Free Things To Do in San Diego
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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 & 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.
- #6View all Photos#6 in San Diego5.2 miles to city centerMuseums, Free, Parks and Gardens, Neighborhood/Area, Historic Homes/MansionsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND5.2 miles to city centerMuseums, Free, Parks and Gardens, Neighborhood/Area, Historic Homes/MansionsTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Take a trip back in time at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, a mile-long stretch of restored shops and houses on the grounds of the first European settlement in California. Widely considered the "birthplace of California," Old Town San Diego shows visitors what it was like to live through different eras of California history, from the time of Spanish explorers to the California gold rush. Some important stops include the Whaley House, a former granary and courthouse which was originally built in 1857, and Casa de Estudillo, a house built in the 1820s which utilizes traditional furniture and decor to illustrate how people lived years ago. The Junípero Serra Museum, named for the Spanish monk who helped colonize San Diego and other areas of California, is also a must-see because its architecture and location have helped make it a famous San Diego landmark. It sits on a hill in Presidio Park near green spaces, picnic areas and memorials, and it provides great views of the city and the Pacific Ocean.
There are plenty of shops in the Old Town area, many of which sell handcrafted items from Mexico and other Latin American countries. The town's Mexican heritage is also preserved through the various restaurants that dish out authentic Mexican food and often hand out homemade tortillas for travelers to sample. Previous visitors enjoyed simply strolling through the streets, relaxing on the green spaces and listening to mariachi bands.
- #8View all PhotosfreeSeaport Village#8 in San Diego3 miles to city centerFree, Cafes, Neighborhood/Area, ShoppingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND3 miles to city centerFree, Cafes, Neighborhood/Area, ShoppingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
If you want to spend the afternoon watching ships float in and out of the harbor while sipping coffee or shopping for souvenirs, Seaport Village is the place to visit. Located on the waterfront not far from the USS Midway Museum, the 14-acre village is home to more than 50 shops and 13 dining outlets. Travelers can enjoy browsing summer clothing at Seaport Island Fashion, artwork at Wyland Galleries and eco-friendly products at Cariloha Bamboo. Hot Licks, a hot sauce shop, is also a crowd favorite. With this much variety, you're sure to find something special to remember your San Diego trip. Even visitors who aren't particularly fond of shopping said they still enjoyed strolling through the sunny outdoor complex.
Once you've worked up an appetite, explore Seaport Village's diverse food scene. Slurp oysters at the Harbor House, sample authentic Mexican flavors at Margarita's Kitchen & Cantina or satisfy your sweet tooth at Frost Me Gourmet Cupcakes. If you're looking for panoramic sea views, be sure to grab a bite at San Diego Pier Café. And at the end of the day, Seaport Village is a great place to watch the sun set over the Pacific.
- #11View all PhotosfreeSunset Cliffs#11 in San Diego7.8 miles to city centerFree, Hiking, Recreation, Swimming/PoolsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND7.8 miles to city centerFree, Hiking, Recreation, Swimming/PoolsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
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.
- #12View all Photos#12 in San Diego12.9 miles to city centerBeaches, Free, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND12.9 miles to city centerBeaches, Free, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Animal lovers are sure to enjoy Children's Pool Beach in La Jolla. Because of the California coast's sometimes harsh waves, a seawall was built in the 1930s on a portion of the beach to make the waters calmer for children. However, builders didn't realize the calm waters would appeal to seals as well. In recent years, seals have started flocking to Children's Pool Beach to bask in the sun, play in the water and give birth to their pups. The wildlife phenomenon has turned the beach into a must-see tourist attraction.
Visitors can walk out onto the seawall to watch the seals from above, and many agreed Children's Pool Beach was one of the highlights of their San Diego trip. They suggest bringing binoculars to see the seals and jackets as it can get chilly on the seawall. They also warn the abundance of seals can sometimes result in a rather pungent scent, but seeing the animals in their natural habitat is worth it.
- #15View all Photos#15 in San Diego5.5 miles to city centerFree, Cafes, ShoppingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND5.5 miles to city centerFree, Cafes, ShoppingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
If you find yourself hungry and near the San Diego Bay, look no further than Liberty Public Market for a delicious solution. Housed in a former Navy training building within the Arts District of Liberty Station, the market features more than 30 independently run food stalls, each with its own unique flair. Visitors can stroll through the bustling market and sample food from all backgrounds. The Venissimo Cheese stand features artisanal cheeses in many forms: on sandwiches, on crackers, on charcuterie boards and more. Bao Bar offers Pan-Asian cuisine and creative steamed buns while Fishbone Kitchen serves raw oysters, ceviche and more. Some stalls have more specific products, such as Baker & Olive which sells premium olive oil and balsamic vinegar, or Howlistic, which offers natural dog and cat food. Beer, wine and cocktails are also available inside. Visitors say the Liberty Public Market is perfect for anyone traveling with a large group, as everyone is sure to find something they like.
There are also some stands that sell other goods. Southern California-based jewelry brand Kai & Skye brings artistic bohemian accessories to the market while Bella Vie Candles sells locally sourced candles with custom fragrances. For more shopping, guests can venture outside to the various other accessory stores around Liberty Station.
- #17View all Photos#17 in San Diego14.1 miles to city centerFree, Recreation, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND14.1 miles to city centerFree, Recreation, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Travelers can catch Torrey Pines' unique coastal views from a new perspective at Torrey Pines Gliderport. The gliderport is one of the top spots in California for paragliding, hang gliding, remote control models and sailplanes. In operation for almost a century, this unique adventure hub allows visitors to witness the beautifully preserved California coastline from above. Each flight lasts 20 to 25 minutes and gives gliders the chance to witness the sandstone cliffs, golf courses and vibrant water from the sky before landing back where they started – 350 feet above Black's Beach. Anyone of any age can sign up for a tandem gliding ride, but minors must get formal approval from their parents or guardians.
Visitors say the rides are worth the price because it's a once in a lifetime experience for many; they rave about the guides who made them feel safe and also made the ride fun. Torrey Pines Gliderport also offers pilot training for more experienced gliders as well as clinics for pilots who want to refine their expertise.
- View all PhotosfreeLa Jolla Shores12.5 miles to city centerBeaches, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND12.5 miles to city centerBeaches, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
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 Cove12.8 miles to city centerBeaches, Natural Wonders, Free, Parks and Gardens, Swimming/PoolsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND12.8 miles to city centerBeaches, Natural Wonders, Free, Parks and Gardens, Swimming/PoolsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
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, 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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