From exploring unique neighborhoods to finding the best beaches and tacos, these are the best things to do in San Diego, CA at least once.
San Diaaago! “America’s Finest City,” Ron Burgandy’s place of work, and one of the sunniest places in California.
There’s a lot to love about this city. And one of the reasons why it’s such a popular place to visit is because there’s so much to see and do in San Diego. It would be hard to find yourself at a loss for new things to experience no matter how many times you visit.
I spent five years living in San Diego, going to school and working at internships and a myriad of jobs to stay afloat during my time in college.
Over that period, I grew to love San Diego in all of its perfect weather, beaches, tequila, and delicious Mexican food glory.
San Diego will always have a soft spot for me, so I wanted to write this San Diego bucket list so you can enjoy my favorite local spots and things to do around the city too.
From the most popular San Diego attractions to unique local experiences, the best tacos, and where to indulge in the microbrewery scene, these are my top things to do in San Diego, California!
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Top Things to See & Do in San Diego
If you only have one day in San Diego, these are the first attractions I’d recommend checking out.
Explore Balboa Park
The top attraction in San Diego.
Walking around Balboa Park in one day makes you realize how many things there are to see and do in this beautiful area of San Diego.
There are 16 museums in the park, some you can even get into for free on certain Tuesdays if you are a San Diego resident or in the military.
Besides the museums, Balboa Park also houses 16 gardens and beautiful historical architecture that is best described as Spanish Colonial Revival.
There are caricature artists that line the park boulevards, balloon animals, and fair foods 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.
The world-famous San Diego Zoo is also housed here (which should definitely be on your San Diego to-do list), 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 is the random carousel near the zoo, which lets you feel like a kid again.
There are so many things to do in Balboa Park that it’s one of the best ways to spend a day in San Diego if you’re trying to see the most in a short amount of time.
I’d recommend spending at least an afternoon here, checking out a few of the different attractions and discovering why it’s the most popular place to visit in San Diego.
Pro tip: every Tuesday the park offers Balboa Park Free Tuesdays. This is where different museums in the park offer free admission for San Diego residents and active military personnel and their dependents. You can find the list of rotating Balboa Park free museums here.
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Go on a Microbrewery Tour
It’s no secret that San Diego has one of the best microbrewery scenes in the US. 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.
I usually do a self-guided brewery tour with a combination of walking and using Uber while I’m in town, but if you’re after a more organized tour this San Diego Microbrewery Tour is a good place to start.
This is one of the best things to do around San Diego, especially if you’re a fan of good beer. And with over 100 breweries in greater San Diego county, you’re spoiled for choice.
My personal favorite breweries to visit include Ballast Point (give me a Sculpin IPA any day), Green Flash, and Stone for their classy brewery and rock garden.
Other recommendations would have to include Coronado, Lost Abbey, Latitude 33, Modern Times, Mother Earth, Half Door Brewing, and Mission Brewery.
Release Your Inner Kid at Belmont Park
A Mission Beach amusement park, Belmont Park is reminiscent of a summer fair with a fun atmosphere and unique rides that are good for a variety of ages.
My favorite ride at Belmont Park would probably have to be the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster. Built in 1925, this wooden coaster rivals the Giant Dipper in Santa Cruz.
Other favorite rides include the Beach Blaster (a very tall spinning swing) and the Octotron (another spinning ride but one you can control with a joystick).
And if you have a Go Card pass you can also experience the zip line and have free use of the rock climbing wall.
Pro tip: this is one of the best things to do in the city at night if you’re under 21 (for all you younger college kids or parents traveling with teens).
Grab Lunch on the Water and See the USS Midway
The USS Midway is in the top five 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 aircraft, including everything from fighter jets to rescue helicopters. The informative free movie near the entrance goes through the history of the Battle of Midway, which is where the ship got its name.
What I love about the museum is how interactive it is and how much its history is brought to life because of that.
You can tour multiple levels of the carrier, view old living quarters and pilots’ ready rooms, and even step inside World War II fighter jets. And, similar to the Air & Space Museum at Balboa Park, the USS Midway Museum also has flight simulators for an additional cost.
Before or after seeing the museum, I’d recommend grabbing lunch at the Fish Market Restaurant for mouthwatering fish tacos. Looking out over the harbor with a view of the USS Midway, it’s the perfect way to take in the beauty of San Diego as well as its military history.
Before you leave the area, don’t miss walking underneath the Unconditional Surrender statue near the museum for that perfect photo op.
Spend a Day and Night out in North Park
Although my Pacific Beach nights out are mostly over now since I’m not 22 anymore, North Park is the place for young professionals or artistic types that still enjoy going out, but with slightly fewer college-aged kids.
North Park is thought of as the hipster neighborhood of San Diego and it has a fun and quirky side that is easy to fall in love with. If I ever move back to San Diego, I’m convinced I would move here.
I saw one of my favorite concerts ever in North Park (The Tallest Man on Earth) at the wonderful old Birch North Park Theatre, and the bars offer a little bit of everything for whatever style of nightlife you’re going for.
It’s a good neighborhood to check out if you’re spending the weekend in San Diego and you want to explore some of the best San Diego nightlife.
One of my favorite bars in North Park is Seven Grand, a whiskey bar that hosts live music and has black and white movies playing on a loop. Oh, and the bartenders look like they just stepped out of the 1920s.
Seven Grand has a full wall of whiskey, taking up 15 pages on their drink menu, with the top shelf reached by a rolling ladder.
A close runner up, if you want more of a dive bar atmosphere where you can watch hipsters simultaneously drink Pabst Blue Ribbon, is Bar Pink.
Bar Pink hosts a lot of live music and DJs that usually play R&B and Hip Hop. As to be expected, there is a lot of pink around the bar and tipsy elephants in martini glasses keeping it classy.
Another bar to check out in the area 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. Their decent beer list is an added bonus.
North Park is one of those places to go out in San Diego that is trendy yet feel-good.
The neighborhood offers a fun night out without the constant over intoxication found in Pacific Beach.
And if you’re not as interested in the nightlife, there are plenty of things to do in North Park that don’t involve drinking, such as checking out the many trendy cafes and restaurants and boutique shops during the day.
Walk Along the Embarcadero
One of the aspects I love about San Diego is that you’re never too far from the water, no matter which neighborhood you’re in.
The Embarcadero is probably one of the most well-known seaside areas in San Diego and home to many popular waterfront attractions, including one of the best museums in San Diego – the USS Midway Museum.
Located right next to downtown San Diego, this is the cruise ship hub of the city, so you can expect it to be touristy.
However, it’s also a beautiful spot to walk around during the day or at night for a good dose of San Diego vibes.
The Embarcadero is also where you’ll find Seaport Village, full of souvenir shops, good views, and The Headquarters, which is an old police command post now full of trendy restaurants.
Spend an Afternoon on Coronado Island
That island you always see across the bay from downtown San Diego, Coronado Island has been a popular staycation destination and tourist attraction in San Diego for decades.
What used to be an old ferry landing has become a sunny playground for immaculate beaches, palm-lined walks, and open-air San Diego fun. Plus, you get a great view of the San Diego skyline from the island.
On the island, you can go shopping in one of the local specialty shops or art galleries, devour fresh seafood from one of the many restaurants, lay on the beach, or rent a kayak to explore the bay from the water.
There’s plenty to keep you busy around the island for a full afternoon, whether you’re traveling with a family, as a couple, or by yourself.
Coronado Island is also where one of the most famous San Diego hotels is located – Hotel del Coronado – if you’re looking to stay on the island (or simply want to tour the property).
Find Your Wild Side at the San Diego Zoo & Safari Park
If you love animals, San Diego is the place to see a wide variety. At 100 acres, the huge San Diego Zoo is seen by many as the best in America and it’s ranked as one of the top zoos in the world.
It’s not surprising when you look at the figures. There are over 650 species and more than 3,700 different animals to be found at the zoo, so there’s plenty to see.
My favorite exhibits include the panda bear family (be prepared to wait in line to see them) and the Polar Bear Plunge.
The Polar Bear Plunge allows you to see these amazing creatures in their natural habitat, swimming playfully in the water or hamming it up on the ice.
I had never seen a polar bear swim underwater before visiting the San Diego Zoo, and it was magical.
The San Diego Zoo is located in Balboa Park and open 365 days a year. Just note that the hours vary depending on the season. You can grab your San Diego Zoo tickets ahead of time here.
The sister San Diego Safari Park is similar to the zoo, but on a smaller scale and on the opposite side of the county up in Escondido.
I made a visit to the Safari Park on my last San Diego trip because it was included in my Go Card, but if you had to choose between the two I would spend my time at the zoo.
The reason I find the zoo more enticing is because it offers a greater variety of animals to see and interact with.
With that said, the Safari Park offers a completely different animal experience with its many safaris. I also like the fact that the enclosures are much larger for a more comfortable living arrangement and daily roaming for the animals.
At the Safari Park, I hopped on the Africa Tram, which is included with the admission price. The downsides to this park though are the wait times to do a safari and the fact that the animals are far away on the standard tour.
All of the other safari options are an additional cost to the admission price, but if you are willing to splurge they would be well worth it compared to the Africa Tram. For instance, I saw other visitors feeding giraffes on their Caravan Safari, but if you want that experience it’s going to cost you upwards of $100.
If you’re willing to shell out the extra bucks for these amazing experiences, the Safari Park offers a little something extra and can be a fun thing to do in Escondido. But if you just want to pay the one-time admission price, the San Diego Zoo is a better value.
Of course, both attractions are a great day out and worth seeing if you have the time and money to see both.
Drive Up the Coast Highway
San Diego is blessed with miles and miles of stunning coastline. And my favorite way to see the beauty of the North County beaches is along the Coast Highway, also known as Hwy 101.
Starting around Torrey Pines Reserve, the Coast Highway goes through some lovely San Diego scenery and suburbs, including Del Mar, Solana Beach, Leucadia, Carlsbad, and Oceanside.
One of my favorite parts of the highway is a little further outside of San Diego, just past San Clemente.
Along the way, make sure to stop in at the local staple, Pizza Port, for its delicious pizza and beer. There’s a reason why it’s so popular with locals, the fare is mouthwatering and the vibe is very much surfer.
When you get to Encinitas, Pannikin Coffee & Tea is one of my favorite coffee shops in San Diego, located in a cute cottage complete with a white picket fence and outside seating.
Another stopover, just off the highway is the Flower Fields in Carlsbad, where you can frolic in 50 acres of every color of Giant Tecolote Ranunculus flowers in the right season.
In general, I would recommend taking your time and stopping as much as possible in each little suburb as you go up the coast since they all of a unique personality, as well plenty of sighs, beaches, and foodie spots.
If you don’t have a car or you don’t want to worry about driving, another good option for seeing this beautiful part of the coast is by taking the Amtrak Coaster train.
I’ve taken it multiple times to visit my sister in Los Angeles and it’s still the most beautiful train ride I’ve been on.
Have at Least One Taco Tuesday in Pacific Beach
Taco Tuesdays in Pacific Beach are one of the best things to do at night in San Diego if you want to experience the local college nightlife.
You can expect cheap shots of tequila, Mexican food, sombreros here and there, and strong margaritas that are bigger than your head.
During the winter months it quiets down a bit, especially when the universities are out. But if you happen to stumble upon a Taco Tuesday in the fall or spring, get ready to party.
It’s a whole lot of fun when you’re a student in San Diego, especially for those newly 21-year-olds, because everything is cheap and there’s a lot of craziness, dancing, and shots.
The nice thing about going out in Pacific Beach is that it’s easy to do a bar crawl. Most of the bars line Garnet Street side by side, or are close by off the side streets.
Every Tuesday, Garnet Street virtually turns into a party block, where you meet a random assortment of people on your walk to the next bar.
For the slightly older crowd, Pacific Beach AleHouse and Tavern at the Beach are a bit more laidback than the usual bars turned clubs. If you’re looking for more of a Mexican vibe go to Cabo Cantina which is overflowing on Taco Tuesdays.
If you’re looking for a good place to dance, Moonshine Beach is probably the best option. Or, if you want to avoid the Coronas and have some nice beer, Bub’s at the Beach is one of my favorites in Pacific Beach.
One thing to note is if you’re after a nice dinner of cheap tacos before going out on the town, I would suggest getting to PB as early as possible since places fill up quickly during the busy months.
My recommendations for tacos in the neighborhood would include Cabo Cantina, World Famous, and the taqueria stands that always seem to pop up on the streets outside the bars on Tuesdays.
Discover Old Town San Diego
Old Town San Diego, also known as the birthplace of California, is where you’ll find a bustling Hispanic community. It’s also where the indigenous Kumeyaay people lived 9,000 years ago before the Spaniards arrived.
There are a lot of fun things to do in Old Town San Diego. You’ll find local artisan shops, a lot of Mexican restaurants, and some very cool historic buildings.
If you’re a history buff, this is a good historic neighborhood to explore in San Diego, especially compared to the rest of the city which leans more into its modernness. You can find the full list of historic sites in Old Town here.
Walk Around the Gaslamp Quarter
Whether you’re after some of the best shopping in San Diego, bar hopping, classy restaurants, architecture, or simply people watching, the Gaslamp Quarter is the heart of San Diego.
If you’re wondering what to do in downtown San Diego, this is where you should start.
I would recommend exploring Gaslamp during the day and also at night to see the difference, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when it really comes alive with nightlife.
The Gaslamp Quarter’s beginnings go back to 1850 when William Heath Davis began developing land in the hopes of creating a town on the San Diego waterfront. You can still visit his house in the Gaslamp as it has been turned into a museum.
There are plenty of things to do in Gaslamp to keep you busy for the day, including checking out the historical architecture around the neighborhood, bar hopping, eating at some of the trendiest restaurants in San Diego, and perusing art galleries. Take your pick!
Other Popular Attractions in San Diego
Relax at the Japanese Friendship Garden
Located in Balboa Park, the Japanese Friendship Garden is a relaxing spot to spend an afternoon in San Diego.
The garden was built to represent the friendship between San Diego and its sister city in Japan, Yokohama, and provides a unique and chilled out experience for visitors.
Besides its zen atmosphere and impressive garden and architecture designs, the Japanese Friendship Garden hosts regular events throughout the year, such as yoga classes, meditation sessions, and the San Diego Sake Day.
If you’re looking for a break from the city without leaving the city, this is a good place to visit in San Diego.
Take in the Views From the Point Loma Peninsula
San Diego has so many good views that it’s sometimes hard to keep track or prioritize which ones to see first.
One of the best views in San Diego that shouldn’t be missed is from Point Loma Peninsula and the Cabrillo National Monument.
Start at the southern tip of the peninsula to visit Cabrillo National Monument, where Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo landed at San Diego Bay in 1542.
As you spend the day exploring the many things to do around Point Loma Peninsula, you’ll find hiking trails, tide pools, and learn more about California history.
Before you leave, make sure to head to Sunset Cliffs Natural Park to watch the sun go down with the locals.
Go on a Harbor or Whale Watching Cruise
It’s hard to visit San Diego and not partake in at least one harbor or whale watching tour, because these cruises highlight the best part of San Diego – its stunning proximity to the water.
If you’re visiting San Diego in mid-December through April, I’d recommend hopping on a whale watching cruise because this is when grey whales migrate near the city.
The spring is when you’re more likely to see female whales with their calves, if you want to try and see the cute babies. You can grab tickets to an environmentally-friendly whale watching cruise here.
If you’re visiting San Diego from May to early December, I’d recommend going on one of the popular harbor cruises to take in the city from the water. You can grab tickets here for a popular inexpensive harbor cruise that lasts for an hour or two.
See a Show at the Old Globe Theatre
Another attraction located in Balboa Park, the Old Globe Theatre houses a popular theater company in San Diego that produces around 15 musicals and plays every year, providing some solid San Diego entertainment year-round.
The theatre was built in 1935 and modeled after Shakespeare’s Old Globe Theatre in London.
If you’re visiting San Diego in December, don’t miss out on their annual production of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
In case you didn’t know, Theodor Seuss Geisel (more commonly known as Dr. Seuss) lived in San Diego for four decades and throughout the height of his writing career.
To give you an idea of how much San Diego loves Dr. Seuss, the library at my alma mater, UC San Diego, is named Geisel and features Dr. Seuss statues. I mean, who doesn’t love Dr. Seuss?
Tour the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala
Founded in 1769 by Spanish friar Junípero Serra, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala was the first Franciscan mission in California and still operates as a working Catholic church today.
The Mission is a beautiful historic building to explore, regardless if you’re religious or not. Guided tours happen Monday through Friday at 9 am, 11 am, and 1 pm and you can request a tour ahead of time here.
Best Free Things to do in San Diego
Enjoy a Different Beach Every Day
One of the best free things to do in Southern California – go to the beach!
There are over 50 beaches in San Diego County and all offer a different experience depending on the neighborhood you find yourself in.
I spent a lot of time exploring the North County beaches in San Diego when I was going to school, specifically in the La Jolla area, which is known for its many manicured beaches. A few favorites near campus include La Jolla Shores, Black’s Beach, and Torrey Pines State Reserve.
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.
Coronado and Solana Beaches are stunning. Mission Beach has the Belmont Amusement Park touching the sand and a scenic boardwalk to walk along. And Del Mar’s Dog Beach is an ideal place to take the pooch.
The options are limitless, it would be a shame to not visit one of these beaches while you’re in San Diego.
Plus, there are plenty of water activities to do at most beaches if you don’t just want to sunbathe, such as paddle boarding, kayaking, surfing, and snorkeling.
Hike One of the Many San Diego Hiking Trails
Although completely opposite to the climate I grew up with in Northern California with its lush redwood forests, desert-like San Diego is where I really started to get into hiking for the first time.
San Diego is a whole different style of hiking: dusty, hot, and wide expanses of multicolored earth tones for miles and miles, but I grew to love the many hikes I took around the county.
The following are some of my favorite hikes in and near San Diego:
- Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma (Bayside Trail) – 2.8 miles, 400 ft elevation gain
- Mount Woodson (aka Potato Chip Rock) – 6.4 miles, 2,000 ft elevation gain
- Torrey Pines State Reserve hikes – Varies but most trails at the park are under 2 miles. Read my full guide to Torrey Pines here
- Cowles Mountain – 3 miles, 950 elevation gain
- Three Sisters Falls – 4 miles, 1,000 ft elevation gain. The trail is only accessible from November to June, bring proper hiking boots and gloves for climbing the ropes.
See the 80+ Murals at Chicano Park
The colorful Chicano Park is located in Logan Heights, the oldest Mexican-American neighborhood in San Diego.
This is where you’ll find tons of incredible murals located under the San Diego-Coronado Bridge. In fact, Chicano Park features the largest concentration of Chicano murals in the world.
In Chicano Park, there are seven acres worth of murals and sculpture gardens, as well as galleries and brewpubs now (because of gentrification).
It’s also important to note that Chicano Park was valiantly fought for by the local community after the city of San Diego took away much of the surrounding land for Navy use and freeways from the 1940s through the 70s.
It’s a special place to visit in San Diego to honor the Chicano community and appreciate the history found at the park and the greater Logan Heights neighborhood.
Watch the Sunrise from Mount Soledad Lookout
One of my favorite free things to do in the city is to watch the sunrise from the Mount Soledad Lookout.
Considered by some to be the best San Diego viewpoint, Mount Soledad looks out over La Jolla and honors American veterans and fallen soldiers.
The road to get there can be hard to find in the winding hills of La Jolla, but once you see the view it’s more than worth it. It can also be beautiful to go up there at night to witness the twinkling lights of La Jolla and hear the ocean down below.
Listen to an Organ Performance at Spreckels Pavilion
One of the more unique things to do in the San Diego area that is completely free is going to see an organ performance at Spreckels Organ Pavilion.
Spreckels Pavilion is also located at Balboa Park (I’m sure you’ve noticed that about half of this list is!) and hosts free organ concerts every single Sunday at 2 pm.
One cool fact is that this organ has been playing in this location for over 100 years, since 1915 when the Panama-California Exposition came through San Diego. It’s also the largest outdoor musical instrument in the world with 5,019 pipes.
During the San Diego summer, there are additional Monday evening concerts and silent movie nights accompanied by the live organ.
Drive the 59-Mile San Diego Scenic Drive
One of the more under the radar free activities in San Diego is driving the San Diego Scenic Drive.
As I’ve mentioned before, San Diego is known for its breathtaking views.
This scenic drive is basically the highlight reel of some of the most beautiful parts of the San Diego Coast, and should not be missed if you’re serious about sightseeing around San Diego.
It’s one of the best things to see in San Diego if you truly want to grasp just out beautiful the city can be.
You should give yourself at least three hours to do the full drive, but probably more if you’re like me and like to jump out and take a lot of pictures along the way.
The drive takes you from the Embarcadero to Harbor Island, Point Loma, Cabrillo National Monument, Ocean Beach, Mission Bay, Mount Soledad, UCSD, Birch Aquarium, La Jolla Cove, Pacific Beach, Mission Beach, Old Town, Presidio Park, Hillcrest, Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo, and back to Seaport Village in the Embarcadero.
If this sounds like too much to fit into one day, break it up into different days to see some of the most beautiful spots in San Diego.
To find the drive, look for the blue and yellow signs with a white seagull that are markers along the drive every quarter mile.
Stroll Along the Mission Beach Boardwalk
A fun free thing to do in San Diego and one of the best things to do in Mission Beach.
The Mission Beach Boardwalk brings all of the best parts of San Diego together in one place – sunshine, a beautiful beach, active locals, and those endless summer vibes.
I actually only recently discovered the Mission Beach Boardwalk on my last trip to San Diego, but I quickly fell in love with the local atmosphere.
You can walk or run the boardwalk to get the full view of Mission Beach or rent cruiser bikes to feel like a true Californian.
Walk or ride all the way down to Belmont Park and hop on the Giant Dipper Rollercoaster once you get your exercise in for the day.
Cheer on the Cyclists at San Diego Velodrome
Another Balboa Park attraction, the San Diego Velodrome is a renowned training and racing destination for cyclists.
There are some super talented cyclists that come here to race, so it’s an impressive sight to be able to see them do their thing on the track.
Although you can stop by the Velodrome to watch the cyclists at any point of the year, April through September is racing season at the Velodrome and every Tuesday you can see a race for free.
And if you don’t want to just be a spectator, the Velodrome offers track cycling lessons every Monday and Wednesday evening from 7 pm to 9 pm.
Bike the Silver Strand Bikeway
If you’re looking for free stuff to do in San Diego and you’re into biking, but don’t want to race around the track at the Velodrome, the Silver Strand Bikeway is a gorgeous ride through 12 miles of sunshine along the coast.
It’s also perfectly accessible for beginner riders and casual cyclists, unlike the Velodrome.
The Bikeway takes you all the way from Coronado Island to the southern tip of the San Diego Bay, providing great views and an ocean breeze along the way.
The trail is relatively flat and very well maintained, so it’s perfect for riders of all skill levels. There are some people that even ride the path on a cruiser bike, so no crazy gears are necessary.
Mid-way through your ride, make sure to take a dip at Silver Strand Beach to cool off and break up the bike ride on a hot day.
Local Things to do Around San Diego
Have a Date Night at Rooftop Cinema Club
I absolutely love rooftop cinemas!
I went to quite a few when I was living in Europe, so I was excited to find out that San Diego has started doing them too through the Rooftop Cinema Club.
They play everything from cult classics to recent movies, and you’ll get your personal set of headphones, city views, cozy blankets, and a selection of food and drinks to enjoy while watching the film.
The Rooftop Cinema Club actually has a few locations around the US now (and one in London), including LA, Houston, and New York, and their popularity only continues to grow.
I can’t think of a better city than San Diego to have a rooftop cinema because the weather is gorgeous year-round. Plus, it’s a fun romantic thing to do in the city if you’re looking for a good date night idea.
You can find out what’s currently playing in San Diego here.
Spend Your Saturday Morning at the ‘Mercato’ Street Market
There are a lot of farmers’ markets to take advantage of in San Diego and the Saturday ‘Mercato’ Street Market in Little Italy is one of the best. It’s one of the largest markets in the city and happens from 8 am to 2 pm every Saturday, rain or shine.
It’s also one of the best things to do in Little Italy to get a feel for the communal nature of this neighborhood.
At the market, you’ll find over 200 tents full of local produce, crafts, and food stalls. There’s also live music. It’s a good Saturday event to attend in San Diego, even if you don’t plan on buying anything.
Go to a Padres Game at Petco Park
I always recommend seeing at least one baseball game in the city you’re visiting if it’s the right season because every stadium has a unique atmosphere.
Baseball might not be the most exciting game for a lot of people, especially if you didn’t grow up watching or playing the sport, but it’s a completely different experience when it’s live and you’re at the park.
Now, the Padres don’t have quite the same die-hard fan base that the LA Dodgers or San Francisco Giants have, but Petco Park is a beautiful modern stadium to watch a game from, right near the ocean and downtown.
If you have some extra time in San Diego and you happen to be there during baseball season (if you’re in San Diego in March/early April to late September/early October), don’t miss out on a game at Petco Park.
Enjoy the Ocean Beach Farmers Market
Another popular farmers market in San Diego, the Ocean Beach Farmers Market is not as bustling as the Little Italy one but it is more local.
This market happens every Wednesday from 4-8 pm and features the same kind of vibe as the one in Little Italy but on a smaller scale.
It’s also a bit more hippie in nature than the one in Little Italy, which, if you know anything about Ocean Beach, goes well with the overall atmosphere of the neighborhood.
Have your pick of fresh produce, local art, and enjoy live music. Once you’re done perusing the market, you can walk over to Ocean Beach and take in the sunset near the pier.
Experience Humphreys Concerts by the Bay
Located on Shelter Island on the Point Loma Peninsula, Humphreys Concerts by the Bay is a beloved local outdoor music venue that has been hosting popular music and comedy acts since 1982.
Concerts run from May through October and feature anything from rock to jazz, folk, blues, international music, and even comedy shows.
Seeing a show at this beautiful outdoor venue is a popular thing to do in San Diego for couples and a great date night idea in the city. You can find a full list of their upcoming shows here.
Watch a Movie at South Bay Drive-In Theatre
If you’re looking for another good date night idea in San Diego, look no further than the drive-in.
Drive-ins are not common around the US anymore, most have gone out of business (although they’ve started making a comeback again since 2020). Because of this, I’m always excited when I find a drive-in that’s still in business and still a popular local thing to do.
Head to the South Bay Drive-In any day of the week for a double feature that you can watch from the comfort of your car.
They usually play newer movies and it’s also one of the best cheap things to do in the city. Ticket prices are only $9 for adults and kids 5-9 years old are only $1. Talk about a steal!
Swim with Leopard Sharks in La Jolla
Wondering what to do in La Jolla that’s a bit more adventurous? Every year, thousands of leopard sharks come through La Jolla to mate and lay eggs, sometimes staying for up to six months.
If you want to see this magical experience up close, you can snorkel alongside the sharks when they’re in town, usually from early June to the end of September/October. You typically find the highest concentration of them at the end of August and through September.
In case you’re worried, leopard sharks have a ferocious name but they are completely harmless. You can either rent a snorkel from one of the many shops in La Jolla and go with a friend, or go on a guided tour with a local company.
You can find the sharks along most of the La Jolla coastline, but usually, La Jolla Cove is the best for leopard shark spotting.
This is what you can expect from the experience:
Take in the Views from Cuyamaca Peak
As the second-highest peak in San Diego at 6,512 feet, Cuyamaca Peak features fantastic views that stretch for 100 miles on a clear day, all the way to Coronado Island and Mexico.
This is a popular local place to visit and worth the time if you’re looking for outdoorsy things to do near San Diego.
The trail to the viewpoint climbs over 1,000 feet so be prepared for a decent amount of uphill work, but it’s fine for beginner hikers who are in relatively good shape.
To get to the peak, go to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and take the Stonewall Peak Hike. The Stonewall Peak trail is 5.4 miles, takes around 2.5 hours to complete, and it’s one of the easier trails to get up to the top.
Also, don’t forget to check the weather before you tackle the hike. The peak gets 3x more rain than any other place in San Diego and can either be very hot in the summer or very cold in the winter. Pack appropriately.
Snorkel at San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park
Did you know that San Diego has its own underwater park? It just shows you how dedicated the city is to local marine life and how interconnected its ties are to the ocean.
If you’re a water person at all, the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park is a sight to see and one of the best water activities in San Diego.
The park covers 6,000 acres of ocean and tidelands and is home to four distinct marine habitats.
This is a popular spot for scuba diving in San Diego as well if you’re certified.
See a Show at the La Jolla Playhouse
Located on the UCSD campus and showcasing talented acts throughout the year, the La Jolla Playhouse is a non-profit theater that is worth seeing a show at if you’re in northern San Diego county.
Some of the more unique events they offer at the Playhouse are their audience engagement events, such as Talkback Tuesdays and Discovery Sunday where you get to interact with the actors on stage after the performance.
This is a staple in the San Diego theater scene and a fun local event to experience while you’re in town.
Go Paragliding at the Gliderport in La Jolla
Paragliding at the Gliderport is one of the most popular things to do in La Jolla for the more adventurous traveler.
When I was in college, my friends and I would always comment on how we’d one day go paragliding off those cliffs next to campus. Sadly, it didn’t happen back then (one day!).
However, it’s still an activity in San Diego that I would wholeheartedly recommend and one that I hope to do myself someday.
Torrey Pines Gliderport is located near the UC San Diego campus and allows you to glide out over the cliffs and beautiful Black’s Beach below, choosing your preference for hang gliding or paragliding.
It costs $175 to paraglide for 20-25 minutes and you have to call the day of to book because it all depends on wind conditions.
Best Beaches in San Diego
If you’re wondering what to do in San Diego, the beach is a good place to start. There are tons of great beaches along the California coastline, but San Diego has some of my favorites to choose from.
What better way to explore San Diego than by the beach? These are the San Diego beaches you shouldn’t miss.
- Windansea Beach
- Torrey Pines State Beach
- Ocean Beach
- La Jolla Cove + Children’s Pool Beach
- La Jolla Shores
- Pacific Beach
- Coronado Beach
Outdoor Activities & Hikes
If you’re looking for outdoor activities and hikes in San Diego, these are some of the best parks and hiking trails within San Diego county.
- Mission Trails Regional Park
- Presidio Park
- Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
- San Diego Bay Wildlife Refuge (bring binoculars to go bird watching)
- Mission Bay Park
- Mount Laguna
- Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
- Waterfront Park (if you’re visiting San Diego with kids)
Best Museums in San Diego
The best thing to do in town when it rains (or not) is to check out the many world-renowned museums around the city. These are the ones I’d recommend visiting at least once.
- San Diego Museum of Man
- The San Diego Museum of Art
- San Diego Natural History Museum (buy tickets here)
- Maritime Museum of San Diego (buy tickets here)
- Whaley House Museum
- San Diego Air & Space Museum
- USS Midway Museum
- Fleet Science Center (a good one to visit if you’re looking for things to do with kids in San Diego)
- Birch Aquarium (buy tickets here)
Food & Coffee
Coffee & Tea
- Pannikin Coffee & Tea (also one of the best places to study in San Diego if you go to UCSD)
- Bird Rock Coffee Roasters
- Communal Coffee
- Brockton Villa
- The Mission Cafe
- Snooze an A.M. Eatery (Hillcrest)
- Phil’s BBQ
- Pizza Port
- Meze Greek Fusion
- Water Grill
- Din Tai Fung
- Cucina Urbana
- Extraordinary Desserts
- Bobboi Natural Gelato
Best Taquerias in San Diego
- Las Cuatro Milpas
- Lolita’s Mexican Food
- Oscars Mexican Seafood
- Vallarta Express Mexican Eatery or Rigoberto’s Taco Shop
- Lucha Libre Taco Shop (Not the best on this list, but it has the most character)
Nightlife & Live Music Venues
There are plenty of things to do at night in San Diego, but checking out the nightlife scene is a good place to start, especially in Gaslamp, North Beach, and Pacific Beach. Grab a nice pair of shoes and a fun outfit to hit these favorite spots in the city.
- The Tipsy Crow
- Noble Experiment
- False Idol
- Belly Up Tavern
- The Casbah
Best San Diego Tours
Short Day Trips from San Diego
Looking for a unique San Diego day trip? These are some of the best day trips from San Diego if you have more time in the city.
- The Flower Fields in Carlsbad (45 minutes) – read my tips for visiting the Flower Fields here
- Tijuana, Mexico (45 minutes – although border crossings may be much longer)
- Julian (1.25 hours) – read more about what to do in Julian here
- Temecula (1.25 hours) – I’d recommend hopping on this tour from San Diego if you want to do wine tasting but don’t want to drive yourself
- Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (2 hours)
- Los Angeles (2.5 hours) – read my detailed guide to LA here
- Joshua Tree National Park (3 hours) – or if you want to make it a weekend trip, read my recommendations for where to stay near Joshua Tree
- San Diego County Fair (June)
- San Diego Comic-Con (July – the most popular July event in San Diego)
- San Diego International Film Festival (October)
- Dixieland Jazz Festival (November)
- BONUS: Wonderfront Festival (November)
What to Pack for San Diego
- Light jacket
- Flip Flops
- Bathing Suit
- Good walking shoes (I’m especially a fan of Allbirds)
- Nice pair of shoes (for going out at night)
- Beach bag
- Waterproof camera
- Reusable water bottle
- Portable charger
- Travel insurance for San Diego
Best Time to Visit San Diego
There’s really no bad time to visit San Diego. It’s one of the few cities I’ve lived in where it’s beautiful year-round. You could really say that any month is the best time to go to San Diego.
I mean, I’ve found some of the best beach weather in the middle of “winter” in San Diego.
With that said, overcast weather does roll in and cover those sunny skies every now and then, particularly in May and June. Or, as the locals like to say, “May Gray” and “June Gloom.”
I’ve experienced humid thunderstorms in June in San Diego. It’s rare but it happens. And the few times that it rains in San Diego, it’s usually between December and February.
Also, unless you’re going to Comic-Con, I would probably avoid that weekend in July since accommodation is much more expensive and the city is busier in general.
Overall, the best time of year to visit San Diego for temperate weather and sunny days is March through April and September through November.
How to Get from Los Angeles to San Diego
There are two good options to get from Los Angeles to San Diego – driving or taking the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train.
If driving, take I-5 S for the fastest route. The journey takes around 2.5 hours, sometimes more if there’s heavy traffic coming out of LA. You can book your rental car here.
If you’d prefer to not drive and want a scenic way of getting down to San Diego, the Pacific Coastliner train is a great option and one that I used multiple times when I used to live in San Diego.
The good news is that it’s not only scenic, but it takes about the same amount of time as driving (~3 hours) and only costs $35. You can grab Amtrak tickets online here.
You can also take a Greyhound bus (unfortunately, Megabus doesn’t go to San Diego). The journey takes around 2.5-3.5 hours and costs $12. You can purchase a Greyhound ticket online here.
How to Get from San Francisco to San Diego
The easiest way to get from San Francisco to San Diego is by car via I-5 South. The journey takes about 8.5 hours without heavy traffic.
It’s best to give yourself at least 10 hours though with the usual traffic in Los Angeles. You can book your rental car here.
Another way to get down to San Diego from San Francisco if you don’t want to drive is Greyhound. The Greyhound bus trip takes around 12-14 hours and costs $50-70 depending on which day you leave. You can grab tickets for Greyhound here.
The downside with Greyhound is that it’s notorious for breaking down and or having delays all the time, especially for longer journeys, so keep that in mind when planning out your transport.
Flying is usually the best option to get down to San Diego from San Francisco if you don’t want to drive. You can sometimes find flights for as cheap as $50 and flying time is only an hour and 30 minutes. You can find cheap flights to San Diego here.
Note: Another great way to get down to San Diego from San Francisco is to tackle the famous Hwy 1 in California, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway.
If it’s your first time in California and you have the time, I would recommend taking this route to see the best of the California coast. Just note that it’s best to make it a two-day trip if you take Hwy 1 the whole way down since the drive takes at least 11 hours without any stops.
San Diego Travel Tips
If you’re going to San Diego for more than a day, grab a 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.
And you don’t load a certain amount of money on the card like a lot of other city transit passes, instead, you buy how many days you need it for. You can buy a one-, two-, three-, or four-day pass, or even a two week or monthly pass if you’ll be in the area for a while.
They also now offer the Compass Cloud, which is an app that you can download on your phone and reload with fare money as needed.
Transport costs in San Diego are still quite affordable, with a one-day pass only costing $5, a two-day pass $9, a three-day pass $12, and a four-day pass $15. You can learn more about San Diego’s transit system here.
If you’re going to fit in a lot of San Diego sightseeing in a few days, buy the Go San Diego Card – The Go Card is an attraction card that includes a long list of top things to see and 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 few days, it’s well worth it.
I bought the two-day pass last time I was in San Diego and it paid for itself and then some with how many attractions I went to. In total, I saved around $100.
The one price to keep in mind is the parking for a lot of these attractions. Although I still saved a lot of money, I spent 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’re willing to spend whole days sightseeing, and plan out the attractions by location because San Diego can be very spread out.
Two days was more than enough time to get me 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. Getting around San Diego without a car is doable and public transport is an inexpensive way to get around the city, but it can be slow and the route coverage isn’t phenomenal.
The Go Card isn’t the type of fast sightseeing I normally enjoy doing, but since I was on a tight budget during my last trip it was a practical way to see the best attractions on offer in San Diego. You can grab your Go San Diego Card here.
You really can’t go wrong with the Mexican food – Although I listed my favorite taquerias above and locals will sometimes have heated arguments about where to find the best tacos, you really can’t go wrong with the Mexican food in San Diego.
Check out the local taquerias in the neighborhood where you’re based and report back.
The water is probably colder than you expect – The coastal water in San Diego is still much warmer than what you’ll find in Northern California, but it’s not going to be as warm as Hawaii, even if the weather might trick you into believing it might be.
We get some major cold fronts from the Pacific that hug our shores in California, including along the San Diego coastline.
So just prepare yourself for a slightly chillier experience in the ocean, even if the weather is perfect and hot.
Be mindful of the high taxes when budgeting for your trip – The sales tax in San Diego is just under 8% and the hotel tax is 10.5%-12.5%. Make sure to estimate the additional taxes when budgeting for your trip, because they won’t be included in the initial price you see on hotels or daily purchases.
Where to Stay in San Diego
Grab your FREE San Diego Travel Planner! You’ll get instant access to printable checklists to help you plan your trip, plus more restaurant and hotel recommendations and a full San Diego itinerary.
PRACTICAL INFO FOR SAN DIEGO
Book a vacation rental on Airbnb (and get $40 off your first booking).
Buy your California Guide here.
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Looking for more California travel inspiration? Don’t forget to check out the related posts below!
- Ultimate Oregon Coast Road Trip: 24 Stops & 4 Itineraries - April 14, 2021
- 13 Best Malibu Hikes: From Waterfalls to Coastal Views - April 12, 2021
- 10 Most Beautiful & Best Beaches in Laguna Beach, California - April 12, 2021