Not packed in a bus. Not herded with a group. Self guided walk is the SAFEST way to sightsee while observing SOCIAL DISTANCING!

Old Town Walking Tour (Self Guided), San Diego

Dubbed as "The Birthplace of California", Old Town San Diego claims to be the first European settlement on the West Coast of the present-day United States and thus, has a long and rich history. It is a charming and happening part of city to stroll around leisurely, with amazing 19th-century houses and lots of local merchants selling unique handicraft items – not to mention the many authentic Mexican restaurants! Take this self-guided walking tour to discover some of the most beautiful, iconic heritage sights that San Diego's Old Town has to offer, including the Cosmopolitan Hotel, the Old Town Market, and the Heritage Park.
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Old Town Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Old Town Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » San Diego (See other walking tours in San Diego)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 14
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.2 Km or 0.7 Miles
Author: doris
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Old Town Plaza
  • Robinson-Rose House / Visitor Center
  • McCoy House Museum
  • Fiesta de Reyes
  • Johnson House
  • Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant
  • Casa de Estudillo
  • Colorado House / Wells Fargo Museum
  • Mason Street School
  • Old Town Market
  • Immaculate Conception Church
  • Whaley House
  • Mormon Battalion Historic Site
  • Heritage Park
1
Old Town Plaza

1) Old Town Plaza (must see)

The main social center of Old Town, this plaza played host to bullfights, bull-and-bear fights, executions, fiestas, and other Spanish-Mexican public events. It has been graced by several names, depending on which country had sovereignty over the town. For the Spanish, "plaza" was sufficient. When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the name became Plaza de Libertad ("Plaza of Liberty"). After the United States took over from Mexico, its name was changed to (what else?) Washington Square. Now it is again called simply "the plaza" – an excellent place to spend a couple of hours or a full day.

They say that San Diego started here. It's a great place to poke around and read about the town at the turn of the century. Lots of old buildings to see, wide space to walk around, a stage for performances of dance and music, a blacksmith shop, a recreated livery stable with displays of wagons and other forms of transportation, lots of ethnic restaurants and bars close by to try, shops for anything you can imagine, and glimpses of early San Diego life throughout.

Just for the record, several of the trees near the center of the plaza are cork oaks brought from Portugal.
2
Robinson-Rose House / Visitor Center

2) Robinson-Rose House / Visitor Center

Facing Old Town Plaza, this house was Old San Diego's original commercial center, housing railroad offices, law offices, and the first newspaper press. A classic example of Victorian-style architecture, it had a fairly large size house for its time in history (1853), when people tended to build small. Spend some time here and you'll find a large diorama of the 1872 Old Town (a fascinating look in to the past!), along with tourist information and numerous souvenirs.

James Robinson, formerly from Texas, came to San Diego in 1850 and became a well to do lawyer and businessman. Over time, he got involved in all aspects of the town's development and was quite successful as a lawyer who was known not to lose cases in court. After his death in 1857, the spot was used by a variety of local businesses like the San Diego Herald, Wells Fargo, and several other businesses. Sadly, it had fallen into disrepair over time, until the State rebuilt the location in 1989, and added it to the Historical Park as the Visitor Center. Admission is free, so that can be a real budget saver.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 10am–5pm
3
McCoy House Museum

3) McCoy House Museum

Originally built in 1869 by Irish-born Sheriff James McCoy as a wedding gift to his wife, Winifred, this was once arguably the most stately home in the Old Town neighborhood. Although it fell into severe disrepair in the early 1900s after the deaths of James and Winifred, the wood-framed, Greek Revival-style residence was rebuilt in 2000 to be used as a museum.

The docent-led house tour starts as you enter and walk through a lovely Victorian-style parlor filled with beautiful old furniture, dishes, and paintings hung on walls, where the McCoys might have entertained guests. The next area focuses on historical information regarding the Indian tribes from the area and their unique artifacts. There's also a small section devoted to a brief history about the Spanish explorers, missions, and presidios, while another section discusses the US-Mexican war. A few other interesting little areas are dedicated to The Boston Trader, The Grog Shop, and The Stage Stop.

A visitor can really learn about the area's history in this museum, including its transition from a Mexican pueblo to an American frontier town. If you're planning to go, it's good to call ahead, and be prepared for it not to be open, unless it's a weekend. There are plenty of little museums throughout Old Town that should be open if the McCoy House is closed.
4
Fiesta de Reyes

4) Fiesta de Reyes

One of the main dining and shopping marketplaces in Old Town, the vibrant Fiesta de Reyes has just the right size for spending a decent amount of time exploring – it's not too small but also not overwhelming. Walking around, there are a number of places to check out, including lots of souvenir shops selling both San Diego and Mexican items, plus unique specialty shops and a number of authentic eateries known for serving some of the best Mexican food and margaritas in town (try their very tasty chips and salsa, or some pork tamales!). Around the courtyard, the tile shop has beautiful hand-painted décor, and if you are a fan of chocolate or root beer, the specialty offerings here won't disappoint.

Fiesta de Reyes also offers strolling mariachis, folklórico dancing, year-round events, and more!
5
Johnson House

5) Johnson House

Built in 1870 with a false front and full-length wooden porch, this wood-frame pre-fabricated office building was brought by ship to San Diego, which was typical of many American buildings at that time. George Alonzo Johnson, a steamboat captain on the Colorado River, built the house on a vacant lot on La Plaza de Las Armas, in Old Town. A few years after 1880, when the Johnsons lost their rancho to creditors, they moved into this building on the plaza, where the captain died in 1903.

The dwelling was reconstructed in 1989 and now operates as a park concession with an excellent selection of both vintage and modern clothing for both men and women. One could spend hours here looking through trinkets and fabulous clothes, jewelry, and accessories. Anything related to vintage from a time long forgotten, is probably in this store. Looking for a hat?! This is your best bet at finding just the right one for your utmost awesome costumes and outfits.

A hidden gem of San Diego!
6
Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant

6) Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant

Peruvian immigrant Juan Bandini reached San Diego in 1819 and became one of its wealthiest early settlers, his former home having been purchased by one Albert Seeley to serve as a stagecoach hotel for travelers on the daylong trip south from Los Angeles. In 2010, faithful restorations and an added fine dining restaurant (featuring Mexican and American cuisine) revived the hotel to its 1870s glory, making it again a focal point of the original Downtown area.

With antique furnishings, chain-pull toilets, claw-foot tubs and a veranda overlooking Old Town State Historic Park, the charming Cosmopolitan gives guests a taste of Victorian-era living (no flat-screens or marble bathrooms here!). Its bar preserves the neighborhood's old-world aesthetic, complete with servers in period garb and game trophies mounted on the walls. The quality of the cocktails and the friendly atmosphere make this a gem among the rest of the old west kitsch.

The hotel is reportedly haunted with multiple friendly spirits in its guestrooms, including the ghost of Ysidora Bandini (daughter of original proprietor) and her cat in Room 11, and the spirit of a 'Lady in Red' in Room 4/5, to name a few.
7
Casa de Estudillo

7) Casa de Estudillo

Considered the finest of its day in Mexican California, this most elaborate "casa" – one of the oldest examples of Spanish architecture in the country – was built by the Presidio's commander, José Estudillo, in the 1820s, and is still thought of as the Old Town's showpiece. Although the early 1900s nearly saw it in ruins, the one-story abode has been restored well enough to maintain a very authentic feel, containing eclectic period furnishings from the 16th to the 20th century and boasting several bedrooms, a beautiful formal living room, and a quaint chapel in addition to kitchens, dining rooms, storage/work rooms, and a lovely courtyard – with displays and descriptions that explain their former use.

Helen Hunt Jackson's enormously popular novel "Ramona", first published in 1884, may or may not have been inspired by and/or set at the Estudillo, but the book's popularity apparently helped save the structure when it was turned into "Ramona's Marriage Place" by locals over a century ago. A very romantic location, for sure, but to see it that way (your visit shouldn't take more than an hour) try to go on an 'off day' when it's not crawling with San Diego's school children! ;-)
8
Colorado House / Wells Fargo Museum

8) Colorado House / Wells Fargo Museum

Adjacent to San Diego's first courthouse – now a museum on its own – is the Wells Fargo & Company History Museum, housed in a reconstructed 1850s hotel building, and featuring a reconstructed 19th-century telegraph office and stage stop. It's a small place, but loaded with interesting artifacts, including one of the original WF stagecoaches – an iconic reminder of the changing times the bank has been an integral part of, serving to illustrate the rapid transition to modern-day USA.

Seeing how banking was done and how money was moved long time ago in the West is always very interesting; many don't realize how heavily armed they were or that they had so many problems with people trying to steal their shipping cargo. The carriages – that used to cram up to 18 people inside – are nicely preserved and give the feel of the craftsmanship demanded to build not only a stable but also good-looking vehicle that could withstand the less than ideal roads.

Especially if you're a history buff, plan on spending a little time here. If you have children with you, there are some interactive displays such as a telegram machine where they can tap out a real-time message using Morse code.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 10am–5pm; free admission
9
Mason Street School

9) Mason Street School

Among the wonderful attractions to see at the Old Town State Historic Park, the first publicly built schoolhouse in the county, dating to 1865, is a rather modest structure, having just one room. Made of wood and with a roof of shingles, it measures 24 by 30 ft, and has a 10 ft high ceiling. Now imagine that grades one through eight (~35 students) were all taught in this tiny space at the same time, and you'll agree that it was a "Little House on the Prairie" kind of school experience!

On going inside, you may see the wonderful potbelly stove that heated the entire building, as well as replicas of the wooden benches used by students before having personal seats/desks. Eventually, after seven years, the school was considered too small, and a larger, two-story one was built. The original one-room building was moved to a new location in the 1870s to serve first as a home and then as a tamale factory. In the 1940s it was about to be bulldozed to make way for a highway overpass when the Historical Days Association arranged to have it brought back to its original site and restored.

A free 'tour' of the whole place takes about 10 minutes, and you can buy stop by at the bookshop, too.
10
Old Town Market

10) Old Town Market

With several eateries and lots of colorful fun options for souvenirs, jewelry and apparel, this unique market is sure to have something that you want to try. It does tend to get very busy during holidays such as Dia del Muertos (aka Day of the Dead), but that is actually a prime time to visit. Within walking distance you'll be able to enjoy live Mariachi bands, watch local artisan demonstrations (don't miss the glassblowing shop or the tile and pottery store), and catch the smell of good food wafting through the air (it's all at reasonable prices, but make sure to tip well). Like taking a mini-trip to Mexico!

Why You Should Visit:
Perfect place to enjoy Mexican cuisine, with also plenty of gifts/handicrafts to buy for the whole family.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 10am–9pm
11
Immaculate Conception Church

11) Immaculate Conception Church

The missions in California are a true destination and many offer stunning views, architecture, and examples of Spanish colonial detail. This Old Town church – the first built in California outside of the mission system (1868), now restored to its original splendor – is a beautiful, equally impressive example, minus some of the crowds and bustle of the more popular missions nearby. In sylvan surrounds, it has pleasing features, including a fine belfry.

The vestibule houses the baptismal font and confessional; then, as you enter the nave, your eyes are drawn to the sanctuary containing the altar, tabernacle, ambo and priest's chair. Look around at the stained glass windows, the paintings, statues and Stations of the Cross. There is a little gift shop on the grounds too (open from 10am to 5pm), and you can light a few candles – which, by the way, are now battery-operated – for good measure.

Tip:
The Fr. Junipero Serra Hall has nice restroom facilities.
12
Whaley House

12) Whaley House

Southern California's first two-story brick structure is quite interesting. A classic example of mid-nineteenth century Greek Revival architecture, it also served as San Diego's first courthouse (1869–1870), commercial theater, and home to Thomas Whaley, who reportedly built it over a graveyard and site of a former gallows. The bricks were made at Whaley's kiln in Old Town, and the walls were finished with plaster made from ground seashells. Now turned into a museum filled with historic artifacts, the house was featured by the Travel Channel as "the number one most haunted house in the United States"; as a matter of fact, it numbers among the 30 houses that were designated by the U.S. Department of Commerce to be haunted.

Tours are self-guided, so you can start anytime after being handed a four-page information sheet that covers the home's history and tells about the ghosts. The history and artifacts are quite enough without the ghost stories, however, mainly due to the local historical society's attention to period detail, which adds a nice touch to each room. Allow thirty minutes to one hour for your tour, and then perhaps a little extra for the lovely (free) rose garden and shady grounds.

Non-Summer Hours (Day after Labor Day through day before Memorial Day):
Mon, Tue: 10am–4:30pm; Thu–Sat: 10am–9:30pm; Sun: 10am–8:30pm
Summer Hours (Memorial Day through Labor Day):
Daily: 10am–9:30pm; last tour begins at 9:30pm
13
Mormon Battalion Historic Site

13) Mormon Battalion Historic Site

Such a great concept in a new, highly interactive museum with lots to do for people of all ages! The guides and tourists "re-enact" the group of 500 Mormon volunteers that joined the U.S. Military during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, leaving their Midwestern state of Iowa to blaze the way to the new San Diego, ready to fight if necessary.

The battalion was stationed in Old Town in 1847, and they built wells and a courthouse on the site. In the 1960s, the Church of Latter-day Saints opened a visitor center to commemorate their historical ties to San Diego; the building may be themed like something at Disneyland (so you can tell it isn't an original), but it is very carefully constructed.

Inside, visitors move through different rooms as the docents (who are church missionaries) act out an absorbing theatrical production that combines technology like a movie, with each room acting as a different set. At the end, you can have an old-fashioned photo taken, pan for gold, and climb to an observation tower and see all of Old Town.

A very worthwhile experience and it is all free!

Opening Hours:
Mon-Sat: 10am–8pm; Sun: 1–8pm (Nov–Mar)
Mon-Sat: 10am–9pm; Sun: 1–9pm (Apr–Oct)
Last tour begins one hour before closing
14
Heritage Park

14) Heritage Park

This 8-acre park, an architectural museum of sorts, is where the people of San Diego wisely and graciously chose to save some of their city's examples of fine Victorian houses built and owned by several of the people who made San Diego what it is, from around the turn of the century (as opposed to the colonial-era Old Town State Historic Park nearby).

A Jewish synagogue and six dwellings from the 1880-1890s are visual gems of a style of architecture and time long lost. The park is simply a replicated cobble-stone street and cul-de-sac, around which these buildings have all been relocated in the 1940s. The small red one, the Senlis Cottage/Park Office, has a one-room historical display explaining some of this process. The temple, the first Jewish house of worship in San Diego, was actually cut in half to move it! A good place to start, this cottage room (1896) and the Temple Beth Israel (1889) are the only two buildings open for visitors (from 9 to 5). McConaughy House (1887) has a small, traditional "tea room" operating within it as well.

All in all a nice stroll, and if you love Victorian styles and beautiful landscaping, this will be a great place for you!

Opening Hours:
Daily: 9am–5pm; free admission

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