San Diego

Old Town San Diego for history and food

Old Town San Diego is old for California. Most buildings in California are less than 100 years old and constructed since the 1950s. Some buildings are 19th century, but few. San Diego Old Town State Historical Park has buildings from the 1850s in a historical park array spread over a few blocks. There are numerous restaurants in the buildings, some open park space, historical sites, and vendors selling trinkets and playing music.


Birthplace of California sign on road at Old Town San Diego. Fairfield Inn & Suites Old Town in background across street.

San Diego as the Birthplace of California and the Monterey Connection

Our Governor Jerry Brown schooled the public in his State of the State address in January 2013 with this history lesson.

Remember how California began.

In 1769, under King Charles III, orders were issued to Jose de Galvez, the Visitor General of Baja California, to: “Occupy and fortify San Diego and Monterey for God and the King of Spain.´

Gaspar Portola and a small band of brave men made their way slowly north, along an uncharted path. Eventually, they reached Monterey but they could not recognize the Bay in the dense fog. With their supplies failing, they marched back to San Diego, forced to eat the flesh of emaciated pack mules just to stay alive. Undaunted, Portola sent for provisions from Baja California and promptly organized a second expedition. He retraced his steps northward, along what was to become El Camino Real, the Kings Highway. This time, Father Serra joined the expedition by sea. The rest is history, a spectacular history of bold pioneers meeting every failure with even greater success.

Governor of California Jerry Brown, State of the State         Jan 24, 2013.

San Diego and Monterey were established as forts and churches closely together in time as the first Spanish presidios of present-day California. Roman Catholic mission churches of San Diego (July 16, 1769) and Monterey (June 3, 1770) were the first two established. The King’s Highway is still used as parts of Highway 101.

I drove San Diego to Monterey in nine hours on the Kings Highway 101 to be home for Christmas 2013 with my wife.

San Diego Mission is not in Old Town San Diego. Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala, the first California church, is eight miles away in another part of San Diego. San Diego mission is not in the original location from its founding in 1769. The first mission overlooking San Diego Bay had inadequate water sources and moved in 1774 six miles east of Old Town along the San Diego River. The newer mission site had a turbulent 19th century history. The San Diego Mission currently standing was rebuilt in 1931 based on its 1813 design.

Old Town San Diego is located at the base of the hill where the original presidio and mission stood in the 1770s. The location is near the San Diego River which forms the southern border of Mission Bay Park, one of the best water sports areas in San Diego.

Old Town Church

Immaculate Conception Church at Old Town San Diego is from 1917 and not the San Diego Mission.

San Diego OT Immaculate Conception

Bars and restaurants were far more crowded than the empty churches, museums and gardens.

San Diego OT restaurant

My family had eaten at Rockin’ Baja Bar & Grill before. They ordered a bucket of food for two people for $50. Literally, one metal bucket of food. There was steak and chicken, lobsters and prawns. Two bowls of beans and rice. A self-host tortilla chips and salsa bar. Six of us ate and everyone was full from the meal. Large drinks helped cushion the food.

San Diego Old Town sign

Old Town San Diego California State Historic Park

California history is one of land speculation and theft, newspapers and railroads, miner barons, oil barons, timber barons and plain old robber barons. San Diego had a recorded population of 650 residents in 1850 when California became a state. Most residents lived in Old Town area.

One of the earliest San Diego buildings is the Casa de Estudillo originally constructed in 1825 for a Spanish aristocrat.

San Diego OT Estudillo

In 1910 the house was reconstructed with funding from the Spreckels family.

This is one of those places meant to evoke a sense of what life was like in the Mexican era before the U.S. seized California in 1846 at the outset of the Mexican American War.

San Deigo OT Estudillo room

This is the high life of the Spanish-Mexican era. This house links its past to the setting for events in the 1884 novel Ramona which helped raise awareness of the native American experience in California in the years following the state’s entry into the United States.

La Casa de Machado y Stewart Museum gives a more realistic example of the common dwelling in San Diego during the years under Mexican rule and the early days of California.

San Diego OT 1835 adobe

La Casa de Machado y Stewart is an example of a simple 1835 adobe brick house in Old Town San Diego.

One of the interests I developed from my San Diego trip was a study of the Spreckels family dealings and philanthropy. This is the California family headed by Claus Spreckels who made a fortune on Hawaiian sugar refining and transportation with a west-coast monopoly. Sugar beet production in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties built a family empire from the 1860s to 1890s.  John Spreckels, eldest son of Claus the sugar baron, is significant in the development of modern day San Diego as a real estate, utilities, shipping trade and railroad investor in the late 19th century. He acquired controlling interest in the Coronado Land Company including the Hotel del Coronado. John Spreckels bought the San Diego Union newspaper. He moved his family to San Diego from San Francisco in 1908 to his newly-built mansion in Coronado. The John Spreckels mansion now operates as the Glorietta Bay Inn.

San Diego OT Newspaper Museum

House for the birthplace of the San Diego Union newspaper first printed October 10, 1868. This was not the first newspaper in San Diego. The San Diego Herald was in business from 1851 to 1860 until John Judson Ames moved to San Bernardino and started the San Bernardino Herald.

San Diego Union

Original San Diego Union building.

Old Town San Diego is a reconstruction to a large degree with buildings surrounding a plaza. One of the reconstructed sites is the Hotel Cosmopolitan off the central plaza which has a full restaurant and bar open seven days a week and operates as a B&B with ten rooms and 1870s décor.

San Diego OT Cosmopolitan HotelDSC_0297

Old Town San Diego Cosmopolitan Hotel opened in 1869 and was historically restored in 2010.

Colorado House was originally constructed as a hotel in 1860. The site now houses the Wells Fargo Museum historically furnished with an original 1867 stage coach and 1855 San Diego mural.

San Diego OT Wells Fargo

Colorado House, an 1860 hotel in Old Town San Diego, houses the Wells Fargo Museum.

Old Town San Diego is a place for spending a few hours walking around and dining. There is plenty of space to simply hang out in the parks and gardens for free or sufficient bars, restaurants, and shops to unload some money with entertainment.

San Diego OT Hand-made totillas

Old Town Mexican Café – The Original Handmade Tortilla Makers in Old Town.

There are more than a dozen Mexican restaurants in the relatively small location of Old Town.

San Diego Old Town Plaza

Plaza at San Diego Old Town

San Diego Old Town Plaza-2

One of the interesting signs to see is the California US 101 historic highway marker in front of the Whaley House in Old Town San Diego. The Whaley House is a Greek Revival brick structure considered one of the finest homes in southern California when it was constructed in 1857. The Whaley House has been open to the public as a museum since 1960. The house has a reputation as a haunted house.

San Diego OT Original Highway 101

Whaley House and Historic Highway US 101 sign.


Ric Garrido of Monterey, California is writer and owner of Loyalty Traveler.

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