Visiting Old Town San Diego State Historic Park in San Diego, California is a great day trip, afternoon adventure, or as part of a San Diego vacation. When you enter Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, it is like you stepped back in time to a time when life was much simpler, yet much harder, than it is today.

If you’re a history nerd like me, you love going to places where you can learn about history and even experience what life was like way back when. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is one of those places. Luckily, though, there is a lot to do and see there, so everyone will be able to find something they enjoy.

Last summer, we took an overnight trip to San Diego. Our first stop was Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Read on to find out what we did, and how you can visit too.

Before You Go

Visiting Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is pretty easy to do. But, you will get more out of your visit if you do a little planning beforehand.

We went to Old Town San Diego State Historic Park on a Tuesday in July 2021. I did not do any research beyond how to get there. Unfortunately, once we got there, we found out that, during the Covid Pandemic– even in the summer– the museums were only open on the weekends. That meant that many of the most interesting things to see and do were closed. It was kind of sad to see so many buildings locked up tight.

If I’d gone to their website, I would have seen that so many things were closed, and we probably would have chosen a different day to go. On the bright side, however, that means that I have an excuse to go back.

Things change quickly nowadays in the age of Covid. Before you to Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, go to their website to find out the current operating hours and Covid policies for the day you plan to visit.


  • Admission to Old Town State Historic Park is FREE.
  • Parking is FREE.

Operating Hours

Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is open seven days per week. The museum and visitor’s center are open from 10am to 5pm every day except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Years Day. Public restrooms are open from 10am to dusk.

The shops and restaurants tend to close later, with most closing at 7pm. Some of the restaurants are open until 9pm during the week and until 10pm on weekends. If you would like to know the operating hours of an particular establishment, you can get in touch with them individually.


Dogs and other pets are allowed at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. However, animals are not allowed inside the visitor’s center or museums, except for service animals, of course. Many of the restaurants allow pets in their patio seating areas.


There are no camping sites or RV hookups available at San Diego State Historic Park. There are several camping and RV sites a nearby. Also, there is one hotel in the park, and several in the surrounding area. We stayed at the King’s Inn, which is kitschy and relatively inexpensive hotel just east of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.

Getting There

Getting to Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is a breeze. It is located right off the 5 Freeway, just south of the 8. We arrived from Long Beach via the southbound 5 Freeway. I had it programmed into Waze, so my phone told me how to get there, however, I did notice that there were signs that clearly marked which offramp to use to get there. There is a lot of parking at Old Town– there are several parking lots surrounding the park, as well as street parking throughout the Old Town area.

Map courtesy of Old Town San Diego Chamber of Commerce

If you don’t feel like driving, or you don’t have access to a car, you’re in luck. It is super easy to take public transit there. The Old Town Transit Center is a train platform and bus station that is conveniently located right across the street from Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Whether you take Amtrak’s Surfliner train, San Diego’s Green Line on their light rail system, or the municipal buses, you can catch a ride and get dropped off just steps from your adventure.

We got to Old Town San Diego, and found a parking spot in the parking lot on Twiggs St between Juan and Calhoun Streets. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the parking was free. This is one of the few California State Parks with free parking and no interest fee, so it’s kind of a big deal.

I’m glad we went during the week, because it wasn’t very crowded, so it was relatively easy to find a parking spot. It is much harder to find a place to park during peak times. If you are visiting Old Town San Diego State Historic Park in the evening, on a weekend, or during a school break, it can get pretty crowded there, so be sure to allow extra time to find a parking spot.

Weekends and holidays can get crowded, so if you are driving, allow extra time in your schedule to find a parking spot.

First Things First

What is This Place, Anyway?

Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is a very interesting place to visit. It commemorates the beginning of the European settlement of California. San Diego was established as a Spanish pueblo (pueblo is the Spanish word for town) in 1769, California’s first military presidio and first Catholic mission (San Diego de Alcala) were built on a nearby hill.

The park portrays early San Diego life during the years 1821-1872. Many of the buildings from this time period have been restored. Some of the buildings house museums that teach visitors about life in Nineteenth Century California, and many are home to interesting shops and restaurants. Throughout the year, the park hosts living history displays. Reenactors dress in period clothing and demonstrate what life was like during this time period. It is a great place to take your kids to learn about local history, or to find out more about history yourself.

It is important to acknowledge the original inhabitants of San Diego. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park sits on land that is the ancestral land of the Kumeyaay (pronounced coo-me-eye). They lived on the land for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived and colonized the land that would become California, and still live in the area today.

Where to Start

When we went, we parked in the parking lot on Twiggs St, on the south side of the park. We entered the park through the Old Town Marketplace. It was a great introduction to what our day had in store, but it didn’t really tell us exactly what we were going to experience. If I had to do it over again, I would have entered the park on the north side near the Visitor Information Center.

The Visitor Information Center is a great place to start your day. It is located in the Robinson-Rose House, and is the best place to find out what is going on in the park while you are there. It even has a diorama of what Old Town San Diego probably looked like in 1872. While there, the hosts will answer your questions, give you maps, and help you sign up for a tour of Old Town. They are very knowledgeable and helpful.

The Robinson-Rose house was built in 1853 by James Robinson, a lawyer who was very influential in the development of Old Town. The house was eventually sold to Louis Rose, and entrepreneur. Over the years, the house was used as a law office, a medical office, a court house, a jail, a newspaper office, the county clerk’s office, a school room, and residential apartments. The Robinson-Rose House was demolished around 1900, and reconstructed in 1989.

What to See

There is a lot to see and do at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Here are just a few of them.

Plaza de las Armas

The original adobe houses that were built in the 1820s-1830s were arranged around a central plaza. This open space was the social gathering spot of the little town. It hosted many events during the Mexican era, including horse races, military activities, political speeches, fandangos (parties where people gather as a community to sing, dance and play music), bullfights, and religious processions.

Historic Buildings

Old Town San Diego State Historic Park has many historic building to see and explore. You can read more about them in my blog post 20 Cool Historic Buildings You Can Explore in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Here are a few of them:

Some of the buildings you’ll see in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park are original buildings that have been restored, including original adobe building such as La Casa de Estudillo, La Casa de Machado y Silvas, La Casa de Machado de Wrightington . Many of the original buildings have been destroyed. Those buildings were rebuilt to look as they would have during the 1850s to 1870s. Look for detailed descriptions of the buildings in a future blog post.


Casa de Aguirre is an adobe house turned gift shop with a small museum hidden inside

Many of the historic buildings in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park are also museums. These museums include:

  • Blackhawk Livery Stables–Blacksmith and Woodworking demonstration areas
  • Casa de Aguirre– A museum inside a gift shop that has a collection of historical artifacts from the area
  • La Casa de Estudillo– A representation of what homes looked like in the 1830s
  • Casa de Machado y Silvas
  • Casa de Machado y Stewart
  • Colorado House Hotel– Has a Wells Fargo museum
  • First San Diego Courthouse
  • Mason School– The first public school in San Diego that has been restored to what it probably looked like in the 1860s
  • McCoy House
  • Robinson-Rose House– The Visitor Information Center
  • San Diego Union House– A newspaper museum
  • Seeley Stables– A stagecoach and transportation museum

All of the museums on this list are historic buildings. You can read more about these buildings here.

Old Town Market

This was the first place we stopped when we got to Old Town San Diego Historic Park. It is a fun marketplace with some cool little shops. Some of the shops were touristy, and others had some neat things. Casa de Aguirre had a really cool little museum with authentic artifacts from San Diego’s earliest days.

Fiesta de Reyes

Fiesta de Reyes is a quaint little corner of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. It has shops, restaurants, and even a little stage for entertainment.

Iipay ~ Tipai Kumeyaay Mut Niihepok Land of the First People Area

Photo courtesy California State Parks

The Kumeyaay people have inhabited the land where Old Town San Diego is located for at least 9,000 years. They lived peacefully along the banks of what is now known as the San Diego River until the Spanish came and colonized the area. It is only fitting that this area, which was officially opened in October, 2021, is dedicated to honor the original people of San Diego.

You can take a virtual tour of the area here.

Things to Do

There are a ton of things to do at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.

  • Pan for gold
  • Make a dipped candle at the candle shop
  • Go olive oil tasting at Temecula Olive Oil Company in Fiesta de Reyes
  • Take a tour led by a park ranger
  • Watch demonstrations and talk to reenactors during living history events
  • Watch a stage show at the Old Town Theater
  • Hop on (or off) the trolley and travel all over San Diego with Old Town Trolley Tours
  • Eat an amazing meal at any one of the park’s restaurants.
  • Shop for a souvenir or gift in one of the park’s many shops.
  • Walk around and get some exercise or just take in the peacefulness

What Else is in the Area?

Just south of the park is the privately owned section of Old Town San Diego. It also has historic buildings, shops, restaurants, and museums. Some highlights include the haunted Whaley House, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, the Mormon Battalion, and a sheriff’s museum. I heard there is a great Mexican candy shop with amazing candy, but we weren’t able to find it.

Above the park on the hill to the east is Presidio Park. This is where the Spanish military built the presidio, or military barracks, and where Father Junipero Serra built the first of the Catholic Missions. They were built to stake Spain’s claim to California, which was being challenged by Russia, and to assimilate the local indigenous people into Spanish “civil” society and force them to become good Spanish Catholics. The original mission site (the mission was moved in the 1770s to a more inland location) now houses the Serra Museum, which has some good exhibits on San Diego history.

My Thoughts on Old Town San Diego State Historic Park

I really enjoyed my afternoon at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. My kids and I learned a lot and saw some pretty cool things. I really want to go back on a day when the reenactors are there. When we go back, I’d also like to go in the museums that were closed on the day we were there (Thanks, Covid!) and see the new Kumeyaay section of the park.

I highly recommend visiting Old Town San Diego State Historic Park next time you are in San Diego. You won’t be sorry.