Alright, so Old Town might have a ho-hum name. But it has a wagonload of character.
At first glance, the neighborhood resembles the setting of a John Wayne cowboy flick. Wooden false front buildings line the streets. There’s an old western hotel, a courthouse, and a general store. They’re all inhabited by costumed employees wearing Victorian-era clothing: men wear top hats, vests, and cravats, while ladies don hooped dresses.
But Old Town is not synonymous with Old West.
This was a Mexican town in its heyday. You can taste it in the food. You can hear it in the music. And most of the buildings are, in fact, adobe haciendas. Walking through Old Town, you can’t tell whether you’re in Tombstone or a traditional Mexican village.
It’s more like the Old Southwest in these parts.
The Birthplace of California
Before the Mexicans and Americans came, there were the Kumeyaay and the Spanish. A Kumeyaay village existed here until the Spanish arrived in 1769. The Spanish built an outpost on Old Town’s Presidio Hill – the first European settlement in California.
You’ll get a kick out of Old Town if you’re any kind of history geek. Dozens of little museums illustrate the rich history and heritage of the area.
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park (known locally as State Park) is the centerpiece of the neighborhood. State Park is a living, breathing reenactment of San Diego in the 1800s. Some of the buildings are authentic – dating all the way back to the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s – while others are detailed reconstructions of real buildings that existed here. Most Old Town’s museums are located in State Park.
Old Town museums are fun because they’re not so exhibit-behind-the-glass. An Old Western hotel still operates as a lodging. A historic stable still houses donkeys. An 1800s restaurant still brews coffee and tea. The museums are palpable and interactive, which also makes them great for the kids.
With so much authentic food, music, costumes, and architecture, one could argue that the whole neighborhood of Old Town is a museum in and of itself. It’s an exciting reimagining of a time gone by.
Even after the American flag was raised over the Plaza de Las Armas, Old Town’s Mexican heritage never died. One hundred and seventy years later, it thrives.
Ladies in bright jalisco dresses cook tortillas. Mariachi bands perform for dinner patrons at a score of Mexican restaurants. Occasionally, a vibrant block party engulfs the neighborhood for Hispanic celebrations (see When To Visit). But, truth be told, it’s always a fiesta in Old Town.
A trip to Old Town might compel you to infuse your home (and your fashion) with Latin style. If that’s your new cause, then Old Town Market should be stop numero uno on your shopping spree. You’ll find an overwhelming amount of decorative tiles, Day of the Dead skulls, paintings, and handcrafted Mexican jewelry, apparel, and alebrije (animal figures from Mexican folk art). You can also shop for some of the hottest fashion from Latin America.
The Bazaar del Mundo and the shops at the Fiesta de Reyes sell similar goods. El Centro Artesano sells gorgeous Mexican pottery and garden decor.
You can buy your new bootstraps in Old Town, too. A few 1800s-themed shops offer a variety of 1800s-style goods. Check out Rust General Store, Racine and Laramie Tobacconist, The Johnson House, and Captain Fitch’s Mercantile.
Drinks and Dining
History is cool and all, but locals prefer Old Town for two reasons: Mexican food and tequila.
You’ll find lots of Mexican cuisine scattered throughout San Diego – we’re only a few miles from the Mexican border, after all. But have no doubt: Old Town rises above the rest. The neighborhood’s collection of Mexican restaurants serve up dishes with authentic Latin flavors and rich spices. The real draw for locals, though, is the dining atmosphere.
Let’s begin in State Park.
The Fiesta de Reyes is a market-restaurant hybrid that’s themed as – you guessed it – a ¡fiesta! It’s an adobe hacienda that’s decorated with colorful paper picados, exquisite pottery, and magnificent palm trees. A restaurant occupies the central courtyard. Flanking it on all sides are little souvenir and pastry shops.
There’s a stage and seating area in the courtyard that hosts a variety of different musicians and entertainers. What’s the celebration for? Good food and history, we guess. Music blaring and dishes steaming, the Fiesta de Reyes keeps the party going long after State Park has quieted for the night.
The Cosmopolitan Restaurant and Hotel is probably the most unique dining option in Old Town. Once a hotel in the 1870s, it’s now an antique bed and breakfast. The food is some of the best in Old Town, and there’s also a saloon with an old western vibe. You can even book your stay there for a historic hotel experience! Don’t worry – although there are fewer modern amenities than what you’d find in a modern hotel, The Cosmopolitan is still extremely comfortable.
Outside of State Park, you’ll find a dozen restaurants along San Diego Avenue.
Cafe Coyote and Old Town Mexican Cafe sit next to each other on San Diego Ave. Cafe Coyote boasts a massive tequila menu. “Old Town Mex” has been a neighborhood fixture for years, well-known for its handcrafted tortillas. Locals frequently stop by and purchase a few of them for lunch or a stack to take home. “But I don’t really like tortillas,” you say. You haven’t had the tortillas at Old Town Mex. They’re crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, and smeared with melted butter. They’ll even give you a cup of salsa to dip ‘em in.
Other popular restaurants include:
Few San Diego neighborhoods do margaritas better than Old Town. For drinks only, we prefer:
- Fred’s Mexican Cafe
- Old Town Tequila Factory
- Rose’s Tasting Room
- Rockin’ Baja Lobster
- The Cosmopolitan Restaurant
- Old Town Saloon
Where Do I Start?
Start your visit in Old Town State Park. The Robinson-Rose Visitors Center and the McCoy House Museum provide a fun historical context to the neighborhood, and they’ll give you more insight into State Park museums, shops, and walking tours. Stroll around the plaza and peep into museums and shops when you come upon them.
When you’ve had your fill of State Park, explore San Diego Avenue. It hosts most of the other museums, restaurants, and shops in Old Town.
Harney Street will take you up to beautiful Heritage Park, where a cluster of stunning Victorian homes rest. Across the street from Heritage Park is the Old Town Tequila Factory. The restaurant and cantina offers a sweeping view of Old Town, but you may need to book reservations in advance.
When To Visit Old Town
Visit Old Town in the daytime if you enjoy museums or shopping. Most of the museums operate during standard business hours. Festive days include:
- Every Saturday and Sunday: Old Town Harney Street Market (10 AM – 4:30 PM)
- May 5: Fiesta Old Town Cinco de Mayo
- July 4: Old Town Fourth of July
- Weekend prior to November 1 and 2: Día de Muertos
A place called “Old Town” might not sound so exciting after sunset. There ‘ain’t no loco dive bars. There ‘ain’t no nightclubs.
Here ye, travellers! Here ye!
To lots of folks, Old Town is preferable at night. State Park empties out, but locals flock to San Diego Avenue for casual drinks and dining. It makes perfect sense when you don’t think about it. The food is flavorful, the cocktails are luscious, and the historic costumes evoke the adventurous sensibilities of the western frontier.
There’s an exotic flair to this neighborhood. At night, the Spanish adobe buildings are lit in a bright hue of warm colors. Elegant palm trees dot the night sky while mansions roll upward into Mission Hills. If you gaze down San Diego Avenue just right, you’ll be swept away from Old Town and taken to Mexico, or the Spanish Caribbean, or back in time.
- Red Spade Theater
- Toby’s Candle and Soap Shop, Inc.
- Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception
- Whaley House Museum
- Presidio Park