Ghosts, cowboys and cocktails: Old Town San Diego

by Amy & the world

Whaley House. Photo credit:

Cowboys and the Wild West conjure up three thoughts for me: John Wayne, Frontierland and the Hotel Cheyenne at Disneyland Paris, and the Will Smith song. None of these, as you’ve probably noted, are real. The thought that pioneers once road dusty streets in chaps and spurs is one of those that I still can’t get my head around having actually happened.

But Old Town State Historic Park, San Diego proves that such a world isn’t just confined to Westerns and theme parks. What you actually discover is somewhere that mixes its history with fun attractions and good booze (this having been a Mexican settlement, Tequila and Corona feature highly on menus). Though some might argue that these are one and the same.

Some of the scenery, Old Town San Diego

Considered the birthplace of California, the Old Town was colonised by the Spanish in the late 18th century.* And while only seven buildings from the original old town actually remain – the rest fell victim to a fire in 1872 and were reconstructed in the 1960’s – it still provides a sense of history. Even as someone who equates the Wild West with fiction, I could picture how the bustling town might have felt 150, 200 years ago.

Although some of the buildings in Old Town have been turned into commercial premises, many more have been dedicated to recreating life in the 1800’s. Mason Street School is California’s first public schoolhouse, La Casa de Machado y Stewart contains commonly-used artifacts from the period and The Seeley Stables museums is a must-visit for anyone interested in the transport of the period.

One of the less desirable aspects of life in Old Town San Diego

One of the attractions we visited was Whaley House, located off the main plaza at 2476 San Diego Avenue. We were drawn to it because of the claim that, according to America’s Most Haunted television programme, it is the most haunted house in the United States. Admittedly we weren’t actually expecting to see any ghosts (it was broad daylight and full of tourists), or even Woman in Black** levels of fear. But we did expect something a little spooky, or at least a bit of a laugh. The closest we came to a ghost, however, were the shapes produced by a combination of reflections and light in the glass barriers they conveniently happen to have erected between all the displays (cynical, us?).

‘Ghostly’ reflections, Whaley House, Old Town San Diego

This said, it was an interesting piece of history. For adults (or anyone old enough to spot the old glass trick), it’s probably not quite worth the entrance fee ($6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $4 for children aged 3-12). Families, however, should stop by – they provide lots of history about the house and the lives of those who live here and all the ones I noticed seemed to be enjoying the mix of history and potential frights! Make sure children speak to the staff too – not only did they appear very knowledgeable about the house, but they also seemed more than willing to share their own encounters with the house’s alleged spectres.

I would also be tempted to take the night tour to see if that provided a few more scares, though the ticket prices do rise to $10 for adults and $5 for children for these.

Our final stop was Café Coyote, a little down the road from Whaley House. There is no shortage of bars and restaurants in the Old Town serving Mexican food, most offering ridiculously cheap deals on Tacos in off-peak hours. Having not done our research (I know, I know) we lucked out with our snap choice of Café Coyote. Friendly service (waiters offering to take photos of the two of us on seeing my camera on the table), good atmosphere even in the off-peak mid-afternoon, and, more importantly my cocktail was strong while remaining flavoursome. There’s plenty of choice on the drinks menu too, with a wide variety of Margaritas and more varieties of tequila on offer than I knew existed! Though you’d expect nothing less from one of just two certified tequila houses in the United States.

Although I can’t comment on the food other the obligatory free chips ‘n’ dips (very good, in case you were wondering!), that looked appetising too and most of the reviews on TripAdvisor suggest that it tastes pretty good too. Not to mention that it’s been named Best Mexican Restaurant every year from 2005-2011 except 2007 (though Best Mexican Restaurant where isn’t specified…). They also have ‘Taco Tuesdays’, with the food on offer for $2 from 3.30pm – for that price, you can’t really go wrong!

Cocktails & Corona aplenty at Café Coyote, Old Town San Diego (Photo Credits: San Diego Blog


Is Old Town worth a trip? Those without children and/or a keen interest in history will probably find that they spend as much time in a bar as they do exploring the town, but it’s still an interesting excursion and the bars provide a nice setting to while away a few hours (despite the mariachi band!). I definitely preferred the setting to the other tourist hotspot for drinking, the Gaslamp Quarter in central San Diego.

Families should aside a good amount of time to explore Old Town. There’s lots to be learned here, and plenty of well-kept spaces and attractions to be explored (also, children are less likely to be cynical about some of the park’s less authentic aspects!). Before you visit, check out the area’s website: including information on special events and walking tours, it will make sure you manage to pack as much of the park as into your day as possible.

Old Town might not come at you all guns blazing and it’s no wild ride (sorry..!). But whether you’re into cowboys or coronas, the past or the present, Old Town San Diego will provide something here to entertain you.

*Actually, according to Frommer’s, it wasn’t officially American until 1842; until then it was Mexico’s informal capital of California.

**The play. Not the film. But only because I haven’t seen the film (yet) so can’t judge.