San Diego on the Cheap — Part 4: Hear ye, Hear ye, Calling All Hipsters to Old Town San Diego

Wednesday May 9, 2012

Yes, Old Town San Diego bears a striking resemblance to a tourist trap. But stick with me on this one — there is actually some old charm to this joint, and if you are sporting ironic-but-not-totally-ironic suspenders right now, I’m going to need you to keep reading. Your country needs you.


Old Town is nearly 250 years old. This only sounds impressive: it’s been a tourist trap for longer than it was ever a city. Even its American history only lasted about 20 years.

Spanish conquistadors and Franciscan missionaries first pulled up to Old Town on a rare rainy night in July 1769, as part of the famous/infamous joint land-sea mission led by Gaspar de Portola.  After a brief period as a Mexican territory, it became part of the United States in 1850.

Portrait, Seeley Stable Museum

“New Town” — what is now downtown San Diego —  was built twenty years later, taking most of Old Town’s population with it. Within ten years, Old Town was already known as a ghost town and a burnt-outcuriosity, rather than a town.” Its remaining residents were mostly Hispanic – Spanish was more commonly heard than English. Children running out of the school house would spook each other by knocking on the abandoned town windows. The Cosmopolitan Hotel didn’t have any guests. Most buildings surrounding the plaza were only charred remains.

Cosmopolitan Hotel, Old Town San Diego

Interestingly, tourists at the turn of the century that flocked to Old Town sought it out for its centuries old adobe buildings and its history as an “ancient, Mexican city”, rather than for the folksy wood frame buildings we gawk at today.

Not everyone was charmed, though. The Atlantic reported that New Town San Diego itself was “full of restless, unhappy people.” Their only amusement was to ride to Old Town, getting thrown about the coach as it maneuvered on uneven terrain. Once you stepped off the coach in Old Town, all you wanted to do was turn right around and get on the return coach to New Town. There wasn’t anything to do in Old Town either.

Old Town San Diego State Historic Park

Today, Old Town San Diego is split into a state park and a few commercial blocks selling Mexican blankets, tie dyed T-shirts, and maracas. In the state park, a series of Old West wood framed buildings dot dirt roads and pathways.

On first impression, Old Town feels more displaced than pastoral. Looming above  the General Store and Cosmopolitan Hotel is a massive interchange connecting I-5 to I-8. It takes a half hour or so to accept and ignore the constant thrum of zooming traffic. Most of the shoppes feel equally inauthentic. The Old Town General Store sells a variety of kitten-inspired kitchen textiles – kitten pot holders, kitten towels. The window display features a selection of Betty Boop pen sets, soap dispensers, and other household accessories. Next door, Cousin’s Candy Shop sells bins full of Now and Laters, Chiclets, and Necco Wafers.

It was a bit disappointing.

But this is why our country needs us. There are two shining spots in Old Town: the Seeley Stable Museum and Rust General Store. They offer a glimpse of what Old Town could be.

Seeley Stable Museum

Seeley Stable Museum, Old Town San Diego

Have you seen “Meek’s Cutoff”? Unless you’re a serious art-house fan, chances are you haven’t. An hour in, you are still watching the same eight people walking in silent rhythm, oxen towing their covered wagons across the Oregon desert. The only sound for minutes on end is the swish swish swish of the women’s dresses, scraping across dry dirt. You wait for something to happen, and it never does. The screen’s emptiness and dullness become enlightening –a proxy for the emptiness tinged with suspense western pioneers must have felt making the long trek out to California.

Saddle, Seeley Stable Museum

The Seeley Stable Museum brings this period in American history to life. The museum houses a collection of covered and uncovered wagons from 1800’s, some in immaculate condition. Upstairs in the lofty second floor is a recreation of the “gaudy” (their term) décor that took the Wild West by storm in the late 1800’s.

Seeley Stable Museum, Old Town San Diego


Rust General Store

Rust General Store, Old Town San Diego

The Rust General Store is perfection. Inside, wall-to-wall shelves display a variety of candy cordials and licorice in apothecary jars in addition to a selection of jams and condiments. At a counter across the way you can pick up a fresh Bavarian “Pretzle” which was delicious. The store also sells luscious soaps and home goods, chocolates and teas. Everything seems to be sourced from surrounding southern California towns. The proprietor behind the counter was ideally outfitted in a tight-fitting vest and knickers ala “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” ala Every Hipster in Brooklyn.

Rust General Store, Old Town San Diego

I picked up an assortment of hazelnut, caramel, and cherry cordials. (There are dozens of flavors, ranging from fruits to nuts to liqueurs.) Each is about the size of a Whopper and are a sucker punch to your taste buds. Warning: once you start eating them, you won’t be able to stop.

Almond Extract, Rust General Store

As I stood there eating my pretzle and pounding cordials, I had an Old Town epiphany. Rust General Store needs to be the springboard to a better Old Town.

This place needs to be turned over to the hipsters.

I hope the powers-that-be at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park realize how HOT the 1800’s are right now, and start shipping in hipsters by the scores before they move on to some other century. I’m seeing a tourist-trap-turned-hipster-commune-turned-historic-reenactment-travel-destination of cured meat and sausage shoppes, suspender makers, and organic breweries. Handle bar mustaches encouraged but not required. Can’t you just see it?

Old Town could become a model of synergy between historic associations and history obsessed hipsters all across the country. We need to make this happen.


Old Town San Diego State Historic Park

Hours: 10am to 4pm, daily. Open until 5pm in the Summer

Admission: Free

How to Get There: It is just across the street from the Old Town San Diego Transportation Center, a transit hub for many bus lines and the Blue Trolley Line from downtown San Diego. The city offers large, free public parking lots in conjunction with Old Town State Park.


Comments are closed.