Old Town Historical State Park

Old Town

When it comes to California history, Old Town Historical State Park is where it all began! In the early 1820's, Mexicans, explorers, and pioneers settled here, forming a thriving community. This union of cultures lasted until 1846 when USA declared war on Mexico, by 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed and a new border established. The face of Old Town changed: instead of adobe brick houses, wooden house and brick houses were erected. Today, this park has been reconstructed to preserve its colorful history: a fine fusion of Mexico and early Americana.

This historical park covers six city blocks (see map) but a stroll down San Diego Avenue will give you plenty to see. Starting at the far north side of the street, you will find the Robinson Rose, it used to be the headquarters to San Diego's first newspaper, the San Diego Herald, but is now a Visitor Center. Enter and see some period pieces. Free, guided tours start here, or you can buy a self-guided tour book for $2. Even more thrifty? Grab a free Old Town magazine, it has a map inside.

From here, you can to go east and enter Plaza del Pasado or walk south down San Diego Avenue.

Go East into Plaza del Pasado

This corner of Old Town is most delightful. It is full of colors and sounds that will remind you of old-time Mexico. At every corner and every turn, you will find eye-pleasing displays that are brightly colored and intriguing. It is almost impossible to walk through this courtyard without touching something to see if it is real or plastic. Are those real peppers? What is the texture of that poncho?

Inside this Plaza, you will find textiles, ceramics, jewelry, crafts, and food. There are many excellent Mexican restaurants in this historical park: some offer fresh tortillas made right in front of you. Sit down to eat, or grab one to go.

At the center of the Plaza is a charming stage where ethnic performers may entertain you. Chairs and benches allow you to rest your feet and enjoy the show. Bathrooms are located near the entrance to this courtyard. Tucked into a nook is Geppetto's, a quality toy store.

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Go South along San Diego Avenue

One of the first stores you will find on the north end of San Diego Avenue is the Bailey and McGuire Pottery. This quaint pottery store is in Casa de Wrightington (built in 1930's) which served as a US military hospital. Like some of the other buildings in Old Town, it is made of adobe. Adobe is brick made from sand, clay, straw and sometimes dung. The mix is shaped into rectangles and then sun dried. Adobe is very durable and it has the ability to keep the interior cool during the day and keep the interior warm during the night.

Along this end of the street, you will also find:

  • the San Diego House: home to Richard Freeman and Allen Light: the first African-Americans to settle and open business in this part of California. They (and later the daughter, Anita Freeman) operated the San Diego House as a saloon until 1858 at which time it was destroyed by fire. The building was reconstructed in 1985. See plaque.
  • the Racine & Laramie is a reconstructed adobe building. It was, and it continues to be, a tobacco store complete with a carved cigar-store Indian at the doorway. Photo
  • the Wells Fargo Museum with its original stagecoach. Photo.
  • the Courthouse: this was the first brick building made in San Diego. It was built by the Mormon Battalion in 1847. It was also the Mayor's office. Notice the replica of the 1850 jail cell behind the brick building.

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another photo

Then comes my favorite: Cousins Candy Store. Obviously, this place sells candy -more candy than you can shake a stick at- but they are famous for their salt-water taffy. Anybody who loves taffy will know that it is made by pulling and stretching the taffy repeatedly to make it light and fluffy. Well, you can see this being done at Cousins Candy Store, they have a mechanical taffy puller which pulls, rolls, & scrolls the taffy endlessly: quite mesmerizing. Go inside and indulge yourself to chocolates, fudge, and sweets.

Before you proceed, take a look towards the central courtyard- this is the Plaza Viejo. It was a public space where locals met and conducted Spanish-Mexican events such as bull fighting. In 1838, the cannon, called El Capitan, was moved to Old Town from the Spanish fort on Ballast Point. In 1846, Captain John Freemont raised the American flag which still stands today.

Old Town

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another photo

As you keep walking south, you will come upon Toby's Candle Shop. It's a nice little shop, but its major attraction is that you can dip your own candle. Don't worry, you don't have to work for hours, just dip it once or twice to get a flavor of what the settlers did 200 years ago.

McKinstry Dentist. It is a replica of an old day dental office. It will make you appreciate how far dentistry has come today (see photo). Keep looking around the left and right sides of the street because there are many other interesting stores and old buildings.

One place that you will not easily forget is El Centro Artesano. This is the place to go if you want to buy pottery. Not just flower pots, but ceramic frogs, lizards, pigs, peppers, chimineas, whirligigs, wind chimes, bird feeders, and more.

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more photos

old town
more photos

Across the street from El Centro Aresano, is a store that I really enjoy: the Miner's Gems housed in the Casa de Pedrorena. Here you will find various gems, crystals, rocks, jewelry, and fossils. Truly, a treasure house for more than one reason. During the Cinco de Mayo celebration, they set up a station here where you can try your hand at panning for gold.

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Beside the Miner's Gem is the Old Town Market. It's a great place to shop for souvenirs and memorabilia. Everything is so colorful & lively that you cannot help but be drawn to the outdoor displays and then drawn into the indoor merchandise.

Old Town State Historic park is blocked off for pedestrian traffic only , so it's a great place to bring kids because they can run around and you do not need to worry about traffic. However, once you cross Twiggs street, the road is open to cars and buses, so stay on the sidewalk and be careful.

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As you continue southward along San Diego Avenue, you will find more things of interest including the Church of Immaculate Conception - this was the first church built in California that was not a part of the Mission system. Gift shops, hand made crafts, soap store, galleries, restaurants, and historically preserved buildings. Here's an interesting diversion:

The Whaley House (corner of San Diego Avenue and Harney) is the "most haunted house" in the USA. There has been so many sightings and unusual ongoings that one cannot deny that something or someone still inhabits that old house! In addition to being haunted, this house is also famous because it is the first two-storey brick house in San Diego. Read more...

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"The Whaley House stands silently watching over San Diego Avenue as it has done for a century and a half. Every day visitors come from around the world to tour the historic museum. It contains so much history within its walls, that even the non-believer will enjoy the tour. For believers and skeptics alike, the house draws them back time and again, in search of those elusive ghosts. As Regis Philbin once said, "You know a lot of people pooh-pooh it because they can't see it. But there was something going on in that house."

There is much to see:
- Spanish/Mexican influences that dazzle the eye; and
- historical aspects of San Diego's birthplace.
So take your time and enjoy the State Park. Other things to keep an eye out for:
  • McCoy House (currently a free Interpretive Museum): California's first sheriff's house. Photos
  • Mason Street School: Erected in 1865, this is San Diego's first public school house. Photo.
  • the Casa de Estudillo: a fine example of an hacienda. Built in 1827, it is now a free, walk-through museum showcasing the life style of an affluent family. This building is said to haunted as well. Read more, see outside or inside photos.
  • Heritage Park: has restored Victorian homes and other unique gift shops and museums. Located southeast of Old Town. Photo.
  • Presidio Park: is the site for California's first Fort (no longer visible) and California's first Mission (currently the Junipero Serra Museum). This expansive, picture perfect grassy area is located east of Old Town. A walking trail connects various monuments and landmarks. Read more...


In terms of restaurants, Old Town is jam packed with great eateries. I can't even presume to recommend one since they are almost all good. The Cafe Coyote is very good as is the Casa Guadalajara. Often these establishments will make fresh tortilla right in front of you and you can buy some "to go".

There are a number of non-Mexican restaurants too: Italian, Seafood, Asian, South American and American. Notable is O'Hungrys which serve burgers and fries along with beer sold by the yard! Photo

I enjoy the Living Room, a cafe & bistro where you can also get light meals and dessert treats. There's no Starbucks here, but you can try the Exotic Coffee Blend serving up coffees, teas, smoothies, snacks, sandwiches and the like.

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Public restrooms are available but they are hard to find, so check out this map before you go. Often the washrooms are locked or "not available" but don't worry because you can always duck into one of the restaurants or coffee shops.

Cost and Parking

Almost everything in Old Town is free (except for purchases of merchandise, food, and guided tours)! Parking is free (for San Diego, this is an extra bonus!) You can park along Juan Street or Congress Street. There are 6 designated parking lots in Old Town, though they are small and fill up quickly especially during events. Your best bet is to park at the Transit Lot under highway 5. From here, it's just a short walk to get to the historical state park.


In the beginning, Old Town was inhabited by the Kumeyaay Indians, then Mexicans, and finally American Settlers. Old Town was a thriving community filled with shops and activity.

However, in the 1860's, city organizers such William Heath Davis and Alonzo Horton decided that a place closer to the waterfront would prosper better. In time, residents and commerce shifted away from Old Town to a place called "New Town" (currently the
Gaslamp Quarter of downtown San Diego). Old Town's demise was sealed when a fire destroyed many buildings in 1872.

But all is not lost. In 1907, John D Spreckels bought and revived parts of Old Town. Restoration projects continued over the following decades. In 1968, Old Town became a State Historic Park resulting in further renovations. Today, Old Town is predominantly a tourist attraction with emphasis on the rich history of San Diego between 1821 to 1872. Educational programs, interpretive centers, information plaques, and guided tours available.