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San Diego Old Town

The Other Side of Old Town

On a rainy Saturday, something rather unusual for San Diego, I was drawn to a favorite place of mine—Old Town San Diego. San Diego's Old Town, simply known as “Old Town” to locals, is the window through which to view San Diego's origin and past, offering a glimpse of 19th century life in the early Mexican and American periods.

When visiting Old Town, most locals and visitors think of the 3 M's—Mexican food, margaritas and mariachis. You can find all three in abundance along Old Town's main street—San Diego Avenue, where you will also find the standard t-shirt and souvenir shops. But there is a lot more to Old Town if you take a moment and explore beyond the 3 M's.

Myself, after seeing the usual tourist fare, quickly turn to the side-streets and “waiting to be discovered” jewels that make travel so much fun. These “jewels” always seem to enlighten and make me feel like I've gotten to know a place. And in Old Town, this is rather easy, because a short walk from San Diego Avenue will reveal the “Other Side of Old Town” a much different and rewarding side than the 3 M's.


African Museum—Casa del Rey Moro

African Museum - Casa del Rey Moro
African Museum

To me, travel is exploring—learning and growing from the experience of a new place. As I walked about Old Town's streets, my first discovery was The African Museum or “Casa del Rey Moro” (House of the Moorish King) located at 2471 Congress Street. I was attracted to the museum by the colorful and eclectic African art that adorned its entryway.

Stepping into the museum, I was immediately greeted by one of the most knowledgeable and passionate people in regards to African World History—Professor Chuck Ambers. Chuck is a local university lecturer and “teacher of teachers”, who instructs about the historical place and significance of Africans in the thread of World History.

Chuck began guiding me around the museum, introducing numerous culturally relevant exhibits that opened my eyes to the significant role Africans played in American, Spanish and Mexican History. I was absolutely stunned to learn the roles Africans had played in many familiar tenets of World History. After 15 minutes with Chuck, my perspective of history had changed. I felt my history education had been grossly incomplete and biased. It was clear I had missed out on many important contributions Africans, and others had made. I was saddened by this and vowed to keep an open mind and do better seeking the truth in things.

After Chuck's tour and lesson, I perused the museum, bought a historical map and continued on my journey about Old Town.

The African Museum is a converted residence--open every day except Wednesday from 10:30 am to 7:00 pm. For more information go to www.africanmuseumsandiego.com.

West Sea Company Marine Antiques

Walking along Congress Street led me to another jewel—The West Sea Company Marine Antique Store and Museum. The store/museum is located in an old Spanish-style residence and houses an incredible collection of nautical antiques including a display of ship's compasses, deep-sea diving equipment, paintings, models and instruments—some dating back hundreds of years.

West Sea Company

The owner, Rod, was happy to show me around the store and answer the numerous questions I had. The deep-sea diving suit and helmets were particularly fascinating and I imagined would have been incredibly claustrophobic and uncomfortable to wear. It's hard to believe divers donned those suits and dove deep into dark, cold and murky waters to work on ships and explore the oceans of the world.

West Sea Company - Deep Sea Helmet
West Sea Company

Time spent at West Sea Company is as educational as it is fascinating and don't be surprised if you yearn to sail the high seas after leaving.

West Sea Company is located at 2495 Congress Street in Old Town. For more details go to www.westsea.com.

West Sea Company
West Sea Company -- Marine Antiques

Cafe Coyote'

After my visit to West Sea. Co., I was reminded that it does rain in San Diego—albeit occasionally. It started coming down pretty hard—enough to get my jeans wet, so I detoured to San Diego Avenue to try some Mexican Food. I'd been reading about a place called Cafe' Coyote', having seen it on a number of “Best Of San Diego” lists, so what better time to see what all the noise was about.

To me, what makes a good restaurant is how it handles the basics—service, atmosphere and food. The cafe' is really not a cafe'--it's a large restaurant that occupies a traditional Spanish-style building complete with courtyard and water fountain.

There are several seating areas—including outdoors in the courtyard, as well as a full-service bar in case you just want a cerveza or margarita.

Right away I was blown-away by the attentive and friendly service. I was immediately seated and had chips and salsa in front of me before I could say "enchilada". You can tell a lot about a Mexican food restaurant by the quality of the chips and salsa they serve—and both were top-notch at Cafe' Coyote'. The chips are ultra-thin, golden brown, full of fresh corn flavor and served piping hot. The salsa was very good—especially on their chips and was obviously fresh-made.

I ordered simple—an enchilada and refried beans. The enchilada was excellent, with a tasty but not too spicy red sauce and soft, flavorful tortillas. What really shined though were the refried beans, which were fresh-made and full of flavor. The beans weren't the runny kind served in most Mexican restaurants—but more hearty with chopped whole beans.

Overall the atmosphere was excellent—feeling like a restaurant in Mexico, save for the partially gringo staff. I enjoyed my meal, paid and was out the door just as the rain subsided.

Specialty Shopping

The clouds thinned, the sun peeked out and there was more to explore. On most days, shopping would not be my first choice of activities. But there are so many interesting specialty shops in Old Town, that I found myself drawn from shop to shop. Each in it's own way was fascinating and unique and some were much more—opening horizons to new worlds I never imagined.

Game Towne at the corner of Congress and Harney Streets is a refreshing alternative to the online gaming that has taken over our children's lives. Game Towne is stocked full of real," touch and feel" board games like the one's we played as kids. All the standards are there like Monopoly, Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit, along with dozens of other familiar and not so familiar ones. Game Towne also features specialty chess and checker sets and other unique collectible items and cards. Your kids will have a blast here.

Game Towne San Diego
Game Towne

I'm not a smoker, and don't recommend doing so—but I still enjoyed stepping back in time at Racine & Laramie Tobacconist on San Diego Avenue in the State Park section of Old Town. If nothing else, simply walk in the door and enjoy the seductive aroma of fresh tobacco. The store is full of specialty tobacco, cigars, cigarettes and pipes--in case you hanker for the occasional puff. The store-keepers wear authentic garb and you'll enjoy the old time feel of this original Old Town shop.

Racine & Laramie Tobacconist
Racine & Laramie Tobacconist

If you have kids in tow, they will go hog wild in Old Town's candy stores. Multi-color striped candy canes, saltwater taffy and assorted hard candies are just some of the sweets they'll beg for. Oh, and don't forget the chocolate and fudge.

Geppetto's Toy's of Old Town is the kind of toy store parents wish for but can never find. Geppetto's is stocked full of toys that are as educational as they are fun. With brands like Lego, Playmobil and K'nex, your kids will find something fun for the ride home. Geppetto's is located in the Fiesta de Reyes shopping plaza which is part of the State Park.

Also located in Fiesta de Reyes is the Temecula Olive Oil Company. The Temecula Olive Oil Company features dozens of high quality and specialty olive oils along with a tasting bar where you can sample their Lemon Olive Oil and others.

Temecula Olive Oil Company
Temecula Olive Oil Comany

Sooky's Boutique

I've visited Old Town dozens of times and thought I'd seen everything until I found Sooky's Boutique at the corner of Harney and Juan Streets. Sooky's is owned and operated by Sooky Bauer, an expert on the world's finest Asian cosmetics and nutritional health supplements and products.

Sooky welcomes you into her small shop with a cup of warm tea. On this day I had the Buckwheat Tea but she also serves a richly aromatic Ginger Tea. She then conducts an informative and enlightening discussion on the very special cosmetics, herbs, teas and nutritional supplements that are key to good health. And it's not just another sales pitch--she mixes in tons of information about how our bodies really work and what we need to maintain optimal health.

Sooky's Boutique
Sooky's Boutique

Spend 15 minutes in Sooky's Boutique and I guarantee your perspective on health and well-being will change forever. She even showed me a diary with dozens of thank you's and anecdotes about success her customers had with her products. I use some of her products myself and can say with confidence that a visit to Sooky's is a must for Old Town visitors.

State Park History

As the skies cleared and the rain faded—I wanted to spend my remaining time enjoying Old Town's rich history. And over the years, I have found no better place to do so than the McCoy House in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.

Stepping through the McCoy House is like stepping through the pages of San Diego's history. The house is full of easy to interpret exhibits that present San Diego's history chronologically, covering each historical perspective including native American, Mexican, Spanish and modern American. If you want a quick, easy and fun San Diego history lesson, I suggest you start at the McCoy House located just inside the park near the Trolley Station. Open daily and there is no fee required. Docents in traditional costume staff the McCoy House and are happy to answer questions you might have.

McCoy House Old Town San Diego
McCoy House

Old Town Gardens and Open Spaces

I finished off my day walking through the gardens and open spaces of Old Town. Native plants are everywhere and many of the historical courtyards maintain gardens where they grow native and non-native food plants and herbs authentic to each period. Kids can run around the nice grass-covered area in the middle of the park which is surrounded by native Oak trees, Olive trees and even a Cork tree.

My day exploring lasted 4 hours but visitors can spend as little as an hour and still enjoy Old Town. Parking is free in most of Old Town but plan to arrive early on weekends and holidays for best selection.

Old Town is located just off the 5 freeway at the Old Town Avenue exit. The San Diego Trolley also stops in Old Town and is a great alternative for visitors not wishing to navigate San Diego's streets and freeways.

Over the years, I have found Old Town to be one of San Diego best bargains for hotels and accommodations. All hotels in Old Town are within easy walking distance to the State Park and San Diego Avenue's restaurants and shops. In my opinion, the hotel with the best value is the Holiday Inn Express at the corner of Old Town Avenue and Congress Street. For more information on this hotel go to http://arestravel.com/232_hotel-info_h47.html.

Whether you visit for an hour a day or maybe more, enjoy your visit and look for the “Other Side of Old Town”.

John Rogers


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