Once life resumes as normal, a trip to Old Town for some delicious Mexican food and merriment will be a festive and welcome outing for your family––especially with Cinco de Mayo on the horizon! In the meantime, plan ahead by reading our guide to Old Town San Diego below!
Old Town San Diego is considered the birthplace of California and the first European settlement on the west coast––and it’s right here in our backyard to explore! Old Town San Diego State Historic Park has beautifully preserved the early days of San Diego via museums, historic buildings and by allowing visitors to have authentic experiences that demonstrate what life was like in the 1800s. Spend the day in this amazing locale on an Old Town Trolley Tour, dine on delicious Mexican food in some of the best Mexican restaurants in Old Town, and take a stroll back in time for an unforgettable family outing. Read on for details on how to plan your day.
Explore San Diego History
There are so many historical sites to venture to in Old Town! Here are a few stand-outs you’ll want to add to your “must see” list:
Seeley Stable—This reconstruction of a barn from the mid-1800’s shows the life of a cattle rancher, featuring well-preserved coaches, buggies and wagons, 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 stagecoach from 1868, 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 $8-10 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. Admission is free for kids 5 and younger.
Eat Authentic Mexican Food
There’s no shortage of restaurants and authentic Mexican food in Old Town. Where to dine depends more on your preference, but here are some 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. This restaurant has been dishing up handmade, authentic Mexican food since 1977!
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-fried ice cream.
If you're in the area for a date, enjoy some time at two new restaurant/bars that are relatively new to the Old Town scene. Sip an amazing mezcal cocktail at Tahona
and then order delectable Mexican food during their brunch, dinner or happy hour. Additionally, Oculto 477 is a new speakeasy, hidden, and prohibition type bar in Old Town that's getting rave reviews if you want to stop in for a historic drink from a bygone era sans kids. The bar's entry is hidden somewhere in Tahona. Make a reservation to sneak in here.
Visit a Schoolhouse from Yesteryear
Take the kiddos to Mason Street Schoolhouse so they can see what schools of yesteryear were like. 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, see California artifacts on display, and even participate in a school lesson taught by a volunteer teacher. Mason Street Schoolhouse is open daily from 10 a.m.–4 p.m., and admission is free.
Wax On! Try Your Hand at Candle Making
Pop in to Toby’s Candle and Soap Shop so your kids can actually create their own candle. They'll get to choose a candle figurine (boat, train, animal shapes, etc. are available) and then they can dip their figurine in different colors of wax to make a take home candle souvenir. This will teach them how things were made in the "olden days" too.
Visit the Junípero Serra Museum
Get a taste of history by touring the Junípero Serra Museum museum that sits atop the hill where California began with a single missionary. The donation suggestion for admission is $5. Even if you choose not to go in, it’s worth taking a walk around the lawn to catch beautiful vistas and stunning sunsets from this iconic San Diego landmark
Shop Unique Stores
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 and vibrant spot includes live music and performances, and tons of vendors selling keepsakes and souvenirs for your visit. There's also clothing, 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 will last a whole lot longer than your traditional floral bouquet.
Cousin's 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.
Mark Your Calendar to Attend Festive Old Town Events
Keep your eyes (and ears!) open for the live mariachi performers who can be enjoyed every day in Old Town. Click here for information on the daily entertainment available on the Fiesta de Reyes stage in Old Town State Park. Additionally, Old Town comes even more alive during special cultural events and celebrations including Cinco de Mayo and Dia de los Muertos.
Don't miss the free upcoming event: Fiesta Old Town Cinco de Mayo where you'll dance to music and live performances, see lucha libre wrestling and ooh and aah over a grand display of lowriders.
This summer, visit Old Town during Stagecoach Days, which 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.
Other can't miss events include Historic Old Town 4th of July, Dia de los Muertos, and Old Town Las Posadas.
Take an Old Town Trolley Tour
Book an Old Town Trolley Tour and enjoy Old Town Market at stop A of the tour. This stop will poise you to see and do the many sites and activities we mentioned above. Continue your tour of San Diego after Old Town by hopping back on the Old Town Trolley Tour––which affords you unlimited hop on and off privileges and takes you to 12 Old Town Trolley Stops throughout the day.
San Diego Ave.
San Diego, CA
––Beth Shea & Leah Singer