In 1769, Gaspar de Portolá, the founder of the territory that became California, established the first Spanish fort in the new territory. Junípero Serra, a Franciscan friar who was associated with Portolá’s expedition, founded its first mission nearby. Those two institutions, founded on the south bank of the San Diego River, would become the nucleus of the Spanish settlement that took the river’s name. The settlement became a town; the town, a city; the city, a metropolis that is now the eighth largest in the United States. But the original settlement of San Diego still stands on the riverside—today it’s known as Old Town San Diego, a historical neighborhood of the modern city and one of its most important centers of tourism.
The fort—the Presidio de San Diego—was built at the top of what is appropriately called Presidio Hill, with the misson nearby (though it later moved a few miles away). The town of San Diego developed at the bottom of Presidio Hill in the 1820s. Although the Presidio itself was for a few years the residence of José María de Echeandía, the governor of the Mexican territory of Alta California, by 1835 it had been abandoned and the regional settlement shifted to the town of San Diego.
The new town’s population fluctuated over the years, after the United States acquired Alta California in the 1840s and admitted California as a state in 1850. But in the 1860s, real estate developer Alonzo Horton proposed to extend San Diego’s boundaries to the shore of San Diego Bay. It worked…but it also caused the original boundary to lose its status as the core of the town. In 1872 the shift became complete when the city moved its records and administrative offices out of what was already known as “Old San Diego” to a new courthouse in what is now Downtown San Diego. Old San Diego became something like a suburb, albeit one that was connected to the new downtown via streetcar tracks in 1915.
In 1968, however, the state of California created the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park to re-create and preserve Old Town in its prime Mexican and Early American eras, from 1821 to 1872. By 2005, it had become the most visited park in California.
Much of the area designated as the State Historic Park consists of San Diego’s original central plaza, Old Town Plaza or Washington Square. It was here, in July 1846, that U.S. Navy Lieutenant Stephen C. Rowan raised the first American flag in California—a replica of that flagpole stands at the plaza’s entrance.
Old San Diego still contains at least two houses from the earliest days of the town. Alvarado House is an adobe that was built in 1824 by Francisco Maria Alvarado. (His wife, Tomasa Pico, was the sister of Pío Pico, the last Mexican governor of Alta California.) After 1850, they rented their house to American businessmen who ran it as a grocery and provision store. (That sign is still on the front façade.) At the far end of the Plaza is Casa de Estudillo, built in 1827 and now both a national and state historical landmark. The Estudillo family were important public officials in Mexican and early American California, and their large adobe home was an important center of social life: Their rooftop balcony allowed them and their guests to view bullfights, horce races and fiestas in the plaza; during the American occupation of the 1840s the house became a sanctuary for women and children (its rooms include a schoolroom and a chapel).
There are also two period hotels on the plaza. The Cosmopolitan Hotel, built in 1830 as the home of rancher Juan Bandini, had a second story added in 1869, when it became a hotel. It served several other purposes over the years (including an olive cannery in the 1900s) before a 21st-century restoration to its 1870s-era hotel design. It also includes the Cosmopolitan Restaurant, serving Mexican and American favorites.
Colorado House is not, technically, a hotel any longer. It’s the San Diego outpost of the Wells Fargo History Museum, which inside features a 19th-century stage shop and telegraph office. But it retains the exterior architecture and signage from its original 1860 incarnation. It’s an Old West gem, complete with timber façade and Victorian false front.
The most prominent house in the Park, however, is the Robinson-Rose House, better known as the visitor’s center. When James Robinson built this two-story house in 1853, he moved in not just his own family, but the offices of the San Diego Herald newspaper and the San Diego and Gila Railroad offices. It was badly damaged by a fire in 1874, after Old San Diego had fallen into neglect, but has been fully restored. Inside, for the curious, is a replica model of San Diego as it appeared in 1872.
There are more historical buildings than these in the Park—and more still outside of it. Among the most picturesque is the Church of the Immaculate Conception—which also has an odd history. Father Antonio D. Ubach initiated its construction in 1868…just as Old Town’s residents were leaving for “New San Diego.” With no parishioners nearby to either attend or fund the church, it sat unfinished for the next half-century, finally completed in 1919 (to the original 1860s design).
On the next block of San Diego Avenue stands Whaley House, which according to one historian “has witnessed more history than any other building in the city.” The first two-story brick house (and regarded in its time as the finest) in Southern California, it was built in 1856 by New York-born Thomas Whaley when he moved to cash in on the California Gold Rush. (He wasn’t a prospector—he built general stores that sold to prospectors, the only surefire way to make money in a gold rush.) In the 1860s, while still living there, he rented out some of its rooms; tenants included a granary, San Diego’s first commercial theater, and, from 1869 to 1871, the County Courthouse. Today it has been restored to that period in which it was both Whaley’s home and the Courthouse—and, for those with an interest, has been called the most haunted house in America.
There are also two other historical parks in Old Town. San Diego County maintains Heritage Park. It’s a 7.8-acre stretch that features seven buildings of historic Victorian architecture; none were originally built in the vicinity of the park, but have been moved there from their initial locations as part of the preservation effort. Six of the structures are houses, ranging from the elaborate Sherman-Gilbert House to the smaller Italianate Burton House to the working-class Senlis Cottage (the lattermost a house museum; the other houses are not open to the public).
The seventh Heritage Park building is the Temple Beth Israel, built downtown in 1889 as San Diego’s first synagogue and often used as temporary space for other congregations before it was moved to Heritage Park. It is now a popular rental facility for weddings, receptions, and Bar Mitzvahs.
The other Old Town park is Presidio Park—the site of the 18th century fort that once served as the Spanish defense of San Diego. It must be noted, however, that none of the original structure now exists (it fell into ruins after the fort was abandoned in the 1820s). Only the earthworks survive to mark its location. Instead, Presidio Park comprises the outdoor grounds of Presidio Hill—including the spot where Junípero Serra planted a palm tree to mark his arrival in 1769, and the Serra Museum, which documents the city’s founding and the denizens of Old Town San Diego from its early Native American population to the present day.
This article only covers the most important and prominent of the historical sites in Old Town San Diego. There are many, many more, from its original cemetery to old chapels and stables. In addition, there are hotels, theaters, and nearly three dozen restaurants. Plenty, in short, to see and do and eat.