- San Diego Beaches
- Theme Parks and Amusement Parks
- Balboa Park
- State Parks and a National Park
- Embarcadero (and Little Italy)
- San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park
- Mission Bay
- San Diego Bay Tours
- San Diego Breweries
- Annual Events
The only challenge you’ll run into when deciding on fun things to do in San Diego will be narrowing down your options. I live in this sunny paradise so I can confirm that locals enjoy many of the same offerings — theme parks, breweries, beaches, water sports, hikes, museums, and more — that visitors come from far and wide to explore. You’re in luck because you’re about to find out which ones are truly considered the best.
Think of this as your quick start or first-time visitor’s guide. These are our top attractions, but throughout the post, you’ll find links to even more detailed guides, hotel recommendations, and ideas for saving money that will help you drill down on exactly what to do in San Diego in each recommended spot and beyond. There are really close to a hundred suggestions here. In some cases, I link to current discounts, so you can book tickets for less right now (and I may be compensated if you do).
Note: Please check with the attraction directly before arriving. Face coverings for ages 2 and older and proper distancing will be required. Reservations may be required.
1. San Diego Beaches
Visiting the beach is certainly one of the top 10 things to do in San Diego. The water is perfect for wading, surfing, and swimming for most of the year and wetsuits can be easily rented during the winter when Southern California ocean water temperature runs on the chillier side. San Diego beaches feature prominently on most travelers’ itineraries specifically because they can be enjoyed year-round and are one of our best free attractions.
What you do at the beach depends on weather and personal preference, but these are the San Diego beaches I recommend that you check out:
- Coronado Central Beach: With usually calmer shore breaks and a wide, flat stretch of sand, this is a great Coronado beach for families and rated as one of the best in the nation. Plus, it’s an excuse to head over the famous Coronado bridge or ferry.
- La Jolla Shores Beach: The way the waves break here makes it an ideal place to learn to surf, and there are lifeguards on duty until dusk. The beach is divided into surfing and swimming and is a launch point for kayaking, snorkeling, and diving tours.
- Pacific Beach: A boardwalk runs along this is a pretty stretch of sandy beach that is popular with young professionals and college students. There are lots of beach bars nearby though the Law Street section of this beach is more family-friendly.
- Del Mar Beach: There are bathrooms, showers, and lifeguards at this very popular beach for sunbathing and swimming.
- Torrey Pines State Beach: Visit this pretty beach after exploring the hiking trails at adjacent Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.
- Moonlight Beach: You’ll find everything you need at this Encinitas beach, from picnic tables, fire rings, lifeguards, and restrooms to volleyball courts, a snack bar, and equipment rentals.
- Ocean Beach: Sunset Cliffs Natural Park above Ocean Beach is one of our best places to watch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean (perhaps after fish tacos at nearby South Beach).
If you love the beach, it’s worth looking into the beachfront San Diego hotels. These are some of the best:
- Beach Village at The Del
- Hotel del Coronado (it’s popular to visit this National Historic Landmark if not staying there)
- La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club
- La Jolla Shores Hotel
Learn more and book: 17 Best San Diego Beach Hotels
2. San Diego Theme Parks and Amusement Parks
Our top Southern California theme parks and amusement parks make San Diego, CA a very popular family vacation destination.
San Diego Zoo
The world-famous San Diego Zoo is a treat for all ages. And it’s not your typical zoo, which is why it has a reputation for being one of the best in the world.
There are more than 3,500 animals representing 650 different species and 700,000 plant species on the Zoo’s 100-acre property. Many of these animals and plants are rare or endangered. The Zoo is very active in conservation research and species preservation and has been a pioneer in the concept of open-air, cageless exhibits that re-create natural animal habitats.
A lot of visitors come to see the Australian Outback habitat, Polar Bear Plunge, Elephant Odyssey, and the Children’s Zoo (currently closed for renovation). Its small hills and valleys, in addition to the shade provided by foliage, makes it a popular place to simply stroll, though the Skyfari tram and bus tours cut down on walking if you’re not up for it. Even if you only have half a day to spend here, it is well worth the price of admission, though a full day is advisable (or stay until the kids run out of steam). Please note that our pandas have returned to China.
- Go San Diego® pass (click to apply my 10% discount on All-Inclusive passes.)
- aRes Travel (use code lajollamom to save $6 off of 1-Day adult and child Zoo and Safari Park tickets)
LEGOLAND California is a must-visit attraction for families with kids ages 2–12. Older siblings and parents can get in on the fun, too. There are more than 60 rides, 4-D movies, building activities. 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 the warmer months, LEGOLAND Water Park is a great place to cool off, and SEA LIFE® Aquarium is a lot of fun year-round. In summer, especially when the water parks are open daily, LEGO-loving families can and do spend multiple days here.
Tip: Before planning a trip to LEGOLAND, it is VERY important to check their calendar because the park 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.
- Go San Diego pass (click to apply my 10% discount on All-Inclusive passes.)
- aRes Travel (good for straight-to-the-gate LEGOLAND tickets and LEGOLAND hotel/ticket packages)
SeaWorld San Diego
Families from around the world come to San Diego specifically to visit SeaWorld San Diego.
In addition to its marine exhibits, SeaWorld San Diego also has a few thrilling rides like the Manta roller coaster and Shipwreck Rapids. Plus there is the popular Sesame Street Bay of Play for young kids, making it one of the best things to do in San Diego for families because it caters to all ages of kids.
Other highlights at SeaWorld San Diego 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. The once-famous live orca shows have been replaced by beautiful documentary videos of orcas in the wild on a three-story screen, and there are still live sea lion and dolphin shows.
Like the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld San Diego can easily be visited in half a day, though a full day is recommended to enjoy the activities here.
- Go San Diego (Click to apply my 10% discount on All-Inclusive passes. )
- aRes Travel (good for straight-to-the-gate, 7-Day SeaWorld San Diego tickets and ticket/hotel packages)
- Promotions on SeaWorld San Diego (they, unlike other local theme parks, often run ticket specials)
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Consider also visiting the San Diego Zoo Safari Park® in Escondido, which is definitely one of San Diego’s best tourist attractions. It’s part of San Diego Zoo Global and offers a very different experience than the Zoo because many of the animals roam in large environments that mimic the African and Asian savannas.
Here, definitely opt to take a ride in one of the open-air tram safaris that circle around the various enclosures. These are really fascinating guided tours that get you up close and personal with giraffes, rhinos, zebras, and other animals. You can also do a challenging ropes course or even a zipline safari that will give you a one-of-a-kind bird’s eye view of the park. Refer to my detailed San Diego Zoo Safari Park guide before you go.
Buy San Diego Zoo Safari Park discount tickets:
- Go San Diego® pass (click to apply my 10% discount on All-Inclusive passes.)
- aRes Travel (use code lajollamom to save $6 off of 1-Day adult and child Zoo and Safari Park tickets)
Belmont Park San Diego is our seaside amusement park located in Mission Beach. You can ride the historic Big Dipper roller coaster, that was built in 1925, in addition to other carnival rides. Kids like playing laser tag, driving bumper cars, and playing the arcade games.
You can grab a Dole Whip or a beer at Cannonball. It’s free to enter Belmont Park, but you’ll want to buy a wristband or attractions pass otherwise a la carte pricing adds up.
3. Balboa Park
Balboa Park is the nation’s largest urban cultural park with multiple parks, trails, play areas, and 17 museums. It is a true city treasure, and there are so many things to do in Balboa Park for just about everyone.
Look out for the street entertainers and bicycle rentals. Plan to eat while you’re here because there are some wonderful restaurants in Balboa Park. Alfresco dining at either the Japanese Friendship Garden for Japanese food favorites or Panama 66 with its craft cocktails are our favorite choices. You can also stop to see a performance at the Old Globe Theatre. Top San Diego museum choices include:
- San Diego Natural History Museum (theNAT): Go to learn about our area’s flora and fauna through their vast collection and you’ll see why local kids love the San Diego Natural History Museum.
- Fleet Science Center: This is another family museum with loads of hands-on exhibits designed to showcase science through play. They also show short movies in an IMAX dome theater.
- Museum of Us: Climb the California Tower for the most spectacular views in San Diego. Wander through the anthropology exhibits inside that showcase the human relationship with animals, race, our ancestors and even beer.
- Museum of Photographic Arts: It’s one of the few museums entirely dedicated to photography. Don’t forget to browse the museum gift shop for neat prints and gadgets.
- San Diego Museum of Art: Our fine art museum boasts an emphasis in Spanish art with a collection that includes Goya and Rubens.
- San Diego Air and Space Museum: Here you’ll see real and replica and original aircraft and spacecraft in addition to MaxFlight® simulators and other hands-on exhibits all ages love.
It is free to walk through Balboa Park to enjoy its hiking trails, gardens, playgrounds for kids and public spaces. To visit the museums, you should have a pass that allows you to visit more than one as they are not large.
Balboa Park museums can also be included on the Go San Diego pass with other San Diego attractions. If your sightseeing activities only involve the Zoo and Balboa Park, I like the Balboa Park Combo Pass with One-Day Zoo pass for tourists. It lets you visit Balboa Park (where you pick up the pass) museums over the course of 7 days in addition to the Zoo once.
4. State Parks and a National Park
Our top attractions in San Diego are must-see state parks and Cabrillo National Monument, which is our only National Park. They are outdoor activities that offer much more than pretty scenery.
Cabrillo National Monument
Cabrillo National Monument at the end of Point Loma pays tribute to the discovery of California by Spanish Explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. Here, you’ll find a statue that pays tribute to Cabrillo with a backdrop of panoramic bay and city views down to the Coronado bridge.
A network of hiking trails wraps around the Pacific Ocean side of Point Loma in the park where ocean views abound. Along the way, you’ll pass by some historic structures like WWII bunkers and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. During winter low tides, you’ll also be able to explore some of San Diego’s best tide pools here. The only admission fee that you pay is to park your car and you can grab a map at the Visitor Center.
Tip: From here is’ not that far to Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. Or you can stop for lunch on the way in or out of Point Loma at Liberty Station Public Market on Rosecrans Avenue.
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Old Town San Diego is a top tourist attraction that encompasses Old Town State Historic Park and is considered the birthplace of California. It’s free to enter and there are multiple small museums in 19th-century wood-frame and adobe buildings that showcase what life was like in early California. Even locals like to come and enjoy the Mexican food restaurants and live performances here.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is another popular spot with visitors and locals for its family-friendly mild to moderate hiking trails and ocean views. It’s one of two places the endangered Torrey Pine tree grows. You can pair a visit here with Torrey Pines State Beach below the reserve.
Tip: The Torrey Pines Gliderport is also nearby where you can fly tandem on a first-come, first-served basis with an instructor. Grab a sandwich or salad at the casual cafe here to eat on the picnic tables while you watch the colorful gliders fly across the sky in Southern California sunshine. There is also a steep trail down to the Black’s Beach though it’s easier if you’re a surfer carrying a surfboard to access it from Torrey Pines State Beach or La Jolla Shores (albeit a long walk from either).
5. Embarcadero (and Little Italy)
Spend a day or half-day in downtown San Diego’s waterfront Embarcadero entertainment area. Some of our most popular tourist attractions are here, the views over San Diego Bay are fantastic, and you’ll have easy access to some of our best restaurants on the Embarcadero (there are several in the new Portside Pier to try). Plus, you can walk in between everything which makes sightseeing a breeze.
Maritime Museum of San Diego
The Maritime Museum of San Diego is home to what is considered one of the world’s best collections of historic ships. This is also a great stop for history fans as you’ll see what a real Cold War-era Soviet submarine really looks like inside and be able to walk on board the Star of India, the world’s oldest active ship. It’s docked right on the Embarcadero so a great spot for photos.
USS Midway Museum
If you’re interested in military history, you must visit the USS Midway Museum. The aircraft carrier is permanently docked in the bay and is one of the most unique museums in the world. Take the self-guided audio tour and look out for docents — many of them actually served on the USS Midway. You’ll also enjoy wandering around the military aircraft on the flight deck. During normal times you can climb into some of the cockpits.
War Memorials and Statues
On the south side of the USS Midway Museum, you can’t miss the Unconditional Surrender kissing statue. But as you walk toward it, take a look at some of the war memorials that are part of the “Greatest Generation Collection.”
Get ready to shop and eat at the waterfront Seaport Village which has about 50 shops and 17 eateries, not to mention occasional busking and a vintage carousel.
Walking distance to Little Italy from the Embarcadero is just a few blocks. So, if you find yourself on the end near the Maritime Museum of San Diego, walk a few blocks to satisfy your cravings (check my list of Little Italy restaurants). Look out for the Saturday farmers market, which is very popular with locals.
Favorite hotels in San Diego near the Embarcadero and Little Italy:
6. San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park
Believe it or not, many locals are unaware that below the ocean’s surface, roughly between La Jolla Cove and Scripps Pier, lies the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park.
Its 6,000 acres represent four habitats that include rocky reefs, kelp beds, sand flats, and a submarine canyon. The combination of habitats actually makes it so that the waves here are gentle and perfect for launching kayaks and learning how to surf. There are guided diving, snorkeling, and kayak tours of the park. You can also rent a kayak or bring your own snorkel gear and explore it yourself. Plus, you can even swim out to it from La Jolla Cove.
Bordering the underwater park are seven sea caves, only one of which — Sunny Jim Cave — is accessible by land. You can see them by kayak or stand up paddleboard, and you can sometimes kayak through one of them on a guided tour depending on the currents.
Marine life commonly seen here include our resident sea lions, Garibaldi (California’s state fish), shovelnose guitarfish, leopard sharks, and more. The underwater views are quite good for California. There are even a handful of sea turtle sightings in summer. Tide pools reveal themselves during daylight winter low tides. And, we have the annual leopard shark migration in summer. Don’t worry, they’re harmless.
Popular water sports here include:
- Surfing and surfing lessons on the La Jolla Shores side (surfers beware that you can’t use surfboards or boogie boards on the La Jolla Cove side)
- Stand-up paddleboarding
- Kayak tours to the sea caves (and even for seasonal whale watching)
- Snorkeling tours
Need gear or lessons? There are a variety of excellent local businesses in the La Jolla Shores area that rent out 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 (apply code lajollamom and click the green checkmark for a 20% discount on tours, lessons, and rentals) 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.
You’ll also be close to other popular things to do in La Jolla. If you’re on the La Jolla Cove side, walk past Ellen Browning Scripps Park down to the Children’s Pool to see the famous La Jolla seals and sea lions. Leave some time to explore our boutiques, art galleries, and eateries ranging from casual Mexican to rooftop views to fine dining.
Favorite La Jolla hotels:
Tip: The Lodge at Torrey Pines is right on Torrey Pines Golf Course and can help you secure tee times. It’s one of the hotels in San Diego where I also have Virtuoso amenities that add value to your stay that include a slight discount, breakfast for two, and more. People who want to play championship courses stay here, but it’s very popular with luxury boutique hotel enthusiasts.
7. Mission Bay
Visitors to San Diego who are interested in water sports may want to stay near or at least 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, water skiing, and leisure are available, but if you’re hungry for more thrilling activities, you could also step it up a notch by trying a water-powered 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 — all are free to use. There is also RV parking and even an urban campground.
If you’re coming to San Diego specifically to surf, sail, kayak, or paddleboard, you should know that some of the Mission Bay hotels and resorts have water sports activity centers onsite otherwise, you can try Mission Bay Aquatic Center. It takes about 10-15 minutes to reach the bay from downtown San Diego, depending on which bay location is your final destination. You can also walk a few blocks on the west side of the bay to Mission Beach and its casual vibe where Belmont Park, our beachfront amusement park, is also located.
8. San Diego Bay Tours
There are a variety of fun ways to go sightseeing along the San Diego Bay, which is a natural harbor and deepwater port that spans along Point Loma and around the downtown San Diego area to Coronado Island. You can walk from Little Italy, Seaport Village, and the Gaslamp Quarter to where most of these tours depart. Bay tours are one of the best things to do in San Diego and a relaxing way to get a broad view of the city before you start visiting attractions and historic landmarks.
The tours I share below let visitors see a bit of marine life and a lot of the famous San Diego landmarks. Plus, it’s always fun to be out on the water on one of the many San Diego harbor cruise options— especially in our fabulous West Coast weather.
These are the most popular San Diego Bay tours:
- SEAL Tours: These amphibious bus-boats that start off on land and plunge into the water are a hit with kids.
- Patriot Jet Boat: This is a high-speed, 30-minute thrill ride with spins, tricks, and turns at speeds of up to 50 mph.
- Hornblower Cruises: They offer narrated harbor cruises, dinner cruises, wonderful champagne brunch cruises, and you can even book a seasonal whale watching cruise.
- Flagship Cruises: People love their narrated harbor cruises, dinner cruises, champagne brunch cruises, and San Diego whale watching cruises.
- San Diego Harbor Speed Boat Adventures: You can drive your own mini speed boat as part of a narrated group bay tour.
Learn more and book: 11 Popular San Diego Bay Tours
It’s also easy to experience the San Diego Bay without taking a tour. The bayside walkway along the Embarcadero stretches from roughly the airport to the Convention Center.
9. San Diego Breweries
When it comes to what to do in San Diego for the age 21+ visitor, brewery tours are very popular. At the time of this writing, there are over 220 breweries in San Diego. It’s the most breweries of any county in the United States, which makes our city a perfect destination for craft beer lovers.
How you explore the brewery culture here depends on your tastes and location but options can include a private guide, on a Social Cycle pedaling through the Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego, by train up the coastline (stopping along the way), and simply seeking out urban breweries near your hotel. You will not run out of new beer to try and will be able to knock out some sightseeing along the way.
10. Annual San Diego Events
Annual events large and small also bring visitors to San Diego on day trips and long trips. You’ve probably heard of some of them, and it’s worth seeing what’s happening in San Diego during your visit so you can plan ahead. Be aware that if you are attending a special annual event in the city, it helps to plan well in advance since the city can get crowded and tickets to local attractions can sell out.
These are just some of the events that draw people here from all over:
- The Farmer’s Insurance Open (January)
- San Diego County Fair (June – July)
- Del Mar Racing Season (July – September)
- KABOO (September)
- San Diego Comic-Con (July)
- Padres Major League Baseball Season at PETCO Park (March – October)
Note: If you’re not attending one of these San Diego events, it’s best to avoid searching for San Diego hotels near where they’re happening because rates may be much higher than usual.
FAQs About Things to Do in San Diego, California
Learn even more about why San Diego is referred to as America’s Finest City.
What can you do for free in San Diego?
Some of the best things to do in San Diego, CA are actually free. The number one free thing to do is go to the beach. Visiting Old Town San Diego doesn’t cost a penny unless you purchase souvenirs or dine in a restaurant. The same goes for the Gaslamp Quarter and Balboa Park (most museums are at an additional cost). Attractions in San Diego include a myriad of no-cost hiking trails, parks, self-guided art walks, and much more to do. For more information, see my list of 100 free things to do in San Diego.
What is popular in San Diego?
The world-famous San Diego Zoo is San Diego’s most popular attraction because of its stunning layout with exhibits mimicking the animal’s natural habitat, proximity to downtown and the airport, and botanical garden. Outdoor activities are also incredibly popular whether you hit the beaches, enjoy water sports, learn how to surf, or even go scuba diving.
What is there to do for adults in San Diego?
Aside from theme parks, adult travelers tend to enjoy the same things that kids do in San Diego like the beaches, hikes, waterfront entertainment areas — with one exception. We don’t have the same nightlife as say, Los Angeles, but we are the craft beer capital of the United States with over 220 breweries.
In fact, many adults visit San Diego just to sample beer and our culinary offerings have also risen to the occasion with fantastic restaurants sprinkled throughout the county. Of course, there are a few popular speakeasies, nightclubs, and bars to explore in the Gaslamp Quarter.
What is there to do for kids in San Diego?
San Diego family vacations can be taken year-round, thanks to our temperate weather and relatively-consistent sunshine. Whether your kids are babies or teens, there is plenty for them to do here from theme parks to free and fun outdoor activities. Read my ultimate guide to things to do in San Diego with kids and my list of popular teen activities.
What is famous in San Diego?
San Diego is home to famous landmarks but also reaps benefits of having fabulous location and a Major League Baseball team. San Diego is famous for:
- 70 miles of coastline including gorgeous beaches
- Year-round sunshine
- Hotel del Coronado (It’s one of the last remaining Victorian beach resorts that boasts a long list of notable guests, has been in several famous movies, and is also rumored to be haunted.)
- San Diego-Coronado Bridge
- San Diego Zoo (t’s famous for being one of the largest zoos in the United States but also for its conservation efforts, collection of rare animals, and its fantastic layout.
- Craft Beer
- San Diego Padres
What are your favorite top 10 things to do in San Diego?