From trying the world-renowned microbrewery scene to finding the best beaches and tacos, these are the best things to do in San Diego 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 very sunny. Plus, there are a ton of things to do in San Diego. Seriously, 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 bucket list so all of my favorite local spots and hangouts can continue to be enjoyed, even when I’m not there.
From tourist 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 12 Things to do in San Diego
1. Explore Balboa Park for an Afternoon
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 resident or in the military. Besides the museums, Balboa Park also holds 16 gardens and boasts a detailed architectural history that is best described as Spanish Colonial Revival.
There are countless caricature artists lining the park boulevards, balloon animals, and fair food such as cotton candy and popcorn.
The Spanish Village Artist Center is a colorful corner of the park that showcases every type of local art imaginable. The world-famous San Diego Zoo is also housed here, and more often than not you’ll find some cool old cars (Chevy Impalas!) parked around the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.
One of my favorite parts of the park 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.
Recommended Experience: Best of Balboa Park Tour (with Coffee)
2. 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 look! You can find a brewery in just about any suburb, so no matter where you’re located you can get a taste for the San Diego beer scene.
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 the San Diego Microbrewery Tour is a good place to start.
With over 100 breweries in the greater San Diego county, you’re spoiled for choice.
My personal favorites include Ballast Point (give me a Sculpin IPA any day), Green Flash, and Stone 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.
3. Release Your Inner Kid at Belmont Park
Belmont Park is the subdued version of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, it even includes an old wooden roller coaster like my hometown’s park.
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 was 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 was at Belmont once the park was all lit up at night.
Other favorites would be 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.
Since we were using our Go Card pass for this attraction, I was also able to do my first ever zip line, and have free use of the climbing rock wall.
4. 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 loved about the museum was how interactive it was, and how much its history was brought to life because of that.
Touring multiple levels of the carrier, viewing old living quarters and pilots’ ready rooms, and stepping inside World War II fighter jets or a Huey helicopter used in the Vietnam War. It was a thought-provoking experience.
Similar to the Air & Space Museum at Balboa Park, the USS Midway Museum also has flight simulators for an additional cost.
Before heading into the museum, 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.
5. 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.
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 drinks menu, with the top shelf reached by a rolling ladder.
A close runner up, if you want more of a dive bar to watch the hipsters simultaneously drink their Pabst Blue Ribbons, is Bar Pink. Bar Pink hosts a lot of live music and DJs and usually has a playful R&B/Hip Hop vibe.
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 is a fun night out without the constant over intoxication found in Pacific Beach.
6. Enjoy a Different Beach Every Day
There are over 50 beaches in San Diego County and all offer a different impression depending on what suburb you find yourself in.
I spent a lot of time in North County for school, specifically 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, and Torrey Pines State Reserve has one of the best hikes in view of the sunny 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
7. 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 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.
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 trip because it was included in our Go Card, but if you had to choose between the two I would definitely 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 was the wait time and the fact that the animals were quite far away.
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, we 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. But, if you just want to pay the one-time admission price, the San Diego Zoo is 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, 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 history compared to SeaWorld.
8. 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.
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 been on. 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 this trail.
This trail is good if you just want to get outside, feel a little 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 and 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 – 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. It’s a popular day trip hike to tackle from the city if you want a more intense outdoor workout.
Another challenging hike, 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.
It’s 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 is 4.5 miles with an estimated duration of three hours. Obviously, add in more time if you want to spend time swimming at the Devil’s Punchbowl.
9. 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 Hwy, also known as Hwy 101.
Starting around Torrey Pines Reserve, the Coast Highway goes through some 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 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
10. Have at Least One Taco Tuesday in Pacific Beach
Taco Tuesday, it’s 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 so 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 the 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 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.
11. Walk Around the Gaslamp Quarter
Whether you’re after shopping, bar hopping, classy restaurants, architecture, or simply people watching, the Gaslamp Quarter is the heart of downtown. I would recommend seeing it during the day and also at night to see the difference, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when it really comes alive.
I used to work down in Gaslamp for an internship and our building was the coolest office I’ve ever been in. It was part of the old Louis Bank of Commerce built in 1888.
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 go visit his house in the Gaslamp as it has been turned into a museum.
The Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation is in place to make sure that those 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.
Recommended Experience: A Culinary Tour of San Diego’s Questionable Past
12. Go Paragliding at the Gliderport in La Jolla
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. We watched the gliders out there enough from Black’s Cliffs, and it seemed like the perfect thing to do for graduation.
It never happened though, and I’ve been wanting to go paragliding ever since. I was originally planning on doing it in Maui but they were booked up months in advance, and then I decided to do it in Oahu but the guy who ran the company never got back to me.
Then it hit me, this was a perfect way to see San Diego again after 2 years abroad, to go paragliding over La Jolla.
Well, I never left the ground because I did things like buy a hippie van and go to Coachella Music Festival, which left very little wiggle room financially, but 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 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 a California burrito 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 the sunrises I’ve seen there are some of the best. Of course, it’s beautiful any time of the day you choose to go up, so make your way up there whenever it suits you.
Other Recommended Things to do in San Diego
Tourist Attractions in San Diego
13. Old Town + Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
14. Japanese Friendship Garden
16. Coronado Island
17. Point Loma/Cabrillo National Monument
19. Mormon Battalion Historic Site
20. Seaport Village
21. Old Globe Theatre
22. Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala
Local Things to do in San Diego
23. Watch the sunrise from Mount Soledad Lookout
24. Go on a date night at Rooftop Cinema Club
25. Saturday ‘Mercato’ Street Market in Little Italy
26. Ocean Beach Farmers Market
27. Catch a flick at South Bay Drive-in Theatre
28. See the 80+ murals at Chicano Park Barrio Logan
29. Catch a Padres game at Petco Park
30. Watch the cyclists at San Diego Velodrome (April-September)
32. Bike the Silver Strand Bikeway
33. Take in the views from Cuyamaca Peak
34. Go snorkeling at San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park
35. Enjoy a free organ performance at Spreckels Organ Pavilion at Balboa Park (2pm on Sundays)
36. Drive the 59-Mile San Diego Scenic Drive
37. Watch a show at the La Jolla Playhouse
Best Beaches in San Diego
38. Windansea Beach
39. Torrey Pines State Beach
40. Ocean Beach
41. La Jolla Cove + Children’s Pool Beach
42. Pacific Beach
43. Coronado Beach
Outdoor Activities & Hikes
44. Mission Trails Regional Park
45. Presidio Park
46. La Jolla Shores Park
47. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
48. San Diego Bay Wildlife Refuge
49. Mission Bay Park
50. Mt. Laguna
51. Waterfront Park
52. San Diego Museum of Man
53. The San Diego Museum of Art
56. Whaley House Museum
57. San Diego Air & Space Museum
58. Star of India
59. Fleet Science Center
Food & Coffee
Coffee & Tea
61. Pannikin Coffee & Tea
62. Bird Rock Coffee Roasters
63. Communal Coffee
64. Brockton Villa
65. The Mission Cafe
66. Snooze an A.M. Eatery (Hillcrest)
69. Phil’s BBQ
70. Pizza Port
71. Meze Greek Fusion
72. Water Grill
73. Din Tai Fung
74. Cucina Urbana
75. Extraordinary Desserts
76. Bobboi Natural Gelato
Best Taquerias in San Diego
77. Las Cuatro Milpas
78. Lolita’s Mexican Food
79. Oscars Mexican Seafood
80. Vallarta Express Mexican Eatery or Rigoberto’s Taco Shop
81. Lucha Libre Taco Shop (Not the best on this list, but it has the most character)
Nightlife & Live Music Venues
82. The Tipsy Crow
83. Noble Experiment
85. False Idol
86. Belly Up Tavern
87. The Casbah
Best San Diego Tours
Short Day Trips from San Diego
91. The Flower Fields in Carlsbad (45 minutes)
92. Tijuana, Mexico (45 minutes – although note that border crossings may be much longer)
93. Julian (best apple pie ever) (1.25 hours)
94. Temecula (1.25 hours)
95. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (2 hours)
Note: If you want to hit Julian and Anza-Borrego in one day from San Diego, this is a great option.
96. Los Angeles (2.5-3 hours)
97. Salvation Mountain and Salton Sea (2.5 hours)
98. San Diego County Fair (June)
99. San Diego Comic Con (July)
100. San Diego International Film Festival (October)
101. 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. I mean, I’ve even 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 even 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 times 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
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 it depending on 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 $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 sightseeing in a few days, buy the Go San Diego Card – The Go Card is an attraction card that includes a long list of things to do in San Diego. It’s offered all over the nation in cities such as Los Angeles and Boston as well. It’s good for planning out what you’d like to see, and what there actually is to see in San Diego.
It’s not particularly cheap, but if you plan on having an action-packed tourist-fueled day 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. Public transport is an inexpensive way to get around the city, but it’s slow in San Diego and the route coverage isn’t phenomenal.
The Go Card isn’t the type of fast sightseeing I normally enjoy doing, but 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 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 a short 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 on site 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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