If you’re on the hunt for perfect weather and lively beach towns, Southern California is the place to visit. Make sure you leave plenty of time to check out all of the best things to do in San Diego. Nicknamed America’s Finest City, San Diego is made up of many smaller neighborhoods and beach towns, each with its own unique vibe.
Whether you’re a culture lover, history buff, nature enthusiast, or nightlife fanatic, San Diego has something you’ll love. From the museums and art galleries of Balboa Park to the trendy restaurants and bars of the historic Gaslamp Quarter, the top tourist attractions in San Diego will make for an unforgettable trip to California.
Ready to make your list of what to do in San Diego? Start planning your adventure right now with this guide to the best places to visit in San Diego, California!
Best places to visit in San Diego, CA
Experience the spirit of San Diego at one of the most iconic parks in the world. Balboa Park is a botanical paradise and you can spend an entire day exploring the grounds alone, covering 1,400 acres in the heart of the city of San Diego.
Balboa Park is also home to a variety of museums, gardens, and art galleries designed with stunning Spanish-style architecture. The Japanese gardens are an especially tranquil place to enjoy an afternoon stroll, and the domed botanical gardens can’t be missed.
For those who adore art and culture, make sure to check out the Spanish Village Art Center, featuring a number of rotating galleries.
San Diego Zoo
Quite possibly the most famous zoo in the United States, San Diego Zoo is worth adding to your California road trip itinerary. A favorite among tourists and locals alike, the San Diego Zoo features a Skyfari Aerial Tram, VIP experiences that bring you up close and personal with animals, and more than 650 species of animals.
The enclosures and exhibits at the San Diego Zoo are state-of-the-art and will make you feel like you’re walking through the African Desert or through the jungle.
The San Diego Zoo is located in the heart of Balboa Park. It’s open Monday to Thursday from 9 am to 6 pm and Friday to Sunday from 9 am to 7 am.
Want to catch some thrills on your trip to San Diego? Cruise over to Belmont Park. Since 1925, the historic beachfront amusement park has been a staple in the lovely seaside Mission Beach neighborhood.
Belmont Park is packed full of fun activities for everyone, including a boardwalk, restaurants, rides, arcades, and shopping. One of the most popular attractions here is the Giant Dipper, a traditional wooden roller coaster. From the top of the coast, you can take in the spectacular views of the surrounding city.
The amusement park is open daily from 11 am to 9 pm.
USS Midway Museum
History buffs will adore The USS Midway Museum. The popular military museum is located on The Embarcadero, a walkway running through the San Diego Harbor downtown.
The USS Midway Museum has over 10 acres of exhibits to explore. Experience military history with 30 restored aircraft, all parked on a retired aircraft carrier ship parked at the Navy Pier.
After your educational walk through American military history, enjoy some of the delicious seafood restaurants and adorable shops at the adjacent Seaport Village.
Old Town San Diego Historic Park
Old Town San Diego Historic Park was the first European settlement in California and is the oldest neighborhood in San Diego. It’s located near the city center and dates back to 1769.
The Spanish-style architecture and beautifully kept streets in Old Town make you feel as if you are walking back in time. Even if you only have one day in San Diego, it’s a great place to experience the Hispanic culture, eat delicious food, and admire unique art.
Searching for the soul of San Diego? Spend time exploring the lively Gaslamp Quarter. The historic downtown area is the best place in San Diego to experience the city’s spicy nightlife, great food, and lively entertainment.
The second oldest neighborhood in San Diego, the Gaslamp Quarter was the first area to implement gas lamps to light the streets. The grand Victorian-style buildings now house trendy restaurants and bars.
One of the best things about San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter is that it’s walkable; everything can be reached in about 5 minutes. Vibrant scenery, delicious food, live music, and a plethora of world-class cocktail bars and lounges are just some of the thrills that await.
Whatever the occasion, Gaslamp Quarter is sure to deliver. It’s perfect for a romantic date night, a night out with friends, or a delicious dinner with family on your trip to San Diego.
Cabrillo National Monument
The Cabrillo National Monument marks the location where European explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo became the first non-native to make landfall on the West Coast of what is now the United States in 1562.
Modern-day explorers can enjoy incredible views of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding city, play in tide pools at low tide, and check out the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. Cabrillo National Monument is also an excellent spot to catch the annual migration of the Pacific Gray Whale if you’re visiting between December and February.
Get a little exercise by taking a hike on the two-mile Bayside Trail. One of the best hiking trails in San Diego, the Bayside Trail winds through one of the last remaining sage scrub habitats in the world.
The park is open between 9 am and 5 pm daily. Entrance costs $20 per car or $10 per walker or cyclist.
SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego allows wildlife enthusiasts to get up close to a variety of aquatic creatures, including dolphins, penguins, sharks, and more! The popular theme park offers daily shows with massive killer whales, acrobatic dolphins, and playful sea lions.
At SeaWorld San Diego, you’ll have the opportunity to touch crabs, sharks, and certain species of fish or see what it looks like under the sea at Explorer’s Reef. The theme park also features a variety of thrilling rides like roller coasters and water slides.
SeaWorld is located in the beautiful Mission Bay neighborhood and is a must-visit for anyone who loves wild animals and the ocean.
Tickets can be purchased ahead of time for as low as $65. The park is open daily from 10 and to 8 pm.
Torrey Pines State Beach
To escape the hustle and bustle of city life, take a short drive to Torrey Pines State Beach, one of Southern California’s most pristine stretches of coast.
The sandy beach enclave is framed by a backdrop of towering sandstone cliffs overlooking the expansive Pacific Ocean. Torrey Pines Beach can be reached by taking the low road right off the highway.
At the beach, there are bathrooms, showers, and lifeguards, making it a safe place for kids to splash around in the lagoon. Surfers looking for the best swell can head to the popular Black’s Beach by venturing south from Torrey Pines.
The high road off of the highway will lead you to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve Park. One of the best day trips from San Diego, it’s home to a unique coastal pine forest, canyons, and dirt paths for hiking the cliffs overlooking the water. It’s a $10 entrance fee per vehicle to enter the state park.
Maritime Museum of San Diego
The Maritime Museum of San Diego is one of the best places in the world to check out the history of the seas. At the museum, you’ll have the opportunity to explore floating museums on board historic vessels spanning the ages. Explore ships and submarines as well as educational exhibits about art, maritime history, trade, and exploration.
The Maritime Museum of San Diego also offers daily opportunities to set sail on historic cruises of the San Diego Bay. The museum is open daily from 10 and to 5 pm and admission costs $20. Optional Historic Bay cruises can be purchased at the ticket booth.
Mission Bay Park
With over 4,235 acres of land and water, Mission Bay Park includes 72 miles of gorgeous shoreline with 19 sandy beaches and eight official swimming areas. It’s just south of Pacific Beach and just a few miles from the city center but appears as its own thriving neighborhood.
Mission Bay Park and the beachfront areas are full of people enjoying the perfect weather, biking, and roller skating. If you’re looking for the perfect place to have a nice picnic or spend some time exercising, head here. You can walk, bike, or even kayak in the bay. Lifeguards are on duty daily throughout the summer months at this top-rated San Diego beach.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
As its name implies, Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is the best place to take in the panoramic ocean views and beautiful sunsets in San Diego. The 68-acre reserve features precipitously steep bluffs, sea caves, and rock arch formations.
If you arrive at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park a little before sunset, you can enjoy a scenic hike along the cliffs or stop by the Little Lion Cafe for a healthy bite to eat. There are two main hiking trails: a mile-long option and a 2.4-mile option. For their beautiful sunset views, these walks sit among the most popular hiking trails in San Diego.
The park is located to the west of Point Loma. There’s plenty of street parking, but visitors may want to keep in mind that there aren’t many bathroom facilities on site.
Seaport Village is home to some of the best views of San Diego Harbor, as well as great shopping and interesting architecture. The entire area is adorable, with prime examples of the early California Spanish Mission-style architecture.
If you’re looking for spectacular waterfront dining, this is the place; Seaport Village has so many delicious restaurants right on the harbor. At the main food court, you can check out some local live music every day between noon and 4 pm, with additional concerts on Sunday from 1 pm to 4 pm at the East Plaza Gazebo.
For an Instagram-worthy photo op, take a ride on the iconic Seaport Village Carousel, which was hand-carved and hand-painted in 1895 by Charles Looff. Just across the street, check out the historic police headquarters building, recently converted into shops and trendy restaurants.
After eating your fill at any of the many snack bars and restaurants, walk it off by strolling through the countless boutiques and specialty shops, selling everything from hot sauce to kites.
Museum of Us
The Museum of Us is a truly unique experience that’ll leave you with a new understanding and appreciation of the human experience. The museum is located in Balboa Park and focuses on all things human, from our relationships with animals to our belief in the divine to the history of drinking alcohol.
Each unique and interactive exhibit at the Museum of Us focuses on cultural anthropology from different places around the world. Learn about ‘us’ from a multicultural perspective that’ll encourage connection and self-reflection well after your trip has come to a close.
Keep in mind that the museum is closed Monday and Tuesday. On all other days, it’s open from 10 am to 5 pm. Admission costs about $20.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
An offshoot of the city’s iconic zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is located about 30 miles north of downtown in the San Pasqual Valley near Escondido, California. The park encompasses 1,800 acres of land, a good chunk of which has been protected as native species habitat.
At the Safari Park, you can view more than 3,000 animals roaming free from the comfort of a safari vehicle with a guide to teach you about the different animals. More than 300 animal species and 3,500 species of plants are represented. There’s a focus on animal welfare and conservation. Many of the proceeds support the missions of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.
The cost is around $63 and even though it’s a bit of a drive, it’s well worth it. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park continues to be one of the most-visited tourist attractions in San Diego.
Mission Trails Regional Park
It’s rare to find such a well-maintained open space within a city the size of San Diego, so Mission Trails Regional Park is truly a treasure. With more than 7,220 acres of open space, it’s the largest municipally-owned park in California and visiting is one of the best things to do in San Diego, CA.
You can hike the rugged landscape, including the hills and valleys, and feel as though you’re deep in the wilderness of California, even though you’re just 8 miles from downtown San Diego.
There are 60 miles of trails, a lake, and even camping. Mission Trails Regional Park is the perfect place to escape the city for a day in nature. You might even get lucky and see some of California’s native wildlife!
Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Located in La Jolla, Scripps Institution of Oceanography is one of the largest centers for ocean research in the world and its Birch Aquarium is one of a kind. Topping the list of what to do in La Jolla, the aquarium features interactive exhibits and more than 60 fish and invertebrate habitats. The Birch Aquarium is designed to showcase all of the research and findings of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
The aquarium features programs throughout the year, including meet-ups around the city that you may want to check out if they align with your San Diego trip. For the science-minded and families with kids, the Birch Aquarium is a must-see.
Where to stay in San Diego for sightseeing
As the third-biggest city in California, it shouldn’t be surprising that choosing where to stay in San Diego isn’t always easy. For tackling the top points of interest in San Diego, the best areas to stay in include Downtown San Diego, the Gaslamp Quarter, Old Town, and Coronado.
Located close to the Embarcadero, this hotel is perfectly placed to check off all the highlights of downtown. There’s a range of rooms here, catering to everyone from solo travelers to families. Extra amenities include a swimming pool and fitness center.
Stay in the heart of downtown by booking a room at this boutique-like chain hotel. Besides the elegant accommodations, guests will enjoy access to three on-site restaurants, an art gallery, and an outdoor terrace with nightly bonfires.
Located in the mix of the historic Gaslamp Quarter, this unique hotel is one of San Diego’s best. A colorful facade greets guests, welcoming them into their chic and inviting accommodations. The hotel also offers free bike rentals for exploring the historic downtown quarter and the beautiful San Diego waterfront.