Enjoy my list of the top things to do in San Diego, California.
San Diego is easily one of the most popular places to visit in the USA.
It’s an easy flight over the Pacific from places like Eastern Asia and Australia. And even tourists from Europe or Africa will make the long flight over to enjoy the sunny weather and sandy beaches of San Diego.
I grew up in Massachusetts, and I know countless New Englanders who have relocated to San Diego in search of warmer weather.
From friends who have just visited, to friends who have moved there permanently, everyone RAVES about San Diego all the time.
So I finally made the trip over to see what all the hype is about.
After spending 4 days in San Diego, I feel confident that this city is worth all the attention. It is GORGEOUS. The weather is perfect, there is so much to see and do, and the overall vibe is relaxed and fun.
So here is my list of the best things to do in San Diego!
Obviously I didn’t get to all of these San Diego attractions in just 4 days. But this list is a combination of my own experiences, some research, and recommendations from friends who live there.
If you plan on visiting lots of paid attractions, such as museums or the San Diego Zoo, I would recommend getting the Go City All Inclusive Pass.
I tend to gravitate more towards hiking and sightseeing to save money, and San Diego is an expensive city. But if you’re going to visit lots of attractions with entry fees, this pass will definitely save you money!
The 31 Best Things To Do In San Diego, California
San Diego has something for everyone! There is hiking, kayaking, and surfing for those outdoorsy travelers. There is so much music, art, history, architecture, and incredible food.
Whatever you are into, you are sure to find some fun things to do in San Diego.
I will list prices for each attraction, simply because this is a budget travel blog and the price is always something I look for when researching attractions.
For more money saving ideas, check out my article: 50 BUDGET TRAVEL TIPS
1. Hike Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
I love hiking, so this was the first thing I wanted to do when I arrived in San Diego. It was even better than I imagined!
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a gorgeous area of natural beauty that is full of hiking trails and protected native plants and wildlife.
It is important to note that Torrey Pines is a nature reserve and not a park. The focus is on preserving nature, so you have to stick to the marked trails.
The area is named after the rare Torrey pine, an endangered species of pine tree that grows only in coastal southern California.
While weaving through the trails, you can see the unique trees as well as rugged cliffs, curving lagoons, beautiful beaches, and other native shrubs and plants.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is relatively small, so you can hike a few different trails in just a few hours.
- Cost: Free (Parking is between $10 – $25)
2. Golf At Torrey Pines Golf Course
Sitting just south of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is Torrey Pines Golf Course.
I’m not a golfer, nor do I know anything about golf. But I do know that this is one of the most beautiful golf courses in the USA.
Golfers who visit San Diego should never miss an opportunity to visit the famous Torrey Pines Golf Course.
Find out more info about prices and hours on the Torrey Pines Golf Course website.
- Cost: At least $50 for equipment rentals
3. See Live Music
San Diego has incredible nightlife, particularly when it comes to music.
There are lots of awesome places to go out and see live music, such as:
- Dizzy’s: Jazz music, cheap tickets, traditional, laid-back vibe
- Tin Roof: Different themed nights including karaoke, reggae, jazz brunch, and more
- The Casbah: Historic venue, great for loud rock shows
- Red Fox Steakhouse and Piano Bar: Great food, live piano music
- The Folkey Monkey: Intimate setting, acoustic folk music
So spending a night out listening to some amazing live music is one of the best things to do in San Diego.
- Cost: Could be anywhere between $20 – $100 depending on ticket prices and how much you want to eat or drink while you’re out
4. Eat Mexican Food
San Diego is only about one hour from the Mexican border. That means there is a huge Mexican presence in the demographics of the city.
And that means…incredible, authentic Mexican food!
There are so many amazing Mexican eateries in San Diego, but here are a few top recommendations:
- Nico’s Mexican Food in Ocean Beach, known for their incredible burritos
- Las Quatro Milpas, Barrio Logan near Petco Park/Coronado Bridge, old school authentic Mexican restaurant
- Oscar’s Mexican Seafood, multiple locations, known for their smoked fish tacos
- Mike’s Taco Club in Ocean Beach, has a delicious breakfast burrito
- Puesto, multiple locations, has a Taco Tuesday discounts and great margaritas
There are so many more, so if you love Mexican food you’ll be spoiled for choice! I had Mexican food every single day in San Diego and never regretted any of it.
- Cost: A burrito or two tacos usually costs around $10
5. Explore The Gaslamp Quarter
Another one of the best things to do in San Diego is explore the Gaslamp Quarter. This neighborhood is often known as the heart of the city’s nightlife.
Full of clubs, bars, restaurants, and more, there is always something to do in the Gaslamp Quarter.
Even if you’re not into the party scene, there are lots of art galleries, theatres, live music venues, museums, and other cultural activities.
- Cost: Depends on what you want to do here! You can wander around for free or spend some money enjoying the attractions.
6. Go On A Boat Cruise
If you want to treat yourself to something fancy, a boat cruise is one of the most fun things to do in San Diego.
Because the city is surrounded by water, sightseeing by boat is a unique way to see San Diego.
You can book a Harbour Cruise during the day, which glides past the sights of downtown San Diego for a few hours in the sunshine.
Or you can consider a sightseeing dinner boat cruise with DJ music. This is a great way to see the San Diego skyline at night!
7. Have A Beach Day
San Diego is famous for its beaches, so you have to spend some quality time with the sun, sand, and sea!
There are so many incredible beaches, so it can be hard to pick one.
Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach, and Mission Beach are centrally located and busy. There are lots of shops and facilities nearby. Coronado Beach is also busy and fun, but it’s located on Coronado Island.
Windansea Beach is great for surfing and sunbathing. It’s very long and a bit further north so it’s less crowded.
The beaches around La Jolla Cove are touristy but so gorgeous. Dog Beach is perfect for bringing your four-legged friends.
Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve has beaches as well. These beaches, along with South Ponto Beach, are remote and have no facilities nearby. They’re perfect for a secluded swim.
Fletcher Cove Beach Park and Moonlight State Beach are great for families.
- Cost: Free, minus parking and transport costs
8. Catch A Game At Petco Park
If you’re visiting San Diego, you should definitely try and participate in one of the most beloved American past times: baseball.
Petco Park is the local San Diego baseball field, home of the San Diego Padres.
Visit the MLB website for more info about game schedules and ticket prices. Catching a baseball game is a super fun way to spend a day here.
- Cost: Average ticket prices for a game range from $50 – $80
9. Go Cliff Jumping At Sunset Cliffs
This is one of the most fun things to do in San Diego if you love a thrill.
There is a spot along Sunset Cliffs called “The Arch”, where a sandstone cliff shaped like an arch juts out into the ocean.
My friend and I were strolling along the cliffs when we saw a bunch of people cliff jumping off the Arch.
We actually didn’t know about the cliff jumping prior to visiting. But it looked so much fun that we did it spontaneously.
It’s a 20-foot cliff, so not too scary if you’ve cliff jumped before. The ocean was relatively mellow and we saw lots of other people doing it, so it seemed completely safe!
Since researching post-trip, I’ve actually noticed that it’s illegal to cliff jump here and you can get fined.
So if you want to take the risk, go for it! It was super fun and no one got in trouble when I was there. But just be wary that it’s technically illegal.
- Cost: Free
10. Hike In Mission Trails Regional Park
Located just 12 miles from downtown San Diego, Mission Trails Regional Park is a great spot for hiking and enjoying the sunshine.
There are over 65 miles of trails to enjoy. You can go hiking, running, walking, mountain biking, rock climbing, bird watching, and more.
Having a massive outdoor space so close to the city center is incredible. So if you’re someone who loves exercising outside in nature, heading to Mission Trails Regional Park is one of the best things to do in San Diego!
- Cost: Free
11. Explore Balboa Park
An absolute must-do in San Diego is visiting Balboa Park.
This giant cultural park in downtown San Diego is packed with things to do. There are gardens, museums, walking trails, historic sights, monuments, galleries, and so much more.
You could spend hours exploring all that Balboa Park has to offer.
Highlights include the Japanese Friendship Garden, Spreckels Organ Pavilion, Spanish Village Art Center, and all the incredible museums.
Also climb the California Tower for an epic view over the park and city.
- Cost: Free, but certain attractions have entry fees that are around $10 – $20
12. Get Ice Cream
It’s true what they say: San Diego does have near-perfect weather year-round. It’s often sunny and the temperatures are warm most of the year. In summer it can get really hot.
If you’re visiting San Diego on a hot sunny day, you definitely deserve ice cream!
There are lots of amazing ice cream places around San Diego. Here are a few of the top recommended ones:
- MooTime Creamery in Coronado, famous for their ice cream tacos and sandwich cookies
- Salt and Straw in Little Italy, classic, delicious gelato
- Lighthouse Ice Cream in Ocean Beach, a local favorite that also has waffles and pancakes
- Jojo’s Creamery in Encinitas, known for their organic and dairy-free ice cream
- Sadie’s Handcrafted Mexican Ice Cream in Chula Vista, self-explanatory!
- SomiSomi, multiple locations, Korean-style ice cream in fish-shaped waffle cones
- The Baked Bear, multiple locations, has an insane ice cream cookie sandwich with homemade cookies
- Cost: Anywhere between $5 and $10 depending on how decadent your dessert it
13. See the Cabrillo National Monument
At the very tip of the Point Loma Peninsula in San Diego lies the Cabrillo National Monument Park.
The monument commemorates European voyager Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo stepping onto San Diego Bay in 1542. He was the first European on West Coast USA.
The Cabrillo National Monument is a cool landmark, but it’s the scenery and walking paths of the peninsula that are the main draw of this spot.
- Cost: Parking is $5, Fee is $3 for cyclists and walk-ins
14. Head Out To Point Loma Lighthouse
Right next to the Cabrillo National Monument is the Point Loma Lighthouse.
This historic lighthouse was put in service in 1855. Though it’s no longer a functioning lighthouse, it is still a cherished historic landmark and museum.
After seeing the lighthouse, walk around the peninsula and check out the tide pools and the Point Loma Ecological Reserve.
- Cost: Same parking fees for Cabrillo National Monument
15. Walk Through Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
This string of rugged, oceanside cliffs is one of the most beautiful places in San Diego.
You don’t even have to visit at sunset to soak in the natural beauty of Sunset Cliffs Natural Park!
At any time of day, walking along the cliffside path is gorgeous. There are hidden beaches, sea caves, native plants, natural rock arches, sea birds and sea lions, and more.
- Cost: Free
16. Visit the USS Midway Museum
Located on Navy Pier in downtown San Diego, the USS Midway Museum is one of the top museums in the city.
The naval aircraft carrier museum is fascinating for history buffs and those interested in US military history.
Here you can see the famous aircraft carrier Midway, as well as other aircraft collections.
- Cost: $26
17. Watch The Sunset
You can’t visit San Diego without seeing a classic California sunset! West coast sunsets are stunning, so try to see as many as possible.
There are lots of great sunset spots in San Diego.
The beach is always a good option. Almost all of them face west so you can always see the sunset over the horizon.
Ocean Beach is a fun spot for beach picnics, and Pacific Beach has lots of greenery and benches nearby for sunset viewing.
Obviously, Sunset Cliffs are a top sunset spot, and Kate Sessions Park is a nice grassy hill that is located more inland.
- Cost: Free
18. Go Bar Hopping
San Diego is full of fun bars to check out. From secret speakeasies, to cocktail bars, to classic sports pubs and more, you are spoilt for choices.
Here are some of the coolest bars in San Diego:
- Noble Experiment, Gaslamp Quarter, secret bar with craft cocktails
- The Grass Skirt, Pacific Beach, Hidden Tiki bar
- Vin De Syrah, Gaslamp Quarter, speakeasy that turns into a club at night
- Lucy’s Tavern, Ocean Beach, classic bar with games and pool tables
- Wolfies Carousel Bar, Little Italy, whimsical carousel themed bar
- Room 56, Gaslamp Quarter, cocktail bar and speakeasy
Of course there are so many more, but those are a few that are highly recommended.
- Cost: One cocktail costs around $15-20
19. Visit The Art Museums
San Diego is home to some incredible art museums. If you’re an art lover, definitely check these out!
The San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park is one of the best.
Set in a gorgeous building, the San Diego Museum of Art hosts rotations art collections and exhibitions. It also has an impressive Asian Art collection.
The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego is another one of the best art museums in San Diego. It focuses on many different types of art from the 50s until the present day.
Also visit the Museum of Photographic Arts and the National Gallery of Fine Art La Jolla.
Another highlight is the Mingei International Museum, which focuses on ethnic arts and crafts from all over the world.
- Cost: Varies for each museum but most entry fees are around $20
20. Visit La Jolla Cove
One of the most scenic areas of Southern California is La Jolla Cove. Visiting here is a must during any visit to San Diego!
The bright blue waters of La Jolla Cove are surrounded by rugged cliffs, towering palm trees, and grassy parks. The area is also famous for its colonies of sea lions and seals.
Stroll along the coastal walking path to get the best views of La Jolla Cove, or take to the water! Swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking are all popular here.
Kayaking in La Jolla Cove is one of the best things to do in San Diego.
You can paddle through caves and get up close to the sea lion and seal colonies. Just always keep your distance from the wild animals!
But if you’re traveling on a budget, just floating in the turquoise waters and relaxing on the white sand is still incredible.
- Cost: Free to visit La Jolla Cove, Kayaking is around $140
21. Spend the Day on Coronado Island
While visiting San Diego, take a day trip over to Coronado Island.
This little island is most well known for its beaches. They have soft white sand and offer lovely views of the San Diego skyline in the background.
Hotel Del Coronado is a super famous resort on the island. It was built in 1888 and is one of the last remaining wooden Victorian beach resorts in the world.
You can reach Coronado island either by taking the ferry or by driving yourself over the iconic Coronado Bridge.
- Cost: Ferry is $4.75 each way
22. Go On Rides At Belmont Park
Enjoying Belmont Park is one of the top San Diego activities.
This historic beachfront amusement park is located right near Mission Beach and is full of fun things to do.
Opened in 1925, Belmont Park is full of historic attractions as well as new modern rides and entertainment.
The highlight of Belmont Park is the wooden Giant Dipper roller coaster. This ride was part of the original 1925 park and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
- Cost: There are many ticket options available on the website. 10 ride tickets cost $10, a $60 day pass is for unlimited rides. (Get an unlimited ride pass on Get Your Guide for $55!)
23. Hang Out At The Children’s Pool
The Children’s Pool is one of the coolest things to see in San Diego. It’s in the La Jolla area, so it’s easy to just walk along the coast south of La Jolla Cove until you reach The Children’s Pool.
This little beach has a seawall that protects the beach from the wind and swell of the ocean.
So it was named “The Children’s Pool” because the seawall makes the beach calm, flat, and perfect for kids.
However, the area has become a popular spot for seals and sea lions to hang out.
The beach is still open for everyone, but swimming is not recommended because of the wildlife!
It is still a beautiful spot to check out, and kids will still love playing on the sand and watching the seals and seas lions frolic and sunbathe.
- Cost: Free
24. Go Surfing
Another one of the best things to do in San Diego is surfing. It’s one of the best places to surf in the USA, for both beginners and advanced surfers.
Surfboard rental shops are scattered all over San Diego’s beach neighborhoods, including La Jolla, Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach, and Mission Beach.
If you’re a beginner who wants to take surf lessons, check out one of the following surf schools:
Experienced surfers should check out Cardiff State Beach, Windansea Beach, Grandview Beach, and Black’s Beach.
Sunset Cliffs is also a popular surf spot among locals, but it’s recommended for advanced surfers only.
- Cost: Surfboard rentals are usually between $15 and $25 per hour. Surf lessons are usually between $80 and $150.
25. Indulge At Little Italy
Little Italy is one of the most popular neighborhoods in San Diego.
It’s a relatively small collection of streets that are packed to the brim with authentic Italian restaurants, American-Italian restaurants, cafes, bars, wineries, gelato shops, unique stores, and more.
The area used to be the home base for generations of Italian immigrants who made a living off of the fishing industry, as the harbor is right next to Little Italy.
Nowadays, the area is still home to Italian families and their businesses. But there is lots of other stuff there as well!
Visit the Little Italy Farmer’s Market on Saturdays from 8am – 2pm, or just meander around and eat, drink, and shop.
- Cost: A meal with a drink will cost around $30 or $40
26. Visit The San Diego Air And Space Museum
One of the best San Diego museums is the San Diego Air and Space Museum.
Located inside Balboa Park, this museum is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.
With an astonishing collection of international aircraft and spacecraft from all throughout history, there is lots to see here.
There are also interactive exhibits revolving around aviation and space exploration.
- Cost: $23
27. Shop At The Spanish Village Art Center
Located within the mighty Balboa Park, the Spanish Village Art Center is one of the coolest things to do in San Diego.
Aside from the nature, I honestly think this was the coolest San Diego attraction.
The Spanish Village Art Center is a small square filled with galleries and studios for local artists.
Just wander into any little shop and admire the incredible sculptures, photography, jewelry, glassware, paintings, drawings, and more.
There is so much cool stuff to see, and most local artists there are either working or willing to chat.
The stone squares on the ground of the Spanish Village are all painted in different colors, making it a captivating sight to see.
- Cost: Free, prices on artworks vary
28. San Diego Zoo
Also located in Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo is a top tourist attraction.
I’m personally not a huge fan of visiting zoos, even if they focus on conservation and protecting the animals like the San Diego Zoo does!
But if you are a fan of zoos, the San Diego Zoo is a fun activity. It has over 100 acres and 4,000 animals to check out.
Book your admission ticket on Get Your Guide and skip the line when you arrive! It’s the same price as booking when you arrive.
- Cost: $65
29. Enter Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave
Right next to La Jolla Cove is a magnificent rock arch that towers above the ocean and is home to a sea cave.
When you book a kayak tour of La Jolla, you can kayak through the cave. But you can also visit the cave on foot!
Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave is actually the only sea cave in San Diego that you can enter by land.
Just head into The Cave Store, a humble little souvenir shop in La Jolla. Pay the entrance fee, then follow the dark, stone steps down into the Earth.
It can be wet and slippery, and it’s very dark so just walk with care.
At the end of the tunnel, you’ll be inside the cave! You just can’t enter the water here because it’s rocky and potentially dangerous.
- Cost: $10
30. Tour A Winery or Brewery
Though Northern California is more well-known for wine, there are some great wineries near San Diego.
Bernardo Winery is one of the oldest in Southern California. Blue Door Urban Winery, Speckle Rock Vineyards, and San Pasqual Winery Seaport Village are also fun to visit.
If you’re more into beer, San Diego also has some cool breweries.
Ballast Point Brewing in Little Italy and Resident Brewing in the Gaslamp Quarter are local favorites.
- Cost: A glass of wine or beer costs around $10
31. Visit Old Town San Diego
Old Town is one of the most visited neighborhoods in San Diego. Some people even call it the “Birthplace of California”.
Within Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, you can see the area as it traditionally existed back in the 1800s. There are preserved buildings, traditional shops, and historic landmarks.
See historic sights, learn about the Mexican heritage, visit the charming shops and cafes, and step back in time to learn about California’s history.
A guided tour of the Old Town is a great way to learn all the interesting history of the area from a local.
- Cost: Free to wander around, guided tour is around $45
Thanks for reading my list of the best things to do in San Diego, California!
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