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 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."

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