Last updated: August 8, 2022
From exploring unique neighborhoods to finding the best beaches and tacos, these are the best things to do in San Diego, CA.
San Diaaago! America’s Finest City, Ron Burgundy’s place of work, and one of the sunniest places in California.
There’s a lot to love about this city. And with so much to see and do in San Diego for all ages, it’s no wonder that it’s such a popular place to 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 for its perfect weather, beaches, tequila, desert landscape, unique historical nature, and delicious Mexican food.
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 attractions in San Diego to unique local experiences, these are my top things to do in San Diego, California!
Note: this post contains affiliate links, which help run this site at no extra cost to you so I can keep providing free travel advice and tips.
Balboa Park is the top attraction in San Diego and the place to visit if you want to experience many sights in one place.
There are 16 museums in the park; some you can even get into for free on certain Tuesdays if you’re a San Diego resident or in the military.
Besides the museums, Balboa Park also houses 16 gardens and beautiful historical architecture best described as Spanish Colonial Revival.
Caricature artists, balloon animals, and fair foods, such as cotton candy and popcorn, line park boulevards.
The world-famous San Diego Zoo is also here (which should definitely be on your San Diego to-do list).
And you’ll sometimes find 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 a lot in a short time.
I’d recommend spending at least an afternoon here, if not an entire day. Check out a few of the different attractions and discover why it’s the most popular place to visit in San Diego.
Below are the top sights I’d recommend seeing at Balboa Park.
San Diego Zoo
If you love animals, San Diego’s zoo is the place to see a wide variety.
The huge, 100-acre San Diego Zoo has a reputation for being the best in America and ranks among the top zoos in the world. Its worldwide renown makes it one of the top things to do in San Diego.
It’s not surprising when you look at the figures. There’s plenty to see at the zoo, with over 650 species and more than 3,700 different animals.
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 fantastic 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 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.
Grab your FREE San Diego Travel Planner! You’ll get instant access to printable checklists for what to pack and what to see in San Diego, as well as a full travel itinerary, and key local travel tips you should know.
Fleet Science Center
The Fleet Science Center is in the very center of Balboa Park, surrounded by numerous other fantastic museums.
This museum features over a hundred interactive exhibits that demonstrate scientific concepts in a fun and kid-friendly way.
But the Fleet Science Center isn’t just for kids–people of all ages will find something exciting to discover here.
In addition to the exhibits, the Fleet Science Center also has a planetarium called the Eugene Heikoff and Marilyn Jacobs Heikoff Giant Dome Theater.
You can see IMAX movies, documentaries, and more in the dome theater. Just note that tickets to showings at the dome are separate from the regular museum admission.
San Diego Natural History Museum (the NAT)
If you’re passionate about science, Balboa Park has a lot to offer. Just across from the Fleet Science Center lies the San Diego Natural History Museum, where you can dive deep into the natural world.
Dinosaur bones, gems, fossils, shells, and diorama displays are always on view at the San Diego Natural History Museum.
Plus, a rotating series of special exhibitions and events round out the programming at the San Diego Natural History Museum.
San Diego Air & Space Museum
The San Diego Air and Space Museum is down towards the park’s southwest corner.
Here, you’ll find exhibitions that detail everything related to the history of flight–from the first hot air balloon all the way up to modern space exploration.
Currently, there’s a special exhibition on Galileo at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, which you can visit with your general admission ticket.
There’s also the Max Flight Interactive Ride, which is a fun flight simulator that requires a separate ticket purchase.
Spanish Village Artist Center
The Spanish Village Artist Center is a colorful corner of the park that showcases every type of local art imaginable.
This historic Spanish Village dates back to the 1936 California Expo. Today, it houses an artists’ collective.
The buildings are all artist studios that visitors can stroll past along brightly-painted cobblestones that create a magical atmosphere.
For a more hands-on experience, check out their classes, workshops, and public events roster.
Museum of Us
Another San Diego museum worth visiting is the Museum of Us.
Formerly called The Museum of Man, this unique anthropology museum displays exhibits that ask tough questions to explore the human experience.
Some of the museum’s ongoing exhibits include the popular community art project, PostSecret, a show about the history of beer called BEERology, and Maya: Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth, which dives deep into the history of Mayan Civilization.
Or, you can check out their limited-time exhibit, Cannibals: Myth & Reality, to learn about the history of cannibalism as a cultural idea.
Another reason to check out the Museum of Us is that the building includes the California Tower, an intricate piece of architecture that dates back to the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.
The California Tower is nearly 200 feet tall and is an iconic San Diego landmark.
San Diego Museum of Art and Institute of Contemporary Art, San Diego
As you’ve probably noticed already from this list, Balboa is chock-full of museums, including some fantastic art museums.
While the San Diego Museum of Art houses collections from around the world dating back thousands of years, the ICA displays artwork by artists living and producing today.
Encinitas has a second location known as “ICA North,” while the Balboa location uses the moniker “ICA Central.” Both locations are free every day through a pay-as-you-wish initiative.
Exhibitions frequently rotate at the ICA San Diego, so there’s always something fresh and new to see. Check their website to see what’s currently showing.
Visit the San Diego Museum of Art and the ICA back-to-back for an art-filled afternoon!
Pro tip: every Tuesday the park offers Balboa Park Free Tuesdays, where different museums offer free admission for San Diego residents, active military personnel, and their dependents. You can find the list of rotating Balboa Park free museums here.
Japanese Friendship Garden
Another sight 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 visitors with a unique and chilled-out experience.
Besides its zen atmosphere and impressive garden and architecture designs, the Japanese Friendship Garden hosts regular events throughout the year. These events include yoga classes, meditation sessions, and San Diego Sake Day.
If you’re looking for a break from the city without actually needing to leave it, this is a good place to visit in San Diego.
Organ Performance at Spreckels Pavilion
One of the more unique things to do in the San Diego area that is completely free is seeing an organ performance at Spreckels Organ Pavilion.
Spreckels Pavilion in Balboa Park hosts free organ concerts every 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.
Old Globe Theatre
Another Balboa Park attraction, the Old Globe Theatre houses a popular theater company in San Diego. It produces around 15 musicals and plays yearly, providing some solid San Diego entertainment year-round.
San Diego’s Old Globe 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, UCSD, is named Geisel and features Dr. Seuss statues. I mean, who doesn’t love Dr. Seuss?
A Mission Beach amusement park, Belmont Park is reminiscent of a summer fair with a fun atmosphere and unique rides that are good for all ages.
My favorite ride at this historic 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).
Pro tip: Belmont Park 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).
San Diego’s Presidio Park is the site of the first European settlement in California, dating back to the eighteenth century.
This historic park still contains the landmark where Junipero Serra planted a palm tree upon his arrival in 1769.
To learn more about this Spanish missionary, you can visit the Junipero Serra Museum, located in the park. Or, simply enjoy a picnic on one of the park’s sprawling lawns.
Liberty Station Park
At the site of a former naval training center not far from the airport, Liberty Station Park is more than just a city-run historic park.
Apart from grassy areas for playing sports and walkways overlooking a San Diego Bay inlet, Liberty Station Park is a public space surrounded by lots of shopping and art.
Open studios and outdoor public art installations happen on the first Friday of every month, so that’s an excellent time to visit.
And Liberty Public Market is just a few blocks away if you’re looking for a wide array of lunch options.
Liberty Public Market is an old navy building that has been converted into a bustling gourmet food court.
The colorful Chicano Park is in Logan Heights, the oldest Mexican-American neighborhood in San Diego.
This area is where you’ll find tons of incredible murals 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 the local community valiantly fought for Chicano Park after the city of San Diego took away much of the surrounding land and added 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.
The Embarcadero & Seaport Village
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. It’s 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, the Embarcadero 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 and good views. And it’s where you’ll find The Headquarters, an old police command post now full of trendy restaurants.
USS Midway Museum
The USS Midway is in the top five coolest museums I’ve visited, and the history behind the vessel and its purpose are 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.
I love how interactive the museum is and how much its history comes 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 is the perfect way to take in the beauty of San Diego and 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.
You can grab tickets for the USS Midway Museum ahead of time here.
Maritime Museum of San Diego
San Diego’s Maritime Museum has one of the world’s most extensive collections of restored historic ships.
Located on the San Diego Bay next to Waterfront Park, the proudest piece in the Maritime Museum collections is an 1863 ship called The Star of India.
Visitors to this floating maritime museum can walk the Star of India’s decks along with many other historic vessels. General admission will get you on to most of the museum’s ships.
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, 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–Hotel del Coronado–if you’re looking to stay on the island (or simply want to tour the property).
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
The San Diego Safari Park is similar to the San Diego Zoo but on a smaller scale and is located on the opposite side of the county up in Escondido.
I visited the San Diego Zoo Safari Park on my last San Diego trip because my Go Card included it, but if you had to choose between the two, I would spend my time at the zoo.
I find the zoo more enticing 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 experienced the Africa Tram, which is included with the admission price. The downsides to this tour are the wait times and the fact that the animals are so far away.
All other safari options are an additional cost to the admission price, but if you’re 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 will 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.
Grab your Zoo and Safari Park combo ticket ahead of time here.
Note: You’ll notice that SeaWorld is missing from this list. In response to controversy following the 2013 documentary, Blackfish, SeaWorld has taken steps to improve its conditions and eliminate the orca breeding program. Still, I’ve decided not to include them on this bucket list due to their history of animal abuse and the questionable ethics of having animals perform for crowds.
San Diego Botanic Garden
San Diego’s Botanical Gardens in Encinitas sprawl over 37 acres and contain over 5,300 different types of plants.
Explore San Diego and the surrounding area by getting to know its native plants. Or take an exotic tour of the world by viewing the Botanic Garden’s endangered plant species.
The SDBG also has a robust calendar of events, including plant-related shows, art exhibitions, parties, and summer evening concerts.
San Diego’s Birch Aquarium is an extension of the Scripp’s Institution of Oceanography at UCSD. Birch Aquarium showcases over sixty marine habitats filled with colorful undersea life.
Visit sharks and penguins or a two-story giant kelp forest. Or, check out the living tide pool plaza, where you can stick your hands into pools containing starfish, anemones, hermit crabs, and more.
Drive Up the Coast Highway
One of the best day trips from San Diego is a simple drive because the area is blessed with miles and miles of stunning coastline.
And my favorite way to see the beauty of North County beaches is along the Coast Highway, also known as Hwy 101.
Starting around Torrey Pines Reserve, the Coast Highway goes through some of San Diego’s lovely 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 the city, just past San Clemente.
Along the way, stop at the local staple, Pizza Port, for its delicious pizza and beer. There’s a reason 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. It’s located in a cute cottage complete with a white picket fence and outside seating.
In general, I recommend taking your time and stopping as much as possible as you go up the coast. Each little suburb has a unique personality and plenty of sights, beaches, and foodie spots.
If you don’t have a car or don’t want to worry about driving, another good option for seeing this beautiful part of the coast is 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.
Carlsbad Flower Fields
Another stopover just off the highway is the Flower Fields in Carlsbad, where you can frolic in Giant Tecolote Ranunculus flowers.
If you drive north from downtown San Diego, passing through Del Mar and Encinitas, you’ll shortly wind up in Carlsbad.
There, you’ll find Carlsbad Ranch and its nearly fifty acres of Giant Tecolote Ranunculus flower fields.
From March to May each year, these flowers bloom in vibrant shades of red, yellow, orange, and pink. During this time, you can visit these very Instagramable fields for a small entry fee.
The front entrance area also has several smaller gardens, restrooms, and a pizza trolley.
Legoland is another compelling reason to make the trip up to Carlsbad.
This California resort includes a theme park, aquarium, water park, and hotels based on the popular toy brand. Throughout all of this fun are numerous models made with LEGO bricks.
You can visit Legoland as a San Diego day trip or make a weekend getaway out of it by purchasing a vacation pass.
Make sure to plan ahead, as you’ll need reservations to get into Legoland. You can purchase your admission tickets ahead of time here.
Del Mar is a beautiful beach town located pretty far north of downtown San Diego but still within the County of San Diego.
This charming seaside community offers the best of the Southern California coast with beautiful beaches and oceanside restaurants.
The town’s other attractions include the Del Mar Racetrack and the San Diego Fairgrounds, the site of the annual County Fair, which draws over a million visitors yearly.
Taco Tuesday in Pacific Beach
Pacific Beach is a bustling neighborhood just above Mission Bay, packed with surf shops, bars, and restaurants.
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 lot of fun for college students, especially 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.
Garnet Street virtually turns into a party block every Tuesday, where you meet a random assortment of people on your walk to the next bar.
Pacific Beach Alehouse and Tavern at the Beach are a bit more laidback than the usual bars-turned-clubs for the slightly older crowd.
If you’re looking for more of a Mexican vibe, head to Cabo Cantina, which is overflowing on Taco Tuesdays.
Moonshine Beach is probably the best option if you’re looking for a good place to dance. Or, if you want to avoid the Coronas and have some craft beer instead, 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 include Cabo Cantina, World Famous, and the taqueria stands that always seem to pop up on the streets outside the bars on Tuesdays.
North Park is considered the hipster neighborhood of San Diego and has a fun and quirky side that is easy to fall in love with. I’m convinced I will move here if I ever move back to San Diego.
I saw one of my favorite concerts ever in North Park (The Tallest Man on Earth) at the beautiful 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 an excellent neighborhood to check out if you’re spending the weekend in San Diego and 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. The bartenders look like they just stepped out of the 1920s.
Seven Grand has an entire wall of whiskey, taking up 15 pages on their drink menu, with the top shelf reached by a rolling ladder.
Another bar to check out in the area is The Office. Half bar, half club (as are many establishments in this city), 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 a 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 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, restaurants, and boutique shops during the day.
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 are, you can get a taste of the San Diego beer scene.
I usually do a self-guided brewery tour with a combination of walking and Uber while I’m in town, but if you’re after a more organized tour, this San Diego Brewery Tour is an excellent place to start.
Visiting breweries is one of the best local 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 favorite breweries include Ballast Point (give me a Sculpin IPA any day), Green Flash, and Stone for their classy brewery and rock garden.
Other recommendations include Coronado, Lost Abbey, Latitude 33, Modern Times, Mother Earth, Half Door Brewing, and Mission Brewery.
Looking for more brewery recommendations in California? Read my guide to the best California breweries (there are quite a few San Diego breweries mentioned).
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
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 many fun things to do in Old Town San Diego. You’ll find local artisan shops, many Mexican restaurants, and some cool historic buildings.
If you’re a history buff, Old Town San Diego is a good historic neighborhood to explore, especially compared to the rest of the city, which leans more into its modernness.
You can find the complete list of historic sites in Old Town San Diego here.
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 city’s heart.
If you’re wondering what to do in downtown San Diego, the Gaslamp Quarter is where you should start. This is especially the case if you enjoyed the historical side of Old Town San Diego and you’re hungry for more.
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 waterfront. You can still visit his house in the Gaslamp Quarter as it’s now a museum.
I would recommend exploring the Gaslamp Quarter during the day and at night to see the difference, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when it comes alive with nightlife (don’t miss The Shout House!).
There are plenty of things to do in the Gaslamp Quarter to keep you busy for the day.
Some fun activities include 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!
Little Italy is the historic Italian neighborhood in downtown San Diego that was originally the center of the city’s tuna fishing industry.
These days, Little Italy is a lively and walkable neighborhood packed with trendy bars and restaurants.
If you have a sweet tooth, check out Extraordinary Desserts, a dessert-only cafe serving gourmet sweets.
Otherwise, some of the best things to do in Little Italy are its many outdoor events. There’s the ‘Mercato’ Street Market, which takes place every Wednesday and Saturday. And there’s the Little Italy Summer Film Festival, which screens Italian-language films every Saturday in July and August.
Ocean Beach Farmers Market
A very popular farmers market in San Diego, the Ocean Beach Farmers Market is not as bustling as the Little Italy Street Market but it is more local.
This market happens every Wednesday from 4-8 pm and features the same 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 OB, goes well with the overall atmosphere of the neighborhood.
Have your pick of fresh produce and enjoy the local art and live music. Once you finish perusing the market, you can walk to Ocean Beach and enjoy the sunset near the pier.
San Diego Hiking Trails
Although completely opposite to the climate I grew up with in Northern California with its lush redwood forests, desert-like Southern California is where I really started to get into hiking for the first time.
Hikes in San Diego are a whole different style: dusty and hot with 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 is a quick overview of some of my favorite hiking trails within San Diego County:
- 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 two miles.
- Cowles Mountain at Mission Trails Regional Park – 3 miles, 950 ft 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.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Speaking of hikes and stunning outdoor places in San Diego, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve deserves its own section–it’s that beautiful.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a state park just north of the city, nestled below Del Mar. The park’s 2,000 acres of coastal land offer numerous cliffside trails for hiking.
Of San Diego’s many parks and hiking areas, Torrey Pines is one of the prettiest and it’s super close to La Jolla and the UCSD campus.
Once you’ve had your fill of hiking–or if lounging on the beach is more your style–Torrey Pines State Beach is a pristine place to stroll, swim, sunbathe, or watch the sunset.
Read my full guide to hiking Torrey Pines.
Mount Soledad Lookout
One of my favorite free things to do in San Diego 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 below.
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 you shouldn’t miss 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.
At the monument, you’ll find the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, one of the first of its kind on the West Coast. Today, the Point Loma Lighthouse is a museum that lets you peek back into history.
As you spend the day exploring the many things to do around the peninsula, you’ll find trails, tide pools, and learn more about California history.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
Before you leave the Point Loma Peninsula, head to Sunset Cliffs Natural Park to watch the sun go down with the locals.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is a gorgeous stretch of cliffs that overlook the Pacific Ocean.
Natural erosion has shaped these golden sandstone cliffs into dramatic formations, so be sure to watch your step as they can also be unstable in places.
As its name suggests, Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is a beautiful place to watch the sunset over the ocean, but it’s also a worthwhile place to take a walk any time of day.
Stretching for three miles along the coast between the neighborhoods of Ocean Beach and Point Loma, Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is a city park, so it’s free to visit.
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 area 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 okay for beginner hikers in relatively good shape.
To reach 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 is one of the more accessible 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.
San Diego Bay Wildlife Refuge
The San Diego Bay State Wildlife Refuge is a salt marsh that provides urban refuge for local wildlife.
Numerous trails make the San Diego Bay Wildlife Refuge a peaceful spot to hike and learn about the species that live there. Just be sure to leave no trace if you go!
Seasonal tours are available if you want a more guided educational experience.
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 group tour ahead of time here.
San Diego Beaches
One of the best free things to do in San Diego is to spend the day at the beach!
There are over 50 beaches in San Diego County and all of them offer a different experience depending on the neighborhood in which they’re located.
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 Beach.
Other fantastic beaches to check out around San Diego County include:
- Windansea Beach
- Ocean Beach
- La Jolla Cove + Children’s Pool Beach
- Pacific Beach
- Coronado Beach
- Mission Beach
- Solano Beach
- Del Mar Dog Beach
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 Beach is stunning and offers excellent views of the San Diego skyline.
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.
If you’re a fan of sea lions, head to La Jolla Cove, where sea lions regularly lounge along the shore. La Jolla Shores is another scenic and pristine beach and a fun place to take the family.
Above Black’s Beach before you walk the steep path down, you’ll find stunning coastal views and paragliders. And on the beach you’ll find a secluded stretch of sand (although you should note that part of it is a nudist beach as well).
The options are limitless, and it would be a shame to not visit one of these best beaches in San Diego while you’re in town.
Plus, there are plenty of water activities at most beaches if you don’t just want to sunbathe, such as paddle boarding, kayaking, surfing, and snorkeling.
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’ll typically find the highest concentration of them at the end of August and through September.
And in case you’re worried, leopard sharks have a ferocious name but are completely harmless.
You can 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’ll 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:
The San Diego coastline has countless tide pools, which isn’t surprising since the warm waters of San Diego make excellent tide-pooling conditions.
You can get an up-close-and-personal look at lush sea life in many places in the San Diego region. The best time for tide pooling in San Diego is during fall and winter at low tide.
One of the top places to go tide pooling is Coronado Beach, directly in front of the Hotel del Coronado. At low tide, you’ll find a ton of anemones, starfish, barnacles, and more.
La Jolla also offers abundant tide-pool opportunities.
After visiting the sea lions at La Jolla Cove, head down to Shell Beach in Ellen Browning Scripps Park, then to the La Jolla Tide Pools. They’re all within a short walk from each other.
You’ll also find Point Loma tide pools at the southern tip of its coastline. This area is also where you’ll find the national monument and Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which could round out your day near the water.
Tide pools are fascinating at any age, but it’s an especially fun (and educational!) activity if you’re wondering what to do in San Diego with kids.
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.
The waterpark is also a popular spot for scuba diving in San Diego if you’re certified.
Mission Beach Boardwalk
The boardwalk is another a fun and 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 San Diego’s best parts 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 down to Belmont Park and hop on the Giant Dipper roller coaster once you get your exercise in for the day.
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 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’ll have to call the day of to book because it all depends on wind conditions.
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, 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. You shouldn’t miss it 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.
These are some of the sights to include along the drive:
- The Embarcadero & Seaport Village
- Harbor Island
- Point Loma & Cabrillo National Monument
- Ocean Beach
- Mission Bay & Mission Beach
- Mount Soledad
- Birch Aquarium
- La Jolla Cove
- Pacific Beach
- Old Town
- Presidio Park
- Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo
If this sounds like too much to fit into one day, you can 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.
Silver Strand Bikeway
If you’re looking for free things 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 an ideal alternative.
It’s a gorgeous ride through 12 miles of sunshine along the coast. It’s also perfectly accessible for beginner and casual cyclists, unlike the Velodrome.
The bikeway takes you 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 well maintained, so it’s perfect for riders of all skill levels. Some people even ride the path on a cruiser bike, so no crazy gears are necessary.
Midway 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.
Rooftop Cinema Club
I absolutely love rooftop cinemas!
While living in Europe, I went to quite a few, so I was excited to learn that San Diego has started doing them 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 many better things to do in San Diego than go to 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 here.
San Diego Padres Game at Petco Park
I always recommend seeing at least one baseball game when you visit San Diego (if it’s the right season) because the downtown Petco Park stadium has such 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 Petco Park.
Now, the Padres don’t have quite the same die-hard fan base that the LA Dodgers or San Francisco Giants have. However, Petco Park is a beautiful modern stadium to watch a game from, right near the ocean and downtown.
If you’re looking for San Diego things to do and you happen to be there during baseball season (March/early April to late September/early October), don’t miss out on a game at Petco Park.
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 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 one of the most popular things to do in San Diego for couples and a great date night idea in the city.
You can find a complete list of their upcoming shows here.
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 not only still in business but also 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 deal!
La Jolla Playhouse
Located on the UCSD campus and showcasing talented acts throughout the year, the La Jolla Playhouse is a non-profit theater worth seeing a show at if you’re in the area.
Some of the more unique events they offer at the La Jolla Playhouse are their audience engagement events. These include Talkback Tuesdays and Discovery Sunday, where you can interact with the actors on stage after the performance.
The La Jolla Playhouse is a staple in the San Diego theater scene and a fun local venue to experience while you’re in town.
Grab Brunch and Walk Around Downtown La Jolla
La Jolla is a stylish neighborhood on the northern end of San Diego where you’ll find miles of coastal cliffs and stunning beaches.
It’s also where the UCSD campus is located, as well as fashionable boutiques and plenty of brunch spots.
Numerous delicious restaurants offer brunch along Prospect Street adjacent to Shell Beach and Children’s Pool Beach. Two of my favorites include Brockton Villa Restaurant and The Cottage.
After eating, stroll around the surrounding area, peruse the shops, and take in some artwork at Legends Gallery.
Then, head over to one of the beautiful La Jolla beaches, such as La Jolla Cove or La Jolla Shores.
Many people like to shop while on vacation. If that sounds like you, be sure to pay a visit to Fashion Valley, San Diego’s largest shopping mall.
Here, you’ll find all the luxury brands such as Cartier, Gucci, and Prada. But you’ll also find Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters if that’s more your style.
In other words, you’ll find brands at every price point, plus a similarly comprehensive selection of restaurants.
San Diego Harbor 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 the city–its proximity to the water.
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 San Diego skyline from the water.
You can grab tickets here for a popular inexpensive San Diego harbor cruise that lasts an hour or two.
Whale Watching Cruise
If you’re looking for things to do in San Diego during winter, I’d recommend adding a whale-watching cruise to your San Diego itinerary. Grey whales migrate near the city’s shores from mid-December through April.
If you want to try to see the cute babies, early spring is when you’re more likely to see female whales with their calves.
You can grab tickets to an environmentally-friendly whale watching cruise here. This four-and-a-half-hour cruise leaves Shelter Island and the San Diego Bay, then heads out onto the Pacific Ocean.
With the price of your ticket, you’ll also get sodas and snacks, plus a whale-watching guarantee: if you don’t spot any whales during the trip, you can try again for free.
They offer four daily trips, leaving throughout the morning and early afternoon.
San Diego Trolley Tour
If you only have one day in San Diego, a San Diego Trolley Tour is an excellent way to see a lot quickly.
The Trolley Tour Leaves from Old Town San Diego and takes you over the San Diego Coronado Bridge on a twenty-five-mile loop.
You can hop off any time at one of the 100 points of interest, then hop back on as the next trolley passes your stop.
You can buy either a one-day or two-day pass, and your ticket price includes free entry to 10 museums, which is a fantastic value.
If you want to pack in a lot of sights, the Trolley Tour is cost-effective and one of the best San Diego tours to experience if you’re new to the city.
Additional Fun Things to do in San Diego
- Hop on a San Diego food tour to explore the local cuisine–I’d recommend this one for a good dose of history and food in the Gaslamp district. Or this one if you want to dive fully into the tequila and Mexican food in San Diego.
- Sign up for a ghost tour to learn about the city’s spooky past-I’d recommend this one.
- If you’re looking for more spooks, tour the Whaley House Museum (known as America’s Most Haunted House).
- Visit the Mormon Battalion Historic Site in Old Town San Diego.
- Learn about indigenous history (of the Kumeyaay/Diegueno People) at the Barona Cultural Center & Museum.
- Walk around Old Poway Park–there’s a lovely Saturday Farmers’ Market here and train rides as well.
- Shop for a unique assortment of things at Kobey’s Swap Meet.
- Listen to a band at one of the many live music venues in San Diego–some ideas include Belly Up Tavern, the Casbah, and the House of Blues.
- Shop at the boutiques in the Cedros Avenue Design District.
- Go on a Bahia Belle Cruise.
- Take the kids to Sesame Place San Diego. Or, for something free, Waterfront Park.
- Tour the Villa Montezuma.
- Dress up as your favorite superhero and attend Comic-Con.
- Discover the best taquerias and taco trucks around San Diego–a few to get you started include Puesto, Tacos el Gordo, and The Taco Stand.
- Go on a sunset sailing cruise around the San Diego Bay for a fun date night and to enjoy San Diego’s skyline during golden hour–I’d recommend this one.
- Learn how to surf–I’d recommend this company.
- Do a San Diego day trip within San Diego County–some destinations could include Julian, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Temecula, and Lake Hodges.
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.
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