Downtown La Mesa is easily accessible by public transit, so the Spring Street Trolley Station makes a natural starting point for this walking tour. The station is at the intersection of Spring Street and La Mesa Boulevard—exactly at the crossroads of the downtown village area.
The trolley tracks run parallel to Spring Street, so during rush hour, cross-traffic can get congested due to the trolley's stopping. From the trolley station, follow the tracks south and cross La Mesa Boulevard, where you'll come to your first attraction.
La Mesa Depot Museum
Start off with a bit of history at the La Mesa Depot Museum. The old Southern Pacific Railway depot is recreated here, with historical facts and info when freight trains rode the rails through here (the Trolley runs along this very railway bed now). The best part of the depot are the three actual train cars sitting stationary on tracks: a locomotive engine, a freight car and a caboose. You can climb aboard them and imagine you're heading out to faraway places. These railway cars are great for taking pictures of yourself in a rustic setting. The La Mesa Depot is free to visit.
La Mesa Boulevard: West End
From the La Mesa Depot, head back north a few steps to La Mesa Boulevard and then head west. This short stretch of a couple of blocks consists of the western end of downtown. Notice the small businesses that dot the boulevard: a sign shop, thrift stores, shoe repair, chocolatier, billiard supply, small savings and loan, coffee house. These shops give true flavor to La Mesa. Across the street, notice the large mixed use complex adjacent to the trolley station -- it was built over a decade ago, and though it dwarfs the other buildings, it did help to rejuvenate the downtown district. Continue to head west and you'll come across San Filippo's pizza. This venerable establishment has been at this location forever and continues to serve up delicious pizza. It's definitely the place to go for pizza in downtown La Mesa.
Like in most of the old neighborhood business districts, antiques shops are usually the first businesses to establish a foothold in the storefronts. They are usually the places that give the old downtowns their flavor, and La Mesa is no different. There are still quite a few shops downtown to go antiquing, especially along the stretch along the heart of La Mesa Boulevard. between Spring Street and Allison Street. One of the more interesting shops is Collectiquity, particularly if you're in the market for mid-century collectibles, especially the 1940-50's style kitchen dinette sets, this shop is a great place to start.
Downtown Main Village
Although antiques shops still make up the bulk of businesses in downtown La Mesa, the last few years has seen more diversity in services and businesses in the district. From law offices, to jewelers, to financial services, to crafts and books, to housewares -- the area is expanding its offerings to residents, beyond just antiques. La Mesa even has a quaint mom & pop drug store. You can't miss it: La Mesa Pharmacy on the corner of Palm Avenue and La Mesa Boulevard -- It's a true blast from the past.
Mom and Pop Businesses
One of the best things about strolling through downtown La Mesa is discovering all of the mom and pop businesses. Some of them, like Yardage Town, have been here seemingly forever. Others are newer, and as you walk by and peek into their stores, you hope they can survive the tough retail climate. For them, it comes down to customer service. One place relatively new to La Mesa is Moze Guitars. For years, it was located in the College Area, and recently moved to downtown. I frequent Moze Guitars, and it's a perfect example of the kind of business you don't mind going out of your way to get to thanks to friendly, knowledgable service with great people who work there.
Food & Drink
Downtown La Mesa, surprisingly, has a number of good places to dine. Most of them are pretty casual and relatively inexpensive. For Mexican food, the most popular is Por Favor -- you can't miss the bright yellow building at the corner of Palm and La Mesa. The outdoor sidewalk tables are always popular, especially on warm evenings. My favorite Mexican restaurant is actually a few blocks east: Mario's de La Mesa, which is housed in a cozy cottage, and serves up a fine carne asada plate. For burgers, everyone in the know knows you have to go to Johnny B's near the corner of Fourth on La Mesa. By far the best burgers you'll ever have. Across the street, the Village Restaurant serves up great homestyle meals, especially breakfast. And then there are the neighborhood bars to satisfy your thirst: Pete's Place, an old school haunt, Joe N' Andy's Hole in the Wall (says it all), and the aforementioned Johnny B's and Por Favor. For coffee, Cosmos Coffee is a great place to sip some brew and listen to acoustic music.
If you stroll down to the east intersection of La Mesa Boulevard and University Avenue, you'll come upon the downtown community's recreation area. Little league fields, park space, swimming pool, and even a pitch and putt golf course (Sun Valley) serve the needs of the quaint old homes and apartment buildings that cluster along the side streets beyond La Mesa Boulevard. Between the businesses and services, the dining and entertainment, and the recreation, you'll start to see why downtown La Mesa is a little slice of Americana.
Make your way back to the Trolley Station or your car. Or better yet, stroll and explore some more. You'll discover more businesses and restaurants on side streets (McCrae Music Company is a great place for band instruments and lessons). On Friday afternoons, the La Mesa Farmer's Market serve up lots of nice produce. Also, on Thursday nights during the summer, the La Mesa Car Show is a great way to enjoy the downtown vibe.