Sightseeing Old Town San Diego and Mission Hills is a historical and architectural feast. From the city’s first graveyard to a two-century old home and plenty in between, you can easily spend an entire day strolling through San Diego’s history.

Campo Santo Cemetery

Is it really haunted? Some say it is, but you won’t find out unless you’ve got the nerve to visit at night. San Diego’s original graveyard attracts its share of visitors during daylight hours. Wooden crosses and burial markers of the 447 San Diegans buried here between 1850 and 1880 include Yankee Jim Robinson, an accused boat thief hung at nearby Whaley House while still proclaiming his innocence. The 2,000-square-foot “holy field” used to be much larger, but many graves were moved or paved over to create the shopping district now surrounding it. Now that’s scary.

Casa de Estudillo

Nearly two centuries ago, this Spanish colonial home was considered among the grandest in northern Mexico. Times have changed, but the restored adobe hacienda remains both a state and a U.S. historic landmark. Beneath a pointed bell tower and lined with terra-cotta ceramic tile rooftops, the building’s 13 rooms are decorated with period furniture that illustrates how the family of a presidio commandant may have lived—from table settings to sitting rooms, including household tools and accessories available at the turn of the 19th century.

Heritage Park Victorian Village

Just southeast of Old Town’s historic park are seven unique Victorian structures that were moved here from their original locations in order to preserve their historic architecture. The vibrant avocado-green Sherman-Gilbert House arrived first; the delicate stick structure of its mid-19th-century turret survived the truck ride from Banker’s Hill. These gorgeous brightly colored buildings have been faithfully restored but sit quiet and closed up; they can only to be admired from outside. One exception is the Temple Beth Israel, San Diego’s first synagogue, built in 1889. It was moved here in 1978 from its original location in the Downtown neighborhood of Cortez Hill, and it remains open during park hours and for occasional private events.

Directional signs in Old Town, San Diego.

Many of Old Town’s historic structures now house shops and restaurants. Photo © Cindy Devin, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Old Town State Historic Park

A visit here gives a sense of what the original settlement must have been like, a combination of Spanish colony and the American Old West.The name San Diego once referred to this small strip of land tucked under a hill next to where the I-5 and I-8 freeways now meet. Most of its residents left more than a century ago, though many of the original buildings remain. The city’s oldest standing structures are now historic landmarks preserved within Old Town State Historic Park. A visit here gives a sense of what the original settlement must have been like, a combination of Spanish colony and the American Old West.

Built between the 1820s and the 1850s, most buildings are old family residences, including the homes of Spanish soldiers who came here to fortify the presidio just up the hill. The restored adobe buildings are furnished to their period; each tells a story about daily life here in the early 19th century. Dining tables in the Commercial Kitchen are set with old-fashion plates and utensils, as if dinner were about to be served.

Strolling around the park, you can bear witness to how the city matured. Later generations of wood and eventually brick buildings reflect the influx of American settlers from the East Coast. The Mason Street Schoolhouse depicts a reconstructed 19th-century classroom complete with desks and chalkboards. The San Diego Union Building features the typesetting tables and a printing press of the city’s first newspaper. The Colorado House, site of the Wells Fargo Museum, invites guests inside an old bank vault.

Many of the old structures now house shops and restaurants, turning the park into a mall of sorts. The overall experience retains its historical character, though, with Mexican food and crafts commemorating the decades San Diego belonged to what was then a Spanish colony. A visit here is a must for anyone keen on gaining a sense of local history.

Robinson Rose House

Now the Old Town State Historic Park’s visitors center, this replica of the original 1853 Robinson Rose House primarily consists of one very functional room open to the public. But it’s worth a visit if only for one reason: the large scale-model of Old Town as it looked in 1872. This mesmerizing reference point will flesh out your imagination as you explore the park. It’s also the starting point for the free and educational walking tours that begin daily at 11am and 2pm.

Whaley House Museum

In 1857, the Whaley House was the first of its kind in town, built with bricks and the addition of a second story. The former home of Thomas Whaley, it would go on to serve as a general store, a courthouse, and a theater after the Whaley’s move to a newer residence in New Town, better known today as Downtown. Inside, the rooms are decorated with period furniture and include detailed histories of the house—ghost stories long associated with murders and untimely deaths that took place here, as well as public hangings staged on the front steps during its time as a courthouse. The Whaley House’s reputation as one of the most haunted houses in the country makes nighttime visits especially spooky and popular among ghost hunters.


Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon San Diego.