If you’re planning a trip and looking for things to do in San Diego, you’ve come to the right place. As one of our favorite cities in the USA we’ve spent a bunch of time in San Diego.
The city of San Diego is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the US. It’s easy to see why: San Diego is the perfect mix of rich history, natural beauty, and unique culture. And the weather, let’s not forget about the blissful weather.
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Things to Do in San Diego
Often considered to be LA’s more laid-back cousin, San Diego has also topped lists of the friendliest cities in America. With its relaxed vibe and 70 miles of beaches, it’s the perfect place to unwind. If you’re looking for a more fast-paced vacation, though, there are dozens of world-class attractions, as well.
With all these options, how do you know where to start? We’ve got a list of the best things to do in San Diego for you.
Please note – Some of our selections contain affiliate links. These allow us to earn a small percentage every time you make a booking. Using our links enables us to provide all the information found on this site free of charge.
Balboa Park is one of the most famous places in San Diego, and for good reason. Its massive and houses many of the city’s popular attractions. The park covers 1200 acres and is a National Historic Landmark. It’s home to beautiful greenery, Spanish Revival architecture, 30 museums, the world-renowned San Diego Zoo, and more.
The Botanical Building is no doubt one of the greatest draws of the park. One of the largest lath buildings on the planet, it houses over 2100 plants. Take your time strolling through all it has to offer, including tropical plants and orchid gardens. It’s also one of the most photographed places within the park, fronted by a serene pond topped with lilies.
Balboa Park is also home to the Old Globe Theatre, modeled after London’s Globe Theatre made famous by Shakespeare. This cultural institution has won several Tony awards and is still putting on productions. This is a great opportunity to grab a ticket and take in a show!
For museum-goers, check out the San Diego Museum of Art, Museum of Photographic Arts, and the Fleet Science Center. If you’re not into museums, wander through the park’s rose garden and palm tree canyon. Or, cool your heels at one of the many restaurants and cafes. If you’re looking for a fun way to explore the park, you can choose to participate in a scavenger hunt. There’s always something going on here, so you’ll be coming back again and again during your visit to San Diego.
Hit the beach
Would it really be a trip to SoCal without a beach day or five? We think not. With 70 miles of coastline, it’s not hard to find a beautiful beach to set up shop for the day.
Head across the San Diego-Coronado Bridge to Coronado Beach. Characterized by the iconic Hotel del Coronado, this is the perfect place to relax for the day. Protected from the strongest surf by nearby Point Loma, this beach is calmer than most in SoCal. There are also lifeguards on duty in case of an emergency. If you’re staying for the sunset, fire pits are available in case you want to make s’mores or roast sausages.
Mission Beach is popular not only for its beach but also for its nightlife. If this is the scene you’re into, head here for a day on the sand and stay for the after-party.
Pacific Beach is right next door, lined by Ocean Boulevard. Pacific Beach is also home to Crystal Pier, offering amazing views of the sea and the beachfront skyline.
La Jolla Shores Park is another popular option. Known to be the best beach for families with kids, the water here is shallow and the surf is calm. It’s also a popular spot for divers and kayakers.
Of course, there are many other beaches to discover in San Diego. These are good places to start, but it’s hard to go wrong with any of them!
Surfing in San Diego
Would it be a trip to the West Coast without trying your hand at surfing? We don’t think so, either. Break out your wetsuit and get out on the water. This iconic California pastime is worth a try whether you’re an expert or an amateur. San Diego’s coastline stretches for 70 miles, so there’s no shortage of surfing spots for any and all levels.
Swami’s, Del Mar, and Oceanside are some of the most popular spots in northern San Diego. There is also plenty of good surf around La Jolla and Mission Bay. If you’re a beginner, you can head to La Jolla for a 90-minute lesson.
If you’re more into watching surfing than actually doing it, there are also tons of good places for spectators. World Surfing League competitions are held at Trestles, while you can find some good amateur action at Windansea or Black’s. No matter your surfing experience, you can’t leave San Diego until you get a taste of this cultural activity.
Only 20 minutes from downtown San Diego, La Jolla is one of the best areas to explore in the city. This village is home to La Jolla Shores, with its crashing waves and tide pools. The neighborhood also offers plenty of waterfront dining, making it perfect for lunch, brunch, or a date.
You can do some shopping in one of its many boutiques, or simply hit the beach and admire the pounding surf.
La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove is arguably the area’s most famous attraction and is the most photographed part of the state’s coastline. The cove is known to be a popular spot for wildlife such as sea lions and seals.
Its sea cliffs and hidden coves are part of a protected reserve teeming with marine life. With the strong surf, the beach at La Jolla Cove may not be ideal for swimming. However, you can always find other ways to get out on the water.
TOUR OPTION: Check out this kayak tour that takes you through all seven of the caves in the La Jolla Ecological Reserve.
Indulge in local food and drink
San Diego is a melting pot of different cultures. Founded by the Spanish and influenced by Mexico, the food – and the tequila – has a kick to it. Combine this Latin influence with fresh seafood and you’ve got a foodie scene to die for. You’ll want to try the fish tacos, carne asada, and of course, the California Burrito. The California Burrito, containing french fries and carne asada, was invented in San Diego, so it’s a must-try.
As for drinking, San Diego’s craft beer scene has long since been well-established. With tons of unique award-winning breweries and tequila and cocktails straight from Mexico, there’s something here for every taste.
TOUR OPTION: If you’re more into wine, take a tour to Carlsbad Village to sample some of California’s best wine and food.
If you’re visiting between the months of December and April, you’re in luck! This is the best time to spot the California Gray Whale during its migration from Alaska down to Baja, California. There are about 20,000 whales that migrate during this time, so you’re almost guaranteed to spot one. If you go whale watching, it’s highly likely that you’ll also spot dolphins, sea lions, seals, and other marine life.
TOUR OPTION: The best way to go whale watching is with a tour in San Diego Bay. With the tour, you’ll be accompanied aboard a yacht with an experienced crew of ocean experts. They’ll provide commentary, guide you to the best spots according to the migration path, and answer any questions you have.
San Diego is where European explorers first stepped foot in present-day California, and there’s a preserved settlement to prove it. A trip to San Diego’s Old Town is a trip back in time. Beautiful adobe buildings from the 1800s abound, along with the San Diego Mission and Presidio, both established in 1769.
Old Town is also home to the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Free to enter, here you’ll find preserved buildings and replicas. You’ll walk through what life was like throughout various periods of California’s history up until the Gold Rush. Must-sees in Old Town include the Whaley House, the Junipero Serra Museum, and Casa de Estudillo.
Old Town is home to art galleries, shops and boutiques, and restaurants serving homemade Mexican food. The area also hosts festivals such as Cinco de Mayo and Dia de Muertos.
TOUR OPTION: If you’re looking to learn more about San Diego’s Old Town, there are hop-on hop-off narrated tours available.
One of the best ways to see the skyline of San Diego is from the water.
TOUR OPTION: A harbor cruise through San Diego Bay is the perfect way to accomplish this. You’ll set sail on a three-level luxury ship offering both indoor and outdoor seating for the best views possible. The tour is narrated by a professional who will tell you about the landmarks you’re passing. You’ll be able to see landmarks like the USS Midway Museum, the Coronado Bridge, and more.
Aside from the landmarks, you’ll learn about naval history and what’s being done to clean up the marine habitat. Your tour ship also serves drinks and snacks if you get a bit peckish while on board. You can book either a 1-hour or a 2-hour tour, so the number of landmarks will depend on your choice.
One of the best Major League baseball stadiums in America, Petco Park is located right in the heart of downtown. Cheer on the San Diego Padres while taking in the view of the East Village skyline and San Diego Bay. Petco Park is also famous for its plethora of food options. While they serve typical fare like hot dogs and hamburgers, you can also find fish tacos, sashimi, salads, and more.
If you’re not in town for a game, you can always take a guided tour through the stadium. You’ll visit the dugout, the press box, and the Padres Hall of Fame. You’ll be in awe at the sandstone construction and lush palm tree decor, making Petco Park one of a kind.
USS Midway Museum
This important piece of military history is one of the most famous attractions in the city. As such, it should be at the top of your list of things to do in San Diego. The USS Midway had important roles in both the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm. It now holds the title of the longest-serving aircraft carrier of the 20th century.
Now permanently docked in San Diego, this military relic has been transformed into a museum featuring 10 acres of exhibits. Aboard the museum, you’ll encounter 30 restored aircraft and 8 helicopters. You can also explore the living quarters below deck: the galleys, mess halls, sleeping quarters, and more.
What makes this museum special is the amount of interactive opportunities you have to experience what life was like onboard. You’ll hear snippets from veterans, test simulators, explore the cockpits of the aircraft, and take part in demonstrations. If you’re at all curious about life as a member of the navy, this is the place to visit.
You can easily spend the entire day exploring the museum. You’ll gain a new appreciation for naval veterans and learn a lot about the country’s military history.
TOUR OPTION: It can get crowded, so check out this tour with an optional audio guide that lets you skip the line.
Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala
This unique structure was established in 1769 as the first mission in California. Still functional, it hosts a daily Mass you can attend if you so wish. With a white stucco exterior and a roof covered in red Spanish tiles, the mission is a unique sight. If you tour the church compound, you’ll discover the remnants of the friars’ homes, the choir stalls, and more. There’s also a Mission Museum where you can browse historic tools, photographs, weapons, pottery, art, and more.
If nothing else, a visit to the mission is worth it for the view of Old Town. Perched atop a hill, the mission overlooks Old Town and the 40-acre Presidio Park.
Located on the western side of the bay, Point Loma is where European settlers first stepped foot in California. To commemorate this, you’ll want to visit the Cabrillo National Monument on the southern tip of the peninsula. You can also learn more about it at the visitor’s center.
You’ll also want to visit the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, established in 1855. While no longer in service, you can browse the museum and see the keeper’s equipment, living quarters, and log book. If you’re lucky, you may catch the re-enactor of Captain Israel, a 19th-century lighthouse keeper.
The Point Loma Tide Pools are also worth a visit. Venture out onto the rocky shoreline to look for marine life in the pools like crabs, octopi, and starfish.
Finally, Point Loma has a long military history. The old Naval Training Center has been transformed into Liberty Station. It has become a cultural hub complete with restaurants, bars, running trails, and an arts area.
Located in the Mission Beach area, Belmont Park was opened in 1925. This small waterfront amusement park is the pinnacle of the beach town. Home to 12 rides, restaurants, a mini-golf course, and more, Belmont Park provides a day of fun for all ages.
The highlight of the park, however, is the Giant Dipper. This wooden roller coaster, which opened in 1925 along with the park, is now a National Historic Landmark. After a ride on this, if you’re looking for more you can hit up the tilt-a-whirl or the zip line. If you’re looking to slow things down a bit, you can visit the arcade or the carousel.
After your adrenaline-filled day, you’ll want to get some ice cream and watch the sunset over the water.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
Located on the western side of Point Loma, this 68-acre park is home to sea cliffs and incredible rocky scenery. It’s also the best place in the city to watch the sunset, as the name suggests. You can arrive in the afternoon to explore the cliffs, sea caves, and other natural formations. Then, head back up to the cliff tops for the main attraction.
There are also plenty of bistros and cafes nearby if you’re looking for a post-sunset cocktail or bite to eat. If you’re visiting during the whale migrations, you may even catch a glimpse of the whales from here.
Where to stay in San Diego
When booking your accommodation, you’ll want to consider your budget and the attractions you plan to visit. San Diego is a fairly big city so you’ll want to minimize your commute time as much as possible. Here are a few good options:
- Horton Grand Hotel: This 4-star hotel is perfect if you’re looking for a luxury stay. Located in the heart of downtown, Horton Grand offers modern amenities, an on-site restaurant and bar, and a gift shop. You can walk to the convention center and Petco Park, while other main attractions are just a short drive away.
- Gaslamp Plaza Suites: Another 4-star option located in the Gaslamp Quarter, this historic hotel was built in 1913. Each room comes with amenities like a coffee machine, a mini-fridge, a microwave, and cable TV.
- Cosmopolitan Hotel: This historic hotel was built in 1869 and is located right in Old Town San Diego. With Victorian decor and an on-site restaurant and bar, the atmosphere of this hotel is hard to beat.
- Old Town Inn: This mid-range option is great for travelers on a budget. Located an 8-minute walk from Old Town, you’ll have easy access to the Mission and the Presidio Hills Golf Course. The hotel also features a game room and select rooms with full kitchens if you plan to cook.
- Lamplighter Inn & Suites SDSU: Another great option for travelers on a budget, this hotel is located just 4 minutes from San Diego State University. With an outdoor pool, a poolside barbecue, and a game room, this is the perfect place to relax.
Things to Do in San Diego Wrap-up
As you can see, there are plenty of things to do in San Diego. Whether you’re in town for a weekend or more, you’ll always be able to find something to do. These highlights are a great place to start, but of course, there’s always more to explore! Want to get out of San Diego for a day?
We’ve also got some day trip ideas for you!
As always, happy travels all. We’ll see you on the road!