Thanks to a year-round mild climate and seaside location, the outdoor activities San Diego has to offer top most lists of best things to do anyway. I do have my favorites, though, since I’m lucky to live here. My ideas on this list suit all ages, abilities, and budgets — some are even free.
Whether you’re a resident or on a San Diego vacation, plan some outside time to unplug and soak up our sunshine. Don’t forget our big attractions, but I have listed some more nuanced places you may not have considered. I’ll start with the most obvious.
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1. Go to the Beach
No list of things to do outside in San Diego, CA would be complete without mentioning our famous beaches so let’s get it out of the way. We are so lucky to have multiple beaches spread across 70 miles of coastline, each with its own amenities and character.
Where you go to the beach depends on where you’re based, but my top picks include Coronado Central Beach, Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, La Jolla Shores Beach, Del Mar Beach, Moonlight Beach, and South Carlsbad State Beach. You can learn more in my guide to San Diego beaches.
If you live here, I would encourage you to try something new at the beach. Organize a picnic, watch the sunset, maybe even learn how to surf, or choose a new-to-you beach that you’re a little less familiar with.
2. Hike Torrey Pines State Reserve
Home to the rare Torrey pine tree, this seaside state park is an excellent place for leisurely hikes (even for kids) and spectacular ocean views. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is located in northern La Jolla on the border of Del Mar.
As you explore the trails, keep an eye out for gray whales during the winter in addition to the wildflowers and various land wildlife who call the park home. The beach below the reserve is also very popular with families who may want to cool off with a dip in the ocean after a hike.
3. Hike to Potato Chip Rock
The Mount Woodson hike leading to potato chip rock isn’t exactly for beginners. Part of the 8-mile trail is rocky and uphill, but the epic photo of you on top of Potato Chip Rock is one to frame. You’ll find this very popular San Diego hike in Poway. Bring lots of water and be ready for a workout.
4. Kayak to the La Jolla Sea Caves
Seven sea caves line the La Jolla Ecological Reserve, a protected and marine life-rich underwater park in between La Jolla Shores Beach and La Jolla Cove.
A variety of kayaking tours take you out to the caves (and inside depending on conditions). The guides tell stories about how they were used during prohibition to smuggle booze into town.
Along the way, you’ll no doubt see leopard sharks, orange Garibaldi (California’s state fish), and friendly sea lions. You get all of this while getting some exercise in our fabulous sunshine. I have taken Everyday California’s kayak tour and recommend it. They also offer other water sports experiences like surfing lessons and snorkeling tours.
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5. Snorkel with Leopard Sharks (Summer)
July and August bring the largest annual aggregation of leopard sharks in the world to La Jolla Shores Beach. Most are pregnant, and they come to incubate in the warm waters while feasting on sea life provided by the underwater park.
They’re harmless, so it’s possible to chill with them in knee-deep water but hopping on a guided snorkeling tour is definitely recommended (use the above Everyday California discount).
6. Bike Around Mission Bay
Put the bikes in the car or rent one to cycle around the 12 miles of Mission Bay bike paths that go roughly in a loop. It’s a flat ride that is easy for small kids. In fact, there are a few playgrounds you’ll pass along the way, in addition to some of our Mission Bay resorts where you can stop in for a coffee or a bite to eat. There are also a couple of grassy areas that would be perfect for flying a kite.
You can take your bike on the ferry to Coronado Island. From the Coronado Ferry Landing, ride over to the Hotel del Coronado side. There’s a bike path along the Silver Strand between Coronado and Imperial Beach, where you’ll have the San Diego Bay on one side and the gorgeous state beach on the other.
7. Eat Fish Tacos at George’s Ocean Terrace
When we have out-of-town guests, we take them for lunch at George’s Ocean Terrace. I think it’s a quintessential San Diego experience because it highlights the best of what we’re known for.
The outdoor rooftop restaurant boasts panoramic ocean views over La Jolla Cove. The farm-to-table menu is fantastic. I consider the grilled fish tacos some of the best in town and I pair them with their famous black bean soup.
Plus, what’s better than sipping a nice glass of wine in our sunshine with friends? The tables are shaded by umbrellas and are currently divided with glass partitions. I recommend making reservations and asking for a table against the glass fence because it’s closest to the Cove.
If not George’s, find another al fresco dining spot near you. Our restaurants could certainly use the support right now.
8. Have Lunch at Torrey Pines Gliderport (Then Glide?)
Bring your camera. Torrey Pines Gliderport offers one of the best Pacific Ocean views in San Diego from atop the cliffs overlooking Black’s Beach.
Colorful gliders float above you in the sky. The scene is rather relaxing, and you can find yourself sitting here, decompressing for longer than expected. Linger at a picnic table with a good deli sandwich and soda from the cafe for as long as you like, or bring your own.
And guess what? If you’d like to be one of those people in the sky, ask if tandem flights are available. It’s also a flight school, after all. They don’t take reservations. It’s first-come, first-served. You can read my list of top San Diego adventures with ideas like this one for the more daring.
9. Explore Tide Pools (Winter)
San Diego tide pools reveal themselves when low tides happen during daylight hours in the winter season. You’ll need to check the tide charts to find a minus tide. When you see one, especially if it’s around -1 or lower, head out to the beaches known for tide pooling.
Tide pool creatures include the likes of sea anemones, hermit crabs, starfish, and sea cucumbers.
10. Spend a Day at San Diego Zoo
With so much emphasis on the closure of theme parks and museums, I’ve learned that people tend to forget that San Diego Zoo is mostly outdoor exhibits. Walking around the park is good exercise, plus you’ll have a chance to see your favorite animals like polar bears, koalas, giraffes, and more. Remember, it’s also a botanical garden and you can take some of their tours on a private buyout basis.
It’s operating pretty normally, but the guided bus tour, play areas, movie theater, and a few other indoor experiences are closed. You won’t miss them. Also, remember that this isn’t just an activity in San Diego for kids — all ages love it. Read my San Diego Zoo tips.
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11. Or, Visit San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Yes, this popular attraction is open, too. San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s best exhibits are outside. You can enjoy the wallabies, meerkats, lions, giraffes, tigers, and other animals at this famous facility. Some safaris are also available for private buyout.
Certain hands-on animal encounters are temporarily on pause as is the Africa Tram. Bring the whole family through and maximize your day with tips from my San Diego Zoo Safari Park Guide.
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12. Take Photos at Scripps Pier
Scripps Pier is one of the most popular places in San Diego on Instagram. People are drawn to its linear aesthetic and ocean backdrop that is perfect for family and holiday card photos, especially during the golden hour.
During the summer season, you can also participate in a pier walk with Birch Aquarium, where scientists set up fun learning stations and share their research. The pier is otherwise closed to the public.
You’ll find it on La Jolla Shores Beach, so this San Diego outdoor activity isn’t just about the pier. Walking to it and enjoying the beach is part of the fun, too. This is my favorite beach to walk the dog and for exercise in general. And, per #3 above, some of the best La Jolla tide pools are located just north of the pier at Dike Rock.
13. Catch a Sunset
One of the things to do outside in San Diego that even residents frequently overlook is the simple joy of watching a sunset over the Pacific Ocean. Views are part of the reason why our nickname is America’s Finest City. Take a blanket and a picnic to your favorite beach. Or, book a happy hour or dinner at your favorites seaside restaurant.
Sunset Cliffs near Ocean Beach one of the best places for a sunset (hence its name). You’ll find it on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, in between Adair Street and Ladera Street. Find free street parking, and walk into the park.
14. Go Boating on the San Diego Bay
Yes, even now, you can head out into the San Diego bay on a harbor cruise, sightseeing tour, or ferry. Narrated tours share interesting facts about our military history, the downtown skyline, Coronado Bridge, Coronado Island, Shelter Island, Cabrillo National Monument, USS Midway Museum, Star of India at San Diego Maritime Museum, and other sights you may pass.
Options include a leisurely San Diego harbor cruise, drive-your-own speed boat, catamarans, or a seal tour in one of those crazy bus-boat vehicles that starts on land and ends in the water. We even have the Patriot Jet Boat thrill ride that I suggest to people visiting San Diego with teens. Refer to my list of favorite San Diego bay cruises for more ideas.
15. Learn How to Surf
Our awesome waves and surf schools make learning how to surf in San Diego a breeze. Why not give it a go? The foam boards forgive a little wobbliness, and kids as young as five can try, too.
Two popular spots to learn include La Jolla Shores and Pacific Beach at Law Street. You can also choose Mission Beach, Del Mar, Coronado Beach, or Carlsbad beaches.
(Those who are already experts at shredding waves, can head over to spots like Windansea Beach and Black’s Beach.)
16. SUP During the Day or Night
It’s possible to stand up paddleboard (and even do yoga on a SUP) all across San Diego County from Mission Bay to Carlsbad’s Agua Hedionda lagoon. Rentals are also easy to come by, as are lessons.
However, several companies offer night tours LED-lit stand up paddle boards that attract marine life to the surface. How cool is that? Most of these tours are temporarily paused, but keep this fun thing to do outdoors in San Diego for the future.
Other popular water sports include kayaking, aqua cycling, boat rentals, sailing, jet skiing, and more.
17. Explore Balboa Park
San Diego is home to the largest urban cultural park in the United States with 16 major museums, renowned performing arts venues, playgrounds, beautiful gardens, hiking trails, and the San Diego Zoo.
Exploring Balboa Park grounds is a free and lovely thing to do outside in San Diego, especially if you can catch a special event like a free performance at Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Remember that the beautiful Japanese Friendship Garden is open.
If you have time to dine al fresco, Panama 66 and the Tea Pavilion are my favorite places to eat in the park anyway — both have only outside seating.
18. See the La Jolla Seals and Sea Lions
La Jolla’s seals and sea lions are used to people and you can get quite close to them, however, a respectful distance is encouraged. You can start at La Jolla Cove where the sea lions hang out and take a leisurely walk south to the Children’s Pool, our unique urban rookery for harbor seals.
It’s easy to fill up a camera flashcard with photos of them lazing along the coastline, often snuggled up against one another. Adults love this San Diego outdoor activity just as much as kids do. See my guide for how best to see the La Jolla seals and sea lions including a helpful map.
19. Drink Craft Beer Al Fresco
A number of San Diego’s best craft breweries have stunning outdoor gardens and patios. Those who do tend to be welcoming to families. There’s no better way to experience what our famous beer culture is all about than by sipping under sunshine.
The original Stone Brewing Company in Escondido is the most picturesque but even Station Tavern’s kid-friendly patio in South Park is a lot of fun for all ages.
20. Golf Torrey Pines Like Tiger
Golf is booming right now in San Diego so there’s no time like the present to learn or take advantage of the spectacular courses on offer around town.
Torrey Pines Municipal Golf Course is home to San Diego’s prestigious annual PGA golf tournament, the Farmer’s Insurance Open. Grab a tee time here (as far in advance as possible) as some holes border the ocean, too.
TEE TIMES THROUGH THE LODGEThe golf services desk at The Lodge at Torrey Pines can help guests secure tee times here and at other private clubs in North County if you’re in need of a vacation or staycation.
21. Tour Cabrillo National Monument
San Diego’s National Park commemorates the discovery of California by a Spanish explorer named Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo.
Its location on a peninsula at the tip of Point Loma means the San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean views at Cabrillo National Monument are spectacular. There are also hiking trails, tide pools, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, and a great Visitor Center that tells the story of 16th-century exploration. Kids can earn Junior Ranger badges, too, at this family favorite.
22. Go Grunion Running
Late at night, grunion “run” onto the beach to lay eggs in the sand before swimming back out into the ocean. This natural occurrence is unique to Southern California and one of the fun outdoor activities in San Diego for night owls. Expected times are posted by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
I recommend that you bring a camping headlamp to see them. Avoid using your phone as a flashlight because I’ve seen people drop them into the water.
23. Take an Electric Bike Tour
Don’t worry about pedaling hard if you don’t want to. Electric bikes can chug up steep hills with no problem or you can set them to pedal with as much effort as desired.
Bike tours in the Gaslamp Quarter, La Jolla, and beyond are a fantastic way to learn about the area and enjoy the outdoors at the same time. Try San Diego Fly Rides’ California Dreamin’ or SoCal Riviera tours.
Not up for a bike ride? We have Segway tours, too.
24. Catch an Outdoor Movie (Summer)
During the summer months, many parks, attractions like the USS Midway Museum (and even some craft breweries) host family-friendly outdoor movies. BYO blanket, chairs, and perhaps a few glow bracelets for the kids for a temperate evening under the stars.
25. Run Through the Flower Fields (Spring)
The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch lights up a Carlsbad hillside with brightly-colored ranunculus flowers every spring. They also host fun outdoor activities for the public to enjoy, including tractor rides and other special events. It’s pretty spectacular and a trendy place to take photos for your Instagram feed (that you can use my list of travel hashtags to promote).
26. See Gray and Blue Whales
A number of tour companies offer whale watching tours during seasonal migrations of the gray and blue whales.
We used to only see gray whales in San Diego during fall and winter but blue whales are now migrating closer to shore during summer and fall. It’s a lovely opportunity to get out of the city and on the water, and you’ll usually see dolphins, birds, and other sea life, too.
27. Play at Belmont Park
Belmont Park San Diego is our seaside amusement park in Mission Beach with (temporarily closed) rides and carnival games. Even now, you can still walk around to enjoy some of their outdoor activities like the Midway Games, Tiki Golf, Rock Wall, and The Plunge Pool.
Soak up sunshine over sushi at Cannonball, the rooftop restaurant, or sip cocktails in the sand at BeachHouse.
28. Cruise the Mission Beach Boardwalk
The 3-mile boardwalk that runs between Pacific Beach and Mission Beach is called Ocean Front Walk. It’s lined with vacation rentals, hotels, motels, restaurants, and beach bars. I like to walk on it but many others choose to bicycle, roller skate, or skateboard. You’ll see some colorful characters and occasional buskers. The vibe is upbeat, especially in good weather, but eclectic.
In fact, if you want to rent a skateboard or bicycle, to use on the boardwalk, you can pick them up at Belmont Park.
29. Explore Old Town San Diego
Sure, the tiny museums are closed but Old Town State Historic Park, the restaurants, El Campo Santo cemetery, and shops are not. One could easily spend a few hours walking around the birthplace of California and cap it off with some delicious Mexican food or a giant margarita. For more inspiration, read my Old Town San Diego guide.
30. Get Inspired at San Diego Botanic Garden
With your newfound time at home, why not go to one of the best places for garden inspiration whether your tastes are water-wise or tropical. San Diego Botanic Garden is open and ready for you to explore its 37 acres and 4 miles of trails.
Not only that, but you can bring the whole family. Kids love the many outdoor activities like grass mazes and more in Hamilton Children’s Garden.
Most of our shopping malls, like Westfield UTC mall and some of our outlet malls are outdoor adventures. Sure, you would need to go inside of the stores but the bigger outdoor malls are set up like lifestyle spaces with plenty of outdoor lounging areas, outside dining, and more.
You can walk around the shops in La Jolla, Little Italy, North Park, or Seaport Village all while enjoying the fresh air and our fabulous West Coast weather.
My Favorite Outdoor Activities in San Diego
If you’re having trouble narrowing down this list, these are my favorite things to do outside in San Diego.
1. Visiting the La Jolla Seals and Sea Lions
I never get tired of visiting the seals at the Children’s Pool and the sea lions at La Jolla Cove. They’re always doing something a little bit different than the last time I saw them. Not to mention, it’s a lovely walk between these two areas.
2. Kayaking the La Jolla Sea Caves
When people come to me looking for ideas they haven’t considered for their trip to San Diego, I always mention a kayak tour out to the La Jolla sea caves. Many tell me that it was a vacation highlight. It’s fun and a great exercise to paddle along the coast while catching a glimpse of sea life.
3. Outdoor Dining
When the weather is good, and it usually is, enjoying a meal at one of our many spectacular outdoor oceanfront restaurants is high on my list. I choose George’s Ocean Terrace because it’s one of San Diego’s best restaurants and also quite near my house.
4. San Diego Zoo
The vast majority of San Diego Zoo exhibits are outside. So, you can spend an entire day there in today’s environment and not feel like you’re missing out on a thing. I’ve been a San Diego Zoo member for a long time because I love animals and also what they do conservation-wise for the entire globe.
5. Going to the Beach
Going to the beach doesn’t necessarily mean sunbathing. For us, it’s a place to exercise, take the dog on walks, meet friends, picnic, surf, SUP, swim, and generally just get outside of the house. The beach is one of the main reasons why we are lucky to live here.
What are your favorite outdoors activities in San Diego?
Katie Dillon is the managing editor of La Jolla Mom. She helps readers plan San Diego vacations through her hotel expertise (that stems from living in a Four Seasons hotel) and local connections. Readers have access to exclusive discounts on theme park tickets (like Disneyland and San Diego Zoo) and perks at luxury hotels worldwide through her. She also shares insider tips for visiting major cities worldwide like Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Shanghai that her family has either lived in or visits regularly (or both).
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Things to Do
Before You Go
Explore More Things to Do in San Diego
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Whaley House Museum: Hauntings, Highlights, & Tips
20 Fun Things to Do at the Carlsbad Flower Fields
10 Best Old Town San Diego Shops: Where to Go & What to Buy