If you’ve booked or are thinking of planning a San Diego vacation, this post is designed to be your “start here” guide. Basic in nature (with more detailed guides linked to throughout), these are the top 10 things to do in San Diego and reasons why people come from all over the world to visit America’s Finest City.
Best San Diego Beaches
The best San Diego beaches feature prominently on most itineraries because they can be enjoyed year-round. What you do at the beach depends on weather and personal preference. People swim, surf, enjoy water sports and sunbathe year round, though the sunbathing part is most common between spring and early fall (and wetsuits are a good idea in winter).
Popular beaches for visitors to San Diego include:
- Coronado Municipal Beach
- La Jolla Shores Beach
- Mission Beach
- Pacific Beach
- Del Mar Beach
- Moonlight Beach
Those wanting the best beachfront hotels in San Diego should first consider these four:
- Beach Village at Hotel Del Coronado
- Hotel Del Coronado
- La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club
- La Jolla Shores Hotel
See also: 15 Best San Diego Beach Hotels
San Diego Zoo
The world-famous San Diego Zoo is a draw for all ages. It is not your typical zoo, which is why it has a reputation for being one of the best in the world.
Over 3500 animal and 700,000 plants, many of which are rare and endangered, live across its 100 gorgeous acres. The Zoo is a pioneer in the concept of open-air, cageless exhibits that re-create natural animal habitats.
Its small hills and valleys in addition to the shade provided by foliage makes it a popular place for residents to take a morning walk, though the Skyfari tram and bus tours cut down on walking if visitors aren’t up for it.
The Zoo is also very stroller-friendly (you can rent strollers, too). Even if you only have half a day to spend here, it is well worth it though a full day is advisable (or until the kids run out of steam).
What to do at the San Diego Zoo includes seeing the Giant Panda, Australian Outback (koalas), Polar Bear Plunge, Elephant Odyssey, Children’s Zoo.
Not-for-profit San Diego Zoo Global owns and operates the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park in addition to the Institute for Conservation Research, one of the largest zoo-based research centers in the world.
The Zoo is one of the only in the world successfully breed the Giant Panda, in partnership with colleagues in China. And, this is just a small part of what they do to prevent extinction worldwide.
Buy San Diego Zoo Discount Tickets:
- Go San Diego Card (most popular bundled San Diego attractions pass)
- aRes Travel (good for Zoo-only tickets and hotel/ticket packages)
(The San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido is definitely also one of San Diego’s best attractions. I find that people love to go, and I recommend that they do go, but it is never the one thing that drives people to book a San Diego vacation.)
LEGO enthusiasts come to San Diego specifically to go to LEGOLAND California. Geared toward kids ages 2 – 12, the resort has several parts to it: a theme park, aquarium, two water parks and a hotel (soon to be two hotels).
LEGOs are present throughout in popular LEGO pits, rides, 4-D movies, activities, and more. 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 summer, especially when the water parks are open daily, families do spend multiple days here.
Tips: Before planning a trip to LEGOLAND, it is VERY important to check their calendar as it 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:
- Go San Diego Card (most popular bundled San Diego attractions)
- aRes Travel (good for straight-to-the-gate LEGOLAND tickets and LEGOLAND hotel/ticket packages)
Balboa Park is the nation’s largest urban cultural park with multiple parks, trails, play areas, and 16 museums. It is a true city treasure.
Look out for the street entertainers, electriquette rentals and bicycle rentals.
Plan to eat while here. Alfresco dining at either the Japanese Friendship Garden for Japanese food favorites or Panama 66 with its craft cocktails are our favorite choices.
A myriad of pass options exists but if your sightseeing activities involve the Zoo and Balboa Park only, I like the Multi-Day Balboa Park Pass with One-Day Zoo pass for tourists. It will allow you to visit Balboa Park (where you pick up the pass) over the course of 7 days in addition to the Zoo once. Balboa Park museums can also be included on the Go San Diego Card. You’ll want to visit more than one museum.
SeaWorld San Diego
Families from around the world also come to San Diego specifically to visit SeaWorld San Diego. The marine park has a few thrilling rides like the Manta rollercoaster and Shipwreck Rapids in addition to the popular Sesame Street Bay of Play for young kids.
Highlights 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. Like the Zoo, SeaWorld San Diego can easily be visited in half a day though a full day is recommended.
The park has come under criticism in recent years for treatment of orcas and evolved its stadium programming from live orca shows to documentary videos of orcas in the wild on a three-story screen in addition to other changes. (Side note: SeaWorld San Diego is the only organization who will rescue our La Jolla seals and sea lions when they are injured, and they often are.)
Buy SeaWorld San Diego Discount Tickets:
- Promotions on SeaWorld San Diego (they, unlike other local theme parks, often run ticket specials)
- Go San Diego Card (most popular bundled San Diego attractions pass)
- aRes Travel (good for straight-to-the-gate, 7-Day SeaWorld San Diego tickets and ticket/hotel packages)
San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park
Believe it or not, many San Diegan’s are unaware that below the ocean’s surface roughly between La Jolla Cove and Scripps Pier lies the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park.
It’s 6000 acres made up of four habitats include rocky reef, kelp bed, sand flats, and a submarine canyon. The combination of habitats actually makes it so that the waves here are perfect for launching kayaks and learning how to surf.
Bordering the underwater park are seven sea caves, only one of which is accessible by land. You’ll see them by kayak and occasionally be able to kayak through one of them depending on the currents.
Marine life commonly seen include sea lions, Garibaldi (California’s state fish), shovelnose guitarfish, leopard sharks and more. There were even a handful of sea turtle sightings (rare) this summer.
Activities here include:
- Surfing (and surfing lessons)
- Stand-up paddleboarding
- Kayak tours to the sea caves (and even for seasonal whale watching)
- Snorkeling tours
- Annual leopard shark migration
There are a variety of excellent local businesses in the La Jolla Shores area that rent 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), Everyday California for kayak and snorkel tours and always check the Birch Aquarium’s event calendar for special seasonal events such as pier walks and grunion runs.
Visitors to San Diego who are interested in water sports may want to stay near or 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, waterskiing, and leisure are available but you could also step it up a notch by trying a jet pack.
Trails for walking, running and biking circle the bay passing by a number of playgrounds and grassy areas that are perfect for picnics and play. There is RV parking and even an urban campground.
San Diego Bay Tours
There are also a variety of fun ways to explore the sights along the San Diego Bay, a natural harbor and deepwater port that spans along Point Loma and around the downtown area to Coronado. Tours here enable visitors to see a bit of marine life and famous San Diego landmarks. Plus, it’s always fun to be out on the water. The tours below are the most popular San Diego Bay tours to consider.
- SEAL Tours: The amphibious bus-boats that start off on land and plunge into the water are a hit with kids.
- Patriot Jet Boat: High speed, 30-minute thrill ride with high-speed spins, tricks, and turns at speeds of up to 50mph (owned by Flagship Cruises)
- Hornblower Cruises: Narrated harbor cruises, dinner cruises, champagne brunch cruises
- Flagship Cruises: Narrated harbor cruises, dinner cruises, champagne brunch cruises, whale watching
- Speed Boat Adventures: Drive your own mini speed boat as part of a narrated group bay tour (fun)
San Diego Breweries
At the time of this writing, there are over 130 breweries in San Diego County and we are headed toward 200 in the not-so-distant future. It’s the most in any county in the U.S. which makes us a destination for craft beer lovers. Which you explore depends on taste and location.
San Diego Magazine has a San Diego brewery guide. To give you an idea, you can explore them by private guide, on a Social Cycle, by train up the coastline (stopping along the way) and a myriad of other San Diego brewery tours.
Annual San Diego Events
Of course, a handful of major and minor annual events bring visitors. You’ve probably heard of them. If you’re not attending one of these San Diego events, it’s best to avoid searching for a hotel near where they’re happening. If you are attending, they sure are fun and it helps to plan well in advance.
- Farmer’s Insurance Open (January)
- San Diego County Fair (June – July)
- Del Mar Racing Season (July – September)
- KABOO (September)
- San Diego Comic-Con (July)
What are your favorite top 10 things to do in San Diego?