San Diego is a city defined by its rich history and traditions. It’s a melting pot of many different cultures, which gives the city its charm. For all intents and purposes, San Diego isthe epitome of Californian lifestyle.
Exploring all the nooks and crannies of San Diego can take weeks but what if you just want a taste or feel of California, San Diego, and the surrounding communities?
Well, fret not. There are plenty of things to do in San Diego today that will enrich your experience exploring the city.
Take a look at some of the most popular attractions and activities you can participate in in San Diego today! (The list is also handy for creating a personal itinerary for touring the city if you’re staying longer than a day)
1. Visit the Beaches
If there’s one thing San Diego is most famous for, it’s the beaches. Each beach has a certain charm, whether incredibly soft sand or the perfect waves for surfing. Some popular beaches include La Jolla Beach, Mission Beach, Torrey Pines Beach, The Children’s Pool, and Windansea.
La Jolla is an excellent beach with clean, warm waters and plenty of greenery. It’s 1 mile long so there’s plenty of room for everyone. Perfect for beachgoers with kids or those who want to relax, bathe in the sun, and go swimming.
Mission Beach is the definition of San Diego residents' chill, laid-back lifestyle. This is the place to visit if you enjoy walks on the beach. You’ll also love this beach if you like watching people do their thing, be it surfing, snorkeling, or playing beach volleyball.
Torrey Pines State National Reserve is a protected nature area that offers some amazing hiking due to the numerous hiking trails that exist. You’ll also be able to see some endangered animals and plants, especially the Torrey Pine, a rare pine species that gives the reserve its name. If you follow some of the trails, you’ll eventually reach a secluded beach that doesn’t see many people visit it.
The Children’s Pool isn’t actually meant for children anymore but it originated as such. Originally, it was a walled-off area with shallow water where parents could take their kids without the fear of crashing waves. However, it is no longer accessible to humans because of the large group of sea lions that inhabit the area. Nowadays, people visit The Children’s Pool to watch these majestic creatures go about their day.
Windansea is a rocky beach where the waves are pretty fast and strong. This makes it the prime location for experienced surfers in San Diego so it’s definitely worth a visit if you want to get some adrenaline going.
2. La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove is a beautiful pocket beach in La Jolla’s rocky bluffs, where the most spectacular sunsets can be enjoyed. You can also take a kayak tour to the cove or participate in guided snorkeling tours.
While small, La Jolla Cove is an amazing location to visit and it’s also fairly close to Coronado Beach and Hotel Del Coronado, one of the most famous hotels in the world. So you could visit two locations at once without much of a hassle.
Once you’re done enjoying La Jolla Cove, there’s also a large grass park above the cove that you can visit. The park is equipped with showers, bathrooms, gazebos, picnic tables, and a paved pedestrian path.
3. San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo is a massive zoo with hundreds of exhibits and thousands of animals. Visiting all the exhibits will take an entire day, so plan accordingly. The zoo is divided into areas that simulate the animals’ natural habitats.
The exhibits are fairly large, with some even being part of the incredible safaris you can sign up for in the zoo.
There’s no better way to see the animals up close than via safari. Some of the animals you’ll see include giraffes, elephants, tigers, rhinos, and cheetahs. The best part? Ticket prices are fairly affordable, starting from $29 (per person) for a walking safari. If you want the full experience, you can sign up for the Ultimate Safari for $700 (per person), which includes access to exclusive areas, wildlife interactions, and more.
4. San Diego’s Embarcadero
Embarcadero is an area adjacent to Downtown San Diego where you’ll find an incredible number of restaurants, shops, hotels, as well as some historic ships, harbor and museum tours, and an active fishing harbor.
Some attractions and locations that you’ll find in Embarcadero are:
Maritime Museum of San Diego:
Let’s start off by mentioning the home of the world’s oldest active sailing ship - the Star of India. This ship is more than 150 years old and has sailed all around the world. There are also plenty of memorials in the Maritime Museum, such as the USS San Diego (CL-53) Memorial, Aircraft Carrier Memorial, Battle of Leyte Gulf Memorial,and the Military Tribute to Bob Hope.
USS Midway Museum:
This is a must-visit for anyone visiting Embarcadero as it’s one of the most well-known locations in San Diego. And yes, you’ll actually be entering the USS Midway (turned museum) so if you have kids, definitely bring them along for the experience! There are more than 35 exhibits in the museum, and most of the stories told as part of some exhibits are done by Navy veterans who served aboard the ship.
San Diego County Waterfront Park:
Spend a relaxing afternoon by having a picnic on the grass or cool off in the splash fountains. There’s also a modern playground for kids to burn some energy. It’s the perfect place to visit with family after a long, activity-packed day.
Embark on one of the many San Diego Bay cruises and explore the surrounding areas or go whale watching. Each cruise generally lasts a few hours but provides plenty of sights and experiences to witness. If you’re lucky, you might even see dolphins swimming at a safe distance from the ship!
5. Gaslamp Quarter
San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter is a nationally-recognized historic district and the center of San Diego’s Downtown area. There are plenty of landmarks and attractions to see, including the Davis-Horton House (the oldest surviving structure in the district, brought from Maine in 1850), the Flame Flower (a renowned sculpture that sits in front of the Westin Hotel), and the Petco Park (the No.1 ballpark in America, as named by USA Today).
You can also grab a bite to eat in one of the hundred or so restaurants, get a drink at bars and nightclubs, and enjoy the various entertainment venues in the Gaslamp Quarter.
We recommend visiting the Gaslamp Quarter in the evening to enjoy the light show created by street lamps, gas lamps, and the numerous boutiques.
6. Balboa Park
Balboa Park is renowned for its Spanish Colonial Revival architecture and many green gardens. The first thing you’ll notice about Balboa Park is that it’s absolutely massive. The park covers 1,400 acres and contains dozens of museums, tours, and gardens.
You can also visit the Fleet Science Center on the first Wednesday of each month to watch the night sky. The San Diego Astronomy Association makes this experience possible by bringing huge telescopes, offering park visitors an exceptional view of the stars, planets, and galaxies above.
Additionally, the park is home to the Museum of National History, the San Diego Museum of Art, and the Museum of Man, as well as the San Diego Zoo which we mentioned at the start of this article.
Realistically, you should put aside at least two days to visit everything in Balboa Park (including the Zoo, which takes about a day in and of itself), but if you don’t have the time for that, either visit the Zoo and walk around a park a bit or visit all of the museums in the park. You’ll undoubtedly have a great time regardless of how you plan your day!
7. San Diego SeaWorld
Here’s one for the kids!
Complete your animal-focused itinerary by visiting San Diego SeaWorld and get a glimpse of how marine animals live. The exhibits are intuitive and large, especially those meant to accommodate large animals (such as dolphins and sharks).
Otters also call the marine exhibit home; there are even locations where you can directly interact with them.
San Diego SeaWorld is actually a mix of amusement park and aquarium, so not only will you be able to watch the animals, you’ll also be able to get on roller-coasters and experience the thrill that they provide.
And, once you’re done with the exhibits, you’ll be able to get something to eat at The Waterfront restaurant or Big Bird’s Bistro.
8. Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala
The Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala was started by Junipero Serra (a Spanish Franciscan Father) and completed in 1769.
The mission burnt down in 1775 after a series of disputes with the Spanish Army. Eventually though, the mission was rebuilt and moved, and is now a National Historic Landmark.
The old bell tower church was declared a Basilica in the 70s and today, it’s surrounded by lush green gardens and contains the Padre Jayme Museum in the courtyard.
9. Hotel del Coronado
Hotel del Coronado is the perfect destination to explore outside San Diego but close enough to warrant a visit. The hotel gets its name from the town it’s situated in - Coronado.
Free up some space in your phone or bring a camera because you will want to document your trip here. First off, the hotel’s architecture is mesmerizing, with bright white walls and striking red roofing.
Hotel del Coronado is also considered one of the most beautiful beach resorts in the US and is an incredibly popular tourist destination which isn’t surprising because the founders of Coronado Island wanted tourism to be at the center of it all. The entire seaside community is focused on tourism.
Be mindful that the hotel is expensive (as are the shops and restaurants) but the views are absolutely breathtaking. If you don’t plan on staying at the hotel, it’s definitely worth visiting and won’t set you back as much financially.
10. Seaport Village
The Seaport Village is very close to the USS Midway, so it’s worth visiting if you plan to visit the museum. We recommend getting there early since parking space is fairly limited and costly.
This ‘village’ is perfect for sightseeing and relaxing but also shopping since numerous unique shops are strewn across it. The restaurants range from fast food to gourmet meals, so if you’re a foodie, make sure to get a bite to eat at one of them!
However, if you just want to have a good time, get there in the evening. It might be best to park some distance away (if there are no parking spaces) and walk there. The evenings are when street performers come out and the kids' carousel becomes available. Waterfront patios, benches, and picnic tables are present in virtually every part of the village as well.
San Diego is a large city with a rich history and a major part of California’s history too. It offers plenty of sights to see and activities to get your heart going, but it also provides relaxation in many forms - parks, gardens, picnics, you name it.
With such an expansive array of things to do in San Diego today, it’s impossible to enjoy the entirety of the city in just 24 hours.
But we’ve no doubt that the city will take you by surprise and cause you to return later for a longer trip.