History of Old Town - The Birthplace of California

As the birthplace of California, the Old Town neighborhood is full of history. Step back in time and explore its many museums and preserved buildings.
History of Old Town - The Birthplace of California
Bridging the Gap
A Brief Overview
Explore & Save
Old Town Today
Other Places of Interest
Historical Facts
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Facts
Overview
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Facts

Bridging the Gap Between History and the Modern World

Old Town Cart and BarrelsEl Campo Santo Cementary the Oldest Cementary in San Diego

Back in 1769, a group of Spanish settlers pulled their boats ashore on the southern end of California’s western coastline. They arrived as part of a mission led by Father Junipero Serra, who went on to establish a total of 21 different California missions all based in the area. In time, this area came to be known as Old Town, and the city that sprung up around it was named San Diego.

As its first settlement and the oldest town in San Diego, Old Town is considered the birthplace of San Diego. Located not too far from Downtown San Diego and just next to Mission Valley, Old Town is a popular destination for anyone looking to learn more about the history of the area and what life was like for San Diego’s earliest settlers.

Old Town’s history is incredibly rich and storied. There are dozens of historic buildings that preserve everything from the houses from the first settlement in San Diego like La Casa de Estudillo, to San Diego’s first schoolhouse, to nationally recognized landmarks. Many of the buildings have been restored and renovated, maintaining their authentic architectural style, while still blending into the urban layout of Old Town San Diego.

Old Town San Diego is a great place to live or to visit. Whether you’re a permanent resident, or you’re just passing through, learning about the area’s history in this unique way is an amazing opportunity you don’t want to pass up.

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Holiday Inn Express San Diego Airport - Old Town
$136
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Hilton Garden Inn San Diego Old Town
$143
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Courtyard by Marriott Old Town
$152
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Cosmopolitian Hotel
$99
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A Brief Overview of Old Town’s History

Prior to the founding of Old Town, the area was home to the Kumeyaay tribe of Native Americans. They lived in the village of Kosa’aay, which later the Spaniards called Cosoy, for many years before the arrival of Spanish settlers and California's colonization. Spain’s first contact with the area was made by the explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542.

Once settlers arrived, they laid claim to the territory and constructed their own buildings. Together with a Spanish soldier and commander of the expedition Gaspar de Portola, Junipero Serra founded the Mission San Diego de Alcala and the San Diego Presidio fort. These were the first two structures from which the rest of San Diego followed.

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Old Town’s founding was far from the only historically significant event to occur there. As the heart of San Diego and Mission Valley, it was a popular hub for settlers and travelers alike, just as it is today. The Presidio continued to be the primary settlement while the Mission was moved upriver along the San Diego river.

The town and the area around it continued to grow in popularity and population. In 1850, California officially became part of the United States of America, with Old Town holding the county seat for San Diego. It maintained its status as the most prominent Californian town until about 1860, when New Town was established and developed in what would later become Downtown San Diego.

Though it was no longer the heart of San Diego, Old Town remained a popular location. This was in part thanks to its inclusion in the public transit system created by the entrepreneur John D. Spreckels in 1910. It was also a result of the Panama-California Exposition held there in 1915, which brought a lot of traffic and fame to the area.

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Old Town Today

Now, Old Town remains a modern neighborhood with historic connections featuring numerous historic sites, many within walking distance of each other. The past architecture intersects with the present urban design to reveal the similarities and differences between the lives of modern residents and their predecessors.

No visit to Old Town is complete without touring a few of the museums or the El Campo Santo Cemetery throughout Old Town San Diego. You can learn about early San Diego’s history and see what parts of the early settlement looked like for yourself.

If you want to explore the history and heritage of Mission Valley and Old Town San Diego, there are plenty of opportunities to explore and learn. The Old Town experience of today is full of restaurants, cafes, shopping, culture, amazing historical architecture and plenty of history you won’t be able to miss!

Located just off the junction of Interstate 8 and Interstate 5, just north of the Mission Hills neighborhood, you’ll find museums and the preserved historic buildings that make Old Town so famous to this day.

Each attraction covers a different aspect of Old Town history. Some go into detail about the founding and history of Old Town San Diego, while others explore the lives of a single person from early Old Town history and how their contributions shaped the town. Still others might preserve the architecture of early Old Town settlements and provide a window into what these homes would have looked like hundreds of years ago.

If you are looking for some more history about San Diego, Balboa Park does have a varied history. There are also 17 museums, a golf course as well the world-famous San Diego Zoo all within Balboa Park. It is one of the gems of San Diego.

If you are looking to visit Old Town or Balboa Park and you would like to save some money on attractions and activities consider purchasing the Go San Diego pass. This pass gets you access to over 50 different attractions and activities all around San Diego while saving you over 55% on the general admission costs. The Go San Diego pass gets you in most of the museums in San Diego, the USS Midway Aircraft Museum and even the San Diego Zoo for one low cost.

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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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Museums, Historic Buildings, and Other Places of Interest

There’s always something new to learn in Old Town, and thanks to the abundance of cultural and historic preservation efforts, understanding the town’s extensive history is both accessible and engaging.

Whaley House

The Whaley House Museum is one of the best-known attractions in the Old Town area and a historic building full of incredible history that’s worth a visit. This magnificent 1850’s brick mansion was created when its founder Thomas Whaley moved to Old Town and designed the house himself, which makes it one of San Diego’s oldest buildings. Since then, it has been home to many significant events in Old Town’s history.

The Whaley House has taken many forms over the years. It was first and foremost the home of the Whaley settlers, who also rented out the house as San Diego’s first commercial theater. It has also been used as a granary, a general store, and even a courthouse.

You can visit the Whaley House Museum to learn more about its founders and the starring role it played in Old Town’s development. Take in the Greek revival architectural style of the exterior design, then head inside for a tour. The rooms have been renovated to reflect what the house would have looked like at different periods in San Diego’s past.

If you’re planning on visiting the Whaley House Museum, don’t forget to take advantage of the great savings you can get with the Go San Diego Pass. If you purchase a pass ahead of time, you can save an additional discount on your trip by purchasing via the link on our website.

The Whaley House is also well known for its ghost sightings. Caretakers of the house and visitors to the museum alike have reported seeing shades from the past. Nighttime tours highlight these supernatural encounters and go into more detail about each member of the Whaley family that may still be haunting the grounds.

Junipero Serra Museum

The Junipero Serra Museum is part of the San Diego History Center. It rests in the same location as the original San Diego Mission led by Father Junipero Serra that eventually led to the founding of San Diego and the establishment of Mission Valley. The museum also includes the renovated Presidio fort, which was an active military base from 1769 to 1835.

At the Junipero Serra Museum, you can observe an accurate rendition of the Spanish Revival architecture of Mission Valley. You can also ascend the tower and enjoy the breathtaking aerial view of historic Old Town. If you’re interested in more information about California’s history, the huge library inside the museum contains hundreds of history books and primary source documents.

The museum also includes an extensive art collection maintained by the San Diego History Center. Each piece in the collection is related to San Diego’s history, helping to bring greater recognition to the artists that have enriched the culture of the area for hundreds of years.

The Mission San Diego de Alcalá and Presidio fort are crucial parts of the story of San Diego’s history. Seeing them in person is an incredible experience that is well worth the trip. When you visit Mission Valley, you’ll really feel like you’re stepping back through time, directly into the earliest days of the original Old Town settlement.

Old Town San Diego State Historic Park

The Old Town San Diego Historic Park commemorates important moments throughout the history of Old Town and San Diego’s early years. The state park is full of restored historic buildings as well as recreations of buildings that have been lost to time. By preserving these structures, the state park preserves San Diego’s past.

Visitors who walk through the park learn the story of Old Town’s early days all the way through the acquisition of California by the United States.

Take a peek back into history and discover how San Diego went from being a Spanish settlement, to a Mexican pueblo, to an American city. Observe the ways architecture has changed throughout the years and take in various statues and other artifacts from Old Town’s past.

At the center of the state park is the Historic Plaza, where educational and entertaining events are frequently held. The park also contains a functioning blacksmith shop, so you can experience what it would have been like to be in hundreds of years ago.

Heritage County Park

The Heritage County Park in Old Town spans nearly eight acres, and each acre is packed full of history. The park includes dozens of old Victorian-style homes which have been renovated to appear exactly as they would have when Old Town was founded. The park also contains the Temple Beth Israel, which was San Diego’s first synagogue.

Visitors can enter the Temple Beth Israel to see the interior for themselves. Take in the intricate construction work and step directly into a part of history.

The Sanlis Cottage is also open to the public. Here, you can explore a nineteenth century Vernacular style building originally built for Eugene Senlis, a working-class resident. The house was originally constructed without any of the amenities we use today like gas, electricity, or plumbing, so walking inside is like transporting yourself back in time.

Other houses in the historic park include the Sherman-Gilbert House constructed in the Stick Eastlake style, the Burton House in the Classic Revival style, and the Christian House built in the Queen Anne style. The buildings date back between the mid-1880s to the turn of the century in the late 1890s.

Popular Activities

The World Famous San Diego Zoo
The World Famous San Diego Zoo
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USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum
USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum
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Historic Whaley House Museum
Historic Whaley House Museum
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The San Diego History Center
The San Diego History Center
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Interesting Historical Facts and Tips

As the birthplace of California, Old Town’s history is full of interesting and surprising moments. Here are just a few of the many things that make Old Town a truly unique neighborhood.

The Adobe Chapel

The Adobe Chapel in Old Town became a church in 1858, but it was originally constructed as a home in 1850. The current version of the chapel was rebuilt in 1937 after it was bulldozed in the 1930s for street realignment, and it retains many of the artifacts and antique furniture items from the previous building.

Mexican Heritage

As a previous Spanish settlement and Mexican territory, Old Town retains many connections to its Mexican culture. This can be seen in the area’s authentic Mexican cuisine, mariachi performances, and the Old Town market. The area also hosts a large Día de Los Muertos festival and the Fiesta de Reyes, a shopping and entertainment district.

Free Parking

There is free parking available when you visit Old Town San Diego. Plenty of street parking as well as metered parking is available for your visit. Lot parking and private garages are also nearby for your convenience.

Handicapped Accessibility

Many of the shops and cafes are wheelchair accessible. Much of the area is outdoor space as well that is friendly to those with additional needs.

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Stay Nearby

Holiday Inn Express San Diego Airport - Old Town
Near Old Town
2 Star Rating2 Star Rating
Holiday Inn Express San Diego Airport - Old Town
from $136 / night
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Hilton Garden Inn San Diego Old Town
Near SeaWorld
3 Star Rating3 Star Rating3 Star Rating
Hilton Garden Inn San Diego Old Town
from $143 / night
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Courtyard by Marriott Old Town
Family Friendly
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Courtyard by Marriott Old Town
from $152 / night
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Cosmopolitian Hotel
Near Old Town
2 Star Rating2 Star Rating
Cosmopolitian Hotel
from $99 / night
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Tours & Adventures
The World Famous San Diego Zoo
The World Famous San Diego Zoo
Discounts Available
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USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum
USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum
Discounts Available
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