2019 is a big year for Southern California’s southern gem: San Diego. Marking the 250th anniversary of the eighth largest city in the nation, the oceanside pearl known for gorgeous beaches, distinct communities and a rich cultural history dating back tens of thousands of years. An exciting time for an exciting place: first found by the Kumeyaay Nation, and then the sailors of 1542 who renamed the land Alta California. Now, overlaid against the backdrop or native trails, the city celebrates its past, present, and future.
It doesn’t take a history buff to appreciate the legendary quality of Don Juan Bandini’s Cosmopolitan Hotel (oldtowncosmopolitan.com). Returned to the glory of its 1870’s glory, the once adobe home-restaurant-stagecoach office-olive cannery is now an updated San Diego staple. Antique furnishings and what feels like service from a truly bygone era are the benchmarks of the hotel’s Victorian-style bedrooms and baths. Our stay here proved to the perfect place from which to explore the area. Easy walking distance to entertainment, art galleries, family-friendly restaurants, and a locale literally adjacent to the historic Old Town Presidio: where California began (more on that in a minute).
For breakfast, enjoy a bed and breakfast style coffee, tea, or homemade pastry (the scones with yummy blackberry jam are worth writing home about) in the salon. Take in the Old West decor and enjoy an afternoon tea on Saturday or Sunday until 5pm. Grab a bite in the restaurant from the Cosmo’s seasonal menu. Fresh vegetables, local ingredients, and exceptional cuts of meat to whet any appetite. Choose from a private dining room, the Orchard Terrace, Grand Sala, or Bandini Room. And if you’re looking for something to do after dinner, try out the Cygnet Theater: Historic Park at its finest.
Presenting the best of California culture, San Diego’s Old Town State Historic Park gives visitors the opportunity to experience the history of its early connections to our storied present. Restored buildings from the interpretive period are complemented with early twentieth-century buildings designed in the same mode. Original adobe buildings are part of the park, which remains a favorite place for social gatherings and family-friendly historic activities, like the park’s working blacksmith shop.
At elementary schools all over California, fourth graders have been making missions from craft supplies for years. My son constructed Mission San Diego Alcala (the first of 21 established in the state) a couple of years ago, which made our visit all the more exciting and impactful. The city’s first downtown area and the true birthplace of California, San Diego is now famous for its pristine stretches of sandy shore and hip shopping and bar crawls through Pacific Beach. But once upon a time, San Diego was known for the historic sites, cultural lore, and the nearby Mission San Diego de Alcala.
Of the 21 missions in California, San Diego de Alcala marks the birthplace of Christianity on the West Coast. Providing an important cultural and significant look at the start of Catholicism, the mission, which was founded in 1769 serves as an active community hub, parish church, and grandiose placeholder for the migration of faith from Spain to the United States. The California olive was first cultivated at the Mission in San Diego, and many thousands of children’s appreciation for California history.
Designated as a historic house museum over sixty years ago, the Whaley House Museum (whaleyhouse.org) has been open to the public ever since. Ranked right up there with some of California’s national parks, the home receives over 125,000 visits a year, managed and operated by SOHO- the Save Our Heritage Organization. A perfect example of Greek Revival architecture from the mid-nineteenth century, the house pays tribute to Thomas Whaley and his historic presence in San Diego’s old town. But what makes this tour even more intriguing is the folklore surrounding this former family home and its bygone residents.
According to the Travel Channel’s America’s Most Haunted, the house is the number one most haunted house in the country. The alleged hauntings began with ghostly sightings of “Yankee Jim,” a convict who was hanged in 1852 on a gallows of the back of a wagon on the site where the house now stands. The local newspaper reported that he “kept his feet in the wagon as long as possible, but was finally pulled off. He swung back and forth like a pendulum until he strangled to death.” Although Thomas Whaley had been a spectator at the execution, he did not let it dissuade him from buying the property a few years later and building a home for his family there. According to the San Diego Union, “soon after the couple and their children moved in, heavy footsteps were heard moving about the house. Whaley described them as sounding as though they were made by the boots of a large man. Finally he came to the conclusion that these unexplained footfalls were made by Yankee Jim Robinson.”
Trek through town on the Ghosts and Gravestones Tour (ghostsandgravestones.com/san-diego) and hear stories about how the city’s most beautiful daytime spots have a darker side when the sun goes down. This trolley/walking guided tour takes visitors into Pioneer Park (now a park in the middle of Mission Hills, the site was once the final resting place for thousands of people and is still home to a small cemetery at the back edge of the trees and pathways - said to be peaceful by day, but an altogether different experience after the sun goes down), the adobe walled El Campo Santo Cemetery circa 1849 (where “Yankee Jim” is interred) and culminates at the aforementioned Whaley House - chock full to the brim with spooky sounds, sights, and encounters. Well known ghosts with reputations for leaving disembodied footprints and a small child that cries out in the night are the norm at San Diego’s most haunted attraction.
Authentic and Innovative Eats (& Drink)
A full menu at Casa Guadalajara (casaguadalajara.com) leads to a full belly, and there isn’t anything better before a night out in historic San Diego - providing a vibrant and colorful entrance to Old Town, Casa Guadalajara is defined by its festive decor, trumpeting mariachis, lush patios, “Birdbath Margaritas” and authentic Mexican cuisine. Using only the freshest ingredients, the food is prepared daily to ensure each customer who walks through the doors (since 1995!) leaves satisfied. Serving up the best traditional and regional dishes, you can choose from seasonal specials (such as the Sopes Surtidos - which fills three traditional cornmeal cakes with refried beans and your choice of carnitas, shredded chicken or beef) and popular favorites (like the Camerones ala Diabla which arrives as tasty large shrimp in a rich and spicy chipotle salsa or the Enchiladas Suizas, prepared with seasoned shredded chicken and green chilies).
New on the block in Old Town is Tahona, on a mission to “educate and give reverence to the complexity and beauty of the Mexican culture through its most iconic beverage: Mezcal. Tahona Bar (tahonabar.com) achieves this by serving up a most delicious menu Oaxacan-inspired bites at its warm, beautifully appointed tasting room that makes guests feel as though they’ve been transported to a modern Mexican hacienda: from the hand painted tiles and the handmade rope seats to the traditionally crafted fabric brought from Oaxaca in its banquettes to the unique furnishings - each piece crafted by a local artisan or an artisan across the border.
Sharing bites populate the menu (think gourmet Carne Asada, Chicken Tinga and Pork Belly Quemado tacos), a modern take on a Tres Moles tasting flight and favorites that range from the Camaron Aguachile (shrimp, chipotle and citrus sauce further enhanced by cucumber, red onions and cilantro) and the Pulpo and Pipian (grilled octopus, kale, broccoli, pork belly, pepitas and pipian sauce. It was all my husband and I could do to manage a taste of the churro s’mores before the kids dove in to the sweet treat - crunchy churros with chocolate ganache and marshmallow fluff.
But make no mistake: at its heart is over 120 different varieties of the agave-based spirit - both for simply sipping and those incorporated into flavorfully creative cocktails (the Whaley House Punch pairs Domingo Espadin Mezcal with lime, pineapple, salted watermelon, Campari and Absinthe while the Campo Salto, named for the iconic historical landmark next door is made with Espolon Blanco, passionfruit, coconut water, fresno chili, Contreau, agave and lime).