Updated September 30, 2022
If you’re looking to check out a real haunted house in San Diego, a Whaley House tour will certainly scratch your itch for all things spooky, no matter the season.
As someone who has a difficult time walking the dog after I’ve watched a scary movie or a particularly thrilling Law & Order, how would I fare in a place that has appeared on numerous lists as one of the most haunted places in America?
Read on to find out how I fared in the Whaley House San Diego on a self-guided tour of this spooktacular historic house.
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What Is the Story Behind the Whaley House?
Every haunted house has a good story, right? The Whaley House history is no different.
The Whaley House Museum is a good place to start for a primer on what makes this place so intriguing. It offers up a detailed history of both Thomas Whaley and his property, open to the public since 1960.
How old is the Whaley House? The Whaley House dates back to 1857, making it one of the oldest homes in San Diego.
It was a place of business and residence of New York entrepreneur Thomas Whaley, who came to California during the Gold Rush.
The Old Town house he ended up purchasing in 1855 would serve as a shop, a granary, a courthouse, and a theater, all very fun things that added to the vibrancy of the neighborhood at that time.
It was also the site of the public hanging of an alleged boat thief, James “Yankee Jim” Robinson, and where one of Thomas Whaley’s daughters, Violet, committed suicide.
Note: Violet suffered from depression, exacerbated by her con artist husband.
A number of the Whaley family members, including Thomas Jr., who came down with scarlet fever as a baby, died in the house.
Although it wasn’t that uncommon to die at home back in the day, the reported crying dead baby sounds today are less common, and of note in terms of what makes this place pretty creepy.
The place’s significance as a historic house museum makes it an important stop on any Old Town itinerary anyway.
I’m here for the spooky stuff.
Why is the Whaley House famous? The Whaley House has been featured on the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures as one of the most haunted houses in America.
It’s also why Regis Philbin overnighted there for an episode of The Haunting Of… on the Biography network.
Fun fact: Philbin was there for a second time following an encounter with Whaley’s wife Anna Eloise at the house in the 1960s.
Evidence of ghosting — and by this I mean the spooky kind, not the kind where you stop texting someone back because that’s easier than being an adult — has been found back to the Thomas Whaley days.
There are historical records that show the family members would report unexplained footsteps throughout the house.
I wonder then if ol’ Tom had any regrets about being a spectator at Yankee Jim’s hanging.
Can You Visit the Whaley House?
The Whaley House is on San Diego Avenue in Old Town, an adorable part of town with nightmarish parking, and is open to visitors no matter how brave they are.
If you’re not wary of parallel parking uphill, I’ve had luck on Juan Street the last few times I’ve visited the neighborhood to explore the San Diego attractions to be found here.
Just make sure to turn your car tires toward the curb, because that’s a thing here.
While you’re there you can also check out the old Victorian homes in Heritage County Park, even popping in for some tea time at the Coral Tree Tea House if you’re fancy.
How much is the Whaley House tour? Tickets to access the house on a self-guided Whaley House ghost tour are $10 per person and available at the museum shop in the cottage next door. You can also purchase reservation-based tickets online, a move I’d recommend if you’re visiting during the month of October.
There are all kinds of knick-knacks in the shop for you to browse through while you’re there. That includes books detailing just how haunted this place is based on after-hours paranormal experiences and tales of the tragedies that occurred here back in the day.
You can also just pay the kind lady for your ticket and be on your way. You’ll get a sheet full of historical information for your self-guided tour, including information about the Greek Revival architecture you’re about to be treated to.
Hours for a self-guided visit to the Whaley House vary a bit by season, with extended Whaley House hours and special events during Halloween time.
Generally, the house is open 10am-9:30pm, with a break in the evening for the docents to get some grub or whatever haunted house docents do.
Maybe they tell each other spooky ghost stories in the glow of a flashlight. I really don’t know.
Anyway, check out posted times if you’re heading over to the Greek Revival house.
Can you stay at the Whaley House? Visitors are able to take Whaley House haunted evening tours on a 40-minute guided tour, but you cannot stay overnight at the Whaley House, no matter how much you spent on the latest ghost hunting equipment.
Note: If you want to dive right into some weird stuff, book the Whaley House After Hours Paranormal Investigation tour. You’ll get a quick training session on how to use “real” ghost-hunting equipment to reach whoever is waiting for you on the other side.
To that I say, “No thanks!” I’m fine with my self-guided, middle-of-the-day tour.
Your Whaley House Tour: A Look Inside
The house itself isn’t very large.
There is a downstairs area of artifacts displayed in the manner they might have been in 1868-1871. Display cases show the kinds of things sold in the general store that existed there back in the day.
Of course there were dead-eyed dolls for sale back then. OF COURSE. What else would a child in that era need or want?
One of the first things I saw in the old general store was an old book of family photos. Apparently the Whaley family found it impossible not to take a creepy photo.
Moving on, you’ll see the family’s old dining room, and the kitchen.
A parlor with a light flickering off the study sets quite the ominous mood. I later learned that the study is where Thomas’ daughter, 22-year-old Violet, was laid out after shooting herself outside.
Thanks for that, Alex the docent.
Going up the stairs, which much a to-do has been made about on all the TV shows, you’ll find the bedrooms.
Of course there are more creepy dolls, sitting there on those bedspreads like that’s a normal thing for a doll with this level of creepiness to do.
You’ll also find the commercial theater, which was actually the first commercial theater of its kind until the theater troupe’s leader died shortly after it opened. Because of course he did.
What else would he do in a haunted house?
Fun fact: The only fright in that room today is how cheap theater tickets used to be. There is a sign posted boasting tickets for sale for 50 cents.
The skeletons in there give things a nice touch on Whaley House tours, although I’m not sure whether they were moved in just for the season.
Is the Whaley House Scary?
Here’s the deal.
It was broad daylight when I visited, and that was a purposeful choice.
I’m too big a chicken to go in the evening or even at dusk, and too cheap to go on one of their private nighttime tours. I’m also too chicken for that, and could probably find the money if I really wanted to.
When I walked into the house, there was a group in there talking to the docent, Alex.
One of the women visiting said she hadn’t been at the house since the 1970s because of an experience she had there at that time.
She was apparently pushed down the stairs going up to the second level by a ghost set of hands.
Wait, I thought this was all for funsies!
We’re talking about the haunted Whaley House here, people!
Red marks on her back at the time proved it, she said. If she wasn’t caught by a friend with her at the time, who knows where she’d be?
Today was the day she conveniently decided to show up.
Today was the day, the day I was brave enough for my own visit. I actually walked behind the woman while she walked up the stairs with her group, thinking that was safer for me somehow.
I realize the woman can’t provide receipts of those red marks on her back from back in the day, but in these scenarios, I find it best to just err on the side of believing what I’m hearing.
Done with my own tour, I chatted with Alex, the docent, for a bit more.
I asked him if he had ever experienced any spooky things during his tenure there. He said he has SO many stories.
He then asked me where I felt the most uneasy. So I told him upstairs, because of that San Diego ghost lady’s story AND the creepy dolls on the bed in one of the rooms there.
Alex then launches into a scary story of his own.
If it was dark he would’ve needed a flashlight, because that was the kind of tone happening here.
The story begins with Alex opening the house one morning.
Yes, weird stuff happens in the morning, apparently.
He was setting up the fan that blows in the theater upstairs when he saw a woman pass by in the doorway, dressed in old-timey garb.
He thought it was Pat, another docent who works at the house with him, who is typically dressed in her old-timey garb because that’s just how she rolls, and what she’s paid to do.
Alex calls out for Pat, to no answer.
He calls for her again, no answer.
What the hell, Pat?
Finally, he comes downstairs and finds Pat, milling around doing something or other. He asks her if she was upstairs at any point in the morning.
Pat says no.
At this point I ask Alex if Pat was messing with him, because she kinda seemed like the type, what with her being in character and all.
Alex said she wasn’t, that she wasn’t actually the type to be messing around, and I was wrong to assume that about her.
It seemed like maybe he had a story like that for whatever room I had told him creeped me out. Perhaps he’s really haunted by a mysterious old-timey woman. I can’t say, but either way, his life is quite intriguing.
In any case, the house gave me weird vibes.
I’m not some true believer when it comes to the spirit realm, but that doesn’t mean I want to be upsetting them by poo-pooing their haunting abilities while visiting the Whaley House.
Nothing but respect, Mr. Whaley.
Was the Whaley House Tour Worth It?
It’s $10. You know you spend more than that on more ridiculous things. It’s a historical house, first of all, and that’s inherently interesting, at least to me. That’s what makes it one of the most popular San Diego attractions before any of the spooky stuff.
Add on top of that the haunted layer and it’s a fun outing. I’d go so far and call it one of the best tours San Diego has to offer.
Should I book Whaley House Museum tours in advance? Advance Whaley House tickets are unnecessary unless you’re interested in a special night tour or visit around Halloween.
Take some time to check out the grounds outside, too. The Derby-Pendleton House and trees in the back, planted by the Whaley kids, are quite beautiful.
The New Orleans Creole Cafe on the property is also worth a visit if you’re hungry for some gumbo after your ghost hunting tours.
Also, you’ll be in Old Town after, so if some ghoul did give you a spook, there are taco and tequila options galore to settle your nerves.
Are there any other guided ghost tours available? Old Town Trolley tours runs more than historic tours around San Diego. They have a San Diego Ghosts and Gravestones ghost tour that takes you to various notorious spots throughout the city.
The tour includes stops in Old Town, like the El Campo Santo Cemetery, and ends at the Whaley House.
It allows you to experience Whaley House with a guide on a trolley tour that requires little effort of you.
Their San Diego City Lights Night Tour is more romantic than spooky, taking you through the city at night on one of the company’s most popular Old Town Trolley tours.
Have you ever visited San Diego’s historic Whaley House? Do you have any spooky stories of your own to share? Let me know in the comments!
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Photo credits: Jack Boucher (5)
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If you’re looking for specific recommendations in Old Town, check out my Old Town guide! Booking.com, Hotels.com, and Vrbo are our go-to accommodations sites.
Seeking even more wallet-friendly accommodations? Try Hostelworld. Their picks are heavily vetted and reviewed to offer you a safe experience on a budget.
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