12 things to do in San Diego: Part I

San Diaaago, Ron Burgandy’s place of work and considered to be the sunniest place in America – okay I made that last one up, but still it’s a pretty remarkable place…and very sunny.


I spent 5 years in San Diego, going to school, working at internships and a myriad of jobs to stay afloat during my time at university.

However, when I came back this year I did something I’d never done before – I saw it as a tourist.

Geared with a week and a half of time to explore all the many attractions around the county, I came up with this list of how to enjoy San Diego – whether you have a few days or a couple of weeks.

Tip # 1 The Compass Card

The Compass Card is the transit card for the San Diego region. It allows you to use an unlimited amount of trips on trollies, trains and buses.

You can buy them at a variety of places, including the ticket kiosks at the trolley and train stations. You don’t load a certain amount of money on the card like a lot of other passes I’ve used, instead you buy it depending how many days you need it. You can buy it for 1, 2, 3, 4 days, or even for a month if you’ll be in the area for awhile.


When we had just arrived in San Diego, before we bought our hippie van, we purchased the 3 day card for something around $12, and it was so worth it for getting around a county that is connected by freeways.

Tip # 2 The Go San Diego Card

The Go Card is an attraction card that includes a long list of things to do in San Diego. It’s offered all over the nation in cities such as Los Angeles and Boston as well. It’s good for planning out what you’d like to see, and what there actually is to see in San Diego.

It’s not particularly cheap, but if you plan on having an action packed tourist fueled day, two, or three, it’s well worth it. We chose the two day pass, and I bought it from Groupon on special for $99.

We had an exhausting couple of days, but I was also glad that I had seen that side of San Diego. We ended up saving over $100 for all of the attractions we visited.


The one price that takes you unaware is the parking for a lot of these attractions. Although we still saved a lot of money, we did spend a decent amount of money on parking at attractions like the Safari Park and Legoland.

To get the most out of your Go Card, make sure you are willing to spend whole days sightseeing, and plan out the attractions by location because San Diego can be very spread out at times. Two days was more than enough time to get us tuckered out and not want to do another tourist attraction for a long time.

I would also recommend having a car to get to and from the attractions in a timely manner. Public transport is an inexpensive way to get around the city, but it’s slow in San Diego and the route coverage isn’t phenomenal.

The Go Card isn’t the type of fast sightseeing I normally enjoy doing, but while on a tight budget it was a practical way to see the best attractions on offer in San Diego.


Now for what I consider the best of the best in San Diego, combining both recommendations from when I lived there as a local and when I visited again as a tourist.

1. Spend an afternoon at Balboa Park

I had been to Balboa Park before I saw it again this trip, but I had never spent a whole day there. I would go to one of the many museums sometimes for an extra credit assignment for class, or dance in one of the historic buildings at night for a quarterly formal. I participated in the park’s annual Breast Cancer Walk two years in a row for my sorority.

Walking around the majority of the park in one day; however, makes you realize how many things there are to see and do in beautiful Balboa.


There are 16 museums in the park, some you can even get into for free on certain Tuesdays if you are a resident or in the military.

While we were there we visited the Air & Space Museum, in which you could easily spend a whole day.


There was so much history behind the first aircrafts, the air warfare prevalent in World War II, and the first space landings. As you go further into the museum you find more interactive exhibits, and even flight simulators, for a cost, that allow you to be a World War II pilot.


Even if you don’t want to spend money, the free lobby area of the museum has a ton of information and replicas of a few historical planes.


Besides the museums, Balboa Park holds 16 gardens and boasts a detailed architectural history that is best described as Spanish Colonial Revival.



There are countless caricature artists lining the park boulevards, balloon animals, and fair food such as cotton candy and popcorn.



The Spanish Village Artist Center is a colorful corner of the park that showcases every type of local art imaginable to drool over or purchase. The world famous San Diego Zoo is also housed here, and more often than not you’ll find some cool old cars (Chevy Impalas!) parked around the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.



One of my favorite parts of the park was the random carousel near the zoo, it felt like I was a kid again.

Balboa Park is one of the best ways to spend a day in San Diego, if even to just get lost and explore the options around the area.

2. Go on a microbrewery tour

It’s no secret that San Diego has one of the best microbrewery scenes in the States, there are breweries everywhere you look! You can find a brewery in just about any suburb, so no matter where you’re located you can get a taste for the San Diego beer scene.


We put on our own brewery tour with a combination of walking and using Uber, but if you’re after a more organized tour the Scavengers Beer Adventures are a good place to start.



With over 100 breweries in the greater San Diego county you’re spoiled for choice.



My personal favorites include Ballast Point (give me a Sculpin IPA any day), Green Flash, and Stone, if even just for their classy brewery and rock garden.


During our time in San Diego we also visited Karl Strauss Brewery, which has multiple locations around San Diego, Half Door Brewing, which is a brand new Irish style brewery, and Mission Brewery.




Other recommendations would have to include Coronado, Lost Abbey, Latitude 33, Modern Times and Mother Earth.

We also stopped in at Monkey Paw, near Mission Brewery, but with the abominable service by the bartender on a quiet night we left before ordering a drink.

3. Release your inner kid at Belmont Park

Belmont Park is the subdued version of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, it even includes an old wooden roller coaster like my hometown’s park.

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Even though a small amusement park, Belmont is reminiscent of a summer fair and has a few unique rides with the 11 to choose from.

My favorite and most terrifying rides were comprised of the following:

Giant Dipper Roller Coaster – Built in 1925, a wooden coaster that rivals the Giant Dipper in Santa Cruz, we rode this one twice once the park was all lit up at night.

Beach Blaster – a very tall spinning swing where the chest bar felt considerably more loose at the height of the g-force than when the ride first started.

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Octotron – Another spinning ride, but this time there’s a joystick in the middle of two riders, you fight over who has control of the joystick to decide if you’ll go upside down, frontwards, backwards, or both while spinning in a circle.

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Control Freak – Okay, I don’t know if I would call this one enjoyable but it was an experience. It didn’t help that the seats seemed like they were made for toddlers. Only 4 riders go on at once, in two separate pairs and ends of the ride. The pairs take turns and decide how many times the other pair flips over backwards or frontwards, while the ride is spinning in a vertical loop.

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We had an evil mother and daughter duo that basically just decided to put us on a continual loop forwards than backwards for what seemed like a good 5 minutes. I felt a little sick after that one.

Since we were using our Go Card pass for this attraction, I was also able to do my first ever zip line, and have free reign of the climbing rock wall – which was probably the scariest part of the whole park, unsure if that flimsy rope was actually going to catch me on the way down. It looked like it was just waiting to fail.


4. Grab lunch on the water and see the USS Midway

The USS Midway is in the top 5 coolest museums I’ve visited, and the history behind the vessel and its purpose is just as intriguing.


There are over 60 exhibits on the huge ship and 29 restored aircrafts, including everything from fighter jets to rescue helicopters. The informative free movie near the entrance that goes through the history of the Battle of Midway, the battle for which the ship was named, is worth a watch.


What I loved about the museum was how interactive it was, and how much its history was brought to life because of that.


Touring multiple levels of the carrier, viewing old living quarters and pilots’ ready rooms, and stepping inside World War II fighter jets or a Huey helicopter used in the Vietnam War, it was a thought-provoking experience.




Similar to the Air & Space Museum at Balboa Park, the USS Midway Museum also has flight simulators for an additional cost.

Before heading into the museum, we grabbed lunch at the Fish Market Restaurant where I devoured mouthwatering fish tacos. Looking out over the harbor, with military helicopters flying overhead now and then and a view of the USS Midway, the day was already made before stepping foot inside the museum.



Walking underneath the Unconditional Surrender statue on our way to the museum only made it better.


5. Have a night out in North Park

Although my Pacific Beach nights out are mostly over now, North Park is the place for those young professional or artistic types that still enjoy going out – but with less 21 year olds.

North Park, considered to be on the hipster side of life also has a fun and quirky side that I can’t help but love. If I ever move back to San Diego, I’ve always been convinced I would move there.

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I saw one of my favorite concerts ever in North Park (The Tallest Man on Earth) at the wonderfully old Birch North Park Theatre, and the bars offer a little bit of everything for whatever style of nightlife you’re going for.

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My personal favorite in the North Park bar scene is Seven Grand, a whiskey bar that hosts live music, has black and white movies playing on a loop, and bartenders that look like they just stepped out of the 1920s. Dare I say, Seven Grand is where I first started enjoying bourbon and where I tried my first ever whiskey sour.

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They have a full wall of whiskey – taking up 15 pages on their drinks menu, and the top shelf they reach by a rolling ladder.

A close runner up, if even just to go see all the hipsters simultaneously drinking their Pabst Blue Ribbons, is Bar Pink. They also host heaps of live music and DJs, and the times I’ve been there, they’ve created a playful R&B/Hip Hop vibe.

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As to be expected, there is a lot of pink around the bar and tipsy elephants in martini glasses keeping it classy.

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A new bar I discovered in North Park this time around is The Office. Half bar, half club as are many San Diego establishments, The Office gives off the feel of a smoky cocktail lounge that’s lively with a bit of an older crowd. The decent beer list was just an added bonus.

While we were there on a Friday night, big band style street performers drew big crowds outside the bars. An idea of what kind of atmosphere North Park creates on the weekend, a place that’s trendy yet feel-good, a fun night out without the constant over intoxication found in Pacific Beach.

6. Spend every day at a different beach

What can I say about the beaches in San Diego, besides the fact that they rival any I found in Australia or Southeast Asia – although the Eastern Beaches of Sydney are hard to beat.

There are over 50 beaches in San Diego county and all offer a different impression depending on what suburb you find yourself in.

I spent a lot of time in North County for school, specifically La Jolla area, which is known for its manicured beaches. I used to “study” at La Jolla Shores on the weekends or watch the paragliders from the cliffs at Black’s Beach to take a break off campus.

Black's Beach La Jolla
Black’s Beach Cliffs, La Jolla

Ocean Beach is a great place to watch the sunset from the pier and meet all of the old hippies and stoners walking around. It’s also a popular place for surfers and skaters alike.

Ocean Beach
Ocean Beach

Coronado and Solana beaches are openly stunning, Mission Beach has the Belmont Amusement Park touching the sand, Del Mar’s Dog Beach is a great place to take the pooch, and Torrey Pines State Reserve has one of the best hikes in view of the sunny coastline and golden cliffs.

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Coronado Beach photo cred
Torrey Pines State Reserve
Torrey Pines State Reserve

The options are limitless, it would be a shame not to visit one of these beaches while you’re in San Diego.

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This post was way too long to fit into one piece. To read the second half of my recommendations for what to do in San Diego check back in a few days for part II!

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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
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  1. WOW, great article as well as images. For part 2 you can add some of California Mission near San Diego and Oceanside too. Thanks!

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