Old Town San Diego, California

A visit to Old Town San Diego Historic Park is a chance to experience the history of early San Diego.

San Diego, California, today is a modern city with a population of 1.4 million and a total of 3.3 million residents in the greater San Diego County. It is a wonderful place to live with year round temperatures ranging between 69° and 79° F (21°-26°C).

In this writing we are stepping into the past and focusing on the Old Town San Diego Historic District.

There are 5 original adobe buildings, restored original 1820 to 1870 historic buildings and early 20th century buildings. We saw a working blacksmith shop, an old mercantile that is still open, a tea shop, candle shop, tin shop and various museums and art galleries.

Brief History

Archaeological evidence places the people of the La Jolla Complex, also known as the Shell Midden people as early inhabitants of the region. They were a prehistoric culture who lived in the region between 8000 BCE and 1000 CE.

The Kumeyaay indigenous people arrived around 1000 CE and had many villages scattered throughout the area up to around the 1770s. The Spanish would call those indigenous villagers, Diegueño.

“The birthplace of California” refers to the first European settlement in California and that was in what is present-day San Diego. It was the San Diego Presidio, a military outpost of Spanish California in 1769. The very first Mission, the Mission San Diego de Alcalá was also founded by Father Junípero Serra that same year.

Side note: Hundreds of cast-iron bells are planted along California roadsides from San Diego to Sonoma, in Northern California. The bells follow a route, called El Camino Real, between the 21 California missions. The Missions were in operation from the 18th to mid 19th century. Visiting each Mission had been a goal for us for years and where we discovered the good, the bad and the ugly parts of Californian history.

A Mission Bell along the El Camino Real

After the fort and mission were established in 1769, a settlement gradually expanded, first under Spanish and then Mexican rule. By the 1820s the town of San Diego had established itself at the base of the bluff, the site commemorated by Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. In 1834 the Mexican government granted San Diego the status of a pueblo or chartered town.

San Diego officially became part of the United States of America in 1848, and the town, with a population of 650, was named the county seat of San Diego County. California was granted statehood two years later, in 1850. The Old Town area remained the heart of the city of San Diego for another 10 years before development began closer to the water and “Downtown” was developed.

During California’s Mexican era (1820’s to 1840’s), San Diego was a distant frontier, far from Mexico City and far from the growing 23 states in the eastern United States. Unlike most of the “old west”, trade ships from various countries brought goods from around the world into the port of San Diego making it both cosmopolitan and a frontier. San Diego survived and thrived because of its sea trade. Ships traded their global goods for the valuable California cattle hides.

Cosmopolitan Hotel

To immerse ourselves and experience the 1800’s as much as possible, we booked a room in the nearly 200 year old, Cosmopolitan Hotel. There are only 10 rooms in the hotel and each room is appointed with American-made antique furnishings from the 1860s and 1870s. To keep it authentic there are no televisions or telephones although they do offer WiFi. We loved that they have kept the original single-paned, circa 1869 windows and offer ear plugs to guests that may be light sleepers. The restaurant was temporarily closed but a private breakfast was set up on the table outside our door. It felt like we had stepped back in time.

Cosmopolitan Hotel

Between 1827 and 1829, Juan Bandini had a U-shaped adobe home built off one corner of the main plaza. The foundation rose four and a half feet above ground at the corner facing the plaza and the rooms were constructed with thick, insulated adobe walls. Casa de Bandini was a grand mansion and it became the social center of town.

Juan Bandini was described as a charming public speaker, fluent writer, fair musician, fine horseman and great host. Richard Henry Dana, Junior, an American who visited San Diego in the 1830s, wrote in “Two Years Before the Mast”, “Bandini…gave us the most graceful dancing that I had ever seen. His slight and graceful figure was well calculated for dancing, and he moved about with the grace and daintiness of a young fawn. An occasional touch of the toe to the ground seemed all that was necessary to give him a long interval of motion in the air. He was loudly and repeatedly applauded, the old men and women jumping out of their seats in admiration and the young people waving their hats and handkerchiefs.”

With his health and finances failing, in 1859 Bandini sold his home and died shortly thereafter. In 1869, stagecoach operator Albert Seeley purchased the property with plans to build a stagecoach stop and hotel. He and his wife, Emily, added a second story and wraparound balcony. They enlarged the downstairs and created a saloon, sitting room, billiards room, barber shop and post office. The Cosmopolitan Hotel’s popular attraction was the same balcony where we dined for breakfast. The balcony wraps around the entire second story where guests would have watched a variety of activities and events happening in the plaza.

The Cosmopolitan Hotel is the second-oldest building in Old Town and one of the oldest in San Diego County. From a beautiful first home to a two-story hotel, restaurant and stagecoach office in 1869 to an olive cannery in 1900 and a popular Mexican restaurant in the latter half of the 20th century, the Cosmopolitan has witnessed a lot of life and has returned to its 1870s hotel glory.

Cosmopolitan Hotel

Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception

Saint Junípero Serra celebrated his First Holy Mass in California on July 2, 1769, on the hill overlooking Old Town where he planted a cross to mark the site of the Mission. Very near that site is the pretty adobe Immaculate Conception Church that was built in 1851. The photo at the top of the blog is the present day mission-style church.

Most shopkeepers in Old Town dress in period costume adding to the ambience. The Racine and Laramie (“La Casa de Rodriguez”), is a reconstructed mid-19th century period part tobacconist, part museum with an amazing variety of tobaccos, pipes and cigars. This gentleman was knowledgeable and clearly enjoyed his lifestyle. He agreed to let us take this charming photo.

La Casa de Machado y Silvas

Another of the original adobe buildings, the rectangular Machado de Silvas home was built in 1840 by one of Old Town’s first settlers, José Manuel Machado. He built the house as a wedding present for his daughter María Antonia and her husband, José Antonio Nicasio Silvas. The structure had four rooms with three doors that opened onto the plaza and a kitchen and garden at the rear of the building.

María Antonia converted the casa into the “Commercial Restaurant” in the early 1850s. The building would also become a rooming-house, café, art studio, souvenir shop and later, the Machado Memorial Chapel. In 1975 the building was purchased and restored by the Historic Park and reopened as the María Antonia’s Commercial Restaurant Museum.

Museum kitchen in the Machado de Silvas building

The Whaley House

Thomas Whaley was born in 1823 in New York City. He married Anna in the summer of 1853 and they moved to San Diego, California later that year.

Their two-story Greek Revival home was designed by Thomas Whaley himself and construction began in May 1856. The house was the first of its kind in San Diego.

In the summer of 1857 Thomas and Anna moved into their new home. The house was known as the finest in Southern California and considered a mansion for its time and place. The residence became the gathering place for San Diego. Besides being the Whaley family home, it was also San Diego’s first commercial theater, the county courthouse, and a general store.

Thomas and Anna had 6 children. Their 2nd son Thomas died of scarlet fever when he was 18 months old and over the years many family members passed while in the home. Corinne Lillian was the final family member who lived in the house until her death in 1953.

Today the beautiful Whaley House Museum is also well known as a haunted house. Guests and staff will occassionally will catch a glimpse of the ghost of a Whaley family member who died inside the house like baby Thomas Jr., Anna, Corinne and others. In 2005, LIFE magazine called Whaley House “the most haunted house in America.”

The Whaley House has been featured in many television historical documentaries as well as a wide variety of paranormal and sci-fi shows.

The children’s play room has been one of the active paranormal sites.

The Whaley House

On our last morning we stopped at the cutest little bakery for a coffee and a fresh cinnamon roll. The shop was decorated with dozens of exquisite molinillos hanging from the ceiling.

Hand made Molinillos

Aztecs made the original hot chocolate by simply roasting cocoa beans, grinding them and adding seeds and flavorings. The result was a thick, grainy beverage that would quickly separate. The Aztecs would pour the mixture from one pot to another to prevent the drink from separating. When the Spaniards arrived they too fell in love with the rich beverage, but to avoid all the pouring back and forth, around the 1700’s they invented a tool called a molinillo (stirrer) to assist in the preparation of the hot chocolate drink.

A molinillo is a wooden whisk used to mix up and add froth to a batch of Mexican hot chocolate. Molinillos are made by hand – turned and carved out of a single piece of alder wood; then decorated with dark accents burned into the wood. You simply roll or twist the long handle between your palms to churn, blend and foam the chocolate. We probably should have ordered hot chocolate instead of coffee.

When hot chocolate was introduced to Spain it quickly became the official drink of the King. It was around 1780-1800 that Europeans first added milk and sugar creating the hot chocolate we all enjoy today.

Old town is packed with old mexican-style vignettes tucked beneath large shade trees for a cool break in the heat of the day. We also found chairs where we could cozy up to a fire when the evenings cooled.

Old Town has been thoughtfully preserved as it existed in the 19th century, during its Mexican and early American periods. It is a fantastic part of San Diego to spend time visiting.

Cheers from these San Diegans,

Ted + Julia

View our Old Town photo album here

View our Whaley House photo album here

View our Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant photo album here

View our Church of the Immaculate Conception photo album here

View the Rest of San Diego, CA photo album here

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