If you are looking for the very best to do in San Diego, local writer, Chris Roman shares all the top attractions with insider tips in this San Diego Travel Guide.
Ready for some California dreamin’? As a local who raised a family in coastal San Diego over the past 25 years, I still marvel daily over the city’s technicolor sunsets, inspired outdoor lifestyle, and sparkling coastline. If you’d like to get in on the action, try this list of the top things to do in San Diego. It’s what I recommend to friends when they visit!
Best Things to do in San Diego
Table of Contents
Go Tide Pooling
One of my favorite activities in San Diego is to go Tide Pooling. When the tide rolls out along San Diego’s 70 miles of coastline, you’ll spy abundant hidden treasures if you know where to look. Spot sea stars, hermit crabs, limpets, mussel, anemones…maybe even a shy octopus tucked into a crevice.
- Just remember to tread carefully in these protected marine sanctuaries and leave no trace of your visit.
Top spots for tide pooling in San Diego include:
- The tide pools at Cabrillo National Monument
- Dike Rock (just north of the Scripps pier in La Jolla…Scripps Aquarium offers tours)
- Cardiff State Beach and Swami’s in Encinitas just a little further north.
Top tips for a successful tide pooling adventure: Check an ocean’s tide chart before you head to the beach. Time your visit for a negative tide if possible. In fact, low tides in November to February make winter tide pooling especially rewarding.
Explore Balboa Park
As the heart of San Diego, historic Balboa Park is most loved for the famous of attractions in San Diego, the San Diego Zoo. But there is so much more to see and do in this 1,200-acre urban park studded with Colonial architecture. By all means, see the pandas and flamingos at the San Diego Zoo, but don’t stop there.
Museums and Attractions of Balboa Park
There are 17 museums and cultural institutions within this scenic park. So whether you want to admire the old masters at the San Diego Museum of Art or the new ComiCon museum, there’s something to see!
Be sure to visit the glass blowers in the Spanish Village Art Center. With kids in tow, don’t miss a ride on the beautiful carousel. And if you’re in search of a meal with ambiance to spare, make a reservation at The Prado, an award-winning indoor-outdoor restaurant in the park with accessories inspired by park collections. If you want to catch a show, check out the Old Globe Theater that was modelled after London’s Old Globe.
Museums of Balboa Park:
- Air and Space Museum
- Comic Con Museum
- San Diego Art Institute
- Automotive Museum
- Natural History Museum
- San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts
- Museum of Us
Mission Beach is a 2 mile long boardwalk filled with restaurants, nightlife and beach activities. It starts at Belmont Park where all teh action happens, but you can make your way south it is quieter section of the beach. There’s plenty of water sports from surfing and boogie boarding to kite boarding and fishing. Mission Beach is definitely the place to rent a bicycle.
One of San Diego’s most enduring tourist attractions is Belmont Park; an old amusement park dating back to 1925. There are bumper cars, mini golf, and arcade games but don’t miss the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster. A wooden roller coaster that was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987.
Hike Torrey Pines
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, in coastal La Jolla, is one of the wildest stretches of the Southern California coast. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker looking for a challenge or a family with young children or mobility-impaired adults, you’ll find trails big on stunning coastal views and sage-covered chaparral.
Breathe in the fragrant Torrey Pines on a short loop hike or take a rustic footpath that descends from the bluffs through the upper reserve 300 feet to the beach. Trails in the nearby Reserve Extension along the creek bed can be especially scenic during spring wildflower season.
If you are looking for some more excitement, the Torrey Pines Gliderport has one of the best views in San Diego and is a launch pad for paragliders.
The Strand on Coronado Island
If you’ve ever seen the American movie classic “Some Like It Hot” starring Marilyn Monroe, you’ll immediately recognize the distinctive red roofs of the iconic Hotel Del Coronado on the beachfront of San Diego Coronado island.
It is located just across the bay from San Diego. Be sure to note the Hollywood style stars commemorating the film imprinted in the cement as you approach the hotel’s entrance. When Hotel Del opened in 1888, it was the largest resort hotel in the world.
Silver Strand at Coronado Beach
Even if you’re not staying this beautiful luxury resort, you’ll enjoy a walk on the Silver Strand. It’s seven miles of sparkling sandy beach, just behind the hotel. Swing by the Del’s beachside café for fish tacos or head up to the swank outdoor bar for sunset cocktails with a view.
Stand-up paddleboard (SUP) culture is a thing here in San Diego. If you’ve never been, think about it as a cross between surfing and kayaking. You’ll use a paddle as you stand or kneel on a board to get out in the ocean. It’s as adventurous as you want to make it.
So rent a board and head out to the open ocean anywhere along the coast. First timers should choose a protected spot minus the waves for more relaxed paddling.
Suggest SUP locations are the Mission Bay Harbor, Oceanside Harbor or beautiful Agua Hedonida Lagoon. (Keep an eye out for friendly canines catching a ride with their humans!)
If you want to go surfing, San Diego has some of the best surfing in California with the warmest waters in the state. There’s surfing for everyone from beginners to pros. And you can hire an instructor at one of San Diego’s popular beaches – Mission Beach, Ocean Beach or Pacific Beach or La Jolla Shores.
San Diego Harbor Cruise
There’s no better way to admire San Diego’s spectacular coastline and skyline than from the water! So do yourself a favor and book a harbor cruise while you’re in town.
Cruise the north harbor for views of landmarks like Harbor Island, Shelter Island, and frequent colonies of sea lions clustered at the base of the Point Loma lighthouse. Or go south to loop under the Coronado Bay Bridge and past the aircraft carrier. Hornblower Cruises offers whale watching and dolphin watching tours as well as sunset cocktail and dinner cruises.
- You can book a whale watching cruise with Get Your Guide
San Diego Old Town
Considered the birthplace of California, San Diego Old Town tracing the history of the first European settlers dating back to 1820. It was designated a State Historical Park and houses many historic buildings including the Whaley House. The former site of the gallows has been officially designated a haunted house.
Soak up Some Rays
It wouldn’t be San Diego without some beach time. There are some best-in-class beaches here so plan a little beach hopping to sample more than one.
Head to Tony La Jolla to take a dip at swank La Jolla Shores or check out Windansea for great surf breaks and scenery. Del Mar is a family-friendly, dog-friendly beach popular for picnics and weddings.
Or head north to locally loved Moonlight Beach or Beacon’s Beach in Encinitas to skip the tourist crowds.
If you love the beach, you’ll love La Jolla. La Jolla Cove boasts a wide beach that is perfect for spending sunny days lounging on the sand while sea lions bask on the Beach. There’s fresh Mexican cuisine and many boutiques in the area to go shopping. If you want to go snorkeling, this is the place to do it with calm waters and plenty of marinelife.
La Jolla Sea Caves
Make sure to take a tour to kayak out and explore the La Jolla Sea Caves. The Kayak caves and reserve tour takes you paddling with a guide to the amazing La Jolla Caves, where you’re nearly guaranteed to see sea lions.
La Jolla also hosts Mount Soledad, the Birch Aquarium, a handful of museums, and enough adventure tour companies to keep you active for days.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
As its name suggests, Sunset Cliffs is one of the best places for sunset in San Diego. The 68-acre natural park has tidal pools, sea caves, and sea arches.
Another San Diego Museum to visit is the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. Located at the southern tip of Sunset Cliffs, Point Loma is a good stop before dusk to learn about the history of this historic lighthouse that dates back to 1855.
Eat in Little Italy
San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood has been channeling the mother country since 1920 in this pedestrian-friendly enclave of adorable Italian boutiques, quaint patios, and drool-worthy fare.
On Wednesdays and Saturdays, be sure to swing by the phenomenal farmer’s market. You’ll find more than 200 tents of local entrepreneurs, family farms and artisan grocers offering everything from art and olive oil to handmade crafts and one-of-a-kind keepsakes and gifts.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the opportunity for a meal in Little Italy. (The experience takes me immediately back to some of my fondest days in Italy) It’s hard to go wrong with a meal here so consider browsing the menus on chalkboards on the main drag to see what strikes your fancy.
Then stop for gelato around the corner at Pappalecco. Looking for grab and go sandwiches for the beach? Swing by Mona Lisa, a world-class Italian grocer and deli.
When I’m traveling, I love to immerse myself in a local garden to see what’s growing and enjoy a sweet reprieve from all the urban activity. I recommend the gorgeous San Diego Botanic Garden in coastal Encinitas, North County San Diego. (This is a surfer town so stay for fish tacos, window shopping and the laid back nightlife vibe on the 101.)
The Botanic Garden is a treasure. In just an hour or two, you’ll meander through a desert garden, a tropical rain forest, a swath of impressive succulents, and marvel at the lovingly tended California native plants.
Take a breather under the rare bamboos or next to the 60-foot waterfall. A visit here is a memorable addition to any San Diego itinerary.
USS Midway Museum
One of the top attractions in San Diego is the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier that was active duty 1945-1992 making it was the world’s longest-serving aircraft carrier. Today it is the world’s largest museum dedicated to aircraft Carriers. It is moored at Embarcadero and visitors can tour its 60 exhibits and 29 aircrafts on board. On board, you’ll relive the Midway’s exploits and hear about events that changed the world.
Another good museum for nautical lovers is the Maritime Museum.
Located on San Diego Bay, Gaslamp Quarter has a wild western history of shootouts and bar room brawls. It was once the red-light district and in the 1860s it was San Diego’s Chinatown. There are 100 historic buildings in Gaslamp Quarter. You’ll also find a variety of bars and restaurants.
The quarter was once home to the city’s red-light district, gambling casinos, and 1860s Chinatown.
Getting Around San Diego
- San Diego is California’s second largest city.
- If you plan on seeing a lot of the city and surrounding area, its best to rent a car for your trip.
- Downtown San Diego is easily walkable and has trolley system with over 50 stops.
- Tickets for the Red Trolley are between $0.50 – $3.00.
- The Old Town San Diego Trolley stops at 11 places and even comes with a narrated tour. For more information on times check out their website.
- The beach and inland neighborhoods of San Diego are less accessible with public transport, so you’ll want to hire a car.
San Diego CityPass
Grab yourself a San Diego City Pass to really take advantage of everything the city has to offer. Some of teh attractions it includes are admission to:
• San Diego Zoo Safari Park
• Belmont Park all access combo pass
• One hour San Diego Harbor cruise
• San Diego Air and Space Museum
• San Diego Natural History Museum
• Knott’s Berry Farm and more!
BONUS San Diego Day Trip
Looking for a day trip from San Diego? Head to Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico! Who would guess that just two hours south of the San Diego airport lies a unique and incredible wine tasting experience?
In Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico, just 30 minutes east of Ensenada, there are over 75 wineries quickly becoming renowned for world-class wines. And there’s a restaurant scene to match!
If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to visit famed Napa Valley before it became a well-traveled tourist mecca, now’s your chance.
For everything, you need to know about crossing the border, where to stay and eat, or how to take a day trip with a tour, check out my post on the best Valle de Guadalupe wineries.
When to visit San Diego
- There is really no bad time to visit San Diego. It has great weather year-round.
- But the best deals can be found in shoulder season from March to May and September to November.
- San Diego sees the most rain during the winter months.
- January and February are the coldest months hovering around 65 degrees farenheit.
- But May and June can be overcast and gray.
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Christina Román is a San Diego-based writer and photographer. Her travel blog, Explore Now or Never inspires mid-life professionals to see the world with fewer crowds and more magic moments.