A Local’s Guide to The Best Things to Do in San Diego

As a local who has raised a family in coastal San Diego for the past 25 years, I still marvel daily at 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 best things to do in San Diego that I recommend to friends when they visit! So, are you ready for some California dreamin’?

Get ready for an unforgettable journey to the heart of Southern California with our guide to the best things to do in San Diego. Known for its idyllic climate, sandy beaches, and vibrant cultural scene, San Diego offers various attractions that cater to every type of traveler. From the historic charm of the Gaslamp Quarter to the natural beauty of Balboa Park and the cutting-edge exhibits at the USS Midway Museum, this coastal city on the Pacific Ocean promises to make your visit truly memorable.

Best Things to Do in San Diego

best day trips from san diego faqs

San Diego has everything, whether you want to create a family vacation or enjoy its many outdoor activities. Catch a wave at La Jolla Cove, explore the San Diego Zoo, or simply soak up the sun on Coronado Beach.

Are you ready to dive into the best things to do in San Diego, sharing insider tips to help you make the most of your visit to “America’s Finest City.” Christina Roman originally wrote this article about the best things to do in San Diego. We have updated it for 2024 with more attractions and tours to give you the most in-depth travel guide to San Diego.

Old Town San Diego

best things to do in san diego old town

Considered the birthplace of California, Old Town San Diego traces the history of the first European settlement 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. Stroll through its historic sites, such as the Whaley House Museum, the old school house, and the grave yard.

A fun way to explore the historic village is to take this Tales, Tacos, and Tequila Tour. Meet at Adobe Chapel to learn of the history and marvel at its Victorian architecture while enjoying a fish taco and authentic Mexican food. The tour ends at a local distillery for a tequila tasting.

Gaslamp Quarter

gas lamp quarter places to visit in san diego

Located in downtown San Diago on San Diego Bay, Gaslamp Quarter has a wild western history of shootouts and barroom brawls. It was once the red-light district and, in the 1860s, San Diego’s Chinatown. Gaslamp Quarter has 100 historic buildings, including museums and art galleries. It also has a variety of bars and restaurants.

The Gaslamp Quarter is a great place to enjoy dinner and to check out the nightlife scene. This walking tour is a fun Brothels, Bites, and Booze Tour that takes you through the historical and cultural heart of San Diego from the infamous Stingaree District while enjoying authentic Mexican food at four different restaurants with some alcohol included. Make sure to sample the craft beer scene.

If you want more nightlife when you visit San Diego, go to Solana Beach to enjoy live music at The Belly Up Tavern. It’s one of San Diego’s premier live music venues. Before catching a show, you can grab dinner at the Tavern next door.

The Strand on Coronado Island

Places to visit in San Diego Coronado island

Coronado Island is located across San Diego Bay and accessible via the iconic Coronado Bridge or a short ferry ride across San Diego Bay from downtown.

At the heart of Coronado lies the legendary Hotel del Coronado, a Victorian beachfront masterpiece that has captivated visitors since the 19th century. The American movie classic “Some Like It Hot,” starring Marilyn Monroe, was filmed here. As you approach the hotel’s entrance, be sure to note the Hollywood stars commemorating the film imprinted in the cement. When Hotel Del Coronado opened in 1888, it was the largest resort hotel in the world.

Even if you’re not staying at this beautiful luxury resort, you’ll enjoy a walk on the Silver Strand. It’s seven miles of sparkling sandy beach along the Pacific Ocean just behind the hotel. Swing by Del’s beachside café for fish tacos or head up to the swanky outdoor bar for sunset cocktails with a view. Outdoor lovers can take a bike ride along its bike paths, and water lovers will enjoy its many water sports.

Explore Balboa Park

top san diego attractions balboa park
Balboa Park – San Diego CA

As San Diego’s cultural heart, historic Balboa Park is a place of natural beauty. It is most loved for the San Diego Zoo, the city’s most famous attraction, which is one of the better zoos for conservation. But there is so much more to see and do in this 1,200-acre urban park studded with colonial architecture, outdoor activities and hidden gems.

You can spend an entire day here. Built for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915 to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal, Balboa Park houses world-class museums, a theatre, and a science center.

Be sure to visit the glassblowers at the Spanish Village Art Center, and with kids in tow, don’t miss a ride on the beautiful carousel. If you’re searching for a meal with an ambiance to spare, make a reservation at The Prado, an award-winning indoor-outdoor restaurant in the park with accessories inspired by park collections.

You can see pandas and flamingos at the San Diego Zoo, but don’t stop there. You can also explore the Japanese Friendship Garden and a Show at the Globe Theater. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park ticket includes the Africa Tram and all regularly scheduled experiences. More Details here.

Whale Watching

However instead of visiting Seaworld San Diego or in the San Diego Zoo, why not see animals in their natural habitat? From December to April, 20,000 gray whales migrate along the coast, and you can view them from a two-story yacht with 360-degree views. Book this highly rated tour now. (easy cancelation within 24 hours of excursion for a full refund)


things to do in san diego

Embarcadero is one of the city’s top waterfront destinations, with plenty of waterfront bars and restaurants. Located on San Diego Bay, Embardacero pays homage to the maritime history of San Diego with historic ships and museums.

You will also board many scenic cruises and whale watching excursions here. You’ll also see cruise ships in port here, and there are plenty of restaurants and shops. This is a great place to go for a walk to take in the views, and do some shopping, plus it is still a working fishing harbor.

It is here that you can visit the Maritime Museum of San Diego and the San Diego Museum of Art and Design, but what attracts most people to the area (besides the hotels and nightlife) is the USS Midway Museum.

USS Midway Museum

san diego attractions uss midway

One of the top attractions in San Diego is the USS Midway, located in downtown San Diego. It is an aircraft carrier that was active from 1945 to 1992, making it the world’s longest-serving carrier from World War II to Desert Storm.

The USS Midway Museum is the world’s largest museum dedicated to aircraft Carriers. It is moored at Embarcadero in downtown San Diego, and visitors can tour its 60 exhibits and 29 aircraft on board. Onboard, 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.

Get your skip-the-line tickets to beat the crowds on a self-guided audio tour of the longest-serving aircraft carrier in the American fleet. Spend 2-3 hours exploring its 60 exhibits, including the galley, jail, and engine room. You can also participate in the simulators and watch the films.

Seaport Village

Seaport Village is located next to Embarcadero and is a major 14-acre open-air shopping complex in close proximity to the cruise ship terminal. There are plenty of restaurants, and it is connected to the Marriott hotel 0 Where we stayed in San Diego en route to Rancho La Puerta in Mexico).

There are galleries, coffee shops, and boutiques, making for a lovely stroll through this touristy area. When visiting a new city, it is fun to visit a tourist attraction. There’s a reason they are popular. Grab some ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s and take a stroll through the 50+ shops. There is a historic carousel, and you can catch the Old Town Trolley here. Location: West Harbor Drive, San Diego CA, 92101

San Diego Harbor Cruise

things to see in san diego harbor
San Diego Harbour

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. Book this highly rated cruise of the San Diego Harbor to view the San Diego skyline and famous landmarks such as Coronado Bridge, Downtown San Diego, and more.

Cruise the north harbor for views of landmarks like Harbor Island and Shelter Island and frequent colonies of sea lions clustered at the base of the Point Loma peninsula. Or go south to loop under the Coronado Bay Bridge and past the aircraft carrier. Hornblower Cruises offers whale watching, dolphin-watching tours and sunset cocktail and dinner cruises.

Explore San Diego’s Tide Pools

best things to do in san diego tide pooling

San Diegans love tide pooling, and if you want to explore the shores of California’s West Coast, this is a great activity to try. When the tide rolls out along San Diego’s 70 miles of coastline along the Pacific Ocean, tide pools are full of abundant hidden treasures if you know where to look.

Spot sea stars, hermit crabs, limpets, mussels, 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 tips for a successful tide pooling adventure:  Check an ocean’s tide chart before you head to any of the San Diego beaches. Time your visit for a negative tide if possible. In fact, low tides in November to February make winter tide pooling especially rewarding.

Belmont Park

One of San Diego’s most enduring tourist attractions is Belmont Park, an old amusement park dating back to 1925. Amusement parks are always fun for the whole family, and this one has 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 State Natural Reserve

best things to do in san diego hike torrey pines
Torrey Pines State Reserve

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 plenty of hiking trails big on sweeping coastal views and sage-covered chaparral on Torrey Pines State Beach.

Breathe in the fragrant Torrey Pines on a short loop hiking trail or take a rustic footpath that descends from the bluffs through the upper reserve 300 feet to the beach. Hiking trails in the nearby Reserve Extension along the creek bed can be especially scenic during spring wildflower season. Read more about hiking in California: 15 Best Hikes in California – Inspiration to Get Outdoors

Paraglide at Torrey Pines Gliderport

If you are looking for some more excitement, the Torrey Pines Gliderport has one of the best views of San Diego and is a launchpad for paragliders. If you ever wanted a bit of adrenaline, paragliding is a great introduction to skydiving. It gives a birds eye view of the coast without having to jump out of a plane.

If you want to spend the day at Coronado Island, , book this walking tour t to see the highlights. It includes a stroll to Star Park, where the “Wizard of Oz” house is located, a visit to Coronado Beach, and a walk by multi-million dollar homes that line Ocean Boulevard. You can also take a tour of Hotel del Coronado and enjoy a treat at a local eatery.

On your way to Coronado Island, stop at Chicano Park under the Coronado Bridge, where you’ll find the largest collection of outdoor murals in America. It’s located in Logan Heights. Address: 2043-2085 Logan Ave. San Diego, CA 92113

La Jolla Cove

la jolla beach

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 boutique shops 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 marine life. It also hosts Mount Soledad, the Birch Aquarium, a handful of museums, and enough adventure tour companies to keep you active for days.

Head to 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.

You can hire an instructor at one of San Diego’s popular beaches – Mission Beach, Ocean Beach or Pacific Beach or La Jolla Shores.

Mission Beach

san diego attractions beach

Mission Beach is a 2 mile long boardwalk filled with restaurants, nightlife and beach activities. along a long sandy beach Take a walk along the boardwalk for gorgeous views of the coast. It starts at Belmont Park where all the action happens, but you can make your way south to this quieter section of the beach.

There are plenty of water sports from surfing and boogie boarding to kiteboarding and fishing. If you want to go for a ride, this is definitely the place to rent a bicycle.

Pacific Beach

Another great beach community in San Diego is Pacific Beach. This 3-mile-long beach and boardwalk has a party atmosphere and has plenty of trendy restaurants and bars to show you a good time all day and night. North Pacific Beach has calm waters with lifeguards on duty, making it popular with families, and Tourmaline Surfing Park is popular for surfing. You can rent bicycles to explore Pacific Beach Drive and make sure to take a walk out to Crystal Pier.

Ocean Beach

things to do in san diego beach pier at sunset

Ocean Beach is a casual neighborhood where alternative lifestyles are not just welcomed but embraced. Walk along the main street past all types of restaurants, boutiques selling tie-dye everything, healing crystal shops, and taco stands.

Street art covers formerly bare walls, and the sun is usually shining afternoon—once the marine layer of fog burns off. Make sure to walk along Ocean Beach Pier and check out the Ocean Beach Farmers Market. It is full of organic food stalls, and they even put on live music!

Children’s Pool Beach

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Contrary to its name, Children’s Pool Beach is not a beach for children to swim due to the sea lion population that has overtaken its attractive, calm waters. The beach was designated in 1931 as a beach for kids to safely swim after building a sea wall to create calm waters and pool-like conditions. But the local marine life found this attractive as well and now mothers come to the beach from December to May to have their pups. If you want to get up close and personal with sea life, this is a great place to view them.

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

best beaches in San Diego Sunset Cliffs Point Loma

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.

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park stands out as a natural wonder in Diego, offering some of the most awe-inspiring views and tranquil moments that nature can provide. Perched along the western edge of Point Loma, Sunset Cliffs Natural Park spans 68 acres of rugged cliffs, expansive ocean vistas, and intricate cave formations, making it a photographer’s paradise and a nature lover’s haven.

The journey to Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is easily accessible by car or public transport, with parking available along the street. As the golden hour approaches, people gather to witness the sun dipping below the horizon, painting the sky with vibrant hues—an experience that encapsulates the essence of San Diego’s natural beauty.

Beyond the sunset, the park’s walking trails and hidden beaches offer a peaceful escape from the city’s hustle and bustle. Whether you’re in downtown San Diego or exploring the broader area, a visit to Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is an unforgettable addition to any itinerary, embodying the serene and picturesque side of California’s coastal wonders.

Point Loma

things to do in san diego old point loma lighthouse

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. Address: 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr, San Diego, CA 92106

Cabrillo National Monument

This monument is dedicated to the first European explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo who explored the coast of California in 1542. It is located at the south end of Point Loma and while it is an interesting point in history, it’s a good place to visit for the views of the Coronado, city skyline and on a clear day, you can see Tijuana. It has often been touted as the best view in San Diego. You can also take a stroll along the  2.5-mile Bayside Trail and you can make your way down to explore the tide pools here as well. A trip here is often combined with the lighthouse.

Little Italy

where to eat in san diego 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.

Be sure to swing by the phenomenal farmer’s market on Wednesdays and Saturdays. More than 200 tents of local entrepreneurs, family farms, and artisan grocers offer everything from local 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 here. (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.

Botanical Gardens

san diego things to do botanical gardens

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.

Catch a Sam Diego Padres Game a Petco Park

things to do in san diego petco park

Baseball is America’s favorite pastime and when visiting San Diego, you can watch the San Diego Padres play at what is the best baseball stadium in the major league, Petco Park.

It’s located right downtown San Diego with great views of the skyline from this state of the art attraction. If you can’t make a game, you can always book a stadium tour where you’ll go behind the scenes to visit the Padres Hall of Fame, visit the Clubhouse, the Major League dugout, press box and more!

Getting Around San Diego

Our #1 Money Saving Tip to explore San Diego – Purchase a San Diego Pass They are valid for 12 months and you can get them for 1-7 days

  • 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 is just a short distance from the San Diego International Airport. You can easily get downtown by bus line 30 or tram line 140. You can also grab a taxi but we like to book a private transfer from the San Diego airport. We use this airport transfer service whenever we travel. It’s hassle-free and your driver meets you at arrivals with your name. Easy cancellation and last-minute bookings.

Planning a Trip to San Diego

If you are planning to visit San Diego, read our complete guide to where to stay in San Diego. It breaks down the best neighborhoods for each type of traveler. From beach lovers to families, the best nightlife and first timers, we’ve got you covered. Read about it here: Where To Stay In San Diego – The Best Neighborhoods & Areas

Suggested hotels

  •  Kimpton Solamar Hotel – Located in the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter and featuring Free WIFI, Rooftop Pool & free wine tasting! This is the usual Kimpton Luxury experience.
  • Staypineapple at Hotel Z – A romantic hotel with quirky decor. It is pet friendly and offers free Wifi and is walking distance to almost everything.
  • USA Hostels San Diego Downtown – Built back in 1880 this hostel offers mixed dorms, free WIFI, Free Breakfast, and a vibrant new age decor.
  • The Heart of the City – Located in the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter. This is a 2nd Floor Expansive unit with lots of space. with 2 bedrooms and 1 bath, it is perfect for families or couples. It also comes with access to a parking space and is close to everything.

San Diego CityPass

Grab yourself a San Diego City Pass to really take advantage of everything the city has to offer. Some of San Diego’s top attractions are included in the pass with admission to:
• San Diego Zoo Safari Park
• Belmont Park all access combo pass
• One hour San Diego Harbor cruise
• Museums including San Diego Natural History Museum
• Knott’s Berry Farm and more!

When to visit San Diego

Where to stay in san diego accommodation neighbourhoods
  • 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.

So there you have it, all of the must see attractions in America’s Finest City. There is no shortage of things to see and do at this year round destination. From catching some rays on the beaches of La Jolla, taking in Balboa Park’s 17 museums, or strolling the boardwalk at Mission Beach, you will find something that interests each member of the family. So what are you waiting for? Start planning your trip to Southern California today.

Read More California Travel Guides:

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