On a slope above its sparkling bay, San Diego got its start in 1769. That’s when Father Junípero Serra, founder of California’s mission chain, built a permanent Spanish settlement, located just a few miles from today’s downtown high-rises. That heritage is honored at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, where rustic wooden and adobe structures surround lively Old Town Plaza.
The living-history park re-creates life during the early 1800s, when California was part of Mexico (it didn’t become a U.S. state until 1850). More than 20 buildings dating back to 1821 have been beautifully preserved, and many house working businesses. Racine & Laramie, San Diego’s oldest smoke shop, sells cigars, tobacco, and stationery, just like it did in 1868. The shelves at Rust General Store are lined with old-timey merchandise and charming gifts—local honey, bulk teas, chocolate cordials, soaps, and apothecary goods. On the plaza’s edge, shoppers can browse colorful Mexican handicrafts in the Bazaar Del Mundo, a cluster of open-air stands and small boutiques. Shops peddle Mexican copperware, hand-crafted Mexican tiles, nostalgic candies, roasted nuts, and root beer.
Old Town has a wealth of dining options, too. For guacamole, margaritas, and a festive scene, head to the lush garden at Casa de Reyes. It’s right next to the plaza stage, where every weekend you can listen to strolling mariachis or watch vibrantly dressed folklorico dancers. Barra Barra Saloon is the spot for specialty tacos and happy hour cocktails. The 1827 Casa de Bandini houses The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant, serving afternoon tea on weekends in its Victorian dining room.
Several Old Town museums are worth a visit. The grand 1829 adobe known as Casa de Estudillo, with 13 rooms built around an enclosed courtyard, was once the home of a Spanish aristocrat. Stop in to see the print room and the editor’s office in the San Diego Union Museum, the original office of the San Diego Union newspaper. Take a look at the stagecoaches and horse-drawn carriages at the Seeley Stable Museum, or the telegraph machines and 1867 Concord Coach at the Wells Fargo History Museum.
Old Town’s most infamous structure is likely the 1857 Whaley House on San Diego Avenue, just outside the park borders. Featured on TV shows like America’s Most Haunted, the city’s oldest two-story brick building once served as a courthouse where public hangings took place. Is it haunted? Decide for yourself on a daytime or nighttime guided tour.