When you think about San Diego, a few things probably come to mind: the Gaslamp, the sunny beaches, the questionable performances of their pro sports teams (sorry, it’s true—come on, Padres). What you might not immediately imagine is its historic significance. It was old SD, not San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Sacramento, where California as we know it was born, after Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed in San Diego Bay in 1542.
Something else you might not realize is that much of San Diego’s original charm has been preserved in the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. You don’t have to be a 10-year-old on a field trip to enjoy the old buildings, variety of shopping, and endless people-watching available in this district. You can drive to several of these places, or you can park your car and enjoy a walk in the famous San Diego sunshine. Here are some of the hot spots to hit.
If you need to work a little spookiness into your trip—or even if you don’t—the Whaley House has got to be on your itinerary. When it was built in 1857, the Whaley House was considered a mansion; today, its four bedrooms and den might seem quaint compared to the McMansions you see dotting the coast, but in its day it was a palace.
Over the years, it’s been a family residence, a general store, and even a courthouse. Throw in some general misfortune and the occasional frontier town justice that occurred on the site and you’ve got a place ripe for hauntings. Not surprisingly, Old Town has capitalized on this and worked discussion of the area’s supernatural history into some of the outings. You can tour the Whaley House in complete safety during the day, or, if you’re feeling brave, join one of the nighttime ghost tours…maybe a member of the Whaley family will say hello.
Want to feel like you’re starring in an episode of “Hell on Wheels”? Head north from the Whaley House to The Cosmopolitan Hotel & Restaurant to get a taste of the American Old West—just note that this structure is in the park itself, and you can’t drive up to it. The current incarnation was constructed in 1869, and sports all the things you’d expect from an Old West saloon: the many steps leading up to the structure itself, the rickety-looking (but perfectly safe) balconies, the often costumed servers. I don’t recommend bringing in a GoPro to film yourself challenging a local to a duel at high noon, but I get why you’d try (and please, send me the YouTube link).
While you’re there, why not enjoy a drink at the bar and complete your Old West experience? The red sangria is so delightful, I’m actually using the word delightful in a sentence.
You’ve heard all about the great weather in San Diego—maybe the Padres are just too busy enjoying the sunshine to play hard?—and the city’s inhabitants have built plenty of places to enjoy it. Just a couple blocks east of the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is Presidio Park.
If you’ve got a dog with you, this is the place to hang out with him; otherwise, it’s a wonderful place to stroll, take pictures, and search for statues tucked away in foliage. There’s also a museum on the property if you haven’t soaked up enough history.
I’ve touched on some awesome spots to spend time in Old Town, but this list is by no means exhaustive. Learn about old-timey transportation at Seeley Stable, enjoy some truly delicious coffee or tea at The San Diego House, and test out the cuisine at the endless array of Mexican restaurants on San Diego Avenue. Try out the tortillas at Café Coyote—ask for some butter to go with them; you won’t regret it!