Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Great, The Good, The Ugly of Old Town San Diego

by Marie Aquino

I grew up in San Diego and can easily say, "Been there, done that." I'm talking about SeaWorld, the numerous beaches, Bel Mont, Del Mar Races, all the best clubs, hole in the wall eateries, etc, a million times over, right? And now as a new mom, I have to take a closer look at San Diego with a new set of parenting eyes. I mean, one time I was craving the Pala Casino all you can eat buffet for lunch slash dinner, right? And I didn't even hesitate to bring my family with me. As I'm standing in line next to the blarring slot machines and chain smokers, with my brand new pink bugaboo and fresh out of the womb baby, it hit me, "Dude, I can't be bringing my baby into this smoke infested place and stand in line for an hour just to get into the buffet! The slot machines are going to wake her up for one thing and two, her lungs are all pure right now and I just jacked that up! Bad decision MOM. Bad." And that's when I became more critical of my decisions on where to eat, how to spend my time and who to spend it with.

Old Town San Diego would be one of the last places on Earth you'd find ME. Of all the places in San Diego to do with kids, Old Town was defnitely NOT on the list. That is, until my good friend and Super Mom Extraordinare, Lindsay, suggested it. Being that Old Town was truly never on the To-Do-List, I said, "Hey, I've never been there! Let's go!"
So, here are the highlights; The Great, The Good and The Ugly of Old Town San Diego:

The Great:

  • Cousin's Candy Shop on San Diego Ave cross of Wallace. Candy's always a #1 with me.
  • Weather/ambiance and shaded areas throughout-because I'd be irate if I was in the blarring sun in Old Town with no shaded areas, it would be like "Rango" the movie with Johnny Depp.
  • Fiesta feel in the "Fiesta De Reyes" courtyard. It's a happy place, what's not to like??
  • Historic relevance of good ol' San Diego.
  • Short walking distances-because I got a bum knee and I'm pushing a stroller which means I'm carrying a lot of baby/kid stuff.
Here's some pictures of what I'm talking about:

They're known for their salt water taffy. Not my kinda thing. I'm all about the chocolate!

So, here's a photo of the back side of the main island located in the center of the store. The front side is a bunch of different fudge bricks, and this backside has all the truffles!

I thought this was neat....curious if anyone's ever bought it. And what would starfish poop taste like really?? :)

Ask Lindsay and her son how these tasted-it's the salt water taffy. I think she said she spent 4 bucks on it. But she might've gotten a chunk of fudge too.

Okay, in this picture, see the stairs? Look on the left gate. It's got the wheelchair sign and underneath is a hand pointing to the left, meaning if you need a ramp, head left, to the back alley. (More about that later.) Notice on the brick wall on the right, there's a sign for Restrooms. They're restrooms everywhere in Old Town-that's a good thing! Here's some more good things about Old Town San Diego:

The Good:

  • Mexican food choices---it’s basically all Mexican food over there-to be expected I guess.
  • 1st Schoolhouse Museum---totally cool because it just is, makes you think back.
  • Cosmopolitan Hotel---the inside was cool with the adobe walls, the portraits, etc. The workers do have to wear the period clothing and I actually liked that. Better them than me AND it made me feel futuristic. Seriously though, it fit with the feel of the place. Kinda like when you go to the Reneiassance Faire and they’re all talking funny---it works, I like it.
  • Free parking---some would say the parking is GREAT ;p
  • Trolley---If you can spot him, look for Captain Bob-he’s an excellent tour dude and suggested you go to http://hometownpass.com/ for a free trolley ticket and other discounts-Sweet!! If you wanted a personal tour guide, he's up for hire. Starcptn@aol.com
  • Other museums throughout Old Town, ie. stagecoach, gems. It’s nice to get into museums for free anytime. I like looking at stuff. It’s like shopping but you don’t feel like you have to buy anything.

This is the Carne Asada Burrito at Old Town Mexican Cafe for $8.95. I'd give it a 8 out of 10. Not greasy, not too salty. Great taste and the green salsa and the beans are the bomb!! The restaurant is known for it's homemade tortillas (voted the best tortillas in San Diego since 1977) but mine was a little chewy. They're also known for the best margaritas, just fyi. www.oldtownmexcafe.com

This is a photo taken from the inside of the Mason Street School. Historical Landmark #538. At the time this school was built, in 1865, San Diego's population was a mere 400 people! It's the first public school in Southern California and all 8 grades were taught in this one room. When you go in, be sure to take a free brochure from the wall, it's got some good stories from the very first teachers on what it was like to teach at that time.

This is the Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant. They should call it the Cosmopolitan Bed and Breakfast because that's what it is, not a hotel like we think a hotel is. The rooms are totally cool with wall paper that's authentic to the 1870's and claw bath tubs, and pull string toilets. You get fresh baked scones served to you in the balcony outside your room in the morning. :) They also have the Restaurant on the bottom floor that has a daily happy hour from 3-6PM. I didn't eat there (because a hamburger is $12.95) but I hear the food is consistently good. The Whipper Snapper children's menu has kid's favorites for $5, oh excuse me, it's $4.95. Also on the kid's menu, they offer Roy Rogers or Shirley Temples for $2.50. Hazel Diaz is the innkeeper and she's a great tour guide as well. If I didn't have kids, I'd totally stay here. www.oldtowncosmo.com

So I mentioned, on my Good List, that there's other museums. This photo is from the Gem museum. It had all kinds of things in there, old maps, jewelry, leather goods, and precious stones.

And here's another museum I didn't go into. I thought it was cool just from the outside because it's the original adobe type buildings that they preserved. I figured if I went in, guess what I'd find...walls! So, I skipped it. If you go, and happen to go inside, let me know if you find something other than adobe walls, k?

The Ugly

  • Homeless dudes in the back alleys. Yup. Luckily there was just one. It wasn’t like Skid Row or anything and there was a security guard there harassing him. Dude was just trying to sleep.
  • The wheelchair/stroller access in some areas is in the back alleys. Double whammy there because 1) it’s already a hardship to be in a wheelchair or have to have a stroller anyways and 2) you got to go all the way to the back to get to the front and 3) well, that’s where the homeless dudes are. Also, since I was the only one with a stroller, the rest of the group went up the the direct route via stairs and I headed toward the wheelchair ramp in the back, which splits me up from the group.
  • The map-the map totally sucked. It’s the one that comes with the Old Town Guide. It’s best to just go there and wander around and find things as you need them. There’s restrooms everywhere and of course, Mexican food everywhere.
  • Tourist prices. Yeah, that’s the last thing I wanted to mention because who wants to pay for high priced Mexican food. Mexican food by definition is cheap, so who are they trying to fool? Honestly, if you go to Old Town, just be prepared to eat elsewhere. But if you get so hungry you can’t wait (like I did), then The Old Town Mexican Cafe is decent and it’s located in the front entrance area of Old Town.
(I'd totally share more pictures with you but I didn't take any of the homeless, that would be messed up!) But going back to that map, here's where I got it from, so if you come across it, I would reference it just to get your barrings straight, but I wouldn't rely on it. http://www.oldtownsandiegoguide.com/

To tell you honestly though, now that I've been there once. I'd go again. Why? Because there is so much more to absorb there if you had the time. I had my kids with me and we got hungry so we had to bail. But otherwise, I wasn't done checking it all out. I would guesstimate about 2-4 hours is needed to cover the place real good. There's lots more museums I'd like to see/do, like the panning for gold at the Mormon Battalion and of course, the Whaley House (ghost house). But now that Captain Bob told me about the trolley ticket, that locals ride for free (with one paying adult fare), and it takes you all over San Diego where you can hop on and off anytime throughout the day, dude, I'll be back!

Here's the link to the Home Town Pass Captain Bob was talking about.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Old Town San Diego - Is it worth the trip? Here's Lindsay's take on the great, the good and the ugly bits to help you decide.

By Lindsay Natale
I’ve been to Old Town San Diego a bunch of times throughout my life, but rarely went beyond the entrance of the Old Town Mexican Cafe. I was genuinely surprised by how much this place has to offer, especially the many little museums. My partner-in-travel, Marie, and I took our kids for a packed morning of exploration in Old Town San Diego, and sorted out what we thought were the Great, the Good and the Ugly things you need to know for a visit to the area. Here is my take.

The Great 
Marie laughed at me when I told her the free parking was one of the great things on my list about Old Town, but seriously, other places charge upwards of ten bucks, which doesn’t jive with me. We parked in the church parking lot along San Diego Street, which was also just across the street from the Trolley stop. For around 30-something bucks, you can ride the trolley around all day to most of the cool tourist stops in SD. If you are a resident, we were told by trolley Captain Bob (who was totally great and also captains the land and sea vehicle in the harbor), that you can go online to www.hometownpass.com and print out a buy-one-get-one free coupon for the trolley.

Other Great Things:
  • The salt water taffy and fudge at Cousins Candy Shoppe was actually pretty great. The taffy is made the old fashioned way and does not have an overwhelming flavor. The fudge is exactly what you want in a fudge, creamy, smooth, etc. but the only down point is the price. Two pieces of taffy and a thin ⅛ pound slice of fudge cost 4$.
  • The Cosmopolitan hotel was a highlight. The place has been refurbished to period perfect (approx 1860’s), and its authentic down to the furnishings and even wallpaper. To stay, it’s pricey, but it would be an experience, plus you get fresh scones on the covered porch if you stay there. Also great were blue painted panels on the ceiling of the covered porch. They paint them blue to keep the bees from making hives there (they think it’s the sky).
  • It's easy to pretend you are in the past at the Cosmopolitan, but you are also very grateful for indoor plumbing of modern times...Yes, they have added bathrooms!
  • The Whaley House is in Old Town and it’s a bonified haunted house! Our kids are five and under, so that wasn’t on our radar this trip, but for families with older kids, put this on your list. It has been featured on numerous television shows and is sure to give you the creeps if you are into that kinda thing.
The Good
There are a lot of good things about old town, but the top of list would have to be the feeling of being somewhere mostly free, that's beautiful and fiesta-like. If you bring a picnic, you could spend the whole day here without spending a dime.

Other Good Things:
  • Lots of public bathrooms - they were practically everywhere, and they were clean.
  • The place is quite big, and there are a lot of options for activities, learning opportunities and discussions with kids about the past and how different things are today.  
  • The stable and wagon house had authentic Wells Fargo Wagons, amongst other old carriages. I’d never seen one in person, and it brought back memories from the musical The Music Man (oh oh, the Wells Fargo Wagon is a coming down the street...) The kids enjoyed this museum most of all I think.
  • The Root-beer and Jerky shop....they sold two for one root-beer floats, which was an excellent idea (and value for old town - two for five bucks), but the root-beer isn’t on tap and the portions were small. I would have put this in the great column otherwise.
  • Lunch at the Old Town Mexican Cafe - I may be biased, having spent quite a bit of time at dining at this restaurant growing up, but there is just something cool about this place. The ladies making fresh tortillas in the front, the mariachis that sing and play for tips, the beans that taste a thousand times better than they look...The reason it’s only on the good list is the prices, which are high for semi-good Mexican food. But we stuck to the basics, and got fresh, hot tortillas for 40 cents a pop, and they were worth every penny.
    • You just fall in love with this as a kid...
The Ugly
There were too many museums. Not for me, but for my five year old. I think he was getting pretty wiped out after three hours of walking and looking at the old buildings. He said his legs were going to fall off at one point. For older children, I don’t think that would be such a problem, but with little ones, you may want to limit your visit to three hours.

Also, it was pretty touristy, and you can expect the prices to fall in line with typical price gouging of tourists practices.

Other Ugly Things:
"Mom, are we done yet?" 
  • The creepy ‘period’ clothes they have the employees wear. It just looks weird to see a lady in an 1870’s dress with electric blue eyeliner and a spiky quasi-mullet. I guess it might look strange if people were dressed in their casual clothes instead...I'm on the fence with this one. Some people made it work, but for the most part, it just looked gimmicky and Disney-esque. Instead of feeling like I was in the past, I just felt like a tourist jerk.
  • The food situation for the breakfast places we checked out was not good - the coffee and tea choices were abundant and on par with Starbucks prices, but the pastry offerings were just plain pathetic (except for the place that sold the fresh Mexican pane, it looked pretty decent, but the prices were terrible, around 3$ per where they should be priced at about a dollar).
  • If you are from any place with more history than the state of California (which, let’s be honest, is pretty much everywhere), then this place may be a joke, with the oldest buildings coming in around 1860. But on the up side, you do get a good taste of the Mexican heritage without a trip to the sometimes dangerous country itself (they even sell Mexican wrestling masks - which are also kinda ugly, but still cool none-the-less).

Nacho Libre!!

Final Thoughts:

I’ll concede that Old Town San Diego is on the verge of being a tourist trap, but if you are at all interested in the history of our fine city, or even a city from the 1800’s in general,  this is a great place to see it. The buildings are well maintained, free to visit, and there are plenty of them, just ask my five year old. I’d say, it’s worth the trip, but come early and on a weekday so you can avoid crowds.
"We may be old, but we're pretty cool."