Spice up your next San Diego vacation with a day trip to the city’s original townsite, where old buildings and hot cuisine rule.
Every city of substance has an historical quarter, a preserved piece of its past – even a city as fresh and modern as San Diego, which sometimes feels as if it originated as a TV set for Simon & Simon and then, you know, became a real city.
Old Town San Diego doesn’t feel that way. Built on a bluff where the present-day I-5 and I-8 freeways meet, the 230-acre neighborhood is the site of the first European settlement in California, dating clear back to the mid-1700s. It’s where visitors can find San Diego’s oldest buildings, and most flavorful representation of the city’s Latin roots. “It’s full of history and many structures that trace back to early California… with an array of wonderful Mexican restaurants and lots of things to do see and do,” says Old Town business owner Diane Powers.
Popular as a day trip destination for Southern Californians, Old Town is also a novel, immersive place for Arizonans to spend one of their precious vacation days during an extended San Diego visit. A trip within a tip, if you will.
Morning: A Cup of History
Wash down your machaca burrito from Café Coyote (cafecoyoteoldtown.com) with a tour of some of the marvelous historical structures in Old Town. The Serra Museum in Presidio Park marks the original site of the Mission San Diego de Alcala founded in 1769 by soldier Gaspar de Portola and Catholic priest Junipero Serra – subsequently burnt to the ground during an uprising by local Kumeyaay natives. Other browsable relics include the Whaley House, a one-time private home reputed by the Travel Channel to the “most haunted house in America”; the Seeley Stable Museum, featuring vintage carriages and transportation memorabilia; and Casa de Lopez, an early mansion built by a Spanish nobleman that now houses, you guessed it, the Rockin’ Baja Lobster Restaurant.
Conduct your own walking tour of these sites or see them from afar via the Old Town Trolley Tour (trolleytours.com/san-diego.com).
WHEN TO VISIT
What are the primo weekends to visit Old Town?
Dia de los Muertos
In various museums in the park, there will be altars commemorating the people who lived and worked in Old Town during the 1800s, plus the usual face painting, skeleton puppets and family fun.
Battle of San Pasqual
Annual event at San Pasqual Battlefield State Historic Park includes a variety of demonstrations and entertainment commemorating the U.S.-Mexican War.
Fiesta Cinco de Mayo
No grande surprise, right? “Southern California’s largest” Cinco event typically takes place in Old Town on the nearest contiguous weekend.
Noon: Refuel at Casa Guadalajara
Regional cuisine is the name of the juego at this beloved family Mexican restaurant near the north entrance of Old Town, from the spicy camarones al diabla of Veracruz to the savory-sweet pollo mole poblano of Oaxaca. “It’s a beautiful restaurant,” Powers, who founded Casa Guadalajara (casaguadalajara.com) in 1995, says proudly. “We’ve got a large, lovely patio and bright, colorful, festive interior design, with authentic Mexican folk art. But most important, the food is very authentic and regional.”
If you can’t tear yourself away from the antique carriages at Seeley Stable Museum, or the trolley tour takes an unexpected detour to La Jolla, and you miss lunch, Casa Guadalajara is open for happy from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. Enjoy a discounted “bird bath” margarita and nosh on free appetizers during those festive three hours.
Afternoon: Retail Therapy at Bazaar del Mundo
Talk about immersive. Set in a two-level, hacienda-like structure festooned with colorful garlands and flowering bougainvillea, Bazaar del Mundo (bazaardelmundo.com) is like no mall you’ve ever seen – unless you do your mall shopping in San Miguel de Allende. Comprising 11 different boutiques, the bazaar promises one-of-a-kind gifts and well-earned impulse purchases for the San Diego visitor, with home accessories, fashion, crafts and more.
“The emphasis is on Mexico, but we engage suppliers and artisans from all around Latin America,” says Powers, who runs the bazaar as a retail companion piece to Casa Guadalajara. “We designed it so you can go from room to room, drift from one area to the other, and each one brings a different experience and triggers different senses.”
At Ariana, one of the most popular boutiques in the courtyard, that sensual onslaught is fashion-driven, with boldly colored clothing, plus bags, wallets, belts and jewelry. Nearby, Artes de Mexico features hand-carved folk art, while the Guatemala Shop specializes in traditional crafts and textiles from Central America. To pick up a nice Southwestern something for the home, visit the Design Center; to pick up something comparably nice to read on the beach, Libros has the page-turner just for you.
You’ll need that book. Your Old Town adventure is ending, but your San Diego sojourn has just begun.