Things to Do in Old Town San Diego – It’s More Than History

A state park full of historic buildings that are supposed to tell the history of San Diego; that sounded exactly like something I would love.  I could not wait to check out Old Town San Diego and learn about a part of California’s history I did not know as much about.  What I discovered is that Old Town San Diego has so many things to do, it is not just about the history.  From great food, unique shopping, to festive live entertainment, the family spent the afternoon enjoying the park more than we expected. 

Two children in a covered wagon
Riding into Old Town San Diego with smiles on our faces

Old Town San Diego is an area of the city that is designated a state park but is set up so as to replicate the feel of San Diego as it would have been between 1821-1872.  As a person who grew up on the East Coast, I do not know much about Californian history except that there was a gold rush in 1849.  My children are learning it in school, so I though the park would be a great way to augment their in-school education.  What I was surprised to find was that the park was so much more than just history.   

Grounds

While Old Town San Diego is technically a state park, this is not the park you go to for hiking trails and to get away from people.  There is a beautiful green in the middle with some old trees, but mostly you come to the area for the history, food, and shopping.  We did see a few people sitting on the green and having a picnic or just napping in the sun.  But most were walking the dirt roads around the park.  This park is popular, so be sure to have your mask on as it is harder to maintain distance in this smaller space. 

Views of the grounds in Old Town San Diego
It is beautiful, but not your traditional state park

History

One of the main reasons to come to Old Town San Diego is for the history.  There are several historic buildings including a schoolhouse, a jail, a hotel, and the building where the first newspaper in San Diego was started.  In normal times, you can enter the buildings and see the artifacts on display to learn about life in San Diego in the early to mid 19th century.  Unfortunately for us, we were there in the spring of 2021 when tourism was just slowly starting to open.  The park did provide virtual tours of each building.  One would walk up to the building and use their phone to scan the QR code on the door. That would take you directly into a virtual tour of the building.  The kids had some fun looking at the tour online.  I enjoyed it, but I also tried to look in the windows to see more.  It was nice, but honestly, for a history buff like me it was a little disappointing, I was hoping to enter and get more of a feel and have a tour. 

The Cosmopolitan Hotel, the Old School House and the Jail in Old Town San Diego
There are several historic buildings all over the park to learn more about San Diego in its early days
An old printing press and printing blocks
While the buildings are still closed, you could get a good peek through some of the windows*

Food

What was not disappointing were the food options.  We came right at lunch time and were lucky enough to get a table at Casa de Reyes where we had some of the best Mexican food we had of the trip.  After a busy morning we were all in the mood for a big lunch and we got that at Casa de Reyes.  My husband had the Armadillo Shrimp and cleaned his plate.  My son ate a whole Shrimp and Steak burrito.  I enjoyed a fantastic mango margarita.  We were able to eat outside on the patio, and felt safe with the careful, masked servers. 

A smothered burrito and Armadillo Shrimp at Casa de Reyes
Some of the best Mexican food we had in San Diego

As we were leaving, we ran into Nibble Chocolate.  Readers of this blog know I love good artisanal chocolate.  This shop was a vegan chocolate shop that specialized in chocolate from all over the world.  We tried some from Madagascar and Brazil that were to die for.  We got some truffles to go, and my son and I had hot chocolate made with oat milk and dark chocolate.  I had the sea salt topper on mine.  It was one of the best hot chocolates I have ever drank. 

Shopping

Readers of this blog also know that shopping is my second favorite activity after travel.  When I realized all the historic buildings were closed, I placed my attention on the over 100 shops they have.  There are your traditional touristy shops with souvenirs, t-shirts, etc.  But I really loved the specialty shops that we found.  There was a leather shop with a wall of beautiful, hand-crafted bags.  There was a shop full of handmade traditional Mexican goods.  My husband found the shop with hand-crafted hot sauces and came home with a few bottles.  There was a gorgeous silver shop that specialized in making silver jewelry similar to what is made in Mexico.  And I loved the fancy shop with the hats and lace gloves of yesteryear.  My daughter and I enjoyed looking at each shop, and I had to get her out of more than one so I did not spend a fortune. 

Entertainment

One of the best ways we knew that COVID was starting to calm down was the entrance of outdoor entertainment.  While in Old Town San Diego, we were able to see some beautiful traditional Mexican Dancing.  My daughter could have sat and watched that woman whirl her skirt for hours.  Further down, we found a band playing music with a guitar and drums.  It was so fun and festive; I could not help getting up and dancing with my daughter. 

A dancer in a traditional red Mexican dress, a drummer, and two women dancing in a plaza
Festive dancing and lively music made it feel almost normal again while exploring the park*

COVID Considerations

The advice is changing daily and changes are dependent on if you are vaccinated or not.  A few things to consider:

  • At the time of publication, there was still a mask mandate in place in California.  While this may soon be lifted, I expect that it will still be hard to maintain distance, especially in the small historic buildings once they open. 
  • Much of the dining is outdoor at the park.   Masks at this point, are required unless you are sitting at a table. 
  • Many of the shops are small businesses that saw much of their income dry up when tourism went away for several months.  Make sure to show them some love. 
  • At the time of publication, the historic buildings were not yet open.  While the governor plans to lift all COVID restrictions on June 15th, the parks have yet to indicate when they will return to normal staffing levels or reopen the buildings.  Keep an eye on the State Parks website to know the latest. 
A woman and two children looking at the Museum Closed sign
Unfortunately, many of the building are still closed.  But the park has provided virtual tours for each*

Conclusion

While I was disappointed to miss out on the historic buildings, I thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon in the park.  The food was amazing, the shopping was top-notch, and the return of entertainment made it a festive occasion.  I look forward to returning in the future to check out all the buildings and learn more about the history of California than just the Gold Rush.  Now, if I can just get the kids as excited about the history as I am…

* Photos taken by Atma Photography

Things to Do in Old Town San Diego

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