Thinking about booking a trip to San Diego? With sunny weather, mild temperatures, and beautiful beaches, it’s the ideal destination for a vacation with friends or family. Here are some of the best things to do and places to visit in San Diego during your next trip.
The 16 Best Things to Do in San Diego in 2023
In Southern California, San Diego is a sunny vacation paradise. It’s a large city that offers lots of activities and things to do for all types of travelers. You can hike one of the many trails in the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.
Take the family to Balboa Park for a day and visit the many museums and gardens. If you want a vibrant nightlife, the Gaslamp Quarter has all you need with its many restaurants, bars, and clubs in a historic district.
History buffs can stop by Old Town or the two maritime museums showcasing San Diego’s rich military history. And you can’t forget to bask in the sun at one of the city’s many pristine beaches.
Whether you’re visiting San Diego for the first time or know the destination well, here is our list of the best things to do in this coastal city.
1. Immerse Yourself in Different Cultures in Balboa Park
Considered San Diego’s cultural hub, Balboa Park is a free 1,200-acre park with lots to see and do. Here you can find the San Diego Zoo, the Japanese Friendship Garden, the Botanical Building, the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, and different types of museums.
The intricately-designed Spanish-Renaissance buildings are beautiful to look at as you walk around, but one of the most popular buildings to photograph is the famous Botanical Building which holds over 2,100 plants.
Throughout the year, you can find food stands and live music in different areas. Spreckels Organ Pavilion holds one of the largest outdoor organs in the world and often hosts concerts. You can also try catching a show at the Tony Award-winning Old Globe Theatre.
2. Explore a Historic Aircraft Carrier at the USS Midway Museum
San Diego has a large military presence with a rich history. The USS Midway Museum captures the city’s maritime heritage with interactive displays, and a look into the rooms and areas typically closed to the public.
At the museum, you can explore one of the longest-serving aircraft carriers and learn more about its voyages and the sailers it carried.
There are 60 interactive exhibits, and 29 restored aircraft on board were active during historic times, including World War II and the Korean War. This museum also includes flight simulators and knot-tying demonstrations.
You can choose to use the self-guided audio tour or stop to talk to some of the volunteers on-site, many of whom are military veterans. It is one of San Diego’s most popular attractions, so make sure to buy your tickets ahead of time and arrive early to avoid crowds.
3. Dine and Shop at Seaport Village
After looking at the USS Midway Museum, you can walk through the 14-acre Seaport Village and see cute coastal shops for trinkets and souvenirs.
It is on the waterfront Embarcadero and has over 50 shops and 13 eateries that you can browse through. You can shop for summer clothes, buy eco-friendly products, purchase cute souvenirs, or view artwork at an art gallery.
If shopping isn’t your thing, you can enjoy a coffee on the waterfront or eat at one of the restaurants. Hot Licks is a favorite among tourists and locals for their unique array of hot sauces.
There are plenty of diverse restaurants to eat at in this village that serve authentic Mexican dishes, raw oysters, and sweet desserts. At the end of the day, you can catch a gorgeous sunset and watch as boats pass.
4. Shop at Liberty Station
Located at San Diego Bay, Liberty Station was originally the Naval Training Center in San Diego. It trained around 50,000 recruits for more than 60 years but is now a public town square.
There are 30 food stalls and shops all independently run, each with its unique product and vibe. You can spend a few hours here eating different types of food and walking around the shops.
It’s perfect for families and large groups because there is enough variety for everyone to find something they like. The historic grounds hosts events such as film screenings on the lawn, marathons, art exhibits, festivals, and various holiday festivities during the winter.
5. Grab a Drink in the Gaslamp Quarter
The historic Gaslamp Quarter is in downtown San Diego and is always bustling during the weekend. It is an area set apart by its Victorian-style buildings for about 16 blocks.
There are plenty of casual and upscale restaurants as well as bars and clubs. The nightlife here is lively and the place to be for locals and tourists looking for a good time.
If you’re not a night owl, you can still find great places to eat and enjoy shopping and walking around this historic district. The buildings and liveliness of the area can be fun for many to explore during the day.
The Gaslamp Quarter hosts many events as well for the city throughout the year, such as the annual Mardi Gras Parade and the Rock and Roll Marathon. San Diego’s most popular event, Comic-Con, hosts several events and activities in this area as well.
6. Watch a Game at Petco Park
Within walking distance from the Gaslamp Quarter, Petco Park Stadium is home to the Padres, San Diego’s baseball team. You can catch a ball game here between April and October, and games rarely get rained out due to San Diego’s sunny weather.
During the off-season, Petco Park hosts other events throughout the year, such as concerts, other sporting events, Comic-Con events, and festivals.
If you and your family are big baseball fans, you can book a stadium tour, which runs for about 80 minutes, to see exclusive areas such as the press box, the Padres Hall of Fame, and the dugout, among others.
7. Catch the Sunset at Sunset Cliffs
In Point Loma, Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is a 1.5-mile majestic sandstone cliffside shore with stunning ocean views. It is made up of around 68 acres of land and unspoiled vegetation. It’s a beautiful place to walk during the day and watch the sunset over the Pacific.
There are a few secluded beaches in the area that take some effort to get to. One of the more popular local beaches is off of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, which you need to descend rocky bluffs to reach.
Sunset Cliffs is a beautiful place for a picnic, but there are no restrooms, and it can get chilly and breezy during the evening. It is accessible 24 hours every day, but make sure to look for signs warning of unstable cliffs.
8. Rent Kayaks in La Jolla
When people think of San Diego, La Jolla is one of the most well-known areas in Southern California. Not only is La Jolla a picturesque area with pristine beaches, but there are plenty of family-friendly activities you can explore.
You can head to La Jolla Cove to watch the sea lions or take the kids to the Child’s Pool, where they can swim, snorkel, and view tide pools while safely protected behind a sea wall.
Adventurous travelers can rent kayaks and explore the sea caves at La Jolla Shores. Some kayak tour groups launch from this area and can take you into the caves when the tide is low.
You can also rent snorkels or scuba gear and explore the ocean. You might be able to spot plenty of Ghirabaldi, California’s state fish, and kelp forests.
After a full day of exploring or playing at the beach, you can walk to several restaurants within walking distance of La Jolla Cove. You can choose fine dining with an ocean view or a more casual eatery with the family.
9. Hike Torrey Pines
If you like to hike near the ocean, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve offers some of the most beautiful views and trails. With untouched land for 1,750 acres, Torrey Pines gives a glimpse at what San Diego looked like before civilization.
You can find a variety of flora as well as the Torrey Pine, which is the rarest pine tree in America. During the spring, wildflowers grow and turn the reserve into a picturesque landscape.
Several hiking trails will take you near the ocean and the sandstone ravines. Two popular trails are the Razor Point Trail, which takes you through the sandstone ravines and cliffs for 1.4 miles roundtrip, and the Guy Fleming Trail.
This is only 0.7 miles roundtrip and leads to two gorgeous ocean viewpoints. You’ll want to stroll along Torrey Pines State Beach during low tide to enjoy the vast sandstone cliffs.
10. Enjoy the Scenery at Cabrillo National Monument
Right next to Sunset Cliffs is the Cabrillo National Monument, which commemorates Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo as the first European explorer to explore the Californian coast in 1542. While it is a historical monument, most travelers visit this area for the incredible views.
From the monument’s vista point, you can see the Pacific Ocean, the naval base in Point Loma, Coronado, and downtown San Diego. On a clear day, you might even be able to see the mountains in Tijuana, Mexico.
After enjoying the scenery, you can head to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse to learn a little more about Cabrillo’s history or visit the Point Loma Tide Pools, which are most lively during the winter.
11. Learn San Diego’s History in Old Town
At Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, you can find houses and shops restored to look like the original European settlement in California.
It showcases the different periods of California’s history, from the first arrival of the Spanish explorers to the gold rush. You can visit some of the historic buildings, like the 1857 Whaley House, which was once used as a granary and a courthouse, and the Casa de Estudillo.
Built in the 1820s, it displays how people may have lived years ago, complete with traditional décor and furniture.
Several shops sell handmade items from Mexico and other South American countries. You can also stop by any of the restaurants for a taste of fresh handmade tortillas, authentic Mexican food, and live music.
12. Take a Safari Ride at the Safari Park
While the San Diego Zoo gets most of the attention and glory, San Diego Safari Park in Escondido is a lesser-known wild animal preserve originally created for research purposes but is now open to the public.
Most of the animals there roam freely in larger enclosures. Some animals, like the California condors, are rehabilitated or hatched to be released back into the wild.
At the Safari Park, you can see rhinos, elephants, lions, cheetahs, zebras, giraffes, a platypus, various types of birds, and more.
There are several types of safaris available, including a free tram that takes you into the enclosure to see the animals from a distance. The zip-line and caravan safari offer unique experiences and views of the animals in their man-made habitats.
13. View a Show at SeaWorld
For children and adults alike, a trip to SeaWorld is never a dull one. At SeaWorld, you can view many types of creatures at the exhibits, including sea lions, sharks, otters, dolphins, penguins, and sea turtles.
There is plenty of water shows that you don’t want to miss, one of the most popular being the dolphin show. For those who love rides, the Manta Ray is a fast and popular rollercoaster among visitors.
The Journey to Atlantis and Ship Wreck Rapids are also popular rides where you can expect to get wet. During the peak season, SeaWorld can get crowded with long lines.
Make sure to get there early to enjoy all that the park has to offer. And make sure to bring a waterproof jacket or extra clothes as you may get wet on the rides or at the shows!
14. See Animals at the San Diego Zoo
As one of the most famous zoos in the world, the San Diego Zoo is a must-visit. It is one of the largest zoos in the United States at 100 acres wide and houses about 3,500 endangered animals, one of the largest collections in the world.
It can get tiring walking so much, especially on a warm day, so when your feet get tired, you can hop onto the guided bus tour that runs for 35 minutes.
There is also the Skyfari that takes visitors across the park on an aerial tram, allowing you to see the enclosures from up high.
There are several animal shows throughout the zoo, and when you want a break, you can stop by the 4-D movie theater to watch an educational film about animals and wildlife. With such an exciting array of creatures, the zoo is the perfect place for families to visit.
Best of all, your ticket payment goes to their many conservation projects to help repopulate endangered species, educate K-12 students, and provide medical supplies to rehabilitate animals in the park.
Read Next: The Best Zoos in the United States in 2023
15. Spend the Day at Belmont Park
In Mission Beach, you can find Belmont Park, a beachfront boardwalk and amusement park. It has been operating since 1925 and offers lots of family-friendly rides and activities.
Thrill-seekers can ride the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster or go zip-lining, while others can enjoy the arcade or mini-golfing.
Lines are typically short even on the busiest days, and you can find other activities such as rock climbing, laser tag, the carousel, and bumper cars. There are shops where you can rent bicycles and beach equipment or buy activewear.
If you don’t prefer the salty ocean water, you can enjoy views of the beach from an indoor pool at The Plunge. There are plenty of places to eat at the park, from grab-and-go hot dogs and tacos to upscale sushi and seafood restaurants.
Belmont Park can get very busy during the summers, so make sure to head to Mission Beach in the morning or evening to find parking and avoid crowds.
16. Ride Bikes Around Coronado Island
Coronado Island is separated from the rest of San Diego by a bridge and is its own quieter community. A great way to see Coronado Island in its entirety is by cycling down Bayshore Trail and Coronado Bike Trail.
It’s a 6-mile path that leads you to the highlights of the island on a relatively flat path. You can rent bikes from downtown Coronado or at the boardwalk.
Coronado Beach is a calm and less-populated shoreline compared to the busier Mission or Pacific Beach. If you’re looking to avoid crowds and bask in beautiful beach scenery, this is the place to go.
The sand is clean and goes on for miles, and there are spectacular mansions right behind the beach to admire as well. Even if it’s too cold to enjoy the beach, you can head to Hotel del Coronado, a National Historic Landmark that is over 130 years old.
It rests right past the sand and offers spectacular views of the ocean. In the winter, you can ice skate there. It offers the unique experience where you can skate in an outdoor ice rink in sunny weather right next to the Pacific Ocean.
Things to Consider
When visiting San Diego, you might be wondering how to pack for the weather. This coastal region sees sunshine all year and mild temperatures along the coast.
During the winter, lows are around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, while summer highs are in the 70s-80s. No coats or heavy layering is needed, so make sure to pack light!
One of the best ways to hit the big tourist spots of San Diego is by using the hop-on, hop-off trolley service. The trolley goes to 12 destinations, including Balboa Park, Gaslamp Quarter, Coronado, and more.
It runs frequently and includes live narrations from the conductor as you ride. One ticket also includes free admission to at least 10 museums. While San Diego has tons of attractions, don’t forget to explore the food and drink culture!
San Diego has over 150 breweries serving craft beer, cider, kombucha, or mead. The unique Cali-Baja cuisine is also a must for visitors to try, such as delicious fish tacos and other Mexican staples served in various styles.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are the answers to some of the most common questions about visiting San Diego:
Is San Diego safe for tourists?
Though crime is not unheard of in San Diego, it is overall a very safe destination to visit. If crimes happen, it is usually in the city’s more dangerous neighborhoods, which tourists rarely go to.
What is San Diego best known for?
San Diego is best known for its family attractions, such as the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, Seaworld, and Legoland California. Its beautiful beaches and temperature climate also make it a popular destination for visitors from around the world.
How many days do you need in San Diego?
If you are visiting San Diego for the first time, you can easily fill a whole week with activities and attractions. If San Diego is just one stop on a larger trip, we would recommend at least 3 days to explore downtown, enjoy the beautiful beaches, and visit a museum, zoo, or theme park.
Is San Diego walkable?
San Diego is a huge city, so the easiest way to explore is by car. However, if you plan to stay in downtown San Diego, you can easily walk to restaurants, bars, and different attractions. Downtown is easy to navigate with its lettered and numbered streets. Another option you can use is the hop-on, hop-off trolley to hit the main attractions without needing to use a car or figure out the bus system.
What are the best months to visit San Diego?
San Diego is known to be sunny all year round, making it a pleasant destination any time of year. However, you’ll find travel rates to be low during March through May and from September to November. So try to avoid the peak summer season when travel prices are highest.
So, What Are the Best Things to Do in San Diego?
With so many attractions and activities to offer, San Diego is a wonderful place for all types of travelers to visit. Of course, the best things to do will depend on your preferences. But no matter how you choose to spend your time there, any visit to San Diego will surely be unforgettable.