Some of the best activities in America’s Finest City won’t cost a dime once you arrive. This list of free things to do in San Diego is enumerated here under the categories: museums, San Diego beaches, parks, ongoing and annual events, walks, music, and other.
San Diego Museums
1. Museum of Contemporary Art: Free Thursdays
Museum of Contemporary Art (MCASD) has locations in La Jolla and Downtown San Diego. The La Jolla location is currently closed for renovations. Entrance to the Downtown location is free on the third Thursday of every month in the evenings.
2. San Diego Public Library
The new, nearly $200M public library building was opened downtown in 2013 and is free to enter. Their Do Your Homework program also offers access free computing and school supplies as part of our mayor’s initiative to make public libraries a center of learning.
3. Balboa Park Museums: Resident Free Tuesdays
On various Tuesdays each month, the museums in Balboa Park offer free general admission to residents of the County of San Diego and to active military (and their dependents). Please check the calendar as things are subject to change but this is the schedule at the time of this writing:
- Fleet Science Center
- Center Cultural de la Raza
- San Diego Model Railroad Museum
- San Diego Natural History Museum
- Museum of Photographic Arts
- San Diego History Center
- Veterans’ Museum and Memorial Center
- Mingei International Museum
- San Diego Museum of Art
- San Diego Museum of Man
- Japanese Friendship Garden
- San Diego Air & Space Museum
- San Diego Automotive Museum
- SELECT House of Pacific Relations International Cottages
- San Diego Art Institute
Be prepared to show valid identification with residency information on it. Other limits are detailed at the link above.
4. Botanical Building in Balboa Park
Admission to the Botanical Building is always free. The lath building was built for the 1915-1916 Exposition and now houses over 2100 tropical plants and palms. It is open every day except for Thursdays and one of the most photographed spots in San Diego. You can picnic on the grassy areas in front of it, too.
5. Timken Museum in Balboa Park
Admission to this San Diego museum is always free. Not only does Timken Museum house American, French and Russian works of art but it’s one of the most important Mid-Century buildings in San Diego. Find it in the Plaza de Panama.
6. Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá
Founded in 1769 by Junipero Serra, it was the first Franciscan mission in California. Pair a visit here with time in Old Town (see free things to do in Old Town below).
7. World Beat Cultural Center
This multicultural art and event center is non-profit with a mission of promoting African Diaspora and Indigenous cultures through dance and also to create unity within diversity. Visiting and some programming free while others require a paid ticket.
8. The Green Dragon Tavern and Museum in Carlsbad
The Green Dragon Tavern and Museum brings a little bit of East Coast US colonial history to San Diego museum. The fact that it’s a tavern means that you can tour the free museum with a glass of wine or beer in-hand (that you’d need to purchase, of course). Exhibits include significant, original documents signed by John Hancock, Sam Adams and others.
9. The Schoolhouse
San Diego’s first public schoolhouse was founded in 1865 and located in Old Town. Today, it’s a museum featuring relics of school life from the period.
10. Junipero Serra Museum
Entrance has been donated by a generous supporter. Therefore, it’s possible to walk into this museum to learn about California’s mission history (the museum sits on the site of the first European settlement in California) for free. If you did enjoy your visit and feel compelled to donated upon exit, this is possible.
(So many free beaches, so little time. Here are some highlights.)
11. San Diego Beaches
We’ve written a guide to San Diego beaches enumerating them all from north to south, starting in San Onofre and moving south all the way down to the Mexican border. Parking under most circumstances is free though you may pay for it in a few spots.
12. Mission Beach Boardwalk
A walk, run bike ride, or skate down the Mission Beach Boardwalk is a fantastic way to spend a day in San Diego. The broad sandy beach of Mission Beach awaits on the west side while a long string of bars, restaurants, T-shirt and sundry shops, ice cream stands, coffee bars and even the seaside Belmont Park amusement park, run along the east side.
13. La Jolla Children’s Pool
One of La Jolla’s most popular attractions is the La Jolla seals and sea lions that entertain visitors and residents along the coastal boardwalk from the Cave shop to the Children’s Pool.
14. Tide Pooling
Low tides happen in daylight during winter months. See where to tide pooling in San Diego for more info, but the most popular spots are La Jolla tide pools, Hotel Del Coronado tide pools, and Cabrillo National Monument tide pools.
15. Snorkeling with Leopard Sharks
16. Grunion Runs
In San Diego, grunion (small fish) “run” or swim up to the beach to spawn from March through August during full or new moon cycles. A detailed schedule for this fun (usually late at night) activity tells you which dates and times to expect them on the beach.
17. Balboa Park
While most visitors to Balboa Park likely come to see the San Diego Zoo and/or its well-regarded museums, the park is also known for its signature California Mission Revival-style architecture (built originally for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition) and its extensive open spaces. Admission to the park generally is free. Free admission to the park’s museums on various Tuesdays is discussed above. Free concerts at the organ pavilion and free stargazing events are discussed further below. Plus there are miles of free trails and multiple parks to enjoy inside of Balboa Park.
18. Old Town
While anyone may enter Old Town San Diego and walk in and among many of its historic buildings, including the blacksmith shop, Seeley Stables, Stewart House, and the oldest schoolhouse in San Diego (already discussed above), among other historic attractions, all for free, its many colorful restaurants and shops (which are central to the Old Town experience for many) are not, of course, free, and some of the attractions do require paid admission, like the (haunted?) Whaley House.
19. Mt. Soledad Cross
The Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial atop Mt. Soledad in La Jolla, first erected in 1913, has been a local landmark for decades (and also the subject of ongoing litigation for much of the last 30 years). Docents are usually on hand to answer questions and help you tour the 3500 plaques that honor veterans and supporters of the military including Presidents and celebrities. Bring a camera as the 360-degree panoramic views over the ocean and city are spectacular.
20. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve on the border between La Jolla and Del Mar is comprised of 1,500 undeveloped acres of land with beaches, a lagoon that is a destination for migrating birds, spectacular coastal ocean views, several hiking trails and indigenous flora and fauna. While entrance to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve for individuals is technically free, note that it does strictly enforce a parking fee applies to all vehicles entering the park. You can park at the street to avoid it (though the walk could be long) and guests of The Lodge at Torrey Pines can walk there.
21. Chicano Park
Chicano Park in Barrio Logan, located beneath the Coronado Bay Bridge, is perhaps best known for its signature, elaborate graffiti-style artwork that is popular with Instagrammers and photographers. The park is the site of the annual (and free) Chicano Park Day every April, detailed further below.
22. Presidio Park
This historic park overlooks Old Town and is the location of the original mission Presidio. None of the original buildings remain, but the 40-acre park is home to panoramic views over the city, walking trails and lots of places to picnic.
23. Mission Bay Park
Mission Bay Park, just a few miles north of downtown San Diego at Mission Bay, consists of 27 miles of shoreline (19 miles of which are beaches) that 15 million people visit and enjoy every year. It has boat docks and launches, bike paths, playgrounds, boat rental facilities and more.
24. San Diego Waterfront Park
Located in downtown San Diego along the bay near Little Italy, Waterfront Park is perhaps best known for its interactive splash fountains and its extensive, family-friendly open spaces. Outdoor movies in the park and other events are held here in summer.
25. Mission Trails Regional Park
Mission Trails Regional Park is a 7200-acre open space preserve comprised mostly of rugged canyons and hills with some developed areas mixed in. Go to walk, run or bike the trails. Spot birds, native plants and other wildlife. Camping is permitted as well (reservations and fees apply).
26. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
This 600,000-acre park two hours northeast of downtown San Diego offers visitors opportunities to immerse in a unique outdoor site. In addition to hikes, an oasis, stargazing and other programming, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is also the site of the Desert Bloom, where colorful wildflowers spring from the sands each February and March. (A day-use fee of $10 per car is charged at the Visitor Center Friday–Sunday and on holidays).
27. Self Realization Fellowship Hermitage & Meditation Gardens
This meditation garden in Encinitas is open to the public; peaceful and quiet with ocean views.
Ongoing and Annual Events
28. Farmers Markets
San Diego farmers markets are held on most days of the week. The most popular include:
- La Jolla Open Aire Market (Sunday mornings at La Jolla Elementary School)
- Little Italy Mercado (Saturday mornings/early afternoons)
- North Park (Wednesday late afternoon/evenings)
29. Tuna Harbor Dockside Market
Located downtown near Seaport Village, this outdoor market is open to the public every Saturday from 8:00 a.m–1:00 p.m. It’s where many of our chefs buy seafood.
30. SeaWorld San Diego Fireworks
While SeaWorld San Diego no longer has nightly, year-round fireworks shows, they do still hold them on Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day weekends and you can see them from around town.
31. Fiesta del Sol at Fletcher Cove
This event is held annually in May in Solana Beach. In 2018, the 39th annual Fiesta del Sol falls on Saturday, May 19th–Sunday, May 20, from 9:00 a.m.– 9:00 p.m. It features arts and crafts vendors, food stalls, a beer garden and a wine garden, and rides and play areas for kids.
32. Stagecoach Days
Held in Old Town every year, Stagecoach Days highlights what life was like in 19th Century San Diego. This event is typically held on Saturdays in July and August, from 12:00 p.m.–4:00 p.m.
33. Stars in the Park
On the first Wednesday of every month, following the monthly “Sky Tonight” planetarium show in the Fleet Science Center’s Space Theater, members of the San Diego Astronomy Association set up telescopes in front of the Fleet Center building, by the large fountain in Balboa Park, for free public sky viewing.
34. La Mesa Classic Car Show
Held in La Mesa on Thursday nights from 5:00–8:00 p.m., from June 1 to August 31 in 2018, the La Mesa Classic Car Show features cars, trucks, and vans from before 1974.
35. Sun & Sea Festival in Imperial Beach
This festival is held every July. The very elaborate “sand sculptures” are perhaps its most famous feature.
36. Cruisin’ Grand
A Car Show and Street Fair on Grand in Escondido is held on Fridays from April to September where people wander the street to look at cool cars.
37. Adams Avenue Street Fair in Normal Heights
Held annually, typically on the last weekend in September. In 2018, the 37th annual street fair, featuring 80 musical acts on 6 stages, will be held on September 29 – September 30.
38. CityFest Street Fair
Held every August, it celebrates the Hillcrest community through music, arts and crafts, and food. In 2018, it will be held on August 12.
39. Tuesday Night Racing at the Velodrome
From April to mid-September, the Velodrome in Balboa Park hosts bike races that are free to watch for spectators on Tuesday nights.
40. Fly Casting Lessons
Every Sunday morning, the San Diego Fly Fishers (SDFF) offer a free flycasting clinic at Lake Murray. Bring your own equipment or borrow equipment from the club for free as well.
41. Free Summer Movies in the Park
From May through October, free summer movies are held in various San Diego parks. Bring a blanket, chairs and some food to enjoy the massive screens.
42. Kids Free October
One of the best times of the year to visit San Diego is during Kids Free October where over 100 restaurants, hotels, and attractions offer free admission and perks to kids in the company of paying adults.
43. Murals of La Jolla
44. Hotel del Coronado
The iconic and historic Hotel del Coronado can be a wonderful place to walk around, not just the hotel and its grounds, but also the broad sandy beach adjacent to it.
45. Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach
This iconic pier in Pacific Beach dating to 1927 is, despite also being the site of rental cottages (the Crystal Pier Hotel and Cottages) and a high iron gate, open to the public and offers some fantastic ocean and coastal views from its end.
46. Gaslamp Quarter
The Historic Gaslamp Quarter downtown is 16 blocks or modern restaurants, bars and nightclubs, as well as Victorian architecture and history.
47. Ray at Night
Held on the second Saturday of every month, from 6:00-10:00 p.m., this art walk highlights the eclectic art and culture of San Diego’s North Park community.
48. Friday Night Liberty
San Diego’s biggest monthly art walk is held at Liberty Station in Point Loma on the first Friday of each month from 5:00–9:00 p.m., showcasing local artists and music and dance performances.
49. Spruce Street Suspension Bridge
Cross the suspension footbridge in Bankers Hill originally built in 1912 with views of the valley below.
50. South Park Walkabout
A quarterly evening festival showcasing the unique local businesses of the South Park community. The Fall Walkabout will be held on October 20, 2018, from 6:00–10:00 p.m.
51. Mt. Woodson/Potato Chip Rock
Located in Poway, the 7-mile trail to the locally famous Potato Chip Rock is heavily trafficked with scenic views of the Pacific Ocean. The highlight for most is the opportunity to take a photo at Potato Chip Rock itself. (Speaking of hikes, there are many free hikes across the county so be sure to check our list of best San Diego hikes.)
52. Salsa Under the Stars
The Manny Cepeda Orchestra plays for free on select Friday nights at The Headquarters at Seaport Village.
53. Spreckels Park Summer Concert Series
Join free concerts at Spreckels Park in Coronado on Sunday night during the summer.
54. Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park
Free organ concerts are held at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion at 2:00 pm on Sundays featuring one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs, dating to 1914.
55. TGIF Concerts in the Parks in Carlsbad
The City of Carlsbad is one of the few remaining sponsors of free concerts. They’ve been putting them on for over 30 years now across various Carlsbad parks.
Other Free Things to Do in San Diego
56. Seaport Village
Seaport Village is free to enter and walk around. Performers often busk along the waterfront as well. Seaport Village does also host select free special events, including the “Salsa Under the Stars” concert series. It’s also home to a number of restaurants and shops.
57. The 59-Mile Scenic Driving Tour of San Diego
Hit all of the city’s highlights during this 59-mile drive. Sure, some gas is involved but the sightseeing itinerary is free.
58. Beach Bonfire
A nighttime bonfire in one of the publicly-available fire pits at one of the many San Diego beaches has been a signature recreation in the city for decades. These are the beaches with fire pits.
59. Torrey Pines Gliderport
Take a trip out to the Torrey Pines Gliderport and enjoy not only the fantastic, cliff-side panoramic ocean views but also watch as daring and confident glider pros and hobbyists launch themselves off the cliffs just feet in front of you. While there, you may also enjoy a lunch or a snack (not free) at the surprisingly good outdoor Cliffhanger Café.
Pilgrimage of the Heart Yoga in North Park offer various free meditation programs.
61. Tour Taylor Guitars
Take a factory tour at Taylor Guitars in El Cajon Monday through Friday at 1:00 p.m. (excluding holidays so check the calendar) to learn how guitars are made.
62. Bird Watching
San Diego is a fantastic place for bird watching as we have over 515 species and are located on the Pacific Flyway, a major path for migrating birds.
Are any of your favorite free things to do in San Diego missing from this list? Let us know in the comments!