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 long but categorized under museums, attractions, beaches, parks, public art, walks, events, and more.
Be sure to check opening hours and details before you go in case offerings are temporarily modified.
San Diego Museums
Some San Diego museums either offer free admission or free activities that do not require admission.
1. 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 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:
- San Diego Air & Space Museum (not valid for special exhibitions)
- San Diego Museum of Art
- Mingei Internationa Museum
- Japanese Friendship Garden
- San Diego Automotive Museum
- Regular admission prices are in effect
Be prepared to show valid identification with residency information on it. Other limits are detailed at the link above.
2. Botanical Building
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 (I recommend it if you like orchids).
It is open every day except for Thursdays and is one of the most photographed spots in San Diego. You can picnic in the grassy areas in front of it, too. (Location: Balboa Park)
3. Timken Museum
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. (Location: Balboa Park)
4. Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá
Founded in 1769 by Junipero Serra, it was the first Franciscan mission in California. It’s free to attend mass and visit the mission. (Location: Grantville)
5. World Beat Cultural Center
This multicultural art and event center is non-profit, promoting African Diaspora and Indigenous cultures through dance and creating unity within diversity. Visiting and some programming are free while others require a paid ticket. (Location: Balboa Park)
6. Museum of Photographic Arts
The Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) is one of a few private institutions dedicated to showcasing photography, film, and video. They also offer various workshops for photography enthusiasts (and I love stopping into the gift shop on my way out).
Admission is free but based on a pay-as-you-wish philosophy because one of their goals is to make their exhibitions accessible to all. (Location: Balboa Park)
7. San Diego Model Railroad Museum
The San Diego Model Railroad Museum entry fee is donation-based. If you’re unable to contribute, you can still enter to enjoy the model trains and their ornate displays. (Location: Balboa Park)
8. House of Pacific Relations International Cottages
The House of Pacific Relations International Cottages showcases the traditions of 34 national groups, some of which have their own cottages (build originally for the 1935 Exposition).
The goal is to promote multicultural understanding through exhibits and programming. (Location: Balboa Park)
9. The Green Dragon Tavern and Museum
The Green Dragon Tavern and Museum brings a little bit of East Coast U.S. 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. (Location: Carlsbad)
10. Junipero Serra Museum
A generous supporter has donated entrance fees. Therefore, it’s possible to walk into this museum to learn about California’s mission history (the museum sits on the first European settlement site in California) for free.
If you did enjoy your visit and feel compelled to donated upon exit, this is possible. (Location: Presidio Park / Old Town)
11. Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla
One of the free things to do in La Jolla is to visit the Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla. Here, you can tour an outstanding private collection of rare and vintage maps that teach us how the world was viewed hundreds of years ago. Locals should also look into their classroom resources. (Location: La Jolla)
12. Coronado Historical Society
Coronado Historical Society, an easy walk from Hotel del Coronado, connects people with the city’s interesting past through museum exhibits, historic photos, and walking tours. The latter I also recommend as one of the things to do in Coronado for tourists. (Location: Coronado)
13. Flying Leatherneck Museum
The Flying Leatherneck Museum is the only museum in the world that primarily showcases the United States Marine Corps (USMC) aviation. You’ll be able to take an up-close look at 48 historical aircraft in their gallery.
Check their event calendar to see what’s on tap during your visit. Open Cockpit Days are popular during normal times (they are temporarily paused). (Location: Miramar)
14. Lux Art Institute
What’s neat about Lux Art Institute is that its goal is to showcase the creative process. You’ll learn about the steps taken from conceptualizing a piece of art to its finished state.
They also invite nationally recognized artists to live at the facility for a month-long residency while they develop new artwork. Residents can also take advantage of adult, teen, and kids’ classes and programming. (Location: Encinitas)
15. Wisteria Cottage Gallery
Wisteria Cottage is home to the La Jolla Historical Society. Inside the historic building, you’ll find a small gallery of art, photographs, and exhibits that convey the important people and events in our seaside communities past and present. (Location: La Jolla)
16. 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. The Fleet Science Center isn’t set to reopen until 2021, so this activity is paused for a while but worth keeping on this list. (Location: Balboa Park)
Activities at the Beaches
So many free beaches, so little time. Here are some highlights.
17. 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.
18. 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.
19. Children’s Pool La Jolla
Harbor seals hang out here, and the beach is closed between December 15–May 15 for pupping seasons at this official rookery. It’s a popular stop in San Diego for kids and paired with #20 below.
20. La Jolla Cove
Water sports enthusiasts take advantage of the usually waveless beach to enter the La Jolla Underwater Park’s clear water. It’s an easy walk from the shopping and restaurants in the Village of La Jolla.
21. Tide Pooling
Low tides happen in daylight during the winter months. You can read my list of where to go 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.
It’s a great way to spend time outdoors and see marine life that lives in these rocky areas like hermit crabs, sea anemones, sea stars, sea cucumbers, and even the occasional octopus.
22. Leopard Sharks
You can snorkel with them or walk out into knee-deep water to let them swim around you.
23. Grunion Runs
In San Diego, grunion (small fish) “run” or swim up to the beach to spawn between March and 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.
Early risers may be rewarded with complete shells and pretty sea glass that tend to wash up onto our beaches. Try the aptly named Shell Beach in La Jolla. I have also found plenty of sand dollars in the mornings along the Coronado beach in front of Hotel del Coronado and Silver Strand State Beach in front of Loews Coronado Bay Resort.
Along these beaches, you’ll also find keyhole limpets, clams, wedge shells, wavy turbans (if you’re lucky), whelks, and more. Be mindful that you can not remove shells from La Jolla Cove and areas in the Ecological Reserve portion of the La Jolla Underwater Park.
25. Dog Beaches
We have several off-leash dog beaches in San Diego in Del Mar, Fiesta Island, Coronado Island, and Ocean Beach. You can bring your dog or enjoy watching them play. Check off-leash hours before you go as they do change.
26. Snorkeling in La Jolla
Have snorkel gear? Well, then it’s free for you to go snorkeling in La Jolla, where the calmest, clearest, and marine life rich water is. As mentioned above, walk into the La Jolla Underwater Park from La Jolla Cove or La Jolla Shores Beach.
27. Photos at Scripps Pier
Are you looking for a great place to take an Instagram photo or holiday family photo? Look no further than Scripps Pier in La Jolla, especially at golden hour.
And, maybe you can try to capture that famous sunset photo that catches the sun exactly between the pylons — an event that occurs just twice a year.
28. 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.
Free San Diego Attractions
These major attractions are fun free things to do in San Diego because no admission is required to enter. Of course, you can upgrade your day with a meal in one of the restaurants or paid experiences.
29. Balboa Park
While most visitors to Balboa Park likely come to see the San Diego Zoo 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.
It’s free to enter Balboa Park and some of its museums, as mentioned 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 Balboa Park. Read my guide to free things to do in Balboa Park. (Location: Balboa Park)
30. Old Town San Diego
Anyone may enter Old Town San Diego and walk inside many of its historic buildings, including the blacksmith shop, Seeley Stables, Stewart House, and the oldest schoolhouse in San Diego, 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. Some of the attractions do require paid admission, like the (haunted?) Whaley House. (Location: Old Town)
31. 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. It’s free for outside guests to walk the grounds and explore the shops. Room areas are off-limits. (Location: Coronado)
32. Belmont Park
It’s free to enter Belmont Park San Diego to have a look around the seaside amusement park. You’ll pay to play carnival and arcade games, mini-golf, and to ride the rides. If you are going to upgrade your experience, I recommend buying a wristband in advance. (Location: Mission Beach)
33. Seaport Village
Seaport Village is free to enter and walk around. Performers often busk along the waterfront as well. Seaport Village also hosts select free special events, including the “Salsa Under the Stars” concert series. It’s also home to some restaurants and shops. (Location: Downtown)
34. Gaslamp Quarter
The Gaslamp Quarter downtown is a 16-block historic district filled with modern restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and Victorian architecture and history. It’s fun to walk around for a half-day, and you can take an iconic San Diego photo under the Gaslamp sign on 5th Avenue and L Street. (Location: Downtown)
35. Little Italy
Speaking of iconic signs, there is also the Little Italy sign on India Street to snap a photo of before or after resting at one of the adorable red tables in one of its famous piazzas. Here, you can also walk around the shops and public art for free.
One of my favorite art installations is the recipe tables in Amici Park which have plaques featuring actual recipes. See other things to do in Little Italy. (Location: Downtown)
Sure, we have many parks in San Diego, but these are among the most outstanding. Think trails, wildlife, interesting geology, playgrounds, and more. You can spend entire days in many of these places for free.
36. Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial
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 U.S. Presidents and celebrities. Bring a camera as the 360-degree panoramic views over the ocean and city are spectacular. (Location: La Jolla)
37. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve on the border between La Jolla and Del Mar comprises 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 strictly enforces a parking fee applies to all vehicles entering the park. You can park in the street to avoid it (though the walk could be long). Guests of The Lodge at Torrey Pines can also easily walk there.
During normal times, guests can take advantage of the free guided tours. (Location: La Jolla)
38. Presidio Park
This historic park overlooks Old Town San Diego 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 many places to picnic. (Location: Old Town)
39. 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 beaches) that 15 million people visit and enjoy every year. It has boat docks and launches, bike paths, playgrounds, boat rental facilities, and more.
Many things to do at Mission Bay are free, including the various playgrounds and trails that circle the bay. If you have a bike, put it in the car to enjoy a really lovely ride around the human-made park, which also encompasses some wetland natural habitats. Kite flying is another popular activity, too. (Location: Mission Beach / Pacific Beach)
40. San Diego Waterfront Park
Located in downtown San Diego along the bay near Little Italy San Diego, 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 free events are held here in summer. (Location: Downtown San Diego)
41. 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). (Location: between San Diego / Santee / La Mesa)
42. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
This 600,000-acre park two hours northeast of downtown San Diego offers visitors opportunities to immerse themselves in a unique outdoor site.
In addition to hikes, an oasis, stargazing, and other programming, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is also the Desert Bloom site, 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, but I’m leaving this on the list because what you get for that fee is a full day of adventure. (Location: Borrego Springs)
43. Self Realization Fellowship Hermitage & Meditation Gardens
This meditation garden in Encinitas is open to the public, peaceful and quiet with ocean views. (Location: Encinitas)
44. Sunset Cliffs
Head over to Sunset Cliffs to, as the name implies, watch the sunset. Though, it’s a fantastic spot for photographs and walking ocean view trails for a little exercise during any time of day. (Location: Ocean Beach)
45. Heritage Park
A walk past the Victorian-era houses in Heritage Park also makes my list of things to do in Old Town San Diego. Of the seven structures, you can normally walk inside Temple Beth Israel and Senlis Cottage. (Location: Old Town)
46. Batiquitos Lagoon
Take the 2-mile lagoon trail walk around Batiquitos Lagoon. You can also volunteer for monthly trail maintenance and lagoon cleanups. During normal times, docents lead tours along the trails, pointing out various flora and fauna along the way. (Location: Carlsbad)
47. Kellogg Park
I often point out that a perk of staying in the beachfront La Jolla hotels is access to the adjacent Kellogg Park. It’s steps from the sand of La Jolla Shores Beach but also has a large grassy area for picnics, yoga, pocket kites, and some outdoor park fun.
It will soon be even more interesting when “The Map of the Grand Canyons of La Jolla Educational Plaza” (a.k.a “The Map”) is finished. It’s a mosaic of 119 sea animals that live in the La Jolla Canyon that is meant to showcase what life is like offshore to those of us who don’t scuba dive. (Location: La Jolla Shores)
48. Skate Parks
Grab your skateboards (and helmets) and head over to the various skate parks located across San Diego County. This list is for skate parks located in the City of San Diego, but there is also Carlsbad Skate Park (good for beginners), Encinitas Community Skate Park, and Escondido Skate Park.
49. San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve and Nature Center
The shallow-water estuary is a neat ecosystem where Escondido and La Orilla Creeks meet the Pacific Ocean. Tides rise and fall over mudflats where birds feed on invertebrates. The animals who live here have adapted to the unique environment of fresh and saltwater.
Seven miles of trails weave throughout San Elijo Lagoon, which is one of San Diego’s largest wetlands. Many of the over 1000 plants and animals who live here are rare or endangered. Don’t forget to check out the exhibits in the Nature Center. (Location: Cardiff)
50. Guajome Regional Park
Guajome Regional Park also offers over 4.5 miles of gorgeous, multi-use trails in addition to picnic areas, basketball courts, playgrounds, and lakes. A small $3 fee applies to park if you’re driving in. You can also go camping (an additional fee applies). (Location: Oceanside)
51. San Pasqual Battlefield State Historic Park
Just east of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park you’ll find San Pasqual Battle State Historic Park. It honors the soldiers who fought on December 6, 1846, one of the only military encounters in California during the Mexican-American War.
The park normally hosts living history activities and you can also walk its Nature Trail. (Location: Escondido)
52. Spanish Landing Park
You can take a break here on a layover or if staying at one of the San Diego Airport hotels because this fun area is across the street from the airport. You’ll find a small sandy beach (the only one along the bay), picnic tables, public art, a play structure, and panoramic views. (Location: Downtown)
53. Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park
Yes, we’re talking about that Leo Carillo, who acted in nearly 100 movies between 1927 and 1950. Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park is a small part of his former working rancho and vacation retreat.
Kids love the resident peacocks, but there are also multiple historic properties, including the visitors’ center, adobe buildings, a barn, and more. You can also walk the 4-mile Rancho Carrillo Trail. (Location: Carlsbad)
54. Mt. Helix Park
Some of San Diego’s best panoramic views can be enjoyed from Mt. Helix Park. The cross at the top above the amphitheater is a very recognizable San Diego landmark. Take one of the trails to the peak and a picnic at sunset for a lovely day outside. (Location: La Mesa)
55. Old Poway Park
In addition to being a beautiful green space, you can get a glimpse of what life was like in the early 20th century at the Nelson House. At Old Poway Park, you can also take a quick tour of Heritage House to learn about Poway’s history. Be prepared that your kids may ask to ride on the Poway Midland train that circles the park (a small fee applies). (Location: Poway)
56. Tijuana Estuary
Located in the southwest corner of San Diego, the Tijuana Estuary is a wetlands area with beach, dune, mudflat, salt marsh, riparian, coastal sage scrub, and upland habitats that are free to explore.
Start at the Visitor Center to learn about the trails, flora and fauna (many are rare or endangered), and various things to do during your visit. Kids can earn junior rangers here and they offer a variety of environmental education resources online. (Location: Imperial Beach)
San Diego has experienced an explosion of free public art to view, be it single spectacular pieces or contained within zones that are easy to walk through. Listed here are areas with multiple public art pieces or single installations that people drive out of their way to see.
57. ARTS DISTRICT Liberty Station
The ARTS DISTRICT portion of Liberty Station offers various installations on display with a handy reference guide for those who would like to see the various sculptures. You should also take the time to browse the shops and galleries here. (Location: Point Loma)
58. Stuart Collection at UCSD
The Stuart Collection of free public art at UCSD is extraordinary. The program was started in 1981 as a way to enrich the lives of students and brighten up the campus. Some of the pieces are enormous, like Fallen Star, the little house that hangs off the edge of the Engineering Building. Download the map. (Location: La Jolla)
59. Oceanside Murals
Did you know that Oceanside is one of only fourteen state-wide cultural districts? Get to know the city’s artful side with a walk between some of its colorful murals. (Location: Oceanside)
60. Queen Calafia’s Magic Circle
Head over to Kit Carson Park to see Queen Calafia’s Magic Circle, one of the best free things to do in Escondido. The giant, colorful sculptures are by Niki de Saint Phalle and designed to be touched, climbed on (where applicable), and enjoyed. The artist was personally involved in the park’s creation. (Location: Escondido)
61. Chicano Park
In Barrio Logan, located beneath the Coronado Bay Bridge, Chicano Park is perhaps best known for its signature, elaborate graffiti-style artwork that is popular with Instagrammers and photographers. The park is the annual (and free) Chicano Park Day site every April (detailed below). (Location: Barrio Logan)
62. Greatest Generation Walking Tour and Unconditional Surrender
The Greatest Generation self-guided walking tour along the Embarcardero. Artwork, plaques, and sculptures pay tribute to the men and women who helped shape American between WWII and the present day.
Right next to the USS Midway Museum, you might spy a gigantic sculpture of a man kissing a woman based on a famous Time magazine photo. That’s Unconditional Surrender, one of the many pieces on this short but meaningful walking tour. (Location: Downtown)
63. Cardiff Kook
The Cardiff Kook’s official name is Magic Carpet Ride. He’s a bronze statue about 6′ tall that is riding a half-finished (the project ran out of money) wave. Pranksters often dress him up in hula skirts, bikinis, Santa hats, and more. So, part of the Kook’s allure is that you often don’t know what he’ll be wearing. (Location: Cardiff)
64. Encinitas Boathouses
Your kids might think that two houses shaped like boats in the middle of a residential neighborhood are kind of cool. They were built in the 1920s as part of a fantasy-themed architecture trend that fits right in with early California dreamin’ and a location off Highway 101. Right now, you can drive by these two historical landmarks at 726 and 732 Third Street. (Location: Encinitas)
65. Imperial Beach Art Walk (and Pier)
Most hero shots of Imperial Beach that I’ve seen include the multi-color acrylic Surfhenge sculpture with the pier behind it. This is at roughly the center of the half-mile art walk. Download the map. (Location: Imperial Beach)
Ongoing Weekly, Sporadic, and Annual Events
People travel from far and wide to attend San Diego annual events though there are smaller weekly events that are popular with both tourists and residents.
66. 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 (Thursday afternoon)
67. Tuna Harbor Dockside Market
Located downtown near Seaport Village, this outdoor market is open to the public every Saturday from 8 a.m–1 p.m. It’s where many of our chefs buy seafood. (Location: Downtown)
68. SeaWorld San Diego Fireworks
While SeaWorld San Diego no longer holds nightly fireworks shows, they still hold them on major holidays such as Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day weekends. You can view them from around town (I can see them from my house). (Location: Mission Bay)
69. Fiesta del Sol
This event is held annually in May in Solana Beach at Fletcher Park and has been looked forward to by area residents for decades. Fiesta del Sol features arts and crafts vendors, food stalls, a beer garden and a wine garden, and rides and play areas for kids. (Location: Solana Beach)
70. La Mesa Classic Car Show
Held in La Mesa, usually on Thursday nights for nearly three months during the summer, the La Mesa Classic Car Show features cars, trucks, and vans from before 1974. (Location: La Mesa)
71. Sun & Sea Festival
This sandcastle festival is held every July. The very elaborate sand sculptures are its most famous feature. There is also usually a pancake breakfast and 3K run (fees apply to both). (Location: Imperial Beach)
72. Cruisin’ Grand
The Cruisin’ Grand show and street fair on Grand is held on Fridays from April to September, where people wander the street to look at cool cars. (Location: Escondido)
73. CityFest Street Fair
Every August, CityFest Street Fair celebrates the Hillcrest community through music, arts and crafts, and food. (Location: Hillcrest)
74. Tuesday Night Racing at the Velodrome
From April to mid-September, the Velodrome in Balboa Park hosts bike races free to watch for spectators on Tuesday nights. (Location: Balboa Park)
75. Ocean Beach Street Fair
The annual Ocean Beach Street Fair draws quite a crowd to the eclectic beach town. Go shopping for art and enjoy some beachfront entertainment. A big portion of the event is dedicated to a chili cook-off, so come hungry. The entry is free. (Location: Ocean Beach)
76. Fly Casting Lessons
Every Sunday morning, the San Diego Fly Fishers (SDFF) offer a free fly casting clinic. Bring your own equipment or borrow equipment from the club for free as well. (Location: Lake Murray)
77. 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 fun films on the massive screens.
78. See Snow
Yes, it does snow in inland San Diego. If you do not mind fighting through some traffic (you won’t be the only one with this idea), head up to Mt. Laguna or Julian to get your winter fix.
79. San Diego Pride Parade
San Diego Pride is one of the largest Pride events in the nation, and it’s the largest one-day civic event in San Diego. Over 250,000 attend to support the LGBTQ community and watch the floats and performers along the 1.5-mile-long parade route. (Location: Hillcrest)
80. Holiday Bowl Parade (Big Bay Balloon Parade)
It’s free to watch the nation’s biggest balloon parades. And, we are talking BIG balloons, floats, performers, and marching bands that entertain during the Port of San Diego Holiday Bowl Parade in December.
81. Kids Free October
One of the best times of the year to visit San Diego is during Kids Free October San Diego where over 100 restaurants, hotels, and attractions offer free admission and perks to kids in the company of paying adults.
Free Self-Guided Walks
A few of these walks can be guided but they are easy to take on your own.
82. Walk the Embarcadero
One of my favorite things to do in downtown San Diego is to take a long walk along the bayfront Embarcadero entertainment area. It’s also a good option for those on a layover who want to leave the airport to stretch their legs.
You can start at the airport and walk down to Seaport Village, admiring the views, occasional busker, and a couple of other sites mentioned on this list. Fees apply to enter the USS Midway Museum (but you can view the historic ship from land) and Maritime Museum of San Diego, but they are also located here. (Location: Downtown San Diego)
83. La Jolla Historical Society Walks
The La Jolla Historical Society has put together a free list of walks you can take depending on your interest. You can get to know the Village of La Jolla or choose a theme such as Historic Beach Cottages of La Jolla, Mid-Century Modern Architecture, Jazz Age La Jolla: Architecture of the 1920s, or Irving Gill’s San Diego. (Location: La Jolla)
84. Coast Walk Trail
One of my favorite easy scenic walks is the Coast Walk Trail. Find the trailhead right near The Cave Store (where the entrance to Sunny Jim Sea Cave is located) and walk it along the cliffs to La Jolla Shores Beach. You’ll enjoy great views of the La Jolla Underwater Park and likely of the resident seals and sea lions. (Location: La Jolla)
85. Julian History Walks
86. Murals of La Jolla
Check out the Murals of La Jolla project via an evening walking tour hosted by the Athenaeum, where guests will learn about each artist. Or, tour the 16 murals on your own with this map. (Location: La Jolla)
87. Crystal Pier
This iconic pier 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. (Location: Pacific Beach)
88. Oceanside Pier
Walk the 1942-foot-long Oceanside Pier for pretty ocean views. The wooden pier was built in 1888. There is even a Ruby’s Diner at the end. (Location: Oceanside)
89. Spruce Street Suspension Bridge
Cross the suspension footbridge in Bankers Hill originally built in 1912 with views of the valley below. (Location: Bankers Hill)
90. Mt. Woodson/Potato Chip Rock
Located in Poway, the 7-mile trail to the locally famous Potato Chip Rock is heavily trafficked and boasts 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 my list of best San Diego hikes.)
We usually have A LOT of free summer concerts and smaller outdoor live music events.
91. Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park
Free organ concerts are held at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion at 2 p.m. on Sundays featuring one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs, dating to 1914.
92. Spreckels Park Summer Concert Series
Join free concerts at Spreckels Park in Coronado on Sunday night during the summer.
93. 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.
94. 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 12–4 p.m.
Other Free Things to Do in San Diego
These ideas for fun free things to do in San Diego don’t fall into any of the categories above.
95. 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. (Location: La Jolla)
96. 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 to free computing and school supplies as part of our mayor’s initiative to make public libraries a center of learning. (Location: Downtown)
97. 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.
98. Tour Taylor Guitars (On Pause)
Take a factory tour at Taylor Guitars to learn how guitars are made. (Location: El Cajon)
99. 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. Head to the beach or one of our parks with some binoculars to take a closer look.
100. Warwick’s Book Signings
Keep an eye on the event calendar once events around town get back underway. Big name and interesting authors (think Ozzy Osbourne, Apollo Ohno, Deepak Chopra) come to do Q&As and speak about their books at Warwick’s. Most of these are free to attend, but you may want to purchase a book for an autograph.
101. Bayshore Bikeway
Sure, you need a bike, but check out this amazing 24-mile bike route that loops around the San Diego Bay and up into Coronado Island. The entire route isn’t for leisure cycling, but 13 miles of it is on family-friendly car-free paths.
102. theNAT Citizen Scientist
You can help the San Diego Natural History Museum document changes in our environment by taking on some of their Citizen Scientist projects. They are fun to get outside, learn something new, and let kids learn in nature.
103. Virtual Learning and Tours
The year 2020 sparked a rise in virtual learning and tour opportunities by our major museums and attractions. I put together a list of my favorite ways to explore and learn about San Diego from home — many of these live cams, videos, and interactive experiences are free.
FAQs About Free Things to Do in San Diego
Is there still a free museum day in San Diego?
For residents of the city and county of San Diego, as well as active military members and their families, Balboa Park museums offer free general admission on different days every month.
Check out the schedule, and take note that some Resident Free Days may be impacted by the pandemic. Consult official museum websites for more information.
What are the best free kids activities in San Diego?
There are many kid-friendly activities to do in San Diego at no cost. Taking a trip to one of the beautiful San Diego beaches should be at the top of your checklist.
Coronado Municipal Beach has relatively calm water that is perfect for kids, while La Jolla Shores Beach is one of San Diego’s nicest beaches with a playground for young kids to enjoy.
Other free, kid-friendly spots include Children’s Pool, which is perfect for seal spotting, and Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, where kids will love to run around.
Are there free things to do in La Mesa, San Diego?
If you are looking for affordable, free activities to do in La Mesa, San Diego, one of the best things to do is visit one of its many parks.
With a beautiful amphitheater and spectacular city views, you can’t go wrong with a trip to Mount Helix Park. Recognized as one of San Diego’s premier landmark parks, Mount Helix also offers stargazing events, picnic areas, walking trails, and it’s also dog friendly.
Taking a trip to Lake Murray or Harry Griffen Park are also great day-trip options.
See also: Best Things to Do in San Diego with Kids
Are any of your favorite free things to do in San Diego missing from this list? Let us know in the comments!