From whale watching and stunning beaches to the best local spots, here are my picks for the best things to do in San Diego!
Not only does San Diego boast near-perfect temperatures year round, a sweet spot balance of city life and nature escapes, a multitude of entertainment options, and an incredible eclectic history, it’s also the epicenter of that much sought after laid-back SoCal vibe.
As my hometown, San Diego is near and dear to my heart and I know the city like the back of my hand. So, as an insider as your guide, here are my picks for the fifteen best ways to spend your vacation in San Diego.
15 Best Things to Do in San Diego, California
Just minutes from downtown, Balboa Park is the largest urban cultural park in North America and is home to seventeen unique museums, the San Diego Zoo, art installations, and a multitude of different events hosted throughout the year.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Spread across 1800 acres in the San Pasqual Valley, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the county. With Africa-themed exhibits, free-range enclosures, and over 2600 animals consisting of more than 300 species and over 3500 species of plants, this park is a great educational experience.
San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter is an entertainment district famous for its Victorian architecture, eclectic history, live theatre, music productions, world-class food, and array of nightlife options. The quarter is also home to some awesome museums, including the Gaslamp Museum at the Davis-Horton House, and the U.S.S. Midway Museum.
The oldest settled area in San Diego as well as the first Spanish settlement on the West Coast, Old Town is one of my favorite places to go to soak up San Diego’s heritage. With museums displaying the story of the city, boutique shops, and plenty of historic sites, a visit to the Old Town is a great way to pay ode to the early days of San Diego.
La Jolla Cove
A small, lifeguard patrolled spot in La Jolla, La Jolla Cove is a must on your visit to San Diego. Featuring breathtaking sunsets, great conditions for swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, and even scuba diving, this picture-perfect cove will have you reaching for your camera in no time.
Point Loma is a rugged peninsula filled with trails, sea caves, coastal bluffs, lighthouses, tide pools, and cool exhibits on California history. However, besides the aforementioned, Point Loma is famous for both the Cabrillo National Monument and the Women’s museum; the former commemorating the landing of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo at San Diego Bay, and the latter being a must-see museum dedicated to women’s history and art.
San Diego’s Little Italy is a vibrant neighborhood filled with craft breweries, art galleries, boutique hotels, cafes, and wineries. Additionally, Little Italy plays home to a bunch of awesome annual cultural festivals.
Stretched along the west shore of Point Loma, Sunset Cliffs National Park is a hotspot for people wanting to take in the scenic cliffs, caves, and incredible sunset views.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Sitting on the cliffs above Torrey Pines State Beach, this natural preserve is home to the rarest pine tree in North America, the Torrey Pine, and is therefore dedicated to the tree’s preservation.
The preserve is a gorgeous mix of pine forests and sandstone canyons, and even has multiple difficulties of hiking trails to get out and enjoy. Note that the preserve is only open during the day and has limited amenities.
Opened on July 4, 1925, Mission Bay’s Belmont Park is a historic beachfront amusement park. Aside from the rides, the park boasts a laser maze, zip line, rock wall, mini golf, and an array of restaurants.
A resort city on San Diego Bay, Coronado is home to a wide beach, Centennial Park (that has awesome San Diego skyline views), and the famous Hotel Del Coronado, a historic upscale beach hotel.
Opened in 1888, the Hotel Del Coronado is situated just five miles from downtown and is both a National Historic Landmark and a California Historical Landmark.
Torrey Pines Gliderport
Located in La Jolla, the Torrey Pines Gliderport was established in 1930 and is a private use glider airport that was originally used as a soaring site. Today the gliderport is one of the top paragliding and hang gliding spots in the country.
For additional fun, just off to the side of the gliderport you’ll find Blacks Beach, a secluded section of beach that has one of the most powerful surf breaks in all of California.
Note that just about 100 yards south of the trailhead leading to the Gliderport begins the clothing optional section of Blacks Beach so, depending on what you’re into, you can make a beeline for it or steer clear.
From blue whales to humpback whales, whale watching is one of my favorite things to do in San Diego! I recommend booking a trip with Oceanside Adventures which departs out of the adorable Oceanside harbor. Not only do they offer the best whale watching in the city, they provide a luxury experience with an array of options; including a wine tour option.
In my opinion, a whale watching trip beats going to Sea World any day (not to mention is a lot more ethical and kinder to the animals).
Located at 6800 Neptune Place, Windansea Beach in La Jolla offers quality surf breaks year round with a panorama of unreal views. While at Windansea, head over to the historic Surf Shack that was built in the 1940’s by WWII soldiers who also enjoyed surfing here.
Fun fact, Windansea was the primary location of Andy Warhol’s 1967 film “San Diego Surf.” Talk about iconic.
Cedar Creek Falls
One of my favorite day trips from San Diego, Cedar Creek Falls (also known as Devil’s Punch Bowl) is an 80-foot tall waterfall that cascades into a glistening freshwater pool below. In my experience, it’s best to head to the falls in the spring when the weather is warm enough and the pool depth is at its peak, and make sure you bring ample drinking water, the trek there can get strenuous.
Where to Stay in San Diego
Hotel Del Coronado
As mentioned above, Hotel Del Coronado is a San Diego, not to mention American, classic. With the beach just a few steps away, great entertainment and restaurants, and all the amenities at your fingertips, a stay at Hotel Del Coronado will be just as notable as your trip to San Diego itself!
La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla
A hotel steeped in luxury with a great ocean view, La Jolla’s La Valencia Hotel is a vintage gem that will have you staying in one of San Diego’s most iconic neighborhoods.
Kona Kai Resort on Shelter Island
With plenty of restaurants within walking distance, cute beach-vibe rooms, and a new adults-only pool, Kona Kai Resort is a great place to come back and relax in after a long day of sightseeing.
Staypineapple at Hotel Z
For travelers looking for a budget-friendly place to stay in the Gaslamp Quarter, Staypineapple at Hotel Z offers all the amenities and is close to nightlife, great restaurants, and historic sites.