comScore

Best Things To Do in San Diego

San Diego's coastal seat makes it an ideal destination for adventurers. Whether you're hiking along the sandstone cliffs of Torrey Pines State Reserve or walking through the frothy surf of Coronado Beach, you'll find little reason to stray far from the city's natural wonders. Spend a day at Balboa Park the city's definitive culturual hub and soak up the stunning setting while exploring the many museums, theaters and gardens that call this 1,200-acre park home. Though it's tempting to spend your whole vacation exploring, don't forget to carve out some time for a San Diego history lesson: America's Finest City proudly shows off its military and maritime heritage with two well-regarded (and highly interactive) museums.

How we rank Things to Do

#1 Balboa Park

#1 in San Diego

Home to the renowned San Diego Zoo, this 1,200-acre park is the city's cultural hub. As one TripAdvisor user puts it, "You could spend your entire trip to San Diego at Balboa Park; it is an amazing place." Located in the heart of downtown San Diego (about 2 miles north of the city center), Balboa Park is a great place for a stroll, a bike ride or a picnic. Wander around the park's many gardens (don't miss the beautiful Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden) while admiring the intricate Spanish-Renaissance architecture. Past visitors say this is a prime people-watching spot. But if you find yourself growing antsy, there are plenty of attractions located here (many of them free). Take in a show at the Old Globe Theatre or the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater or enjoy the arts at the Casa de Balboa which houses three separate art museums and the Spanish Village Art Center. If you've got the kids with you, take some time to check out the San Diego Air and Space Museum or the San Diego Model Railroad Museum (just two of the park's 15 total museums). more
Parks and Gardens Type
Half Day to Full Day Time to Spend
Balboa Park
Home to the renowned San Diego Zoo, this 1,200-acre park is the city's cultural hub. As one TripAdvisor user puts it, "You could spend your entire trip to San Diego at Balboa Park; it is an amazing place." Located in the heart of downtown San Diego (about 2 miles north of the city center), Balboa Park is a great place for a stroll, a bike ride or a picnic. Wander around the park's many gardens (don't miss the beautiful Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden) while admiring the intricate Spanish-Renaissance architecture. Past visitors say this is a prime people-watching spot. But if you find yourself growing antsy, there are plenty of attractions located here (many of them free). Take in a show at the Old Globe Theatre or the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater or enjoy the arts at the Casa de Balboa which houses three separate art museums and the Spanish Village Art Center. If you've got the kids with you, take some time to check out the San Diego Air and Space Museum or the San Diego Model Railroad Museum (just two of the park's 15 total museums). more

#2 Mission Beach

#2 in San Diego

Overlooking the Pacific Ocean from Mission Bay Park in northwestern San Diego, Mission Beach is one of the most popular shorelines in the city. While it's not as pristine as Coronado Beach, it's just as busy thanks to all the nearby attractions. This 2-mile stretch of sugary-white sand fits the SoCal stereotype to a T: throngs of surfers and bikini-clad sunbathers crowd the shores every summer, while the nearby boardwalk is usually packed with inline skaters and bicyclists. Also, be prepared to share the beach with some of the Pacific's sea-faring critters, including seals. In Belmont Park on the northern edge of the beach, the Giant Dipper rollercoaster is a big hit with kids and adults alike. When lunchtime rolls around, head to one of the many beachside eateries that flank the boardwalk. more
Beaches Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend
Mission Beach
Overlooking the Pacific Ocean from Mission Bay Park in northwestern San Diego, Mission Beach is one of the most popular shorelines in the city. While it's not as pristine as Coronado Beach, it's just as busy thanks to all the nearby attractions. This 2-mile stretch of sugary-white sand fits the SoCal stereotype to a T: throngs of surfers and bikini-clad sunbathers crowd the shores every summer, while the nearby boardwalk is usually packed with inline skaters and bicyclists. Also, be prepared to share the beach with some of the Pacific's sea-faring critters, including seals. In Belmont Park on the northern edge of the beach, the Giant Dipper rollercoaster is a big hit with kids and adults alike. When lunchtime rolls around, head to one of the many beachside eateries that flank the boardwalk. more

#3 Coronado Beach

#3 in San Diego

Compared to Mission Beach, this popular shoreline boasts fewer sunbathers and calmer waves. Just across the bay from San Diego, Coronado Beach is popular with families and couples alike thanks to its peaceful atmosphere and idyllic location in the "Crown City" (in Spanish, "Coronado" means "crowned one"). While you won't have access to a bustling boardwalk (like that at Mission Beach), you will have plenty of picturesque scenery to admire (besides the surf): magnificent mansions sit behind the beach on Ocean Boulevard. And the historic Hotel del Coronado a 120-year-old National Historic Landmark is perched just beyond the sand. When you're not bodysurfing, boogie boarding or building a sand castle, heed the advice of recent visitors and simply walk the 1½-mile-long shoreline. Even if you're visiting San Diego during the city's winter season (December through February) when the water is a little too chilly for swimming, you should still plan to make a stop here if you're interested in spotting migrating whales. more
Beaches Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend
Coronado Beach
Compared to Mission Beach, this popular shoreline boasts fewer sunbathers and calmer waves. Just across the bay from San Diego, Coronado Beach is popular with families and couples alike thanks to its peaceful atmosphere and idyllic location in the "Crown City" (in Spanish, "Coronado" means "crowned one"). While you won't have access to a bustling boardwalk (like that at Mission Beach), you will have plenty of picturesque scenery to admire (besides the surf): magnificent mansions sit behind the beach on Ocean Boulevard. And the historic Hotel del Coronado a 120-year-old National Historic Landmark is perched just beyond the sand. When you're not bodysurfing, boogie boarding or building a sand castle, heed the advice of recent visitors and simply walk the 1½-mile-long shoreline. Even if you're visiting San Diego during the city's winter season (December through February) when the water is a little too chilly for swimming, you should still plan to make a stop here if you're interested in spotting migrating whales. more

#4 Gaslamp Quarter

#4 in San Diego

The Gaslamp Quarter's 16 blocks are peppered with Victorian-style buildings that now house a variety of shops, art galleries and trendy restaurants, not to mention some of the city's most popular nightlife venues. The best place to start your tour of the Gaslamp Quarter is the Horton Plaza outdoor shopping center. From there, you can explore the neighborhood's side streets or hop on an Old Town Trolley Tour. If you're not a night owl, the neighborhood's many patios and rooftop lounges are a great way to experience the Gaslamp Quarter's prime location. more
Entertainment and Nightlife Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend
Gaslamp Quarter
The Gaslamp Quarter's 16 blocks are peppered with Victorian-style buildings that now house a variety of shops, art galleries and trendy restaurants, not to mention some of the city's most popular nightlife venues. The best place to start your tour of the Gaslamp Quarter is the Horton Plaza outdoor shopping center. From there, you can explore the neighborhood's side streets or hop on an Old Town Trolley Tour. If you're not a night owl, the neighborhood's many patios and rooftop lounges are a great way to experience the Gaslamp Quarter's prime location. more

#5 San Diego Zoo Safari Park

#5 in San Diego

This 100-acre establishment is one of the most famous zoos in the country, known for its expansive natural habitats. Nearly 4,000 critters call the San Diego Zoo home, from pandas to elephants to polar bears. You'll need plenty of energy — and a map to see everything this zoo has to offer. Exhibits are linked by an expansive series of trails like the Monkey Trails and Forest Tales walk. On these designated pathways, you'll come face to face with our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, as well as colorful African and Asian birds on the tree-top walk. more
Zoos and Aquariums Type
Half Day to Full Day Time to Spend
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
This 100-acre establishment is one of the most famous zoos in the country, known for its expansive natural habitats. Nearly 4,000 critters call the San Diego Zoo home, from pandas to elephants to polar bears. You'll need plenty of energy — and a map to see everything this zoo has to offer. Exhibits are linked by an expansive series of trails like the Monkey Trails and Forest Tales walk. On these designated pathways, you'll come face to face with our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, as well as colorful African and Asian birds on the tree-top walk. more

#6 Torrey Pines State Reserve

#6 in San Diego

This 1,700-acre natural reserve houses and protects numerous types of flora, but particularly the Torrey Pine, one of America's rarest pine trees. What does that mean for you? Plenty of hiking (8 miles, to be exact) and bird-watching opportunities. Trails offer breathtaking views of the coastline and cater to a wide range of hiking abilities (most of the trails are less than a mile). Grab your hiking boots and binoculars and heed the advice of recent travelers who rave about exploring this evergreen oasis. "Park on the road and walk to the trailhead and enjoy an easy yet incredibly scenic hike as you ascend the cliffs and overlook the Pacific," said one TripAdvisor user. And don't forget your swimsuit: Torrey Pines State Reserve is home to two of the city's favorite secluded shorelines, Black's Beach on the southern edge of the park and Torrey Pines State Beach farther north. more
Beaches Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend
Torrey Pines State Reserve
This 1,700-acre natural reserve houses and protects numerous types of flora, but particularly the Torrey Pine, one of America's rarest pine trees. What does that mean for you? Plenty of hiking (8 miles, to be exact) and bird-watching opportunities. Trails offer breathtaking views of the coastline and cater to a wide range of hiking abilities (most of the trails are less than a mile). Grab your hiking boots and binoculars and heed the advice of recent travelers who rave about exploring this evergreen oasis. "Park on the road and walk to the trailhead and enjoy an easy yet incredibly scenic hike as you ascend the cliffs and overlook the Pacific," said one TripAdvisor user. And don't forget your swimsuit: Torrey Pines State Reserve is home to two of the city's favorite secluded shorelines, Black's Beach on the southern edge of the park and Torrey Pines State Beach farther north. more

#7 Cabrillo National Monument

#7 in San Diego

Rising from the southern tip of Point Loma is where you'll find the Cabrillo National Monument. The statue depicts Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who, in 1542, was the first European explorer to navigate the Californian coast. Situated about 10 miles southwest of downtown San Diego, this statue is much more than just a memorializing effigy. From the monument which stands 422 feet above sea level you can enjoy amazing views of the Pacific Ocean and all the activity of the Naval Base below. You might even spot whales way out in the Pacific between December and February (the period that marks the annual migration of the Pacific Gray Whale). Past visitors recommend wearing sturdy walking shoes so you can make the most of the scenic (and short) hiking trails surrounding the monument, including the Bayside and Coastal Trails. While you're here, take some time to tour the nearby Old Point Loma Lighthouse and visitor center, which offers insight into San Diego's maritime and military history. more
Monuments and Memorials Type
1 to 2 hours Time to Spend
Cabrillo National Monument
Rising from the southern tip of Point Loma is where you'll find the Cabrillo National Monument. The statue depicts Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who, in 1542, was the first European explorer to navigate the Californian coast. Situated about 10 miles southwest of downtown San Diego, this statue is much more than just a memorializing effigy. From the monument which stands 422 feet above sea level you can enjoy amazing views of the Pacific Ocean and all the activity of the Naval Base below. You might even spot whales way out in the Pacific between December and February (the period that marks the annual migration of the Pacific Gray Whale). Past visitors recommend wearing sturdy walking shoes so you can make the most of the scenic (and short) hiking trails surrounding the monument, including the Bayside and Coastal Trails. While you're here, take some time to tour the nearby Old Point Loma Lighthouse and visitor center, which offers insight into San Diego's maritime and military history. more

#8 USS Midway Museum

#8 in San Diego

If you're eager to learn about what life is like on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, plan to visit the USS Midway Museum. Aboard the longest-serving American aircraft carrier of the 20th century, you'll have the opportunity to explore 60 different exhibits and 29 restored aircraft. During the self-guided audio tour, you'll see the crew's sleeping quarters, the engine room, the ship's jail and the primary flight control room, among other areas of the 4-acre flight deck. Travelers say the audio guides are informative, but they also recommend stopping to listen to the knowledgable volunteer docents (many of them military veterans) stationed throughout the museum. One TripAdvisor review explains why the docent insight is so valuable: "That made the experience REAL for us, and we looked at the ship in a whole new light." Along with the exhibits, the museum also boasts two flight simulators. Though it's a unique experience, recent visitors say there's no need to fork over the extra coin for a simulator ride since there's already so much to see and do at the museum. more
Museums Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend
USS Midway Museum
If you're eager to learn about what life is like on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, plan to visit the USS Midway Museum. Aboard the longest-serving American aircraft carrier of the 20th century, you'll have the opportunity to explore 60 different exhibits and 29 restored aircraft. During the self-guided audio tour, you'll see the crew's sleeping quarters, the engine room, the ship's jail and the primary flight control room, among other areas of the 4-acre flight deck. Travelers say the audio guides are informative, but they also recommend stopping to listen to the knowledgable volunteer docents (many of them military veterans) stationed throughout the museum. One TripAdvisor review explains why the docent insight is so valuable: "That made the experience REAL for us, and we looked at the ship in a whole new light." Along with the exhibits, the museum also boasts two flight simulators. Though it's a unique experience, recent visitors say there's no need to fork over the extra coin for a simulator ride since there's already so much to see and do at the museum. more

#9 Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

#9 in San Diego

You'll need a car to get here, but travelers say the breathtaking views at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park are worth the extra effort. Situated a little more than 7 miles due west of downtown San Diego, this area stretches across 68 acres and runs 1½ miles along Point Loma peninsula's western shoreline. The dramatic sandstone cliffs and untouched vegetation make for a spectacular hike. "If you feel you are going the wrong way, just look for a surfer and follow him/her down the path. The trails are mostly unspoiled and the beach is fantastic," explains one TripAdvisor reviewer. more
Hiking Type
1 to 2 hours Time to Spend
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
You'll need a car to get here, but travelers say the breathtaking views at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park are worth the extra effort. Situated a little more than 7 miles due west of downtown San Diego, this area stretches across 68 acres and runs 1½ miles along Point Loma peninsula's western shoreline. The dramatic sandstone cliffs and untouched vegetation make for a spectacular hike. "If you feel you are going the wrong way, just look for a surfer and follow him/her down the path. The trails are mostly unspoiled and the beach is fantastic," explains one TripAdvisor reviewer. more

#10 Maritime Museum of San Diego

#10 in San Diego

The Maritime Museum offers a hands-on look at San Diego's days as a bustling seaport. You can tour all types of historic vessels, from sailing ships to submarines. Recent visitors said the boat tours gave them a new understanding of the workmanship and skill required of sailors. "I came away with a huge appreciation of the difficulties of serving on a submarine," said one TripAdvisor reviewer. Past visitors also note that you should plan to wear pants and sturdy shoes to easily maneuver the narrow, low corridors inside the ships. Along with the boat tours, you can also explore several permanent and visiting exhibits that detail San Diego's maritime legacy using art and artifacts. Travelers say the exhibits are fascinating, even for youngsters.  more
Museums Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend
Maritime Museum of San Diego
The Maritime Museum offers a hands-on look at San Diego's days as a bustling seaport. You can tour all types of historic vessels, from sailing ships to submarines. Recent visitors said the boat tours gave them a new understanding of the workmanship and skill required of sailors. "I came away with a huge appreciation of the difficulties of serving on a submarine," said one TripAdvisor reviewer. Past visitors also note that you should plan to wear pants and sturdy shoes to easily maneuver the narrow, low corridors inside the ships. Along with the boat tours, you can also explore several permanent and visiting exhibits that detail San Diego's maritime legacy using art and artifacts. Travelers say the exhibits are fascinating, even for youngsters.  more

#11 SeaWorld San Diego

#11 in San Diego

Though you can often spot plenty of wildlife in the San Diego Bay, none put on quite as good a show as the performers at SeaWorld. Here you'll spot a range of animals, including killer whales, turtles, California sea otters and even parrots. As for the rides, recent travelers said you can't miss the Manta roller coaster, but caution against the Journey to Atlantis ride if you don't want to get wet. For something a little more low-key, head to any one of the park's animal exhibits, like the shark underwater viewing tunnel or the penguin habitat, which features nearly 300 penguins. more
Amusement Parks Type
Half Day to Full Day Time to Spend
SeaWorld San Diego
Though you can often spot plenty of wildlife in the San Diego Bay, none put on quite as good a show as the performers at SeaWorld. Here you'll spot a range of animals, including killer whales, turtles, California sea otters and even parrots. As for the rides, recent travelers said you can't miss the Manta roller coaster, but caution against the Journey to Atlantis ride if you don't want to get wet. For something a little more low-key, head to any one of the park's animal exhibits, like the shark underwater viewing tunnel or the penguin habitat, which features nearly 300 penguins. more

Explore Things to Do

  • Thing to Do
  • Hotel
Explore the map

Explore More of San Diego



Find the Best Price

Enter your check in and check out dates to find the best price