Considered the “birthplace” of California, Old Town San Diego is a definite must-go for anyone visiting San Diego for the first time. As the site of the first permanent Spanish settlement in California, the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation established Old Town State Historic Park in 1968 to preserve the rich heritage that characterised San Diego from 1821 to 1872.
With a collection of preserved buildings and small museums that celebrate California’s history, a trip to Old Town will bring you a step back in time to the nineteenth century. Before you feel bored by all the history, there are also cute stores that sell traditional candies, handmade soaps, unique souvenirs and, of course, restaurants selling delicious Mexican cuisine! Read on to check out what to see, do and eat in Old Town San Diego.
Get a hearty Mexican meal while enjoying free live entertainment
Authentic and affordable Mexican food with outdoor seating under palm trees and lively folklorico dance performances … are you tempted yet?
When you reach Old Town State Historic Park, there is a courtyard area called Fiesta De Reyes, which consists of 19 locally-owned specialty stores and 3 restaurants. Right smack in the middle of courtyard is a centre stage that offers free live entertainment ranging from energetic mariachis to traditional folklorico dancing by dancers in colourful, big skirts.
Why not grab an outdoor seat just a few steps away from the stage at Casa de Reyes restaurant and indulge in a hearty Mexican meal while enjoying the lively performance? As a hot tourist spot, I was pleasantly surprised at how tasty and affordable the food was at Casa de Reyes. I paid less than 15 USD for my huge serving of carnitas hash with eggs sunny side up, which were not only tasty but also included free chips and salsa.
View a rare original stagecoach at the Wells Fargo Museum
Old Town has many museums worth visiting, one of which is the Colorado House that houses the Wells Fargo Museum. The Colorado House was originally a hotel, and the current building is a reconstruction of the 1860 original.
Founded in 1852, Wells, Fargo & Co. offered financial services such as buying gold and selling paper bank drafts as well as rapid delivery of the gold. Therefore, they needed to deliver business by the fastest means possible, be it via stagecoach, steamship, railroad, pony rides or telegraph. Today, Wells Fargo Museum offers visitors a glimpse of the comforts and hardships of travel in the nineteenth century.
In the historically furnished Wells Fargo agent’s office in Old Town, you can get to see exhibits like an original stagecoach from 1867, an original panoramic painting of San Diego in 1855 and authentic telegraphs.
Check out the first cigar store in San Diego
In 1868, Racine & Laramie became San Diego’s first cigar store, which sold cigars, tobacco, stationary, pipes, cutlery and gentlemen’s furnishings. However, all was lost in the fire of 1872. The current building is reconstructed with the interior furnished and stocked as it might have been during the olden times using archeology, historic research and old photographs.
Once you walk into this cigar store, you will catch a whiff of the flavoured tobacco aromas that fill the room and see a huge assortment of cigars and tobacco. And the best part is that the store’s employees even dress for that period, making you feel like you have really gone back in time. Definitely a must-go even if you are non-cigar smoker!
Get a taste of traditional candies
Cousin’s Candy shop is a cute store in Old Town that sells traditional candies like fudge and salt water taffy, made fresh in store. You can even see candy makers make the salt water taffy behind the counter and grab a sample. This is the place to get your chocolates, licorices, jelly beans and yesteryear candies. A perfect place for anyone with a sweet tooth.
Visit the First San Diego Courthouse
This small courthouse museum provides a unique look into the town’s history. The original San Diego courthouse, which was then the first courthouse and first fired-brick building in San Diego, was built in 1847 by members of the Mormon Battalion. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in a fire in 1872 and this building was rebuilt in 1991 and remains on the same site as the original courthouse.
Today, the First San Diego Courthouse is a museum where you will get to see the classical old west courthouse and jail. It is interesting to see what the courthouse looked like during that time and gain a better understanding of its history.
Buy handmade soap and candles
At Toby’s Candle & Soap shop, you can not only buy handmade soaps and candles but also create your own candle in store! With a myriad of options, ranging from dragonfruit soap to sweet pea soap, you will be spoilt for choices by all the heavenly scents of the candles and soap!
Here is a tidbit of information about the shop’s history: when Toby was a university professor in 1980, one of her students was skilled in candle carving, something that Toby wanted to learn and that’s how Toby learnt to carve beautiful candles. Today, Toby’s second and third generations continue the art of creating candles.
Over here at this store, women especially will be tempted to overspend with the plethora of creams, bath salts and soaps. If you want to buy souvenirs from Old Town, why not get a sweet-smelling soap or cream here? At least, you know you will definitely get to use it at home.
A good place to spend half a day with free admission for museums
Old Town San Diego is conveniently located near the Old Town trolley station on the green line. While Old Town has been described as a tourist trap by some, I still feel that it is worthy of visit and you could easily spend half a day trying out the delicious Mexican food, checking out the cute shops and visiting the numerous museums with free admission.
Other than the abovementioned museums, the supposedly haunted Whaley House and Mormon Battalion Historic Site that chronicles the history of the long march from Iowa to San Diego are also worth visiting. Old Town San Diego is also a perfect place to stock up on cool souvenirs, as there is an eclectic mix of shops ranging from candy stores, tile stores to pottery stores.