures, and so much more. You’ll also enjoy great eats, craft beer, a wine garden, and, of course tequila! Plus, there is nothing quite like the nostalgic ambiance of Old Town San Diego that just makes every festivity better. From New Year’s Day to New Year’s Eve, the exuberance of Old Town must be experienced to be fully appreciated, so keep this neighborhood on your bucket list.