With gorgeous year-round sunny weather, beautiful scenery, and so much to see and do, San Diego is aptly nicknamed “America’s Finest City.” The only challenge you’ll encounter when deciding what to do in San Diego is how to narrow down your choices.
This SoCal city has more to offer than just sunshine. That’s where this guide comes in. Exploring the many unique neighborhoods can be daunting. From the world-famous San Diego Zoo to the fantastic beaches, ultra-trendy clubs to the grand historic districts, there is bound to be something for everyone when visiting this Southern California town; and most of these can even be explored in just a day. I have compiled the 17 best things to do in San Diego that you can’t miss.
Cost of Visiting San Diego
People are always surprised when I tell them that a San Diego vacation does not have to break the bank. There are plenty of free things to do in San Diego and budget hotels in addition to the upscale pleasures of the city as well as the luxury hotels in San Diego.
I wrote this guide to assist you in your planning and help you enjoy visiting this year-around sunny spot. Most places mentioned here, you can do for free and some not soo free. Eating out at restaurants and partying is going to cost a pretty penny, so I’m very mindful about the picks of “best things to do in San Diego” so don’t fret, you can enjoy this town even if you don’t hail from posh Beverly Hills neighborhood in L.A.
Best Money-Saving Value
SoCal CityPASS – If you want to save tons of money, then a Southern California CityPASS is something you have to get. You can easily save $150 off the face value of the listed inclusions. If you’re going to LEGOLAND, SeaWorld, or the San Diego Zoo, it’s a no brainer. This is especially true if you’re going with the family.
GetYourGuide San Diego – Unusual tours for down low prices. Whether you’re going to explore Balboa Park on a Segway or a Patriot Jet Boat thrill ride, GetYourGuide has you covered.
Cross Border Xpress San Diego – If you are planning on getting a car rental service to go around the city in total comfort, the Cross Border Xpress San Diego is your best option – Get 30% off your first car rental in San Diego.
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1 – Surf at the Beaches
Visiting the beach is undoubtedly one of the things to do in San Diego, and best yet, it’s FREE. You might have discovered that the water is too chilly for beachy fun, but unless you see it in the wintertime, the water is perfect for wading, surfing, and swimming for most of the year. The best San Diego beaches feature prominently on most travelers’ itineraries because of its availability year-round.
What you do at the beach depends on weather and personal taste, but these are the San Diego beaches I recommend you check out:
Coronado Municipal Beach
With calm water and a broad, flat stretch of sand, this is a fantastic beach for families with younger children.
La Jolla Shores Beach
The gentle waves make it an ideal place to learn how to surf, and there are lifeguards on duty until dusk.
If you love water sports like water skiing, stand up paddleboarding, and aqua cycles, this is the San Diego beach for you.
Pacific Beach is the most significant stretch of sandy beach in PB and is one of the most popular beaches in San Diego. It’s a great spot for swimmers and surfers of all ages.
Del Mar Beach
There are baths, showers, and lifeguards at this family-friendly San Diego shore.
Moonlight Beach — you will find all you need at this shore, from picnic tables, fire rings, lifeguards, and restrooms to volleyball courts, a snack bar, and gear rentals.
2 – Go to Little Italy
Little Italy is the definitive place to go for delicious Italian food. A myriad of Italian restaurants and bakeries, wine bars, and boutique shops awaits. All along India street, you’ll find the most excellent restaurants like Assenti’s Pastas, breweries like Bolt Brewery, and wine bars like Davanti Enoteca. Yes, you’ll spend some money, but it’s money well spent!
3 – Check out Coronado
The dreamy town of Coronado is an island stronghold of hotels, resorts, beach-front restaurants. Make the short, two-mile travel over one of San Diego’s most recognizable structures, Coronado Bridge, or take the ferry to get there (which will cost money). The central business district, which occupies Orange Avenue, is full of shops, restaurants, and family-friendly hangouts.
4 – Play in LEGOLAND
LEGOLAND California is a must-visit attraction for families with children ages 2-12. Older siblings and parents can get in on the fun, too. There are over 60 rides, 4-D movies, building actions. Kids particularly love mini trading figures with staff around the park, learning how-to drive-in kid-sized LEGO automobiles, the Dragon Coaster, and Miniland USA using its LEGO skyscraper.
In the warmer months, LEGOLAND Water Park is a great place to cool off, and SEA LIFE® Aquarium is a good deal of fun year-round. In summer, mainly when the water parks are open every day, LEGO-loving families can and do spend multiple days here.
Tip: Grab your tickets ahead of time in SoCal CityPASS. Also, before planning a trip to LEGOLAND, it is essential to check their calendar since the park is closed on select Tuesdays and Wednesdays between September and February. The parks are also open on weekends or seasonally during the school year.
5 – Head Out to La Jolla Cove
Take in the luxury of this SoCal seaside village of La Jolla Cove, a fast 20-minute drive from downtown San Diego. Wind through Prospect Street to navigate shops like the iconic Warwick’s, the country’s oldest family-run bookstore, or dine with a sea view at high-end restaurants if you can afford it. Free things to do is taking pictures! La Jolla is the most-photographed place in San Diego.
6 – Check Out the San Diego Zoo
The Zoo is world-renowned, and it spans 100 acres of land while housing over 3,700 endangered and rare animals. Entry fee is $56 per adult at $46 per child – You can buy your tickets ahead of time at SoCal CityPASS.Spend the day at the zoo, learning about various animals or watch shows and animal presentations. In the summer, Nighttime Zoo event series allows visitors to stay later well into the night. There are loads of restaurants throughout the park where parents can recuperate with a much-needed afternoon beer.
7 – Party in the Gaslamp District
The Gaslamp Di San Diego’s center of nightlife and the Gaslamp Quarter in downtown is where you will want to be if you’re looking to eat at restaurants, party & dance, or just people watching. You’ll find every flavor on any restaurants to suit every taste, all within walking distance of one another, and a plethora of dance clubs and bars.
Take a stroll along Fifth Avenue to take in the vibe of the Gaslamp Quarter and then enjoy a meal (or two) sitting in a sidewalk table as the residents walk by. Then cap off the evening with a cool show at the House of Blues.
8 – Hit up SeaWorld San Diego
Families from around the world come to San Diego, especially to see SeaWorld San Diego. Entrance Fee is going to cost $91, but there are special discounts available. In addition to its marine exhibits, SeaWorld San Diego also has a few thrilling rides such as the Manta roller coaster and Shipwreck Rapids. Plus, there is the famous Sesame Street Bay of Play for young kids, making it one of the greatest things to do in San Diego for families.
Highlights of SeaWorld San Diego comprise Turtle Reef, Penguin Encounter, sea lion feedings (guests can purchase a tray of fish and throw it to them), Otter Outlook, and various touch pools. The once-famous live orca shows are replaced by beautiful documentary movies of orcas in the wild on a three-story screen, and there are still live sea lion and dolphin shows.
9 – Straddle the Cliffs at Sunset Cliffs
With postcard-worthy sea cliffs and views, San Diego’s aptly named Sunset Cliffs neighborhood offers visitors with sweeping panoramic ocean views. It is the city’s most popular spot at sunset. Part of its district overlaps with Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, which is a 68-acre reserve that is known for its sea caves, rock arch formations, and steep cliffs. Blaze a path along the shore for a scenic walk or brave a stroll along the cliffs, while envying the sprawling mansions nearby.
10 – Explore the Old Town
Historical San Diego is not always evident, but a sure bet to take in the city’s past would be to pay a visit to Old Town State Historic Park. It may be overly touristy and contrived, but if you look hard enough, you will find authentic snippets of San Diego’s past.
Must do: There are several excellent restaurants in Old Town, but the Old Town Mexican Cafe, with its homemade tortillas, is among the most popular choices.
11 – Go Kayaking in Mission Bay
Visitors to San Diego who are interested in watersports might want to remain near or at least plan on visiting Mission Bay. The manmade bay offers calm water and waveless beaches for kids. Things to do at Mission Bay include stand-up paddleboarding, sailing, and kayaking. Boat rentals for fishing, water skiing, and leisure are available, but if you are hungry for thrills, you could also measure it up a notch by trying a water-powered jet pack.
Trails for walking, running, and biking circle the bay passing by several playgrounds and grassy areas that are excellent for picnics and play. There are RV parking and even a municipal campground. If you are coming to San Diego specifically to surf, sail, kayak, or paddleboard, you should be aware that a number of the Mission Bay hotels have water sports centers onsite (mostly Action Sports Rentals). Otherwise, you can try the Mission Bay Aquatic Center.
12 – Go to an Annual San Diego Event
Annual events big and small also bring massive traffic to San Diego. You have probably heard of most of these, and it is worth seeing what is happening in San Diego during your visit so that you can plan accordingly. Be aware that if you are attending a unique annual event in the city, it will help to prepare well in advance since the town can get crowded, and tickets to local attractions can sell out.
These are just some of the San Diego events that draw people here from all over:
San Diego Comic-Con (July)
The San Diego County Fair (June – July)
Del Mar Racing Season (July — September)
13 – Watch the San Diego Symphony
Taking place takes place each summer is the Bayside Summer Nights, which is a quintessential San Diego event series showcasing the fantastic San Diego Symphony. It takes place along the active Embarcadero (#17 below) on the east side of San Diego Bay.
The symphony features guest headliners, which previously have included legendary singers, the likes of Tony Bennett, and Diana Ross. The concert series kicks off during Independence Day weekend and continues through Labor Day.
14 – Watch a Sunset at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
A rocky natural reserve with scenic ocean views and landscapes that is great for a quick hike or multi-day of exploration. Torrey Pines is no secret, and crowds flock here for a good reason. The reserve is open from dusk ’til dawn 365 days a year, and all cars must pay an admission fee, which ranges from $10-20 depending on the day.
It’s one of the cheapest things to do in San Diego that gives the most bang for the buck. If you’re into photography, this spot offers lots of opportunities for both the professional and budding photographer.
15 – Watch a Race at Del Mar Racetrack
The track is open starting Wednesday through Sunday and holds about eight to 12 races daily. The Del Mar Racetrack is a real draw for the high rollers and casual gamblers alike, so for the budget-conscious travelers, this may not be the ideal place to be. However, lightning-fast horse races that can get your heart pumping might be worth all the losses accrued. There is a 30-minute interval between races to place your bets or refill your drinks.
16 – Explore the Embarcadero
San Diego’s walkable harbor-front is teeming with shops, exciting sights, and eateries that look across the bay to Coronado Island. A lot of the Embarcadero’s curiosities are floating on the water, the USS Midway, and some legacy ships to the Maritime Museum.
In November, the Embarcadero stages the San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival, while the San Diego Symphony Orchestra (# 14 above) plays the Bayside Summer Nights from late-June to the beginning of September.
17 – Balboa Park
Balboa Park is the nation’s largest urban cultural park with multiple parks, parks, play areas, and 17 museums. It is a real city treasure, and you will find many things to do in Balboa Park for nearly everyone.
Look out for the street entertainers and bike rentals. Plan to eat as you’re here since there are some beautiful restaurants in Balboa Park. Alfresco dining at the Japanese Friendship Garden for Japanese food favorites or Panama 66 with its craft cocktails are our favorite choices.
Check it out on a Segway Tour!
There you go, whether you have a week or a day in San Diego, you have your itinerary full of cool and fun things to do. Don’t forget to rent your convertible from Viajemos and explore San Diego top down!
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