When it comes to cities that pack a punch, you can’t get much better than SoCal’s San Diego. Also known as America’s Finest City, San Diego has world-famous attractions, top-rated restaurants and bars, and pristine beaches.
While the city is known for its beaches and ocean views, there are many other things to see and do, including countless world-class family attractions. It’s no wonder San Diego is consistently ranked among the best places to live for quality of life in the United States.
From the simple beauty of the San Diego skyline to the world-famous San Diego Zoo to eating your weight in fish tacos, there is no wrong way to enjoy this oceanside city. It’s an ideal mix of urban and suburban living, offering great food, amazing weather year-round, and abundant things to do.
What We Cover
- Things to Do in San Diego, California
- 1. Visit The San Diego Zoo and Safari Park
- 2. Experience a Whale-Watching Tour
- 3. Visit Seaport Village
- 4. See a Show at The Old Globe Theatre
- 5. Hike in Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
- 6. Visit Balboa Park
- 7. Check Out the USS Midway Museum
- 8. Go Surfing at Mission Beach
- 9. Visit La Jolla
- 10. Take a Tour of the San Diego Harbor
- 11. Watch a Padres Game at Petco Park
- 12. Visit Cabrillo National Monument
- 13. Spend a Day at LEGOLAND California
- 14. Check Out La Jolla Cove
- 15. Coronado Island
- 16. Take a Day Trip to Tijuana
- 17. Taste Local Cuisine at Liberty Public Market
- 18. See the Stars at the Fleet Science Center
- 19. Learn About History at the San Diego History Center
- 20. Taste Wine at a Local Winery
- 21. Go on a Brewery Tour
- 22. Get Your Adrenaline Fix at Belmont Park
- 23. Visit the San Diego Museum of Art
- 24. The Living Coast Discovery Center
- 25. Go to SeaWorld San Diego
- 26. Visit the New Children’s Museum
- 27. Soar Over Temecula’s Wineries in a Hot Air Balloon
- 28. Museum of Contemporary Art
- 29. San Diego Air & Space Museum
- 30. Visit Point Loma
- 31. Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography
- 32. San Diego Natural History Museum
- 33. Go Shopping in Old Town
- 34. Museum of Photographic Arts
- 35. Whaley House Museum
- 36. Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala
- 37. Wine and Dine in Little Italy
- 38. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
- 39. Pacific Beach Boardwalk
- 40. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
- 41. Explore Solana Beach
- 42. Bring the Kids to Children’s Pool Beach
- 43. Contemplate at the Japanese Friendship Garden
- 44. Tour the California Tower
- 45. Capture the Moment at Ellen Browning Scripps Park
- Map of San Diego Attractions
- Tours in San Diego
- What are the top tourist attractions in San Diego?
- What are some museums or cultural attractions to visit in San Diego?
- What free or budget-friendly things to do in San Diego?
- Most significant landmark – USS Midway Museum
- Free activity – Balboa Park
- Activity for kids – San Diego Zoo
- Activity for adults – San Diego Museum of Art
- Place to eat – Little Italy
- Nightlife – Gaslamp Quarter
- Place to stay – Omni San Diego Hotel
Things to Do in San Diego, California
1. Visit The San Diego Zoo and Safari Park
Address: San Diego Zoo: 2920 Zoo Dr, San Diego, CA 92101
Address: San Diego Zoo Safari Park: 15500 San Pasqual Valley Rd, Escondido, CA 92027
The San Diego Zoo and Safari Park is one of the top places to visit in the United States and a great destination for families. The zoo is home to animals from all over the world, and the safari park lets you experience it up close. The same company operates both parks, but they are about 35 miles away from one another.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is located in Escondido and offers two different experiences: get up close with animals at the Safari Park or explore them from atop a safari vehicle in the Wildlife Safari.
The San Diego Zoo is one of the world’s largest zoos, with over 4,000 animals from over 650 species. Some exhibits include Polar Bear Plunge, Urban Jungle, Three Aviaries, Monkey Trail, and Forest Tales. Beyond their animals, the zoo has a botanical garden that houses 700,000 varieties of plants.
You can take a behind-the-scenes tour to learn more about how the San Diego Zoo cares for its animals. As you explore San Diego with kids, a trip to the San Diego Zoo and/or San Diego Zoo Safari Park is a must-do activity. Doing both is possible, though fitting them into a single day would be difficult, especially with kids in tow.
2. Experience a Whale-Watching Tour
Whale-watching may not immediately come to mind when people think of things to do in San Diego. Even so, whale-watching along the San Diego coastline is something you cannot miss.
Whale-watching tour operators offer trips year-round, so you’re likely to see some action no matter when you go — even if you don’t see whales because you’re outside of their migration season.
The best whale-watching months are typically from mid-December to mid-March to see gray whales and then again from mid-September to early November for orca whales, also known as killer whales. These are the months when migrating whale populations peak near San Diego Bay.
However, you can still see whales during off-migration months, although the number of whale sightings will be at its lowest during the off-season. No matter when you go whale-watching, you’re sure to have an amazing experience.
See Related: Best Whale Watching Places in the World
3. Visit Seaport Village
Address: 849 W Harbor Dr, San Diego, CA 92101
Seaport Village is a picturesque waterfront area with shopping, dining, and entertainment locations galore near downtown San Diego. It’s the perfect place to spend a day if you want to relax and soak up the Californian sun.
Seaport Village is one of the most popular San Diego attractions, so you should expect larger crowds if you visit during the summer months. There are over 70 shops and eateries to visit, so you have lots to see.
You can even reach Seaport with the ease of the San Diego Trolley. And don’t forget to take a ride on the village’s hand-carved, historic carousel!
There are also tons of boat tours and San Diego Harbor cruise tours departing from Seaport Village, so you can further explore the coastline. Given its location along the waterfront, this area features excellent views of San Diego Bay.
4. See a Show at The Old Globe Theatre
Address: 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego, CA 92101
The Old Globe Theatre is one of San Diego’s most popular attractions. It’s an award-winning theater at the Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts in Balboa Park, which hosts various theater genres, from Shakespeare to musicals.
If you’re a fan of live theater, then make sure to catch a show at the Old Globe Theatre during your visit. This Tony Award-winning theater first opened in 1935. The whole Simon Edison Centre is actually comprised of three theaters.
The Old Globe, Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, and Lowell Davies Festival Theatre combine to produce 15 shows across their summer and winter theatrical seasons. Based on William Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, the Old Globe Theatre was built as part of the California Pacific International Exposition.
Since it opened, many world productions that began in the space have gone on to have prolific lives on Broadway and beyond. That includes Into the Woods, The Full Monty, and Bright Star.
5. Hike in Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Address: 12600 N Torrey Pines Rd, La Jolla, CA 92037
Visiting the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is, by far, one of my favorite things to do in the San Diego area. A protected coastal area, Torrey Pines is full of hiking trails, beaches, and stunning views – perfect for those who love being outdoors.
The reserve is also known for its Torrey pine trees – a rare variety of pine only found in this area of Southern California – as well as its other wildlife. The reserve’s hiking trails lead to views you won’t soon forget. Plus, the world-famous Torrey Pines Golf Course is located within the reserve.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is easily accessible by car, bike, or public transportation. You can park at La Jolla Shores and then walk about one mile to the reserve entrance at South Carlsbad Boulevard and Coast Road.
Within California’s Torrey Pines State Reserve, you can find Black’s Beach, one of the world’s most famous nude beaches and one of the largest in the United States. This isolated region offers hiking and surfing with several pathways to secret bays.
If you’re looking for something more daring, go all nude. If you aren’t, maybe stick to Torrey Pines State Beach instead.
6. Visit Balboa Park
Balboa Park is a 1,200-acre cultural and recreational area with museums, gardens, and Spanish Colonial architecture created in 1868. If you’re interested in art or history, then you’ll definitely want to add this San Diego landmark to your itinerary.
It is lovingly referred to as The Cultural Heart of San Diego. Balboa Park has even been awarded five stars by the American Automobile Association (AAA) for excellence in maintenance and security.
The park also has three golf courses, two swimming pools, 18 museums, a waterpark, and an amusement park, making it one of the city’s most popular San Diego attractions. A visit to San Diego would not be complete without making at least one stop at Balboa Park.
Plus, the space has changed so much since it first opened that you’re bound to see something new, even if it’s your tenth visit.
7. Check Out the USS Midway Museum
Address: 910 N Harbor Dr, San Diego, CA 92101
The USS Midway Museum is a popular attraction that’s dedicated to naval history. The museum is located on the waterfront aboard the USS Midway near downtown San Diego and features exhibits of military aircraft, naval history, and ship models.
You can explore the ship, learn about its role in WWII, and see some aircraft used on board. The maritime museum is also home to a number of interactive exhibits, making it a great place for the whole family to visit.
The most interesting feature of this maritime museum is its collection of warplanes from various eras in American history. There are also several interactive displays that allow you to learn about different aspects of naval aviation through hands-on experiences, such as piloting in the F/A-18 Hornet simulator or diving inside a submarine simulator.
You can experience this aboard the United States’ longest-serving aircraft carrier of the 20th century. For history buffs or aviation aficionados, the USS Midway Museum is definitely worth checking out when you’re in San Diego.
8. Go Surfing at Mission Beach
Address: 3000 Mission Blvd, San Diego, CA 92109
Beside Mission Bay, the Mission Beach neighborhood is home to a lot of San Diego’s most iconic institutions. The boardwalk area, for example, is home to the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster (first built in 1925) inside Belmont Park amusement park.
On the boardwalk, you have lots of restaurants and shops to explore or an open ocean to admire. Especially during the summer, you can expect many tourists to be around the beach, but you’re bound to see San Diego residents, too. It is a hot spot for anyone planning to visit San Diego.
Mission Beach (the beach) is also one of the most popular San Diego beaches, and for good reason – the waves here are ideal for beginners. If you’ve always wanted to try surfing, Mission Beach is a perfect place to start. There are lots of surf schools in the area, so you can easily find someone who can give you the basics.
Even if you don’t surf, the beach is great for relaxing and soaking up the sun. The white sand is soft, and the water is warm, so it’s easy to spend a lazy day lounging on the beach.
9. Visit La Jolla
La Jolla is an upscale neighborhood in San Diego with boutique shops, restaurants, and art galleries. It is most famous for all of the seals and sea lions who sunbathe on the adjacent beachy shores.
And, of course, no trip to La Jolla would be complete without spending some time at the beach. La Jolla Cove is one of the most popular beaches in the area, and it’s perfect for swimming, sunbathing, and snorkeling. Nearby, La Jolla Shores is a favorite for snorkelers and divers as well as swimmers.
La Jolla Shores Beach also has gentle surf action, so it’s ideal for beginner surfers and other water sports. You can even grab a kayak to explore some caves. And snorkeling adventures will take you to La Jolla Underwater Park.
You can find La Jolla’s main shopping district along Prospect Street. From there, you’ll find everything from high-end fashion boutiques to local specialty shops. There are also many great places to eat, whether for a quick bite or a sit-down meal.
10. Take a Tour of the San Diego Harbor
San Diego Harbor is one of the busiest harbors in the world. One of nine harbors in San Diego County, this bustling waterfront is considered one of the most impressive in the country. That’s because it’s a few dozen miles of gorgeous waterfront.
There are a number of different tour operators that offer cruises around the harbor. From these tours, you’ll get to see some of San Diego’s most popular landmarks. You might even spot a few dolphins along the way.
The natural harbor separates this town from other places in Southern California. Take a sensational boat tour of the Pacific Ocean and admire the multimillion-dollar view of the sea.
Alternatively, you could go sightseeing or enjoy a romantic dinner cruise during the twilight hours. Enjoying the surreal beauty of the surrounding landscapes is essential in San Diego if you want a full experience.
11. Watch a Padres Game at Petco Park
Address: 100 Park Blvd, San Diego, CA 92101
Petco Park is the home of the San Diego Padres, and it’s one of the best places to watch a baseball game. That’s mostly because the stadium in downtown San Diego has such a lovely SoCal-inspired atmosphere.
For more luxe baseball lovers, Petco Park contains 1,000 club seats and 48 luxury suites. The majority of suites are located on the lodge level behind home plate between first and third base, although many additional suites are located in other parts of the ballpark; none are found on the upper deck.
If you’re a fan of America’s national pastime, catching a Padres game is a must-do activity in San Diego. You’ll also catch a great view of the San Diego skyline while you’re enjoying a game.
If you plan on catching a game and need a comfortable and centrally-located place, check out the Omni San Diego Hotel. This highly-rated and popular hotel is next to Petco Park and features an outdoor pool, an onsite bar and restaurant, and some of the best views of downtown.
12. Visit Cabrillo National Monument
Address: 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr, San Diego, CA 92106
The natural areas around the Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo National Monument are some of the best places to see in the San Diego. This park around the landmark offers over 20 miles of trails with stunning views of the California coast and mountains, so be sure to bring a camera. You can even rent binoculars or borrow one from the visitor center if you have forgotten yours.
Cabrillo National Monument is the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, and you might even spot some whales or dolphins offshore. It represents the landing of Cabrillo and the first European colonizers who embarked on the western coast of the United States.
There are also several hiking trails that lead up into the hills above Old Town San Diego. You can even see the New Point Loma Lighthouse and panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean.
One trail will take you past an abandoned gold mine, while another will take you through a beautiful canyon filled with wildflowers. Enjoy the tide pools and check out some local marine life.
13. Spend a Day at LEGOLAND California
Address: One Legoland Dr, Carlsbad, CA 92008
LEGOLAND California is a great option if you’re in the area with kids. About an hour outside of the city, LEGOLAND is best suited for kiddos between the ages of two to twelve, though Lego lovers of all ages can enjoy it.
There’s something around every corner to keep the whole family entertained, from rides and attractions to a 4-D movie theater, an aquarium, and a water park. Because it’s smaller than Disneyland, LEGOLAND is also easier to manage for a day’s activity with little kids.
Among the 60 rides and attractions are Emmet’s Flying Adventure Ride and Unikitty’s Disco Drop. You can also spend time at the SEA LIFE aquarium to learn about the majestic world beneath the waves. Plus, if your kids are into Legos, they’ll love seeing all the life-size Lego sculptures around the park … as do I. Hey, you’re never too old to enjoy Legos.
See Related: Things to Do in Carlsbad
14. Check Out La Jolla Cove
Touched on earlier, La Jolla Cove is one of the most popular places in San Diego County. The cove is absolutely beautiful, and it’s perfect for swimming, sunbathing, or just relaxing and taking in stunning views.
The cove is also popular for people who want to watch sunsets, go on romantic beach strolls, or enjoy some quiet time. Not only that but you can enjoy watching the sea lions too. Local sea lions love sunbathing near the cove all year round.
La Jolla Cove is also one of the best places in San Diego to go snorkeling and scuba diving. The clear waters and wide variety of sea life make La Jolla Cove a popular destination for beginner and experienced divers or snorkelers. You can also enjoy a visit to La Jolla Underwater Park for these water activities as well.
La Jolla Cove is the perfect spot to enjoy a day outside in sunny San Diego. It’s perfect for sea lions and people alike.
See Related: Best Hotels & Rentals In La Jolla
15. Coronado Island
Coronado Island is a popular spot for tourists and locals alike. The island has gorgeous beaches, great restaurants, and a range of shops and boutiques. Its beaches are considered some of the best in the area.
Coronado Beach has even been voted the best beach in California. The sand is white, the water is blue, and the sunsets are glorious – it’s perfect for family fun or a romantic day trip.
It’s also home to the historic Hotel del Coronado, which has been featured in a number of movies and TV shows. Hotel del Coronado was famously part of Marilyn Monroe’s 1958 film Some Like It Hot. When you glimpse the Victorian-style hotel circa 1888, you won’t be surprised that it’s been a romantic destination for over a century.
You can spend the day walking the island, enjoying one of the many parks, or shopping along Orange Avenue. When you inevitably fall in love with the island, remember that staying at the Hotel del Coronado will allow you to stay in paradise.
16. Take a Day Trip to Tijuana
Just 20 miles and less than an hour from San Diego, Tijuana, Mexico, offers an interesting (and international!) day trip destination for travelers. Keep in mind that you will need your passport for the trip. If you aren’t up for driving, you can join a group tour from San Diego to Tijuana instead.
After crossing the international border, wander along the Avenida Revolución or Revolution Avenue. This main street hot spot is where you can explore local cuisine on a food tour, shop for souvenirs, and enjoy the craft beer scene.
Also, walk along the 500-ft-long Pasaje Rodríguez, an elegant street dotted with graffiti street art, cafes, bars, and charming shops. Don’t miss tasting some authentic Tequila while you are there, and grab an ice-cold margarita.
Tijuana is not only a party city but is also a cultural retreat offering fun and entertainment. The most crossed border in the world is just a short drive from San Diego – worth it.
See Related: Travel Tips for Visiting Mexico on a Budget
17. Taste Local Cuisine at Liberty Public Market
Address: 2820 Historic Decatur Rd, San Diego, CA 92106
Liberty Public Market is a foodie’s dream come true. With independent food vendors as well as artisan shops, the market is a favorite of San Diego foodies.
It’s also among the newer spots in San Diego’s food scene since opening in 2016. The market is open seven days a week.
Thirty-eight shops and restaurants here offer everything from vinyl at Mo’s Records to Chinese buns at Bao Bar. Liberty Public Market might not be a historic part of San Diego yet, though its home certainly is.
The market is located inside Liberty Station’s oldest barrack that once housed San Diego’s naval training camp. So, while enjoying your tasty lunch, you can revel in knowing you’re in a historic place.
See Related: Best Restaurants in San Diego
18. See the Stars at the Fleet Science Center
Address: 1875 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
The Fleet Science Center is a great place to visit if you find yourself in Balboa Park. This museum and planetarium is not only great for young learners but also offers a number of interactive exhibits that adults can enjoy.
Since 1974, the Fleet Science Center has been inspiring visitors. Now home to over 100 exhibits, it continues to be one of San Diego’s premiere museum campuses. Some of their permanent exhibitions include So Watt!, Kid City, Nano, San Diego’s Water, and Power Play San Diego.
The real star of the show, however, is the planetarium dome. This immersive experience allows you to see what the night sky looks like without the light pollution from the city. It’s the ideal way to escape the hectic city life and get a taste of what it’s like to stargaze in rural areas.
See Related: Best Museums in San Diego
19. Learn About History at the San Diego History Center
Address: 1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
The San Diego History Center is a great place to learn about the history of San Diego and the surrounding area. As far as San Diego activities go, this place will give you a greater appreciation for the city. Established in 1928, the History Center is one of the largest and oldest historical organizations on the West Coast.
With exhibits on the early history of the region, the founding of San Diego, and the growth of the city, you can get to know this coastal city as well as the region even better. The museum also has a library with books and documents on the history of San Diego.
Some of the past exhibits include Legendary Drag Queens of San Diego, Gaps in the Record: Vanguard Print Culture in San Diego, and Masterworks of the Exposition Era. As you can tell, the center’s exhibitions cover a wide range of topics for every kind of curious traveler.
The San Diego History Center is a great resource for visitors to San Diego who want to learn about the region’s history. The museum is located in Balboa Park, in the city’s heart.
20. Taste Wine at a Local Winery
While it may not be in California’s Wine Country, San Diego is still a great place to go wine tasting. There are many wineries in the area, each with its unique style and flavor. There are over 100 wineries or tasting rooms within an hour of San Diego.
San Diego’s climate is ideal for growing many different types of grapes, so you’ll be able to find lots of different wines to taste.
Bernardo Winery is the region’s oldest winery, established in 1889. San Diego’s terroir, the environmental factors that impact wine, is perfect for some of Bernardo’s varieties like Syrah, Petite Sirah, Chardonnay, and Sangiovese.
Wine tastings around San Diego allow you to partake in Southern California Wine Country’s tasty offerings. These samplings are just a taste of the numerous area vineyards and wineries — giving you ample reason to come back in the future.
21. Go on a Brewery Tour
While it is in the heart of SoCal Wine Country, San Diego is also a great city for beer lovers. There are many San Diego craft breweries, each with its unique brewing style.
You can visit a brewery to see how the beer is made and to taste it right off the tap. Plus, you can also buy beer to take home with you.
If you’re a beer connoisseur, visiting a San Diego craft brewery is necessary. Check out one of the many breweries in San Diego, like Ballast Point Brewery and Stone Brewing. Craft and microbreweries in San Diego have been brewing locally since before it became the hotbed for craft beer that it is today.
Don’t just stop at the tasting; there are other cool things to learn while touring these local breweries! You can gain insight into the brewing process or even chat with an expert on all things beer-related–like when hops were first introduced.
Some breweries will even let you take home your souvenir bottle or growler so you can remember your trip forever.
22. Get Your Adrenaline Fix at Belmont Park
Address: 3146 Mission Blvd, San Diego, CA 92109
San Diego’s historic Belmont Park is great for getting your adrenaline fix. Since it opened on the 4th of July in 1925, this boardwalk amusement park has been a mainstay in the San Diego Bay area for decades.
The park features thirteen rides, including The Giant Dipper Roller Coaster, open since day one, Mic Drop, and the Tilt-A-Whirl. Plus, most rides are safe for little kiddo riders, making a day at Belmont Park an excellent choice for families.
Rides can be purchased individually or with unlimited ride wristbands. Belmont Park is open year-round, and it is easy to get to from anywhere in San Diego.
In addition to the rides, Belmont Park also has ten food spots for everything from a sweet ice cream treat to tacos. There are also three bar locations here for all the adult parkgoers to enjoy.
23. Visit the San Diego Museum of Art
Address: 1450 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92102
The San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) is a great place to view artwork from around the world. The museum has a collection of paintings, sculptures, and other works of art. The SDMA houses over 20,000 works ranging from 3,000 B.C. to today.
As the largest and oldest art museum in Southern California, the SDMA also has one of the best collections of German Expressionism in the United States. The museum in Balboa Park is free to visit whenever it’s open Tuesdays through Sundays.
Art lovers should definitely add this art museum to their San Diego itinerary, especially if they love Dame Barbara Hepworth, Salvador Dali, or Georgia O’Keeffe. Among SDMA’s permanent exhibits are Arts of Iran, Renaissance to Realism, and Art of the Open Air, among others.
You can even make an evening out of it by catching a movie on Saturday or Sunday nights in their outdoor amphitheater.
24. The Living Coast Discovery Center
Address: 1000 Gunpowder Point Dr, Chula Vista, CA 91910
Founded in 1987, The Living Coast Discovery Center is a non-profit zoo and aquarium based in the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Less than 20 minutes away from downtown San Diego, Living Coast’s exhibits make the animal world more accessible for visitors, especially kids.
Some of Living Coast’s exhibits include Turtle Lagoon, Raptor Row, and the Shark & Ray Experience. Shark & Ray even has a touch pool where you can engage with the resident stingrays.
If you want to take your visit up a notch, you can arrange for a private wildlife tour or other animal experiences during your visit. You can do a private two-hour tour with one of the center’s sea turtle, shark, stingray, and eagle ambassadors. Or you can opt to feed the stingrays or have an encounter with some of the center’s resident snakes.
Around the center of the wildlife refuge are also walking trails to enjoy. Watch for nearby wildlife, San Diego’s skyline across the bay, or even Mexico!
25. Go to SeaWorld San Diego
Address: 500 Sea World Dr., San Diego, CA 92109
SeaWorld San Diego combines a marine life attraction and an amusement park. You can tour the park, ride, see some resident marine animals, and eat at the park’s restaurants. Whatever your choice, you will enjoy exploring all that SeaWorld offers.
There are 17 amusement park rides at SeaWorld San Diego. Many are low-impact, which makes them easier to ride with children. Some of the most popular rides are Tidal Twister, Tentacle Twirl, and Journey to Atlantis.
Visitors can wander the park to see some animals, including turtles, dolphins, and otters, or even some non-water animals like sloths.
You can also get an up-close look at some animals by taking a tour of behind-the-scenes areas, such as the animal husbandry area or the veterinary hospital. You can stop at one of the 15 spots when hungry at the park.
See Related: Things to Do in Laguna Beach
26. Visit the New Children’s Museum
Address: 200 W Island Ave, San Diego, CA 92101
When this museum opened in La Jolla in 1983, it was known as the San Diego Children’s Museum. Since then, they’ve moved downtown and even added “New” to their name to become the New Children’s Museum.
Why? Because they work alongside contemporary artists to cultivate interactive artworks to help children engage with the art. What’s unique about this museum is that it is one of the places in San Diego that is constantly changing.
As new installations are developed, exhibits are introduced or retired. Some of their past installations have included Sketch Aquarium, Finding Symmetry in Nature, and In-Between and Over the US/MX Border Wall.
The museum was designed to be interactive and has themed exhibits, events, and programs that reflect that interactivity. The New Children’s Museum is a wonderful place for kids to learn about art through play-based activities that encourage creativity and the expression of their ideas.
See Related: Tips for Traveling with Toddlers and Kids
27. Soar Over Temecula’s Wineries in a Hot Air Balloon
Hot air balloon rides in Temecula are a must-do while visiting Southern California! Not only will you get a chance to see the beautiful Pacific Coastline from a bird’s eye view, but you’ll also be able to take in the stunning scenery of Temecula Valley.
Getting to Temecula from San Diego takes about an hour, but the views are worth it. Hot air balloons take off all year round, though they can only fly around sunrise due to area winds later in the day.
Since these rides occur so early in the morning, you may want to consider staying in Temecula for a night before your excursion. To make the most of the romantic ride, why not stay at the dreamy South Coast Winery Resort and Spa ahead of your skyward adventure?
Hot air balloons are the perfect way to celebrate a special occasion like a birthday or anniversary, or if you’re just looking for a unique and memorable experience. So what are you waiting for?
See Related: Things to Do in Temecula
28. Museum of Contemporary Art
Address: 700 Prospect St, La Jolla, CA 92037
The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MOCASD) is a great place to start if you want to see some of the best art in the San Diego region. This museum is frequently a hit because it has so many different exhibitions and activities at any given time.
In addition to their permanent collection of over 4,700 works created post-1950, new exhibits are always coming through the door. Their collection includes art from various genres, including painting, photography, and installation.
The location is right on Pacific Coast Highway, with amazing views of La Jolla Shores below it. So go ahead and bring your camera along with you when visiting this gallery space; there are lots of opportunities for beautiful shots here and elsewhere as you explore San Diego.
29. San Diego Air & Space Museum
Address: 2001 Pan American Plaza, San Diego, CA 92101
San Diego is well known for its beautiful weather and beaches, but the city also has a lot to offer regarding culture and history. The San Diego Air & Space Museum is one of the many great places to visit while in San Diego.
The museum is located in Balboa Park and is Southern California’s largest independent aviation museum. It has over 400 aircraft and spacecraft on display, as well as a collection of missiles and other military vehicles.
Among its many exhibits are an F-14 Tomcat fighter jet and the Space Shuttle Endeavour which was the first orbiter to be acquired by a museum. In addition to these famous artifacts, the museum also houses exhibits such as Flight Path: Stories of Aviation and The Wright Stuff, which focuses on the Wright brother’s history.
The San Diego Air & Space Museum is a great place to learn about aviation history and see some amazing artifacts up close. It’s the flyest of the things to do in San Diego.
30. Visit Point Loma
Address: 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr, San Diego, CA 92106
Located at the end of Point Loma, this peninsula juts out into the Pacific Ocean and offers some spectacular views. In addition to the beautiful scenery, there’s plenty to do in this area.
The Old Point Loma Lighthouse is another popular spot in Point Loma. This lighthouse was built in 1855 and is the oldest lighthouse still in use on the west coast of the United States.
It’s a beautiful lighthouse and offers some amazing views of the ocean and the cityscape of San Diego. Point Loma Lighthouse is open to visitors for tours and is a great place to learn more about San Diego’s history and maritime culture.
If hiking is more your thing, then there are miles of trails here too! Some popular ones include Mt. Soledad Trailhead and Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, which both offer great views as well as great exercise options. However, no matter where you go on the Point Loma Peninsula, there will be unbelievable vistas.
See Related: Best Waterfalls in California
31. Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Address: 2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla, CA 92037
Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography is among the musts for San Diego visitors. Located in La Jolla, Birch Aquarium features 60 habitats for its impressive array of marine life, from rays and sharks to colorful fish and sea turtles.
For over 100 years, Birch Aquarium has taught visitors about ocean life and demonstrated how unique undersea life can be. Among the dozens of habitats to visit, you can experience little blue penguins, Oddities, see a giant kelp forest, and even Shark Shores.
The Birch Aquarium also has an underwater tunnel to view these creatures up close! Stop by Tidepool Plaza to touch sea stars, sea anemones, hermit crabs, lobsters, and other critters.
You can even take exploring tide pools up a notch with Birch Aquarium. The aquarium offers private tide pool excursions where visitors can see the natural habitats with a naturalist to learn more about the animals and how tide pools work.
32. San Diego Natural History Museum
Address: 1788 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
Another museum that calls San Diego home is the San Diego Natural History Museum (The Nat). This museum is located in Balboa Park and is open every day. Admission is free, which makes it a great activity for travelers on a budget.
Founded in 1874, The Nat is Southern California’s oldest scientific institution as well as the third oldest on the West Coast. Since then, the museum has grown its collection to include over eight million specimens.
You could easily spend several hours exploring all of its exhibits. However, if you’re short on time, there’s no need to worry – kids will love exploring the dinosaurs, so start with those exhibits. That way, you can see other exhibits if you have time.
The Nat has much to offer, including the Dino Dig for kids, an IMAX theater, a planetarium, live animal exhibits, an aquarium with sharks and other sea creatures, live insects, and fossils. They also welcome temporary exhibits from around the world like Art of Science.
33. Go Shopping in Old Town
If you’re in the mood for some retail therapy, the Old Town neighborhood in San Diego is the perfect place to go shopping. This neighborhood is home to tons of shops selling everything from souvenirs to handcrafted goods as well as over 30 restaurants.
You can purchase hand-blown glass, artisan items from Mexico, or even olive oils. There are so many things to uncover in the shops that you won’t find anywhere else.
One of the reasons that stopping in Old Town is one of my favorite things to do in San Diego is because there are so many events throughout the year. For example, Old Town is host to one of San Diego’s biggest annual celebrations: Cinco de Mayo. You’ll see tons of Low Rider cars, music, and even Lucha Libre matches to celebrate the holiday.
Old Town also has some of the oldest structures in the city because it is where the first European colonizers settled in California. Fittingly, at one end of the neighborhood, you’ll find Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, where the city’s oldest sites can be found.
34. Museum of Photographic Arts
Address: 1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
The Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) is located in historic Balboa Park and is one of four venues within the Casa de Balboa complex. The other organizations in Casa de Balboa are the San Diego History Center, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, and the Balboa Art Conservation Center.
Founded in 1974 and opened in 1983, MOPA is only one of three museums wholly dedicated to photography in the United States. The museum’s galleries feature over 7,000 works ranging from photography books published more than 150 years ago to contemporary digital works.
In addition to their permanent collection, visiting exhibitions grow the range of photography displayed at MOPA. Some of their past temporary exhibits include Karl Blossfeldt: Nature in Focus, Illusion: The Magic of Motion, and Nick Brandt: This Empty World.
MOPA is a pay-what-you-can institution, so there is no required amount to pay to enter. However, the museum suggests donating at least $10 per person.
35. Whaley House Museum
Address: 2476 San Diego Ave, San Diego, CA 92110
Whaley House Museum is a historic house museum in Old Town San Diego. It is the oldest surviving adobe structure in San Diego. Thomas Whaley and his family built the adobe home between 1853 and 1856.
The Whaley family owned the Whaley House until 1888, when it was sold to a local businessman who used it as a private residence until 1924. It was then purchased by the city of San Diego, where it became the historic site we know today.
In addition to being an amazing piece of history, this place has some great spook factor going on! You’ll get chills walking through its darkened halls as you imagine what happened here over 100 years ago at this spookiest of spots in San Diego.
36. Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala
Address: 10818 San Diego Mission Rd, San Diego, CA 92108
Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala is the oldest building in San Diego and was the first church built in California. It’s also the only surviving building from the first European settlement in San Diego, meaning it has much history.
The mission was established by Father Junipero Serra in 1769 and is referred to as the Mother of the Missions since it was the first of 21 Spanish missions. These missions forced Native Americans to convert to Christianity as a way to mollify them.
Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala is an active parish church with daily mass services available for visitors and locals alike. The current structure dates back to 1813, after an uprising of Native Americans burned down the first and an earthquake destroyed the second.
Over time, numerous additions have been made, such as stained glass windows around 1900. However, most architecture still maintains its original, white, classic mission design.
37. Wine and Dine in Little Italy
One of San Diego’s oldest neighborhoods, Little Italy is also the country’s largest Little Italy neighborhood. The Italian families who once lived here helped San Diego become a world-class tuna fishing industry.
Little Italy also offers some of the best places to drink in town, including The Lodge Bar at Hotel Erwin or The Rooftop at La Valencia. You could also enjoy a wine-tasting tour around the neighborhood too. If you’re looking for something more casual, check out Caffe Italia or Buon Appetito for your choice of craft beers or wines by the bottle.
Make sure you head down India Street for window or door shopping. There you’ll find an assortment of small boutiques selling everything from clothing to kitchenware and furniture.
See Related: Day Trips from San Diego
38. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Address: 200 Palm Canyon Dr, Borrego Springs, CA 92004
With a dozen different wilderness areas, tons of hiking trails, and things to discover, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is a marvel. This stunning park awaits you just 90 minutes by car from San Diego.
Anza-Borrego is a must-see for anyone visiting the San Diego area. The park is located in the Borrego Valley and is the largest state park in California. The park features mountains, canyons, deserts, and badlands.
There are also several nature walks to enjoy, ranger-led programs to participate in, and opportunities to view wildlife. Anza-Borrego is a great place to escape city life’s hustle and experience nature’s beauty.
Part of the fun of Anza-Borrego is hunting down the metal sculptures. Giant residents of the park, these sculptures are crafted in the image of dinosaurs, mammoths, giant birds, and even saber-toothed cats, among others. You can find these metal creatures in Anza-Borrego’s Galleta Meadows.
See Related: Things to do in Palm Desert
39. Pacific Beach Boardwalk
The Mission Beach-Pacific Beach Boardwalk is a 3.5-mile-long path that runs along the oceanfront from Mission Beach to Pacific Beach. If you are looking for free activities, this is where you should start your day.
There are also several other restaurants and cafes along the boardwalk, as well as a playground, basketball courts, and a skate park. This boardwalk is also a great place to people-watch.
Motorized vehicles are not allowed on the boardwalk. However, bicycles, runners, rollerblades, and pedestrians are welcome.
40. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Address: 4002 Wallace St, San Diego, CA 92110
In the Northern section of San Diego’s Old Town neighborhood resides the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Admission and tours of the park are both free. Here, you can learn about the earliest days of San Diego, specifically for Mexicans and early Americans from 1821 to 1872.
This living history museum allows visitors to envelop themselves in the decades of recreated historical periods. Created in 1968, the historic park is now California’s most visited state park.
Be sure to check out the McCoy House Interpretive Center exhibits while you’re here. These exhibits showcase the people who lived on the land long before the settlers, dating back 20,000 years. Other park areas to check out include the Wells Fargo Museum, The Little Adobe Chapel, and the First Brick Courthouse.
41. Explore Solana Beach
Just 40 minutes outside of San Diego, you’ll find the charming beach town Solana Beach. Here you’ll find four different beach parks with unbelievable views of the nearby coastline. However, the main beach is Fletcher Cove.
Solana Beach is considered one of the best places to live in California. One glance into this town, and you’ll know exactly why. Known for its walkability, local boutiques, beachfront, and environment, this town truly gives you a taste of the SoCal lifestyle.
Roughly translated to “sunny spot,” you’ll fall in love with this surfside haven. Enjoy the little natural wonders at Tide Beach Park or rock out at Belly Up Tavern and everything in between. But don’t forget to relax at the beach or enjoy a casual bike ride along the sand while you’re here.
See Related: Best Beaches in the US to Visit
42. Bring the Kids to Children’s Pool Beach
Address: 850 Coast Blvd, La Jolla, CA 92037
A built-out sea wall creates a protected swimming area over at Children’s Pool Beach. This swimming spot is also known as Casa Beach as well. The nickname for the beach came after the sea wall was built in 1931. However, the beach’s main visitors didn’t show up until decades later.
Not only is it popular with kiddos, but it’s also a favorite of local harbor seals too. They really should rename it Seal Pool Beach.
Do be careful around the seals, though, because they can be aggressive. Also, pay attention to any posted notices about high bacteria levels caused by the seals’ waste.
With so many lovely beaches around San Diego, you may want to consider skipping this one for swimming. Even if the bacteria levels are within a safe range, it’s probably safer to just take time for seal-watching there rather than swimming.
43. Contemplate at the Japanese Friendship Garden
Address: 2215 Pan American E Rd, San Diego, CA 92101
Also known as Sankei-en, the zen paradise in Balboa Park can be found at the Japanese Friendship Garden. Across the twelve-acre park, you’ll find a tea garden, an azalea grove, and 160 cherry blossom trees, among many other lovely garden icons like bridges and waterfalls.
This park was created as a friendship bond between San Diego and its sister city, Yokohama. The best time to visit the Japanese Friendship Garden is during the annual Cherry Blossom Festival each spring. You can also see artifacts from Japan, including woodblock prints that showcase life throughout Japan’s 18th and 19th centuries.
If you feel like walking around the gardens, there is a nearly mile-long walking path for you to tread. Otherwise, there is a vast, serene space to relax and find your inner peace.
44. Tour the California Tower
Address: California Tower, 1350 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101
Part of the historic California Quadrangle in Balboa Park, the California Tower is part of the Museum of Us. This nearly 200-ft tall tower looms over the park, giving guests a glimpse of the surrounding areas from a bird’s eye view.
It was originally built along with the other architecturally complicated California Quadrangle structures for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Its unique style is a fascinating combination of Baroque, Plateresque, Churrigueresque, and Rococo styles, plus Gothic detailing.
From the eighth-floor viewing area of the tower, you can get a full, 360-degree panoramic view of the city. While it isn’t the tippy-top of the tower, the views from even the eighth floor are stunning.
You can climb up to the top of the tower, though you have to be able to climb the 125 stairs with the tour group. If you cannot keep up or climb stairs, the first floor contains live streaming screens of the views with paid admission.
45. Capture the Moment at Ellen Browning Scripps Park
Address: 1100 Coast Blvd, La Jolla, CA 92037
Another area of La Jolla, beloved by the local seals, Ellen Browning Scripps Park, is the perfect place to spend the day walking through nature. Between the three beaches, the whales, and the vistas, you’ll have a bounty of beauty to take photos of.
This park is actually the most photographed area in San Diego. So, while it’s simple in its natural elements, many visitors deeply appreciate its beauty.
You may want to stay in one of the nearby La Jolla hotels to have easy walkable access to the park throughout your trip. Plus, if you stay nearby, you have some of the same views from the comfort of your vacation bedroom.
Map of San Diego Attractions
Tours in San Diego
Hop-on Hop-off narrated tours of San Diego are a great way to explore the city at your own pace. With more than 100 stops, you can visit the best of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and Coronado Island before returning to where you started. Grab a seat on one of the authentic trolleys, listen to live narration with insightful commentary and learn about the history of this beautiful city.
This tour is perfect for nature lovers and animal activists. The experienced crew will provide you with not only an up-close look at whales but also information on the ocean's ecosystem so that you can understand more about these creatures. The tour includes a two-story yacht which allows you to get close to the water and see local sights such as San Diego Bay.
San Diego Harbor Cruises offers a variety of tours that take you past San Diego's most recognizable landmarks. Choose between the 1 or 2 hour San Diego Harbor Cruise, with a choice of indoor and outdoor seating. The tour also takes you close to several notable San Diego landmarks including USS Midway Museum and Seaport Village.
What are the top tourist attractions in San Diego?
Balboa Park is a must for anyone interested in gardens and museums, as it is home to the San Diego Zoo, the Japanese Friendship Garden, and 18 different museums. Other top attractions include La Jolla Cove, the USS Midway Museum, the Cabrillo National Monument, and the historic Gaslamp Quarter.
What are some museums or cultural attractions to visit in San Diego?
The best museums and cultural attractions to attend when you visit San Diego are the San Diego Museum of Art, the San Diego Natural History Museum, the USS Midway Museum, the Maritime Museum of San Diego, the Museum of Photographic Arts, and Old Town San Diego.
What free or budget-friendly things to do in San Diego?
Entry into some of San Diego’s best attractions is entirely free. Some attractions include La Jolla Cove, Mission Bay Park, and Sunset Cliffs Natural Park.
In addition, visiting the many beaches is a budget-friendly way to spend the day. The most popular beaches in San Diego are Pacific Beach, Mission Beach, Black’s Beach, Windansea Beach, Ocean Beach, and La Jolla Cove.