This post is sponsored by American Express, however all ideas are my own.
Thanks to our year-round mild climate and seaside location, the best things to do in San Diego are outdoors. In honor of the 25th Anniversary of American Express Membership Rewards®, I’m highlighting 25 epic outdoor activities in America’s Finest City. American Express card members can use points to book all types of great travel experiences, including a San Diego vacation!
1. Eat Fish Tacos at George’s Ocean Terrace
When we have out of town guests, we take them here because it’s a quintessential San Diego experience. Not only are there panoramic ocean views and al fresco dining, but the food is fantastic. I consider the grilled fish tacos some of the best in town.
2. Have Lunch at Torrey Pines Gliderport (Then Glide?)
Bring your camera as this is one of the best ocean views in San Diego. Linger at a picnic table with a good deli sandwich and soda for as long as you like. As if the ocean isn’t soothing enough, watching the gliders float through the sky adds another level of zen. And, guess what? If you’d like to be one of those people in the sky all you need to do is ask if tandem flights are available… it’s also a flight school, after all.
4. Take a Photo at Scripps Pier
This is one of the most popular places in San Diego to Instagram, so you might as well take a stroll along stunning La Jolla Shores beach during sunset to capture a perfect holiday card photo near the pylons with an ocean backdrop.
During the summer season it’s also possible to participate in a pier walk, where scientists set up fun learning stations and share their research. The pier is otherwise closed to the public.
5. Catch a Sunset
Speaking of sunsets over the water, do catch one when in San Diego. With so many restaurants, hotels, and fun things to do near the coast, it’s not hard but you just have to remember to look out for it. Sunset Cliffs near Ocean Beach is a great place to view a sunset (hence its name).
6. Go Boating on the Bay
There are a myriad of ways to enjoy the San Diego Bay. A tour here is a great mode of sightseeing as you’ll likely see the downtown skyline, Coronado, Seaport Village, Embarcadero, Cabrillo National Monument and more along the way. Options include a leisurely harbor cruise, speed boat, sailboat or a seal tour in one of those crazy bus-boat vehicles that starts on land and ends in the water.
7. Fly Like a Fighter Pilot
Top Gun was filmed here and we’re home to a huge military community. It is possible to fly fast, low and with acrobatics in a plane (if thrills are what you seek) while seeing beautiful San Diego scenery in between. See extreme San Diego tours for similar opportunities for an adrenaline rush.
8. Learn to Surf
It is easy to learn how to surf in San Diego with our awesome waves and surf schools so why not give it a go? Two popular spots to learn include La Jolla Shores and Pacific Beach at Law Street or near Crystal Pier.
9. Visit Balboa Park
San Diego is home to the nation’s largest urban cultural park with 15 major museums, renowned performing arts venues, beautiful gardens and the San Diego Zoo. Exploring the park grounds is a free and lovely thing to do, especially if you can catch a special event like a free Spreckels organ performance.
10. SUP Day or Night
It’s possible to stand up paddle board (and even do yoga on an 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?
11. Hike Torrey Pines
Home to the rare Torrey Pine tree, this seaside state park is excellent for leisurely hiking (even for kids) with spectacular ocean views. It’s possible to see whales from here during seasonal migrations. Then, spend the rest of the day at the beach below.
12. Hike to Potato Chip Rock
The Mount Woodson hike leading to potato chip rock isn’t exactly for beginners as it’s rocky and uphill but the epic photo at Potato Chip Rock is one to frame. This 8-mile hike is in Poway.
13. Go Jetpacking
Head to Mission Bay for a jetpacking session without any experience necessary. They’ll give you a tutorial, provide gear and get your flying over the water in no time. How do you “fly” over water? Basically, water hurls into the pack at huge speed and when directed downward, the pack wearer is propelled into the sky.
14. Go to the Beach
Well this one goes without saying as San Diego is home to 70 miles of coastline. Where you go depends largely on where you’re based but top picks include Coronado Municipal Beach, Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, La Jolla Shores, Del Mar, Cardiff, Moonlight Beach and Carlsbad State Beach. See? There are a lot of options.
15. Kayak Sea Caves
Off the coast of La Jolla Shores is a marine life-rich underwater park lined by seven sea caves. A variety of kayaking tours take you by the caves (and inside depending on conditions) while telling 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.
16. Snorkel with Leopard Sharks
July and August bring the largest annual aggregation of leopard sharks in the world to La Jolla. 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.
17. 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. It’s easy to fill up a flash card with photos of them lazing along the coastline, often snuggled up against one another. Adults love this just as much as kids do. See my guide for how best to see the La Jolla seals and sea lions.
18. Drink Craft Beer Al Fresco
A number of San Diego’s best craft breweries have stunning outdoor gardens and patios. Here, it’s possible to experience what our famous beer culture is all about while soaking up sunshine. The original Stone Brewing Company in Escondido is the most picturesque but even Station Tavern’s kid-friendly patio in North Park is a lot of fun.
19. Play Torrey Pines Like Tiger
The Torrey Pines Municipal Golf Course is home San Diego’s prestigious annual PGA golf tournament, the Farmer’s Insurance Open. Grab a tee time here as some holes border the ocean, too.
20. Tour Cabrillo National Monument
San Diego’s National Park is where explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo discovered California in 1542. Located on a peninsula at the tip of Point Loma means the views are spectacular but there are also hiking trails, tide pools and a great Visitors’ Center that tells the story of 16th century exploration.
21. Go Tide Pooling or Grunion Running
Tide pools typically reveal themselves during daylight hours in the winter while grunion run at night year-round (you may fish for them at only certain times of the year). Tide pool creatures include the likes of sea anemones, hermit crabs, starfish and sea cucumbers.
22. 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, La Jolla and beyond are a fantastic way to learn about the area and enjoy the outdoors at the same time. Not up for a bike? We have Segway tours, too.
23. Catch an Outdoor Movie
During the summer, many parks, attractions like the USS Midway and even craft breweries host outdoor movies. BYO blanket and chairs (perhaps a few glow bracelets for the kids) and enjoy temperate evening under the stars.
24. Run Through the Flower Fields
This seasonal spring event lights up a Carlsbad hillside with brightly-colored ranunculus flowers. The fields are open to the public and include tractor rides and other special events. It’s pretty spectacular so a must-see if visiting San Diego during its run.
25. See Grey and Blue Whales
A number of tour companies offer whale watching tours during seasonal migrations of the grey and blue whales. It used to be that we only saw grey whales in San Diego during fall and winter but blue whales are now migrating closer to shore during summer and fall.
Gear Up for a San Diego Vacation
Now that you’re aware of the awesome outdoor things to do in San Diego, it’s time to gear up. Start by taking a peek at the American Express Membership Rewards® 25th Anniversary Collection to find things like a TaylorMade R15 Black Driver for golfing Torrey Pines, a GoPro Hero4 Silver (my favorite action camera), a North Face jacket and other useful items for a San Diego outdoor vacation. You really should also check out their extraordinary experiences further afield (like a private dinner inside the Galleria dell’Accademia, home of Michelangelo’s David).
What’s your favorite thing to do outdoors?