Wheelchair Accessible San Diego's Old Town
by M. Gacioch © 2003

Many worthwhile adventures are available fairly close to home, and if we take the time to discover what's available in our own backyards, we may be richly rewarded. Often these venues may be entirely new places to us or merely old favorites that we have visited before but haven’t experienced lately. Of course, the joy of rediscovering such nearby places includes not having to pack a suitcase or board a plane to visit them. Over the next few months, I hope to share some of my "local' Southern California favorites. If you would like to share a special part of your city or town with Global Access readers, please write clearpath@cox.net

San Diego’s Old Town district remains a special place for me. I hadn’t been there in awhile and decided to renew my acquaintance with it on a recent balmy afternoon. I am happy to report that Old Town offers adequate wheelchair access, a world of shopping, arts, crafts, music and incredible Mexican food.

San Diego’s Old Town was easily reachable for me via an accessible commuter train (the Coaster), from my boarding station in the city of Encinitas, some 30 miles north of San Diego. Encinitas station provides a concrete wheelchair ramp to the boarding platform. After the train arrives; the Coaster assistant hops out to unfold a portable metal ramp to bridge the gap between the platform and the train. Once onboard, it was easy for me to position my wheelchair into the area with a pop-up seat. The 45-minute ride to San Diego features some lovely coastal views en route as you pass through Encinitas and Del Mar. And the cost --$2.00 each way--can’t be beat.

After exiting at the Old Town Station, it is easy to roll to the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park (located on San Diego Avenue and Twiggs Street). From there, you can choose to tour the historical buildings, shop in a variety of boutiques and special interest stores at the Bazaar del Mundo, take in a play at the Theatre in Old Town or eat at one of the many excellent Mexican restaurants.

Historical District

Spanish ships landed in San Diego in 1542, but the Spanish didn’t seriously start their first California settlement here until 1769 when they built a mission and a fort. The original historical buildings in present day Old Town give visitors a glimpse of what life was like in the settlement from 1821 to 1871. Visitors can tour the old blacksmith shop, schoolhouse, stable, which contains a collection of antique carriages and San Diego’s first newspaper office. Access to the old buildings is excellent, and if you visit on a weekday, you won’t deal with large crowds.

If you have the time to catch a play, the Theatre in Old Town (4040 Twiggs Street) always offers a fun production. Right now, this intimate (250-seat) theatre is offering  “Beehive,” which features rock music of the 1960s presented by a group of costumed singers portraying female rock singers of that era. The theatre provides good wheelchair access and disabled parking.

Shopping

The Bazaar del Mundo area of Old Town is a shopoholics delight. While the handful of upper-level stores are out of reach to wheelchair users, the ground-level shops provide easy wheelchair entry. However, once inside these small crowded shops, jammed with colorful merchandise, a narrow wheelchair is needed in order to thread your way through the tiny aisles. Here is a brief sampling of some of my favorite shops to visit.

Design Center Accessories

This shop specializes in vividly colored Guatemalan fabrics, and it’s worth popping into the store just to see the dazzling fabric bolts that line their walls. Hand blown glass, terra cotta pottery, kitchen accessories and exotic condiments are also available.

Folk art from around the world is the big attraction at Treasures. There you’ll find French porcelain objects, Russian nesting dolls, hand painted eggs, as well as a variety of handcrafted objects from Europe, the Far East and the U.S. This is a fun place to  shop at Christmas if you’re looking for a carved wooden crčche.

The Design Center, Inc. showcases a beautiful array of Mexican colonial furniture, rugs and blankets, “Tiffany” lamps, candles and accessories abound here, but I always drop in for one reason: to sample their amazing selection of kaleidoscopes.

Libros Bookstore is downright tiny, so it don’t expect spacious wheelchair access, but if you’re seeking books dealing with native and Latin American literature, history, culture, art and Spanish language books, this is the place. Libros also offers a good selection of travel guides. Note: the ground level part of the store is marginally usable for wheelchair users, but the lower level here is completely inaccessible. However, the clerks here are friendly and will gladly help you reach the merchandise.

Just Animals is stocked with whimsical critter collectibles. Whether you collect elephants or monkeys you’re sure to find additions to your collection here in the form of carvings, boxes, stoneware, earrings, T-shirts, windsocks, etc.

Dining

I’m saving the best for last, as the food in Old Town is amazing. There is a full selection of over 40 restaurants here, and Mexican dining is the specialty. For top-notch, authentic Mexican cuisine, butt kicker margaritas and a fully accessible unisex accessible bathroom, Casa de Bandini is, in my opinion, the tops. The restaurant is housed in a beautifully restored 1829 adobe hacienda (complete with a ramp on the side entrance). Visitors can choose either indoor or patio dining.  Indoor dining features Old California Mission decor, subdued lighting,  and an impressive collection of antique santos hug the walls. The interior is especially impressive during the December holidays when it is decorated with poinsettias and twinkling lights. The outdoor patio nestled amongst brightly colored bougainvilleas and other tropical plants is superb on a warm day, and the exterior heaters allow people to eat outdoors the year round. Whether you dine indoors or out, you’ll hear the strolling mariachis serenading the diners.

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