With gorgeous year-round weather, beautiful scenery, and so much to see and do, a San Diego vacation should definitely be on your travel bucket list. The only challenge you’ll run into when deciding what to do in San Diego will be narrowing down your options. That’s where this guide comes in. There are so many places to explore and attractions to visit in this part of California. I’ve created a list of my own top things to do in San Diego.
Think of it as your quick start guide to visiting this year-around sunny spot. Throughout the post, you’ll find links to even more guides, destinations, and ideas that will help you plan your trip.
Visiting San Diego
People come from all over the world to visit America’s Finest City — everyone from solo travelers and people with their entire families in tow flock to San Diego. This city is actually a surprisingly versatile travel destination because there is something for every type of traveler.
Parents visiting with young children will probably want to hit SeaWorld® and LEGOLAND® while art-lovers can museum hop all vacation long. Do you surf? San Diego is a surfer’s paradise, whether you’ve been shredding waves for years or it’s something you’ve always wanted to try. There are other outdoor adventures in San Diego, too, from kayaking sea caves to spotting migrating blue whales.
People are always surprised when I tell them that a San Diego vacation doesn’t need to break the bank. There are plenty of free things to do in San Diego and budget hotels in addition to the upscale pleasures of the city and the luxury hotels in San Diego. There are also lots of simple ways to score discounts on tickets to San Diego attractions. In this post, I will share some tips and tricks to make visiting the attractions I recommend less expensive. In some cases, I even link to current discounts, so you can book tickets for less right now.
See also: 13 San Diego Discounts: Experience the City for Less
Best San Diego Beaches
Visiting the beach is certainly one of the top 10 things to do in San Diego. You may have heard that our water is too chilly for beachy fun, but unless you’re visiting in the wintertime, the water is perfect for wading, surfing, and swimming for most of the year. In fact, the best San Diego beaches feature prominently on most travelers’ itineraries specifically because they can be enjoyed year-round.
What you do at the beach depends on weather and personal preference, but these are the San Diego beaches I recommend you check out:
- Coronado Municipal Beach — with calm water and a wide, flat stretch of sand, this is a great beach for families with younger kids.
- La Jolla Shores Beach — the gentle waves here make it an ideal place to learn to surf, and there are lifeguards on duty until dusk.
- Mission Beach — if you love water sports like water skiing, stand up paddleboarding and aqua cycles, this is the San Diego beach for you.
- Pacific Beach — this is the biggest stretch of sandy beach in PB and is one of the most popular beaches in San Diego. It’s a great spot for swimmers and surfers of all ages.
- Del Mar Beach — there are bathrooms, showers, and lifeguards at this family-friendly San Diego beach.
- Moonlight Beach — you’ll find everything you need at this beach, from picnic tables, fire rings, lifeguards, and restrooms to volleyball courts, a snack bar, and equipment rentals.
If you love the beach, it’s worth looking into the beachfront hotels in San Diego. These are some of the best:
See also: 15 Best San Diego Beach Hotels
San Diego Zoo
The world-famous San Diego Zoo is a treat for all ages. And it’s not your typical zoo, which is why it has a reputation for being one of the best in the world.
There are more than 3,500 animals representing 650 different species and 700,000 plant species on the Zoo’s 100-acre property, and many of these animals and plants are rare or endangered. The Zoo is very active in conservation research and species preservation and has been a pioneer in the concept of open-air, cageless exhibits that re-create natural animal habitats.
The San Diego Zoo is one of the few in the world to successfully breed the Giant Panda, in partnership with colleagues in China. And, this is just a small part of what they do to prevent extinction worldwide. Tip: The pandas are headed back to China so the last day to see them is April 27, 2019.
What People Love About the San Diego Zoo
A lot of visitors come to see the Giant Panda, the Australian Outback habitat, Polar Bear Plunge, Elephant Odyssey, and the Children’s Zoo. Its small hills and valleys, in addition to the shade provided by foliage, makes it a popular place to simply stroll, though the Skyfari tram and bus tours cut down on walking if you’re not up for it. The Zoo is very stroller-friendly, and you can rent strollers, too. Even if you only have half a day to spend here, it is well worth the price of admission, though a full day is advisable (or stay until the kids run out of steam).
Consider visiting the San Diego Zoo Safari Park® in Escondido, which is definitely one of San Diego’s best attractions. It is run by the San Diego Zoo and offers a very different experience because the animals roam in environments that mimic the African and Asian Savannas.
Definitely opt to take a ride in one of the open-air tram safaris that circle around the various enclosures. These are really fascinating guided tours that get you up close and personal with giraffes, rhinos, zebras, and other animals. Want more excitement? You can also do a challenging ropes course or even a zipline safari that will give you a one-of-a-kind bird’s eye view of the park.
Buy San Diego Zoo discount tickets:
LEGOLAND California is a must-visit attraction for families with kids ages 2-12. Older siblings and parents can get in on the fun, too. There are more than 60 rides, 4-D movies, building activities. Kids particularly love trading mini figures with staff around the park, learning to drive in kid-sized LEGO cars, the Dragon Coaster and Miniland USA with its LEGO skyscraper.
In the warmer months, LEGOLAND Water Park is a great place to cool off, and SEA LIFE® Aquarium is a lot of fun year round. In summer, especially when the water parks are open daily, LEGO-loving families can and do spend multiple days here.
Tip: Before planning a trip to LEGOLAND, it is VERY important to check their calendar because the park is closed on select Tuesdays and Wednesdays between September and February. The water parks are also open on weekends or seasonally during the school year.
Buy LEGOLAND Discount Tickets:
Balboa Park is the nation’s largest urban cultural park with multiple parks, trails, play areas, and 17 museums. It is a true city treasure, and there are so many things to do in Balboa Park for just about everyone.
Look out for the street entertainers and bicycle rentals. Plan to eat while you’re here because there are some wonderful restaurants in Balboa Park. Alfresco dining at either the Japanese Friendship Garden for Japanese food favorites or Panama 66 with its craft cocktails are our favorite choices.
Myriad pass options can help you see everything in Balboa Park for less but if your sightseeing activities involve the Zoo and Balboa Park only, I like the Multi-Day Balboa Park Pass with One-Day Zoo pass for tourists. It lets you visit Balboa Park (where you pick up the pass) over the course of 7 days in addition to the Zoo once. Balboa Park museums can also be included on the Go San Diego Card. Trust me when I say you’ll want to visit more than one museum.
SeaWorld San Diego
Families from around the world come to San Diego specifically to visit SeaWorld San Diego.
In addition to its marine exhibits, SeaWorld San Diego also has a few thrilling rides like the Manta roller coaster and Shipwreck Rapids. Plus there is the popular Sesame Street Bay of Play for young kids, making it one of the top things to do in San Diego for families.
Highlights of SeaWorld San Diego include Turtle Reef, Penguin Encounter, sea lion feedings (guests can buy a tray of fish and toss it to them), Otter Outlook, and various touch pools. The once-famous live orca shows have been replaced by beautiful documentary videos of orcas in the wild on a three-story screen, and there are still live sea lion and dolphin shows.
SeaWorld San Diego is the only organization that rescues our La Jolla seals and sea lions when they are injured, and they often are. The indoor Sea Rescue Show describes how the park is helping to rehabilitate animals and return them to the wild.
Like the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld San Diego can easily be visited in half a day, though a full day is recommended.
Buy SeaWorld San Diego Discount Tickets:
San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park
Believe it or not, many San Diegans are unaware that below the ocean’s surface roughly between La Jolla Cove and Scripps Pier lies the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park.
Its 6,000 acres represent four habitats that include rocky reefs, kelp beds, sand flats, and a submarine canyon. The combination of habitats actually makes it so that the waves here are gentle and perfect for launching kayaks and learning how to surf. There are guided diving, snorkeling, and kayak tours of the park. You can also rent a kayak and explore it yourself. Plus, you can even swim out from La Jolla Cove.
Bordering the underwater park are seven sea caves, only one of which — Sunny Jim’s cave — is accessible by land. You can see them by kayak or stand up paddleboard, and you can sometimes kayak through one of them depending on the currents.
Marine life commonly seen here include sea lions, Garibaldi (California’s state fish), shovelnose guitarfish, leopard sharks, and more. There are even a handful of sea turtle sightings in summer.
Things to Do in San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park
- Surfing (and surfing lessons)
- Stand-up paddleboarding
- Kayak tours to the sea caves (and even for seasonal whale watching)
- Snorkeling tours
- Annual leopard shark migration
Need gear or lessons? There are a variety of excellent local businesses in the La Jolla Shores area that rent out gear, provide lessons, and offer organized tours. Try Surf Diva for surfing and SUP lessons, especially for kids (learning to surf is the quintessential SoCal experience), Everyday California for kayak and snorkel tours, and always check the Birch Aquarium’s event calendar for special seasonal events such as pier walks and grunion runs.
Visitors to San Diego who are interested in watersports may want to stay near or at least plan on visiting Mission Bay. The manmade bay provides calm water and waveless beaches for kids. Things to do at Mission Bay include stand-up paddleboarding, sailing, and kayaking. Boat rentals for fishing, water skiing, and leisure are available, but if you’re hungry for thrills, you could also step it up a notch by trying a water-powered jet pack.
Trails for walking, running, and biking circle the bay passing by a number of playgrounds and grassy areas that are perfect for picnics and play. There is RV parking and even an urban campground. If you’re coming to San Diego specifically to surf, sail, kayak, or paddleboard, you should know that some of the Mission Bay hotels have water sports centers onsite (mostly Action Sports Rentals). Otherwise, you can try the Mission Bay Aquatic Center.
San Diego Bay Tours
There are a variety of fun ways to explore the sights along the San Diego Bay, which is a natural harbor and deepwater port that spans along Point Loma and around the downtown area to Coronado. Bay tours are one of the best things to do in San Diego and a relaxing way to get a broad view of the city before you start visiting attractions. All the tours I share below let visitors see a bit of marine life and a lot of the famous San Diego landmarks. Plus, it’s always fun to be out on the water — especially in San Diego’s fabulous weather.
These are the most popular San Diego Bay tours:
- SEAL Tours: These amphibious bus-boats that start off on land and plunge into the water are a hit with kids.
- Patriot Jet Boat: This is a high-speed, 30-minute thrill ride with spins, tricks, and turns at speeds of up to 50 mph.
- Hornblower Cruises: They offer narrated harbor cruises, dinner cruises, and wonderful champagne brunch cruises.
- Flagship Cruises: People love their narrated harbor cruises, dinner cruises, champagne brunch cruises, and whale watching tours.
- Speed Boat Adventures: You can drive your own mini speed boat as part of a narrated group bay tour.
San Diego Breweries
When it comes to things to do in San Diego for the 21+ visitor, brewery tours are very popular. At the time of this writing, there are over 130 breweries in San Diego, and we are headed toward 200 in the not-so-distant future. It’s the most in any county in the U.S., which makes San Diego a perfect destination for craft beer lovers. How you explore the brewery culture here depends on your tastes and location.
San Diego Magazine has a great brewery guide. To give you an idea of ways to check out breweries in San Diego, you can explore them with a private guide, on a Social Cycle, or by train up the coastline (stopping along the way).
Annual San Diego Events
Annual events large and small also bring visitors to San Diego. You’ve probably heard of some of them, and it’s worth seeing what’s happening in San Diego during your visit, so you can plan ahead. Be aware that if you are attending a special annual event in the city, it helps to plan well in advance since the city can get crowded and tickets to local attractions can sell out.
These are just some of the San Diego events that draw people here from all over:
- The Farmer’s Insurance Open (January)
- San Diego County Fair (June – July)
- Del Mar Racing Season (July – September)
- KABOO (September)
- San Diego Comic-Con (July)
Note: If you’re not attending one of these San Diego events, it’s best to avoid searching for a hotel near where they’re happening because hotels near San Diego events book up quickly.
What are your favorite top 10 things to do in San Diego?