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    Old Town and Presidio Park: the San Diego settlement from which California was born

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    Lluis Enric Mayans

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    San Diego è the oldest city in California, or rather: it is the Old Town. If we exclude the villages of indigenous peoples, this is precisely the first settlement on the west coast of the United States. Visiting it today you may feel like you are entering a theme park rather than in the old quarter of a city: in fact the Old Town in San Diego it's just a mixture of these two things.

    If the city center is located in the Gaslamp district, within the perimeter of the Old Town you can see the first houses built in California and discover the history of old San Diego starting with the arrival of the settlers and missionaries. Between the square of the old village and the emblematic hill of Presidio Park, the visit to the old city turns out to be a pleasant immersion in one of the most interesting chapters in American history.


    • How to get to Old Town
    • Opening time
    • A bit of history
    • What to see in Old Town
      • The museums of Old Town
      • Other things to see in Old Town
      • Handicrafts and restaurants
    • Presidio Park
    • Accomodation

    How to get to Old Town

    The Old Town is located in Northwest San Diego and is easily accessible both by car and by public transport from all over the city. If you travel by car, take Juan Street as a reference: on this street there is a large parking lot from which you can easily walk to all points of interest in Old Town.

    If you move with the San Diego public transportation, there are several ways to reach the Old Town.

    • Trolley. The green line of the city tram stops at the Old Town Transit Center, right in front of the entrance to the old city. If you're coming from Downtown San Diego, this is arguably the quickest and most direct way.
    • Bus. If the green line journey of the trolley is not comfortable for you, there is probably a bus that is right for you. In fact, numerous lines reach the Old Town from every area of ​​the city. Specifically, you can get there with the following buses: 8, 9, 28, 44, 83, 88, 105, 150.
    • Train. If you have a day ticket that includes all regional means of transport, in addition to the trolley and buses you can also take the Coaster or Pacific Surfliner train. These lines, on the route between San Diego and other Californian cities to the north, make a stop in Old Town.

    Opening time

    The Old Town Historic Park has no opening or closing hours, being a full-fledged city district. The Visitor Center and all the museums Instead, precise timetables follow:

    • from May to September: From the 10 17
    • from October to April: From the 10 16.30

    To be sure of the updated timetables and the closing days of the museums, consult the official website.

    A bit of history

    The first conquerors arrived on the North American Pacific coast in the mid-sixteenth century, as the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego still testifies today, but it was 1769 when Father Junípero Serra arrived with the aim of establish a series of missions here (in the end there were 21) which represent the cornerstone of today's California. Today there is a path that unites them all: The real way.

    The missionaries settled on the hill known today as Presidio (from the military fort that flanked the mission) and at the foot of the hill soon began to establish a Hispanic community, initially little more than a small group of houses made of mud and straw. In 1835 the village was called The Town of San Diego and it developed gradually until the boom of the following century.

    The history of San Diego is closely linked to that of California, and its first inhabitants have experienced every political change. It is curious to think that who was born here at the beginning of the nineteenth century changed four nationalities throughout their life, without ever leaving their village. If initially the San Diego residents were Spanish, in 1821 they became Mexicans thanks to the conquest of the independence of Mexico from the kingdom of Spain. After the American-Mexican War, California left Mexico in 1848 and officially entered the United States in 1850. After two years in an uncertain political situation such as Californians, the residents of the small pueblo then became US to all effects.

    What to see in Old Town

    THEOld Town State Historic Park has the aim of preserving the rich historical heritage that characterized San Diego between 1821 and 1872. The village develops around the central square, where the US flag flies. some of the original houses refurbished and transformed into museums. All the other buildings have been reconstructed to tell the visitor the history of ancient San Diego, but they mix various historical periods and thus move from Hispanic-Mexican style houses to other typical American houses of the gold rush period.

    I recommend that you start your visit from Robinson Rose Visitor Center, where you will not only be able to acquire all the information you may need, but also know when the guided tours are made. Often in fact, especially on weekends, the staff of the visitor center performs Free guided tours of the Old Town, explaining its history and allowing you to enter the old buildings, now set up with period furniture to recreate the original setting.

    The museums of Old Town

    The houses survived two and a half centuries they are not many and today they have been transformed into museums. The state park area that preserves the Old Town today, however, is larger than the first tiny settlement and includes also different museums. Let's go and discover them in detail.

    The historic houses

    First Courhouse Museum
    Wells Fargo Museum
    McCoy House Museum
    House of Estudillo
    McCoy House Museum
    Machado and Stewart House


    One of the main reasons to visit the Old Town are the very first houses that made up the San Diego settlement. Most of the houses have been rebuilt, but no less fascinating. Admission is free everywhere.

    • Estudillo's House. The main building overlooking the Old Town square was the home of the Spanish aristocrat Antonio de Estudillo. Built in 1825, it later became a refuge for women and children during the American occupation of 1846. The structure is the original one, but since in 1887 the caretaker who ran it sold all the tiles, doors and windows, part of what we see today it is due to the renovation carried out in 1910 by the architect Hazel W. Waterman with funds from the Spreckels family. A series of rooms overlook the internal courtyard, furnished with period furniture and objects.
    • Robinson Rose House. The Visitor Center itself is a house museum. In fact, it stands in one of the oldest buildings in the city. Built in 1853, this house served several functions: court, doctor's office, prison, school, newsroom, shop and private home. The fact that James Robinson, who built it, was a member of the first Masonic lodge in San Diego, fills this house with mysteries. Symbologies and curiosities, often shrouded in mystery, make it particularly interesting to discover.
    • James McCoy House. Behind the Visitor Center, slightly isolated from the rest of the village, we find one of the best preserved house-museums. McCoy House dates back to 1869 as the home of California's first sheriff. In truth, this is not the original building, but a reconstruction. Nevertheless, everything has been reproduced in great detail and you can also find volunteers in period clothing to entertain you during the visit.
    • Machado Silvas House e Machado and Stewart House. Two of the oldest houses in Old Town were owned by the Machado family. The roofs have been rebuilt, but the walls are the original ones. The two houses are furnished with the style of the early nineteenth century and also part of the furnishings are period. The Machado y Stewart house dates back to 1836, while the Machado Silvas house was built a few years later for Jose Manuel Machado's daughter.
    • Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant. The building that houses the Cosmopolitan Hotel dates back to 1827 and is the oldest hotel in San Diego. Over the years it has changed its intended use several times, but has now returned to its original function. Even if you won't stay overnight, it is certainly one of the most interesting buildings to see outside.
    • Wells Fargo Museum. The small but interesting museum revolves around an old diligence for transporting valuables, and tells a piece of history of California's nineteenth-century economic development.
    • First San Diego Courthouse and Jail. San Diego's first courthouse, and prison, is a 1992 reconstruction that faithfully reproduces the original building.
    • Whaley House. Apparently, this house is haunted by ghosts. Indeed, according to Travel Channel's America's most haunted, it is the most haunted house in the United States. Transformed into a museum in 1960, many publications on paranormal phenomena that took place within these walls have since come out.
    • Wrightington House. The house built in 1840 by Thomas Wrightington and his wife overlooks the square. After his death in 1853, the widow lived in the house until 1890 and long rented the house to George McKinstry Jr. The doctor for thirty years provided medical assistance to Native Americans with the help of widow Juana Wrightington, who spoke three languages ​​and was able to interpret him.
    • House of San Diego. Dating back to 1830, it was originally a shop run by Richard Freeman and Allen Light - the first two African Americans to settle in the Old Town. It is one of the buildings reconstructed according to the photos of the original one.
    • Lopez's house. Juan Francisco Lopez, one of the first Spanish settlers of San Diego, built this house in 1835 known then as "the long house" due to its size. In 1846 it became the home of Juan Matias Moreno, secretary of Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California. Today, after being rebuilt, it houses a restaurant.
    • Mason Street School. Erected in 1865, this was San Diego's first school. Composed of a single classroom, it is undoubtedly one of the most interesting buildings in the Old Town.

    Mormon Battalion Historic Site

    This historic site commemorates the journey of the Mormon battalion that from the Council Bluffs area in Iowa moved to San Diego. The Mormon battalion consisted of 500 men, which joined the US military in 1846, during the Mexican-American War. Marching

    In the museum you can see an interactive video, as well as historical artifacts and demonstrations on the manufacture of bricks and gold objects. It is open in winter (November-March) from Monday to Saturday from 10-20 and on Sunday from 13-20; in summer (April-October) from Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 21 pm and on Sunday from 13 pm to 21 pm.

    The Sheriff's Museum

    Along San Diego Avenue, on the edge of the Old Town, there is a truly curious museum. The Sheriff’s Museum, easily recognizable by thehelicopter in the yard, tells the story of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department beginning in the 1850s. Especially suitable for children, exhibits cars, motorcycles, prison cells and various kinds of objects. Kids can sit on motorbikes and in the sheriff's car, sound the siren, put on a flak jacket and play with handcuffs. The must is the photo of the family locked up in the prison cell.

    The museum is open from Wednesday to Sunday from 11 to 16.30. Admission is free for children, while one is required for adults free donation.

    Other things to see in Old Town

    Among the buildings of Old Town, there are some that are not used as a museum, but are worth a visit. An example is the tobacconist Racine and Laramie Tobacconist. In fact, it is not a simple tobacconist's, but the first cigar shop in San Diego, opened in 1869. It is unlikely that you have seen such a vast quantity and variety of cigars and pipes, as well as themed accessories such as matches and cigar cutters. . The shop assistants are dressed in late XNUMXth century clothes and spend their days smoking while serving customers. Despite the fact that it is a full-fledged shop, it can be called a kind of small one tobacco museum.

    La Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception it is the landmark religious building in the Old Town. When Father Junípero Serra, on July 16, 1769, planted a cross on Presidio Hill, making San Diego the mother of all Californian missions, this area began to take on a strong religious character. In 1848, the old adobe church was rededicated to the Immaculate Conception. Twenty years later the construction of a new church began, finished in 1917 and still open to worship. Old Town, being located in a non-residential but purely tourist area, is not the classic neighborhood parish: it is dedicated above all to travelers passing through San Diego.

    Il Old Town cemetery it is another point of interest in the old city. Following the signs for The Holy Field you will easily find along San Diego Avenue a small enclosure within which are the old graves of the first village of San Diego.

    In front of the cemetery, a two-room complex houses theOld Town Model Railroad Depot. It is a model of railway that develops between one room and another, with the reconstruction of mountains, rivers and cities and numerous trains that move on the tracks crossing bridges and tunnels. Admission is free, but a donation is suggested.

    Handicrafts and restaurants

    Old Town contains some areas dedicated to crafts, especially Mexican, and typical restaurants. The complex overlooks the central square Kings' party and behind this the Bazaar of the World. In the first you will find 19 Mexican gift shops, in the second you will find international handicrafts and an art gallery.

    Along San Diego Avenue we find instead a series of restaurants and bars, most of them Mexican. The bright colors make them interesting to look at even if you don't stop to eat. In particular we mention the Cafe Coyote, the Freds Mexican Cafe, the Old Town Mexican Cafe, the Miguels Cocina.

    If you are looking for some advice on where to eat in Old Town, also read our article on where to eat in San Diego, where there is a dedicated paragraph.

    Presidio Park

    Presidio Park is the place where we can say it started there colonization of California. If this area was once inhabited by the Kumeyaay people, in 1769 the Mission of San Diego de Alcalà, flanked by the military garrison that gives the hill its name. Subsequently, the mission was moved inland, while the military fort remained the reference for the urban settlement below.

    In 1907 the entrepreneur and philanthropist George Marston bought the entire hill of Presidio to build a park that preserved the historical value of the place. In 1928 he also had the Spanish revival-style building built that we see today at the top of the hill and which houses the Junípero Serra Museum. It is not always accessible, even being rented for private events.

    Other than the museum, there isn't much else to see on the hill, but walking through the grove to the flag rising in the center is still enjoyable. For some years now, a Scout project has brought a group of eagles: sighting them is not difficult and always has its own charm.


    If you love history, there is no better place to stay during your stay in San Diego than Old Town. The most characteristic of the hotels is the Cosmopolitan Hotel, built in 1827, in whose rooms you can breathe the history of California. In this area the choice is very wide and you can find more tips in our article on where to sleep in San Diego.

    Where sleeping in Old Town San Diego

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