arrow-down arrow-left arrow-right arrow-up play-button plus tab-indicator dots close menu search facebook google-plus instagram pinterest rss twitter youtube rss-two heart Check FeaturedBadge linkedin minus apps placeholder linkedin

The History and Heritage of Old Town San Diego

Explore the Birthplace of California

Old Town San Diego is home to an eclectic mix of museums, historic sites, shops, restaurants and attractions.


Old Town Blacksmith Building

Stand on the shady porch of the Robinson-Rose House in Old Town State Historic Park and you can catch a glimpse of what San Diego was like in 1855. Where artists now set up easels in the plaza, a scrappy group of ranchers, soldiers and entrepreneurs were constructing what would become California’s second-largest city.

Old Town is where the state of California began. Home to the Kumeyaay people since 10,000 BC, the area was claimed for Spain in the mid-sixteenth century by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo. Settlement didn’t begin in earnest until 1769, when Father Junípero Serra established the first mission at the top of what is now Presidio Hill, and Gaspar de Portolà, Spain’s appointed governor of Alta California, built the first military outpost.

Serra, a 5-foot, 2-inch Franciscan friar with a mighty will, wrote about the area, “It is beautiful to behold and does not belie its reputation.” But Presidio Hill lacked access to water, so the mission was moved upriver to its present site.

When the Mexican War of Independence ended Spanish rule in 1821, San Diego was considered a Mexican pueblo, or village. The fort was abandoned and attention turned to more accessible areas around the base of the hill. Homes and businesses began to spring up.

With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, California became part of the United States, officially achieving statehood on September 9, 1850.

The modest village remained the hub of San Diego life until 1867, when Alonzo Horton purchased 900 acres closer to the waterfront for $265, naming it “New Town.” It would grow to become the city and county seat, now downtown San Diego. 

Old Town Historic Reenactment Matthew Baldwin

A century later, the California Department of Parks and Recreation established Old Town State Historic Park, with more than two dozen buildings depicting life from the early Mexican-American period of 1821-1872. Five original adobe structures mix with reconstructed sites and newer buildings done in the same style. A major overhaul reinvigorated the park in 2009, balancing authenticity with contemporary boutiques, restaurants and art studios. Many of the attractions are free. On evenings and weekends, take advantage of free parking behind the CalTrans building on the northwest side of Taylor Street. It’s a short walk from there to Old Town.

Make your first stop at the Visitor Center in the Robinson-Rose House, erected in 1853, demolished around 1900 and rebuilt in 1989. It was once the home of self-taught attorney James Robinson and his wife Sarah, a mysterious couple with a scandalous — for the era — past. Sarah later sold the house to Louis Rose, a German immigrant and one of San Diego’s first Jewish settlers. Over the years it heldlaw and medical offices, a jail, school, newspaper headquarters, store, boarding house and the county clerk’s office. Pick up maps and brochures, find the camel in the diorama, and sign up for a guided walking tour of the park.

Across the plaza is La Casa de Estudillo, a grand adobe home that served as the social and political center of fledgling San Diego. Built between 1827 and 1830 for José Maria Estudillo, commander of the Presidio fort, it remained in the Estudillo family for roughly 60 years. The house and courtyard functioned as a school, chapel and place of refuge for women and children during the U.S. invasion of 1846. Local legend held that it was a setting in Helen Hunt Jackson’s fictionalized book, “Ramona.”

Old Town History Reenactor Matthew Baldwin

One of the original adobe buildings is the La Casa de Machado y Silvas, built in the early 1840s as a wedding gift for María Antonia Machado. Around 1854, she converted it into a restaurant to capitalize on the rush of gold prospectors, immigrants and other settlers. With a garden in the back, this could be considered San Diego’s first farm-to-table cafe!

Tucked behind La Casa de Machado y Silvas is a reconstruction of San Diego’s first publically owned school. The one-room Mason Street School, built in 1865 and restored in 1952, had an average enrollment of 42 students, though as many as a third could be absent on any given day due to the demands of ranching life.  According to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, hot issues were funding, curriculum, philosophy, tolerance and bilingual education. Popular recess activities included smoking tobacco and “roping anything that moved.” The school district was 14,800 square miles — bigger than Massachusetts and Connecticut combined — and spanned what is now San Diego, Riverside and Imperial counties.

Other highlights of the park include La Casa de Bandini, which later became the Cosmopolitan Hotel, a blacksmith and woodworking shop, the first offices of the San Diego Union newspaper, and the first courthouse. Nearby is the Whaley House, said to be one of the most haunted locations in San Diego, and the Casa del Rey Moro African Museum. Up the street are the exquisite Victorian mansions of Heritage Park and San Diego’s first synagogue, originally sited at Second and Beech Streets.

At the peak of Presidio Hill you’ll find the Junípero Serra Museum, operated by the San Diego History Center. Permanent exhibitions trace the archeological significance of the site, along with the region’s cultural influences from the Kumeyaay through the Spanish, Mexican and early American eras. On the terrace, an exhibit on the San Diego River explores the ecology and human impact over time. Climb the tower to get a spectacular view of Mission Valley, and compare historic photographs with the energetic city at your feet.

Find a place to stay

Book online or call 1-800-350-6205 to speak with a local expert

Related Articles and Features

Deals just for you

Whale Watching

Luxury Whale Watching Onboard Catamaran. Save $10

Davey's Locker Whale Watching & Sportsfishing
Valid: Jun 5, 2023 - ongoing

Onboard our 50’ pristine Catamaran Yacht, our always low passenger capacity makes for an intimate at sea experience. The luxury whale watching...


Pet Getaway

Hotel Indigo - San Diego Gaslamp Quarter
Valid: Sep 14, 2022 - ongoing

Welcome to Hotel InDogGo. This pawrfect package includes a welcome treat dog bed bowl and parking for the parents. Must bring your own pet to qualify for this deal. We will ask the pet to verify your...


Drink, Dine, & Dance Package

Humphreys Half Moon Inn
Valid: Jan 3 - ongoing

Experience the greatest aspects of staying at Humphreys Half Moon Inn - drinking, dining and dancing. Book now to receive a daily $50 food & beverage credit, along with two craft cocktails at...

Events to check out


Port of San Diego Big Bay Boom!

Jul 4, 2023

The Port of San Diego Big Bay Boom July 4th Fireworks Show is back, promising another spectacular display over San Diego Bay. Fireworks will be discharged simultaneously from barges placed...


Comic-Con International: San Diego

Jul 20 - Jul 23, 2023

Comic-Con International is the largest comics and pop culture event in the United States, attracting thousands of artists, celebrities and fans of comic books, movie memorabilia and all things related...


Bike the Bay

Aug 27, 2023

San Diego's finest annual cycling event across the Coronado Bridge and around the bay! Ride the bridge, Bike the Bay for the 16th annual ride on Sunday, August 27, 2023! Cruise around San Diego Bay...

Stay in touch

Sign up to receive the latest news, events, and updates about San Diego. Our monthly and weekly newsletters will keep you informed about the latest and greatest happenings in the destination.

Sign Up





Follow Us


English | Change Language

Select your country or region

China FlagChinaGermany FlagGermanyGreat Britain FlagGreat BritainJapan FlagJapanMexico FlagMexicoKorea FlagKoreaSwitzerland FlagSwitzerlandBrazil FlagBrazilFrance FlagFranceAustralia FlagAustraliaCanada FlagCanada USA

Or use Google Translate

Afrikaans Albanian Arabic Belarusian Bulgarian Catalan Croatian Czech Danish Deutsch Español Estonian Filipino Finnish Francais Galician Greek Haitian-Creole Hebrew Hindi Hungarian Icelandic Indonesian Irish Italian Japanese Korean Latvian Lithuanian Macedonian Malay Maltese Nederlands Norwegian Persian Polish Portuguese Romanian Russian Serbian Slovak Slovenian Swahili Swedish Telugu Thai Turkish Ukranian Vietnamese Welsh Yiddish