The only challenge you’ll run into when deciding on fun things to do in San Diego will be narrowing down your options. I live in La Jolla and help people plan vacations to San Diego. So, I can wholeheartedly confirm that locals enjoy the theme parks, breweries, beaches, water sports, hikes, museums, and more on this list that visitors come from far and wide to explore. 

You’re in luck because you’re about to find out which activities are truly considered the best. These are activities that people actually do and not random ideas in far corners of the county. They are cool, fun and easy to access. Some are even free.

This list is divided by interests, but you’ll find links to even more detailed guides, hotel recommendations, and ideas for saving money that will help you drill down on exactly what to do in San Diego.

See also: 15 San Diego Discounts: Experience the City for Less

You can save on tickets, tours, and hotels through my affiliations. If you make purchases through the links in this post, I may be compensated.

Top San Diego Beaches

People laying out on the beach and swimming in the ocean on a sunny day.

Visiting the beach is certainly one of the top 10 things to do in San Diego. The water is perfect for wading, surfing, and swimming during most of the year.

Wetsuits can be easily rented during the winter when Southern California’s ocean water temperature runs on the chillier side. San Diego beaches feature prominently on most travelers’ itineraries specifically because they can be enjoyed year-round and are one of our best free attractions.

What you do at the beach depends on the weather and personal preference, but these are the beaches I recommend that you add to your San Diego itinerary.

1. CORONADO CENTRAL BEACH

With usually calmer shore breaks and a wide, flat stretch of sand, this is a great Coronado beach for families and is rated as one of the best in the nation. Plus, it’s an excuse to head over the famous Coronado bridge or ferry.

2. LA JOLLA COVE

La Jolla Cove is one of the most photographed places in the San Diego region for a good reason. Yes, there’s a small beach here that’s usually waveless, so an easy entry to the underwater park (more on this below).

However, people come here to enjoy the ocean views and walk along the boardwalk. There are barking sea lions, gorgeous sea birds, the sounds of waves, a big grassy area called Ellen Browning Scripps Park, belvederes (small green huts) to sit in, and you have various things to do in La Jolla nearby.

3. LA JOLLA SHORES BEACH

The (usually) softer way the waves break here makes La Jolla Shores Beach an ideal place to learn to surf, and there are lifeguards on duty until dusk.

The beach is divided into surfing and swimming and is a launch point for kayaking, snorkeling, and diving tours. It’s very popular for sunbathing and general beachgoing.

4. PACIFIC BEACH

A fun boardwalk runs along this stretch of sandy beach that is popular with young professionals and college students. There are lots of beach bars nearby though the Law Street section of Pacific Beach is more family-friendly.

5. DEL MAR BEACH

There are bathrooms, showers, and lifeguards at this very popular beach for sunbathing and swimming. The north end is Dog Beach (leash-free fun for Fido) and also has beach volleyball courts.

6. TORREY PINES STATE BEACH

Visit this pretty beach after exploring the hiking trails at adjacent Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.

7. MOONLIGHT BEACH

You’ll find everything you need at this Encinitas beach, from picnic tables, fire rings, lifeguards, and restrooms to volleyball courts, a snack bar, and equipment rentals.

If you’re staying in a North County San Diego hotel, many of the hotel concierges will recommend Moonlight Beach because it has the most amenities of any beach in the area.

8. OCEAN BEACH

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park above Ocean Beach is one of our best places to watch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean (perhaps after fish tacos at nearby South Beach).

Best Beach Activities: From Seals to Seasonal Fun

We all know that you can sunbathe and swim at the beaches listed above, but here’s what else you can do.

9. LEARN HOW TO SURF

One of the quintessential Southern California experiences tourists should not overlook is a surfing lesson. They’re given here year-round (thanks to warm wetsuits) on almost all of the beaches mentioned above.

Take one on your own or as a group. You’ll likely use a foam board and actually be able to stand up within a lesson. Budding surfers can be as young as 5 years old. We have a list of surfing schools and locations.

10. SEE THE LA JOLLA SEALS & SEA LIONS

While you’re in the La Jolla Cove area you will not be able to miss our chatty sea lions who hang out on the rocks here.

If you walk south along the beach boardwalk a few minutes to the Children’s Pool Beach, this is where our famous La Jolla seals rookery awaits.

11. GO TIDE POOLING (WINTER)

A free and fun San Diego experience outdoors is tide pooling during winter months when low and minus tides occur in the late afternoons.

I have a list of best San Diego tide pools, but the spots we like are La Jolla and Cabrillo National Monument.

12. SWIM WITH LEOPARD SHARKS (SUMMER)

We have the largest annual aggregation of leopard sharks in the world in the shallow ocean water near The Marine Room restaurant on La Jolla Shores Beach.

They come to incubate their babies in the warm water here while feeding in the nearby submarine canyon at night. They’re harmless, and you can swim and snorkel around the sharks.

13. TRY A GRUNION RUN (SPRING AND SUMMER)

Are you a night owl? Grab a headlamp or flashlight and head out to the sandier beaches to see a grunion run. The schedule is here but be sure to be mindful of when you can go fishing for them and when it’s observation only.

14. STAY IN A BEACHFRONT HOTEL

If you love the beach, it’s worth looking into the beachfront San Diego hotels. These are some of the best:

Learn more and book: 17 Best San Diego Beach Hotels

San Diego Theme Parks and Amusement Parks

Our top Southern California theme parks and amusement parks make San Diego, CA, a very popular family vacation destination.

15. SAN DIEGO ZOO

A koala sits in a tree at San Diego Zoo, a must do in San Diego.

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. 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.

Many visitors come to see the Australian Outback habitat, Polar Bear Plunge, Elephant Odyssey, and the Children’s Zoo (currently closed for renovation). Its small hills and valleys, in addition to the shade provided by foliage, make 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.

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).

Buy San Diego Zoo discount tickets with my special discount below.

ACCESS MY EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNT

Check for unpublished deeper savings on tickets through my partnership with aRes Travel, an authorized San Diego Zoo Safari Park ticket seller.

*By texting the word SAFARI to 1-833-490-0799 you agree to receive automated promotional messages with how to secure my deeper ticket discount and this agreement isn’t a condition of any purchase. Msg and data rates may apply. 2 msg/mo. Reply STOP to cancel. Read my full privacy policy.

16. LEGOLAND CALIFORNIA

People walking into the entrance of LEGOLAND California on a sunny day.

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, and 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:

ACCESS MY EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNTS

Check for unpublished deeper savings on tickets through my partnership with aRes Travel, an authorized LEGOLAND ticket seller.

*By texting the word LEGOLAND to 1-833-490-0799 you agree to receive automated promotional messages with how to secure my deeper ticket discount and this agreement isn’t a condition of any purchase. Msg and data rates may apply. 2 msg/mo. Reply STOP to cancel. Read my full privacy policy.

17. SEAWORLD SAN DIEGO

Manta roller coaster hurls down the track at SeaWorld, one of the popular things to do San Diego teens and tweens enjoy.

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 best things to do in San Diego for families because it caters to all ages of kids.

Other highlights at 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.

Like the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld San Diego can easily be visited in half a day, though a full day is recommended to enjoy the activities here.

Buy SeaWorld San Diego discount tickets using one of the following methods:

  • Go San Diego (Use promo code LJM10SDO for 10% off )
  • aRes Travel (good discounted SeaWorld San Diego tickets and ticket/hotel packages)
  • Promotions on SeaWorld San Diego (they, unlike other local theme parks, often run ticket specials)

18. SAN DIEGO ZOO SAFARI PARK

Rhinos that you can see with discount San Diego Zoo Safari Park Discount tickets.
I took this photo of the rhinos while on a Wildlife Safari

Consider also visiting the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, which is definitely one of San Diego’s best tourist attractions. It’s part of San Diego Zoo Global and offers a very different experience than the Zoo because many of the animals roam in large environments that mimic the African and Asian savannas.

Here, 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.

You can also do a zipline safari that will give you a one-of-a-kind bird’s eye view of the park or book a behind-the-scenes tour. Refer to my detailed San Diego Zoo Safari Park guide before you go.

Buy San Diego Zoo Safari Park discount tickets using my exclusive promo code:

ACCESS MY EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNT

Check for unpublished deeper savings on tickets through my partnership with aRes Travel, an authorized San Diego Zoo Safari Park ticket seller.

*By texting the word SAFARI to 1-833-490-0799 you agree to receive automated promotional messages with how to secure my deeper ticket discount and this agreement isn’t a condition of any purchase. Msg and data rates may apply. 2 msg/mo. Reply STOP to cancel. Read my full privacy policy.

19. SESAME STREET PLACE

Aerial view of Sesame Place San Diego including water park attractions.
The water park area

The new Sesame Place San Diego theme park offers a nice combination of water park and traditional theme park activities – most with a Sesame Street theme. There are big water slides and little ones, a lazy river, and water play areas. But you can stay dry if you want, too, on young-kid-friendly carousels and mini coasters.

You definitely need to check the park calendar before arriving because they are not open daily during the fall and winter months.

Buy discount Sesame Place San Diego tickets:

20. BELMONT PARK — OUR SEASIDE AMUSEMENT PARK

Belmont Park San Diego Tilt a Whirl Ride
Carnival rides galore.

Belmont Park San Diego is our seaside amusement park located in Mission Beach. You can ride the historic Big Dipper roller coaster, that was built in 1925, in addition to other carnival rides. Kids like playing laser tag, driving bumper cars, and playing arcade games.

You can grab a Dole Whip or a beer at Cannonball. It’s free to enter Belmont Park, but you’ll want to buy a wristband or attractions pass otherwise, a la carte pricing adds up.

21. BIRCH AQUARIUM AT SCRIPPS

Kids look into the giant tank at Birch Aquarium
The Giant Kelp Forest exhibit

It’s technically a museum, but if you’re looking for entertainment combined with education, Birch Aquarium at Scripps is one of my favorite options.

You’ll see sea life representing not only what’s in our part of the Pacific Ocean but other parts of the California Current from the Pacific Northwest down to California, to the warm Mexico waters, and finally, the Indo-Pacific coral reefs.

There are hands-on exhibits that teach the importance of caring for the environment. Oh, and they just opened an exhibit dedicated to Little Blue Penguins! They are adorable. And, don’t forget your camera because the views from the back patio are spectacular.

Balboa Park Museums & Things to Do

Balboa Park Botanical Building - on a list of San Diego virtual tours.
The Botanical Building at Balboa Park

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.

Tip: It is free to walk through Balboa Park to enjoy its hiking trails, gardens, playgrounds for kids, and public spaces. To visit the museums, you should have a pass that allows you to visit more than one as they are not large.

You can take a look at the Balboa Park Explorer pass as a bundled museum option. Balboa Park museums can also be included on the Go San Diego pass with many other San Diego attractions.

Below we’ve highlighted top Balboa Park museums and other things to do.

22. SAN DIEGO NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM (THENAT)

Go to learn about our area’s flora and fauna through their vast collection, and you’ll see why local kids love the San Diego Natural History Museum.

23. FLEET SCIENCE CENTER

Fleet Science Center is another fun family San Diego museum with loads of hands-on exhibits showcasing science through play. They also show short movies in an IMAX dome theater.

24. MUSEUM OF US

Climb the California Tower for the most spectacular views in San Diego. Wander through the anthropology exhibits inside that showcase the human relationship with animals, race, our ancestors, and even beer.

25. MOPA

Museum of Photographic Arts is one of the few museums entirely dedicated to photography. Don’t forget to browse the museum gift shop for neat prints, gifts, and gadgets.

26. SAN DIEGO MUSEUM OF ART

Our fine art museum boasts an emphasis on Spanish art with a collection that includes Goya and Rubens.

27. SAN DIEGO AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM

Here, you’ll see real and replica and original aircraft and spacecraft in addition to MaxFlight simulators and other hands-on exhibits all ages love.

28. JAPANESE FRIENDSHIP GARDEN

The Japanese Friendship Garden is a gorgeous place for a walk during any season but particularly pretty when the leaves change in the fall or cherry blossoms bloom in spring. Keep an eye out for special events.

29. TAKE A HIKE

Pick one of the Balboa Park trails if you’re looking for outdoor things to do in San Diego. You can take a short hike or one as long as a few hours. Grab the trail info.

30. EXPLORE THE GARDENS

Be sure to take notice of the various gardens scattered throughout the Park. There’s the Zoro butterfly garden, the Trees for Health Garden (medicinal plants), the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden, and several others.

31. DINE AL FRESCO

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. But, of course, I have a guide for eating in Balboa Park.


Our National Park and State Reserves: Hikes, Views, and More

Our top attractions in San Diego are must-see state parks and Cabrillo National Monument, which is our only National Park. They are outdoor activities that offer much more than pretty scenery.

32. CABRILLO NATIONAL MONUMENT

The view of the statue and bay at Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument at the end of Point Loma pays tribute to the discovery of California by Spanish Eyou’llr Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. Here, you’ll find a statue that pays tribute to Cabrillo with a backdrop of panoramic ocean and city views down to the Coronado bridge.

A network of hiking trails wraps around the Pacific Ocean side of Point Loma in the park, where ocean views abound. Along the way, you’ll pass some historic structures like WWII bunkers and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse.

During winter low tides, you’ll also be able to explore some of San Diego’s best tide pools here. The only admission fee that you pay is to park your car, and you can grab a map at the Visitor Center.

Tip: From here, its’ not that far to Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. Or you can stop for lunch on the way in or out of Point Loma at LIt’sty Station Public Market on Rosecrans Avenue.

33. TORREY PINES STATE NATURAL RESERVE

Trails at Torrey Pines Natural Reserve that over look the ocean.
It’s famous for its Strails and views.

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is another popular spot with visitors and locals for its family-friendly mild to moderate hiking trails and ocean views. It’s one of two places the endangered Torrey Pine tree grows. You can pair a visit here with Torrey Pines State State Beach.

There’s a steep trail down to Black’s Beach though it’s easier if you’re a surfer carrying a surfboard to access it from Torrey Pines State Beach or La Jolla Shores (albeit a long walk from either).

Tip: The nearby Torrey Pines Gliderport is where you’ll fly tandem on a first-come, first-served basis with an instructor. Grab a sandwich or salad at the casual cafe here to eat on the picnic tables while you watch the colorful gliders fly across the sky in Southern California’s sunshine.


Downtown San Diego: From the Embarcadero to Gaslamp Quarter

USS Midway and Unconditional Surrender Statue in January
Unconditional Surrender statue with USS Midway in the background

Spend a day or half-day in downtown San Diego’s waterfront Embarcadero entertainment area.

Some of our most popular tourist attractions are here, the views over San Diego Bay are fantastic, and you’ll have easy access to some of our best restaurants on the Embarcadero (there are several in the new Portside Pier to try). Plus, you can walk in between everything, which makes sightseeing a breeze.

34. USS MIDWAY MUSEUM

If you’re interested in military history, you must visit the USS Midway Museum. The aircraft carrier is permanently docked in the bay and is one of the most unique museums in the world.

Take the self-guided audio tour and look out for docents. Many of them actually served on the USS Midway. You’ll also enjoy wandering around the military aircraft on the flight deck. During normal times you can climb into some of the cockpits.

35. MARITIME MUSEUM OF SAN DIEGO

The Maritime Museum of Diego is home to what is considered one of the world’s best collections of historic ships. This is also a great stop for history fans.

You can see authentic and replica ships at this floating maritime museum and be able to walk on board the Star of India,  the world’s oldest active ship. It’s docked right on the Embarcadero, so a great spot for photos.

36. WAR MEMORIALS AND STATUES

On the south side of the USS Midway Museum, you can’t miss the Unconditional Surrender kissing statue. But as you walk toward it, take a look at some of the war memorials that are part of the “Greatest Generation Collection.”

37. PORTSIDE PIER

When it’s time for a drink or a meal, and you’re walking the Embarcadero, stop at the new Portside Pier, which has dining at Ketch, Brigantine, Miguel’s, and Topside restaurants with a view. Or, just stop for a photo opp on the viewing deck.

38. SEAPORT VILLAGE

Get ready to shop and eat at the waterfront Seaport Village which has about 50 shops and 17 eateries, not to mention occasional busking and a vintage carousel.

39. GASLAMP QUARTER

The hub of San Diego nightlife awaits in the historic Gaslamp Quarter, where you’ll find dance clubs, speakeasies, and festive bars to It’srtain all tastes.

Nightlife aside, visitors love the various shops and other notable restaurants in this 16-block area.

40. PETCO PARK

Our Major League Baseball team, the San Diego Padres, plays home games at PETCO Park which has some of the best sight lines in baseball. Not to mention some of our favorite San Diego restaurants, so dining is a treat.

When the Padres aren’t in town or during the off-season, you can take a guided tour of the park.

41. NEW CHILDREN’S MUSEUM

If you visit San Diego with young children, they’ll love the hands-on art and creative fun at New Children’s Museum. Every exhibit is designed to teach through play. Advanced reservations or tickets are required.

More Historic Neighborhoods and Places

42. OLD TOWN SAN DIEGO STATE HISTORIC PARK

Things to do in San Diego with kids: Old Town

Old Town San Diego is a top tourist attraction that encompasses OId Town State Historic Park and is considered the birthplace of California.

It’s free to enter, and there are multiple small museums in 19th-century wood-frame and adobe buildings that showcase what life was like in early California. Even locals like to come and enjoy the Mexican food restaurants and live performances here.

43. LITTLE ITALY SAN DIEGO

Walking distance to Little Italy from the Embarcadero is just a few blocks. So, if you find yourself on the end near the Maritime Museum of San Diego, walk a few blocks to satisfy your cravings (check my list of Little Italy restaurants). Look out for the Saturday farmers market, which is very popular with locals.

44. HOTEL DEL CORONADO

The most frequently booked hotel in our portfolio is the historic Hotel del Coronado, built in 1888. U.S. Presidents, Hollywood elite, and VIPs have all laid their heads in this San Diego hotel.

It’s our best and most popular San Diego hotel on the beach. The Windsor Cottage, where Beach Village at The Del guests dine, is named for its past as the Coronado home of Wallace Simpson, the woman Prince Edward abdicated the English throne for.

If you plan to stay there, you definitely need to read my Hotel del Coronado review and book in with my Virtuoso benefits at no extra cost to you.

But even if you’re not staying there, you can add a visit to your San Diego itinerary because the public can access its restaurants and shops as well as walk around.


Water Sports: Mission Bay, La Jolla & Beyond

45. MISSION BAY WATER SPORTS

Small sail boats in the sand bordering Mission Bay in September
Mission Bay on a September afternoon

Visitors to San Diego who are interested in water sports 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 more thrilling activities, 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 several playgrounds and grassy areas that are perfect for picnics and play — all are free to use. There is also 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 and resorts have water sports activity centers onsite otherwise, you can try Mission Bay Aquatic Center. It takes about 10-15 minutes to reach the bay from downtown San Diego, depending on which bay location is your final destination.

You can also walk a few blocks on the west side of the bay to Mission Beach and its casual vibe, where Belmont Park, our beachfront amusement park, is also located.

46. SAN DIEGO-LA JOLLA UNDERWATER PARK

Kayaks near coastal caves at La Jolla Cove in Southern California in summer on a sunny day
Kayak tours to the seven sea caves in La Jolla

Believe it or not, many locals are unaware that beneath 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 or bring your own snorkel gear and explore it yourself. Plus, you can even swim out to it from La Jolla Cove.

Bordering the underwater park are seven sea caves, only one of which — Sunny Jim Cave — is accessible by land. You can see them by kayak or stand up paddleboard, and you can sometimes kayak through one of them on a guided tour, depending on the currents.

Marine life commonly seen here includes our resident sea lions, Garibaldi (California’s state fish), shovelnose guitarfish, leopard sharks, and more. The underwater visibility is quite good for California. There are even a handful of sea turtle sightings in summer.

Popular water sports here include:

  • Surfing and surfing lessons on the La Jolla Shores side (surfers beware that you can’t use surfboards or boogie boards on the La Jolla Cove side)
  • Stand-up paddleboarding
  • Kayak tours to the sea caves (and even for seasonal whale watching)
  • Snorkeling tours

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). I also recommend Everyday California.

EXCLUSIVE EVERYDAY CALIFORNIA DISCOUNT

Use code lajollamom for a 20% discount on kayak and snorkeling tours, lessons, and rentals. Book now.

47. SAN DIEGO BAY WATER SPORTS

There isn’t a beach along San Diego Bay, really, but that’s okay. You can take advantage of water sports here, too. Several outlets on Harbor Island near the airport offer jet ski, paddleboard, kayak, solar boat, and speed boat rentals.


Fun Sightseeing Tours

There are a variety of fun ways to go sightseeing along the San Diego Bay, which is a natural harbor and deepwater port that spans along Point Loma and around the downtown San Diego area to Coronado Island.

You can walk from Little Italy, Seaport Village, and the Gaslamp Quarter to where most of these tours depart. Bay tours are one of the best things to do in San Diego. It’s a relaxing way to get a broad view of the city before you start visiting attractions and historic landmarks.

But these are not the only sightseeing tours you’ll want to partake in when visiting San Diego. You can explore San Diego via hop-on, hop-off trolley, and even kayak through sea caves.

48. OLD TOWN TROLLEY

old town trolley car drives through Balboa Park.
Old Town Trolley drives through Balboa Park

If you’re searching for a way to sightsee and get around town, a day pass on the Old Town Trolley is one solution. You can hop on and off at your leisure or just ride its loop to enjoy some sightseeing.

It makes stops between Coronado and Old Town, including the Embarcadero and Balboa Park. Buy your tickets.

49. SEAL TOURS

SEAL Tours are one of the best things to do in Downtown San Diego
You’ll see these amphibious vehicles driving around downtown.

Kids in particular love taking a Seal Tour. The bus-boat starts off on land at either the Embarcadero or Seaport Village and then plunges into the San Diego harbor for a different look at the downtown skyline.

A cheeky guide narrates the tour, and you’ll likely see birds and maybe a sea lion or similar in the water as well.

50. PATRIOT JET BOAT

Patriot Jet Boat speeds through San Diego Bay.
High speed thrills on the water

This is a high-speed, 30-minute thrill ride with spins, tricks, and turns at speeds of up to 50 mph. It’s operated by Flagship Cruises and Events and is very popular with teens.

51. WHALE WATCHING TOURS

Along our slice of California coast, you can see grey whales migrating between December and April. Summer brings blue whales to our waters (definitely take a tour because they swim further out than gray whales do).

Plus, you can see pilot and other whales in between. It’s best to take a whale watching tour from a reputable company like Flagship Cruises or City Experiences.

52. SAN DIEGO BAY SIGHTSEEING AND DINING CRUISES

Head out into the bay on a one or two-hour San Diego harbor cruise that will take you along the Point Loma peninsula and around to the Coronado Bridge.

However, you can also book a themed dining cruise — like Hops on the Harbor or Champagne Sunday Brunch — that takes a similar route.

Tip: It’s also easy to experience the San Diego Bay without taking a tour. The bayside walkway along the Embarcadero stretches from roughly the airport to the Convention Center.

53. SAN DIEGO SPEED BOAT ADVENTURES

Two people drive the mini speedboat on a tour.
Drive your own speedboat! How fun!

You can drive your own mini speed boat as part of a narrated group bay tour. The boats seat two adults an one child and this is one of the most popular tours on the bay.

54. CORONADO FERRY

See the San Diego skyline on your way to and from Coronado Island during the 15-minute ferry ride departing from the downtown Embarcadero.

55. LA JOLLA KAYAK AND SNORKELING TOURS

We touched on these briefly above when discussing the La Jolla Underwater Park. But I mention them again here because people often tell me that these tours were an unexpected highlight. Any of the tour operators in La Jolla Shores are good but we like Surf Diva and Everyday California.

56. FOOD TOURS

Some food companies offer themed food tours of specific San Diego neighborhoods that you would want to visit anyway on your trip. For example, So Diego offers a culinary history tour of Old Town and a wine stroll through Little Italy.

Learn more and book: 11 Popular San Diego Bay Tours


Eat & Drink: From Tacos to Craft Beer

Speaking of food, here’s some to seek out.

Find the best San Diego breweries to visit.
Definitely sample a local beer

57. TAKE A BREWERY TOUR

When it comes to things to do in San Diego for the age 21+ visitor, brewery tours are very popular. At the time of this writing, there are over 200 breweries in San Diego. It’s the most breweries of any county in the United States, which makes our city a perfect destination for craft beer lovers.

How you explore the brewery culture here depends on your tastes and location, but options canIt’slude a private guide, on a Social Cycle pedaling through the Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego, by train up the coastline (stopping along the way), and simply seeking out urban breWarwick’sar your hotel. You will not run out of new beer to try and can knock out some sightseeing along the way.

58. EAT A FISH TACO

San Diego is famous for fish tacos. You should eat one or more while you’re here. Popular places include Oscar’s Mexican Seafood in Pacific Beach, George’s California Modern in La Jolla, and South Beach in Pacific Beach, among others. They’re everywhere — you can even find them at Albert’s at San Diego Zoo.

59. DINE WITH A VIEW

It’s easy to find restaurants along the San Diego coastline for sunset or Pacific Ocean views in all price ranges. For fine dining, try The Marine Room, which has special high tide dinners and breakfasts where the water crashes onto the restaurant’s windows.

Poseidon in Del Mar is also popular for seafood and California fare. You can even dine beachfront at Belmont Park at Cannonball.

60. BROWSE A PUBLIC MARKET OR FOOD HALL

You’ll have three to choose from now. Liberty Public Market in Point Loma is arguably the largest and strives to showcase local artisan prepared foods, beer, specialty cocktails, produce, and more.

Little Italy Food Hall is of a much smaller scale though it features a couple of the same merchants like The Mini Donut and Wicked Maine Lobster. In total, there are nine stations (others include Ambrogio 15 and Bobboi, which have outlets near my house that we frequent often), where you can order food to take to the patio dining or enjoy at one of the handful of tables inside.

Old Town Food Hall is brand new, and I can’t wait to check it out in person. As you might imagine, with a location in California’s birthplace where one can indulge in delicious Mexican food, you’ll find a taqueria, Bthey’repired seafood, elote, gifts, and more.

Best Shopping Areas and Malls

Of course, things to do in San Diego for some involve shopping. Here’s where San Diego residents go.

61. CEDROS AVENUE

This multi-block mix of interior design shops, cafes, and businesses in Solana Beach is one of my favorites in town. You’ll find mostly housewares, gifts, and clothing boutiques across 2.5 blocks – no big brand names, really. Don’t miss SoLo and Bixby & Ball.

62. PROSPECT STREET AND BEYOND IN LA JOLLA

Prospect Street is known as the Rodeo Drive of San Diego. It’s lined with restaurants, boutiques, and art galleries. Several streets like Girard and Herschel intersect Prospect and are also lined with shops.

We like Hi Sweetheart (Herschel) and Warwick’s America’sfts, too – Girard), among others. See my La Jolla shopping guide.

63. WESTFIELD UTC

This is our best shopping mall with loads of must-eat establishments ranging from Din Tai Fung to Happy Lemon boba. Designer outlets are popping up like Louis Vuitton, but the main department store anchor is Nordstrom.

The mall was recently renovated to include a bunch of outdoor living spaces complete with gorgeous planters and is just really pleasant to walk around.

64. FASHION VALLEY MALL

Honestly, I prefer Westfield UTC these days if you just want to browse a shopping mall. However, this is where you’ll find designer stores like Gucci and Prada. And it’s home to San Diego’s only Bloomingdales and Neiman Marcus.

There are more casual stores like H&M and Gap also scattered in between. And it’s convenient to Mission Valley hotels.

Annual San Diego Events to Attend

Let’s call this #65 on the list for now, even though there are multiple events to mention.

Aerial view of San Diego County Fair
Amusement park rides and midway games at Del Mar Fair

Annual events large and small also bring visitors to San Diego on day trips and long trips. 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 San Diego, 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 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)
  • San Diego Comic-Con (July)
  • Padres Major League Baseball Season at PETCO Park (March – October)

Note: If you’re NOT attending one of these San Diego events, avoid searching for San Diego hotels near where they’re happening because rates may be much higher than usual.


The Top 10 Things to Do in San Diego

Sometimes, people want a short list of things to do. With that in mind, here are the top 10 things to do in San Diego.

  1. Go to the beach
  2. See the San Diego Zoo or another theme park
  3. Visit Balboa Park and its museums
  4. Enjoy water sports — learn how to surf, go snorkeling, kayak sea caves, and more
  5. Eat a fish taco (pair it with a craft beer)
  6. Visit La Jolla Cove and see the seals/sea lions
  7. See Old Town San Diego
  8. Take a walk or a hike somewhere scenic
  9. See sights on the downtown Embarcadero, like USS Midway
  10. Dine on the water – anywhere!

FAQs About Things to Do in San Diego, California

Learn even more about why San Diego is referred to as America’s Finest City.

WHAT CAN YOu Do FOR FREE IN SAN DIEGO?

Some of the best things to do in San Diego, CA are actually free. The number one free thing to do is go to the beach. Visiting Old Town San Diego doesn’t cost a penny unless you purchase souvenirs or dine in a restaurant.

The same goes for the Gaslamp Quarter and Balboa Park (most museums are at an additional cost). Attractions in San Diego include a myriad of no-cost hiking trails, parks, self-guided art walks, and much more to do. For more information, see my list of 100 free things to do in San Diego.

WHAT IS POPULAR IN SAN DIEGO?

The world-famous San Diego Zoo is San Diego’s most popular attraction because of its stunning layout with exhibits mimicking the animal’s natural habitat, proximity to downtown and the airport, and botanical garden.

Outdoor activities are also incredibly popular whether you hit the beaches, enjoy water sports, learn how to surf, or even go scuba diving.

WHAT IS THERE TO DO FOR ADULTS IN SAN DIEGO?

Aside from theme parks, adult travelers tend to enjoy the same things that kids do in San Diego, like the beaches, hikes, and waterfront entertainment areas — with one exception.

We don’t have the same nightlife as, say, Los Angeles, but we are the craft beer capital of the United States, with over 220 breweries.

In fact, many adults visit San Diego just to sample beer, and our culinary offerings have also risen to the occasion with fantastic restaurants sprinkled throughout the county. Of course, there are a few popular speakeasies, nightclubs, and bars to explore in the Gaslamp Quarter.

WHAT IS THERE TO DO FOR KIDS IN SAN DIEGO?

San Diego family vacations can be taken year-round, thanks to our temperate weather and relatively-consistent sunshine. Whether your kids are babies or teens, there is plenty for them to do here, from theme parks to free and fun outdoor activities.

Read my ultimate guide to things to do in San Diego with kids and my list of popular teen activities.

WHAT IS FAMOUS IN SAN DIEGO?

San Diego is home to famous landmarks but also reaps the benefits of having a fabulous location and a Major League Baseball team. San Diego is famous for:

  • 70 miles of coastline, including gorgeous beaches
  • Year-round sunshine
  • Hotel del Coronado (It’s one of the last remaining Victorian beach resorts that boasts a long list of notable guests, has been in several famous movies, and is also rumored to be haunted.)
  • San Diego-Coronado Bridge
  • San Diego Zoo (it’s famous for being one of the largest zoos in the United States but also for its conservation efforts, collection of rare animals, and fantastic layout.
  • Craft Beer
  • San Diego Padres

What are your favorite things to do in San Diego?

Find More Things to Do in Famous San Diego County Cities & Neighborhoods

If you find yourself in a certain part of town, dive a little deeper into my other lists of things to do in San Diego by interest, neighborhood, or travel style.

Explore More Things to Do in San Diego

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