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 best ways to spend your vacation in San Diego.
25 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.
The Gaslamp Quarter
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.
Read more: San Diego Travel Guide
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, taking a sea caves kayak tour, 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! This 4.5 hour whale watching tour leaves from San Diego and it includes sodas and snacks. They have a whale sighting guarantee — so if you don’t see a whale, you get to come back for free!
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.
Read more: 15 Best Weekend Getaways in California
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.
USS Midway Museum
With nearly 10 acres of displays exploring airline hangers and flight deck exhibits, the USS Midway Museum offers more than you could imagine. Aside from the exhibits, they offer activities such as flight simulators, the battle of Midway Theater, and an Aircraft Gallery full of actual aircraft.
The Birch Aquarium offers more than just a quick gaze at ocean life. They offer more than 60 habitats and hands on interactive experiences that allows visitors to have a glimpse into ocean life from the Pacific Northwest to Tropical seas and everywhere in between.
See little blue penguins, seadragons, seahorses, the hall of fishes, a giant kelp forest and have a one-of-a-kind hands-on experience at the Tide Pool Plaza.
Home to the San Diego Padres, Petco Park is also a prominent venue that hosts concerts, soccer, golf and rugby. Tours of the park are offered daily, including pre-game tours! Even if you’re not a baseball fan, the architecture and set up at this ballpark is something to see.
San Diego Harbor Cruise
Spend a quick hour or two sight-seeing in the California sun on a San Diego harbor cruise. This narrated tour will take you by the Coronado Bridge and the US Naval fleet and provide stunning harbor views from the water. For an added bonus, you may even get to see sea lions sunbathing on the rocks off the shore.
Carlsbad Flower Fields
The elaborate coordinated flower displays The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch are in bloom for 6-8 weeks each year, spanning early March through early May. The dynamic bursts of color created by the lush gardens are something out of a movie. Stroll the fragrant pathways, take charming pictures and enjoy a beautiful day amongst the fields.
Read more: The Best Places to Photograph in San Diego
Sunset Sail Around San Diego Bay
For gorgeous sunset views of San Diego Bay, book a two-hour small group sunset sailing experience. Your view will include military vessels, historical landmarks and of course, the peaceful San Diego waterfront. This is a small group experience so space is limited to only 6 people which makes it a unique and personal experience.
A great option for a family-friendly day out, Legoland will keep you entertained for hours and hours! What’s great about Legoland is that kids are kept in mind throughout the whole park. There are over 60 attractions for families with children between 2-12. If you need a break from the thrills, there are plenty of shows, meet and greets, and dining and shopping options to break up your day.
Watch a Sunset from Mt. Soledad
Visit a popular landmark and see the sites! Mt. Soledad is known for the flawless 360-degree panoramic views, it is the perfect place to watch the sunset over the golf course, La Jolla Cove or La Jolla Shores.
Take a quick trip back in time and visit Presidio Park. This was one of the first European settlements in San Diego founded in 1769. There is so much to see and do at the park, so stop by the Visitor Center to learn about everything it has to offer.
Offering complimentary admission, the museum is open daily from 10am to 4pm.
A famous beach town in San Diego County, Del Mar offers more than just beaches (but of course the Del Mar City Beach and the Del Mar Dog Beach are must-sees!). If you want to spend your day walking around and exploring, Seagrove Park, Powerhouse Park, and Del Mar Plaza are all great options to learn a bit more about the area.
If you happen to be in San Diego during the racing season, The Del Mar Race Track can be a great place to check out as well!
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.