SAN DIEGO — The original neighborhood in San Diego, Old Town, isn’t where you might expect. But visitors should definitely seek it out.
Spanish explorers first made land in San Diego Bay in 1542. But it was more than two centuries later, in 1769, when the Mission San Diego de Alcala was founded. And the mission church and adjacent military outpost were located 6 miles inland from the bay along the San Diego River.
The town grew in fits and starts, first as Spanish, then as Mexican, finally as American, but didn’t show a lot of promise until a San Francisco businessman began promoting and building New Town along the bay.
But Old Town left its mark. Today, Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and the surrounding neighborhood still offers a glimpse of what life was like in San Diego from 1821 to 1872 — but with much better food, drink and souvenirs, I’m guessing.
The park is a lively mix of history and commerce, with restaurants, museums, boutiques and specialty shops that make it a popular destination for locals and tourists alike.
Old Town has a traditional Spanish colonial-style central plaza, a large grassy gathering place surrounded by restored-and-recreated historic structures.
Some of the structures house small, free museums, such as the old San Diego Union building, once home to the first daily newspaper in southern California and today a small printing museum.
Other Old Town museums include the first San Diego courthouse, built in 1847; the beautiful La Casa de Estudillo, an original adobe mansion from 1829; and the Robinson-Rose House, a reconstruction of an original 1853 mansion and now the park visitor information center.
The museums are interesting and informative, but the real fun is to be found in the boutiques, colorful shopping plazas and restaurants.
Some of the more interesting shops include the Racine & Laramie Tobacco Store, which still sells fine cigars and hosts a smoking room for patrons; O.T. Jerky & Root Beer, featuring dozens of craft root beers from around the country and root beer floats; and Miner’s Gems & Minerals, with a fascinating assortment of collectible gems, fossils and minerals for sale from museum-like displays in the Pedrorena-Altamirano House that was built in 1869.
The more modern structures around the main plaza, such as those in the Fiesta de Reys shops and restaurants, fit in well with the historic district with colorful, Mexican-influenced architecture and decor.
More than a dozen dining options, with many types of food, are available in the park and Old Town neighborhood. My family chose to stick with the Old Town theme and eat Mexican at the picturesque (but relatively modern) Barra Barra Saloon. The food was good, the Dos Equis was cold and the view of the plaza was delightful: a nice mix of the old and new.
For more information about Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and the surrounding neighborhood, call 1-800-777-0369 or visit www.parks.ca.gov or www.oldtownsandiego.org.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @SteveStephens.