Did you know that San Diego is one of the biggest cities in California? It’s true! And call me biased, but I believe it’s the absolute best city in California! Located on the coastline of the Pacific Ocean, it is the eight largest city in the US and one of the oldest as well. Aside from being a major economic center of the region, San Diego is a city devoted to tourism, international trade and manufacturing. It has a vibrant tech and innovation ecosystem, too. But on top of everything, there are so many incredible things to do in San Diego – it’s a city where the sun never sets and where the fun never stops.
It’s true that San Diego is a city with a lot of things to see and do for free. Whether it’s the 70 miles of amazing beaches, the freshest ocean air or the perfect variety of settings, there are activities and things to do in San Diego for people of all ages, any time of the year.
In this article, I am listing 21 special things to do in San Diego. Whether you are a tourist or just moved in, I hope that this guide will serve you well!
1. The Beach Life – At Its Finest!
They say that going to San Diego and not visiting the beach is like going to Paris and not visiting the Eiffel Tower. In a nutshell, the beach life in San Diego is what is consistently ranked top in the nation. There are over 100 named beaches in San Diego and all of them are free to the public. From family beach areas to single-and-ready-to-mingle ones, you can find it all on the sands of San Diego.
On top of the standard sun gazing, the beaches in San Diego offer plenty of activities. You can surf, dive, play beach tennis or volley, relax with a good massage or just bask in the sun. And if I had to pick, my best picks for the top beaches in San Diego would definitely include Mission beach, Coronado beach, Pacific beach, Imperial beach, La Jolla, Silver Strand, Solana beach, Ocean beach and the Tourmaline Surfing Park. When looking for things to do in San Diego, don’t forget to soak up the sun!
Coronado Beach sunset with Pt. Loma in the background. Photo courtesy of Steven Cox.
2. See The Sunset At La Jolla Cove
It’s hard not to be a San Diego sunset lover when you live in the land of sunset dreams! Even if you are alone and want to treat yourself with a good book, the sunset can be your best friend at La Jolla Cove – which is an amazing place and one of the most popular natural settings in the world.
Popular because of its natural surroundings but also the romantic vibe it delivers, La Jolla Cove will show you what a sunset really looks like when by the ocean. You only need to keep your fingers crossed for a sunny day.
When visitors (and locals) think about the best things to do in San Diego, the Cove is always near the top of the list.
3. Go Window Shopping In San Diego’s Seaport Village
If you have a few hours to kill after a tanning session on the beach or brunch at the Hotel Del in Coronado, I recommend you visiting the Seaport Village, a place that offers you hours of entertainment. No matter what you like, there is a lot of it in the Seaport Village. It’s a place that packs some of the best gift shops, incredibly sexy yachts that are passing by, and some of the best tourist entertainers in San Diego.
4. Experience the Excitement of San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter (Downtown)
One of my top things to do in San Diego is to hit the town! If dancing and drinking is your game, you’re going to love the Gaslamp Quarter. Just head to the 16 1/2 block Gaslamp Quarter located in downtown San Diego – and you will see the best variety of restaurants, nightclubs, bars, and people watching the city has to offer.
Here are some of my favorite spots:
- Rustic Root. This bar and restaurant is pretty new on the scene, but Rustic Root making a name for itself. Stop in early for some dinner, then head upstairs for the only rooftop open bar located on 5th Avenue. Here, you’ll be surrounded by beautiful people, laughing and having a good time.
- Gaslamp Tavern / Quad Alehouse. This local watering hole is a laid-back sports bar where locals go. Be sure to check out the upstairs (many people miss it!) known as the Quad Alehouse for a complete selection of a dozen or more beers on tap, good food, and a chill vibe.
- Searsucker. Started by celebrity chef, Brian Malarky, Searsucker is right in the middle of all the Gaslamp action. Get a table outside, enjoy an upscale dinner, and people watch to your heart’s content!
- Fluxx and Omnia. Are you ready to get your dance on? Check out these two exciting nightclubs. Fluxx has a giant dance floor playing the best in EDM music, while Omnia is a multi-level, fashionable nightclub with rooftop cabanas and expensive drinks.
The Gaslamp District not only has food and libations, it also has incredible Victorian building architecture, boutiques, art galleries and specialty shops – all tucked in one neighborhood.
Renovated and revamped, the antique vibe in this quarter is a must-visit for every tourist or history enthusiast.
5. Things To Do in San Diego: Fly a Kite in Mission Bay
The Mission Bay Park is one of the biggest aquatic parks in San Diego. Full of grassy fields, greenery and water areas, it is ready to let you unwind and give you a sense of freedom. One activity that gathers most people with their loved ones and children is the kite flying in the Tecolote Shores of the park.
You can see hundreds of colorful kites sent into the bay breezes every Saturday and Sunday in this park – or decide to join them and go for a stroll in the park. We guarantee you’ll love it! And if you are not a kite-flying person, you can always jog or bike along the Mission Beach Boardwalk that connects the park to the Mission and Pacific Beaches.
6. Visit Old Town And Witness The Historic Legacy Of San Diego
You don’t have to love history for this historic activity. Instead, visiting Old Town will give you a sense of re-living everything San Diego has to go through in the times of its colonization.
The historic buildings, blacksmith shops, old schoolhouses and houses of famous people like Seeley Stables, Stewart, Estudillo and other city stars are the greatest proof of the living legacy of San Diego history.
Oh, and while you’re there, you have to stay for dinner! Old Town has some of the best, authentic Mexican restaurants this side of the border! One of my favorites is Casa Guadalajara.
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7. Hike The Trails Of Mount Laguna
Located at only one-hour drive away from San Diego is Mount Laguna, one of the most scenic mountains in California and one that offers many hiking trails and fresh mountain air. At almost 6,000 feet above sea level, the mountain is rich with Jeffrey pine trees, local restaurants, rural post offices and beautiful campgrounds. If you visit it during the winter, you may see snow as well!
8. Hear The Lion Roars (And More) At The San Diego Zoo
Near the top of the list for things to do in San Diego is the world-famous San Diego Zoo. The San Diego Zoo is located adjacent to downtown San Diego in Balboa Park. The hundreds of acres in size and the great selection of exhibits make it more than just a world-class zoo.
There are more than 4,000 incredible animals in it, with more than 650 living species and subspecies. There are a lot of special events happening each period in the zoo. So if you feel ready to hear the roars and moans of animals in San Diego, you can visit the San Diego Zoo every day from 9am to 8pm.
9. Visit The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Hiking is one of my favorite things to do in San Diego. Located within the San Diego city limits, yet offering residents and tourists a lot of wide space of land on the Southern Californian coastline, Torrey Pines has it all – from a maritime chaparral to the rarest Torrey pine trees, miles of wild beaches and a lagoon that invites the migrating seabirds. You can visit the Torrey Pines reserve and exercise in the outdoors, rest at the stunning overlooks or walk the peaceful trails.
10. Lick Your Fingers After Eating Oscar’s Mexican Seafood
Not a lot of people see the link between the Mexican culture and seafood, but San Diego is one place where you can taste it and drop your jaw to the floor from the deliciousness. The tacos and ceviche are a real specialty, and they are best served at Oscar’s (according to the tons of positive reviews).
Whether it’s a brunch, lunch or a late dinner, Oscar’s Mexican Seafood is here to treat your hunger – with whatever you choose from fish tacos to shrimp tacos and obviously, ceviche. Now with 5 locations all over San Diego.
11. Hop On A Flight Simulator At The USS Midway Museum
One of the coolest things to do in San Diego is to put yourself into the seat of a fighter jet. Planes never looked any better than at the USS Midway Museum that is inspired from the former Navy vessel. From life-at-sea exhibits to amazing flight simulators and historic planes, you will find everything aircraft-related there.
What’s interesting is that many of the aircrafts over there have been built in San Diego. You can tour the decks and view aircrafts from many eras and even explore the secret pirate ships. Oh, and if one of them looks too familiar to you, let’s just say it was featured in the legendary Pirates of Caribbean movie franchise.
12. Things To Do in San Diego: Foodies, Visit Urban Solace
Located in the North Park neighborhood, Urban Solace is one of the hippest hotspots in San Diego. It’s a place where the crowd gathers every day and night to enjoy a full selection of boutique wines, craft beers, and hand-crafted cocktails.. As soon as you open the door, you will see why that’s the case.
And if you only have one day to visit, check out the restaurant on Sundays. They have a special bluegrass brunch complete with a live bluegrass band and a ginormous cinnamon role to die for. It’s the perfect cure for a hard Saturday hangover.
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13. Let The Sharks At SeaWorld San Diego Give You Chills
What’s a city on the coastline without an aquarium? We would know if there wasn’t SeaWorld San Diego, one of the largest animal theme parks in the region that packs more than just a bunch of aquariums.
The oceanarium, outside aquarium and marine mammal park are all owned by SeaWorld Entertainment and offer the most interactive, educational and bone-chilling experiences. From rides to shows, exhibits and premier experiences, there is something for everyone over there.
14. Prepare Your Credit Card For Shopping at Fashion Valley
Look at your list of things to do in San Diego. If shopping is on the list, then I’ve got your fix. If you are a true ‘fashion killa’, you better limit your cards before stepping into Fashion Valley mall. This shopping mall packs the latest styles by top designers in an outdoor experience that takes advantage the great weather in San Diego. Because of that (and a thousands more reasons), it is the one-stop destination to many tourists looking for iconic pieces. Nordstrom, Chanel, Dior, Hermes, Apple, Louis Vuitton – you name it, and Fashion Valley will make you shop until you drop.
15. Cheer For The Padres At PETCO Park (East Village)
When looking for things to do in San Diego, you have to check out the home of the San Diego Padres. PETCO Park is situated downtown in East Village, a swanky up-and-coming part of the city where all the cool kids live.
Aside from the selection of bars, shops and restaurants, what the PETCO Park serves for is the game days in the Major League Baseball league. So if you want to put yourself in the shoes of the normal San Diego local, grab a Padres cap and get your beer, cheering for the Padres and hoping for a new victory.
Want to catch a game? Check out the San Diego Padres Schedule here.
16. Explore the 59-Mile Scenic Drive
This is one of the most iconic roads in San Diego and one that passes through the most charming neighborhoods and coastline, revealing scenic attractions and natural wonders that are unique to San Diego. Taking a tour on it will certainly let you see the normal life in San Diego. If you are with your own ride, you can stop for a drink or lunch anywhere you like! Just grab your map and start your car.
Your journey starts downtown around Seaport Village and meanders through Shelter Island (try a Mai Tai at the Bali Hai restaurant!). You’ll visit sites such as the Cabrillo National Monument, Soledad Mountain, and Presidio Park. You’ll also enjoy checking out the San Diego neighborhoods of Pt. Loma, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, Old Town, Hillcrest, Mission Hills (I live here!), La Jolla, and Downtown!
17. Listen To Organ Music Every Sunday @ 2pm At The Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park (and go running, and visit a museum!)
There are free organ concerts every Sunday afternoon, held at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park. If you don’t know what an organ is, you now have a chance to meet-and-greet the instruments and hear the fascinating music these ‘pipes’ produce. The Organ Pavilion, on the other hand, is a great city landmark which dates back to 1914 and the time of waltzes played on enormous 32-foot pipes.
While you’re in Balboa Park… oh my God!… just enjoy the beautiful natural surroundings of over 1,200 acres. I can’t tell you how soothing it is to take a run through the trees with your dog! Speaking of dogs, the park also has a wonderful off-leash dog park located just south of Laurel Street, on the west side of the park. Hanging out in Balboa Park with my man and my dog is one of my favorite things to do in San Diego.
Finally, a visit to Balboa Park isn’t complete without checking out the many Balboa Park museums. Some of my favorites include the Fleet Science Center, the SD Museum of Man, and the San Diego Natural History Museum.
Balboa Park is one of my favorite areas of the city. This is me hanging out with Lana (my German Shepherd) and, of course, an extra hot non-fat latte. 🙂
18. Go Bird Watching At Some Of The Most Popular Reserves
San Diego is the land of birds, and the Tijuana Estuary and the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge are a solid proof of that. These wetland reserves have more than 500 bird species that either stop during their migration path in spring and fall or tuck in San Diego for a year-round (more than any other place within the continental US).
19. Things To Do in San Diego: Gamble in a Las Vegas Style Casino
San Diego also offers Las Vegas style casino gaming. You’ll find San Diego’s best casinos located 30-45 minutes outside of downtown.
San Diego casinos offer the best action and entertainment west of the Vegas state line. A couple to check out are Sycuan Casino and Viejas Casino and Resort (good shopping here!).
If you cannot make your friends go there, you can easily convince them with the golf courses, museums, luxury spas and popular outlet centers that this district offers as well.
20. See a Humongous Whales From A Boat (From December To April)
A couple weeks ago, a friend visited me from Illinois. She was looking for a few things to do in San Diego, and I told her about the amazing whales right off the coast! There are more than 20,000 gray whales appearing near San Diego each year, continuing their 10,000 mile round trip journey from Alaska to the lagoons of Baja, California. This is where the females give birth to their young ones and raise them under warm climate conditions. You can catch this migration if you visit San Diego from mid-December to April.
Even if your trip to SD is set up in July or August, you still have a chance to catch the blue whale watching – again, on a boat and with an expert.
21. Fall in Love in Little Italy
To wrap up the 21 best things to do in San Diego (and since I’m Italian!) I suggest you head over to Little Italy. It’s close to downtown and Balboa Park and holds some of San Diego’s best restaurants, bars, and coffee shops.
Deeply cultured in its Italian heritage, you’ll find one of San Diego’s best farmers markets (open most Saturdays from 8:00am to 2:00pm). Over 200 vendors serve up the freshest vegetables, fruits, nuts, meats, and cheeses you’ll find (many of them organic). Come in, stroll, get a hand-made crepe or panini, and enjoy the smells and colors!
Ready for dinner? Here are some ‘must try’ restaurants:
- James Coffee. That’s right – I’m starting with a coffee shop, because coffee is more important to me than food. 😉 With an industrial / rocker feel, James Coffee sources beans from far away magical lands and roasts them right there in the store. This shop gets my vote for one of the best coffee shops in San Diego.
- Ballast Point Tasting Room. This is a beer drinker’s utopia. Featuring dozens of beers on tap from San Diego brewer, Ballast Point, this place has a kicked-back vibe and a welcoming feel.
- Café Gratitude. Are you a vegan / vegetarian (or want to be for a day) and looking for a San Diego vegetarian restaurant? Come over to this zen-like restaurant where you get full flavor without the guilt. I’ve eaten here many times and love it! You’ll hang out with a mix of good looking girls in yoga pants and young couples tapping into their inner peace while enjoying blackened tempeh caesar wraps and a kombucha. Yum!
- Craft and Commerce. This is a must see. Awesome food. Eclectic décor. Fine cocktails. And they don’t serve ketchup. My favorite part of Craft & Commerce is that when you go to the rest room, they have a recording playing where they read you (in a proper UK English accent) all of the negative Yelp reviews they’ve had. Such a hoot!
22 (Bonus). Why Not Buy a Home in San Diego?
We hope that you loved this list of things to do in San Diego! If you’re new to town, I’d like to personally welcome you! If you’re just visiting, thanks for dropping in – I hope you have a wonderful time.
Whether you’ve been here for a day or a decade, San Diego is a fabulous place to live, work, and raise a family. If you’re considering buying a condo or buying a home in San Diego, I’d love to show you around! I can be reached here.