Considered to be the birthplace of California, Old Town San Diego is home to museums, restaurants, historical demonstrations a peaceful cemetery and even a house that is believed to be haunted. At every turn, you’ll find a piece of San Diego’s rich heritage.
The local landmark anchored by San Diego Avenue and lined with adobe buildings gives visitors a glimpse at what life was like for San Diegans in the 19th century, detailing the past that helped shape our city’s present.
There’s a lot to do in Old Town, all the time. Here’s a look at a few of those must-see stops along the way.
Old Town is filled with historical sites – from San Diego’s first newspaper print shop to the first public schoolhouse. These sites operate as museums and are open free to the public.
Located at the northern end of Old Town and near Old Town State Historic Park, visitors will find places such as: the Seeley Stable Museum dedicated to modes of 19th century overland transportation like the carreta (ox-drawn cart), mud wagon and Concord stage; the reconstructed Robinson-Rose House now home to the park’s visitors center; the 1825 Casa de Estudillo adobe hacienda; the the Black Hawk Livery & Blacksmith, still churning out fine goods.
The Mason Street Schoolhouse (3966 Mason St.) – San Diego’s first public schoolhouse – boasts relics from school life in 1865, from books to lesson plans, plus a volunteer who dresses and speaks in the likeness of the school’s first teacher, Mary Chase Walker. This stop is a favorite among school field trips.
Old Town’s dedicated volunteers and staffers can often be seen outfitted in period attire, reflective of the 19th century. The apparel adds an important element to the historical demonstrations performed daily in Old Town, many at the Threads of the Past: Living History Activity Center. There, visitors can watch activities like quilting and silhouetting. Over at Black Hawk Livery & Blacksmith, visitors can watch blacksmithing demonstrations.
Gregg Giacopuzzi, of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, said the biggest showcase of historical demonstrations happens in the summer, during Old Town’s annual Stagecoach Days celebration. The free festival celebrates the park’s history and runs every Saturday in the grand plaza, offering free activities and demos. This year, Stagecoach Days takes place from July 8 through Aug. 26.
Giacopuzzi said visitors will find volunteers dressed to the nines in period attire – right down to historically accurate fabrics and patterns.
He said these demonstrations are really what make Old Town so unique, adding, “They each paint the picture of life back in the 19th century.”
Fresh Tortillas (and Good Food)
Old Town San Diego boasts more than 25 restaurants within a mile radius, many offering authentic Mexican cuisine. If you’re not ready to sit and eat, there is a grab-and-go option that is quintessentially Old Town-esque: buying a hot, fresh tortilla from one of many stands located at the park. The mouthwatering treats usually sell for a couple of dollars outside of Café Coyote or in Fiesta de Reyes – find them. Pro Tip: Locals like to eat them with a little bit of butter. For a list of eateries in Old Town, click here.
El Campo Santo Cemetery & Sidewalk Grave Markers
A ways away from the heart of Old Town, lays El Campo Santo Cemetery (2410 San Diego Ave.), a small, tranquil burial site used between 1849 and 1880. The cemetery is the final resting place of some of the most famous early San Diegans, including “Yankee Jim” Robinson. The cemetery has undergone a lot of changes since its founding in 1849. Now smaller in size, some of the graves that were once part of the cemetery have been paved over and now lie beneath San Diego Avenue and Linwood Street.
If you’re strolling on the sidewalk near the cemetery, you may spot small, round markers that read “GRAVE SITE.” These markers are tiny and sometimes easily missed, but they represent where some of those former El Campo Santo residents are buried.
Anyone can visit the cemetery; on any given day, you might spot flowers decorating the gravesites or visitors reflecting as they read some of the marked graves.
Eric Minella, director of historic interpretation at Old Town, said the space is certainly a very peaceful pocket of Old Town, away from the hustle and bustle.
The Whaley House
Considered one of the most haunted houses in the United States by the Travel Channel’s “America’s Most Haunted” is the Whaley House, located at 2476 San Diego Ave.
The 1857 Greek Revival-style residence was once home to Thomas and Anna Whaley and their children. It was formally dedicated as a historic house museum on May 25, 1960. Today, it is maintained and operated by the Save Our Heritage Organisation.
The Whaley House is open daily, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., for daytime self-guided tours. Admission is $8 for adults and $6 for children ages 6 to 12. The museum’s docents are available for questions as you’re making your way through the house. It’s also open on certain nights for tours, usually from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Nighttime tickets cost $13 for adults and $8 for children ages 6 to 12.
The Whaley House was a major part of San Diego’s early history. Besides serving as the Whaley Family’s home, the site also served as a general store and, at one point, the Tanner Troupe Theatre operated out of the front upstairs bedroom. The San Diego County Courthouse also used some of the home; today, that part of the property depicts how the courthouse looked back in the day.
More than 125,000 people visit the Whaley House each year. Some report feeling chills or seeing apparitions, keeping alive the haunted folklore that has long surrounded the dwelling.
This is just a small sampling of some of the things you can do when visiting Old Town San Diego. What’s your favorite spot in the park? Share in the comments thread below.