Old Town San Diego represents the historical center of the oldest city in California, San Diego, which was founded way back in 1769 during the time of the American Revolution. Initially settled by the Spanish, Mexico eventually took control of the territory in 1821 following the Mexican War of Independence. Then again in 1848, San Diego changed hands and officially became a part of America following the Mexican-American War and the granting of California statehood.
Today Old Town is a vibrant and bustling area near downtown San Diego with a number of parks, museums, and authentic Mexican restaurants, bars, live music and marketplaces. And San Diego itself is such a lovely city to visit any time of year. It has gorgeous weather, soft sand beaches, majestic cliffside views of the Pacific Ocean, and a manageable big-city vibe with zoos, museums, art, and culture.
52 Things to do in Old Town San Diego
Still, Old Town San Diego is our all-time favorite area to stay and play during our visits to San Diego with kids. This article will show you exactly why! Follow along on our virtual tour of 52 things to do in Old Town San Diego:
1. Start in the central Plaza de Las Armas, and take a photo with the iconic flagpole and historic iron cannon display in Washington Square.
2. Venture inside the historic Cosmopolitan Hotel, one of the most unique hotels in San Diego which rests on the site of one of the oldest surviving buildings in San Diego, the former adobe home of Juan Bandini built in 1827.
3. Start in the Cosmopolitan Saloon and take a photo while bathing in the old-timey Victorian-era atmosphere. (If the Saloon is open, why not grab a quick drink!).
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4. You may hear jazz music emanating from the Cosmopolitan Restaurant; if so, follow it and check out the scene. If not, peruse the antique furniture and lobby of the hotel.
5. Just steps away you will find La Casa de Estudillo. It is free to tour this historic adobe home built in 1827 (small donations encouraged for preservation). It is an educational museum with a nice little garden in the courtyard and re-creation of old-style bedrooms with antique furniture.
6. Stroll the variety of quaint local shops that surround the Plaza.
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7. Grab an old-timey sugary snack at Cousin’s Candy Shop with a variety of flavors of fresh-made taffy and other treats.
8. Pop into Racine and Laramie Tobacco shop (even if you don’t smoke) to browse their nostalgic collection of old pipes and trinkets from another time.
9. If you fancy it, grab a coffee at American House Coffee & Tea.
10. Just beyond the Coffee House, you will find the historic McCoy House built in 1869, which now houses a small but interesting museum.
11. While you are on this side of the plaza, don’t forget to see if the historic Mason Street Schoolhouse is open to see, as well as the nearby Casa de Machado.
12. Venture across the plaza to Rust General Store to browse a variety of unique jarred foods and other interesting items. One time they were giving free samples of boutique hot chocolate.
13. Next head towards the must-see area called Fiesta de Reyes. You will be greeted by an old round fountain and, if you are lucky enough to be there in October, a collection of colorful Dia de los Muertos-style statues. Take a picture as you enter this beautiful area.
14. If you see a live band on the stage in Fiesta de Reyes, sit down, relax and enjoy the tunes for a moment to soak in local San Diego music and culture. They seem to have music going every evening we’ve ever visited.
15. Shop around the variety of shops in Fiesta de Reyes, with Mexican goods, souvenirs, toys, and colorful trinkets. Don’t forget to try authentic churros and Mexican breads!
16. You will also find olive oil and wine tasting shops in this area, as well as a cool shop that specializes in hard-to-find hot sauces.
17. You must, must, MUST have a meal at Casa de Reyes, the open-air Mexican food restaurant smack dab in the center of Fiesta de Reyes.
18. If you don’t have the time or appetite for a full meal, at least grab some fresh handmade tortillas from the window.
19. Proceed southeast about 500 feet to the other end of Old Town Historic Park where you will find the Old Town Market with more cute shops and a festive atmosphere.
20. On the walk there, don’t forget to peek inside the Seeley Stable with historic Western artifacts like an old Wells Fargo & Co U.S. Mail carriage.
21. Venture outside the park along San Diego Ave to a row of active restaurants, shops and museums. Your first stop is O’ Hungry’s Kitchen & Tap for a half yard beer. (Yes, this is a tradition we do every time we visit Old Town San Diego.) If you are not one for taking beer breaks, you may proceed instead to 21…
22. Across the street, pay a quick visit to the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, the oldest church in California outside of the Mission System. It is small and quaint if you can peak inside; otherwise, snap a photo of the facade of this simple and beautiful church.
23. Your next stop is the Whaley House, which is often regarded as one of the most haunted places in the US, if not the world. Consider paying the nominal fee to do a self-guided tour of the property. Inside you will learn about the historic events that took place at the Whaley House and you might hear some ghost stories as well.
24. Visit the Whaley House Gift Shop next door and shop their collection of ghost books, clothing, and memorabilia.
25. Briefly venture up Harney street and check out the Hacienda Hotel, which is our all-time favorite place to stay in Old Town. Even if you’ve never seen the Hacienda Hotel, it is definitely worth touring quickly and checking out for perhaps your next trip to Old Town.
26. By the way, on the top floor of the Hacienda Hotel you’ll find the Tequila Factory Restaurant, which has an epic Sunday Champagne Brunch with great views of San Diego.
27. Continue up Harney street and turn right onto Juan Street. Here you will find the awesome Heritage County Park. It is on a steep hill, but it has a lovely collection of old Victorian homes and green grass to take a break and enjoy.
28. At the top of Heritage Park there is a cute little tea room in one of the Victorians, the Coral Tree Tea House, as well as a small museum. At least peak in there since you walked all the way up the hill! There are nice views up there, and it is a healthy walk anyways.
29. Next you will be returning back down the hill to San Diego Avenue. Go left past the Whaley House and pay attention to the four excellent Mexican Restaurants with colorful outdoor patios, fresh tortilla making and authentic Mexican cuisine. These are all great choices for a meal including Old Town Mexican Cafe (great tacos), Fred’s Mexican Cafe (affordable drinks and bites), Cafe Coyote (more lively), and Miguel’s Cocina (more upscale).
30. Don’t forget to peak around the variety of unique local shops and studios that pepper this section of San Diego Avenue.
31. A little further down San Diego Avenue you will come upon a magical little place, the Old Town Model Railroad Depot. You can tour the little world they’ve built for free (though we strongly encourage a small donation to support the shop), where you’ll find trains running through various scenes. It is so cool and unique, it is a must-see place, especially if you have kids.
32. Across the street, venture toward the El Campo Santo Cemetery. Be aware of little metal markers you will be stepping over as you walk along the street and sidewalk in this area – those are markers for graves that have since been built over.
33. It is rather small, but do plan to spend some time inside the El Campo Cemetery, which dates back to 1849. Honor the dead by reading their placards and feel the weight of being in this historic cemetery. Like the nearby Whaley House, it is also allegedly haunted.
34. Continue down San Diego Avenue toward the Sheriff’s Museum and Education Center. It is worth the small $5 fee to tour this museum and support the non-profit organization that runs it.
35. Learn about the history of the Sheriff’s Department, see displays of old guns and protective equipment, and take photos with the classic police cars, motorcycles, and helicopter on display.
36. Don’t forget to also ask to go inside their educational re-creation of a jail cell. You will get strong feelings as they close the heavy iron behind you and wiggle the keys to lock the doors. It is all in good fun and education, but this is a great opportunity to snap a unique photo of being behind bars.
37. Go a little further down San Diego Avenue to where it meets Old Town Avenue. It is worth seeing the collection of tequilas at Old Town Liquor & Deli, especially if you are a tequila fan. You have never seen a collection this large with a variety of tequilas for sale from all over Mexico.
38. Here are some other things to do in Old Town San Diego: Book a ghost tour and/or tour the area on the Old Town Trolley.
39. Shop scented candles at Toby’s Candle and Soap Shop. You can even dip your own candles if you like to be hands-on and creative like that!
40. Shop Oriental goods – teapots, jewelry, figurines, etc. – at Gum Saan shop.
41. Consider patio dining at Casa de Maria Restaurant, where they often have live music.
42. Next to Casa de Maria there is a Magic shop where you can see a few magic tricks for free and even buy some tricks you can perform on your friends.
43. Shop at the California Indian Market and Jewelry for affordable turquoise jewelry and Indian baskets that would make a great gift or souvenir.
44. If it is a nice evening and you are looking for a romantic patio dining experience, consider Barra Barra with numerous fire pits and serene outdoor lighting.
45. You can find great deals on leather at Toler’s Leather Depot – leather hats, belts, bags, wallets and more! It smells so good, like intense fresh leather in there.
46. If the timing is right, definitely try to catch a play at Cygnet Theatre, also known as Old Town Theatre. This small theatre produces shows all year round, so check their schedule during your visit.
47. Take an interactive guided tour at the Mormon Battalion Historic Site, which commemorates a group of Mormons from the US Army during the Mexican-American War.
48. Take a short hike behind the old Victorians in Heritage Park. This hidden trail starts near the Tea House and has great views of San Diego.
49. Just a short walk away from the main plaza you can find the Bazaar del Mundo shops with colorful art, jewelry, clothing, home decorative items and various souvenirs.
50. While you are near Bazaar del Mundo, stop inside Casa Guadalajara Restaurant for authentic Mexican cuisine or even just a margarita, chips and salsa.
51. Check out the many interesting cultural artifacts at Casa Del Rey Moro African Latin Museum.
52. Finally, relax under the iconic tree at the southern corner of the central Plaza de Las Armas, which I remember seeing as a kid growing up. It’s been there for a long time and is the perfect backdrop for one final photo to remember your trip to Old Town San Diego.
That’s a Wrap!
Well there you have it! I hope you enjoyed taking this virtual tour of Old Town with me – I sure enjoyed writing it and remembering all the fun we’ve had there over the years! In fact, sitting here I am getting ready to book our next trip, like right now!
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Amanda is wife, mother of three, bartender and world traveler. She loves taking her multi-generational family on unconventional adventures, often seeking out haunted locations, exciting nightlife and live music. Inspiring parents to book it like it’s hot, she shares her funny stories and travel advice on her family travel blog with a twist, HotMamaTravel.com and vlog, HotMamaTravel. She is also excited to have recently launched a new site with in-depth reviews of amazing and historic hotels.