19 Best Things to Do in Old Town San Diego

With dozens of Mexican restaurants, historic locales, cultural centers, beautiful parks & shopping opportunities, Old Town San Diego is a can’t-miss destination!
Todd Sarouhan
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Explore the Historic and Unusual in Old Town San Diego

Dia de Los Muertos in Old TownOaxacan Lady Cocktail at Tahona Bar and Mezcaleria in Old Town

As the location of the earliest European settlements in California and the first mission on the West Coast, the historic neighborhood of Old Town San Diego has been called the storied history of Old Town birthplace of California. This is a well-deserved title, as to this day there are plenty of attractions, activities, and other fun things to do around town that help commemorate and showcase the area’s intriguing history.

Much of this history influences the unique blend of Southern California and Mexican culture that permeates to this day. There are dozens of Mexican restaurants serving up authentic eats, as well as numerous locally-owned stores where you can shop for traditional Spanish goods. Keep an eye out for live entertainment, especially live music performances, which occur throughout the year.

In addition to being the perfect vacation destination for history buffs, Old Town is also an attractive spot for those interested in the paranormal, as there have been many ghost sightings in the neighborhood! It’s said to be one of the most haunted towns on the West Coast, with attractions like the Whaley House recognized for ghost sightings on the national scale. Take a spooky tour of historic buildings and graveyards and see if you can spot a specter or two yourself!

Old Town is centrally located, just 3.5 miles from the San Diego Airport (SAN), 15 minutes from Downtown San Diego by car or rideshare and about 10 minutes to Balboa Park, home to the world-famous San Diego Zoo and more than a dozen educational and entertaining museums! It’s also just 3 miles and about 10 minutes from some of the best shopping in San Diego at the Fashion Valley Mall in the Mission Valley neighborhood.

It’s also not far from San Diego’s more than 75 beautiful beaches with La Jolla Cove and Point Loma, home to tide pools and the Cabrillo National Monument being two of our nearby favorites. Other great choices include Mission Bay, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, Coronado Island and the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park beaches.

After you discover the best things to do in Old Town, you may also be interested in our guides to the Best Things to Do in Downtown San Diego and especially if you like to eat, the Best Things to Do in Little Italy San Diego!

Before you depart, be sure to make the most of Old Town’s prime location and mild year-round temperatures with a Go City San Diego pass. The pass provides discounts to the top attractions in Old Town and throughout the city. Use our discount code GVSD5OFF for an additional savings.

See and do everything San Diego has to offer on your next trip to the area, starting with these Old Town favorites!

Step back in time with Todd on this tour of The Cosmopolitan Hotel and restaurant. The Cosmopolitan Hotel is one of the oldest buildings in San Diego and is rumored to be haunted. Originally built in 1827 as Casa de Bandini, this historic San Diego landmark has led many lives over the years and continues to be one of the most visited haunts of San Diego.

Stay at the Cosmopolitan Hotel

Plan Your Route With the Best Things to Do in Old Town San Diego

Spend the day learning about local history and legends, visiting famous neighborhood landmarks and having family-friendly fun, then hit up local restaurants, bars, and pubs once the sun goes down. In Old Town, there’s always something new waiting to be discovered.

Below is our list of the best ways to explore the neighborhood’s most engaging attractions!

Birria Tosada at Tahona Bar in Old Town San Diego
Birria Tosada at Tahona Bar in Old Town San Diego

1) Take the Old Town: Tequila, Tacos & Tombstones Walking Tour

San Diego Tours: 10 Best San Diego Food & Beer Tours

Explore California’s Birthplace on the Old Town: Tequila, Tacos & Tombstones Walking Tour, where you’ll be treated to amazing authentic Mexican meals while also learning about the storied history of Old Town. Visit famous locations around the neighborhood and learn about restoration projects that have helped to preserve some of San Diego’s oldest buildings.

This tour is an excellent way to experience all of what Old Town has to offer, and earns a spot on our list of the Best Things to Do in San Diego’s Premier Neighborhoods for its unique way of combining history and culture through the shared pastimes of food and drink. It also is one of the 10 Best Food & Beer Tours in San Diego!

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Hop on Hop off Narrated Tour in Old Town San Diego
Hop on Hop off Narrated Tour in Old Town San Diego

2) Traverse San Diego on the Hop-On Hop-Off Trolley Tour

San Diego Tours: 11 Best San Diego City & Bus Tours

If you’re looking for an especially flexible way to tour through all of San Diego, including many points of interest in Old Town, consider taking the Hop-On Hop-Off Trolley Tour.

Ride the trolley and listen to tales of the city and insider secrets in the Gaslamp Quarter, Downtown San Diego, Balboa Park, and more, or just use the trolley as a convenient way to get around town. Best of all, if something catches your interest, you’re free to hop off the trolley at any time.

With a Go City San Diego pass in hand, you can save when you visit the attractions highlighted on the tour. The pass includes an unlimited ride 2-day trolley pass, an incredible way to get an overview of the city. The trolley tour is one of the Best Things to Do in San Diego, regardless of neighborhood, and it’s sure to appeal to the whole family.

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Dia De Los Muertos Face Painting in Old Town
Dia De Los Muertos Face Painting in Old Town

3) Experience the Día de los Muertos Celebration

Holidays in San Diego: Día de los Muertos in Old Town San Diego 2023

If you’re planning to vacation in San Diego during the fall, or if you live nearby and you’re looking for a fun, family-friendly way to celebrate the holidays, check out Old Town’s Día de los Muertos celebration. The main events take place in Old Town at Fiesta de Reyes, which is part of the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. This festival is an annual event commemorating the Day of the Dead that takes place each year on November 1st and 2nd.

Attractions include a wide variety of vendors, incredible authentic Mexican food, live music and other entertainment, a photo booth, face painting, and a Day of the Dead artwork exhibition. This is by far one of the Best Things to Do in San Diego’s Most Popular Neighborhoods.

If you’re visiting at the right time, it’s a can’t-miss event, especially for families with kids!

Looking up at the Whaley House Museum
Looking up at the Whaley House Museum

4) Tour the Whaley House Museum

San Diego Area Museums: Whaley House Museum

Old Town is an exceptional place to learn about history, and there are few better attractions for doing so than on a Self-Guided Tour of the Whaley House Museum, one of the oldest still-existing buildings in San Diego.

The Whaley House is named after its original owner and designer Thomas Whaley, who had the house constructed back in 1857. Prior to becoming a museum a little over 60 years ago, the house was also used as a residential property, a granary, a courthouse, a theater, and a general store.

Today, the Whaley House Museum entertains thousands of visitors each year, providing guests with a unique way to learn about the history of the ground they’re standing on. Check out the mid-19th century architecture which has been carefully preserved for over 150 years, discover what life was like for early residents of New Town, and tour the house at night to learn about its history of ghost sightings.

Don’t forget to grab an All-inclusive Go City San Diego pass for discount admission before you visit!

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Margarita and Tacos on the Tequila Tacos Tombstones Walking Tour in Old Town
Margarita and Tacos on the Tequila Tacos Tombstones Walking Tour in Old Town

5) Eat & Drink on the Old Town Tales, Tacos, and Tequila Walking Tour

San Diego Tours: 10 Best San Diego Food & Beer Tours

Discover Old Town’s hidden secrets while also enjoying delicious local food and drinks on the Old Town Tales, Tacos, and Tequila Walking Tour.

Start by exploring the neighborhood and learning about historic sites and other points of interest including shops, churches, and original adobe houses. As you work up an appetite on the tour, you’ll get to chow down on some tasty tacos made with authentic handmade tortillas.

Finally, cool off at a local tequileria, where you can sample one of many different kinds of tequilas, or enjoy a mixed drink or other alcoholic beverage of your choice. This tour is a great way to experience San Diego culture first-hand, and it’s also a fun-filled way to learn about the area’s history.

The tour departs from 3963 Conde St, San Diego, CA 92110, which is located right in front of the Adobe Chapel.

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Hallway to the Junipero Serra Museum
Hallway to the Junipero Serra Museum

6) Step Back in Time at the Junípero Serra Museum in Presidio Park

San Diego Area Museums: Junipero Serra Museum

In the 1700s, early European settlers established missions along the West Coast of California around which growth and development flourished. San Diego’s own mission, the Mission San Diego de Alcala, was the first of its kind. The site now houses the Junípero Serra Museum in Presidio Park, which offers guests the opportunity to observe the Presidio’s Spanish Revival architecture, authentically reconstructed over the years. Visitors will also have the opportunity to learn about what life was like during the time of the missions.

An ideal itinerary stop for history buffs, the Junípero Serra Museum also showcases the mission’s past as a military base during conflicts with the native Kumeyaay Indian population. Check out the exhibit room, featuring a Concord stagecoach, or simply take in the beautiful scenic view from the tower of the Presidio.

The museum is open Friday-Sunday from 10 am-4 pm.

Nighttime at the Cosmopolitian Hotel
Nighttime at the Cosmopolitian Hotel

7) Be Spooked on the Ghosts of San Diego Walking Tour

San Diego Tours: 5 Best Haunted Tours in San Diego

The most history-rich areas of the world also frequently tend to be hotspots for paranormal activity, and this maxim holds true for Old Town San Diego. Learn about sightings of specters and scary tales from the past on a Old Town Ghost-Themed Walking Tour, which is a delightfully spooky ghost tour that’s suitable for all ages.

Notable locales on the tour include the famously haunted Whaley House Museum and local graveyards. An informative live guide will lead you to each location and share interesting trivia and stories, helping to set the perfect mood for tales of ghosts and poltergeists.

Tours are about 1.5 hours long and depart from the corner of Juan and Harney St. near the Heritage Park sign at the general address of 4100 Heritage Park Row, San Diego, CA 92110.

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The Lively Old Town Mexican Cafe in Old Town San Diego
The Lively Old Town Mexican Cafe in Old Town San Diego

8) Drive Around Town on the Talking GoCar 2-Hour Tour: Downtown & Old Town

San Diego Tours: 11 Best San Diego City & Bus Tours

When you rent a Talking GoCar for a 2-Hour Tour, not only do you get the ability to tour the neighborhoods of Old Town and the Downtown San Diego area at your own pace, but you also get to do so in style! Talking GoCars are equipped with GPS navigation so you’ll have no trouble finding your way around the city. Each stop on the tour is paired with a pre-recorded narration that provides interesting information and trivia on these points of interest.

Pick up a GoCar from 3918 Mason St, San Diego, CA 92110 and travel to dozens of different historic, cultural, and fun-filled sites around San Diego for the duration of the 2-hour rental.

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Decorations at Fiesta de Reyes in Old Town
Decorations at Fiesta de Reyes in Old Town

9) Buy Authentic Mexican Souvenirs at Bazaar del Mundo

Neighborhood: Old Town San Diego

The Bazaar del Mundo is one of the most popular shopping destinations in Old Town, especially if you prefer unique items that reflect the local culture over big malls and chain stores. At the Bazaar del Mundo, you’ll find commemorative items that draw their influence from San Diego’s vibrant international population, with plenty of opportunities to buy typical Mexican souvenirs, all without having to leave the country.

Be sure to also pop over to the Fiesta de Reyes to continue your shopping spree, where you’ll find a number of shops selling locally handmade goods. Like the Bazaar del Mundo, many of these boutiques and bodegas offer traditional Mexican products ranging from clothing and gifts to tasty bars and restaurants serving up authentic cuisine. You can easily spend an afternoon shopping just a few steps from Old Town’s central square collecting unique souvenirs you can only get in San Diego!

Old Town San Diego Dia De Los Muertos Celebration
Old Town San Diego Dia De Los Muertos Celebration

10) Ride the Ghosts & Gravestones Trolley Tour

San Diego Tours: 5 Best Haunted Tours in San Diego

Looking for a chilling way to experience Old Town after dark? Look no further than the Ghosts & Gravestones Trolley Tour, where you can travel the neighborhood in a themed trolley while visiting various haunted locations. Listen to tales of past ghost encounters recounted by your costumed guides while also learning about some of the town’s oldest neighborhoods and buildings.

Visit a few graveyards under the cover of darkness, hear the stories of the less savory characters that may still haunt San Diego’s streets, and keep your eyes peeled for potential ghost sightings!

The 1.5 hour long tour covers topics such as unusual deaths and unsolved mysteries, thus making it not recommended for small children. It is a good idea to wear comfortable shoes and know that this San Diego tour is one that’s not wheelchair accessible. Meet at the boarding location in front of the Old Town Market at 4010 Twiggs St, San Diego, CA 92110, USA.

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Washington Square in Old Town
Washington Square in Old Town

11) Visit Old Town San Diego State Historic Park

Neighborhood: Old Town San Diego

History comes alive in the San Diego State Historic Park, which includes examples of original Spanish Colonial architecture that dates all the way back to the early 1800s. Two of the three adobe buildings in San Diego can be found in the park. One such example is the adobe home built in 1827 known today as the historic Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant. The boutique hotel offers visitors the chance to stay a night in one of their 10 unique rooms.

Many of the historical buildings in the area have been turned into educational museums, such as La Casa de Estudillo Museum. Visit the Robinson Rose Visitor Center to learn about educational tours, or simply enjoy the beautiful San Diego weather as you walk around the grassy park.

The hours of the park’s visitor center and museums vary on a seasonal basis. From May to September, operating hours are from 10 am-5 pm, while from October to April they close at 4:30 pm.

Statue of El Cid at the Prado at Balboa Park
Statue of El Cid at the Prado at Balboa Park

12) Take the Old Town, Downtown and Balboa Park GoCar Tour

San Diego Tours: 11 Best San Diego City & Bus Tours

Stop and smell the roses on the Old Town, Downtown and Balboa Park GoCar Tour, on which you’ll get to visit many of the most beautiful locations across Old Town and the rest of San Diego. Explore stunning vistas with highlights in Balboa Park, the Gaslamp Quarter, Little Italy, and Downtown San Diego located next to San Diego Bay.

Be sure to bring a camera to snap a few photos in front of these incredible backdrops. This tour is also a great way to do some birdwatching and wildlife photography, as these habitats are home to pelicans, sea lions, seals, and more. As you take in the view, you’ll also get to learn about the history of these amazing locations in a small group setting.

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Lucas in the Dining Room at the Cosmopolitian Hotel
Lucas in the Dining Room at the Cosmopolitian Hotel

13) Visit 6 Old Historic Houses Around Old Town

Hotel: Cosmopolitan Hotel

Old Town is brimming with historic locales, with some buildings being over 250 years old! These historic houses are each well worth a visit, as they have gone through many renovations over the years to preserve their authenticity.

Buildings like the Casa de Estudio, Casa Machado Silvas, Casa Machado y Stewart and the Cosmopolitan Hotel showcase what homes were like during the early colonial period. Other notable buildings have undergone reconstruction and been turned into museums where you can learn about the lives of those who lived and worked in them. These include the McCoy House Museum, the Colorado House Wells Fargo Museum, and the First Courthouse Museum.

Statue of the Mormon Battalion in Presidio Park in Old Town
Statue of the Mormon Battalion in Presidio Park in Old Town

14) Visit the Mormon Battalion Historic Site

Neighborhood: Old Town San Diego

In 1846, the Mexican-American War was raging in the west. Learn about the historic march of the Mormon Battalion, a platoon of 500 men, at the Mormon Battalion Historic Site located at 2510 Juan St. San Diego, CA 92110.

The museum includes memorabilia from the Mexican-American War, as well as educational exhibits. Watch interactive videos which showcase demonstrations of the making of bricks used to build houses in the 1800s, as well as the creation of gold objects. These videos also include information about some of the museum’s many historic artifacts.

Museum hours are Monday, Wednesday – Saturday: 10 am– 7 pm; Tuesday: 5 pm– 7 pm; Sunday: 1 pm– 7 pm.

Immaculate Conception Church in Old Town San Diego
Immaculate Conception Church in Old Town San Diego

15) Pray at the Church of the Immaculate Conception

Neighborhood: Old Town San Diego

Old Town is home to many churches, but the Church of the Immaculate Conception at 2540 San Diego Ave San Diego, CA 92110 has the greatest claim to fame of them all.

It was here that Saint Junípero Serra, founder of San Diego’s first mission, performed the First Holy Mass in California back in 1769. While the old adobe church that once marked this spot wasn’t constructed until 1851, and its current building wasn’t open until 1917, the Church of the Immaculate Conception still continues a tradition that dates all the way back to San Diego’s earliest days.

Visitors are welcome to admire the church’s architecture at any time. If you want to sit in on a mass, the mass times are Monday-Saturday at 8:00 am, with an additional evening mass on Saturdays at 5:15 pm. Mass is also held on Sundays at 8:30 am, 10:00 am, and 11:30 am.

El Campo Santo Cemetary in Old Town San Diego
El Campo Santo Cemetary in Old Town San Diego

16) Explore the El Campo Santo Cemetery in Old Town

Neighborhood: Old Town San Diego

Established in 1849, El Campo Santo Cemetery is the oldest cemetery in all of California, and the resting place for nearly 500 people. While today it is respected as an important historic site, this wasn’t always true; the cemetery used to be larger, but after it was largely abandoned and the chapel was damaged in a fire, a streetcar line was built directly through the graveyard. This later became the main street in Old Town, San Diego Ave.

As a result of this construction, some of the bodies that were previously interred in El Campo Santo Cemetery are now located under the street and sidewalks. If you look around the area, you can find medallions in the road showing where people were buried.

Presidio Park next to Old Town San Diego
Presidio Park next to Old Town San Diego

17) Have a Picnic at Presidio Park

Neighborhood: Old Town San Diego

The beautiful Presidio Park is one of Old Town’s standout locations, whether you’re interested in the park’s history as part of the missions of early colonists, or you simply want to enjoy San Diego’s perfect weather. If you’re looking for a free (or almost free) way to enjoy Old town San Diego, stretch out in the grass on a blanket and treat yourself to a picnic in the park, which is equipped with convenient restrooms and parking.

Pick up lunch from one of Old Town’s many incredible restaurants, or consider visiting a local farmer’s market and grabbing some fresh ingredients to make tasty salads and sandwiches to enjoy in the park. When you’re done eating, go for a stroll around the Eucalyptus Grove, or check out landmarks like the Padre Cross and Inspiration Point.

Entrance to Fiesta de Reyes in Old Town
Entrance to Fiesta de Reyes in Old Town

18) Go See a Free Show at Fiesta de Reyes in Old Town

Neighborhood: Old Town San Diego

Fiesta de Reyes is a popular central community location that has plenty of opportunities for shopping, dining, and of course, partying. Every weekend, the stage at Fiesta de Reyes hosts live musical entertainment which is tons of fun and completely free to attend! Watch incredibly skilled folklórico dancers put on a stunning performance that draws from their cultural heritage, and listen to the mariachi band play popular Spanish songs.

While you’re enjoying the show, be sure to grab some refreshments from nearby restaurants and food stands, or check out the wares of boutique stores and pick up a souvenir or two. Stores at Fiesta de Reyes sell a variety of goods including handmade crafts, artisan chocolate, wines, kids toys, books, and novelties.

Girl Reading the Plaque on the Witches Tower at the Royal Presidio Site in Old Town
Girl Reading the Plaque on the Witches Tower at the Royal Presidio Site in Old Town

19) Visit the Presidio Hill Cemetery

Neighborhood: Old Town San Diego

Like El Campo Santo Cemetery in Old Town, Presidio Hill Cemetery has a storied history that has ended in disrepair. Unlike the El Campo Sant Cemetery just down the hill in Old Town, the Presidio Hill Cemetery has not been restored. It now consists on an open field within the yellow walls of the old Presidio. There is only one grave marker at what is called the Witches Tower, a yellow one-story adobe structure located across from Junipero Serra museum and atop Presidio Hill at the south east corner of the Presidio wall.

In the mid 1800's, several hundred individuals found their final resting place in and around the chapel. However, in 1841, the chapel ceased its functions as a place of worship and gradually deteriorated. The cemetery's last documented burial occurred in 1849 when Henry Fitch, the first mayor of Old Town San Diego, was laid to rest.

However, don’t let its appearance deceive you. It is said that the Witches Tower is known as a reported area of ghost haunts. It stands near the Pattie Memorial, marking the spot where Sylvester Pattie, who arrived in San Diego on March 27, 1828, and died in prison, was believed to have been imprisoned. In the past, a guardhouse-jail was believed to have existed nearby.

Today, the tower serves as a storage facility, while its landing provides a viewing area of the scenic park. Erected sometime between 1928 and 1940, the tower is commonly referred to as "The Witches Tower" due to the presence of a large brick pentagram on the cobblestone landing on its roof.

Go Historic with Go Pass!
Whaley House
Historic Whaley House Museum
The Whaley House Museum is located in historic Old Town San Diego. With your Go Pass, take in one of the most visited attractions in the area. The complex is made up of multiple houses and museums that offer something fun for the whole family.
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Local Tips
What are the best Go City San Diego pass deals?

Some of the best deals with the Go City San Diego pass include access to San Diego’s most popular attractions.

Discount admission is offered to the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari, SeaWorld, LEGOLAND California, USS Midway Museum, Belmont Park rides and more!

Want to save more? Use our exclusive discount code GVSD5OFF to save an extra 5%!

The Best Tips for Visiting Historic Old Town San Diego

As a hub of history, culture, restaurants, and even nightlife, Old Town has lots to offer visitors if you know where to look. Use these helpful tips to ensure your vacation is smooth sailing.

Visit in the Off-Season

Unlike some other San Diego neighborhoods that draw their biggest crowds from summer beachgoers, Old Town is a delight to visit year-round, and nearly all attractions are open throughout the year.

When combined with the Go City San Diego pass, visiting during off-season means saving on admission costs to museums and attractions in Old Town and throughout San Diego, plus avoiding long lines upon arrival!

Free Things to Do in Old Town

There are plenty of ways to have fun in Old Town without spending a single cent. Locations like Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, Presidio Park, and Fiesta de Reyes are completely free!

For more free options and budget-friendly tips, check out our list of the Best Free Things to Do in San Diego.

Old Town’s Central San Diego Location

You're never far from the most popular attractions in San Diego when you’re in Old Town!

Head to the pacific coast and checkout one of the more than 75 picturesque beaches. Consider La Jolla Cove in the upscale neighborhood of La Jolla for snorkeling, tide pools, and seal sightings! Mission Beach, just past the calm waters of Mission Bay and SeaWorld San Diego, is just a 15 minute drive or rideshare from Old Town. The beach is a solid choice for surfing or to catch a sunset along the boardwalk.

In addition to the beaches, Downtown San Diego, home to restaurants, theaters, shopping and many high-end hotels, and Hotel Circle, home to shopping and an array of accommodation options, are both nearby. Old Town is also just 3.5 miles from the San Diego International Airport (SAN), so it’s a popular stop on many travelers’ itineraries.

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Cosmopolitan Hotel
The Cosmopilitan Hotel
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The Cosmopolitan Hotel is a historic landmark located in downtown San Diego. Complete with vintage furniture & timely details, the hotel has a haunting charm.
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Tours & Adventures
Hop On & Off Narrated Trolley Tour
Hop On & Off Narrated Trolley Tour
$42 per person
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Old Town Tales, Tacos & Tequila
Old Town Tales, Tacos & Tequila
$75 per person
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