Best Things To Do in San Diego
San Diego's coastal seat makes it an ideal destination for adventurers and sun seekers. Whether you're hiking along the sandstone cliffs of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, walking through the frothy surf of Coronado Beach or admiring the postcard-worthy scenery at La Jolla Cove, 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.
Updated June 17, 2019
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Home to the renowned San Diego Zoo. this 1,200-acre park is the city's cultural hub. Located in downtown San Diego (about 2 miles north of the city center), Balboa Park is a great place for a stroll, bike ride or picnic. Wander around the park's many gardens while admiring the intricate Spanish-Renaissance architecture that permeates the grounds (the best examples are the California Building and the House of Hospitality). The Botanical Building is a great starting point in Balboa Park. The building is one of the most photographed places in Balboa Park and is one of the largest lath structures in the world. But don't just look at it. The famous botanical building features more than 2,100 permanent plants, including striking collections of tropical plants and orchids. The park also features a cactus garden, rose garden, a Japanese-style garden as well as a palm tree canyon, among many others.
But if you find yourself growing antsy just walking around and smelling the roses, there are plenty of attractions located here (many of them free). Take in a show at the Tony Award-winning Old Globe Theatre, visit the Spreckels Organ Pavilion to see one of the world's largest outdoor pipe organs, or the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater if you got the kiddos in tow. Museums are just as aplenty, with enough to suit all types of interests. Art lovers will enjoy the San Diego Museum of Art, the Museum of Photographic Arts and Mingei International Museum while science enthusiasts will enjoy the Fleet Science Center and the Museum of Man. If you're traveling as a family, take some time to check out the San Diego Air and Space Museum or the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, the world's largest operating model railroad museum. There's also an automotive museum and the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum, dedicated entirely to San Diego's sports history.
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Mission Beach and Pacific Beach are one giant, connected shoreline in San Diego. While not as pristine as Coronado Beach, the area is just as popular thanks to all the nearby attractions and amenities. This miles-long stretch of 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. The beach is a popular spot in San Diego for surfing as well, offering swells both high and low, perfect for beginners and seasoned surfers (there are numerous water sports equipment rental shops strewn around the neighborhood). Belmont Park, which acts as the border between the two beaches, is a beachfront amusement park featuring arcades and numerous rides, including the Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster – a more than 100-year-old National Historic Landmark. When lunchtime rolls around, head to one of the many beachside eateries that flank the boardwalk or Mission Boulevard (the area's main thoroughfare), or have a picnic at Bonita Cove, the bayfront park located across the street from Belmont Park.
The difference between the two is discernible. While they both share the same boardwalk, sand and ocean, Pacific Beach and Mission Beach share key differences. Mission Beach, which begins at Belmont Park going south, is the calmer of the two. The boardwalk has more homes than hotels and far fewer amenities than Pacific Beach, making it good for families or those seeking a more relaxed beach experience. Pacific Beach, which starts north of Belmont Park, is much more lively. Mission Boulevard, the main thoroughfare, is lined with restaurants, surf shops, retail stores, hotels and bars. The further you go up Mission Boulevard the further you go into the belly of the beast that is Pacific Beach. Next to the Gaslamp Quarter, Pacific Beach is the best place for nightlife in San Diego, known for getting particularly rowdy. Aside from Mission Boulevard, you can find a heavy concentration of bars and nightlife options on Garnet Avenue and Grand Avenue. If you don't want to experience this side of Pacific Beach, take a walk along Crystal Pier or stick to the beach north of this pier.
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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 miles-long shoreline (affording plenty of room for beachgoers), clean sands, 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 130-year-old National Historic Landmark – is perched just beyond the sand. When you're not boogie boarding or building a sand castle, heed the advice of recent visitors and simply walk the 1.5-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 for the scenery. And if you enjoy ice skating, the Hotel Del offers the unique opportunity to ice skate right along the beach.
Past travelers recommend venturing to the beach at sunset for the most incredible views. You'll find plenty of bathroom and shower facilities at the beach, plus sand volleyball courts and fire pits for evening s'mores. The beach is located nearly 2 miles south of the Coronado Ferry Landing. You can walk, drive or catch the 901 bus from Third Street to the beach. This bus also picks up from downtown San Diego on Front Street at the corner of West A Street. The shoreline is patrolled by lifeguards from 9 a.m. to dusk daily on the main stretch of the beach but seasonal lifeguards are staffed in farther sections of the beach during summer. There is a curfew observed from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily. Parking and entrance is free.
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The Gaslamp Quarter's 16 blocks are peppered with Victorian-style buildings that now house a variety of shops, art galleries, theatres and trendy restaurants, not to mention plenty of bars and clubs. The area stretches from L Street all the way up to Broadway, including Sixth, Fifth and Fourth avenues as well as out to First Avenue at G Street. The best place to start your tour of the Gaslamp Quarter is the Horton Plaza outdoor shopping center, situated at First and G Street. From there, you can explore the neighborhood's side streets that will eventually lead you to the main avenues. Or you can start at the Gaslamp Quarter Gate itself, located at L Street and Fifth Avenue. Fifth Avenue is considered downtown San Diego's main thoroughfare. You'll find the most action here, especially at night. With all of its amenities, it's important to know that the Gaslamp Quarter is San Diego's premier nightlife destination. If you're not a night owl, another way to experience the Gaslamp Quarter's lively atmosphere is to take advantage of the patio seating offered at some of the neighborhood's restaurants, or venture to one of the many rooftop bars (Andaz San Diego in particular has fire pits and beds and lounge chairs for patrons to relax on).
The Gaslamp Quarter also hosts many city events year-round. The annual Mardi Gras Parade sections off blocks of downtown, the Rock and Roll Marathon runs through here and San Diego's biggest event, Comic-Con, hosts numerous activities and events here as well.
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This 100-acre establishment is one of the most famous zoos in the country. The San Diego Zoo is not only one of the largest zoos in the USA but also houses one of the largest collections of rare and endangered animals in the world (3,500 to be exact). Giant pandas, giraffes, elephants, polar bears, and koalas (the largest collection outside of Australia) are just a few of the many animals that call the San Diego Zoo home. The exhibits are linked by an expansive series of trails such as the Monkey Trail, Hippo Trail or Tiger Trail. On these designated pathways, you'll come face to face with numerous exciting creatures including hippos in the Lost Forest, arctic foxes in the Northern Frontier, rhinos in the Urban Jungle or gators in the Wegeforth Bowl. You'll need plenty of energy – and a map – to see everything the zoo has to offer. Should your feet grow weary while exploring, the zoo offers a 35-minute guided bus tour of the park. There's also the Skyfari aerial tram that transports visitors from one end of the park to the other, offering a birds-eye-view of the exhibits below in between. In addition to plenty of animals to see, the zoo also hosts animal shows and animal encounter programs daily as well as 4-D movie theaters with educational films about the wildlife.
If you want more of the zoo, head about 32 miles north to the Safari Park in Escondido. Here you can view some of Africa's most beloved animals – including lions, elephants and cheetahs – roaming free (well, relatively). There's also meerkats, zebras, gorillas and bald eagles, to name a few. True to its name, the park offers a variety of different safaris, including a zipline safari and a caravan safari.
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Want to see what San Diego looked like at its founding? It's at the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. This oceanfront reserve features 1,750 acres of unspoiled land, protecting the unique topography and various types of flora present from way back when, including the Torrey Pine, America's rarest pine tree. There are 3,000 Torrey Pines in the reserve alone and aside from San Diego, the only other place in the country the pines grows are on Santa Rosa Island off the coast of Santa Barbara. The reserve also houses one of Southern California's last salt marshes and waterfowl refuges. What does that mean for you? Plenty of hiking opportunities (8 miles to be exact). Trails offer a chance to get up close and personal with the attraction's famously beautiful sandstone ravines and badlands as well as breathtaking views of the coastline. And if you come during the spring, you'll see wildflowers on full display.
Popular trails include the brief Guy Fleming Trail (0.7 miles round trip), which features two ocean overlooks, and the longer Razor Point Trail (1.4 miles round trip), which tours more of the sandstone geological features of the reserve. There is also the beach trail that leads to Torrey Pines stunning stretch of shore. Of all San Diego's beaches, a long walk along Torrey Pines State Beach is a must simply for its views of the towering sandstone cliffs that border it. Keep in mind that along these bluffs there are no lifeguards on duty and the ocean can be rough, so swim at your own risk. Also the cliffs can be unstable, so set up close to the shore.
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The southernmost 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 monument is much more than just a memorializing effigy. The main reason people make the journey to the monument is its incredible views. From the Cabrillo Monument, you can enjoy sweeping views of the Pacific as well as the Point Loma naval base below (where Cabrillo initially docked his ships), downtown San Diego, Coronado, and on a clear day, the mountains of Tijuana, Mexico.
Once you've gotten your fill from the top, walk or drive down Cabrillo Road to experience the Point Loma Tide Pools (best experienced during the winter months), or take a scenic walk along the adjacent bluffs. There's also the 2.5-mile Bayside Trail that cascades down into the east side of the point and ends right above the bay waters. For those more interested in the historical aspect of the attraction, the NPS site features ranger-guided talks further explaining the story behind the Cabrillo Monument as well as the restored Old Point Loma Lighthouse, located a short walk south from the monument on Humphreys Road.
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San Diego is a big military town. You'll likely see bases scattered about while exploring the city, especially around parts of the San Diego Bay. The USS Midway is one of these affiliated sites that offers an insider's look into what is normally closed off to the public. The USS Midway is the longest-serving American aircraft carrier of the 20th century, having played host to 225,000 sailors over the course of its life. This historical relic offers patrons the opportunity to explore 60 different exhibits and 29 restored aircraft aboard, including some that have flown in World War II, Operation Desert Storm and the Korean War. 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. There are also flight simulators, fo'c'sle knot tying demonstrations and a cafe when you start to feel peckish on-site.
Travelers say the audio guides are informative, but they also recommend stopping to listen to the knowledgeable volunteer docents (many of them military veterans, some of which served on the ship) stationed throughout the museum. There is so much to see and learn, many visitors reported spending several hours here while some ended up staying the entire day. Even if you aren't necessarily a history buff, those with little interest in the attraction before visiting called it a must-see. Many were keen to note how much the USS Midway made them appreciate the military members past and present for their service. Because this is one of San Diego's most popular attractions, it's best to get here early to avoid ticket lines and crowds.
- #9View all PhotosfreeSunset Cliffs#9 in San DiegoHiking, Recreation, Swimming/Pools, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDHiking, Recreation, Swimming/Pools, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDRead More
Next to the Cabrillo Monument, travelers say this is the next best place for ocean views in Point Loma. Situated a little more than 9 miles due west of downtown San Diego, Sunset Cliffs stretches across 68 acres and runs 1.5 miles along Point Loma peninsula's western shoreline. The dramatic sandstone cliffs and untouched vegetation along with its stunning ocean vistas make for an unforgettable stroll both during the day and at night. The area is also home to a few secluded beaches as well, though getting to them can be tricky. There is a beach popular with locals at the beginning of Cordova Street off of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, but you have to traverse down the rocky bluffs to get there. For an easier descent, head to the end of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard at Ladera Street and take a walk down the available stairway. It won't lead you to the beach but it will get you just above the crashing waves. That area is pretty popular with surfers, so expect to see lots of locals catching waves. If you venture farther up into Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, you'll find plenty of walking trails right along the ocean and through the coastal scrub that dot the area.
As its name implies, sunset is a popular time to visit the park and recent visitors say arguably the best. If you want to avoid the crowds at dusk, try to plan a mid-week trip rather than a weekend visit. Travelers recommend bringing along a sweatshirt in case the ocean breeze gets a little too chilly. Past visitors also suggest using the restroom before stopping here as there are no facilities on-site. You can get to Sunset Cliffs via public transportation. If you're staying downtown, take the trolley to Old Town Transit Center then catch the 35 bus and it will take you to the beginning of the cliffs. Sunset Cliffs has no opening or closing hours, though it's best to go when there's light for maximum visibility. People have had accidents falling off of the cliffs, so be sure to observe the signs marking unstable cliffs.
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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, including the world's oldest active ship, the Star of India. Recent visitors said the boat tours gave them a new understanding of the workmanship and skill required of sailors. Past travelers 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.
If exploring boats doesn't satisfy your craving for a nautical experience, set sail on one of the museum's boats, including the Californian, the Official Tall Ship of the State of California. Prices and tour availability depend on the ship, so make sure to check the website for more information.
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Though you may spot wildlife at any one of San Diego's beaches (especially Pacific and Mission Beach) none put on quite as good a show as the performers at SeaWorld. Here you'll get to see a range of animals, including dolphins, California sea lions, California otters and sea turtles, among others. As for the rides, travelers love the lightning fast Manta Ray rollercoaster, but caution against the Journey to Atlantis or Ship Wreck Rapids 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, the penguin habitat, which features nearly 300 penguins, or the vast Wild Arctic ride/exhibit, which features the chance to see beluga whales and polar bears. There's also the Sesame Street Bay of Play, which features various playgrounds wet and dry as well as arcade facilities and smaller mechanical rides for the really little ones.
Recent visitors had a blast at SeaWorld, especially those with kiddos in tow. Travelers say you can't miss a show, with many being fond of the dolphin show in particular. But make sure to get there early though, as lines can get long. Travelers also highly recommended wearing good walking shoes and bringing an extra jacket or change of clothes in case you get wet on the rides or at the shows (there's a splash zone for most). Travelers who didn't bring a change of clothes said they were miserable walking around the park wet and gawked at the high price of clothing available at the park.
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Known for its gentle waves and active beachgoers, La Jolla Shores is an ideal place to relax for a few hours. Locals and tourists hit this beach to surf, see marine life and enjoy the clean ocean water and sand. Families flock to La Jolla Shores and appreciate the reliable lifeguard presence and ample public restrooms. Adjacent to the beach is the La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve, which houses two artificial reefs meant to attract marine life. Its perimeter is marked with buoys to enforce the strict no fishing rules. Along with fishing, collecting seashells is prohibited, as the area is part of the Marine Life Refuge used by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography for research. Away from the protected refuge, surfers and boogie boarders come to catch waves in designated zones. Additionally, kayak and snorkeling gear rentals are available and visitors can sign up for scuba diving classes ahead of time. La Jolla Kayak and San Diego Bike and Kayak Tours are two companies that offer rental equipment.
There are a handful of dining options where visitors can grab a quick bite or nice meal just a short walk from the shore. Travelers warn if you're bringing a cooler to watch out for hungry seagulls that will hover looking for food. For a prime vantage point, visitors suggest seeking out one of the rooftop decks at the local bars, where you can enjoy shoreline views and vibrant sunsets over cocktails.
- View all PhotosfreeLa Jolla CoveBeaches, Natural Wonders, Parks and Gardens, Swimming/Pools, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Natural Wonders, Parks and Gardens, Swimming/Pools, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDRead More
La Jolla Cove is the jewel of La Jolla. Located across the water from La Jolla Shores, La Jolla Cove may not be much in terms of a beach, but its striking beauty and snorkeling reputation more than make up for it among recent visitors. The site is an ecologically protected area that is home to vibrant wildlife both in and out of the water. In fact, it's not uncommon to spot sea lions hanging close to the cove's bluffs and tide pools. Oftentimes, they even come on the beach.
This is also an excellent spot for beginner snorkelers. Advanced snorkelers should take advantage of the sea caves located along the bluffs, but only with a guide. If you aren't an advanced snorkeler but still want to see the caves, you can take a kayak tour, offered by La Jolla Sea Cave Kayaks, or visit the Cave Store, which is home to a manmade tunnel that goes directly inside the Sunny Jim Cave. Travelers say even if you don't plan on swimming or snorkeling, you should still visit the attraction for its picture-perfect setting.
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