Sunset time and surfer holding surfboard on the beaches of San Diego. The water is calm and the sky is reflecting off the water and sand.

19 San Diego Attractions You Need to Visit

Do you have some free time to explore San Diego? If so, make sure to check out these 19 San Diego attractions while you’re there!
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The ‘Birthplace of California’, as San Diego’s nickname goes, was first settled by Europeans in 1542. It was originally a Spanish settlement but the city then became part of the Mexican Empire in 1821. 

Just shy of 3 decades later and San Diego (and California) were conquered by the United States following the Mexican-American War in 1848. 

Today, it’s one of the most vibrant and culturally-significant cities in the US and one of the biggest tourist destinations in California. 

The city and its surrounding area are home to some incredible attractions, parks, beaches, historical sights, restaurants, and a lot more. The San Diego attractions are well-known to Californian residents and for a good reason - no matter which one you visit, you’ll end up having a great time. 

So without further ado, let’s take a look at the top 19 San Diego attractions that you should visit on your trip to the city. 

1. San Diego Zoo

a photo of the San Diego zoo. the flamingo exhibit in the San Diego zoo. multiple flamingos. San Diego animals

Address: 2920 Zoo Drive, Balboa Park, San Diego, California

The San Diego Zoo is arguably the most famous zoo in the United States. It’s also one of the largest, with more than 100 acres of land. All of this space has allowed the zoo to host an incredible number of animals as well as a massive botanical collection with over 700,000 unique plants from all around the world. 

This San Diego attraction is family-friendly so if you have kids, make sure to bring them with you and plan an entire day if you want to see all the animals and amenities in the zoo. 

You can expect to see gorillas, koalas, polar bears, rhinos, sloths, grizzly bears, leopards, elephants, cheetahs, and other exotic animals. 

One of the first things you’ll notice is how each enclosure attempts to stay as true as possible to the animals’ natural habitats, which improves their welfare and overall outlook. 

Don’t forget to visit the San Diego Zoo Safari Park where all the animals are free to roam within the large enclosures, making the activity perfect for kids. We also recommend bringing binoculars to see animals that might be too far away to observe otherwise. 

And if all that isn’t enough, you can enrich your entire experience by signing up for close-up and behind-the-scenes animal experiences

2. Balboa Park

Balboa park in San Diego. the botanical gardens. large pond in park. San Diego parks. sunny day with lots of green plants and large historical buildings.

Address: 1549 El Prado, San Diego, California

The area where the San Diego Zoo is located is called ‘Balboa Park’. This massive 1,400-acre location is home to a wide range of museums, gardens, historical buildings, and plenty of green space and plants. 

The park is now more than 100 years old, having been created in 1915 for the 1915/1916 Panama California Exhibition and the architecture reflects that. 

The primary architecture of most of the buildings is Spanish-style, where the low-rise buildings perfectly blend in with their surroundings. 

Some specific amenities that you can check out in Balboa Park include the botanical gardens (with a large lily pond!), the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Man, the San Diego Museum of Art, and the most famous one - the San Diego Zoo. 

And, if you’ve no interest in exploring the buildings’ interiors, you’ll still be able to sit down, relax, and enjoy some of the most beautiful sights in San Diego and California. 

3. San Diego Beaches

Wind and sea beach. Large tropical hut on the beach with the sun setting in the background.

There’s no better place to go surfing than San Diego, California! There’s a reason why so many people learn how to surf the waves that crash onto San Diego beaches and why many world-renowned surfers love it here. 

Watching sunsets is also a popular activity because all of the beaches are westward-facing. Most beaches offer plenty of activities (for family, friends, and kids) and have soft, golden sand that makes walking a joy. 

Now, due to the sheer number of beaches in San Diego, you may get overwhelmed and have trouble deciding which beach to visit. Not to worry; we’ve got you covered!

Sunbathing & People-Watching:

  • Mission Beach (Wonderful seaview cafés and beachfront boardwalks)

  • Ocean Beach (Excellent place to let your dogs run leash-free)


  • Del Mar (Consistent waves all-year round)
    • Pacific Beach

    • Swami’s

    • Trestles

    • Black’s Beach

    • Oceanside & La Jolla Shores beaches (These two beaches are perfect for surfing beginners)

    Family-Friendly Beaches:

    • Del Mar

    • Coronado Beach

    • Silver Strand

    • La Jolla Shores (also home to La Jolla Caves where you can watch marine wildlife rest on the rocks)

    Lastly, if you prefer visiting untouched, grizzly nature, then the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is an ideal location thanks to its rugged cliffs and scenic hiking trails. 

    4. National Monument of Point Loma and Cabrillo

    blue skies and large white lighthouse with sunny San Diego skies.

    Address: 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr, San Diego, California

    If sightseeing is your forté, then you’ll absolutely love Point Loma. This breathtaking location offers superb views of San Diego and the Pacific Ocean, even along the scenic road up to Point Loma. 

    Now here’s something you can show the kids - on a nice, clear day, you’ll be able to see all the way to Mexico and might even catch a glimpse of dolphins or whales swimming across the beaches. 

    Point Loma is where Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first landed in 1542. You can learn more about him and that time period by visiting the Cabrillo National Monument situated near the top of Point Loma. 

    You’ll also be able to find the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which is decommissioned but still open to visitors to explore. The lighthouse was built in 1858 and offers a nice slice of 19th-century history. 

    The 1-mile-long Bayside Trail that leads to the tide pools is also worth exploring, especially if you have kids. 

    5. Mission Beach

    the sidewalk/boardwalk with sandy beach and sunny skies and palm trees

    Address: Mission Blvd & Ventura Place, San Diego, California

    If you want to experience San Diego’s Southern California lifestyle, Mission Beach is the perfect place to do so. Take a stroll down the 3-mile-long boardwalk and you’ll be able to see locals doing all kinds of activities, including skateboarding, rollerblading, cycling, or just taking a leisurely walk down the beach. 

    The many beachside restaurants are excellent if you’re feeling a rumble in your stomach, or, if you just want to have a hot cup of coffee (or a cold one, for that matter), take a seat in one of the numerous beachside cafés. 

    Mission Beach also hosts one of the most popular San Diego attractions for children - Belmont Park. You’ll find a variety of activities here, such as visiting the historic roller coaster, fairground eateries, watching street performers, and fine dining in modern restaurants. 

    The beach is also a great place to take a dip in the ocean or play beach volleyball in the warm sand. 

    6. Seaport Village

    large wooden building on the water along the San Diego coast

    Address: West Harbor Drive & Pacific Highway, San Diego, California

    Visiting Seaport Village will require getting there early, especially during the weekend, because parking space is limited and fairly expensive. While it is easily accessible by foot, if you’re coming from a long way away, you’ll want to guarantee yourself a parking spot. 

    With that out of the way, let’s talk about the attraction itself. The Seaport Village is a relaxed and entertaining place to visit due to its numerous restaurants and unique shops. The Village is located on the waterfront, making for a cool experience during the hot summer days. 

    The afternoons are often packed with people since various performers come out and showcase their skills & crafts. There’s also a historic carousel that your kids will love; it has beautiful hand-carved wooden horses. You’ll also find dozens of picnic tables, waterfront patios, and benches wherever you look. 

    Make sure to visit the USS Midway (more on this later) while you’re there, as it’s just a few minutes away from the Seaport Village if you go on foot. 

    7. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

    the large sandy cliffside in San Diego's Ocean Beach neighborhood.

    Address: Ladera St, San Diego, California

    The best place to watch an unforgettable Southern California sunset is the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. The park stretches along the Pacific Ocean coastal bluffs for 68 acres, so no matter where you choose to watch, you’ll be in for an awe-inspiring experience. 

    If you luck out and visit the park during the gray whale migration season, you might be able to spot these gentle giants as they continue their migration path to Baja California, Mexico (so be sure to bring a camera). 

    8. San Diego Whale Watching

    Big whale tail out of the water in the Pacific Ocean.

    San Diego is a superb place to watch marine wildlife go about their daily activities, especially during the migratory period. Some of the animals you’ll be able to see include humpback whales, gray whales, minke whales, and blue whales, depending on the time of year. 

    But it’s not just whales that populate the San Diego coastal waters; dolphins, seals, and in rare cases, orcas, can all be seen during most of the year. 

    Usually, December through April and June through September are the most ‘action-packed’ times of year for whale watching

    The best way to watch these incredible animals is by booking a San Diego whale-watching cruise. Most such cruises take around 4.5-5 hours since you’ll also be visiting various US Navy Sites along the way. Snacks, drinks, and a whale sighting guarantee are all included in the cruise. 

    9. San Diego SeaWorld

    Large walrus relaxing in the water of SeaWorld's enclosure.

    Address: 500 SeaWorld Drive, San Diego, California

    San Diego SeaWorld is about the same size as the Zoo - but most of it is water to accommodate all kinds of marine denizens. If you’re thinking about visiting the zoo, why not improve the entire experience by visiting SeaWorld as well?

    Little kids will enjoy watching dolphins and otters, and they might even be able to interact with them a bit. Older kids usually love seeing sharks and other massive marine life. 

    Speaking of aquariums, this SeaWorld attraction is basically a mix of aquarium and amusement park, with adrenaline-pumping roller-coaster rides as well as animal exhibits. There are plenty of opportunities for kids and adults to learn more about the animals that inhibit our oceans. 

    You’ll also be able to visit The Waterfront restaurant, Big Bird’s Bistro, and several gift shops where you can purchase SeaWorld T-Shirts, sea animal plushies, and various other souvenirs. 

    10. Gaslamp Quarter

    Nightime lit up sign of Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego with cars driving by.

    Address: Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego, California

    The Gaslamp Quarter is right next to the Convention Center and Petco Park and is at the center of San Diego’s nightlife. 

    The best time to visit the Gaslamp Quarter is after dark when the lights from all the buildings and amenities start to shine. 

    Take some time to visit art galleries, entertainment venues, and restaurants that serve any cuisine you can imagine, from Vietnamese to Mexican. If you’re a fan of live music, you’ll be happy to know that there are jazz concerts and comedy and theater performances year-round. 

    The Gaslamp Quarter is also an excellent place to book a stay since it lies in the heart of the city. The district itself is fairly large, running for 16 blocks from San Diego Bay to Broadway

    11. Old Town State Historic Park

    small colorful statues in the shops of Historic Old Town San Diego

    Address: 4002 Wallace Street, San Diego, California

    Travel back in time by visiting the Old Town State Historic Park and experience life as it was during the mid-19th century. The park perfectly recreates the feel and sights of the Mexican and early-American time periods during which the settlement grew from a small Mexican pueblo to what it is now. 

    Purchase authentic and original Mexican crafts, stroll around art studios, listen to live Mariachi music, or visit the blacksmith studio (that is active and working!). 

    Most of the Old Town State Historic Park buildings have been restored or repaired to their original state, but some new ones are built in the same architectural style. 

    Here’s the best bit: Admission is completely free, and most attractions are free as well. You’ll also be able to participate in free daily walking tours twice a day (11 AM and 2 PM). 

    12. Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum

    Large 41 and flag on the side of a large part of the Aircraft Carrier Museum

    Address: 910 North Harbor Drive, San Diego, California

    Seeing a behemoth like the USS Midway will make you reconsider just how gigantic these military vessels are. The USS Midway is an aircraft carrier from the Second World War, and it was decommissioned in 1992

    The ship acts as a museum nowadays, with over 60 exhibits and 30 restored airplanes, all of which you can see and learn more about. 

    One interesting piece of history regarding the USS Midway aircraft carrier is that more than 225,000 military & navy service personnel served on the ship since its commissioning and until its decommissioning. 

    The ship also harbors a flight simulator that you can try out for an additional fee. If not, we definitely recommend taking the self-guided audio tour to learn everything about the carrier’s history. 

    If you want to avoid waiting for hours to enter the museum, consider purchasing the ‘Skip the Line: USS Midway Museum Admission Ticket’. 

    13. San Diego Air and Space Museum

    Address: 2001 Pan American Plaza, San Diego California

    The San Diego Air and Space Museum is located in Balboa Park, so it’s already right next to other major San Diego attractions. There are dozens of educational exhibits with information related to aircraft and the Space Age. 

    Everything is in chronological order, so you’ll be able to progress through the eras as they happened. The first exhibit is a model of the first hot air balloon, which was launched in 1783 by the Montgolfier brothers. It’s followed by an accurate reproduction of the gliders that were developed by the Wright brothers

    The ‘juicy’ sections come next - World War I and World War II-era aircraft, including two mint-condition planes - the F6F Hellcat and the A-4 Skyhawk Jet

    San Diego’s rich aviation history has been cemented by the San Diego Air and Space Museum, and it’s definitely the place to be if you’re a history or aviation buff. 

    14. Harbor Cruises

    Large sky view of the San Diego Bay with a boat going through the water

    San Diego is directly on the water; if you want to see the city from all angles and enjoy the sunshine and fresh air, then San Diego harbor cruises are your best bet. 

    The cruises themselves aren’t long and usually take around one or two hours. However, during this time, you’ll learn some city history, watch the city skyline, and even see some sea lions or seals basking in the sun

    We recommend taking a cruise that includes visiting the Coronado Bridge, an incredible piece of engineering that is marvelous to see. Cold beverages and snacks are available to purchase on the cruise. 

    15. San Diego Museum of Art

    Close ups of the architectural details on the outside of the museum. Large pale statues with other intricate detail.

    Address: 1450 El Prado, San Diego, California

    The San Diego Museum of Art is home to some exceptional art pieces that you won’t see anywhere else. The unique facade is an exact copy of the University of Salamanca (from the 17th century) that uses the plateresque style accompanied by highly precise and gentle terra-cotta work

    The three busts at the entrance represent Spanish painters whose exhibits are housed in the museum as well. Some pieces are more than 7,000 years old, so there’s definitely a great chunk of ancient history contained within the museum’s walls. 

    16. Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala

    Address: 10818 San Diego Mission Road, San Diego, California

    This wonderful white mission is the first of its kind in California, dating back to 1769. Majorca native Junipero Serra, the Spanish Franciscan Father, laid down the foundations of the mission stations - the first of which was Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala. 

    The mission was moved a few miles inland some years after it was founded due to disputes between the Native American Indians and Spanish troops.

    But nowadays, the mission is standing strong and is considered a National Historic Landmark. The old church with a unique bell tower was declared a basilica in the 70s and is surrounded by lush green gardens. 

    Make sure to visit the Padre Jayme Museum and check out the incredibly interesting exhibits there. 

    17. Martin Luther King Jr. Promenade

    Address: 326 W Harbor Dr, San Diego, California

    Martin Luther King Jr. was a great man, one that elevated the status of African Americans in society and fought for the rights of all men and women in the world. He also won the Nobel Peace Prize for fighting racial inequality through non-violent actions and resistance. 

    The Martin Luther King Jr. Promenade was erected in his name to honor his legacy. The promenade features a couple of incredible monuments and sculptures, such as the ‘Breaking of the Chains’ sculpture by artist Melvin Edwards. 

    There’s also a hedge maze which the youngsters may find very fun, as well as a fountain to cool you down during the hot summer days. 

    The MLK Jr. Promenade is also host to the annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration that includes music, food, and various entertaining activities to honor MLK’s achievements and person. 

    18. Whaley House

    Address: 2476 San Diego Ave, San Diego, California

    Up for some horror and fright? Welcome to Whaley House, ‘America’s Most Haunted House’! Well, at least nowadays you can choose to get scared while visiting Whaley House, but in the past, it had more than one function. 

    Originally, Whaley House was vital in the 19th Century Old Town community. On top of being the Whaley family home, this building also used to be a county courthouse, a general store, and San Diego’s first commercial theatre. 

    With such a rich history, it’s no wonder that Whaley House is one of the most iconic San Diego attractions & landmarks. Make sure to dedicate an entire day to exploring Whaley House, as well as some surrounding attractions like Verna House and the New Orleans Creole Cafe

    19. Hotel del Coronado

    Large overview of the Hotel Del Coronado with sand, sky and the hotel.

    Address: 1500 Orange Ave, Coronado, California

    While not technically in San Diego itself, Hotel del Coronado is nonetheless close enough to warrant a daily visit. The hotel itself is located in Coronado, a small town situated on an island in San Diego Bay. 

    The hotel is absolutely stunning and is one of the most beautiful beach resorts in the US. The people who founded Coronado Island built the entire seaside community around tourism, drawing tourists from all corners of the globe. 

    Be mindful that this community (and especially the hotel) are fairly expensive but the views, feels, and experiences you can have are something you’ll never forget. Definitely worth the visit if you can finance it. 

    Final Thoughts

    San Diego is packed with a rich history as long as you know where to look. And lucky for all of us, there are plenty of places to look. 

    From surfing to visiting the zoo with your kids to the numerous historical monuments, the numerous San Diego attractions offer a little something for everyone. The city and its surroundings are amazing and there’s no doubt that you’ll have the time of your life visiting any of the attractions mentioned in this article. 

    Enjoy your time in San Diego; we hope to have you back soon!

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