Old Town is one of the most talked about areas in San Diego. You’ll see countless field trips and tourist groups in awe of the history that they’re walking through.
It wasn’t always Old Town San Diego though. Before the Spanish settlers came to town, the land was cared for and protected by the exceptional Kumeyaay, or the Tipai-Ipai, people for over 10,000 years. Read more about the history of San Diego here.
I can’t relay you the entire history but you can most definitely learn more at the visitor center on San Diego Avenue. But the birthplace of California is definitely worth visiting, let me tell you why.
Old Town Video Guide
We also made a YouTube Video on the best things to do and see in Old Town San Diego. Watch it here>>
Things To Do in Old Town San Diego
Old Town San Diego Heritage Park
Old Town is a very old area with a lot of historical chunks that deserve to be preserved. You can find a few of these places in Heritage Park in the Old Town area. There, you will find several historic buildings, some of which you can explore inside.
The beautiful streets of Heritage Park is 7.8 acres that is fully dedicated to the restoration and preservation of San Diego Victorian architecture. The park is opened from sunrise to sunset, though the houses themselves have varying hours of operation.
The wonderful thing about this area is the fact that all the houses are so unique to the creator, you can tell they were made by creative minds. The article true put into each is fascinating and most are being actively converted into Bed & Breakfast spots.
I highly recommend going to visit the Temple Beth Israel, the first synagogue in San Diego that is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm and the once Indigenous-owned Busyhead House built in 1887. Though you can’t really go wrong with visiting the entirety of this San Diego historic park. The streets are rich with stories of the past, giving you the opportunity to learn from it.
That’s what’s so fascinating about state historical parks and just historical sites in general. It’s the perfect start to learning about history, atrocities included. It also just makes for a lovely stroll for families, couples, and individuals.
You’ll find a lot of information and tranquility just walking about Heritage Park. You can make a day out of it with breakfast, lunch, or even dinner as there are several places around Old Town for you to stop and get food.
Whaley House Museum: Haunted House
The Whaley House is a place I know very well. As a child, I went on dozens of field trips here and each time was more interesting than the last. Perhaps it was the fact that I had more of an appreciation for history or maybe it was my hyper-fixation on the occult. Read our full article about the Whaley House Story here.
Nonetheless, this is a nice little tour that doesn’t cost very much, $8-$13, and you get to see neat artifacts from the time. They’ve completely restored the land to showcase the parlor, courthouse, and the general living area of the Whaley family as it evolved throughout them living there. The spooks, the history, the rumors, the drama, what more could you ask for?
El Campo Santo Cemetery
If you walk along the streets, a little more than a block from the Whaley House, you’ll start to notice little coins in the roads and on the sidewalks. These are grave markers to indicate the few dozens of graves from the full original cemetery that were paved over. What’s left of the cemetery is protected by a brick fence.
More than 477 people were buried in the area and because of this, there are rumors of spiritual activity. It is perfectly free to visit day and night but be warned, this is said to a nexus for spiritual activity. So be kind, you’re a guest.
Junipero Serra Museum
This free museum is meant to transport visitors back in time. They’ve done their best to preserve the works of this beautiful early San Diego presidio. It’s located just above Old Town, San Diego and deemed the first permanent settlement by the Europeans. Essentially, this building marks the beginning of San Diego itself and the state of California as you know it today.
Old Town Market
Hours of Operation: Mon-Sat 9am-9pm; sun 9am-8pm
This is by far one of my favorite parts of Old Town. The lively market is filled with handcrafted items from Hispanic and Indigenous cultures. You can buy spices, dolls, clothes, fans, and so so much more.
Of course, outside the market there are the more touristy shops. However, these ones are where you can see the cultural pride. They make things with such care and precision; each item telling a unique story. You should most definitely give it a visit and check out all of the cool things around and the food they make too!
This fascinating religious spot was built in remembrance of the Mormon Battalion’s journey to San Diego from Iowa. The group of 500 joined the US army to provide financial support for families and Mormon pioneers during the 1846 Mexican-American War. You can explore the artifacts, go on video tours, and check out the demonstrations. It is definitely interesting and worth checking out.
Old Town San Diego Tours
One of the best ways to check out the sites of San Diego and specifically Old Town is taking a trolley tour. These are hop-on-hop-off tours you can take for around $42/person.
What this entails is basically the ability to take an all-day tour of the area where you can get off in spots that you find interesting then get picked back up at a certain time once you’re done exploring. It’s a great way to get information while also having the ability to really explore areas of interest. I suggest taking a peak. Book your tickets here>>
Ghosts and Gravestones Tours
If you’re also a fan of the spooky and strange, I think you’ll really take a liking to this tour. The Ghosts and Gravestones tour take you to the locations with weird rumors and strange happenings whilst giving you a good history and perhaps reasons for the permanent guests. Read our full review of the Ghosts & Gravestones tour here>>
These are all fun and games but if you get spooked easily, then I suggest bringing a companion to hold onto. These tours are best done at night and during the colder seasons for the full spooky effect. Book your tickets here>>
Tequila & Tortilla Tours
History and culture is most often best learned through food. You can absolutely do that on this Tequila and Tortilla tour. For about $71/person, you can eat your way through the Hispanic culture that is woven into Old Town.
People will learn how to decipher the real stuff from the imitation while tasting exquisite Tequilas in authentic taquerias. Ugh, it’s just heaven. Book your tickets here>>
Food & Wine Tours
If you’re a fan of tasting your way through cities, then you will be a huge fan of this Old Town San Diego food & wine tour. For about $100/person, you can take half a day to sip wine and/or beer and munch of Old Town delicacies while learning about why these foods are made the way they are. You get to walk around a little bit and travel by trolley between 3 destinations. It is really worth the money to learn and eat so much! Book your tickets here>>
Old Town San Diego Restaurants
Hotels in Old Town San Diego
2660 Calhoun St, San Diego, CA, 92110
+1 (619) 297-1874
Check for Deals Here>>
The lovely historical Cosmopolitan hotel and restaurant was built in 1827 and has been catering to the public ever since. Guests can walk out of the historic Old Town and into a historic hotel just as lovely. No need to worry though, you get all of the standard modern amenities with gorgeous vintage antique decor. It is one of the best options so close to the action.
Best Western Plus Haciendia Old Town
4041 Harley St, San Diego, CA, 92110
+1 (619) 298-4707
Book your room here>>
For a modern feel in a historic area, the Best Western is the first thought that pops into my head. They seamlessly integrate the area with the hotel itself. You can take a break from the legends and stories to just relax in a super comfortable hotel. You can even grab food from the on-site restaurant or chill out in the hot tub or heated pool.
Hilton Garden Inn
4200 Taylor St, San Diego, CA, 92110
+1 (619) 260-0607
Make a reservation here>>
The beauty of this hotel is that it’s near two really sought after spots, Old Town and SeaWorld. The rooms and amenities are tailored to be accessible to all kinds of people. From the room service to the on-site restaurant and outdoor pool, you can enjoy a comfortable stay while visiting San Diego. Take a look at the rates at the Hilton Garden Inn here.
Courtyard by Marriott San Diego Old Town
2435 Jefferson St, San Diego, CA, 92110
+1 (619) 260-8500
Check for deals here>>
With the luxury of a towel and the comfort of home, Courtyard is a fine choice if you’re looking to visit San Diego. The accessible amenities makes staying here easy and relaxing. You can also just go out and explore the beautiful surrounding area and attractions like Old Town, the Balboa Park Museums, and so so much more.
Events in Old Town San Diego
Cinco de Mayo
This ever-changing festival is filled with live music, a bunch of food, art, and other festivities to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. It commemorates the military victory over Napoleon III’s forces at the Battle of Puebla The day is meant for big celebrations accompanied by traditional food and dances. Artists and merchants are able to sell their works and delicacies.
Now, the lineup of everything gets mixed around every year to keep things fresh and exciting. The celebration usually goes on for two days every single year. It is definitely worth visiting and at least checking out.
Dia de Los Muertos
Just after Halloween, we reunite the living with the dead. We celebrate their lives and offer up food, toys, pictures, etc. to ofrendas or altars so our loved ones know that we think of them. Day of the Dead in Old Town, businesses will sell offerings and altarpieces.
There is also a celebration with vendors, events, face painting, and entertainment like music and dances. Altars are on display until November 15th so you can keep a safe distance out of respect. This holiday is all about respect and love. I recommend taking a look.
History is amazing and it’s part of everything we do, see, and eat. It’s so important to learn about it. But there are so many sides to each piece of history. Even in San Diego, there were some atrocities to have happened to the Indigenous peoples of the area. It would be best to learn about their history as well and how it’s still affecting them today because it is still affecting them today. Take this as you will but please keep in mind that every moment of history has more than one side worth learning about.
This article was written by Hedge Metreyeon.
Ultimate Guide to Old Town San Diego – Pin for later:
Last Updated on July 11, 2023 by Maria Haase