Old Town San Diego may be known for its killer Mexican food and beautiful paseos. But it’s also one of San Diego’s most historic sites. After all, Old Town is known as the birth place of California where Europeans first settled. Want to know what life was like in the 1850s? Spend a day in Old Town and see the historic sites, ride a stagecoach and eat some homemade tortillas. We’ve got your insider’s guide to what to do, see and eat in Old Town.
Explore San Diego History
There are so many historical sites to see that you may want to pace yourself once you arrive. Here are a few stand-outs you’ll want to add to your “must see” list.
Junipero Serra Museum — Get a taste of history by touring this museum that sits atop the hill where California began with a single missionary. The entrance fee is $6 for adults and $3 for kids ages 6-17. Even if you choose not to go in, it’s worth taking a walk around the lawn to catch beautiful vistas and stunning sunsets.
Seeley Stable — This reconstruction of a barn from the mid-1800’s shows the life of a cattle rancher, featuring well-preserved carriages, Western memorabilia and real donkeys. It’s free to visit, and a good way to show kids how California got its start. Don’t miss the fully-functioning blacksmith shop, complete with fires and anvil action.
Wells Fargo Museum — The Museum is in the Colorado House, a recreated and historically furnished building from San Diego’s past. Kids can check out an original Wells Fargo Concord Coach from 1867, and a panoramic painting of San Diego in 1855. There’s also two authentic telegraphs.
Whaley House — The well-known Whaley House is known for spooky spirits, but we enjoy it more for history than for hauntings. Pay $6-8 for a self-guided tour and a less-creepy look at this mid-1800’s courthouse. Older kids who are into Ghost Hunters will enjoy watching tourists chase down ghostly “light orbs” with their cameras, but you may want to skip out on this if you have little ones who scare easily.
Mason Street School Museum — Built in 1865, this was the first public school house in San Diego. Learn about the school’s first teacher, Mary Chase Walker, who earned a salary of $65 per month. Kids love experiencing this old school house. They can sit at the desks, check out books and California artifacts on display, and even participate in a school lesson taught by a volunteer teacher. Mason Street School Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., and admission is free.
Where to Shop
After you’ve checked out the historic sites, get ready for some shopping at one of the many stores in Old Town.
Old Town Market — This fun spot includes live music and performances, and tons of vendors selling keepsakes and souvenirs for your visit. There are also clothes, purses and any kind of trinket you can imagine.
Bazaar Del Mundo — Little ones can check out Geppetto’s Toys while moms browse hand-selected folk art and artisan clothing. Don’t miss the beautiful handmade paper flowers that willl last a whole lot longer than your traditional Valentine’s Day bouquet.
Toby’s Candle and Soap Shop — You may think you don’t need another soap or candle for your home. But at this cool shop, kids can actually create their own candle. It’s worth the few bucks for a fun souvenir they created by hand.
Cousins Old Town Candy Shop — Need a sweet treat for the trip? This fun shop has every type of candy imaginable, including vintage classics. They’re famous for their handmade pulled saltwater taffy. So be sure to grab a few pieces before you leave.
Where to Eat
There’s no shortage of restaurants and authentic Mexican food in Old Town. Where to dine depends more on your preference, but here are two of our favorite spots.
Old Town Mexican Cafe — This restaurant is best known as the place where they make homemade tortillas in the front window for everyone to see. We recommend sampling a tortilla or two (or three). Their rolled tacos are also tasty.
Cafe Coyote — You can’t beat the lively atmosphere and open-air seating at Cafe Coyote. Known for pristine service and Taco Tuesdays, Cafe Coyote is the perfect place to unwind with the kids after a fun-filled day in Old Town. The restaurant is huge, so there’s rarely ever a waiting list. Don’t miss their deep-friend ice cream.
Good to Know
Mark your calendar for Stagecoach Days during the summer. Each Saturday through August will focus on a different aspect of early San Diego history with kids’ activities, historic craft & trade demonstrations, cannon and anvil firings, living history activities, and more. Upcoming topics include A Taste of the Past, Trades That Shaped the West, and Twainfest.
A day at reliving San Diego’s history in Old Town can be a great activity if you’re on a budget. The majority of the historic sites are free. Exceptions include the Junipero Serra Museum and Whaley House. If you’re on a budget, perhaps pick one of the sites for your visit. You don’t have to indulge in a full lunch either; paired with a picnic lunch, a fresh tortilla and a handful of saltwater taffy make a great snack.
Parking can sometimes be tough at Old Town, especially on weekends. If you’re up for an extra adventure, try parking at Fashion Valley mall and take the San Diego Trolley to Old Town.
San Diego Ave.
San Diego, Ca
Did we skip a must-see market or happening haunt of Old Town? Leave it in the Comments!
— Leah R. Singer (photos too)