Old Town San Diego State Historic Park preserves aged adobes and businesses, some of which are now occupied by modern-day restaurants and shops.
By Carla Brandon
When people think of San Diego, they often picture a family vacation destination with beautiful beaches; a world-famous zoo; Sea World; and gorgeous golf courses. Historic sites usually don’t come to mind. But in San Diego’s Mission Valley, not far from the Pacific coast, is Old Town San Diego, a quaint little settlement rich in the romance and mystery of California’s past.
Old Town is San Diego’s birthplace. In 1769 a Spanish missionary named Father Junipero Serra, together with soldiers led by Gaspar de Portola, established the first Spanish mission and fort within the Royal Presidio of San Diego. Mission San Diego de Alcala, as it was called, was situated on Presidio Hill, which overlooks Old Town.
Although the mission was moved to Mission Valley in 1774, six miles away, today it is commemorated on Presidio Hill at the Junipero Serra Museum. The museum, part of 7-acre Presidio Park, contains artifacts of furniture, period clothing, tools, and artillery from the times when American Indians; the Spanish; and the Mexicans ruled this land. From the museum tower visitors can glean a breathtaking panoramic view that extends from Mission Valley to the Pacific Ocean.
By the early 1800s, retired soldiers began to settle the land below the Presidio’s boundaries, adding their own homes to the adobes that already stood there. Today this small town is known as Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. It encompasses 12 acres of historic and restored buildings, including original adobes. It is often referred to as the “Jamestown of the Pacific.”
Perhaps the best way to get the lay of the land is to stop first at the Robinson-Rose House Visitor Center. Built in 1853, this two-story structure contains exhibits of period clothing, information about the heritage of the missions in California, and early photographs, along with a large model of Old Town as it appeared in 1872. You can pick up a free visitors map and guide, and chat with the friendly costumed docents. For a fun way to actively understand the lifestyle of the people who settled San Diego, join one of the free 50-minute guided walks conducted by a living history interpreter.
From the visitors center, you’ll see the grassy central Plaza de las Armas and adjoining streets. They’re lined with historic buildings, amid the fragrant purplish-blue jacaranda trees. Stroll along the plaza and you are transported to the frontier life of California’s Mexican and early American periods, which lasted from 1821 to 1872.
Among the 20 or so buildings are four original adobe homes that have been restored. One adobe, the modest Casa de Machado y Stewart, was built in the 1830s and was occupied by the family’s descendants until 1966. The grand Casa de Estudillo, a mansion built around an outdoor garden courtyard, was occupied by the retired commander of the Presidio during the early 1800s.
Because this part of California is naturally dry and brushy, and void of trees, settlers built adobe homes made of mud, straw, and manure. To keep the homes cool in the warm climate, cooking was done outside in large stone and adobe baking ovens, many of which are still standing in Old Town.
The furnished interior of La Casa de Machado y Stewart is open only during guided tours, so check at the visitors center for tour times. Behind this adobe is a medicinal and herb garden, with fruit trees and a 170-year-old prickly pear.
La Casa de Estudillo is the largest and most well-known of the original adobes in Old Town. Completed in 1829, this spacious hacienda was the home of the San Diego Presidio’s commander, Captain Jose Maria de Estudillo. Estudillo’s son, Jose Antonio, worked in various government positions under the Mexican regime, and when the United States established supremacy over the region, he was appointed treasurer and tax collector of San Diego County. He had seven sons and five daughters.
The Estudillo mansion was passed down through the generations until 1887 when it was turned over to a caretaker who stripped it down and sold the home’s beautiful tiles, doors, windows, and fixtures. It was restored in 1910 by John Spreckels, a sugar industry heir who invested heavily in San Diego. Spreckels owned two of the town’s newspapers, as well as the streetcar system and most of Coronado Island, where the famous Hotel del Coronado is located. From 1910 to 1966 the Estudillo house was called Ramona’s Marriage Place, and although it wasn’t the same adobe referred to in Ramona, Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 historical romance novel, it became a popular place for couples to tie the knot.
The family home is now a museum that contains fully furnished rooms, including the Estudillo family’s private chapel. The house encircles a fragrant garden of rosemary, lavender, strawberries, yuccas, prickly pears, loquat, and citrus trees, along with a soothing water fountain.
Old Town is full of businesses as well as homes. Inside the humble McKinstry Dental Shop is a dental office circa 1853, a time when a gulp of whiskey was considered the best anesthetic for extractions. Dentists typically were hairdressers, too.
A candy shop is situated near the dentist’s office “” an ironic twist that makes perfect sense. It’s an exciting example of Old Town’s character, for not all of the historic buildings along the plaza are museums. Many are still in use as stores and restaurants. Cousin’s Candy Store is a popular stop to pick up old-time confections and fudge in addition to popular modern-day treats such as sour gummy worms. A taffy-pulling machine operates in the front window, creating sweet, chewy delicacies right before your eyes.
The Seeley Stable contains a wonderful collection of horse-drawn carriages, saddles, and branding irons; a host of historic objects and photographs from the Old West; and American Indian artifacts. Albert Seeley opened the San Diego-Los Angeles Stage Line in 1867. Back then, the stagecoach trip to Los Angeles lasted a grueling two days, with passengers riding for 12 hours each day. (Today the trip takes only 2-1/2 to 3 hours, depending on traffic.) Seeley’s stage line was so popular that he bought the nearby home of Juan Bandini for $2,000 in gold coins and converted it into the grand Cosmopolitan Hotel and stage depot, which became the town’s social center. Unfortunately, by 1877, the stage line went bust because a railroad extension to San Diego made the journey much less arduous. But Seeley’s magnificent building, now called La Casa de Bandini, is still in use today “” as a restaurant.
Since this area lacked trees, many of the wood homes in Old Town were prefabricated in the East and then shipped in. Such was the case for the wood-frame San Diego Union Building, also called Casa de Altamirano. It was built in 1851 in Maine and shipped around the Horn of Africa. This was the original site of The San Diego Union newspaper office and is now a historical museum dedicated to the newspaper. Restored to its 1868 appearance, when the first edition of the newspaper came off the press, it displays an editor’s office and a newsroom layout. A large Washington hand press, which took two men to operate, is similar to the one that printed the first edition. Legend has it that the men who constantly worked the press “became enlarged in both arm and leg, causing them to walk in a sidewise manner.”
San Diego has the dubious reputation as the most haunted city in the United States. The brave of heart can visit Old Town’s Whaley House, listed by the United States Department of Commerce as an authentic haunted house. It is the oldest two-story brick building on the West Coast, but it began on a bad note. Legend says it was built in 1856 on or near the site of a public hanging. Other stories about the house involve sightings of various ghosts and apparitions. The brave can visit the house for tours and to see authentic period furnishings. A separate admission fee of $5 for adults is charged.
After visiting the spooky Whaley House, steady your nerves with a refreshing beverage at one of the many restaurants and cafes. Old Town is a delight to anyone who enjoys a distinctive dining experience. Diners can relax on a shady veranda and sample authentic Mexican cuisine while watching native Mexican cooks prepare handmade tortillas from scratch. The majority of the restaurants have both indoor and outdoor dining where you can experience the sights, sounds, and flavors of Mexico amid lively water fountains and the rhythms of renowned mariachis.
The historic Casa de Bandini is one of the most popular restaurants for both tourists and natives, where patrons can sit on the veranda and watch the world go by. Get there early or you may have to wait for a table. Not in the mood for Mexican food? Then check out Pizza Bella, located on the outskirts of Old Town at 2707 Congress St. This unassuming eatery offers delicious Italian sandwiches, pastas, and award-winning pizzas.
Old Town is a shopper’s paradise, too. The outdoor markets lining Congress Street and San Diego Avenue boast a wide selection of Mexican ceramic and terra-cotta pottery, wind chimes, and colorful home and garden decor items. The Johnson House, on Calhoun Street near the Old Town plaza, was built circa 1869 and is a quaint little shop filled with ladies’ clothing and accessories styled from the 1821-1872 period, including finely crafted hats and handmade jewelry.
Nearby is the colorful Bazaar del Mundo (“marketplace of the world”), offering a wide selection of shops, bakeries, and eateries in addition to a variety of Latin-influenced entertainment. Free performances are provided every day of the year: marimba bands, Peruvian flutists, the Hispanic Folkloric Ballet, and flamenco dancers are regularly scheduled. Craft lovers can participate in a hands-on demonstration creating festive Mexican paper flowers. In all, Bazaar del Mundo features five restaurants and 16 shops.
In addition to all this, special events are often celebrated at Old Town, from historical reenactments and battles to a lively Cinco de Mayo celebration. It’s no wonder that many native San Diegans take pleasure in strolling along these streets of days gone by.
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
San Diego Avenue at Twiggs Street
San Diego, CA 92110
The park is open daily, and admission is free. Museum building hours are 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., but commercial establishments at Old Town stay open later.
Plenty of free RV parking is available at Pacific Highway and Taylor Street, located under Interstate 5. Take the Taylor Street exit off of Interstate 8 or the Old Town Avenue exit off of Interstate 5.
Junipero Serra Museum
2727 Presidio Drive
San Diego, CA 92110
The museum is open Friday through Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults and $2 for children ages 6 to 17. Parking can be hard to find during peak hours. No RV parking is available at the site, and motorhomes are not recommended in this area because of steep and narrow roads. Ample RV parking is available at the free lot at Pacific Highway and Taylor Street, located under I-5 (mentioned above). If you’re driving a towed vehicle, take I-8 to Taylor Street; turn left on Presidio Drive and follow the signs to the top of the hill.
The following may not be a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or the Business Directory (found in the January and June issues of FMC magazine, and online at www.fmca.com).
Campland on the Bay, C4960
2211 Pacific Beach Drive
San Diego, CA 92109
This full-hookup RV park also features laundry facilities, a marina, a boat launch and rentals, and a children’s area. A shuttle to Old Town departs from the campground.
La Pacifica RV Park, C7746
1010 W. San Ysidro Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92173
This facility provides full hookups and a dump station, and amenities such as laundry facilities, phone jacks, and cable TV.
Silver Strand State Beach
5000 Highway 75
Coronado, CA 92118
The park is 4-1/2 miles south of Coronado. It offers only no-hookup camping, and reservations are not taken.