Situated on the Pacific coast of California, the city of San Diego is known for its cool cultural institutions, great weather and beautiful beaches. It really does live up to its nickname of America’s Finest City. It has an easy-going vibe and is a popular destination with surfers. It’s also a favourite spot with families too who make the most of all the great kid-friendly places. Are you planning a trip or looking for some destination inspiration? Here are some of the best things to do in San Diego, California.
The 16 Best Things To Do In San Diego
1. Go swimming at Coronado Municipal Beach
Some of the best free things to do in San Diego involve feeling the sand between your toes and the refreshing saltwater lapping against your skin. With 70 miles of coastline, San Diego is a great destination for lovers of sand and surf. There are more than 30 beaches to choose from. One of its most popular is Coronado Municipal Beach. This beach is consistently ranked as one of the best beaches in America. It’s actually four beach areas including Coronado City Beach, Tidelands Park, Glorietta Bay Park and Centennial Park. With warm, calm water, these beaches are perfect for swimming and are great for families and beginner surfers and bodyboarders.
2. Catch the swells at Torrey Pines State Beach
Be as active or passive as you like on this wide, sandy beach. It stretches four and a half miles from Del Mar past Los Peñasquitos Lagoon to the base of sandstone cliffs at Torrey Pines Mesa. Surfers love the Torrey Pines State Beach swells and at low tide, the beach is popular with walkers too. At the southern end, you’ll find Blacks Beach, a clothing-optional (aka nudist) spot.
3. Spend the day at the seaside at La Jolla by the Sea
La Jolla by the Sea sparks joy with its seaside sights and attractions. The picturesque village is immersed in relaxed luxury and leisurely seaside serenity. Come here to chill out and check out the sun-kissed locals of San Diego’s best beach town. With cliffs overlooking the ocean and lots of watersports on offer, it is a stunning place to get active and catch some of the Pacific Ocean waves. It’s also a great spot to just catch some rays. There are also some lovely oceanfront restaurants where you can dine on fresh, local cuisine and sip refreshing drinks as you watch the sunset.
4. Dive the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park
The San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve stretches from La Jolla Cove to halfway down La Jolla Shores Beach. The reserve’s habitats include rocky reefs, kelp beds, sand flats and submarine canyons, for instance, Scripps Canyon and La Jolla Canyon. The visibility here is great and extends up to 30-feet. Don’t forget your waterproof camera! As for wildlife spotting, this place is brimming with Orange Garibaldi (California’s state fish) and leopard sharks. You’ll also see, and hear lots of seals and sea lions hanging out on the cliffs and playing in the water. You don’t need to scuba to enjoy the underwater park. You’ll still see lots if you decide to snorkel or kayak.
5. Wander the beautiful gardens of Balboa Park
Balboa Park has 1,200 beautiful and lushly planted acres of gardens and trails to explore. The 18 gardens reflect many different horticultural styles and environments, for instance, the Spanish-style garden, Japanese Friendship Garden, Australian Garden, Rose Garden and the Desert Garden. You can explore the gardens at your own pace on a self-guided tour but to get the most out of your time here and learn about the landscaping and greenery, take a tour with a Park Ranger, a floral professional, or a horticulturist.
6. Meet the animals at the world-famous San Diego Zoo
Also at Balboa Park, you’ll find the world-famous San Diego Zoo. It is one of the biggest zoos in America and homes thousands of beautiful, rare and endangered animals. Walk along the various paths and trails, take a guided bus tour or, for a bird’s eye view, take the aerial route and ride the gondola that goes directly above and across the zoo. Make sure you check out the polar bears, okapis, koalas, pygmy hippos, elephants, African penguins, Galapagos tortoises and Hamadryas baboons.
7. Visit the many museums in Balboa Park
Balboa Park is home to 17 museums and cultural institutions. It’s really handy having so many attractions in one location as it means you can see quite a lot in one day. With an incredible diversity of collections, there is something here for everyone, for instance, local San Diego history, the history of transportation and the arts, crafts and culture of people. Some of the most popular museums in Balboa Park are the San Diego Air & Space Museum, the San Diego Art Institute, the San Diego Natural History Museum (theNAT) and the San Diego Museum of Art. You’ll also find the Fleet Science Center, the Museum of Us, the San Diego Automotive Museum, and many more all within walking distance of each other.
8. Marvel at the USS Midway Museum
The USS Midway is the longest-serving American aircraft carrier of the 20th-century. It is now a museum and one of the most popular visitor attractions in San Diego. On a visit, you can engage with 60 different exhibits and 29 restored aircraft including some used in World War II, Operation Desert Storm and the Korean War. As you roam around, you get a behind the scenes look at military life aboard, for instance, you see the crew’s sleeping quarters, the engine room, the ship’s jail and the flight control room. The USS Midway experience also includes flight simulators, catapult and trap talks and lots of other activities and events to keep you busy for the whole day. Make sure you have your photo taken with the “Unconditional Surrender” statue, which is just outside of the museum. The statue shows a sailor kissing a nurse to celebrate the end of World War II.
9. Enjoy all the fun of the fair at Belmont Park
Belmont Park is a beachfront amusement park full of old-time charm and is a great place for some old-fashioned family fun. It is home to one of the most scenic and thrilling wooden roller coasters in America. The “Giant Dipper” was built in 1925 and today it is still going and is an icon of the San Diego beachfront. Climb on board and creak up the track to the peak where you can admire the Pacific Ocean before plunging down back to ground level. There are plenty more thrilling rides to enjoy and more sedate children’s rides too. You can play a game of mini-golf, race go-karts and zoom along a zipline. Make sure you step right up to play the fun games and try to win a prize. There are lots of places to eat inside too including San Diego’s largest oceanfront rooftop restaurant. Alternatively, you can always just bring a picnic and eat on the beach. This is one of the best things to do with kids in San Diego.
10. Live it up at Legoland California
Legoland California is another great place to head in San Diego if you have kids. Heck, even if you don’t have children in tow, it’s a fun place to go. Plan a whole day here, as there is just so much to see and do. This park is brimming with thrilling rides, games and different lego-interactive experiences for great family fun. Make sure you pack your swimming gear as there is even a water park here. You can also shop till you drop and buy all the Lego merchandise that you can carry. With all the fun and shopping you’ll have worked up an appetite, so check out all the super cool dining options. With so many, you certainly won’t go hungry.
11. Party in the Gaslamp Quarter
The Gaslamp Quarter is a lively, 150-year-old neighbourhood and the epicentre of San Diego’s party scene. Spread out over 16 city blocks, the Gaslamp Quarter is populated with Victorian buildings which retain their original charm and features but are now home to restaurants, music venues, bars and clubs. So, if you want to sample the San Diego nightlife, this is the place to be. However, the charismatic neighbourhood is also a cultural hotspot with lots of museums, art galleries, symphony halls and al fresco dining options. You can even take a nighttime ghost tour through the streets of this neighbourhood learning all about its dark past and haunted history.
12. Step back in time at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Another charming attraction is the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Located on the grounds of the first European settlement in California, this is widely considered by many to be the “birthplace of California”. Old Town San Diego is a mile-long strip of restored shops and houses, for instance, a former granary and courthouse. The area shows people what life was like during various eras of California history, from Californio rule to the Mexican Period and to the American Period. There are also lots of museums and unique places to shop and eat. You will find some terrific Mexican food and potent giant Margaritas to enjoy during your visit. Sure, they’ll probably make you stay longer!
13. Stroll around Seaport Village
San Diego Bay is a natural harbour and deepwater port and one of the most pleasant areas for enjoying the waterfront is Seaport Village. Located on San Diego’s beautiful “Big Bay”, Seaport Village recreates a harbour-side setting of a century ago. It has lots of charming shopping, dining and entertainment options. While away the hours watching ships sail in and out of the harbour, sip coffee in the sunshine and go shopping for souvenirs. Then, nab a perfect spot to watch the sunset over the water.
14. View the city from the water
One of the best ways to see San Diego is from the water on a cruise. There are lots of boat companies offering all types of boat tours. Some focus on the city’s history, some on the wildlife and some are more general sightseeing tours. Just head down to the city’s Embarcadero and see which boat tours and companies are best suited to you. Whale watching is fantastic in these waters. You can see grey, fin and humpback whales as they migrate along the coast especially from mid-December to mid-April. So, if you are visiting during those times, get out on a whale watching tour.
15. Taste the city at the Liberty Public Market
If you want to sample the local produce and cuisine, head to the Liberty Public Market in Point Loma’s historic Liberty Station. Housed in a former Navy training building the market has over 30 independently run food stalls, each with its own distinct flavour. The market is open early, every day, so you could easily eat here around the clock. Come for breakfast, brunch, lunch, snacks, dinner and, of course, dessert. You can also eat food from around the world as there are stalls serving delicacies from South Korea, Peru, Argentina, France, and a whole lot more.
16. Catch a sunset at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
San Diego is known for its picturesque sunsets. There is a multitude of places to enjoy a sundowner, from oceanfront restaurants to secluded lookout points and beaches. However, living up to its name, the Sunset Cliffs is one of the most breathtaking spots to watch the sunset in San Diego. Located south of the OB Pier, along Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, the park extends along the Point Loma peninsula’s western shoreline. With its sweeping ocean views and dramatic cliff formations and caves, watching the sun bow out for the day behind the ocean is an incredible way to welcome in the night.