Old Town San Diego is the site of the first permanent Spanish settlement on the west coast and is considered to be the birthplace of California—and we can explore it right here in our own backyard. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park has beautifully preserved the early days of San Diego via original and reconstructed buildings, historic museums, 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 food in some of the best Mexican restaurants in San Diego, 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:
Old Town Model Railroad Depot— Take a trip back to San Diego in the 1950s! If your little one loves trains, and you have a love for details, then this museum is not to be missed. The custom Lionel size train layout covers over 2000 square feet and delights both kids and adults. Admission is $5-$10.
Seeley Stable—This reconstruction of a barn from the mid-1800s 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 an excellent way to show kids how California got its start. Don’t miss the fully-functioning blacksmith shop, complete with fires and anvil action.
Whaley House—The well-known Whaley House is known for spooky spirits, but we enjoy it more for history than for hauntings. Pay $9.50-$14 for a self-guided tour and a less-creepy look at this mid-1800s courthouse. Older kids into Ghost Hunters will enjoy watching tourists chase 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 five and younger.
Eat Authentic Mexican Food
There's no shortage of restaurants and authentic Mexican food in Old Town. Of course, 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 for making fresh tortillas in the front window for everyone to see. We recommend sampling a piping hot tortilla off the grill and dipping it in the housemade guacamole. Their rolled tacos are also tasty. This restaurant has been dishing up 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 and are sans kids, enjoy some time at two restaurants/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 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. The bar's entrance is hidden somewhere in Tahona. Make a reservation to sneak in here.
Visit a Schoolhouse from Yesteryear
Take the kiddos to Mason Street Schoolhouse to experience a school of yesteryear. Built in 1865, this was the first public schoolhouse in San Diego. Learn about the school’s first teacher, Mary Chase Walker, who earned $65 per month. Kids love experiencing this old schoolhouse. They can sit at 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. to 4 p.m. and admission is free.
Wax On! Try Your Hand at Candle Making
Pop into Toby's Candle and Soap Shop to experience candle-making as it was done in the "old days." Kids can choose a candle figurine (boat, train, animal shapes, etc., are available) and then dip their figure in different wax colors to make a take-home candle souvenir. Other activities include making a sand wax or kaleidoscope candle, and prices are from $5-$32.
Visit the Junípero Serra Museum
Get a taste of history by touring the Junípero Serra 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— An open-air market filled with over 40 vendors that offer keepsakes and souvenirs, clothing, purses, and just about any trinket you can imagine. Live music and performances add to the festive atmosphere.
Bazaar Del Mundo— Locally owned and operated, this shop is at the entrance to Old Town and features specialty art and gifts from around the world. 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 seen every weekend in Old Town. Click here for information on the entertainment schedule for 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.
In May, don't miss Fiesta Old Town Cinco de Mayo, where you'll dance live music, see Lucha libre wrestling, and ooh and aah over a grand display of lowriders.
During 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 all that Old Town offers at Stop A of the trolley tour. This stop will put you in the perfect spot to experience the magic of Old Town before continuing your tour of San Diego. The Old Town Trolley Tour affords unlimited hop-on and off privileges and takes you to 12 stops throughout the day.
San Diego Ave.
San Diego, CA
––Kimberly Stahl, Beth Shea & Leah Singer