Fittingly nicknamed ‘America’s Finest City’, sunny San Diego is a lovely place to spend some time. Located alongside the glittering waters of the Pacific, it has a wealth of incredible nature spots and beautiful beaches lying right on its doorstep.
Now the second-largest city in the state, it is often referred to as the ‘Birthplace of California’ as it was the first site visited and settled by Europeans along the West Coast.
See also: Where to Stay in San Diego
Due to its year-round warm weather, the city has a huge number of attractive outdoor spaces to explore for free. At both Mission and Pacific Beach for instance you can experience its famous laidback vibe and surfer culture. Other free things to do in San Diego can be found in the Embarcadero’s lively waterfront area and it’s famous Balboa Park.
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15. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
A spellbinding spot to visit, the Sunset Cliffs lie just fifteen minutes drive directly west of downtown San Diego. Besides being a very popular place to watch the sunset over the sparkling Pacific Ocean, it has some terrific coastal walks to enjoy along the top of the craggy cliffs.
Now protected as a natural park, the steep coastal cliffs after which it is named plunge dramatically down to the ocean below. Nestled at the foot are plenty of hidden coves and tidal pools to explore while striking sea arches border both sand and rock-strewn beaches.
As well as enjoying its stunning scenery and sunsets, you can sometimes spy California gray whales migrating from the Bering Sea to Baja California and back.
14. Pacific Beach
In between both La Jolla and Mission Beach is another cool seaside community to hit up: the lively yet laidback Pacific Beach. As it is known for its trendy bars and nightlife, loads of college students head here as do families during the day for its lifeguard-supervised swimming areas.
While P.B.’s party atmosphere certainly appeals to many young people, the beachside town also has a lovely three-mile-long boardwalk to walk, jog, run or cycle along. After perusing its local cafes and restaurants, you can always stroll along Crystal Pier or swim and surf in the sea.
Countless clothing boutiques and casual drinking spots can also be found along Mission Boulevard and Garnet Avenue which act as the main hubs of life in town.
13. San Diego Air & Space Museum
Situated in beautiful Balboa Park, the San Diego Air & Space Museum houses an extensive collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft from all over the world. You can see a hot-air balloon from 1783, an actual Apollo command module spacecraft and a Vietnam-era Cobra helicopter. Also look for memorabilia from aviators such as Charles Lindbergh and astronaut John Glenn or catch a film in the 3-D/4-D theater.
The museum is free on the 2nd Tuesday of each month to San Diego County residents, students, active duty military and military dependents.
12. Little Italy
Located in the northwest of downtown is the chic, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood of Little Italy. One of the best places to shop, dine and go out in San Diego, its pretty piazzas and excellent Italian restaurants lie just a stone’s throw from both the Embarcadero and Waterfront Park.
Once the ‘tuna capital’ of the West Coast, its little streets are now instead lined by little local grocery stores and traditional trattorie with a handful of art galleries also featuring. Other than grabbing a glass of wine or coffee at one of its outdoor patios, you can peruse the fresh products on sale at its fabulous farmers’ market. Sprawling across six city blocks, it takes place each Wednesday and Saturday morning.
The charming community also hosts numerous festivals and events related to Italian culture during the year. These include a costume-clad Carnevale celebration and Sicilian festival among many others.
11. La Jolla Cove
One of the most photographed places along the entire California coastline has to be the spectacular La Jolla Cove. Hemmed in by soaring sea cliffs, its small, sheltered beach attracts lots of swimmers, snorkelers and scuba divers with California sea lions often spied lounging along its shores.
Now protected as part of a marine life refuge, its crumbling cliffs are set just twenty minutes drive northwest of the center in the seaside neighborhood of the same name. From atop, you can bask in phenomenal views of the Pacific and snap photos of the seals sunning themselves or playing in the surf.
There are also some cool sea caves and tidal pools to explore while quite a few cafes and restaurants line the top of its big bluffs.
10. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Venture just a short distance further up the coast and you’ll come across the stupendous landscapes, scenery and nature of the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Perched atop a plateau overlooking the ocean, it has loads of fantastic hikes and viewpoints for outdoor lovers to enjoy.
Established in 1899, it preserves what is now one of the last remaining wild stretches of shoreline in Southern California. Alongside colossal canyons and mesas, you can find salt marshes, beaches and a large lagoon with the reserve also being known for its wide array of fauna and flora.
While hiking, keep an eye out for bobcats, racoons and coyotes amongst all its remote ravines and badlands or seabirds and whales migrating along the coast.
9. Mission Beach Boardwalk
Somewhat similar to that of Venice Beach, the vibrant Mission Beach Boardwalk is packed with fun and exciting things for you to see and do. As well as umpteen shops and restaurants, it has all kinds of ocean activities and an old-school amusement park to try out.
Also known as the Ocean Front Walk, it stretches almost two miles in length with crowds of people walking, running and cycling along the lively promenade. Aside from grabbing a bite to eat or drink at one of its chilled beachfront bars, you can lounge on its soft sands or play volleyball on its courts.
While the boardwalk’s southern stretch is calmer and quieter, a hum of activity can always be found around Belmont Park. Since 1925, the atmospheric theme park has been one of Mission Beach’s top draws with classic carnival rides and old wooden rollercoasters being on offer.
8. Coronado Island
Just across San Diego Bay from downtown is the ever-popular Coronado Island and all its beautiful beaches. Connected to the mainland by both a long, thin isthmus and an iconic bridge, it has lots of scenic seaside spots and bayside parks for people to discover.
While much of life on the tied island may revolve around its bustling naval base, tourism also forms a key part of its economy. The historic Hotel del Coronado, for instance, is one of the last remaining wooden resorts in the world with countless US presidents and celebrities having stayed here since it opened in 1888.
Besides strolling past and taking in its fine Victorian architecture, you can also check out the stores along Orange Avenue. As its beaches are among the best in the city, no visit can be complete without topping up your tan and trying some fun watersports.
7. Children’s Pool Beach
Also located up the coast in La Jolla is the delightful Children’s Pool Beach which is famous for its braying colony of harbor seals. Watching them sun themselves, swim and play about is an amazing experience with tons of tourists heading here each day to photograph the cute creatures up close.
Back in 1931, a concrete breakwater was built to protect swimmers at the beach from all the rough waves that pound San Diego’s coastline. In recent decades, however, its small stretch of golden sand has instead attracted hundreds of seals and sea lions come to enjoy its gentle waters.
From atop the sturdy seawall, you can watch them basking in the sun and even give birth to pups on occasion. While you can still sunbathe and swim at the beach, it is ill-advised due to the animals’ unpredictable nature and the bacteria they leave behind.
6. Old Town San Diego
Widely considered the ‘birthplace of California’, Old Town San Diego is a fun and fascinating place to explore. The site of the first European settlement in the state, the historic district whisks you back to the Old West with its Mexican heritage also shining through wherever you go.
Now preserved as a state historic park, its centuries-old streets are lined by loads of well-preserved buildings and reconstructed houses. These include a quaint old courthouse, stable and smithy while the 1827 Casa de Estudillo is impressively the oldest Spanish Colonial-style structure in California.
More than a hundred specialty shops are now scattered about the festive neighborhood with just as many Mexican restaurants on offer. After picking up some handcrafted souvenirs and sipping some margaritas, you can enjoy fabulous views over downtown in the distance from Presidio Park.
5. Cabrillo National Monument
Lying towards the southern tip of the Point Loma Peninsula is the Cabrillo National Monument. As well as boasting sweeping views over San Diego’s harbor, skyline and the sparkling Pacific Ocean, it has an interesting history for you to uncover.
Perched atop a prominent hill at the mouth of the bay, the striking statue commemorates the landing of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo on September 28, 1542. This momentous occasion marked the first time a European expedition set foot on what would later become the West Coast of the United States.
Aside from snapping some pictures of the monument and drinking in its divine panoramas, you can watch videos on Cabrillo’s life and voyage in its visitor center. Afterwards, head to Old Point Loma Lighthouse for yet more stunning scenery and views.
A major cruise ship hub and harbor, the Embarcadero encompasses almost all of downtown’s lively waterfront area. Very pleasant to stroll along, it has a variety of maritime-themed tourist attractions to check out alongside countless seafood restaurants and souvenir shops.
While wandering about its pretty parks and bayside paths, you can see sleek yachts and cruise liners dock next to historic museum ships such as the USS Midway and Star of India. Part of the Maritime Museum, these ginormous vessels make for some great photos as do the numerous monuments and memorials dotted along the harborside.
One of the main spots to hit up along the Embarcadero is the superb Seaport Village which has over seventy shops and restaurants to try out. Spectacular views of downtown and the bay are guaranteed the whole way along the wonderful waterfront.
3. La Jolla Shores
If you’re looking to soak up some sun and splash about in the sea, then La Jolla Shores is one of the best places to head to in San Diego. Within just fifteen minutes drive from downtown, you can find yourself lounging on its broad beach, gazing up at all the soaring sea cliffs around you.
Known for its gentle waves and golden sands, the hilly, seaside community stretches from the quiet cove of the same name right up to the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. As it is always staffed by lifeguards, plenty of people come here to relax, unwind and enjoy some outdoor activities amidst its spellbinding scenery.
Kayaking and paddleboarding are both popular pastimes here while colourful fish, green sea turtles and even leopard sharks can be spied about the two artificial reefs at the southern end of the beach.
2. Gaslamp Quarter
One of the city’s most happening historic districts, the Gaslamp Quarter has a wealth of fun and free things for you to see and do. Located right in the heart of downtown, its sixteen blocks are crammed with exciting entertainment venues and trendy nightlife spots with many of the city’s major festivals also taking place here.
Generally referred to as ‘the Gaslamp’ by locals, the vibrant neighborhood dates to the 1860s with many Victorian-era buildings still studding its streets. Nowadays, these historic houses are home to dozens of cool restaurants and rooftop bars while lots of art galleries and hotels also dot the area.
Only adding to its appeal are the brilliant Balboa and Spreckels theaters which host top-class music nights, comedy shows and dance performances. While you can enjoy its ambience and architecture at any time, during Mardi Gras and the Street Scene Music Festival the vibe is even better as celebrations reach fever pitch.
1. Balboa Park
Covering a massive part of the city center is San Diego’s most beloved green space and thriving cultural hub Balboa Park. Nestled away amidst its scenic canyons and landscaped gardens are a staggering seventeen museums with all kinds of other attractions also being on offer.
One of the oldest public parks in the States, its huge site was set aside by the city for future development in 1835. While much of its gorgeous vegetation remains, there are plenty of playgrounds and playing fields for people to make use. Besides ambling past its public art installations and the creative craft studios at The Spanish Village Art Centre, you often can enjoy free concerts and shows at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.
Running through the center of the park is the El Prado promenade which is bordered by many of its museums. These mostly showcase some fine Spanish Colonial Revival-style architecture and charge fees for entrance. While the Timken and Commons Level of the Mingei museum are always open to all, the rest have a rotating schedule of free days. Make sure to check their websites though to see when exactly residents of the city, county and active military personnel can benefit from these open days.