San Diego is a really popular place to visit for people all over the country. However, it can be overwhelming to plan a trip that has a schedule packed with all the best places to visit in the city.
There is so much to see and do in San Diego that you might be concerned about missing out on some of the hidden gems that the city has to offer.
If you are feeling overwhelmed planning your trip or aren’t sure if there is enough to see and do in San Diego to make a trip worth it, read on. We have compiled a list of the top 26 attractions and things to do in the city of San Diego.
On this list, we have included attractions that are free, ones that are low-cost, and some that are higher-end. There is something for everyone to enjoy on this list, from small children to retirees, from science lovers to artists to athletes.
Free Things To Do In San Diego
Sometimes when we travel, we find ourselves on a much stricter budget than perhaps we would like to be.
This can make it difficult to find enough attractions and things to do that are going to keep your whole family or group of friends entertained for the duration of the trip.
While it can be fun to just wander around a new city, it can’t really sustain the attention of most people for more than a few days. Below are some of the best free attractions that you can visit during your time in San Diego.
Parks are often a great place to spend time when you are traveling on a budget and Balboa Park in San Diego is one of the most interesting parks you can go to.
There are so many different things that you can do when you are inside the park. Not all of the attractions in the park are free, however, there are plenty that are.
There are plenty of trails and gardens that you can stroll through on a typical California day. There are also statues, landmarks, and guided tours that are available to you.
The park often hosts different types of events, some of which are free to attend. If you are interested in attending an event in Balboa park it is best to check what is coming up in the event schedule before your trip.
If you are looking for something relaxing to do for free while you are in San Diego, a trip to Torrey Pines gliderport is a must.
If you are visiting for free, you won’t be able to participate in the paragliding as this requires an admission fee. However, watching other people paraglide is completely free.
There is a stunning green space where you can settle down on the grass with your family. You can even bring a blanket and a picnic to enjoy while you watch people taking off, landing, and gliding around in the sky.
Because the gliders don’t have any kind of engine to propel them, it is quite a peaceful place to be and can be a fun and chilled-out afternoon.
3. Skate Parks
A skate park is another great place to visit for free during your time in San Diego. If you are not a skater, you can still enjoy the parks. There are plenty of places to sit and just watch other people skate.
You can bring a coffee or some snacks and take in some of the San Diego cultures. If you do skate, you are free to skate in any of the parks.
There are seven different skate parks that you can go to in San Diego, all of which are slightly different and attract different types of skaters.
If you have an interest in skating, you can choose the park based on the type of skating you prefer.
Children are free to skate in the park as well as adults, however, taking small children to people-watch at the skate parks can be a bit of a safety hazard if they get bored or wander away from you.
If you want to take in some art and culture during your trip to San Diego but don’t have the budget for expensive art exhibition admission fees, Chicano park has to be on your to-do list. There are so many stunning and thought-provoking murals painted within this park that will satiate your craving for art and creativity.
This park is steeped in rich Chicano history which is reflected in the beautiful murals that decorate the area.
The park is currently running a project to help document Chicano history and Chicano people to help preserve the rich artistic and cultural legacy of this area.
The murals have been restored over the years so there is plenty to look at while you are there.
Hidden inside Balboa park is the Timken museum of art. If you enjoyed the Chicano murals and want more art, or if the murals aren’t your kind of art, this could be the place for you.
Entry to the museum and tours around the museum are free. If you would like to participate in a docent-led tour of the art museum, you will need to reserve one in advance on the Timken museum website.
The art that is on display in the museum is classic and beautiful. If you are visiting around the holiday season, there will also be a holiday installation that celebrates something about the holidays that we all know or love.
Occasionally there are events held at the Timken museum. Not all of the events are free to attend so it is sensible to check the events calendar prior to your visit.
If you are looking for something incredibly peaceful and restful to do during your time in San Diego, a visit to the Encinitas Temple is a must.
If you have a strong desire to connect with your spiritual side, there are inspirational services held in the temple every Sunday. This can help you to find a way through any issues that are weighing on your mind.
If you don’t want to attend a service but are keen to enjoy the calm and peaceful atmosphere, you can take a stroll through the meditation gardens.
The gardens are beautifully maintained and are internationally renowned. You can quietly stroll around, pray, study, meditate in a nook, or just sit quietly on one of the many benches.
This can be the perfect place to relax and unwind at the start or end of your trip.
Another hidden gem inside Balboa park is the stunning Botanical building. The outside of this building is one of the most iconic and photographed buildings in the park.
The Botanical building is conveniently situated adjacent to the Timken museum which is also free.
As with all the gardens and trails inside Balboa park, the Botanical building is completely free to enter and look around.
Inside the Botanical building, you will find stunning seasonal flower displays that will remind you of just how amazing and beautiful nature can be.
There is also a lily pond and lagoon next to the building which provides you with an extra touch of nature and wildlife. There are over 2100 permanent plants inside the Botanical building including orchids, ferns, and palms.
If your heart is stirred by music more than art or nature, enjoying a free Sunday organ concert at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion is something that you can’t miss.
The organ pavilion is another attraction located within the famous Balboa park. The Sunday organ concerts take place at 2 pm every Sunday, all year round, come rain or shine.
The concerts last for approximately an hour and are filled with all sorts of organ music. There will always be a major Bach work in the concert, but the rest of the show can be composed of early work through to contemporary pieces.
The weekly program is available to view on the pavilion’s website to see what sort of concert is coming up.
Another great option for music lovers on a budget is the Carlsbad TGIF concerts in the park.
These take place on Friday evenings throughout the summer in various parks across Carlsbad. To find out about specific concerts and parks, there is information available on the San Diego website.
If you are carefree about the music that you listen to and just want to be immersed in a cultural event during your trip then you can just turn up to any free TGIF concert during your stay.
However, if you would like to plan your trip a little bit more, you can check out the planned lineup before making the decision to travel to one of the parks in the area.
For a fun and free day out that is suitable for the whole family, the San Diego sun and sea festival is a great choice. The festival is held in July each year and is packed with fun activities and things to do that center around the sun and the sea.
One of the most fun things that you can do at the festival as a family is the kids-n-kastles competition. You can play in the sand, build something incredible, and hopefully win a prize for it.
The sandcastle competition is a high point of the festival and features world-renowned sand sculptures who create stunning works of art from nothing more than the sand on the beach.
There is so much to see and do at the festival that you won’t believe that it is all for free.
There are many stunning beaches around San Diego that are worth a visit, however, Moonlight State beach is one that should not be missed when you are traveling on a budget.
This is much more than just a beach for sunbathing, it is actually a great place to bring the whole family for some great, free activities.
On Moonlight State beach there are 3 volleyball courts that are free for the public to use. If you are keen to have a go on one of these courts, it is best to get there early to avoid missing out or having to wait for a long time.
You can also surf at this beach, as long as you stay out of the swimming-only zone. The waves at the beach are perfect for beginners or experienced surfers who just want to relax and catch a few easy waves. You can also swim in the designated zone.
If you are looking for a relaxing and gentle beach to spend a day for free in San Diego, La Jolla Shores is the place to be. The beach stretches for approximately a mile and the waves are some of the most gentle in all of San Diego.
This makes it a great place to play and swim in the ocean. La Jolla Shores is also manned by lifeguards which makes it even safer.
If you do have some money to spend here, you can enroll in beginner scuba diving lessons from this beach.
You can also have campfires and picnics on the beach as well as play volleyball at the established courts along the stretch of the beach. The views from this beach are stunning and you can relax on the warm sand for free.
Paid Admission Attractions In San Diego
If you are traveling on less of a budget and want to be able to enhance your vacation with some activities that require paid admission, there are plenty of things you can do.
In this section, we will cover various paid-for activities and attractions that range from budget-friendly to high-end. There will be something for everyone to do on your trip.
13. San Diego Zoo
Visiting a zoo is a classic activity to add to any vacation whether it is with friends or family. San Diego zoo is home to a wide range of animals that can keep you entertained for hours.
There is also a safari park linked with the zoo where you can drive around and view some of the animals in a more natural setting. This is a suitable extra activity for guests who have their own transportation.
Not only is San Diego zoo a really fun place to visit for a day but it can also be extremely educational for the whole family. There are some incredible animals that you may never have seen in real life before.
All of the staff at the zoo are incredibly knowledgeable and will be able to answer any questions that inquisitive minds may have.
14. Gaslamp Quarter
If you are looking for a great day out that will really immerse you and your family into San Diego as a city, the Gaslamp Quarter is not to be missed.
This part of the city is described by locals as the heart and soul of San Diego. The whole quarter is packed with a variety of restaurants and entertainment.
This is the perfect location for all manner of nights out. Whether you are planning a romantic date night, a bachelorette party, or even just a fun night out, there is something for everyone.
There are also plenty of shops that you can explore during the day with the whole family. Throughout the year there are events held in the Gaslamp Quarter that may appeal to your interests. Check online before your trip to see if there are any events planned.
For anyone who is interested in history, the Old Town State Historic Park is something that cannot be missed during your trip to San Diego.
There is so much to see and do at the park but the best thing about it is that it completely transports you back in time to what San Diego was like before.
Almost everything at the Old Town State Historic Park will interest someone who is interested in history already.
However, because of the immersive and interactive nature of the park, it can be a great way to learn about the history of the city for people who can’t stand walking around museums full of artifacts.
There are some stunning landmarks that you can explore within the park that will give you a feel for what the city was like hundreds of years ago.
If you are looking for an activity that will take up an entire day easily, this is the day trip for you. Visiting Point Loma and Cabrillo National Monument can be a great way to spend a sunny San Diego day. On this trip, there are so many different landmarks that you can explore.
The old Point Loma lighthouse is a stunning sight, still standing strong overlooking the rocks in the water. The national monument to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo is an awe-inspiring site to see, looking across the bay to the city.
If you visit during low tide, you will also be able to spend some time exploring the tidepools that are revealed.
Sunset Cliffs national park is a great way to spend an afternoon in San Diego. This national park is surprisingly large and has so many different parts and places to visit and explore.
This can be a great place to watch the sunset from after a day in the city.
One of the most important things to note about this national park is that all of the places that are perfect for watching a sunset are also available for weddings. This means that there is a chance that a wedding will be happening when you want to visit.
If a wedding is taking place when you go to Sunset Cliffs you can still visit but it is polite to stay away from the wedding party. The park is so big that there will be other places to watch the sunset along the road.
If you want to view the city from the water, you can book to experience a harbor cruise.
There are many different operators of harbor cruises in San Diego, therefore, it can pay to do a little bit of research on pricing, duration, and quality of the tours before just walking up to the harbor.
In general, the tours can last for 1 hour or 2 hours depending on which tour you choose. Embarking on a harbor tour can be a great way to experience the sights and sounds of the city from afar, taking it in as one big picture.
You can also see sea lions, naval ships, scenic skylines, and historic landmarks. All of this will be described by a knowledgeable tour guide.
This particular attraction is a great way to combine a bit of history with religion and culture. The Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala is the first mission in California.
You can book a tour of the mission and visit the visitor center which is packed with interesting facts about the history of the mission.
The admission fees for the tours and the visitor center are incredibly reasonable which makes this an affordable day out for the whole family.
If you want to celebrate mass in the mission throughout the week, there is no admission fee. Mass is held daily inside the mission, but there is no heating so it can be cold.
If watching the San Diego skyline from a harbor cruise didn’t quite pique your interest, perhaps a whale-watching cruise will.
These cruises take you outside of the harbor to search for whales and dolphins that often spend time in the waters surrounding the city.
These tours are perfectly suitable for all the family no matter how old or how small they are. It is important to note that there is no guarantee that you will actually be able to spot any whales or dolphins on the cruises.
However, it is the thrill of the search that really makes the cruise worth your while. You will also have a guide who is incredibly knowledgeable about the animals to answer your questions while you search.
If you or anyone in your group enjoy the wonders of air and space travel, the San Diego Air and Space Museum is the place to visit. This is an incredibly in-depth and detailed museum that is sure to educate, inspire, and intrigue you.
There are so many amazing exhibits on display at the museum. Some of the exhibits are permanent while others are temporary.
There are also events held at the museum throughout the year, including talks and special presentations or interactive experiences.
Check out the calendar of events on the museum website before you travel to make sure you don’t miss out on something amazing.
If you like the sound of the whale-watching tours but want to guarantee that you will be able to see some incredible marine wildlife, then a trip to SeaWorld San Diego is in order.
It is super easy to spend an entire day exploring Sea World which is great for larger groups as you can all be in one place.
Also, within Sea World, there are plenty of things to do besides looking at the animals. There are roller coasters, presentations, educational activities, and even shopping.
You can also dine at Sea World which can be a great way to round off your day out. There are special events held at the park throughout the year that are worth keeping an eye out for too.
If you have small humans to entertain during your vacation to San Diego, there is no better place to take them than the New Children’s Museum.
This is a place filled with adventure, wonderment, and learning. The museum is open every day apart from Tuesday and can be visited between 9 am and 4 pm.
Within the museum, there are art installations, art studios, art workshops, and so much more, all of which are interactive. Allowing your little ones to access their creativity is super important to their healthy development.
However, visiting a traditional art museum with paintings on the wall isn’t going to stimulate them. Thankfully, all of the art at the New Children’s Museum can be played with, on, or in, allowing your child to be fully immersed in art.
24. Petco Park
If you have a love of sports or just appreciate the buildings that make up a huge part of modern American culture, a visit to the Petco park in San Diego is a must.
There are two main ways that you can take in this iconic baseball stadium. You can purchase tickets to watch a baseball game here, or you can take a tour of the stadium on a day that there isn’t a game.
Taking a tour of the stadium is one of the best ways to experience the stadium as it gives you insight into the parts of the stadium that you normally wouldn’t be able to see when you come to watch a game.
If you are really into it and have the funds, you could do a tour and watch a game during your stay.
25. Coronado Bridge
If you are driving to San Diego or are planning on hiring a car while you are in the city, the Coronado bridge is a sight that you have to see.
The bridge connects San Diego to Coronado and offers some of the most stunning views there are to see in San Diego.
You cannot stop on the bridge to take in the sights, but it is a long bridge and there is plenty of time to check out the sights as you cross the water to get to Coronado.
If there is a passenger in your car, you can even get them to film the view from the window so that you can safely take a look at the view once you are not driving any more.
If you want to have a humbling experience during your trip to San Diego, a trip to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery is in order. You can visit the cemetery 7 days a week from sunrise to sunset.
There are more than 100,000 marked graves at the cemetery and new interments are limited to veterans of war.
The cemetery is on a gentle slope that overlooks the ocean. Not only is this an incredibly fitting place to lay to rest the nation’s heroes, but it also makes a great place to visit.
The cemetery is incredibly peaceful with stunning views out across the water. It is a beautiful place to sit and have some quiet reflection, prayer, and to give thanks to the thousands of fallen soldiers and veterans who have served their country valiantly.
How To Get Around San Diego
When you are staying in San Diego itself rather than traveling in every day, it is possible to rent a bicycle to travel around the city.
This is one of the cheapest, easiest, and most convenient ways to get around the city, not to mention that it is good for the environment.
However, if cycling the city isn’t convenient for you because you have small children, it is also easy to get around San Diego using the public transportation systems in place. This is another cheap option to keep the cost of your trip to a minimum.
It is also possible to rent a car while you are in San Diego, however, this is one of the most expensive ways to travel around the city.
Hiring a car is a great way to have absolute freedom over when and where you go. However, you do need to consider the additional cost of gas and parking charges that will be incurred.
There are so many wonderful things to see and do in San Diego. The city is steeped in a rich culture and history that still bleeds through in the very fibers of the streets.
No matter how long your trip is, you won’t find yourself feeling bored while you are there.
Frequently Asked Questions
San Diego is quite an expensive city to visit, however, it is possible to keep costs to a minimum while you are on your trip. The best ways to save money when visiting the city pertain to your accommodation and transportation.
Staying in accommodation outside of the main city center can significantly reduce the cost of your trip. Similarly, choosing to travel by bicycle or public transportation will keep costs down compared to traveling by car or taxi service.
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