Discover the Oldest Town in California

View of Downtown San Diego from Mission Bay Park. San Diego, California USA.
© Dancestrokes/

Written by Jennifer Geer

Updated: September 5, 2023

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In 1850, California was admitted to the Union as the 31st state. It was just two years prior that gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. This discovery drastically changed the course of California’s history as gold seekers rushed to the state for their chance at riches.

Although Native Americans already lived in the area that would become California, the first Europeans to arrive were the Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo and his men in 1542. 

But what city in California has been around the longest? Keep reading to learn all about the oldest town in California, including its history and wildlife.

What Is the Oldest Town in California?

Established in 1769, San Diego is the oldest town in California. The Presidio at San Diego became the first permanent European settlement on the Pacific Coast. Today, San Diego is a large city with a population of 1.4 million people. Located adjacent to the U.S.-Mexico border, the town is known for its gorgeous beaches, world-class zoo, mild climate, picturesque parks, and rich culture.

San Diego mission

Seen here is the historical mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala located in present-day San Diego.

©Natalia Bratslavsky/iStock via Getty Images

History of San Diego

It’s sometimes referred to as the “birthplace of California. San Diego was established in 1769 when a fort and mission were built in the area that is now the neighborhood of Old Town San Diego. The Spanish settlers were part of a mission led by Father Junipero Serra, who went on to found 21 California missions in the region. The settlement was first under Spanish rule, then Mexican, finally becoming part of the U.S. in 1848.

Presidio Park, sitting on a hill that overlooks Old Town, is now an open cultural museum with an old fort and Spanish Revival-style structures.

Old Town San Diego 

San Diego, Old Town, birthplace of California sign

Old Town San Diego is home to many historic buildings.

©Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Rich in history, Old Town is a great place to experience the early culture of the state. For example, La Casa de Estudillo is one of the many historic buildings visitors can tour today. Built in 1827 by a Spanish settler, it’s one of the oldest homes in San Diego and a prime example of early Spanish architecture. 

The Old Town State Historic Park is a collection of nineteenth-century buildings giving visitors a step back in time to early San Diego. Featured are five original Adobe buildings, a schoolhouse, a courthouse, and other historical buildings.

And finally, Presidio Park, sitting on a hill that overlooks Old Town, is now an open cultural museum with an old fort and Spanish Revival-style structures. In the park, the Junipero Serra Museum details San Diego’s history and houses artifacts found at the site of the original mission and fort.

Where is San Diego on the Map?

San Diego is the second largest city in California. Located in the extreme southwest of the state, it shares a border with Tijuana, Mexico. A hilly town, San Diego is bordered by the Laguna Mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west.

The San Diego Zoo

Giant tortoise eating grass

Some of the zoo’s oldest residents are the Galapagos tortoises.


The zoo houses over 3,700 animals of more than 660 species. A world-renowned zoo, the San Diego Zoo is famous for its unique animal encounters and naturalist animal habitats. It also features an impressive botanical collection of over 700,000 plants. The zoo is also famous for its conservation efforts and its endangered species breeding programs.

Some of the zoo species you will see at the zoo include:

Wildlife You’ll Find in San Diego

San Diego is near coastal waters, canyons, mountains, and deserts. All of which provide habitats for a diverse number of species. 

Breaching Gray whale

The gray whale is a majestic site to behold off the coast of California.

©Jan-Dirk Hansen/

Marine animals commonly found along the coastline include seals, California sea lions, sea turtles, and pelicans. Also, swimming in the waters you may spot dolphins frolicking, great white sharks swimming by, or even the majestic gray whale making its winter migration.

On land, you can find numerous species including mule deer, bobcats, and coyotes.

San Diego National Wildlife Refuge

The San Diego National Wildlife Refuge includes 12,300 acres. Established in 1996, it’s one of the last expanses of open space in coastal southern California.

A prime spot for bird watching, some of the many species you may see here include:

The San Diego fairy shrimp is a threatened species of concern. The tiny aquatic crustacean only lives in vernal pools (saltwater marshes) in coastal California.

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About the Author

Jennifer Geer is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on animals, news topics, travel, and weather. Jennifer holds a Master's Degree from the University of Tulsa, and she has been researching and writing about news topics and animals for over four years. A resident of Illinois, Jennifer enjoys hiking, gardening, and caring for her three pugs.

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