San Diego brings to mind spectacular beaches and great weather. But, while those are certainly highlights, you may be surprised by how many more fun things to do in San Diego you can find, if you know where to look!
Never worry, because I’m a San Diego local who is here to guide you through all the best activities in the area, from popular attractions to hidden gems.
San Diego is a big city, but it’s really characterized by its numerous quirky beach towns, each with its own individual flavor and activities. So whether you’re visiting San Diego or a resident craving new experiences, an outdoor enthusiast, or a city lover, America’s Finest City is sure to capture your heart!
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Best Things to Do in San Diego
Go Wild at the San Diego Zoo
Map It: 2920 Zoo Dr, San Diego, CA 92101 | Website | Hours: 9 am – 6 pm daily | San Diego Zoo Entrance: $62, adults, $56 ages 3-11 | 👉 Book a Combined Safari Park and San Diego Zoo Admission
The world famous San Diego Zoo, located in the heart of the city in Balboa Park, is one of the largest and top-rated zoos in the world. Once you step inside, there’s really no question as to why!
The San Diego Zoo will make you feel like you’re strolling through the African desert with elephants, or hanging out with the koalas down under. Or maybe you’ll feel like getting a bird’s eye view of the park from the Skyfari Aerial Tram, a lift that transports you from one side of the park to another.
👉 Pro Tip: Be not to miss the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which is inland from the city, and an offshoot of the main zoo. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is really special because you can actually take open-air truck safaris through the animals’ spacious enclosures.
Snorkel or Kayak La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove creates a protected marine habitat for tons of wildlife, including playful sea lions, seabirds, fish, and even sea turtles. Take a kayak or snorkeling tour of the area to explore the hidden sea caves and search for elusive marine life in otherworldly kelp forests. If you’re lucky you’ll spot a friendly leopard shark or two!
👉 Pro Tip: The orange fish found in the cove, called Garibaldi, is the state fish of California. It also inspired the fish in La Jolla resident Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat. See if you can spot anything else in La Jolla that appears in his stories!
San Diego is a prime place to go whale watching, as it’s right in the path of grey and blue whales migrating to and from Mexico. And, between the grey whale migration in Winter and Spring and blue whales in Summer and Fall, we’re lucky enough to have whales off of San Diego almost year-round.
If you pay close attention, you can even see their water spouting while standing on the shore! But I definitely recommend getting a closer view of the giant animals, and the best way to do that is by taking a whale watching tour.
Explore Balboa Park
Balboa Park is a 1,4000-acre park that contains a whole Spanish-style village of museums, galleries, and gardens. You could easily spend days exploring here. Most of the park’s infrastructure was constructed in the early 1900s and much of the current architecture sprung up for the Panama-California Exposition, in celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal.
My favorite spots in the park are the serene Spanish-inspired Alcazar garden, the lily pond in front of the domed botanical garden building, and the colorful Spanish Village Art Center (which is a space that is as much a piece of art as those held in the collection of art galleries within).
Watch Sunset from Point Loma
Map It: 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr, San Diego, CA 92106 | Monument Hours: 9 am – 5 pm daily
The Point Loma peninsula juts out into the Pacific and separates Mission Bay and San Diego Bay. Although it’s small, there are tons of things to see in the neighborhood including the rugged Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, which is widely considered the best place to watch the sunset in the city.
Point Loma also boasts the Cabrillo National Monument, which pays tribute to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to set foot in California. The Cabrillo National Monument also offers spectacular views of the bay and San Diego skyline. Just past the monument lies the picturesque Point Loma lighthouse and tide pools, where you can hunt for hidden sea life.
Step Into the Past in Old Town San Diego
As you might have guessed from the name, Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is indeed San Diego’s oldest town and the first European settlement in California. Located in the center of San Diego, the quaint streets and Spanish-style architecture will transport you to 1769 where you can take in some Hispanic culture, art, and food.
👉 Love the Paranormal? Be sure to keep your eye out for Old Town’s famous ghosts, especially near the infamously haunted Whaley House.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve lies just north of La Jolla and is a preserved piece of San Diego’s natural beauty that contains some of the last remaining undeveloped California coastlines in the city. The reserve is full of incredible clifftop views of the Pacific and hiking trails that give you a sense of what the San Diego chaparral must have looked like before it was settled.
If hiking isn’t accessible to you or you want to experience the views without the hiking, you can also drive into the reserve and take in the views just off the central parking lot.
Visit the Embarcadero & The USS Midway Museum
Map It: 849 W Harbor Dr, San Diego, CA 92101 | Phone: (619) 544-9600 | Museum Website | Hours: 10 am – 5 pm daily | Entrance: $26, adults, $18 under 12 and veterans | 👉 Check Out Tours of the USS Midway and San Diego Bay on Viator
The Embarcadero, a harborfront walkway, runs along the San Diego harbor near downtown. It showcases the naval and maritime history of San Diego and is definitely one of the more famous things to do in San Diego.
The Maritime Museum of San Diego also docks and displays its collection of restored historic ships, the most famous of which is the Star of India, which world’s oldest operating ship. The USS Midway Museum calls the Embarcadero home, which consists of 10 acres worth of exhibits and 30 restored aircraft all housed on a retired aircraft carrier ship harbored at the Navy Pier.
While wandering the harborfront, you’ll also find Seaport Village, a colorful assortment of shops and seafood restaurants looking out over the harbor.
Sites and Attractions in San Diego
Check Out the Balboa Museums and Fleet Science Center
Besides beautiful scenery and architecture, Balboa Park also contains 17 museums and cultural centers that will satisfy everyone from gem aficionados to miniature train enthusiasts.
My personal favorites are the Fleet Science Center which, as a kid, sparked my love of science, The San Diego Natural History Museum, The San Diego Air & Space Museum, The San Diego Museum of Art, and the Japanese Friendship garden.
👉Pro Tip: If you know you’ll want to hit multiple museums on your quest to do all the best things to do in San Diego, consider purchasing a Balboa Park Explorer Pass for discounts.
Belmont Park is a historic amusement park in the Mission Beach neighborhood that was built by sugar magnate John D. Spreckels back in 1925. The park has tons of San Diego character, especially its iconic old wooden roller coaster, the Giant Dipper. At the top of the roller coaster, you can take in the views of Mission Beach and Mission Bay. The amusement park also has a boardwalk with restaurants, rides, an arcade, and shops, so you can easily spend the day here.
Visit the San Diego Botanic Garden
Located in Encinitas, San Diego, the San Diego Botanic Garden boasts 37 acres worth of rare, native, and foreign plant species. Walking through the gardens will transport you from a desert climate to a lush tropical forest in minutes. You will leave feeling refreshed after spending time amid so much greenery and vibrant colors.
The Botanic Garden also hosts activities and events periodically, so be sure to check out the events calendar when planning your visit to this San Diego attraction.
Visit Birch Aquarium
Mix fun and science with a visit to the Birch Aquarium, which is the education and outreach center for the world-renowned research institution, Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The aquarium celebrates San Diego’s unique marine life and its habitat. You’ll find exhibits such as a two-story kelp forest, a tank with leopard sharks, and outdoor interactive pools.
The aquarium is perched atop a tall cliff in La Jolla that looks out over the Pacific Ocean, which makes it hard to decide if the highlight of the aquarium is the inside or outside!
Embrace Your Inner Child at Legoland
Legoland is one of the top attractions in San Diego for anyone with kids, or if you just want to unleash your inner child for the day! The park is constructed almost entirely of legos, which makes just wandering the park an adventure in itself. The theme park also contains a variety of rides and interactive activities (such as building with legos of course), and also contains a water park.
Catch a Show at The Old Globe Theatre
The Old Globe Theatre is located in Balboa Park and is modeled after Shakespeare’s Old Globe in London. The beautiful theater is an attraction on its own, but the highlight, of course, is the performances put on inside. The venue is known for its award-winning performances and many have even gone on to Broadway and received Tony awards.
Seeing Dr. Seuss’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas at The Old Globe Theatre as a kid is one of my personal favorite memories to this day!
Watch Sunset from Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial
The Veterans Memorial at Mt. Soledad is one of the most unique in the country as it honors all veterans, both living and deceased, starting from the Revolutionary War up until the present. It’s an emotionally moving scene to see all of the names and portraits carved into a wall.
The monument sits atop a hill in La Jolla from which you get panoramic views of the city, La Jolla Cove, and La Jolla Shores, making it one of the number one places to watch the sunset in San Diego!
Visit the Carlsbad Flower Fields
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to wander through a physical rainbow, then the Carlsbad Flower Fields are for you! For the last 60 years in Spring, the 50 acre flower garden transforms an entire hillside into a vibrant explosion of color created by Giant Tecolote Ranunculus flowers. I think it is really a breathtaking sight and is the perfect place to celebrate springtime in San Diego.
👉 Pro Tip: Make sure to check the website for updates, as the fields are only open in Spring.
Visit the Barona Cultural Center and Museum
Long, long before the Spanish began colonizing what is now San Diego in 1769, the region was inhabited by the Kumeyaay people, called Diegueños by the Spaniards. Located in East County, Barona Cultural Center is the first museum on a San Diego reservation that interprets and shares the rich culture and history of the Kumeyaay and their land.
This is an awesome way to both learn about San Diego’s important history, as well as support the Center’s efforts to preserve and share the Kumeyaay culture and way of life! Check out their website for upcoming events and activities!
Check Out the Historic Presidio Park
Presidio Park, officially El Presidio Real de San Diego, was established in 1769 and was the first European settlement and mission in what is now the Western United States. The fort served as the base for the Spanish conquest of California until Presidio Hill was eventually abandoned. The historic park was later restored by a private owner in 1925 who also founded the Junipero Serra Museum and constructed new buildings in the Spanish Revival style.
Nowadays, the park is a gorgeous setting to stroll through and enjoy a beautiful San Diego day!
Old Poway Park
The Old Poway Park is a picturesque outdoor area that has grassy fields, shaded trees, meandering pathways, and historic buildings. To give you an idea of how lovely it is, I had my family photos and high school graduation photos taken here!
Liberty Station was once a naval training and housing center that’s now been converted into a and trendy commercial center with galleries, shops, events, and even small museums. One of the main attractions in Liberty Station is The Liberty Public Market, a large space that contains a collection of food, cocktails, breweries, art, and shops.
Best Beaches & Areas
Explore the La Jolla Coast and Beaches
Exploring La Jolla is one of my favorite activities to do in San Diego. It is one of the best San Diego beaches and should be on every visitor’s itinerary! Even if you don’t want to get wet snorkeling or kayaking in La Jolla Cove, there’s still plenty to see. La Jolla Shores is a long, sandy beach perfect for spending a day lounging in the sun or surfing. Or head south towards the cove and the California coast becomes more rugged, cliffy, and full of wildlife.
Have a picnic overlooking the cliffs at the Ellen Browning Scripps Park. From there keep heading south a few blocks to check out the La Jolla Children’s Pool Beach, where a concrete wall creates a protected swimming area and a favorite sea lion hangout.
Map It: Pacific Beach, San Diego
Pacific Beach, locally known as “PB,” is a beachy neighborhood that embodies all things San Diego, what with its numerous surf shops, laid back eateries, an assortment of quirky bars, most of which are beach or surf themed. The town is mostly claimed by local college students and recent graduates who head to the beach during the day and then (maybe) put on a shirt and some shoes and hit the bars in the evening.
If you’re looking for some rowdy San Diego nightlife where flip-flops are encouraged, PB is the place for you!
🍽️ Hungry? Head to Oscar’s Mexican Seafood to sample some mouthwatering tacos!
The Gaslamp Quarter
The historical Gaslamp Quarter was the second neighborhood to be developed in San Diego after Old Town, and was named for its ahead-of-the-times 50 gas lamps that lit the streets. Now the downtown area is a unique mixture of skyscrapers and historical Victorian-style buildings that contain trendy restaurants and clubs and bars that explode to life in the evenings.
Travel to Italy without leaving San Diego County! The neighborhood of Little Italy, part of downtown San Diego, is a trendy pedestrian area full of a wide variety of trendy restaurants, bars, music venues, and boutiques. On Saturdays from 8 am to 2 pm, the Little Italy Mercato farmer’s market takes over the streets with a wide variety of fresh produce and local vendors.
Take a Day Trip to Tijuana
Although not technically in San Diego, Tijuana is so close that it may as well be. Just a short trip over the border into the bustling and vibrant border city and you get to experience Mexican culture, food, and cheap beer.
Not sure you’re quite up for it solo? For a fun, guided experience that relieves you of the planning and hassle, check out this highly-reviewed day tour to Tijuana.
👉 Want more fun excursions outside of San Diego? Check out my top suggestions for day trips from San Diego.
Check Out Windansea Beach
Windansea is a stretch of beach just south of downtown La Jolla known for its unique mix of sandy beach and rocky cliffs. During low tide, there’s plenty of San Diego beaches to sunbathe and hang out on, but at high tide, the waves will dramatically slam into the rocks, both of which make for some beautiful scenery.
Plus there’s the iconic Windansea Surf Shack. It might just look like 4 pillars with a thatched roof perched on a rock, but it’s actually one of the oldest and most well-known beach landmarks in San Diego. The hut was constructed in 1946 and has been destroyed a couple of times by storms and fire, but it still stands proud today!
Explore Coronado Island
Coronado Island is a resort town that lies just off the coast and is one of San Diego’s gems. The beautiful sandy beaches on the west side of the peninsula (Coronado Island is in fact a peninsula, despite the name) draw surfers and beach-goers throughout the summer, and the town contains tons of boutique shops and restaurants.
Coronado is also the home of the famous victorian Hotel Del Coronado, which was established in 1888 and is still a top San Diego attraction, both for dining and sleeping.
👉Pro Tip: A great way to see the town is by electric beach cruiser!
Del Mar is a charming San Diego seaside village with beautiful sandy beaches that inspire a day lounging by the ocean. The town itself is quaint little spot filled with lots of small shops and restaurants.The European feel to it gives out a unique German-mountain-village-meets-beach-town vibe and has lots of small shops and restaurants.
I love grabbing a coffee or a smoothie and sitting on a bench in Powerhouse Park, which perches on top of the cliffs overlooking the ocean, and trying to spot passing whales and dolphins.
⛱️ Want More Beaches? I wrote an EPIC guide to the best beaches in and around San Diego. Check it out here.
Free Stuff to Do in San Diego
Go for a Hike
San Diego has tons of great hikes and they deserve their own post, but here are just a few of my favorites hikes around San Diego:
- Annie’s Canyon: A trail in Solana Beach bordering a wetland that features an awesome slot canyon, the length of which depends on your starting point.
- Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve: One of the many hikes in the reserve is the 3.3 mile long Torrey Pines State Beach and Broken Hill Trail Loop, which showcases the beautiful La Jolla scenery.
- Potato Chip Rock via Mt. Woodson Trail: A 7.3 mile hike, and one of San Diego’s most photographed hiking destinations because of the famous potato-chip-like rock that juts into the air.
Check out the Paragliders at the Torrey Pines Gliderport
If you’re a thrill-seeker, check out paragliding at the Torrey Pines Gliderport, where you can take classes or go on a tandem glide with a pro. The Gliderport sits atop the Torrey Pines cliffs and if you take to the air you’ll get a breathtaking experience flying above the cliffs and over the beach.
If you’re more risk-averse, it’s still a pretty incredible sight to see all the high-fliers swooping around above the cliffs, especially near sunset.
Stand Up Paddle Board in Mission Bay
Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) is one of my favorite things to do in San Diego because you can get out on the water without getting wet (unless you struggle with balance like I do), making it one of the few year-round water activities.
There are tons of places to paddle, but one of my favorites is in Mission Bay, where you can peruse the sail boats and yachts and check out the seals lounging on the docks. Plus there are quite a few sandy beaches around the bay that you can stop and hang out on. Mission Bay has plenty of places where you can launch from, but a couple of my favorites are Ventura Cove, Santa Clara Point, and Crown Point Shores.
👉 Don’t Have a Paddle Board? No worries, you can rent one from San Diego SUP Rentals here!
Hit The Ocean Beach Farmers Market
The Ocean Beach (OB) farmers market is unlike any farmers market I’ve been to and fully embraces the hippie vibes of the neighborhood. Like most, the market consists of a couple of blocks filled with stands selling food, produce, and arts and crafts.
What makes it unique is that it starts in the late afternoon/evening, and though it ends at 8:00 pm, the party often continues down at the boardwalk where performers dance, sing, fire toss, and make art. It’s a super fun place to grab dinner and catch some entertainment on Wednesdays!
Compete in a Fierce Game of Sunset Trivia
Grab a group of friends or family and embrace your competitive spirit at a local San Diego trivia night! Sunset Trivia hosts the free game night at various bars around San Diego almost every evening of the week. Winners even get a gift card prize to whatever establishment they’re at, and if your team is extra brilliant, you may even get a chance to compete in the winner’s tournament. Check the Sunset Trivia website to find times and locations.
Take an Outdoor Yoga Class
What better way to celebrate San Diego’s many incredible outdoor locations than a serene yoga session? Whether you’re an experienced yogi or a beginner, you’ll be welcome in one of these drop-in classes. Classes happen all over the city, some on the beach or in a park, so check out this meetup page to find a location that works for you!
Volunteer for a Beach or Community Cleanup
If you love San Diego as much as I do, you might be interested in giving back by keeping it clean! Volunteering is also a great way to connect with the community and to feel good about taking care of this beautiful city and the surrounding oceans. Check out this awesome organization where you can find local cleanups, or plan your own!
Fun & Unique Activities to Do
Cheer on the San Diego Padres at Petco Park
Whether you’re a baseball fan, or just want to experience the high energy and quality stadium food, hitting a Padres game is one of the top activities in San Diego. I like to describe Petco Park as the baseball stadium for people who don’t like baseball because there are so many restaurants, beverage stations, and activities to do inside, including a nightclub! Check the game schedule here to plan ahead.
Take a Trolley Tour of San Diego’s Top Attractions
San Diego’s vintage trolley is a fun and unique way to get around the downtown San Diego and Old Town San Diego areas. If you book a one or two day tour, you can hit many of San Diego’s top attractions, many of which are mentioned in this post, and a guide will tell you about the history and interesting facts about each destination.
GoCar Tour of Down Town San Diego
Tour San Diego in style… in your very own go-car! The tiny cars act as both vehicle and tour guide and will lead you on a 2 hour sight-seeing route that covers both downtown San Diego and Old Town San Diego, with speakers that tell you stories and facts about each place you visit. It’s definitely one of the more unique and fun things to do in San Diego, California!
Boating in San Diego Bay
Map It: San Diego Bay, San Diego
The San Diego Bay is a well-known destination for boating and when the conditions are right, it fills with boaters living their best Southern California lives. If you don’t happen to have your own vessel here are a few options for how to get out on San Diego Bay:
Take an intimate sunset sailing tour around the bay. This is a perfect way to celebrate two of San Diego’s staples – water sports and world-class sunsets.
For a more adrenaline-filled experience, you can also take a jet boat ride that should satisfy your need for speed.
Or if you have a small group that’s itching for a party, you can also be your own captain and rent out a duffy, a small, canopied boat that comes equipped with speakers and coolers.
Watch a Show at Humphrey’s Concerts By the Bay
Humphrey’s By The Bay is a beloved open-air San Diego venue located on Shelter Island in the heart of San Diego Bay. The stage lies right next to the marina, making for spectacular sunset shows. The theater hosts a wide variety of musicians and bands of all genres as well as comedy shows from April through October.
👉 Local secret: If your favorite artist is sold out, grab a kayak or a paddle board and float on up to the edge of the theater where you can still get great views of the stage.
Take a San Diego Harbor Cruise
Taking a boat tour around San Diego Harbor is one of the best ways to see all of the sights that San Diego has to offer! The cruise will take you to see the San Diego skyline, under the iconic San Diego Coronado Bridge, and to the harbor where the restored historic naval ships are docked.
Go for a Microbrewery Tour
San Diego is the self proclaimed craft beer capital of the United States, and it’s tough to dispute that title. The city contains over 150 microbreweries and is the birthplace of the hoppy West Coast IPA. You can spend countless weekends trying to hit all of San Diego’s awesome beer halls, but for a condensed sample, try taking a beer tasting tour!
Take a Sunset Hot Air Balloon Ride
Floating high above Del Mar in a hot air balloon is undeniably the best way you can take in the views of America’s Finest City and watch one of San Diego’s world-renowned sunsets. As a little kid I used to watch excitedly for all of the balloons taking to the sky in late afternoons. So, in my opinion, this is one of the most iconic, and probably most romantic, activities in San Diego. Check out the company page for booking information.
Watch a Movie Under the Stars at a Drive-In Theater
Put a fun spin on a typical dinner-and-a-movie night and go watch a movie at one of San Diego’s two drive-in theaters. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, you park your car in front of a giant outdoor movie screen, tune your radio to the indicated channel, and enjoy! This works perfectly well in a normal car but people get pretty creative with their setups, like putting a blow-up mattress in a truck bed, for example.
Go to a Concert at the Belly Up Tavern
The Belly Up Tavern has been a staple San Diego music venue since the 70s and is still popular today for its intimate and casual atmosphere. Located in Solana Beach, the venue holds about 600 people, has a mixture of seating and standing and serves beer and some bar food. They have live music almost every night and feature a wide variety of artists and genres that you can check out here.
Search for Treasures at Kobey’s Swap Meet
If you love thrifting, rummaging at garage sales, or just hunting for a good deal, then you’ll definitely want to check out the Kobey Swap Meet. The flea market takes up the entire San Diego Sports arena, so be prepared to get happily lost in a maze of vintage furniture, unique art, second-hand clothes, and jewelry stands.
Unlike many flea markets that are only open for a day, the Kobey Swap Meet happens every Friday through Sunday from 7 am to 3 pm. People can get pretty excited and competitive, so get there early before the best items get picked off!
👉 Pro Tip: Make sure to bring cash as some vendors don’t accept credit cards.
Visit the Carlsbad Strawberry Company
You’ve heard of apple picking in Fall, but San Diego has strawberry picking in Summer! The Carlsbad Strawberry Company, a family-owned business and staple of Carlsbad, allows visitors to come and harvest their own buckets of some of the sweetest strawberries you’ll ever taste.
Although the strawberry season ends in late summer, the fields still have other events and attractions year-round, including a pumpkin patch, an open air market, and festivities. Check their events calendar to see what’s coming up!
The list of things to do in San Diego could go on forever, but I’ll leave it to you to visit San Diego and explore and enjoy all the city has to offer! What did you think? Scroll down and leave a comment with your favorite San Diego destination, experience, or attraction!
👉 Want more? Don’t miss my list of the best day trips around San Diego!