Old Town Walking Tour, San Diego

Old Town Walking Tour (Self Guided), San Diego

Old Town is the oldest settled area in San Diego which claims to be the first site visited by Europeans on the West Coast of modern United States.

The Native American culture in the area, however, goes back thousands of years. Historically, this land had been a home to the Kumeyaay people who settled on the banks of the San Diego river since around 1000 AD. The first European explorer to arrive in the region was Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo. Upon landing at what he named "San Miguel" (today's San Diego Bay), Cabrillo claimed it for Spain in 1542, thus forming the basis for the settlement of Alta California 200 years later.

The neighborhood is also frequently referred to as the "Birthplace of California" because in 1769 Gaspar de Portolá and Father Junípero Serra established here a military outpost San Diego Presidio and then the Mission San Diego de Alcalá, being the first permanent European settlements in California.

In 1821, San Diego became part of the newly declared Mexican Empire, which two years later reformed as the First Mexican Republic. In 1834, the Mexican government granted San Diego the status of a chartered town, during which period it was the commercial and governmental hub of the region.

Mexico’s rule ended in 1846, and in 1850, following the Mexican–American War, California became part of the United States. That same year, San Diego, which was still largely limited to the Old Town area, was incorporated as a city, with the population of just 650!

The Old Town remained the heart of San Diego until the 1860s, and in the 1910s became one of the city's many neighborhoods. Today, most of it is a State Historic Park.

There are 27 historic buildings and sites within the area, including the Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant, the Old Town Market, and the Mormon Battalion Visitor Center. Five original adobe buildings are part of the complex, including Johnson House, a reconstructed mid-19th century office building; an 1827 Casa de Estudillo; and Whaley House, an 1857 Greek Revival-style residence.

Among other historic locations of note is Mason Street School, the first public schoolhouse in San Diego, as well as several museums such as McCoy House Museum and Colorado House, featuring a reconstructed 19th-century stage stop and telegraph office.

If you wish to connect with the past and learn more about California’s long and eventful history, from the days of Mexican rule onwards, come to Old Town San Diego. Our self-guided walking tour will help you discover some of the most beautiful and iconic heritage sights in this charming part of city.
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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 and Visitor Center
  • McCoy House Museum
  • Fiesta de Reyes
  • Johnson House
  • Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant
  • Casa de Estudillo
  • Colorado House and Wells Fargo Museum
  • Mason Street School
  • Old Town Market
  • Immaculate Conception Church
  • Whaley House
  • Mormon Battalion Historic Site
  • Heritage Park
Old Town Plaza

1) Old Town Plaza

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 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".

They say that San Diego started here. It's a great place to poke around and read about the town during a period from the second half of 19th century to early 20th 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, souvenir shops, and glimpses of early San Diego life throughout.
Robinson-Rose House and Visitor Center

2) Robinson-Rose House and 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 is a fairly large size house 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 building 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.
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.
Fiesta de Reyes

4) Fiesta de Reyes

One of the main dining and shopping marketplaces in the heart of Old Town San Diego, the vibrant Fiesta de Reyes – where “history lives and the fiesta lasts forever” – offers an exciting entertainment experience that is fun for the whole family.

The place is run by veteran restaurateur, Chuck Ross, dubbed as “Old Town’s Turnaround Specialist”, who has worked tirelessly since 2009 to create an unmatched festive ambiance in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Bringing his more than 30 years of experience in the destination restaurant business, Ross named the marketplace Fiesta de Reyes, which means “festival of the kings,” renovated two of the aging restaurants and many of the 19 surrounding shops.

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 here you will find three distinct restaurants, a 10-room boutique hotel, and a wide array of shopping opportunities offered by unique, locally-owned souvenir and specialty stores. The shops offer an assortment of artisan goods, handmade jewelry, toys and other local items.

A number of authentic eateries – like Casa de Reyes and Barra Barra Saloon – are 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.

The area also offers strolling mariachis, folklórico dancing, year-round events, and more!
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!
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 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-screen TVs 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 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 and 5, to name a few.
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.

By the early 1900s, the building was almost in ruins, but the one-story abode has since been restored well enough to maintain a very authentic feel, containing eclectic period furnishings from the 16th to the 20th century. It boasts several bedrooms, a beautiful formal living room, and a quaint chapel in addition to kitchens, dining rooms, storage and work rooms, and a lovely courtyard. All rooms come 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 or set at the Estudillo, but the book's popularity apparently helped save the structure when it was declared as the "Ramona's Marriage Place" by the local newspaper San Diego Union in a front page article in 1887.

Estudillo House is a historic adobe house and is designated as a National Historical Landmark in its own right. Jackson's novel made it a very romantic location for the Ramona's fans.
Colorado House and Wells Fargo Museum

8) Colorado House and Wells Fargo Museum

Adjacent to San Diego's first courthouse 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 early days of California the bank has been an integral part of.

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 the stagecoaches were or that they had so many problems with people trying to steal the shipping cargos. 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 rough roads.

For kids, there are some interactive displays such as a telegram machine where they can tap out a real-time message using Morse code.
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 feet, and has a 10 feet high ceiling. Now imagine that grades one through eight (about 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 and 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 stop by at the bookshop, too.
Old Town Market

10) Old Town Market

Old Town Market is a mix of over 40 unique shops with live entertainment, plus a number of distinguished historic landmarks. Among them is Casa De Aguirre, one of the first houses in Old Town San Diego, built in 1853 by Don Jose Antonio Aguirre, a wealthy merchant and successful rancher. After his death, the Aguirre family donated the property to the Catholic Church, which had then used it first as a rectory and then as Saint Anthony’s Industrial School for Indians. After years of disrepair, the original structure was torn down in 1914. In 2002, Historic Tours of America reconstructed the building as it's seen today.

In 1994, amid preparations for the reconstruction, the need to find the building's original foundations prompted an archaeological dig during which they had unearthed thousands of artifacts which had literally opened the door to the past, revealing the story of the people who had lived, worked and played here many years before. The items recovered on the site formed basis for a museum recounting the history of San Diego and southern California from 1840 to 1870.

Another historic property, The Convent building, was originally built as the Saint Joseph’s rectory at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Beech Street in downtown, and was moved to Old Town in 1940. Once at Old Town Market, it served a seminary, convent, community center, and, during World War II, hosted a United Services Organization. The building was restored in 2003 and is currently registered as San Diego Historical Site.

With several eateries and shops for souvenirs, jewelry and apparel available, this unique market is not to be missed. It does tend to get very busy during holidays such as Day of the Dead. Within a short walking distance, you'll be able to enjoy live Mariachi bands, watch local artisan demonstrations, and catch the smell of good food wafting through the air.

It's 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.
Immaculate Conception Church

11) Immaculate Conception Church

Completed in 1917 and dedicated 1919, the Immaculate Conception Church traces its history back to the first Catholic Mass celebrated in California. On Nov. 12, 1602, Captain Sebastian Vizcaino had a tent hastily erected on this spot so that three Catholic priests accompanying his Spanish expedition could celebrate a mass of gratitude for a safe voyage.

It was also near the site of the present Immaculate Conception Church that Father Junípero Serra celebrated his First Holy Mass in California, on July 2, 1769. On the hill overlooking the Old Town he planted the cross which marked the site of the Mission and the Presidio.

The cornerstone for the present house of worship was laid in 1868. In sylvan surrounds, the temple has some pleasing features, like a fine belfry housing one of the two original bells from the San Diego Mission.

The missions in California are a true destination and many offer stunning views, architecture, and examples of Spanish colonial detail. Now restored to its original splendor, this Old Town church is a beautiful, equally impressive example, minus some of the crowds and bustle of the more popular missions nearby.

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, and you can light a few candles.
Whaley House

12) Whaley House

The history of 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, commercial theater, and home to Thomas Whaley. The building was reportedly built on top of 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.

Nowadays it is 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 mainly due to the local historical society's attention to period detail, which adds a nice touch to each room.

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
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 for 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 with each room 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!
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 some of the people who made San Diego what it is. These houses were from around the turn of the 20th century as opposed to the colonial-era buildings in the 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 and 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!

The Senlis Cottage built in 1896 and the Temple Beth Israel built in 1889 are the only two buildings open for visitors. McConaughy House built in 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!

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