San Diego’s interesting location and diverse landscape come together to create an excellent destination for travelers seeking fun in the sun, a mix of man-made and natural attractions and adventures, and wildlife experiences. Adventurers can hike and explore, culture seekers can enjoy theaters and museums, and families can pack their itineraries with parks. Plus, there’s great California weather, an abundance of hotels, restaurants, shopping opportunities, and dozens of interesting tours. Here’s our pick for the Top 10 Things To Do in the region, including several FREE activities to help you with your budget.
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Located in downtown San Diego, Balboa Park is a cultural hub set on 1,200 acres of beautiful gardens and is peppered with elaborate Spanish-Renaissance architecture. The Botanical Building showcases dramatic tropical plants and orchids, while the grounds feature a palm tree canyon and gorgeous cactus, rose, and Japanese-style gardens.
Also located here are several museums, including the San Diego Museum of Art, Fleet Science Center, Museum of Man, Air & Space Museum, and Model Railroad Museum. The grounds also house the San Diego Zoo.
Adults and children alike will adore a trip to this beachfront amusement park. Belmont Park was built in 1925 with boardwalk, beach, and ocean views, and is open year-round. The park features the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster, a carousel, bumper cars, zip-lining, rock climbing, an indoor pool, arcade games, and much more.
Novelty and beachwear shops are plentiful and there’s a wide variety of food outlets, including everything from midway-type foods like hot dogs and tacos to upscale restaurants with a view. Visitors will also find events and festivals. Parking and admission are free.
Coronado Beach & Hotel del Coronado
Sitting across the bay from San Diego and 2 miles from the ferry landing, Coronado Beach offers plenty of room and a cleaner, quieter atmosphere than the more popular Mission Beach. Plus, there are lifeguards, scenic views, and the opportunity for a beautiful stroll along the 1.5-mile shoreline. Among the sights, you’ll see is the majestic and iconic Hotel del Coronado – a National Historic Landmark at 130 years old. This beachfront hotel features Victorian design and distinct red roofing and boasts a colorful history of memorable guests have included presidents, royalty, and some of Hollywood‘s biggest names. The hotel has grown into something of a tourist attraction with travelers and road trippers routinely including it as a destination if only for a few hours to check it out and take some photos.
For 16 blocks worth of quaint Victorian architecture that encompasses art galleries and theaters, and a wide range of shops and restaurants, visit San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter. The popular neighborhood is an energetic and eclectic one-stop shop where everything is within a five-minute walking distance. And for those a break from the crowd, there is patio seating and rooftop bars for people watching and taking it all in. The region is also a leading nightlife spot in the city including clubs, cigar lounges, comedy shows, and live music performances. The area also hosts a variety of events that include Comic-Con, the Rock and Roll Marathon, and an annual Mardi Gras Parade.
La Jolla Shores / La Jolla Cove
Looking for a clean but active beach to visit for swimming or surfing? Head to La Jolla Shores for the smooth waves, lifeguard presence, and convenient surrounding restaurants and bars. Tourists will notice buoys in the region that denote no-fishing rules — this is because the La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve lies adjacent to the beach and contains two artificial reefs for the purpose of attracting marine life.
If a marine life experience is what you’re looking for, check out La Jolla Cove across the water from La Jolla Beach. This is where you’ll find a protected area of beautiful bluffs and tide pools. This is a snorkeler’s paradise, but you don’t have to venture into the water if you don’t want to. Kayak tours are available here, or you can simply wait for low tide to explore the pools and all the marine life that lies within. Oftentimes, you don’t have to look further than the beach to see dozens of sea lions.
Old Town San Diego
To visit the birthplace of California on the grounds of the first European settlement, visit Old Town San Diego State Historic Park for a mile-long sweep of homes and stores that depict different eras of the state’s history. This storied area is a fusion of Native Kumeyaay Indians, Spanish explorers, and the California gold rush with architecture and memorabilia that will keep you snapping photos during a scenic stroll. Mexican heritage is prevalent in the cuisine and mariachi bands.
Old Town has more than 35 historic sites, including the Mission San Diego de Alcala which was built in 1769. There are also museums and several sites said to be haunted. This look back in time is not to be missed.
San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo is among the largest zoos in the USA and is famous for its Conservation and Research, habitats separated by moats and vegetation rather than fencing, and for largest collections of unusual and imperiled animals in the world. To be more specific, the zoo is home to over 3,700 rare and endangered animals representing more than 650 species and subspecies. Exhibits are connected by long and winding scenic trails. However, if you would prefer to ride, the zoo also offers a 35-minute guided bus tour and an aerial tram to help visitors get from one to the other more easily. Also on site are shows, animal encounters, and educational wildlife films shown in 4-D theaters.
Located on a separate site 32 miles north of the zoo, visitors will find the San Diego Safari Park, which offers Africa’s most popular animals and several different types of safari adventures and overnight campout experiences.
SeaWorld San Diego
For a mix of marine life and an amusement park, visit Sea World San Diego. Get an up-close look at dolphins, sea turtles, and California sea lions and otters. Visit the penguin habitat or stroll through the underwater shark viewing tunnel. Learn about the SeaWorld Rescue team that has saved more than 39,000 animals and always with the goal of rehabilitation and returning them to the wild. Venture to the Wild Arctic exhibit for polar bears and beluga whales and remember to set aside time for the shows and performances.
As for adult rides, check out the Manta Ray rollercoaster, the Electric Eel, and Shipwreck Rapids. For children, check out the playgrounds, kiddie rides, and Sesame Street Bay of Play.
Located 9 miles west of downtown San Diego, travelers will find Sunset Cliffs which run 1.5 miles along Point Loma’s western shoreline.
As the name would suggest, gorgeous sunset views are available here so it’s a popular place to visit in the evenings. Striking sandstone cliffs and vegetation align with perfect Pacific views and provide an excellent place for exploration both day and night. It’s a popular spot for surfers as well, and an excellent place for wildlife encounters, with a wide variety of birdlife in the area and California sea lions basking in the sun or swimming in the surf.
USS Midway Museum
There’s an undeniable military presence in San Diego with bases and noteworthy artifacts dotting the city. An associated site is The USS Midway, home to the longest-serving American aircraft of the 20th century which is anchored for tourists to explore. This historic ship features 60 exhibits and 29 restored aircraft aboard, including some that flew missions in World War II, Operation Desert Storm, and the Korean War. A self-guided audio tour allows for views of the engine room, the crew’s sleeping quarters, the brig, and the flight control room, for an up-close and educational look behind the scenes. There are also flight simulators, virtual experiences, and a cafe on board.