Start: The McCoy House, overlooking the San Diego Trolley's Old Town station.
Finish: Heritage Park.
Time: 2 hours, not including shopping or dining.
Best Times: Weekdays; there are daily 1-hour free tours at 11am and 2pm; on Wednesdays and Saturdays, from 10am to 4pm, costumed park volunteers reenact life in the 1800s. There's storytelling on the green Tuesdays and Thursdays, noon-2pm, and Fridays from 1-3pm. Be prepared to be joined by lots of school groups.
Worst Times: Weekends, especially if you want to dine at one of the restaurants, where waits can be long. Of special note is Cinco de Mayo weekend (the first weekend in May) -- Old Town is a madhouse, so plan accordingly. The holiday celebrates Mexico's defeat of the French on May 5, 1862, in the Battle of Puebla, and there are a number of special events held.
When you visit Old Town, you go back to a time of one-room schoolhouses and village greens, when many of the people who lived, worked, and played here spoke Spanish. Inside the state park the buildings are old or built to look that way, making it easy to let the modern world slip away -- you don't have to look hard or very far to see yesterday. The time warp is especially palpable at night, when you can stroll along the unpaved streets and look up at the stars. Begin your tour at the McCoy House, at the northwestern end of this historic district, which preserves the essence of the small Mexican and fledgling American communities that existed here from 1821 to 1872. The core of Old Town State Historic Park is a 6-block area with no vehicular traffic and a collection of restaurants and retail shops; the commercial district of Old Town continues for several blocks, with San Diego Avenue as the main drag.
Start at the intersection of Wallace and Calhoun, the location of the:
1. McCoy House
This is the interpretive center for the park and is a historically accurate replication of the home of James McCoy, a lawman/legislator who lived on this site until the devastating fire of 1872. With exhibits, artifacts, and visitor information, the house gives a great overview of life in San Diego in the 19th century.
After checking in here and getting your bearings, head to the neighboring:
2. Robinson-Rose House
Built in 1853 as a family home, it also served as a newspaper and railroad office; now, it's the visitor center for the park. Here you'll see a large model of Old Town the way it looked prior to 1872, the year a large fire broke out (or was set). The blaze destroyed much of the town and initiated the population exodus to New Town, now downtown San Diego. Old Town State Historic Park contains seven original buildings, including the Robinson-Rose House, and replicas of other buildings that once stood here.
From here, turn left and stroll into the colorful world of Mexican California called:
3. Fiesta de Reyes
Located at 2754 Calhoun St., this is where colorful shops and restaurants spill into a flower-filled courtyard. Costumed employees and nightly entertainment create an early California atmosphere throughout what was once a 1930s motel (albeit one designed by acclaimed architect Richard Requa).
4. Take a Break
This is a good opportunity to sample the Mexican food in and around Fiesta de Reyes. In addition to Casa Guadalajara, there are other restaurants in the immediate area -- Barra Barra Old Town Saloon (tel. 619/291-3200), Casa de Reyes (tel. 619/220-5040), and the Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant (tel. 619/297-1874). All offer indoor/outdoor dining and a lively ambience, but the Cosmo offers the most sophisticated, accomplished food and drink. If the wait for a table is long at one, put your name on the list at another. The restaurants are open from 10 or 11am to 9 or 10pm, and Fiesta de Reyes shops are open from 10am to 9pm, with shorter winter hours.
From Fiesta de Reyes, stroll into the grassy plaza, where you'll see a:
5. Large Rock Monument
This monument commemorates the first U.S. flag raised in Southern California. After Northern California had been wrested from Mexico by invading U.S. forces in July 1846, the USS Cyane sailed into San Diego Bay to lay claim to the southern portion of the state. Aboard ship were John C. Frémont (who would go on to become one of California's first senators and the first Republican candidate for president) and legendary frontiersman and scout Kit Carson. On July 29, 1846, a detail raised the Stars and Stripes on this spot. When Frémont rode off with his battalion 10 days later, though, the town was left to its own devices and loyal Californios hoisted the Mexican flag again. A sailmaker, Albert B. Smith, eventually nailed Old Glory permanently in place to the flagpole.
Straight ahead, at the plaza's eastern edge, is:
6. La Casa de Estudillo
An original adobe building dating from 1827, the U-shaped house has covered walkways and an open central patio. The patio covering is made of corraza cane, the seeds for which were brought by Father Junípero Serra in 1769. The walls are 3 to 5 feet thick, holding up the heavy beams and tiles, and they work as terrific insulators against summer heat. In those days, the thicker the walls, the wealthier the family. The furnishings in this "upper-class" house are representative of the 19th century (note the beautiful four-poster beds); the original furniture came from as far away as Asia. The Estudillo family, which then numbered 12, lived in the house until 1887; today family members still live in San Diego.
After you exit La Casa de Estudillo, turn right. Here you'll find the:
7. Casa de Bandini/Cosmopolitan Hotel
Now a beautifully renovated restaurant and hotel, the Casa de Bandini was completed in 1829. It was the home of Peruvian-born Juan Bandini, who arrived in California in 1818 and became one of early San Diego's most prominent citizens. The 14-room home was the hub of the small town's social and political life. When U.S. troops invaded in 1846, Bandini welcomed them and appealed to others to do the same. In fact, the commander of the U.S. force, Samuel Du Pont, was a guest in the Bandini home, where there was music and dancing every night during his stay. In 1869, the building, with a second story added, became the Cosmopolitan Hotel.
Walk back across the plaza to the:
8. Colorado House
Built in 1851, it was destroyed by fire in 1872 -- as were most buildings on this side of the park. Today it's the home of the Wells Fargo Historical Museum, but the original housed San Diego's first two-story hotel. The museum features an original Wells Fargo stagecoach, numerous displays of the overland-express business, and a video presentation (as well as ATM machines if you need some cash). Next door to the Wells Fargo museum, and kitty-corner to La Casa de Estudillo, is the small, redbrick San Diego Court House & City Hall.
From here, continue along the pedestrian walkway, turn right, and walk down to a reddish-brown building. This is the one-room:
9. Mason Street School
This is an original building dating from 1865 and is California's first public school. If you look inside, you'll notice that the boards that make up the walls don't match; they were leftovers from the construction of San Diego homes. The school was commissioned by San Diego's first mayor, Joshua Bean, whose brother was the notorious Roy Bean, who would go on to become an eccentric judge in Texas. Before Roy Bean became known as "the law west of the Pecos," though, he had to escape a San Diego jail by digging his way through the adobe walls with a knife that legend has it was hidden in a tamale (he had been jailed for wounding a man in a duel).
When you leave the schoolhouse, retrace your steps to the walkway (which is the extension of San Diego Ave.) and turn right. On your left, you'll see two buildings with brown shingle roofs. The first is the:
10. Pedroreña House
No. 2616 is an original Old Town house built in 1869, with stained glass over the doorway. The shop inside now sells fossils, minerals, and gems. The original owner was Miguel Pedroreña, a Spanish-born merchant and local bigwig. He also owned the house next door, which became the:
11. San Diego Union Printing Office
The newspaper was first published here in 1868. This house arrived in Old Town after being prefabricated in Maine in 1851 and shipped around the Horn (it has a distinctly New England appearance). Inside you'll see the original hand press used to print the paper, which merged with the San Diego Tribune in 1992. The offices are now in Mission Valley, about 3 miles away.
At the end of the pedestrian part of San Diego Avenue stands a railing; beyond it is Twiggs Street, dividing the historic park from the rest of Old Town, which is more commercial, with shops, galleries, and restaurants.
At the corner of Twiggs Street and San Diego Avenue stands the Spanish mission-style:
12. Immaculate Conception Catholic Church
The cornerstone was laid in 1868, making it the first church built in California that was not part of the mission system. With the movement of the community to New Town in 1872, though, it lost its parishioners and was not dedicated until 1919. Today the church serves about 300 families in the Old Town area.
Continue along San Diego Avenue 1 block to Harney Street. On your left is the restored:
13. Whaley House
The first two-story brick structure in Southern California, it was built between 1856 and 1857. The house is said to be haunted by several ghosts, including that of Yankee Jim Robinson, who was hanged on the site in 1852 -- for stealing a rowboat. The house is beautifully furnished with period pieces and features a life mask of Abraham Lincoln, the spinet piano used in the film Gone With the Wind, and the concert piano that accompanied Swedish soprano Jenny Lind on her final U.S. concert tour in 1852.
Continue down San Diego Avenue 2 short blocks to:
14. El Campo Santo
This is San Diego's first cemetery, established in 1850. The small plot is home to the mortal remains of several notable characters, including the hanged boat thief Yankee Jim Robinson and Antonio Garra, who led the Southland's last Native American uprising. The small brass plaques you see on the sidewalk and in the street indicate where the remains of some of San Diego's earliest citizens are still interred. Stories float through Old Town about cars that are unable to start after parking over these markers, or whose alarms go off for no reason.
Return down Old Town Avenue and make a right on Harney Street. Head up the hill 1 1/2 blocks to the collection of Victorian jewels known as:
15. Heritage Park
There are seven original 19th-century buildings in this 7.8-acre park; each was saved from destruction and moved here from other parts of the city. Among the highlights are the Sherman-Gilbert House (1887), with its distinctive widow's walk, and the classic revival Temple Beth Israel, dating from 1889. These structures will soon be joined by a group of new buildings -- done in Victorian style -- for the creation of a bed-and-breakfast village. Heritage Park is open during construction.
16. Winding Down
You've been immersed in California's Mexican culture, but two of Old Town's best restaurants don't follow suit, serving sushi and South American fare. At the end of your walk, make your way back down Harney Street, past San Diego Avenue to Harney Sushi, 3964 Harney St. (tel. 619/295-3272). If this hip and lively sushi joint isn't your style, continue to Congress Street, make a right, and head 1 block to Berta's Latin American Restaurant, 3928 Twiggs St. (tel. 619/295-2343). This unassuming eatery offers a travelogue of dishes that roams from El Salvador to Argentina.