Birthplace of California
A top attraction when exploring America’s Finest City is the beautiful, historic Old Town San Diego. Established in 1769, Old Town is considered the birthplace of California and the site of the first of twenty-one missions that made up The Mission Trail by Father Junipero Serra. It was here near the Presidio de San Diego that Fr. Serra held his first mass in California.
The Presidio, a fort that sits on eighteen acres on the top of a hillside, overlooks the San Diego River and the remainder of the historic two hundred thirty acres that make up the neighborhood; and is definitely one of the things to do in Old Town San Diego when visiting. From exploring the fort to enjoying a relaxing picnic in the cool breeze of Presidio Park, it’s a wonderful way to start your day.
Coming down the hill to the center of town, you’ll find the Serra Gift Shop right beside Fr Junipero Serra Hall and the Immaculate Conception Church. Masses are actively held, and the church welcomes visitors and serves over 300 families in San Diego.
Shopping and Activities in the Old Town State Park
Across the street from the church is the entrance to Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Walking into the park, you’re taken back in time; from the old-timey shops to the delicious treats to historical museums, it’s easy to lose track of time exploring the area.
The Robinson-Rose Visitor Information Center at the northwest end of the park has up-to-date information on activities taking place, from blacksmithing to donkey visits. They also have an Agents of Discovery app that you can download as an enhancement to exploring the area.
Old Town Artistry
There are so many things to do in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. You can take a stroll through Squibob Square, pick up a fresh ice cream waffle cone you probably already smelled a few blocks away, enjoy a live local musician, or even pop into the shops to view the sculptures, jewelry design and artistry of highly skilled craftsmen. You can take a peaceful stroll through El Centro Artesano, where the wind chimes evoke a calming effect. Having visited this shop for over thirty years, it holds a special, happy place in my heart with the vibrancy in the colors of the pottery, painted tiles, and chimineas, along with all sorts of knick-knacks. Head on to Bazaar Del Mundo for artisan clothing and housewares.
Old Town Trolley Tour
Take a two-hour narrated tour of San Diego’s scenic sights. The Old Town Trolley tour has stops at San Diego Bay Harbor, Seaport Village, Coronado, Hotel Del Coronado, Little Italy, and Balboa Park. The San Diego trolley system is an inexpensive way to see parts of the old town.
Ye Old Fashioned Tobacconist
Further into the park, you’ll find San Diego’s first cigar store Racine & Laramie Tobacconist. Not only does the shop take you back in time with the décor and that scent of your great-grandfather’s pipe, but the extremely knowledgeable staff are in period dress. Stop in to look around, or if you’re so inclined, there is a smoking lounge to sit in and try an attendant’s recommendation; they are known for their taste!
The Folklórico Dancers at Fiesta de Reyes
Continuing back in time, of all the things to do in Old Town San Diego, the baile folklórico dancers in Fiesta de Reyes are a must! Located in the north corner of the park, Fiesta de Reyes offers free live music every weekend with traditional dance performances. Sit and watch the performers with a taco or margarita from Casa de Reyes or with a bag of roasted nuts from the Old Town Roasted Nuts kiosk at the entrance to the square. A free sampling of cinnamon glazed walnuts had me walking away with a bag of churro flavored heaven. They gift well, too! This Old Town Mexican cafe has been around since 2009. But for a vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurant, head to Barra Barra Saloon for huge helpings of your favorite appetizers.1
Tequila, Tacos and Tombstones
If it’s a tour you’re looking for, check out the Tequila, Tacos and Tombstones Culinary Tour of San Diego. This approximately two-and-a-half-hour walking tour of Old Town visits two local restaurants for tacos and margaritas, the third stop for a taste of local Mexican street food and finishes with a fresh churro! During the tour, you’ll learn all about the history of Old Town and what makes this one of the best historic spots in San Diego! One of the top things to do in Old Town San Diego is to see tortillas being made fresh by hand and you get to experience that outside Cafe Coyote!
Your guide will start the tour by sharing the history of Old Town before leisurely walking you by gravesites at El Campo Santo Cemetery, the haunted Whaley House Museum, Old Town Trading Company, Old Town Tequila Factory, and Casa de Estudillo! It’s a perfect way to explore Old Town with a group!
More Tequila, More Tacos
Done with your tour and looking for more? Old Town Mexican Café has one of the latest happy hours, which goes until 7:00 pm, Mondays through Fridays. Our go-to is always a house margarita with tajin rim and a crispy fajita quesadilla. Yum!
Old Town Market Loves Local Businesses
The best-kept local secret is the Old Town Urban Market. One of the best things to do in Old Town San Diego is to visit this public marketplace where small local businesses join together to build a community.
Stop in the Old Town Market to pick up some locally made flavor at Ruth’s No. 5 Salsa. Ruth makes iconic, authentic Mexican salsas that you’ll always want to keep on hand, especially the salsa verde with chunks of avocado or the spicy roasted salsa roja.
Right next to Ruth’s No. 5 Salsa is Elote. Pick up a quick snack, maybe an aguas frescas and corn in the cup. They have the corn on a cob, but when you get it in the cup, you can top it with mayo, hot sauce, cotija cheese and tajin with some lime. It makes a wonderful little snack break.
Hungry for more? Head upstairs to Tuétano Taqueria. Tuétano is known for their bone marrow tacos. Also delicious, their tender, braised birria taco with a touch of the chili sauce; just prepare to get messy. Better yet, opt for the Birria Tuétano taco and thank me later. Depending on the day, there could be a bit of a wait, but get yourself a drink, relax on the covered patio in the cool breeze, and listen to the music. It’s a nice break from the bustle.
After you’ve had your fill, head downstairs to check out Houseplant Nation. This urban greenhouse-type shop specializes in exotic plants grown locally for all you plant lovers out there. Additionally, they also showcase pots crafted by local artisans.
Victorian Tea Houses and an Evening at the Theater
Rounding out the offering of things to do in Old Town San Diego are Heritage Park, the Cygnet Theatre, and of course, all of the specialty gift shops you’ll no doubt be enticed into. Heritage Park, located on the northeast side of Old Town, was formed to preserve some of San Diego’s historic Victorian architecture. Fun fact: all the houses in the park have been relocated from where they were originally built. Granted, most of the houses are closed up except San Diego’s first synagogue, Temple Beth Israel, which is open to the public and available for weddings; the surrounding grassy areas are wonderful for photos. At the top of Heritage Park is McConaughy House, which is actively used by the Coral Tree Tea House for events and parties. If you forget to bring your feather boa, they should still have some on hand.
Finally, the Cygnet Theatre in Old Town San Diego produces shows year-round from Shakespeare to musicals. It’s a small theater, so there really isn’t a bad seat in the house.
During the winter holiday season, make sure to catch their production of The Christmas Carol. The intricate set design, direction of lighting and sound, and the performers—everything, are of exceptional quality.
Between the cultural and culinary offerings, you’ll never be short of things to do in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.