Top Things to Do in San Diego California

Top Things to Do in San Diego California


If you’re planning a visit to San Diego, we wanted to share our ideas for some of the best things to do in San Diego, California. Whether you are coming here for the sandy beaches, naval history, family attractions, museums, or food culture, there is a lot to do here!

This isn’t going to be a comprehensive guide to absolutely everything to do in the city. Instead, we’re going to focus on the highlights that a first-time visitor to the city might want to see. This is geared to those who have one, two, or three days to explore San Diego.

There is so much to do in San Diego, so if you are lucky enough to be visiting for longer then you’ll have no trouble filling your time. But as a first-time visitor, you are probably wondering what the must-see sights and activities are, and hopefully this post will help you plan your time effectively.

We also include information for how to get around the city, where to stay in San Diego, and tips on saving money in San Diego.

Top Things to do in San Diego

This guide to things to do in San Diego covers attractions that should interest everyone. Whether you’re visiting San Diego alone, as a couple, or as a family, we think you’ll find plenty of options in this list.

USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum

One of our favorite museums to visit in San Diego is the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum. This museum is found, as the name suggests, on an actual US Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Midway.

The USS Midway is a Midway-class aircraft carrier, which was commissioned in 1943 and saw 47 years of active service. That included service in the Vietnam War and the first Gulf War. She was decommissioned in 1992, and opened as a museum in San Diego in 2004.

Today, the USS Midway is one of the most popular attractions in San Diego, and the most popular naval warship museum in the USA. As well as the aircraft carrier herself, which is an incredible place to explore, she is also home to a great many aircraft.

A visit includes a self-guided audio tour narrated by former sailors which takes you all around the ship. There are also many information panels, volunteer-led talks, videos, a theatre and a number of flight simulators. All in all, this is a wonderful place to while away at least half a day, and well worth the experience.

You can book tickets for the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum online in advance here. It’s also included on the Go City San Diego passes.

USS Midway Musem San Diego

USS Midway Musem San Diego

 

San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo is the most visited zoo in the United States, and for good reason. It’s one of the largest zoos in the world by number of animals, with over 12,000 rare and endangered animals calling the zoo home. At 100-acres, it’s also pretty big in terms of land.

The San Diego Zoo pioneered the concept of zoo habitats being closer to real-life than more traditional enclosures. This results in a better experience for both the animals and visitors.

With so many animals and exhibits, you could easily spend an entire day at San Diego Zoo. It’s big, but you can get around by guided tour bus and even on an aerial gondola which takes you over the animals. This is definitely an attraction to consider adding to your list, especially if you are visiting San Diego as a family as it’s really popular with kids.

You can book tickets for San Diego Zoo online in advance here. It’s also included on the Go City San Diego passes.

San Diego Zoo

 

Balboa Park

When you visit San Diego Zoo, you will already be inside Balboa Park. However, the Zoo only takes up a small part of this 1,200 acre historic park. It’s also home to 17 museums, theatres, recreational zones, gardens, walking paths, gift shops and restaurants.

Suffice to say, there is a massive amount to see and do in the park, covering a variety of interests, from outdoor recreation to visiting museums. The park itself dates from 1835, but was primarily wilderness until the Panama-California Exposition in 1915.

This world’s fair event led to the creation of the majority of the structures in the park today which are built in a Spanish Colonial Revival style. From then to the present day, the park has continued to evolve, with another major exposition in the 1930s leading to the creation of more buildings.

Today the park is one of the most popular free destinations in San Diego, with millions of visitors a year. With everything on offer from archery to museums to live performances, we’re sure you’ll find something to enjoy when you visit too!

Entry to the park is free, but many of the museums and performances do have an entry fee. Some are included on the Go City San Diego passes.

San Diego Park

Balboa Park San Diego

 

Museums in San Diego

San Diego has an incredible wealth of museums. So much so in fact that it would have been easy to just list ten museums in this guide and be done! Obviously, I’m not going to do that. Instead, I recommend you take a look at some of the museums on offer and visit some of those which match your interests.

As well as the previously mentioned USS Midway, some other museums you should consider including on your list of things to do in San Diego should be:

  • San Diego Air and Space Museum – found in Balboa Park, this museum is a must for aviation and space enthusiasts with everything from Apollo command modules to exhibits spanning the history of flight. Included on the Go City San Diego passes.
  • Maritime Museum of San Diego – Found on the San Diego waterfront just north of the USS Midway, this museum has one of the largest collections of vintage ships in the USA. This museum is included on the Go City San Diego Explorer pass. Tickets also available here.
  • San Diego Museum of Art – art lovers will definitely want to include this museum on their list when visiting San Diego. Found in Balboa Park, visitors can expect to see a wide range of art from 5000 BC right up to modern times. Included on the Go City San Diego passes.
  • Gaslamp Museum at the Davis-Horton House – this museum is found in the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter, within the oldest residence in this quarter. Here various exhibits tell the story of the Gaslamp Quarter. Included on the Go City San Diego passes.
  • Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla – if you like maps, consider making time to visit this free museum which covers 500 years of cartography! There are over 200 exhibits on display. Free to visit, but advanced notice required.
  • San Diego Model Railroad Museum – this museum in Balboa Park is home to one of the world’s largest model railroad exhibits. There’s 27,000 square feet of exhibit space with some truly impressive model railway layouts to enjoy. Included on the Go City San Diego passes.
  • San Diego Natural History Museum – another of the museums in Balboa Park, this museum features exhibits all about our natural world. Expect to find everything from dinosaurs to present day birds and mammals, as well as lots more! Included on the Go City San Diego passes, tickets available here.

As you can see, there are plenty of museums to choose from and this is just a selection of our favorites!

Many of these are also included on the Go San Diego passes, so you can save money on admission as well if you opt for using one of these passes.

San Diego Air and Space Museum

 

Coronado Island

If you’re looking for a bit of a break from the hustle and bustle of downtown San Diego, head to Coronado Island. Just a 10-15 minute drive from the city center, this resort city has been a popular recreation retreat for decades.

The most iconic destination on Coronado Island is the Hotel del Coronado, found on the gorgeous Coronado Beach. This beach has been voted as one of the top beaches in the USA, and it’s not hard to see why, with its beautiful golden sands.

The Hotel del Coronado itself sits right on the beach and dates from 1888. It’s a wooden-built Victorian style beach resort, and is the second largest wooden structure in the USA. It’s eye catching and impressive to behold, and well worth a visit. You can of course stay here, or you can just enjoy meals or drinks in one of the various restaurants, perhaps whilst enjoying the sunset.

We love to stay on Coronado Island when we visit San Diego as it has a laid-back vibe but is still within easy reach of all the attractions in the city. There are also plenty of dining and retail options here. You can find the heart of the historic downtown area along Orange Avenue.

You don’t need to drive here as the island isn’t that big. You can walk around the island or rent a bike to get around. Coronado has more than 15 miles of dedicated bike paths and is a popular place for cyclists.

Note that there is an active naval airbase located on Coronado Island, so some parts of the island are restricted to non-military personnel. You are likely to see and hear aircraft taking off and landing while on the island.

It’s free to visit Coronado Island, and you can get here easily car, by bus, or with the San Diego hop on hop off tour. This is included on the San Diego Explorer Pass.

Hotel Del Coronado San Diego

 

Visit the Gaslamp Quarter

One of the most popular areas of downtown San Diego is the Gaslamp Quarter, usually referred to as “The Gaslamp”. This historic district dates from the 1860s, and is home to one of the largest collections of preserved Victorian office buildings in the USA.

Despite the name, this part of San Diego was primarily lit with electric arc lights rather than gas lights. Still, “Arclight Quarter” probably didn’t have the same ring when the district was rebranded in the 1980s!

Of course, there’s more to do here than learn about historical lighting technologies. There are tours you can go on to learn about the history as well as museums and other attractions. Those wanting to learn more about the area should consider a visit to the Gaslamp Museum at the Davis-Horton House.

However, most people come here for the social and cultural activities. There are bars and restaurants aplenty, and the district plays host to multiple events throughout the year.

If you’re looking for live music, a place to sink a beer or have a bite to eat, this is definitely a good area to gravitate to. It’s also a good place for a guided walking food tour with drinks, like this!

Gaslamp Quarter Sign San Diego

 

Old Town San Diego State Historic Park

Another popular neighborhood in San Diego for visitors is Old Town, San Diego. This part of town is older than the Gaslamp Quarter, which was originally called New Town.

Within the Old Town neighborhood is the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Established in 1968, this State Historic Park is a living history museum, and one of the most popular State Parks in California.

The state park is home to a number of buildings which date from 1820 to 1870, including five original adobe buildings and historic structures including a blacksmith, newspaper office and schoolhouse.

There are also original style homes and shops from the early to mid-19th century. Many of these are set up as museums and can be visited. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is free to visit and you can find out on the official park website here.

Also adjacent to the state park is Heritage County Park which features several restored Victorian homes and the citys first synagogue.

There are also various restaurants and shops throughout the historic park and in the wider Old Town area. This is also a good place to take a guided walking tour like this and learn a bit about the history of the area.

Blacksmith

 

San Diego Beaches

San Diego has over 70 miles of coastline so it is easy to find a beach that you’ll love! You’ll find golden sand beaches, pebble beaches, and rugged coves.

One really popular beach destination is the seaside neighborhood of La Jolla. La Jolla offers 7 miles of coastline, and you’ll find both La Jolla Shores Beach and La Jolla Cove here. It is an easy area to enjoy swimming, sunbathing, surfing, and other water sports.

La Jolla Shores Beach is a mile long sandy beach with lifeguards and a large paid parking lot which is a popular place for kayaking, snorkelling and learning to surf.

La Jolla Cove is a small cove with a pebble beach which is well known as being home to a population of California sea lions and seals. The waters here are a protected marine reserve, and this is a great spot to get some lovely views of these marine mammals. Just be sure to keep a respectful and safe distance.

But you have dozens of other beach options. Other popular beach destinations in San Diego include Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, Coronado Beach, and Ocean Beach.

Ocean Beach is also home to one of the longest piers in Southern California, extending a half mile out to sea. Ocean Beach Pier is a very popular place to fish as it does not require a fishing license.

La Jolla Shores San Diego

Sea lion La Jolla Cove San Diego

 

Family Attractions in San Diego

A number of attractions in San Diego are designed specifically with family in mind. And while many other attractions are also family friendly, here are several places that specifically cater to those visiting with children:

  • San Diego Zoo – One of the most popular attractions in San Diego, this is sure to be a hit with kids of all ages. There are plenty of family focused activities and attractions here, from play areas to animal experiences.
  • Belmont Park – If your family likes vintage thrills, then you will definitely want to head to Belmont Park when in San Diego. This amusement park is home to various vintage games and gift shops, as well as an original 1925 wooden roller coaster. Free to visit and there’s even free parking, but you have to pay for the rides. You can also pick up a day pass which includes all-day unlimited rides and attractions.
  • SeaWorld San Diego – Part theme park, part aquarium, this was the original SeaWorld location. There are a range of rides, animal encounters and activities – fun for the whole family!
  • Birch Aquarium – Originally found in the boathouse of the Coronado Hotel, this aquarium is now found in a beautiful hilltop location in La Jolla shores. There are over 3,000 animals on display.
  • New Children’s Museum – this downtown museum is all about stimulating imagination, creativity and critical thinking skills in children (and their parents!). There are huge art installations for kids to play and explore on, and the whole family should enjoy themselves here.

All of the above attractions are included on the Go City San Diego passes, although SeaWorld is only on the All-inclusive pass. So the passes can definitely help save families money if you are planning to visit a few or more of these places while in San Diego.

Outside of San Diego are a number of other popular family attractions such as LegoLand in Carlsbad, Sesame Place San Diego in Chula Vista, and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido. These are each about 30 minutes to 1 hour drive outside of the city so you will need to drive or arrange transport to get to these places. All three are included as part of the Go City San Diego All-inclusive pass.

Aquarium

 

Try the Food

San Diego has been named one of the top food cities in the United States and the city has a number of  popular restaurants and bars. So you are definitely going to want to spend some of your time in the city eating!

San Diego is surrounded by thousands of farms which produce fresh local food like citrus fruit, avocados, tomatoes, strawberries, mushrooms and poultry. Being right on the sea there’s also a lot of delicious fresh seafood. You can buy the local produce in the local farmers’ markets (check for market days and times here), or enjoy it being served at the many restaurants in the city.

The local food scene is home to a lot of different types of cuisine, particularly Mexican, southeast Asian, Californian, and Mediterranean. Dining options in San Diego range from street tacos to fine dining, and everything in between. It is also easy for vegetarians and vegans to find dining options in San Diego.

So, whether you are hankering after ceviche, a wood-fired pizza, a gourmet salad, a maple glazed donut, fish tacos, or Korean-style chicken wings, San Diego has something for you to try. San Diego is also home to a number of craft breweries making it a great destination for both craft beer lovers and California wine lovers.

If you can’t decide what to eat first, or would like to try a few options, consider hopping on a food tour. There are a few to choose from, such as this one in the Gaslamp Quarter, or this one in San Diego’s Old Town.

Taco

 

Get on the Water

San Diego occupies a stunning location on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, with seventy miles of coastline to choose from. As such, we think at some point during your visit you should take the time to do something involving the ocean.

There are loads of water-based activities to choose from in San Diego, so we are sure you will find something to suit. This might be something as simple as going for a swim, or a bit more adventurous like learning to surf.

You might prefer something more relaxing like a sunset cruise or a wildlife focused whale watching tour. Whatever you are into, San Diego likely has an option to suit. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

As you can see, there are plenty of water-based activities in San Diego to choose from!

If you invest in a city pass, it’s also worth checking what these include. For example the Go City passes include activities like snorkel rental, kayak rental, whale watching cruises and stand-up paddle board rental.

Surfing California

 

Take a Walking Tour or Sightseeing Bus Tour

One of our favorite experiences, especially when visiting a new city, is to take a walking tour or sightseeing bus tour. This can be a great way to quickly get oriented, as well as to learn about some of the highlights and history of the city.

San Diego has a number of great walking tour and bus tour options to choose from, depending on your interests.

As you can see, there are lots of options to choose from!

 

Where to Stay in San Diego

San Diego is a large city with a great choice of accommodation options. Most options are in the mid-range to high-end price points, although it is possible to find lower cost accommodation.

Our favorite areas of San Diego to stay are in the central Gaslamp Quarter, La Jolla, or Coronado Island. But it will depend on what you are looking for and what you plan to do in the city.

For instance, if you are mainly planning to spend your time at the beach, I’d recommend choosing a hotel within walking distance of a nice beach, but if you are coming mainly for the zoo and museums, then basing yourself near Balboa Park might be a good idea.

If you are travelling by car, it’s important to check if the accommodation you choose has parking facilities and if there’s a fee for parking, which can significantly affect the price.

Here are some recommended accommodation options for San Diego, listed approximately by price from low to high. Of course, pricing can vary greatly depending on the time of year, so you’ll want to check and compare pricing yourself.

  • International Travelers House Adventure Hostel – This is a well rated centrally located hostel offering both private and dormitory style accommodation with luggage storage, kitchen and breakfast included. Paid parking nearby.
  • HI San Diego Downtown Hostel – Located in the Gaslamp Quarter, this is another well rated hostel in San Diego. Private and shared accommodation is available, there’s an on-site laundrette and kitchen. Note a Hostelling International membership is required, which can be purchased on site. Paid parking available nearby.
  • El Rancho Motel – This is a well rated motel offering free parking on Coronado Island. Rooms are air-conditioned and en-suite and offer a kitchenette area with fridge, kettle and microwave.
  • Samesun Ocean Beach – 3 minutes’ walk from Ocean Beach, this hostel offers private and shared accommodation as well as a shared kitchen. Breakfast is included, and there’s low-cost parking nearby.
  • La Jolla Riviera Inn – 10 minutes’ walk from La Jolla shores, this well-reviewed inn makes a great base for exploring the attractions of La Jolla as well as downtown San Diego. En-suite rooms feature kitchens with ovens, microwaves and fridges. There are also rooms with pull-out sofa beds making this a great family option. Parking is available.
  • Staypineapple Hotel Z, Gaslamp Quarter – This well-reviewed hotel is conveniently located in the Gaslamp Quarter and offers good value pet friendly accommodation. Nearby paid parking garages are available.
  • Best Western Cabrillo Inn – well located for access to both downtown San Diego and the majority of Balboa park attractions like San Diego Zoo, this is a great value and popular 3* option. A continental breakfast is included and paid parking is available on site.
  • 1906 Lodge – We stayed at this lovely Four Sisters property on Coronado Island on a recent visit to San Diego. We loved the comfortable, uniquely decorated rooms and landscaped garden, as well as the lovely breakfast buffet. It’s nine minutes’ walk from the beach and there’s free on-site parking. One of our favourite spots in San Diego.
  • Pacific Terrace Hotel – Located right on the beautiful Pacific Beach, this well reviewed four star property is in a good location between La Jolla and Downtown San Diego. A range of accommodation options are available, from double rooms to suites, many offering gorgeous coastal views. Paid parking is available on-site.
  • Pendry San Diego – This is a well-reviewed 5* hotel in the heart of downtown San Diego. It has everything you need, whether you are visiting San Diego for business or pleasure, including a hot tub, swimming pool, spa and wellness centre. Paid parking is available on site. A great high-end option in downtown San Diego.
  • Hotel Del Coronado – This historic 5-star hotel was built in 1888 and is set on a beach on Coronado Island.  Lots of famous guests have stayed here over the decades. However, to be honest, this iconic beach hotel hasn’t been getting more mixed reviews in recent times. However, we wanted to include it as an option as it’s obviously a stunning looking property in an amazing location. We’ve dined at the hotel, but haven’t stayed overnight. Paid parking is available on-site, and the property has all the amenities you’d expect of a five star property.

Of course, there are many more options for accommodation across San Diego. We recommend taking a look at the listings on Booking.com for San Diego here. We nearly always use Booking.com when booking accommodation, as we like the reviews and ability to filter by things like budget and amenities.

If you’d prefer an apartment, then as well as the booking.com apartment listings we suggest checking out Plum Guide. They list only the best apartment rentals, and we’ve used them on a number of stays around the world. You can read our Plum Guide review here, and see their listings for San Diego here.

1906 Lodge Coronado San Diego

 

How to Get Around San Diego

San Diego is a city where many of the attractions are a little apart from one another. As such, it’s important to plan how you are going to get around and see the attractions you want to see.

The most cost-effective way of getting around the city is via the public transport system, operated by San Diego MTS. This system includes buses and light-rail trolleys as well as regular trains.

These services will let you go everywhere from La Jolla to Coronado, Balboa Park, Ocean Beach, and more. You can find out more about fares and schedules on the SDMTS website here.

You can also of course drive around San Diego, which is what we sometimes do when visiting the city. This gives you more flexibility in terms of where you go and when, but be aware you will likely have to pay for parking. Most major attractions have on-site parking available, but it can fill up and be expensive.

Another option to consider if you’d like your transport to be a bit more entertaining is to take the Hop on Hop off trolley tour of the city. This can be purchased for one or two days, and is also included on the Go City San Diego Explorer Pass and San Diego CityPASS.

It covers Old Town, Balboa Park, the Gaslamp Quarter and Coronado, meaning you can reach most of the attractions in our guide plus you’ll get narration as you go.

San Diego Troilley Tour

 

Saving Money in San Diego with Attraction Passes

Like many large cities, San Diego can be expensive to visit, especially if you plan on visiting a number attraction in the city. Some of these can be quite pricey, especially if you are visiting as a family or group.

The good news is that like many cities across the world, there are a number of attraction passes which might save you money. The three that we recommend you check out for San Diego are:

  • The Go City San Diego All Inclusive Pass. This pass includes over 55 attractions and can be purchased for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 7 consecutive days.
  • The Go City San Diego Explorer Pass. With this pass you can choose if you want to visit 2, 3, 4,5 or 7 attractions from a selection of over 40 attractions. The pass is valid for 60 days.
  • The San Diego CityPASS. This city pass lets you choose between two more premium attractions (or pay extra for both), and then you get access to three more attractions from a list of four. The pass is valid for nine days. This one has fewer attraction options and is geared more towards families.

Which pass will work for you will depend a lot on exactly what you want to do, how long you are visiting San Diego for, and how many attractions you want to visit each day.

Many of San Diego’s more expensive attractions can easily take up at least half a day or more of your time so many visitors only plan to visit a handful of attractions. In these cases, a pass which covers fewer attractions like the Go City San Diego Explorer Pass or San Diego CityPASS would make more sense.

On the other hand, if you are planning on visiting a number of attraction and/or have longer time in the city, then a Go City San Diego All Inclusive Pass valid for 3 or more days might make more sense.

Let’s look at a quick example to see how each pass might save you money on a 2 day and a 3 day visit to San Diego, visiting some of the city’s more popular attractions.

 

2 Days in San Diego Pass Saving Example

San Diego Day 1: USS Midway Museum ($26), Old Town Trolley Tour ($77), Bay Cruise ($39)

San Diego Day 2:  San Diego Zoo ($67), San Diego Natural History Museum ($19.95), Air & Space Museum ($22.50)

The total cost for these attractions (prices correct as of April 2022) would be $251.45.

  • A 2 day San Diego All Inclusive pass currently costs $169, and includes all the attractions except the Old Town Trolley Tour. So the total cost would be $246, with a saving per adult of $5.45
  • A 7 choice San Diego pass costs $149 and includes all the attractions, plus you can visit an extra attraction (there’s no 6 choice pass). This would be a cost saving per adult of at least $102.
  • A San Diego CityPASS costs $159 but does not include the Natural History Museum or Air and Space Museum. So the total cost with the pass would be $201.45, for a saving per adult of $50.

As you can see, all the passes would save you some money, with the 7 choice San Diego pass offering the greatest savings for this specific itinerary. You could leave out an attraction like one of the museums on the second day, and drop down to a five-choice pass, for even more savings.

The other good thing about this pass is that it is valid for 60 days, so you can spread your sightseeing out.

 

3 Days in San Diego Pass Saving Example

San Diego Day 1: USS Midway Museum ($26), Old Town Trolley Tour ($77), Bay Cruise ($39)

San Diego Day 2:  San Diego Zoo ($67), San Diego Natural History Museum ($19.95), Air & Space Museum ($22.50)

San Diego Day 3: Legoland California ($110.99)

The total cost for these attractions (prices correct as of April 2022) would be $362.44.

  • A 3 Day San Diego All Inclusive pass currently costs $216 and includes all the attractions except the Old Town Trolley Tour. So the total cost would be $293, with a saving per adult of $69.44.
  • A 7 choice San Diego pass costs $149 and includes all the attractions except Legoland California.  So the total cost would be $259.99, with a total saving per adult of $102.45
  • A San Diego CityPASS costs $159 but does not include the Natural History Museum or Air and Space Museum. So the total cost with the pass would be $201.45, for a saving per adult of $160.99.

As you can see, all the passes still save money, but with this specific itinerary you get the most savings from the CityPASS. The only thing to note is that the CityPASS only includes a 1 day trolley tour whilst the Go City San Diego Explorer Pass includes a two-day tour.

 

Whist Pass is Best for San Diego

The main takeaway is that all the passes can definitely save you some significant money, but the right pass for you will depend on which attractions you plan to visit as not all passes cover all the attractions.

If you plan to visit a number of higher value attractions like the San Diego Zoo, Old Town Trolley Tour or Legoland California, then the savings with a pass can be very significant.

Our favourite pass for San Diego would probably be the Go City San Diego Explorer Pass as it offers a lot and is valid for 60 days. We particularly like that it includes a 2 day trolley tour which makes getting around the city a lot easier.

However we definitely recommend planning out the attractions you want to visit to see which pass would work for you.

 

Further Reading

Thats it for our guide to things to do in San Diego. Before you head off though, I just wanted to share some more resources weve put together to help you plan your trip to the city, and travel in California and the USA in general.

As always, were happy to answer any questions you might have, just pop them in the comments below and well get back to you as soon as we can.

A detailed guide to the best things to do in San Diego. What to see and do, how to save money and lots of tips for your San Diego visit.



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