From trying the world-renowned microbrewery scene to finding the best beaches and tacos, these are the best things to do in San Diego, CA at least once.
San Diaaago, Ron Burgandy’s place of work and considered to be the sunniest place in America – okay I made that last one up, but it’s still a remarkable place and super sunny.
Plus, there are tons of things to do in San Diego. Seriously, there’s a reason why it’s one of the most popular cities in California – you will never be bored no matter how many times you visit.
I spent five years living in San Diego, going to school, working at internships and a myriad of jobs to stay afloat during my time at university.
Over the half decade I lived there, 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 share that love with anyone else who plans to visit this amazing seaside city.
I made this San Diego bucket list so all of my favorite local spots and hangouts can continue to be enjoyed, even when I’m not there.
From top San Diego attractions, to unique local experiences, the best tacos, and where to indulge in the microbrewery scene, these are my top 101 things to do in San Diego!
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Top 10 Things to 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 for an Afternoon
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 countless caricature artists lining 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.
Balboa Park is one of the best ways to spend a day in San Diego, even if it’s just to get lost exploring the many tourist attractions in the area.
There are so many things to do in Balboa Park that you could spend a whole weekend at the park and probably not see everything that’s offered.
Spend at least an afternoon here, checking out a few of the different attractions and discover 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.
Recommended Experience: Best of Balboa Park Tour (with Coffee)
Go on a Microbrewery Tour
It’s no secret that San Diego has one of the best microbrewery scenes in the US, there are breweries everywhere! 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 the best things to do around San Diego, especially if you’re a fan of good beer, and with over 100 breweries in the greater San Diego county, you’re spoiled for choice.
My personal favorites include Ballast Point (give me a Sculpin IPA any day), Green Flash, and Stone 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 the subdued version of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, it even includes an old wooden roller coaster like my hometown’s park.
Even though it’s a small amusement park, Belmont is reminiscent of a summer fair and has a few unique rides to enjoy for a day of thrills for all ages.
My favorite ride at Belmont Park is the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster. Built in 1925, it’s a wooden coaster that rivals the Giant Dipper in Santa Cruz, I rode this one twice last time I visited, once the park was all lit up at night.
Other favorite rides include Beach Blaster – a very tall spinning swing where the chest bar felt considerably more loose at the height of the g-force than when the ride first started.
Octotron – Another spinning ride, but this time there’s a joystick in the middle of two riders, you fight over who has control of the joystick to decide if you’ll go upside down, frontwards, backwards, or both while spinning in a circle.
And since I used the Go Card pass for this attraction, I was also able to do my first ever zip line and have free use of the rock climbing wall.
Pro tip: this is one of the best things to do in San Diego 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 aircrafts, 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. This is by far my favorite San Diego naval museum in town (there are quite a few).
I toured multiple levels of the carrier, viewing old living quarters and pilots’ ready rooms, and stepping inside World War II fighter jets or a Huey helicopter used in the Vietnam War. It was a thought-provoking experience.
Similar to the Air & Space Museum at Balboa Park, the USS Midway Museum also has flight simulators for an additional cost.
Before heading into the museum, grab lunch at the Fish Market Restaurant for mouthwatering fish tacos.
Looking out over the harbor, with military helicopters flying overhead now and then and 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.
Walking underneath the Unconditional Surrender statue on your way to the museum is a must 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 fewer young twenty-something-year-olds.
North Park, considered to be the hipster neighborhood of San Diego, also has a fun and quirky side that is easy to love. 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 fun neighborhood to check out if you’re spending the weekend in San Diego and you want to explore San Diego nightlife at its finest.
My personal favorite in the North Park bar scene is Seven Grand, a whiskey bar that hosts live music, has black and white movies playing on a loop, and bartenders that look like they just stepped out of the 1920s.
Dare I say, Seven Grand is where I first started enjoying bourbon and where I tried my first ever whiskey sour.
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 Ribbons, 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 North Park 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.
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.
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, rent a kayak to explore the bay from the water, take a guided walking tour around the island or maybe even go on a Coronado Cruise Bike Tour.
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, more than enough to keep you happy for a whole day.
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 zoo, and I must say it was one of the most magical animal encounters I’ve had.
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. With that said, the Safari Park offers a completely different animal experience with its many safaris.
I also applaud them on 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 downside is the wait time and the fact that the animals are quite 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.
Note: the reason I didn’t include the famous SeaWorld San Diego as one of the best places to see animals is because I don’t agree with their practices.
Although zoos don’t have the best rap and enclosing animals in general is a sad thing, SeaWorld takes it to the next level with cramped living conditions and mistreated marine mammals.
If you want to view some amazing marine life, I would recommend heading to the Monterey Bay Aquarium up the coast. It’s considered the best aquarium in the world and it’s only a 45-minute drive from my hometown of Santa Cruz. Double bonus.
I used to go there on school field trips and I can personally vouch that it’s an outstanding look into life under the sea and much better in terms of their conservation record compared to SeaWorld.
Drive up the Coast Highway
San Diego is blessed with miles and miles of elegant coastline. 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, driving past San Clemente.
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.
I would recommend stopping as much as possible in each little suburb as you go up the coast. The best way to drive the Coast Highway is slow and happy.
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.
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 go visit my sister in Los Angeles, and it is still the most beautiful train ride I’ve been on. It’s the train ride that inspired me to write this when I was leaving San Diego for a while on the way to my life abroad.
Recommended Experience: Full Day Tour of San Diego Coast
Have at Least One Taco Tuesday in Pacific Beach
One of the best things to do in San Diego at night if you want to experience a more unique side to San Diego nightlife.
Taco Tuesday is the San Diego version of college kids gone wild with cheap shots of tequila and lime, Mexican food, sombreros here and there, and margaritas that are bigger than your head and hold more than your fair share of that liquid gold called TEQUILA!
It’s like Cinco de Mayo, but every Tuesday. 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 while 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.
Garnet Street virtually turns into a party block, where you meet a random assortment of people on your walk to the next bar.
There are the spots that are loud bars turned clubs in the back, but then there are also those bars for the slightly older crowd to be found at Pacific Beach AleHouse and Tavern at the Beach.
If you’re looking for more of a Mexican vibe go to the crazy Cabo Cantina that is overflowing on Taco Tuesdays.
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 as 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.
If you’re looking for a good place to dance, Moonshine Beach and Johnny V are probably the best options. 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.
The interesting thing about Taco Tuesday is that although there are a lot of 21 and 22 year olds stumbling about, you also find a lot of slightly older marines that increase the average age to around 27.
And if you choose specifically for what kind of night you’re after, you can still find most age groups represented depending on the bar.
Taco Tuesday is a very San Diego thing and worth experiencing at least once if you’re interested in nightlife.
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.
This is something on the list that I sadly didn’t get to do with my time in San Diego. 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.
Regardless, 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 just off 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.
If you’re unable to afford the cost of flying or would rather keep your feet on the ground but you’re still after a grand view, I would very much suggest going to the top of Mount Soledad.
I’ve seen many a sunrise up there and eaten many California burritos while shivering as the sun comes up, but let me tell you, it’s stunning.
Mount Soledad looks out over all of La Jolla and the ocean, and it’s by far one of the best places to watch sunrise in San Diego. Of course, it’s beautiful at any time of the day, so make your way up there whenever it suits you.
Other Popular Attractions in San Diego
Old Town San Diego, also known as the birthplace of California, is where you’ll find a bustling hispanic community and the location of California’s original people.
The Kumeyaay people lived in this part of California 9,000 years ago before the Spaniards arrived.
There are a lot of fun things to do in Old Town San Diego. This is where 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.
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.
One of the aspects I love about San Diego is that you’re never too far from the water, no matter what neighborhood you’re in.
The Embarcadero is probably one of the most popular 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 and good views, and The Headquarters, which is an old police command post now full of trendy restaurants.
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.
Harbor or Whale Watching Cruise
It’s hard to visit San Diego and not partake in at least one harbor or whale watching cruise, because these cruises highlight the best part of San Diego – it’s 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.
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. It’s a unique place to go for a show if you’re into theater.
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?
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
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.
I used to work in Gaslamp for an internship and our building was the coolest office I’ve ever worked in. It was part of the old Louis Bank of Commerce built in 1888.
The Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation is in place to make sure those cool old buildings don’t lose their façade to more modern aesthetics.
And today, with a short walk down 5th Avenue, you can tell how their work has paid off.
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!
Recommended Experience: A Culinary Tour of San Diego’s Questionable Past
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 impression depending on what suburb you find yourself in.
I spent a lot of time exploring the many things to do in North County San Diego for school, specifically the La Jolla area, which is known for its manicured beaches.
I used to “study” at La Jolla Shores on the weekends or watch the paragliders from the cliffs at Black’s Beach to take a break off campus.
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. Del Mar’s Dog Beach is a great place to take the pooch.
Lastly, Torrey Pines State Reserve has one of the best hikes with views of the sunny San Diego coastline and golden cliffs. The options are limitless, it would be a shame not to 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.
Recommended Experience: La Jolla and San Diego Beaches Tour
Spend a Day on 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, wide expanses of multicolored earth tones for miles and miles, but I grew to love the many hikes I took around the county. I’ve found hiking to be one of the best things to do in San Diego for free.
The following are some of my favorites:
Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma (Bayside Trail) – In the same vein as Torrey Pines State Reserve, the Bayside trail in Point Loma in one of the prettiest coastal hikes I’ve done.
It’s a relatively easy hike, clocking in at 2.8 miles and a mild elevation gain of 400 ft. This hike takes around two hours to complete.
My favorite components of the hike are the Cabrillo National Monument, which is a statue dedicated to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who discovered California in 1542.
I also loved going inside the old Point Loma Lighthouse, and looking out over the ocean after climbing the winding staircase. The constant views of the blue Pacific Ocean throughout the hike only added to the good vibes of the trail.
This trail is good if you just want to get outside, feel a bit of a sea breeze, enjoy stunning scenery, but don’t want to break a sweat.
Mount Woodson (aka Potato Chip Rock) – The hardest hike I’ve accomplished in San Diego, if only because of its steep inclines and declines and lack of shade.
Mount Woodson is a popular hike in Poway, and shows up on many Instagram feeds for the popular picture with the rock that looks like a potato chip.
Since Poway is inland, it gets very hot and dusty on the trail and there’s little to no shade. A lot of people don’t come properly prepared, thinking they’ll just get a shot of themselves with the famous rock, not realizing that the rock is well into the steep trail.
If you are willing to put in a little sweat, the views from the top are incredible. The full hike is 6.4 miles roundtrip and climbs 2,000 feet. It takes about five hours to complete.
Torrey Pines State Reserve (Razor Point Trail and Yucca Point Trail) – One of my favorite hikes in San Diego, and not just because it is close to my college campus.
Torrey Pines Reserve is just north of La Jolla and has two easy trails. I’ve hiked around the reserve multiple times. It was one of my favorite places to take friends when they were visiting or looking for a new spot to explore in San Diego.
Between the golden cliffs and the perfect color of the breaking waves, this is one of those hikes that takes your breath away. It’s also a hike that has very little shade, but the ocean breeze is there to cool you down.
The Razor Point trail is 1.3 miles and the Yucca Point trail is 1.25 miles, both with no more than a 200-foot elevation change and only taking about one hour each to complete.
The Yucca Point trail leads down to the beach, but both trails offer breathtaking views over the majestic cliffs jutting out towards the ocean.
Recommended Experience: Half Day Hiking Adventure at Torrey Pines
Cowles Mountain – If you’re looking for a good San Diego adventure, Cowles Mountain is even steeper than Mount Woodson but comes off as much easier due to it shorter duration.
My calves and thighs were definitely feeling it after this hike, but the views at the top are well worth the struggle.
From the peak of the mountain, you can look down on Lake Murray below, all the way out to downtown and the ocean, and even over to Mexico.
Similar to Mount Woodson, Cowles Mountain is inland (just west of El Cajon), so be prepared for heat and little to no shade during the hike.
The hike is about three miles with an elevation gain of 950 feet. It takes around two hours to complete roundtrip.
Other highly popular and recommended hikes in the San Diego area:
Three Sisters Falls – The trail to Three Sisters Falls is actually near Julian, just over in hour outside of San Diego city limits. It’s a popular day hike to tackle from the city if you want a more intense outdoor workout.
This trail is only recommended for experienced hikers who are in good shape. In addition to its steepness, the trail also includes rope climbs and optional rock climbing.
The Three Sisters Falls trail is only accessible from November to June, and it’s recommended to bring to a lot of water and proper hiking boots, as well as gloves for climbing the ropes.
The sight once you get to the falls is worth all the bumps and bruises you may have accumulated on the climb up.
The trail comes out to four miles and climbs to an elevation of 1,000 feet. It takes about three hours to complete roundtrip and it’s best to avoid hiking it at the hottest part of the day if possible.
Cedar Creek Falls to Devil’s Punchbowl – Considered the most dangerous hike in the country, one person a year dies on this trail.
The Devil’s Punchbowl is a big pool surrounded by 75-foot high cliffs and a magnificent waterfall.
Some deaths happen from the popularity of hikers jumping from the slippery rocks into the shallow waters below, others from falling off the steep downhill part of the trail on the way to the waterfall.
Regardless of its dangers, the Cedar Creek Falls trail and the Devil’s Punchbowl are a sight to behold. The most popular advice from avid hikers who use this trail is to bring a lot of water.
The Cedar Creek Falls trail is located in Ramona, and 4.5 miles long with an estimated duration of three hours. Obviously, add in more time if you want to spend time swimming at the Devil’s Punchbowl.
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 energy found at the park and the greater Logan Heights neighborhood.
Also, if you’re in San Diego in April, don’t miss out on the Chicano Park Day that happens every year. It’s an event that shows off the best parts of San Diego culture.
Sunrise from Mount Soledad Lookout
One of my favorite free things to do in San Diego is watching the sunrise from the Mount Soledad Lookout. I have a lot of fond memories of going here for sunrise during my college years, and it’s still a place I come back to time and again.
Considered by some to be the best San Diego view point, 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.
Organ Performance at Spreckels Pavilion
One of the more unique things to do in San Diego 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 2pm.
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. These can be magical as well because San Diego is stunning at dusk, especially in the summer.
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, Presido 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.
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 a recent trip to San Diego, and I fell in love with the atmosphere.
Walk or run the boardwalk to get the full view of Mission Beach, or rent cruiser bikes to feel like a true Californian. You can 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.
Watch 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.
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.
Silver Strand Bikeway
If you’re looking for free stuff to do in San Diego and you’re into biking, but you 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, 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 in San Diego
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 San Diego if you’re looking for a good date night idea.
You can find out what’s currently playing in San Diego here.
Saturday ‘Mercato’ Street Market
There are a lot of farmers markets to take advantage of in San Diego, some of which I talk about on this list, because this area of California is blessed with so much great produce and agriculture.
The Saturday ‘Mercato’ Street Market in Littly Italy is 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.
Padres Game at Petco Park
In the US, I always recommend seeing at least one baseball game in the city you’re visiting if it’s the right season. This is because it’s such a classic sport in the US and every stadium has a unique atmosphere.
It might not be the most interesting game for a lot of people, especially if you didn’t grow up watching 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 (i.e. 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.
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.
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.
Movie at South Bay Drive-in Theatre
If you’re looking for another good date night idea in San Diego (I went on a date here when I lived in San Diego), look no further than the drive-in.
Drive-ins are not common to find around the US anymore, most have gone out of business (including in my hometown of Santa Cruz).
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 San Diego. 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 hike to get up to the viewpoint takes some effort with its uphill nature, 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. The trail climbs over 1,000 feet so be prepared for a decent amount of uphill work to get up to the view.
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.
Snorkeling 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.
Either rent a snorkel and explore it yourself or go on a group tour with a local company. You can also go kayaking on top of the waterpark and around La Jolla Cove. This is a popular spot for scuba diving in San Diego as well, if you’re certified.
Show at the La Jolla Playhouse
Located on the UCSD campus and showcasing talented acts throughout the year, the La Jolla Playhouse in 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.
Best Beaches in San Diego
If you’re wondering what to do in California, 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?
Windansea Beach is a popular beach in La Jolla that is a bit different from most San Diego beaches because it’s rocky. It’s not a great swimming beach, but it’s ideal for surfing if you plan to hit the waves.
Even if you’re not a surfer, it’s a fun beach to watch the surfers from the shore.
The great thing about this beach is that it’s a local’s beach so you usually won’t find it too crowded, like the more touristy beaches of La Jolla Cove or Pacific Beach.
If you want even more privacy, there are a few small coves around the beach to explore.
Torrey Pines State Beach
One of my favorite San Diego areas, Torrey Pines State Beach is the perfect beach to relax at after tackling an easy Torrey Pines Hike at the Torrey Pines Reserve.
This is one of the most beautiful places in San Diego and I’ve probably been a good dozen times.
Even if you don’t feel like hiking, this beach is worth a visit for its golden hued cliffs and stunning sunsets.
The most popular activity at this beach is the hiking, but the water can be good for boogie boarding and surfing too. If you only have time for one outdoor activity, Torrey Pines is the San Diego place to see for natural beauty.
Probably my favorite beach to watch the sunset from in San Dieg. Ocean Beach is the counter culture hippie neighborhood in San Diego, and you’ll find a lot of rasta colors (and weed smells) around the beach area.
Maybe not the best place to take the kids, but I love coming to this beach to lay out on its long sandy stretches during the day or to take in the sunset with a friend or two. Plus, the restaurants are great in OB after the sun goes down.
La Jolla Cove + Children’s Pool Beach
If you’re looking for things to do in San Diego with kids that involve the beach, head over to La Jolla Cove and Children’s Pool Beach.
I’m putting another La Jolla beach on this list because the beaches in La Jolla are just so pristine and stunning. La Jolla Cove is worth a visit for its family-friendly nature and Children’s Pool Beach nearby.
This would be my top pick if you’re looking for a good beach to bring young kids and enjoy a family atmosphere in one of the prettiest neighborhoods in San Diego. It’s also a popular spot for sea lions and seal pups to hangout.
La Jolla Shores
Further down the coast of La Jolla you’ll find La Jolla Shores, the most popular (and touristy) beach in the area and a great place to learn how to surf for the first time or lay out on a mile of sandy beach.
This would be one of the top beaches I’d recommend if you’re a beginner surfer or wanting to take surf lessons in San Diego.
Another one of the best San Diego beaches, Pacific Beach seems to be an endless sandy playground that goes on for miles. This is a catch all beach for any kind of beach activity you could imagine.
This beach is good for surfing, swimming, walking, sun bathing, riding bikes, playing volleyball, and the boardwalk is where you’ll find a diverse mix of people (great for people watching).
Even though Pacific Beach is a very popular beach in San Diego, it’s such a long beach that you can usually find a decent amount of space to lay down with a bit of a buffer no matter what time of year it is.
And, besides the beach itself, there are plenty of things to do in the Pacific Beach neighborhood, including shopping, eating delicious Mexican food, and Taco Tuesday (see above).
Coronado Island is a gem in itself and that goes for its beach too. Because it’s slightly harder to get to than San Diego’s mainland beaches, you feel a bit more secluded from the city.
This beach is well taken care of and includes public bathrooms and a ramp to push wheelchairs or strollers down to the sand. One of the best things to do in Coronado is simply taking a long walk along the beachfront area of the island.
Outdoor Activities & Hikes
Mission Trails Regional Park
One of the best parks in San Diego for hiking. Mission Trails Regional Park is a 7,200-acre preserve that has almost 65 miles worth of trails so you can hike to your heart’s desire.
The park gives you a glimpse of the desert landscape that existed before the landing of Cabrillo in 1542 when the land started being developed.
Here you’ll find beautiful rugged hills and valleys, as well as trails of varying length that are good for a range of hiking levels. Perhaps the best part about this park is that it’s easy to get to, located only 20 minutes by car from downtown San Diego.
Located in Old Town, Presidio Park is a historical park in San Diego that offers a cultural museum, picnic spaces, and hiking trails. Presidio Park is where the first European settlements were founded in 1769, in what is now the Western US.
This is a good park to not only get out in San Diego nature, but learn more about the city’s history. Presidio Park also offers stunning views looking out over Mission Bay and the San Diego River.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
Not surprisingly with its name, Sunset Cliffs is one of the best places to go in San Diego to watch the sunset.
This area is located on the Point Loma Peninsula and consists of 68-acres of rugged cliffs and rock formations along the ocean. Sunset Cliffs is a popular spot for exploring tide pools, surfing, and taking in beach views that will last you a lifetime.
Bring a picnic for sunset, watch the surfers down below, and enjoy the salty sea air from one of the most romantic places in San Diego.
San Diego Bay Wildlife Refuge
If you’re itching to spot some local wildlife, head to the San Diego Bay Wildlife Refuge. This area is 315 acres of salt marsh and coastal uplands and one of the last protected wildlife refuges in San Diego.
Over 200 species of birds live at the refuge and its the habitat of at least four endangered or threatened species.
Bring binoculars to go bird watching, visit the Living Coast Discovery Center to learn more about the conservation efforts in the area, or take a walk on the Bayside Birding Walking Trail.
Mission Bay Park
The largest aquatic park in the country, Mission Bay Park is 4,235 acres of equal parts water and land.
From 27 miles of shoreline, 19 of which are beaches, to a network of channels and islands that are good for windsurfers and water skiers, Mission Bay Park has a little something for everyone.
Other outdoor attractions at the park include bike paths, walking paths, basketball courts, volleyball courts, playgrounds, picnic spaces, and sailboat rentals if you want to get out on the water.
Located in the Laguna Mountains east of San Diego, Mount Laguna is a good place for easy mountain hiking, mountain biking, and dramatic vistas.
Although it gets busier on the weekends, it’s actually a pretty secluded place with trails that aren’t overly trafficked for most of the week. You will need a pass in order to go hiking here, which you can pick up in the park store.
You can either make it a weekend trip and go camping or just go for a day hike to spend some time in nature near the city. Mount Laguna is only about an hour drive from downtown San Diego.
Looking for things to do with kids in San Diego? Look no further than Waterfront Park, one of the best family things to do in San Diego.
Waterfront Park is full of playgrounds, picnic areas, grassy areas, slides, and interactive spray fountains for kids to run through.
The park is located right on the harbor, near plenty of other San Diego attractions, and it’s a good spot to visit on a hot day for some family fun in San Diego.
Best Museums in San Diego
One of the best things to do in San Diego when it rains (or not) is checking out the many world renowned museums around the city.
San Diego Museum of Man
Located in Balboa Park, the Museum of Man is housed in a historic building and a popular cultural anthropology museum in San Diego.
The Museum of Man explores the human experience from a variety of different perspectives.
From race to cannibalism, the history of beer, our relationship to animals, and the power that secrets have in connecting us, there are a wide range of topics covered at the museum.
If you only have time to see one museum while you’re in San Diego, this is the one I’d recommend.
The San Diego Museum of Art
If you’re into art, The San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA), is a fine arts museum also located in Balboa Park.
You can view a wide range of different styles of art from the US and internationally, but the main draw to the museum is its focus on Spanish art.
The SDMA hosts quite a few fun events throughout the year, including Art After Hours and jazz nights on Wednesdays.
San Diego Natural History Museum
Another Balboa Park Museum, the San Diego Natural History Museum, or The NAT, was founded in 1874 and focuses on learning more about the natural world through award-winning exhibits and a Dolby digital 3D theater.
The museum especially focuses on the biodiversity found in Southern California.
Although some areas of the museum are meant more for kids, this is a museum that can be enjoyed by all ages. Out of this list, it’s probably the most kid-friendly museum in San Diego.
You can buy tickets ahead of time for the museum here.
Maritime Museum of San Diego
San Diego has a huge maritime past, which isn’t all that surprising since the city was built on the water.
The Maritime Museum of San Diego is a good museum to explore more of San Diego’s maritime past in detail, and learn why it has been such an important part of the city’s history.
At the museum you can explore the largest collection of historic sea vessels in the world, including the show runner, the Star of India, which is the oldest active ship in the world.
You can buy tickets ahead of time for the museum here.
Whaley House Museum
Located in Old Town San Diego, the Whaley House was built in 1857 and thought to be the most haunted place in the United States. If you’re okay with getting the spooks, this is actually a cool museum and historic house to tour.
The Whaley House was the home of Thomas Whaley and his family. It was also the home to Mr. Whaley’s general store, San Diego’s first commercial theater, and the second courthouse that ever existed in San Diego county.
The house is a good representation of Greek Revival architecture, and the interior decor has been preserved to make it feel like you’ve stepped back into the 1850s as you tour the museum.
If you’re really feeling brave, they offer private after hour tours at night once the museum is closed for the day.
San Diego Air & Space Museum
Located at none other than the famous San Diego museum hub of Balboa Park, the San Diego Air & Space Museum is a fun interactive museum about aviation and space exploration.
The museum is housed in the old Ford Building and listed on the US National Register of Historic Places. It features exhibits that have historic planes and space history, including astronaut suits and a piece of Apollo 9.
Fleet Science Center
The last Balboa Park museum on this list, the Fleet Science Center is a planetarium and science museum in San Diego. The center features hands-on exhibits that are popular with kids and IMAX shows (one of which is included in the price of your ticket).
Similar to the Natural History Museum, this is a good museum for kids but can be fun for adults as well if you’re into science and how the world works.
If you have any interest in marine life, head over to the world-renowned Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla during your vacation in San Diego.
The Aquarium is most well known for its progressive research in marine biology, but the aquarium is well worth a visit as well for its unique sea life and great views looking out over La Jolla.
The Birch Aquarium features interactive exhibits that teach you more about local marine life and conservation efforts to protect it.
Look for the Loggerhead sea turtle, leopard sharks, and seahorses, and don’t miss out on the dive show in the two-story kelp forest during your visit.
You can grab tickets for the museum ahead of time 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 one of the most popular things is checking out the nightlife scene, especially in Gaslamp, North Beach, and Pacific Beach. These spots are a good place to start.
- The Tipsy Crow
- Noble Experiment
- False Idol
- Belly Up Tavern
- The Casbah
Best San Diego Tours
La Jolla Sea Caves Kayak Tour
If you’re a fan of sea kayaking, the La Jolla Sea Caves Kayak Tour is one of the best tours to check out the underwater park in La Jolla and the diverse marine habitats that are in the area.
On the tour, it’s not unusual to spot sea lions, dolphins, and even a grey whale if it’s the right season. Not to mention, kayaking through sea caves and kelp forests is all kinds of magical.
You can book the tour here.
The San Diego Highlights Tour
If you want to go on a tour that covers all the best spots for a first time visitor to San Diego, I’d recommend going on The San Diego Highlights Tour.
This full day San Diego city tour takes you around the top sights and northern coastline, including stops at Coronado, the Embarcadero, Balboa Park, the Gaslamp Quarter, and La Jolla.
It’s a great way to start out a San Diego vacation to get your bearings and introduce you to some of the best spots that San Diego has to offer, all with a local San Diego tourist guide.
This seven hour tour will give you a good overview of the city and will allow you to explore the different neighborhoods in a more condensed amount of time.
It would be great for your first day or two in the city or if you’re short on time and want to see the most you can.
You can book the tour here.
San Diego Old Town, Taco, and Tequila Tour
Three very popular things about San Diego are touched on in this tour – hispanic heritage, tequila, and Mexican food. Um, yes please. I mean, it wouldn’t be a proper trip to San Diego without a little tequila and Mexican food, amiright?
The San Diego: Old Town Taco, Tequila, and Tortilla Tour, takes you around the best parts of Old Town San Diego so you can explore the birthplace of California and learn more about the layered history in this area.
The tour ends with a stop at a tequileria so you can taste some liquid gold and learn about the many different types of tequila.
It’s a short tour at only 2.5 hours and a good introduction to one of the most important historical neighborhoods in San Diego.
You can book the tour here.
Short Day Trips from San Diego
The Flower Fields in Carlsbad (45 minutes)
One of the most colorful day trips only a short drive from downtown San Diego, The Flower Fields in Carlsbad are an Instagram and flower-lover’s dream.
The Carlsbad Flower Fields feature over 50 acres of colorful gardens and ranunculus flowers. The fields are only open when the flowers are in bloom from March 1st through May 10th, so make this a priority if you happen to be in the area in spring.
It’s a stunning spot to visit right next to San Diego, and it gives you an excuse to explore another beautiful seaside town in Southern California – Carlsbad.
Tijuana, Mexico (45 minutes – although border crossings may be much longer)
Looking for a unique San Diego day trip? How about Mexico?
Most people are surprised when they visit San Diego to realize just how close the city is to the border. For those looking for more adventure, head over to Tijuana for some tacos and to visit a new country in a day.
Just be prepared to be patient in case immigration takes longer than you expect. Sometimes it’s only a few minutes, but other times it can take up to two hours.
The easiest way to cross the border is to drive to Pedwest in San Ysidro, California. You can park your car at the border station parking lot.
From there, it’s only a short walk to immigration. Once you get through immigration, find the pedestrian bridge and walk to Avenida de la Amistad to find the regulated white-and-orange Taxi Libres.
Ignore the yellow taxis since those are unregulated and you’re more likely to get scammed.
You can also take an Uber or Lyft to Pedwest, or you can even take the trolley from downtown San Diego to the US/Mexico border. Just note that immigration near the trolley stop usually has longer wait times.
And most importantly, don’t forget your passport. Even US citizens now need a passport to get into Mexico and back into the United States. A regular ID or driver’s license doesn’t work anymore.
Julian (1.25 hours)
One of my favorite places to visit near San Diego. If you’re ready for the best apple pie you’ve ever tried in your life, head over to Julian for your fill of all things apple, from pie to cider.
Apple pie is kind of a big deal in the US and Julian apple pie is another level of deliciousness.
Besides the apple pie, the drive from San Diego to Julian is winding and beautiful, and the whole mountain town of Julian is a California Historic Landmark full of historic western buildings.
This is an ideal day trip from San Diego if you want to get off-the-beaten-path and explore the more local side to California (and, you know, eat a lot of pie).
Temecula (1.25 hours)
Temecula is a beautiful place to visit for many reasons, but especially if you want to do wine tasting near San Diego, this is the best spot to do it.
Temecula Valley Wine Country is an underrated wine region in Southern California that is home to rolling hills and over 40 different wineries.
If you’re making a day of it, don’t miss out on exploring Old Town Temecula after some wine tasting. This part of Temecula is where you’ll find buildings from the 1800s, local farmers markets, and a variety of good restaurants.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (2 hours)
One of the most beautiful state parks near San Diego and California’s largest state park, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has a lot to offer any outdoor enthusiast.
The park covers and protects over 600,000 acres of slot canyons and badlands. It’s a remote oasis for desert exploration. Probably its most famous attraction is the stunning wildflowers that take over the park in April.
Make sure to stop by the visitors center to find out where they would recommend hiking for the day and to learn more about the area. Big horn sheep are often seen on certain trails.
It’s recommended to bring a 4WD if you plan to drive off the main road to explore the 500 miles of remote roads in the park.
Note: If you want to hit Julian and Anza-Borrego in one day from San Diego, this tour is a great option.
Los Angeles (2.5 hours)
You might think it’s impossible to visit Los Angeles in only a day trip from San Diego, but if you check out my super detailed guide on what to see, you can narrow it down to a few key sights you’d really want to see in the City of Stars.
The main thing to watch out for with doing a day trip to Los Angeles is the traffic.
Although it’s only a 2.5 hour drive from San Diego to LA, with traffic it can take longer. Avoid rush hour at all costs, and even then, you’ll probably still get stuck in some traffic because it’s LA.
If you know that going in and you plan for buffer time, it could definitely be worth it to head up to LA for the day. It’s really unlike any other city in California.
And if you don’t want to drive, the Pacific Surfliner train from San Diego to LA is a beautiful way to travel.
Salvation Mountain and Salton Sea (2.5 hours)
If you’re looking for those Mad Max apocalypse vibes and you want to go even more off the tourist trail, I’d recommend doing a day trip to Salvation Mountain and the Salton Sea.
Salvation Mountain is a psychedelic religious monument in Slab City that was built by Leonard Knight and kind of creepy yet cool to explore.
Drive a little further and you’ll come to the Salton Sea, a saline lake located in the middle of nowhere in the California desert.
Apparently, this used to be a popular tourist attraction near San Diego many decades ago, but it has since turned into a deserted wasteland of fish bones and dead things.
I once slept in my car here and couldn’t sleep for most of the night because it was such a creepy area, but it’s an interesting place to visit during the day.
If you want to see an alternative side to California and get some interesting pictures while you’re at it, this day trip is one of the more unique things to do in Southern California.
- 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)
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. 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.
Where is San Diego
San Diego is located at the bottom of California, only a 45-minute drive from the Mexican border.
The city is in an ideal location to get around the southwest US, with easy access to places like Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, numerous national parks, and various cities around Arizona and Mexico.
How to Get from Los Angeles to San Diego
How far is San Diego from LA? About 2.5-3 hours, whether you’re driving or taking the train or bus.
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 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. 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, two-day pass $9, three-day pass $12, and 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 do in San Diego.
It’s offered all over the nation in cities such as Los Angeles and Boston as well. It’s good for planning out what you’d like to see, and what there actually is to see in San Diego.
It’s not particularly cheap, but if you plan on having an action-packed tourist-fueled day or 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 are 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 San Diego. 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
Luck Lucky D’s is right in the middle of the action, a short walk away from the Gaslamp district. If you’re looking for a party you can find that here, but if you want a more chill stay that’s available too. They offer both dorm-style rooms and private rooms with shared bathrooms.
If you’re looking for a retro 1960s-themed budget accommodation in a great location, look no further than Kings Inn. The inn’s decor is all about that nostalgic vibe and right in the heart of Mission Valley.
There’s also a pool to cool off in after a day of sightseeing, free parking, and two onsite restaurants – a waffle house and a Mexican restaurant called The Amigo.
Fairly new to downtown San Diego, this hotel provides a luxury experience at a decent price point and a fantastic location.
With its many restaurants, bars, lounge areas, rooftop pool, fitness area, free parking, and spa, you might just never want to leave when you stay here.
With its signature red-roofed turrets, the Hotel del Coronado tops the list as San Diego’s most famous hotel. And, as an added bonus it’s on beautiful Coronado Island!
Treat yourself to a luxurious stay and spend an evening pampering yourself at the spa. Hotel del Coronado truly has it all: a fitness center, three pools, activities, spas, and suites.
Hotel del Coronado pulls out all the stops for summer and winter alike, offering an ice skating rink during winter holidays and a mermaid fitness classes during the summer.
There’s a reason why it’s considered one of the best places to stay in San Diego.
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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