Stretching over 4,200 square miles (10,878 square kilometres), the second-largest city in California is a must on your travel list. San Diego promises diverse and one-of-a-kind experiences for both solo and group travellers.
From 70 miles (113 kilometres) of sun-kissed coastlines to a wide range of attractions to visit, it is no doubt San Diego leaves you spoilt for choice. To guide you in your search, here are the top 30 things to do in San Diego:
1. Visit a theme park
One thing you cannot miss when in San Diego is a good theme park. Belmont Park is a favourite amongst locals and tourists alike. Since 1920, the popular Giant Dipper roller coaster, along with the newer members of high element activities and the laser-themed arcade are here to satisfy all you thrill seekers.
Set free your inner surfer by catching some man-made waves with FlowBarrel and FlowRider. These sheet waves are not only good for training but great fun for first-timers; it doesn’t matter if you fall, it’s really all part of the fun!
“Not only do the wave machines provide uniquely fun experiences but they are two of the most popular attractions at Belmont Park San Diego.” – Top 5 Things to Know About Belmont Park, sandiego.com
Belmont Park is one place that will definitely keep you non-stop busy all the way till closing time.
2. Hang out with animals at the San Diego Zoo
Home to 3,700 animals of more than 650 different species and subspecies, animal lovers are bound to go wild. The number one zoo in the world just hit its big 100 and continues to contribute in creating lifelong memories for all its visitors. At the San Diego Zoo, you can choose from feeding giraffes, to flying over the vicinity with the Skyfari Aerial Tram to enjoy picturesque views, or for the younger fans, a sleepover at the zoo!
For those who need to balance out the animal overdose, have no fear! The zoo is situated within the famous Balboa Park, where you can find numerous museums and beautiful gardens, making this area a two-in-one package for both culture and animal enthusiasts.
3. ‘Sea’ the dolphins and the whales
Passionate animal-lovers can also join in the whale-watching spectacle off the coast of San Diego. Book yourself a spot on the Privateer, the only boat in San Diego solely used for whale watching, and enjoy a three-hour cruise with narrations by a certified marine biologist. The morning or evening whale watch timings are guaranteed to fit snugly into your schedule, with a complimentary ride if you aren’t able to spot any of the sea mammals that day.
4. Hike into the sunset at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
After spending most of your time in the city and at parks, it’s always a good idea to unwind and experience the great outdoors. San Diego has a large number of canyons within the city limits due to efforts for preservation, and also their steep topography that prevents building. One great place to check out is the endangered Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Covering a great 1,750 acres (708 hectares) of coastal state park in the La Jolla community, Torrey Pines has eight different trails with each offering their own levels of difficulty and unique scenery, of distances from 0.7 to 4 miles (1.1 to 6.4 kilometres). This is a great place to unwind, reflect or take incredibly Instagram-worthy shots.
5. Get into the beer culture
Since 2009, San Diego Beer Week is one of the most popular events amongst locals and tourists. Hosted every November, the event showcases the local beer scene and educates the public on their brewing heritage. This is a great way to understand one main aspect of San Diego’s culture and mingle with the locals. One other event to check out is the San Diego International Beer Festival that happens every June. Besides showcasing beers from all over the world, it includes educational demos on beer pairings with chocolate, cheese, and donuts, and even pretzel pairings!
“Essentially, beer goes with just about anything.” – Monica Garske, 400+ Beers on Tap at San Diego International Beer Festival, nbcsandiego.com
6. Eat your heart out at Liberty Public Market
Liberty Public Market is an emporium spanning around 25,000 square feet (2,323 square metres) in Liberty Station. You’ll never go hungry with their range of more than 25 vendors from local food trucks, farmer’s market favourites, new food concepts, and expansion of existing businesses. The food market has an outdoor extension that includes a 3,000-square-foot (279-square-metre) dog-friendly patio so your pooch can join you on this foodventure.
7. Go shopping
Every girl (or guy) loves a good bargain, especially when it comes to clothes. In San Diego County, you are bound to find a steal with outlet stores throughout the vicinity, carrying designer brands such as Barneys New York and DKNY. Whether it’s North County Coastal, South Bay, East County or the centrally-located Mission Valley, you will find discounts of up to 65%.
If you’re really in need for new additions to your wardrobe, but have an extremely tight budget, fret not, Thrift Trader is here for you! The thrift shop is filled with either brand new and pre-loved garments, so you’ll definitely be up for fabulous unexpected finds if you have more time than money to spare.
8. Be cultured: museum hopping
Balboa Park is San Diego’s iconic urban cultural park and is home to a handful of museums. Spending your day in museums is a great way to get to know San Diego’s cultural, natural and historic heritage. Whether it’s the San Diego Natural History Museum, the San Diego Museum of Man or the San Diego Air & Space Museum, you will find a museum to provide you with deeper insights no matter where your interest may lie.
When you’re done, you can even settle down for a movie at Film in the Garden at sunset in the park, screened by San Diego Museum of Art.
9. Visit the historic Old Town
Old Town is seen as the “birthplace” of California, keeping historic sites like Casa de Estudillo and Casa de Bandini from San Diego’s colonial period as far back as 1821. The streets are lined with over a hundred shops and boutiques, and there are also plenty of Mexican restaurants to try out.
Up the hill from Old Town San Diego Historic State Park is Heritage Park, the relocation site for San Diego’s most notable Victorian homes. Or if you’re up for some thrills, head down San Diego Avenue to check out Whaley House, reported to be the country’s most haunted house.
10. Spend a day at Seaport Village
This 14-acre (5.7-hectare) attraction is full of fun boutiques, restaurants and great seasonal live music. From 12 noon to 4 pm every day, you can catch live music performances of various music genres. Fill up at the Harbor House San Diego where they serve fresh seafood, high-quality steaks, and draft beers. Don’t forget to knock yourself out at their oyster bar too.
Best of all, as Seaport Village faces San Diego Harbour you get the bonus of an awesome view while having your meal or just simply enjoying the music.
11. Attend a free concert
A picnic accompanied by a free concert is not something difficult to find here in San Diego. One that’s not to miss is at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, where a civic organist performs every Sunday for free. Seats are available at the pavilion, all you have to do is tune out and let the world’s second-largest outdoor pipe organ serenade you.
If organ music is too “old” for you, you can check out Balboa Park’s Twilight in the Park or Carlsbad TGIF concerts in the park. These concerts provide more variation from soul and salsa to jazz and country.
12. Do water sports
Join in the water fun of jetskiing and wakeboarding, or try out kiteboarding, the latest rave of San Diego Beach. Kiteboarding is a surface sport combining the elements of wakeboarding, snowboarding, windsurfing, and paragliding. This sport can be readily picked up with the help of professional instructors.
Head down to Fiesta Island in Mission Bay for some kiteboarding lessons from professional and reliable coaches from Manta Water Sports. The lessons are designed to suit all types of learners, taking into consideration the different individual goals, budget, and comfort level.
13. Discover the best surf spots – that aren’t crowded either!
For all the different surfers out there, we hear your voice. Heading out to surf at a crowded beach can be such a waste of time. Thankfully, San Diego does have its own pool of beaches that are not only quieter but also safe.
For beginners who need less eyes on them when practising, Terramar, Carlsbad is where you want to be. It has mellow waves that work as good practice grounds, and a nice channel to paddle out, making it easier to line up as compared to the surrounding beach breaks.
More experienced surfers should check out George’s, Cardiff-by-the-Sea. Hardly anyone heads there, making it almost private, a great place for solitude.
14. Journey underwater at La Jolla Cove
This is a great place for avid kayakers, scuba divers or snorkellers. Kayakers are sure to be amazed by the sea caves pocketed in the cliffs as they paddle over from La Jolla Shores’ beach. Garibaldi fish and tame marine life live in The Cove’s sheltered waters, making snorkelling the go-to option for most visitors. The Cove is a safe entry and exit point (no waves) for ocean swimmers and divers, giving the assurance of a family-friendly zone. There are bathrooms, showers, and picnic tables ready available close by.
15. Freedive with the sharks of San Diego
Ever thought of swimming with sharks? Thrill-seekers and fans of Jaws, you will love this one. Here in San Diego, you will encounter two types of sharks, the Blue Shark and the Meko Shark. Just a brief FYI about our friends: Blue Sharks are much tamer than their reputations suggest while Mako Sharks are fearless and will not be afraid to get close and give you the chills. But fret not! With SD Expeditions, you will be well geared up and informed before heading out in the the water.
Your journey to the cageless shark diving destination starts at 9 am, and will last until 5 pm. On the way back, if you are interested to meet other marine life like the dolphins, sea lions and harbor seals, the team escorting you will gladly stop along the way.
16. Take a harbor cruise
Jump on board the harbor cruise for a narrated tour of San Diego from the deep waters. You will get to know more than 50 San Diego landmarks and see marine animals, like seals, and learn about the local environmental efforts to protect them.Viewing San Diego from the waters will also give you unique and interesting sights as you pass by the Coronado Bridge and the Navy Seals Training Site.
17. Go for a scenic drive
Take a long drive round San Diego and see all their must-see views in a day (or two if you want). All you have to do to purchase a 50-cent map from the International Visitor Information Center and use it to guide you through the drive! The organised scenic drive also has yellow and blue seagull signages to mark the way. The route is 59 miles (95 kilometres) long.
18. Ride a bike along Mission Beach Boardwalk
Rent a bike from Ray’s Rentals just a few blocks away from Mission Beach Boardwalk and start your journey there. Cycling down the boardwalk is a healthy yet relaxing alternative to enjoy the ocean views. The winding paths are pretty flat giving you a smooth ride throughout.
19. Set up camp
Camping is always a great idea to do with friends and family to experience the outdoors. Lake Morena is a good location for hikers, picnickers and campers. Campers can go fishing at the lake and score a range of catches of largemouth bass, catfish or trout.
Youth groups can go for Oakoasis, an overnight campsite exclusive to their demographic. Youths have a campsite ready for them with pavilion-tent camping set up, and the choice of a cabin at an additional cost. The beautiful views of Oakoasis is suited to youths who are also into photography or want to spruce up their Instagram feed.
However, you need to make a reservation for any one of the eight county parks either online or by calling.
20. Chill by a beach
San Diego’s 70-mile (113-kilometer) collection of beaches leaves you spoilt for choice, however, it’s good to know which beach suits your style best. Coronado Beach is the top choice for convenience and great weather all-year round.
Ocean Beach is where you want to bring your furry pals for a day of fun and play. The pet-friendly beach is a great space to make new friends and have some splash time, while Solana Beach is more for the adventurist with hidden coves to discover and good waves to surf.
21. Take a break at Coronado Island
Retreat from a busy San Diego right across the water to Coronado Island. Take a leisurely stroll down Orange Avenue and check out one of the many shops, restaurants, galleries, theatres, and maybe the Coronado Museum of History & Art.
Complete your trip by visiting the fancy Hotel del Coronado. Non-hotel guests are welcome to stroll along this National Historic Landmark and learn about its history of royalty, politicians and celebrities.
22. Tide pool at Point Loma
Located at the tip of Point Loma, the tide pools allow you to get up close and personal with the marine life during low tide. It is an interactive way for kids to learn and care about the wildlife, as touching any creatures require gentleness and respect for their habitat.
However, tide pools are tricky when it comes to predicting the tides. At Cabrillo National Monument, you can call directly on (619) 557-5450, extension 0, to enquire about the best time to visit the pools.
23. Learn about the Japanese culture
Although located within Balboa Park, the Japanese Friendship Garden is a special museum that deserves an honorable mention for its mission and role in San Diego. The garden is an expression of friendship between San Diego and her sister city of Yokohama, and it aims to build good relationships between humans and nature. Here, you can learn about the Japanese culture and community through tours hosted by the museum, bringing your trip to another level in terms of diversity.
24. Check out the tiny town of Mt. Laguna
High up at 6,000 feet (1,829 metres) above sea level sits Mt. Laguna, a great escape from San Diego city life. Hike among the tall pine trees and expect great weather. There may even be snow in the winter that you can’t find anywhere else!
You can book an affordable cabin at the Laguna Mountain Lodge if you plan to have a getaway instead.
25. Go for a joy ride up Mount Soledad
Take a drive up the prominent San Diego landmark, where the Mount Soledad cross and veteran monument sit. The 822-foot (251-metre) hill promises a 360 degree view of San Diego and the Pacific Ocean below. With the best view in San Diego County, you can see the whole stretch of Scripps Pier and all the way to downtown San Diego. With a pair of trusty binoculars, you can even see the bridge to Coronado Island and, further up, the mountains of Mexico. This makes Mount Soledad the ideal spot to catch sunrise or sunset, or even stay the night to be in awe of the San Diego city lights below.
26. Visit the Haunted Hotel
Tickle your spooky bone at the longest-running haunted house in San Diego. If you like a good scare, this haunted house is worth it. The maze has different haunted themes throughout, from a hellevator to a slaughterhouse to getting through a group of demented clowns.
27. Take a dip in natural hot springs
Natural hot springs is not something you expect in San Diego. The remote 910-acre (368-hectare) county park, Agua Caliente Natural Hot Springs , has developed hot springs, a picnic area and campground if you want to stay the night. The family-orientated day spa has two natural hot mineral pools, an indoor heated pool with bubbling jets, and an outdoor pool that’s kept at a natural 96 degrees Fahrenheit (35.5 degrees Celsius).
28. See the USS Midway Museum
Midway is the name of an aircraft carrier of which the museum is made of. It debuted as a museum on 7 June 2004 after serving for 47 years, from 1945 to 1992. Standing as America’s longest serving aircraft carrier of the 20th century, the museum hosts more than 700 events a year and was featured on popular shows like American Idol and The Bachelor. Visitors can be sure to see life-at-sea exhibits, restored planes and flight simulators.
29. Make some underwater friends at Birch Aquarium
The Birch Aquarium opens its doors to more than 435,000 visitors every year and offers different exhibits to showcase and educate their audiences about the marine life in the region.
You can see 60 tanks of different Pacific fish and invertebrates, or hang out with the seahorses and get involved in hands-on activities to learn about their biology. Birch’s exhibition on global warming will bring to light the science of global warming through interactive activities revolving around current environmental changes and those that we may face in the future
This is a good place to bring the kids to not only have fun but leave with a holistic experience.
30. Mission Trails Regional Park
Mission Trails is one of the country’s largest urban parks. Here you have a wide variety of areas to explore. Within the large vicinity you will find Cowles Mountain, Kumeyaay Lake and Campground, Old Mission Dam Historic Site and many more places to trek or bike. The park caters to those who seek recreation or who simply take pleasure in being in the presence of the flora and fauna.
More than meets the eye
When it comes to diversity, San Diego definitely doesn’t disappoint. As one of the largest cities in the country, it ensures your trip will be one full of different experiences, with still many other facets to discover about San Diego. There is no wonder why it’s called “America’s Finest City”.
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