Old Town San Diego has felt like home since we first visited early last year when I initially flew out to California. It's been one of Nathaniel's favorite places to visit with his mom since he was young, and now our favorite day excursion when we find ourselves in Southern California to visit his family. It kind of feels like if Downtown Disney was a state park! The Old Town State Historic Park is filled with historic buildings, like a Wells Fargo Museum with a stagecoach inside, or restaurants and shops with historically accurate facades that make you fee like you're in an old western town. They're great for photo ops! It has great benefits like free parking (as long as you can find a spot), great food, and artisan and handmade goods in the small shops that add character to the plaza. Here's the most interesting things you'll find in the area.
1) Casa de Reyes Restaurant
The first time we visited Old Town we started with lunch here and I was so full I had to walk around the rest of the day with the top button on my jeans undone. The food is that good. We had margaritas (okay, a pitcher of margaritas) and tacos, with some freshly made guacamole and house made chips to start off with. You're sitting in the center of the plaza while you enjoy your meal and have the music, sounds, and smells buzzing around you. It's a gorgeous ambiance. While we ate Nathaniel told me about the history of Old Town, from the Mormon Battalion and the Whaley House to the original indigenous people of San Diego. Around the plaza there are educational signs, like any good state park would have, that talk about the original inhabitants, the Spanish settlers, the old cowboy days, and so much more.
2) Fiesta de Reyes
I think we could spend all day shopping and sightseeing around this plaza. Try Old Town Jerky and Root beer which has dozens of flavors of each for you to try! Before a big camping trip we love stopping by and picking up some new flavors to bring out on the trail with us. Or, eat it in the car on the way to where we're headed because it's so good it never lasts long. Gepetto's toy shop is fun for kids and adults. We just recently picked up a book here for an upcoming baby shower and kept saying how excited we are for the little one to grow up so we can keep shopping for them here! From stuffed animals to science toys, they have everything you could be looking for. Nibble Chocolate! Oh my God this place is divine. Not only do they work to source the best cocoa from all over the world, but they work hard to be delicious an informative as well! I got my grandma a "Chocolate Flight" for Christmas that features beans from all over South America and you really can taste the difference between them. My Favorite is the Raspberry and Himalayan Pink Salt bar from Brazil and the Dominican Republic. Go taste, smell, and sample! In Old Town Market, one of the larger stores in the plaza, you'll find handmade Mexican pottery, textiles, ceramics, tiles, and art. It really reminds me of browsing through a Mexican market, and you'll feel like you took a trip over the border just by stepping inside. When we're out of an RV and in a house someday I know I'll come back here to decorate.
3)The Whaley House
Now that your tummy is full and your wallet is lighter you can wander around Main Street a bit. One of the main attractions is the Whaley House, described many times as the most haunted places in America. Last time we were in town admission was only $10 for adults, with tours and night time admissions carrying an additional fee. As soon as you enter the home you'll be told the tales of the haunted history. The home was built in 1857 for an impressive amount of money at the time, and became a museum in the 1960's. It's probably the only government run building that takes pride in and advertises being chock full of ghosts. Your tour guide will tell you to snap photos frequently, because sometimes the camera picks up what the naked eye won't. The first time we visited we just walked around the outside of the property since it was still closed due to Covid restrictions, and try as I did I couldn't seem to coax a ghost into any of my photos. Hopefully next time we'll have more luck! Or... worse luck. Depending on your point of view.
4) El Campo Santo Cemetery
The Whaley House sin't the only place you may find spirits walking around, and definitely not the only place you may unwittingly step into some haunted history. Or, onto some haunted history. El Campo Santo is a cemetery that stretches well beyond the fenced in limits of it's grounds, and if you've stumbled out of an Old Town bar or gift shop without watching your step you have probably given someone chills as you unwittingly make your way over their grave. The cemetery was built in the 1840's and used for several decades afterwards with nearly 500 graves being filled on site. At some point, as San Diego became more popular with locals and tourists alike, the needs of the living took over the respect for the dead. Much of the cemetery was repurposed as a road running through the heart of Old Town itself, and most of the unmarked graves from centuries ago were razed right over, leading the spirits of those inside to rest uneasily and enact their revenge. It's not unusual to walk through a cold spot, have unexplained electrical outages, or a general feeling of uneasiness. I recommend that you visit and pay respect to the dead, while watching your step as you come back outside! Graves under the pavement are marked by small metal tags that plainly state "grave site" and stretch well beyond the preserved limits of the cemetery. Tread carefully.
5) The Cosmopolitan Hotel
No, not the Vegas one. Actually, the complete opposite of that one. This Cosmopolitan was built in the 1860's and is the second oldest building in the city. It sits right in the heart of the park and is VERY exclusive because it only has ten rooms available. The staff is super attentive to the guests because there are so few of them, so in a way this could be called a very luxurious place to stay! In other ways, not so much. To preserve the historic vibe there are no TVs or phones in the rooms, but guests do have access to wifis o you're not totally disconnected. The windows are the original glass panes from 1869, so if you're a light sleeper you may want to consider packing earbuds to keep the city sounds to a minimum while you sleep, but because San Diego is known for it's almost always perfect weather you won't have to worry about a draft coming in. If you do feel a spot of cold air it may just be a former resident. The most "historic" buildings always carry a bit of haunted history with them, so again, if you're a light sleeper, this may not be the spot for you. If you can manage to get a reservation and don't mind the occasional undead visitor padding down the hallway at night then this makes for an amazing way to experience Old Town in all its glory. The rooms are decorated in the historical style (but with comfier mattresses, I'm told) with real antiques from the 1800's. The original owners were socialites known for their fantastic parties, with some fandangos lasting up to a week at a time. If these walls could talk they would have quite a story to tell. Immerse yourself in the experience at the Cosmopolitan!
Old Town enchants us because of the south of the border feel, excellent food, and history that comes to life before your eyes. With how many times we've visited I still feel like we have so much more to see! Did we miss anything? What's your favorite spot around town? Drop us a comment and let us know. We'll catch it on our next adventure!