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What’s New at Historic Old Town in San Diego

<i> The Grimms are free-lance writers/photographers living in Laguna Beach. </i>

Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is celebrating its 20th anniversary with some new buildings. The buildings are reconstructions of three homes of the 1800s when the six-square-block area, first European settlement along the California coast, was San Diego’s center of activity. Also new are two inns on the perimeter of the pedestrians-only park.

Gaspar Portola and Junipero Serra arrived in 1769 to establish a military outpost and Spanish mission on what’s now called Presidio Hill. Although the mission was moved inland and the fort abandoned, a small Mexican community developed around a barren plaza at the base of the hill.

By 1835 El Pueblo de San Diego was described by a visitor as having about 40 dark brown huts and three or four larger whitewashed buildings. Many of those original adobes were in ruins by the time the area was declared a state historic park in 1968.

Since then some Old Town structures have been restored or reconstructed to recall life in California during its Mexican and early American periods. Near completion is the Robinson Rose building, the reconstruction of a two-story home and office that lawyer James W. Robinson built in 1853.

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Over the years it served as a newspaper and railroad office, grocery and clothing store, jail and school. When the building reopens in January it will be the park’s visitor center.

Adobes and other structures in Old Town are a pleasant mix of museums and businesses.

For example, the rebuilt 1867 Seeley Stable houses a collection of horse-drawn vehicles, saddles, branding irons and other Western memorabilia, while its 1829 neighbor, La Casa de Bandini, has become a popular Mexican restaurant.

Along the same street you’ll see two homes under reconstruction--the 1820s Alvarado House and the 1869 Johnson House. Next spring one will reopen as an archeological museum and the other will be leased to a park concessionaire.

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For a guided look at Old Town’s buildings and their activities there’s the daily 2 p.m. ranger tour that departs from La Casa de Machado y Silvas. Visitors also can talk to the costumed docents in that 1 1/2-century-old adobe home.

Largest and most famous of Old Town’s adobes is the 1827 La Casa de Estudillo that was the home of the commander of San Diego’s presidio, Capt. Jose Maria de Estudillo. The restored house has been refurnished as in the time of that prominent Mexican family.

Most buildings and shops in the park are open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; restaurants remain open later.

Admission is free to all buildings within the park boundary except Seeley Stables, where entry is $1 for adults, 50 cents for children ages 6 to 17. Slide shows are presented there several times daily.

There is a charge to the park’s playhouse, Theater in Old Town, where stage shows are presented by United States International University. Next on the playbill is “You Can’t Take It With You,” from Nov. 16 to Dec. 4 (except Mondays and Tuesdays). Call (619) 298-0082 weekdays for ticket information.

Visit the town’s first public schoolhouse, which has a display of the 16 flags that have flown over California. The one-room building dates to 1865.

Also go into the small annex behind the San Diego Union Museum to see a scale model of Old Town as it was nearly 120 years ago; next year the model will be displayed in the new visitor center.

At the northern corner of the park is Bazaar del Mundo, a colorful cluster of shops and restaurants. It’s on the home site of the last Mexican governor of California, Pio Pico, where a favorite for margaritas and Mexican food is Casa de Pico. Other eateries are El Fandango, Lino’s and Hamburguesa.

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Shops are scattered in vintage buildings throughout the park, including Racine & Laramie, an early tobacco shop that still sells tobacco, cigars and pipes.

The 1850s U.S. House is filled with 19th-Century military uniforms that are handmade replicas for movies and TV. Some are worn during military re-enactments in Old Town Plaza on the fourth Saturday of every month (except in November and December).

Coming Old Town events include the annual Christmas procession on Dec. 3, the Christmas open house of Old Town merchants Dec. 10 and the evening illuminaria procession Dec. 14. For more information, call (619) 237-6770.

Just outside the park are other historic sites, shops, dining spots and places to spend the night.

You’ll pay admission to tour the furnished 1856 Whaley House, which some believe is haunted. It is also San Diego’s oldest brick building (closed Monday and Tuesday).

Visitors won’t go hungry in the Old Town area. Well-known are Cafe Pacifica and the Brigantine Seafood Grill, both along San Diego Avenue. The Acapulco restaurant is atop the Hacienda Hotel, a new all-suite inn with 150 rooms at various levels on a hillside. Enter on Harney Street.

Each suite includes a coffee maker, mini-refrigerator, microwave oven and VCR (with movie cassette rentals in the lobby). A special single or double rate through the end of the year is $69; normally, double rates are $95 to $105. For reservations, call (619) 298-4707.

Also new is the low-rise Vacation Inn with 125 rooms and suites that are $82 to $102 double, including continental breakfast. It’s on Old Town Avenue. Call (619) 299-7400 for reservations.

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For historic lodgings, book one of the nine Victorian rooms in the Heritage Park Bed & Breakfast Inn that occupies an 1889 Queen Anne mansion. It’s in adjacent Heritage Park, a preserve for old San Diego structures that were threatened with demolition.

Six of the B&B;'s antique-decorated bedrooms share three baths; three others have private facilities. Nightly rates are $75 to $115, including homemade breakfast. No children under age 14. Call (619) 295-7088.

To get to San Diego’s Old Town from Los Angeles, drive south on Interstate 5 to the Old Town exit. Cross over the freeway and bear left on San Diego Avenue to the barricade at Twiggs Street. Park on the street or in free lots bordering the state park.

Round trip from Los Angeles to Old Town San Diego is 242 miles.


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