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Top 10 Things to Do in San Diego, California — a Local’s Tips

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).

See also: 14 San Diego Discounts: Experience the City for Less

San Diego Beaches

People laying out on the beach and swimming in the ocean on a sunny day.
This could be you enjoying a sunny San Diego beach day.

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 make 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.
  • Sunset Cliffs: This gem in Ocean Beach is one of our best beaches for watching the sunset over the Pacific Ocean (perhaps after a fish taco at nearby South Beach).

If you love the beach, it’s worth looking into the beachfront hotels. These are some of the best:

  • Beach Village at Hotel del Coronado
  • Hotel del Coronado
  • La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club
  • La Jolla Shores Hotel

Learn more and book: 17 Best San Diego Beach Hotels

San Diego Zoo

A koala sits in a tree at San Diego Zoo, a must do in San Diego.
See the koalas early in the morning before they sleep all day.

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.

Consider also visiting the San Diego Zoo Safari Park® in Escondido, which is definitely one of San Diego’s best attractions. It’s part of San Diego Zoo Global and offers a very different experience because the animals roam in 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 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)

LEGOLAND California

People walking into the entrance of LEGOLAND California on a sunny day.
LEGOLAND California is mostly for kids under 12.

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.

Buy LEGOLAND discount tickets:

  • 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)

Balboa Park

Front view of the Botanical Building, one of the most photographed spots in San Diego.
So many gardens and museums are in 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.

SeaWorld San Diego

Manta roller coaster hurls down the track at SeaWorld, one of the popular things to do San Diego teens and tweens enjoy.
Manta is one of several SeaWorld San Diego roller coasters

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.

SeaWorld San Diego is the only organization that rescues our La Jolla seals and sea lions when they are injured, and they often are. The indoor Sea Rescue Show describes how the park is helping to rehabilitate animals and return them to the wild.

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.

Buy SeaWorld San Diego discount tickets:

  • 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-La Jolla Underwater Park

A kayak tour in the ocean stops in front of a La Jolla sea cave.
Kayak tours of the underwater park are very popular.

Believe it or not, many San Diegans 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.(which is a short walk from the Children’s Pool seals).

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 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 La Jolla’s boutiques, art galleries, and eateries ranging from casual Mexican to rooftop views to fine dining.

Mission Bay

Small boats on the shore of Mission Bay where water sports are popular things to do in San Diego.
Mission Bay is popular for water sports.

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.

San Diego Bay Tours

A couple drives a mini speedboat on a bay tour, one of the popular things to do in San Diego.
You can drive a mini speedboat (Photo courtesy of Speedboat Adventures)

There are a variety of fun ways to explore the sights 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 — 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, and wonderful champagne brunch cruises.
  • Flagship Cruises: People love their narrated harbor cruises, dinner cruises, champagne brunch cruises, and whale watching tours.
  • 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. From here, you can simply step onboard the USS Midway Museum (the famous aircraft carrier is also a San Diego must-do) or ships at nearby Maritime Museum of San Diego.

San Diego Breweries

A group cheers with beer in a brewery setting.
We have over 150 craft 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 150 breweries in San Diego, and we are headed toward 200 in the not-so-distant future. 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.

Annual San Diego Events

Aeriel views of the Del Mar Fair a popular annual event.
San Diego County Fair is held in Del Mar.

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 a hotel near where they’re happening because hotels near San Diego events book up quickly.

What are your favorite top 10 things to do in San Diego?

Find out the top 10 things to do in San Diego from the beaches to annual events.
Learn the top 10 things to do in San Diego from water activities to theme parks.
Learn the top 10 things to do in San Diego from water activities to theme parks.

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