We'd spent our first evening in San Diego wandering through the city and the morning after on a boat, cruising the San Diego Bay.
With only an afternoon left before we had to go back to Los Angeles and still a whole lot to see, we decided to take a San Diego hop on hop off trolley tour with Old Town Trolley Tours.
San Diego hop on hop off trolley tour with Old Town Trolley Tours
Old Town Trolley Tours was founded by three friends in Key West, Florida, in the early 1970s. They wanted to preserve historic Old Town Key West by introducing visitors to it and raising awareness. Their business took off and is now based in six cities, among which is San Diego.
Old Town trolley tours of San Diego: How it works
Old Town Trolley Tours works with a hop-on/hop-off system. You buy a ticket once and with that ticket you can hop on and off the trolleys driving through San Diego for an entire day (or two, if you get the two-day tour).
Of course, you can't get on/off just anywhere. You have to use the trolley stops located throughout San Diego and Coronado Island.
This San Diego trolley tour has 12 destination stops in different neighborhoods in a 25-mile loop, which can save you a lot of time if you have only a day or two in the city.
Also, all San Diego trolley tickets include free or discounted entry to museums and other attractions like the Coronado Historical Nurseries, the Museum of Us, the Mormon Battalion Museum, and the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum.
Coronado Island Trolley
Because we’d already covered part of the center and Seaport Village we decided to mount a trolley at the Hilton Bayfront stop. We immediately noticed what a great storyteller our driver, Brian, was. He continually shared interesting and fun facts with us, both about important historical events and everyday life.
While crossing the San Diego / Coronado Bay Bridge we got some great views over Seaport Village and Coronado Island. It’s a bit scary driving over this bridge as the side edge to keep you from falling is only like 20 cm high and there's no glass in the windows of the trolleys.
Coronado Island isn’t part of San Diego. It’s a separate city and one that upholds strict rules for those living there. McDonald’s and other chains aren’t allowed as the island wants to preserve its ‘authentic’ feel.
There was nothing on Coronado when Elisha Babcock and Hampton Story decided to buy it for $110,000 (price then) in 1886 to turn it into a resort community. They constructed roads, built a water and power system, and attracted buyers for the lots they’d laid out. But the crown jewel of their work was (and still is) the Hotel del Coronado, built in just one year for $1 million (price then).
Since then, Coronado has become a popular resort area with hotels, shops, restaurants, and even a theater. And to top it all up, Coronado Beach is among the top 10 beaches in the United States, according to the Travel Channel. So you can hop off the Coronado trolley to grab a bite to eat, stroll over its picturesque scenery, or if you have more time, visit some of the resorts.
Balboa Park trolley tour, San Diego
After having seen the Hotel del Coronado we drove back over the bridge, this time getting a view of the Naval Station, toward Balboa Park.
Balboa Park is huge. There are 15 museums, among which the Air and Space Museum and the Museum of Art, but also performing arts venues, gardens and the San Diego Zoo. The park even has its free tram service to take you around.
But even by tram, we knew we wouldn't be able to explore the full 1,200 acres of this place within the amount of time we had. We had to choose between visiting a museum or two and wandering around to see more but from the outside.
We chose to wander, but it didn't go so smoothly. Temperatures had been around 40°C during the day for most of our trip and although I love the heat, I was struggling with it that day. I felt tired and just wanted to go hang out somewhere, but because I knew we didn't have much time in the city to see the rest of the San Diego trolley tour stops, I decided to make the most of it.
After about two hours, I had to give in. I wasn't enjoying Balboa as much as I should have and so we decided to take the trolley back to Little Italy and head back to the hotel.
That meant we skipped Old Town San Diego. I'm bummed I didn't see it now, but at the time I just wanted to get to our hostel and rest for a moment. Even the thought of driving back to LA in our comfortable air-conditioned car seemed appealing.
Still, I did enjoy our last part on the San Diego trolley tour, though, as our new driver told us about some beautiful houses we drove by and their past owners.
Old Town San Diego trolley tour
Although we missed this part of the San Diego Old Town trolley schedule, here are some of the highlights to show you why you shouldn’t make the same mistake.
When you take one of the Old Town San Diego trolley tours, you can't miss Casa de Aguirre, a reconstruction of one of the first homes built in San Diego in the 1850s. It has exhibitions about the lives of the inhabitants of San Diego in previous centuries.
But Casa de Aguirre is not the only historic site in the area. As you'd expect from an old town, there are plenty of museums and historic homes to learn more about the city's past, from its pre-colonial roots to the present day. For example, you can visit attractions like the first schoolhouse in San Diego, a historic haunted house, and the Gaslamp Quarter — an area with 94 historic buildings in different architectural styles.
The Old Town San Diego trolley tour is your window to the history of the city, so do make time for it if you can.
Summing up our experience with the trolley tour in San Diego
I'm not someone who easily goes on tours, but I really enjoyed our ride on the trolley. Both drivers we had seemed to love their job and had tons of interesting stories to tell. I regret that we weren't able to make it to Old Town San Diego, but sometimes you just have to accept that it's not your day, even when traveling.
Old Town trolley tour San Diego: Practical information
A one-day ticket for the trolleys costs $41.44 for adults and $31.5 for children aged 4-12. Children younger than 4 get to ride for free.
You can buy your San Diego trolley tickets online, at any ticket station, or even at your hotel's front desk.
Old Town Trolley Tours also offers a 2-day tour for $77, a San Diego Beach Tour, and a Seal Tour. Check out their website for more information on those.
Schedules change depending on the session:
- From October 30 to March 12: the first tour leaves Old Town at 9 am and the last trolley leaves at 3 pm, running until 5 pm.
- From March 13 to October 29: the first tour leaves Old Town at 9 am and the last trolley leaves at 4 pm, running until 6 pm.
Keep in mind that holidays and special events in San Diego like December Nights and San Diego Comic-Con may change the schedule, so make sure to check if you're visiting during those times.
We stayed at Lucky D's Hostel in a private room. This place was perfectly located near the Gaslamp Quarter and the bay area.
And if you're traveling to the USA from Europe, don't forget to apply for your ESTA to enter without a visa.
Don't forget travel insurance
Plan for the best, prepare for the worst. Travel insurance has you covered in case (part of) your trip gets canceled, you get sick or hurt during your San Diego hop on hop off trolley tour, and sometimes even when your electronics break or get stolen. I always make sure I'm covered on every trip I go on.
Don't have travel insurance yet? Check out SafetyWing. They offer super flexible plans that you can even sign up for while you're already on your trip. On top of that, they were the first travel insurance to cover COVID, and when I got COVID, they reimbursed all of my expenses without making a fuss. Their customer support team is great and I can personally recommend them.
We received two free one-day tickets for the Old Town Trolley Tour from the San Diego Tourism Board and a one-night hostel stay from Hostelbookers.com. Partnerships like these will never affect how I express my opinion.