I stumbled upon Old Town San Diego accidentally while looking for a “Saturday Market.” It ended up being one of those delightful days filled with fun and interesting things to see and do. The best part is that I didn’t know it existed until I was there.
I went to Old Town San Diego because I read they had a street market on Harney Street, so I arrived and saw an entire busy district and a park with historical reenactments. I was stunned.
Old Town is an old area of San Diego next to a historic state park with 32 historic sites and buildings – so you have two areas: an old city and a historical park.
Old Town City
The neighborhood has dozens of Mexican-style restaurants, with patios on the streets making a festive environment as you stroll past. Many musicians are playing in the streets, tourists walking about and various street vendors selling handcrafted Mexican-style goods. Mixed in with the restaurants are dozens more little shops and a mix of Mexican food, souvenir shops, and live entertainment.
The district is an old one, hence the name. So many of the buildings are ancient and gives you the feeling that you’ve stepped back in time.
Harney Street Artisan Market
On Saturday and Sunday, the Harney Street Artisan Market is in full swing and takes over an entire block. Besides the festive feeling at the park and throughout the city, the market adds another element of fun and even more to see.
Here, bunches of local artists showcase and sell their handmade textiles, jewelry, art, handcrafts and more.
On the day I went, there were about 20 vendors. I bought bracelets made from the plug of a mollusk shell. The artist explained that the shell grows a sort of plug that closes it off and falls off once it’s fully formed. The remaining cork is a hard shell with a swirl pattern like a vortex.
Besides the bracelet, there were many unique vendors and the prices were among the lowest I’ve seen in my recent travels – especially for California. As an example, “Mexican blankets” can be had for just $8. I’ve seen them priced elsewhere up to $40.
It’s free to enter this market.
Historic State Park
In the park, it’s a sort of several-block village where you can travel back in time. They sell all kinds of traditional Mexican-style gifts from 19th century San Diego life. Old fashioned shops with conventional clothing, tin, bronze, textiles, candles, pottery, wood crafts, jewelry and more filled the dusty streets. About 40 vendors sell Mexican ceramics, San Diego souvenirs, colorful arts and crafts, blown glass, and other treasures.
The city established the historic park in 1968 to recreate what the city center looked like during this early period. Now it has a few blocks worth of original 19th-century buildings throughout the park. There’s just so much to see! The street layout flows in and out and around a few shops, so I did a lot of wandering back and forth and had to double back to make sure I saw everything I wanted to, but I’m still not sure.
People are walking around in traditional garb and musicians play Spanish and Mexican music in the streets and in “town squares.” You can get a feel for what life was like back then through spaces and places, preserved and replica buildings, and museum exhibits.
Costumed actors walk around, conduct craft demonstrations, play music, or act like famous San Diego figures. It’s intended to educate, entertain and preserve the cultures shared between Mexico and the United States during that period. There are opportunities to participate in the demonstrations, like dipping candles grinding corn and other activities.
There is an old 1850s hotel, a telegraph office where you can learn Morse code or a print shop where you can see old newspaper printing You can see live blacksmithing, leatherworking and tin make. There are horses and stables and many traditional indoor/outdoor shops, restaurants, and coffee and juice stands throughout the park.
It’s a very festive atmosphere. The best part? The park is open daily throughout the year and is free. You only pay for items you purchase.
It’s so easy to get to Old Town because of the transit options. The area is next to the Old Town Transit Center, connected to public commuter rail, trolley, and bus services. It’s all within walking distance. There is also plenty of free street parking and several paid parking lots.
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