La Jolla Mom

Top 10 Things to Do in San Diego

Beaches, beer, theme parks, and how to save

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The only challenge you’ll run into when deciding which 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, and museums to name a few — that visitors come from far and wide to explore. 

Think of this as your quick start 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 these spots and beyond. In some cases, I link to current discounts, so you can book tickets for less right now.

See also: 13 San Diego Discounts: Experience the City for Less

San Diego Beaches

People enjoying the beach in San Diego

Visiting the beach is certainly one of the top 10 things to do in San Diego. You may have heard that our water is too chilly for beachy fun, but unless you’re visiting in the wintertime, the water is perfect for wading, surfing, and swimming for most of the year (and wetsuits can be easily rented). In fact, the best San Diego beaches feature prominently on most travelers’ itineraries specifically because they can be enjoyed year-round and are one of our best free activities.

What you do at the beach depends on weather and personal preference, but these are the San Diego beaches I recommend you check out:

  • Coronado Central Beach — with calm water and a wide, flat stretch of sand, this is a great beach for families with younger kids.
  • La Jolla Shores Beach — the gentle waves here make it an ideal place to learn to surf, and there are lifeguards on duty until dusk.
  • Mission Beach — if you love water sports like water skiing, stand up paddleboarding and aqua cycles, this is the San Diego beach for you.
  • Pacific Beach — this is the biggest stretch of sandy beach in PB and is one of the most popular beaches in San Diego. It’s a great spot for swimmers and surfers of all ages.
  • Del Mar Beach — there are bathrooms, showers, and lifeguards at this family-friendly beach.
  • Moonlight Beach — you’ll find everything you need at this beach, from picnic tables, fire rings, lifeguards, and restrooms to volleyball courts, a snack bar, and equipment rentals.

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

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, and 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).

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.

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.

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 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

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.

Myriad pass options can help you see everything in Balboa Park for less but if your sightseeing activities involve the Zoo and Balboa Park only, 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) over the course of 7 days in addition to the Zoo once. Balboa Park museums can also be included on the Go San Diego pass with other San Diego attractions. Just be sure to have a pass that covers more than one museum.

SeaWorld San Diego

Manta is one of several roller coasters at 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 top things to do in San Diego for families.

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.

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

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 and explore it yourself. Plus, you can even swim out from La Jolla Cove.

Bordering the underwater park are seven sea caves, only one of which — Sunny Jim’s cave — is accessible by land. You can see them by kayak or stand up paddleboard, and you can sometimes kayak through one of them depending on the currents.

Marine life commonly seen here include sea lions, Garibaldi (California’s state fish), shovelnose guitarfish, leopard sharks, and more. 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.

Water sports here include:

  • Surfing (and surfing lessons)
  • 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.

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 thrills, 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. There is 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 have water sports centers onsite otherwise, you can try Mission Bay Aquatic Center.

San Diego Bay Tours

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 area to Coronado. 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.

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 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

San Diego Breweries

Visiting San Diego breweries is one of the most popular things to do for the 21 and older crowd.
We have over 150 craft breweries.

When it comes to what to do in San Diego for the 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 in any county in the U.S., 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, by train up the coastline (stopping along the way), and simply seeking out urban breweries near your hotel.

Annual San Diego Events

San Diego County Fair is held in Del Mar.

Annual events large and small also bring visitors to San Diego. 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)

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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