Ready for some California dreamin’? As a local who raised a family in coastal San Diego over the past 25 years, I still marvel daily over the city’s technicolor sunsets, inspired outdoor lifestyle, and sparkling coastline. If you’d like to get in on the action, try this list of the top things to do in San Diego. It’s what I recommend to friends when they visit!
Best Things to do in San Diego
If you are looking for the very best to do in San Diego, local writer, Christina Roman shares all the top attractions with insider tips for first time visitors and returning veterans in this San Diego travel guide. This post was originally written by Christina, but we have updated it for 2022 with more attractions and tours to give you the most in-depth travel guide to San Diego mixing in a local insiders tips with the top tourist attractions. When visiting San Diego, follow these recommendations for an amazing vacation.
Our #1 Money Saving Tip in San Diego – Purchase a San Diego Pass They are valid for 12 months and you can get them for 1-7 days
San Diego is just a short distance from the San Diego international airport. You can easily get downtown by bus line 30 or tram line 140. You can also grab a taxi but we like to book a private transfer from the San Diego airport. We use this airport transfer service whenever we travel. It’s hassle-free and your driver meets you at arrivals with your name. Easy cancellation and last-minute bookings.
Planning a Trip to San Diego
If you are planning to visit San Diego, read our complete guide to where to stay in San Diego. It breaks down the best neighborhoods for each type of traveler. From beach lovers to families, the best nightlife and first timers, we’ve got you covered. Read about it here: Where To Stay In San Diego – The Best Neighborhoods & Areas
Explore Balboa Park
As the heart of San Diego, historic Balboa Park is most loved for the most famous attraction in San Diego, the San Diego Zoo. But there is so much more to see and do in this 1,200-acre urban park studded with colonial architecture. You can spend a day here exploring its museums, beauty and attractions. Built for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915 to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal, there are plenty of things to see and do.
Be sure to visit the glassblowers in the Spanish Village Art Center and with kids in tow, don’t miss a ride on the beautiful carousel. And if you’re in search of a meal with an ambiance to spare, make a reservation at The Prado, an award-winning indoor-outdoor restaurant in the park with accessories inspired by park collections.
By all means, see the pandas and flamingos at one of the most famous zoos in the world, but don’t stop there you can also explore the Japanese Friendship Garden and theatre, plus all 17 museums. There are plenty of things to see and do in this beautiful park. Read on to find out more! The San Diego Zoo Safari Park ticket includes Includes Africa Tram and all regularly scheduled experiences. More Details here.
Attractions of Balboa Park
There are 17 museums and cultural institutions within this must-see scenic park in San Diego. So whether you want to admire the old masters at the San Diego Museum of Art or the new ComiCon museum, there’s something to see for everyone!
Other Museums of Balboa Park:
- San Diego Air and Space Museum
- San Diego Art Institute
- Automotive Museum
- Natural History Museum
- San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts
- Museum of Us
- Comic Con Museum
- One of the best ways to explore San Diego’s top sites is to purchase a hop on hop off bus tour. It offers the opportunity to see 100 points of interest and historic sites in San Diego plus the Coronado as you ride through town on an authentic trolley.
Old Globe Theatre
The Old Globe Theatre is San Diego’s best place to enjoy professional Broadway-style productions. Many original productions at The Globe have gone on to Broadway and many have even won Tony Awards including “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” based on San Diego La Jolla resident Dr. Seuss’ classic book. Modeled after Shakespeare’s Old Globe in London, England, The Globe was built in 1937 for the California Pacific International Exposition. It’s a real treat to enjoy the culture and California history rolled into one!
Fleet Science Center
If you are looking for attractions in San Diego for kids, head over to the Fleet Science Center. Opened in 1973, it is still a popular attraction for the whole family filled with Interactive exhibits. There’s an IMAX theater, a play zone, and plenty of exhibitions.
There are so many things to do in Balboa Park you can spend days exploring this attraction alone!
Go Tide Pooling
One of my favorite activities in San Diego is to go tide pooling. When the tide rolls out along San Diego’s 70 miles of coastline along the Pacific Ocean, you’ll spy abundant hidden treasures if you know where to look. Spot sea stars, hermit crabs, limpets, mussels, anemones…maybe even a shy octopus tucked into a crevice.
- Just remember to tread carefully in these protected marine sanctuaries and leave no trace of your visit.
Top spots for tide pooling in San Diego include:
- The tide pools at Cabrillo National Monument
- Dike Rock (just north of the Scripps pier in La Jolla…Scripps Aquarium offers tours)
- Cardiff State Beach and Swami’s in Encinitas just a little further north.
Top tips for a successful tide pooling adventure: Check an ocean’s tide chart before you head to any of the San Diego beaches. Time your visit for a negative tide if possible. In fact, low tides in November to February make winter tide pooling especially rewarding.
One of San Diego’s most enduring tourist attractions is Belmont Park; an old amusement park dating back to 1925. Amusement parks are always fun for the whole family and this one has bumper cars, mini golf, and arcade games but don’t miss the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster. This wooden roller coaster that was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987.
Hike Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, in coastal La Jolla, is one of the wildest stretches of the Southern California coast. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker looking for a challenge or a family with young children or mobility-impaired adults, you’ll find plenty of hiking trails big on sweeping coastal views and sage-covered chaparral on Torrey Pines State Beach.
Breathe in the fragrant Torrey Pines on a short loop hiking trail or take a rustic footpath that descends from the bluffs through the upper reserve 300 feet to the beach. Hiking trails in the nearby Reserve Extension along the creek bed can be especially scenic during spring wildflower season. Read more about hiking in California: 15 Best Hikes in California – Inspiration to Get Outdoors
Torrey Pines Gliderport
If you are looking for some more excitement, the Torrey Pines Gliderport has one of the best views of San Diego and is a launchpad for paragliders. If you ever wanted a bit of adrenaline, paragliding is a great introduction to skydiving. It gives a birds eye view of the coast without having to jump out of a plane.
Old Town San Diego
Considered the birthplace of California, Old Town San Diego traces the history of the first European settlement dating back to 1820. It was designated a State Historical Park and houses many historic buildings including the Whaley House. The former site of the gallows has been officially designated a haunted house. A fun way to explore the historic village is to take this Tales, Tacos and Tequila Tour. Meet at Adobe Chapel to learn of the history and marvel at its Victorian architecture while enjoying authentic street tacos and Mexican food. Then end the tour at a local tequileria for a tequila tasting.
Take a Bike Tour
Take this self-guided e-bike tour to explore downtown, Balboa, and Old Town where you can explore the Maritime museum, the Gaslamp Quarter or Balboa Park on a relaxing bike ride. If you want to experience San Diego at your own pace, this is a great way to get around. There are suggestions for where to stop for authentic Mexican food, and a stop at one of the most haunted houses in the United States, Whaley House. Cycling is one of our favorite ways to spend the day in a city and e-biking makes it so easy. The meeting point to pick up your bikes is at 3918 Mason St, San Diego, CA 92110, USA.
The Strand on Coronado Island
If you’ve ever seen the American movie classic “Some Like It Hot” starring Marilyn Monroe, you’ll immediately recognize the distinctive red roofs of the iconic Hotel Del Coronado on the beachfront of San Diego Coronado island.
It is located just across the bay from San Diego. Be sure to note the Hollywood stars commemorating the film imprinted in the cement as you approach the hotel’s entrance. When Hotel Del Coronado opened in 1888, it was the largest resort hotel in the world.
Silver Strand at Coronado Beach
Even if you’re not staying at this beautiful luxury resort, you’ll enjoy a walk on the Silver Strand. It’s seven miles of sparkling sandy beach, just behind the hotel. Swing by Del’s beachside café for fish tacos or head up to the swanky outdoor bar for sunset cocktails with a view.
If you want to spend the day at Coronado island, book this walking tour to see the highlights including a stroll to Star Park, where the “Wizard of Oz” house is located, a visit to Coronado Beach and a walk by multi-million dollar homes that line Ocean Boulevard. Take a tour of Hotel del Coronado and enjoy a treat at a local eatery.
Stand-up paddleboard (SUP) culture is a thing here in San Diego. If you’ve never been, think about it as a cross between surfing and kayaking. You’ll use a paddle as you stand or kneel on a board to get out in the ocean. It’s as adventurous as you want to make it.
So rent a board and head out to the open ocean anywhere along the coast. First timers should choose a protected spot minus the waves for more relaxed paddling. Suggest SUP locations are Mission Bay Harbor, Oceanside Harbor or beautiful Agua Hedonida Lagoon. (Keep an eye out for friendly canines catching a ride with their humans!)
Embarcadero is one of the city’s top waterfront destinations with plenty of waterfront bars and restaurants. Located on San Diego Bay, Embardacero pays homage to the maritime history of San Diego with historic ships and museums. It is also here that you will board many of the scenic cruises and whale watching excursions. You’ll also see cruise ships in port here and there are plenty of restaurants and shops. This is a great place to go for a walk to take in the views and to do some shopping plus it is still a working fishing harbor.
It is here that you can visit the Maritime Museum of San Diego and the San Diego Museum of Art and Design but what attracts most people to the area (besides the hotels and nightlife) is the USS Midway Museum.
USS Midway Museum
One of the top San Diego attractions is the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier that was active from 1945-1992 making it the world’s longest-serving carrier from World War II to Desert Storm. Today it is the world’s largest museum dedicated to aircraft Carriers. It is moored at Embarcadero and visitors can tour its 60 exhibits and 29 aircraft on board. Onboard, you’ll relive the Midway’s exploits and hear about events that changed the world. Another good museum for nautical lovers is the Maritime Museum.
Get your skip the line tickets to beat the crowds on a self-guided audio tour of the longest-serving aircraft carrier in the American fleet. Spend 2-3 hours exploring its 60 exhibits including the galley, jail, and engine room. Plus take part in the simulators and watch the films.
Seaport Village is located next to Embarcadero and is a major 14 acre open air shopping complex in close proximity to the cruise ship terminal. There are plenty of restaurants, and it is connected to the Marriott hotel. (Where we stayed in San Diego en route to Rancho La Puerta in Mexico). There are galleries, coffee shops and boutiques making for a lovely stroll through this touristy area. When visiting a new city, it is fun to visit a tourist attraction. There’s a reason they are popular. Grab some ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s and take a stroll through the 50+ shops. There is a historic carousel and you can catch the Old Town Trolley here.
Located on San Diego Bay, Gaslamp Quarter has a wild western history of shootouts and bar room brawls. It was once the red-light district and in the 1860s it was San Diego’s Chinatown. There are 100 historic buildings in Gaslamp Quarter including museums and art galleries. You’ll also find a variety of bars and restaurants.
- Kimpton Solamar Hotel – Located in the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter and featuring Free WIFI, Rooftop Pool & free wine tasting! This is the usual Kimpton Luxury experience.
- Staypineapple at Hotel Z – A romantic hotel with quirky decor. It is pet friendly and offers free Wifi and is walking distance to almost everything.
- USA Hostels San Diego Downtown – Built back in 1880 this hostel offers mixed dorms, free WIFI, Free Breakfast, and a vibrant new age decor.
- The Heart of the City – Located in the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter. This is a 2nd Floor Expansive unit with lots of space. with 2 bedrooms and 1 bath, it is perfect for families or couples. It also comes with access to a parking space and is close to everything.
The Gaslamp Quarter is a great place to enjoy dinner and to check out the nightlife scene. This walking tour is a fun Brothels, Bites, and Booze Tour taking you through the history of the infamous Stingaree District while enjoying food at four different restaurants with some alcohol included. Make sure to sample the craft beer scene.
Speaking of San Diego nightlife, make your way to Solana Beach to enjoy live music at The Belly Up Tavern. It’s one San Diego’s premier live music venues. Before catching a show you can grab dinner at the Tavern next door.
San Diego Harbor Cruise
There’s no better way to admire San Diego’s spectacular coastline and skyline than from the water! So do yourself a favor and book a harbor cruise while you’re in town. Book this highly rated cruise of the San Diego Harbor to view the San Diego skyline and famous landmarks such as Coronado Bridge, Downtown San Diego, and more.
Cruise the north harbor for views of landmarks like Harbor Island, Shelter Island, and frequent colonies of sea lions clustered at the base of the Point Loma peninsula. Or go south to loop under the Coronado Bay Bridge and past the aircraft carrier. Hornblower Cruises offers whale watching and dolphin watching tours as well as sunset cocktail and dinner cruises.
If you love animals, a great way to see them in their natural habitat is to go on a Whale Watching Tour. This is a way better option than seeing marinelife at Seaworld San Diego or in the San Diego Zoo. From December to April, 20,000 gray whales migrate along the coast and you can view them from a two story yacht with 360 degree views. Book this highly rated tour now. (easy cancelation within 24 hours of excursion for a full refund)
If you want to go surfing, San Diego has some of the best surfing in California with the warmest waters in the state. There’s surfing for everyone from beginners to pros. And you can hire an instructor at one of San Diego’s popular beaches – Mission Beach, Ocean Beach or Pacific Beach or La Jolla Shores.
Soak up Some Rays
It wouldn’t be San Diego without some beach time. There are some best-in-class beaches here so plan a little beach hopping to sample more than one. Read more about the best beaches in California at: 24 Beaches to visit in California
Head to Tony La Jolla to take a dip at swank La Jolla Shores or check out Windansea for great surf breaks and scenery. Del Mar is a family-friendly, dog-friendly beach popular for picnics and weddings. Or head north to locally loved Moonlight Beach or Beacon’s Beach in Encinitas to skip the tourist crowds.
La Jolla Cove
If you love the beach, you’ll love La Jolla. La Jolla Cove boasts a wide beach that is perfect for spending sunny days lounging on the sand while sea lions bask on the Beach. There’s fresh Mexican cuisine and many boutique shops in the area to go shopping. If you want to go snorkeling, this is the place to do it with calm waters and plenty of marine life. It also hosts Mount Soledad, the Birch Aquarium, a handful of museums, and enough adventure tour companies to keep you active for days.
- Pantai Inn San Diego – Located just a 4 min walk from La Jolla Shores. Balinese decor in a romantic setting. this is the perfect place to stay for couples looking for that romantic setting.
- Inn By the Sea – This hotel is perfectly situated 5 min for La Jolla Sores. Each room has a balcony to enjoy the fresh seabreeze, lots of dining options nearby a pool and free wifi. a great place to base yourself when exploring San Diego.
- The Shoal La Jolla Beach – Centrally located with cute clean and affordable rooms. You are within walking distance of the beach. Modern decor and each room comes with a small fridge and Microwave. Perfect for a weekend getaway.
Kayaking La Jolla Sea Caves
Make sure to take a tour to kayak out and explore the La Jolla Sea Caves and the San Diego Coastline. The Kayak caves and reserve tour takes you paddling with a guide to the amazing La Jolla Caves, where you’re nearly guaranteed to see local marine life. This 90-minute sea kayaking tour takes you on a trip to view the highest concentration of marine life in southern California where you explore rocky cliffs and the Seven Sea Caves while paddling through the La Jolla Ecological Reserve.
Scuba divers will love exploring the kelp beds of the La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve. There are two artificial reefs here in this protected area. You can go snorkeling as well as kayaking. There are no motorized vehicles allowed. Chantae Reden (in the photo above) lives in San Diego and wrote about her experience diving here for us at Where To Stay In San Diego – The Best Neighborhoods & Areas
Mission Beach is a 2 mile long boardwalk filled with restaurants, nightlife and beach activities. Take a walk along the boardwalk for gorgeous views of the coast. It starts at Belmont Park where all the action happens, but you can make your way south to this quieter section of the beach. There are plenty of water sports from surfing and boogie boarding to kiteboarding and fishing. If you want to go for a ride, this is definitely the place to rent a bicycle.
Another great beach community in San Diego is Pacific Beach. This 3 mile long beach and boardwalk has a party atmosphere and has plenty of trendy restaurants and bars to show you a good time all day and night. North Pacific Beach has a calm waters with lifeguards on duty making it popular with families, or Tourmaline Surfing Park is popular for surfing. You can rent bicycles to explore Pacific Beach Drive and make sure to take a walk out to Crystal Pier.
Ocean Beach is a casual neighborhood where alternative lifestyles are not just welcomed, but embraced. Walk along the main street past all types of restaurants, boutiques selling tie-dye everything, healing crystal shops, and taco stands. Street art covers formerly bare walls and the sun is usually shining afternoon — once the marine layer of fog burns off. Make sure to walk along ocean beach pier and check out the Ocean Beach Farmers Market. It is full of organic food stalls and they even put on live music!
- Ocean Beach Hotel – This iconic hotel is only a 1-minute walk from the beach and has free WIFI, free parking, and is also close to the airport.
- The Inn at Sunset Cliffs – This hotel has a great location and is only a 15 min walk to the beach. It also has an outdoor pool, free WIFI and is close to many attractions.
- USA Hostels Ocean Beach – This hostel is perfect for the budget traveler. It has your choice of private or dorm rooms, Free WIFI, and you will love the funky decor. Add that it is only a 4 min walk from the beach and you know why we recommend it.
- Sunset Cottage – This bright and breezy 2 br 1 Bath beach bungalow is a short walk to beaches, shops, restaurants, and weekly farmer’s market. Your home away from home lends itself to a relaxing and fun visit, vacation, or extended stay in the youthful and energetic city of San Diego.
Children’s Pool Beach
Contrary to its name, Children’s Pool Beach is not a beach for children to swim due to the sea lion population that has overtaken its attractive calm waters. The beach was designated in 1931 as a beach for kids to safely swim after building a sea wall to create calm waters and pool-like conditions. But the local marine life found this attractive as well and now mothers come to the beach from December to May to have their pups. If you want to get up close and personal with sea life, this is a great place to view them.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
As its name suggests, Sunset Cliffs is one of the best places for sunset in San Diego. The 68-acre natural park has tidal pools, sea caves, and sea arches. The locals of San Diego enjoy the sunset from here as much as the visitors.
Another San Diego Museum to visit is the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. Located at the southern tip of Sunset Cliffs, Point Loma is a good stop before dusk to learn about the history of this historic lighthouse that dates back to 1855.
Cabrillo National Monument
This monument is dedicated to the first European explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who explored the coast of California in 1542. It is located at the south end of Point Loma and while it is an interesting point in history, people visit it for the views of the Coronado, city skyline and on a clear day, you can see Tijuana. It has often been touted as the best view in San Diego. You can also take a stroll along the 2.5-mile Bayside Trail and you can make your way down to explore the tide pools here as well. A trip here is often combined with the lighthouse.
Eat in Little Italy
San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood has been channeling the mother country since 1920 in this pedestrian-friendly enclave of adorable Italian boutiques, quaint patios, and drool-worthy fare.
On Wednesdays and Saturdays, be sure to swing by the phenomenal farmer’s market. You’ll find more than 200 tents of local entrepreneurs, family farms and artisan grocers offering everything from local art and olive oil to handmade crafts and one-of-a-kind keepsakes and gifts.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the opportunity for a meal here. (The experience takes me immediately back to some of my fondest days in Italy) It’s hard to go wrong with a meal here so consider browsing the menus on chalkboards on the main drag to see what strikes your fancy.
Then stop for gelato around the corner at Pappalecco. Looking for grab and go sandwiches for the beach? Swing by Mona Lisa, a world-class Italian grocer and deli.
When I’m traveling, I love to immerse myself in a local garden to see what’s growing and enjoy a sweet reprieve from all the urban activity. I recommend the gorgeous San Diego Botanic Garden in coastal Encinitas, North County San Diego. (This is a surfer town so stay for fish tacos, window shopping and the laid back nightlife vibe on the 101.)
The Botanic Garden is a treasure. In just an hour or two, you’ll meander through a desert garden, a tropical rain forest, a swath of impressive succulents, and marvel at the lovingly tended California native plants. Take a breather under the rare bamboos or next to the 60-foot waterfall. A visit here is a memorable addition to any San Diego itinerary.
Catch a Game a Petco Park
Baseball is America’s favorite pastime and when visiting San Diego, you can watch the San Diego Padres play at what is the best baseball stadium in the major league, Petco Park. It’s located right downtown San Diego with great views of the skyline from this state of the art attraction. If you can’t make a game, you can always book a stadium tour where you’ll go behind the scenes to visit the Padres Hall of Fame, visit the Clubhouse, the Major League dugout, press box and more!
Liberty Public Market
If you love visiting markets, Liberty Public Market is the best in the city. Their mission statement reads: “Liberty Public Market’s goal is to be the central market place of the region where locals and visitors alike, can immerse themselves into the work of the best artisans around.” Who wouldn’t want to go there? Open 7 days a week, it sells everything from local cheeses to local wines and handmade jewelry. Located near San Diego Bay, Liberty Public Market is houses in the old Naval Training Center at Liberty Station.
GPS Talking Tour Cars
A fun way to get to San Diego’s top attractions is by GoCar. Follow the GPS at your own pace as the car tells stories and shares information while you cruise through the historic quarter, the Mission Hills Neighborhood, Old Town San Diego, the San Diego Zoo, Florida Canyon, Balboa Park and more. This is the most unique San Diego experience and really is a fun way to explore all the major San Diego points of interest. Check it out here.
Getting Around San Diego
- San Diego is California’s second largest city.
- If you plan on seeing a lot of the city and surrounding area, its best to rent a car for your trip.
- Downtown San Diego is easily walkable and has trolley system with over 50 stops.
- Tickets for the Red Trolley are between $0.50 – $3.00.
- The Old Town San Diego Trolley stops at 11 places and even comes with a narrated tour. For more information on times check out their website.
- The beach and inland neighborhoods of San Diego are less accessible with public transport, so you’ll want to hire a car.
Day Trips from San Diego
Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico!
Looking for a day trip from San Diego? Head to Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico! Who would guess that just two hours south of the San Diego airport lies a unique and incredible wine tasting experience?
In Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico, just 30 minutes east of Ensenada, there are over 75 wineries quickly becoming renowned for world-class wines. And there’s a restaurant scene to match! If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to visit the famed Napa Valley before it became a well-traveled tourist mecca, now’s your chance. For everything, you need to know about crossing the border, where to stay and eat, or how to take a day trip with a tour, check out my post on the best Valle de Guadalupe wineries.
Speaking of Tijuana, book this day trip to Tijuana and take advantage of a guided tour with a professional guide to see the top sights and enjoying a craft beer tasting. It includes pick up at your hotel, a tour of downtown Tijuana and entry to the Tijuana Cultural Center (CECUT), museum, and botanical gardens
San Diego CityPass
Grab yourself a San Diego City Pass to really take advantage of everything the city has to offer. Some of San Diego’s top attractions are included in the pass with admission to:
• San Diego Zoo Safari Park
• Belmont Park all access combo pass
• One hour San Diego Harbor cruise
• Museums including San Diego Natural History Museum
• Knott’s Berry Farm and more!
When to visit San Diego
- There is really no bad time to visit San Diego. It has great weather year-round.
- But the best deals can be found in shoulder season from March to May and September to November.
- San Diego sees the most rain during the winter months.
- January and February are the coldest months hovering around 65 degrees farenheit.
- But May and June can be overcast and gray.
So there you have it, all of the must see attractions in America’s Finest City. There is no shortage of things to see from catching some rays on the beaches of La Jolla, taking in Balboa Park’s 17 museums, or strolling the boardwalk at Mission Beach, you will find something that interests each member of the family. So what are you waiting for? Start planning your trip to Southern California today.
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