On a recent trip to San Diego my husband and I found an early breakfast in the posh Marina District. Though the French toast was delicious, and the view of the boats lovely, the ubiquitous novelty t-shirts displaying slogans like "Will trade wife for beer" left us feeling we had landed in Tourist Town USA. We wanted to see something unique to San Diego. So we asked one of the sales clerks where she would go if she weren't busy selling gaudy souvenirs.
When she suggested we go to Old Town, we were skeptical, but she assured us that Old Town is where she takes her family when they come to visit. We decided to give it a shot. A short jaunt up the I-5 freeway put us at the corner of Taylor and Juan. There is ample free parking, so even mid-day on a Saturday we had no trouble finding a spot. From there we wandered.
First we came upon the Blacksmith Shop, a barn-like structure with two men dressed the part of nineteenth century metal workers. In the hot outdoor space they worked over blazing fires to create replicas of cooking grates that would have been used in the time before stoves reached San Diego. Jolly, gregarious fellows, they also toyed with making small metal figurines of animals (photo, right), just for fun.
Venturing on, we came to the Casa De Estudillo, built in 1827 for Captain Jose Maria Estudillo. The beautiful adobe home surrounds a thriving courtyard garden with an outdoor oven (photo, left) and shaded water well. The house itself has been remarkably well preserved and is said to be haunted, though we saw no sign of ghosts. Exploring the extensive garden we found ourselves suddenly leaving the grounds of the Casa De Estudillo and entering the Old Town Market. This, we quickly learned, is the charm of Old Town San Diego. The area is surprisingly open. One sight merges into the next, and you get the feeling that you are actually exploring the town of San Diego as it may have looked almost two hundred years ago.
While it is true that there are large areas designed for the tourist to find food and souvenirs, large swaths have been left to look like they did when the town was first founded. From the market we ventured up to the Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (photo, right), where Father Junipero Serra celebrated his first Holy Mass in California, in 1769 (the church itself would not be built until almost one hundred years later).
From the church we walked down San Diego Avenue. West of Twiggs street, this is a wide, dirt, walking path that takes you to the first San Diego Courthouse. Behind the courthouse museum is the jail cell. A small metal box (photo, left) with an intimidating lock, it's not hard to imagine the space being unbearable in the summer heat.
A short walk from the small jail is the Mason Street School, the first public school house (classroom, right) in San Diego county, established in 1865. At the time the official population of San Diego was about 400, but the school drew more residents to the area and by 1873 a new, two-story school was built to hold the area's 147 students. The original school house was sold as a private residence, then sold again in 1918 to the Old Town Tamale Factory. In the late 1940's it was saved from bulldozing by the San Diego County Historical Days Association. It is now an informational museum, and is used as a classroom two nights a week for adult education classes.
In a couple hours of wandering we barely scratched the surface of what Old Town San Diego has to offer. The space is wonderfully preserved and laid out for those looking to explore. Though there are guided tours, and many educational events simply strolling about and reading the signs made for an engaging, self-guided adventure. Taking in the dry, dusty atmosphere and imagining the beginnings of the great state of California, was an engaging way to spend the afternoon. For more information, please visit the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park website.