Most Popular Things to Do in San Diego, California

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 fun 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 see & do? Start planning your adventure right now with this guide to the best places to visit in San Diego, California!

Must-see places to visit

Balboa Park

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.

Botanical Garden at Balboa Park

Balboa Park is also home to a variety of museums, gardens, and art galleries designed with stunning Spanish-style architecture. The Japanese Friendship Garden is an especially tranquil place to enjoy an afternoon stroll through the greenery, and the domed botanical gardens can’t be missed.

Science geeks in your travel group, on the other hand, will love popping into the Fleet Science Center. One of the city’s top activities for families, the family-friendly science museum features a wide array of exhibits fit for adults and children alike. Journey through the cosmos at the Space Gallery or let the kids see how science plays a role in designing everything from video games to music at the Design Zone.

For those who adore art & culture, make sure to check out the Spanish Village Art Center, featuring a number of rotating galleries, or catch a performance at the Old Globe Theatre. Also located in Balboa Park is another must-visit attraction: the San Diego Museum of Art. One of the most renowned art museums in the country, the SDMA is home to several collections with works from world-famous artists, including everything from paintings and photos to sculptures and artifacts.

Although currently closed for renovations, the Botanical Building is another jewel in Balboa Park’s crown. Once the $21-million renovation is complete, the Botanical Building will once again show off its beautiful arched doorways, Spanish Colonial Revival windows, and stunning cupola.

San Diego Zoo

One of the most famous zoos in the United States, the 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.

Statue of Lion at the San Diego Zoo

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. Highlights at the zoo include lions, rhinos, gorillas, giant pandas, and giraffes.

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.

Belmont Park

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

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 coaster, you can take in the spectacular views of the surrounding city and the beautiful Pacific Ocean coast.

The amusement park is open daily from 11 am to 9 pm.

When you’re done squeezing in a day of fun at Belmont Park, save time for a tour of the Mission Beach area. Take a stroll along the Mission Beach Boardwalk, enjoying the Pacific Ocean sea breeze. If you’ve built up an appetite, grab lunch at one of the many eateries along the boardwalk, like the Beach House Tequila + Taqueria, or enjoy an aerial view of the oceanfront with sushi and drink on the rooftop bar at Cannonball.

The boardwalk is also connected to a couple of the most popular beaches in the region, including South Mission Beach, Mission Beach, and Pacific Beach.

USS Midway Museum

History buffs will adore The USS Midway Museum. The popular military museum is located on The Embarcadero, a walkway running along the San Diego Harbor downtown, and will be a pick the entire family will love!

USS Midway Museum

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 at this popular attraction, 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.

Old Town San Diego State Historic Park

The Spanish-style architecture and beautifully kept streets in Old Town San Diego 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.

After checking out Old Town, exercise those quads with a walk up to Presidio Park. Overlooking Old Town and the Mission Valley, the historic city park marks the spot of the first European settlements on the West Coast of the United States. With over 40 acres to explore—dotted with historical plaques, murals, and monuments—Presidio Park is a wonderful sojourn from SoCal city life.

Gaslamp Quarter

Searching for the soul of San Diego? Spend time exploring the lively Gaslamp Quarter. Spread out over 16 square blocks, the historic downtown area is the place in San Diego to experience the city’s spicy nightlife, great food, cocktails, and lively entertainment.

Gaslamp Quarter

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, bars, cocktail lounges, clubs, coffee shops, and theatres. 

What travelers love most 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. This top-notch destination is perfect for a romantic date night, a quick afternoon dessert, a night out with friends, or a delicious dinner with family on your trip to San Diego.

If you’re visiting in the morning, start with a cup of craft coffee in the sunshine at Spill the Beans Coffee and Bagels. In the evening, soak up the charm by sipping cocktails, craft beer, or wine at the Tipsy Cow or the speakeasy-style Prohibition Lounge. Add a dash of culture by taking in performances or other special events at one of the neighborhood’s theaters like the Balboa Theatre or Spreckels Theatre.

Visiting during baseball season? Set aside an evening to catch a baseball game at Petco Park. Located on the edge of the district, the outdoor stadium is home to the MLB’s San Diego Padres. Outside of baseball season, Petco Park also hosts a variety of special events, from concerts to festivals. Check the stadium’s events calendar for more details on what’s on.

Cabrillo National Monument

Located on the Point Loma peninsula, the Cabrillo National Monument marks the location where European explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first non-native to make landfall in 1562 on the West Coast of North America in what is now the United States. Although he was Portuguese, Cabrillo represented the Spanish Empire, paving the course for the future conquests that shaped the history of Southern California.

Cabrillo National Monument Statue at Point Loma

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, another one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. Cabrillo National Monument is also an excellent spot for whale watching. You be able to catch the annual migration of the Pacific Gray Whale if you’re visiting between December and February or blue whales from mid-July to mid-September. 

Get a little exercise by taking a hike on the two-mile Bayside Trail. One of the most popular 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. 

SeaWorld San Diego

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. Besides the animal habitats, the theme park also features a variety of thrilling rides like roller coasters and water slides.

SeaWorld San Diego is located in the beautiful Mission Bay neighborhood and is one of SoCal’s must-visit theme parks 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.

Torrey Pines State Reserve

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 gnarliest 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 must-do 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.

Need an adrenaline spike on your vacation? Venture over to the nearby Torrey Pines Gliderport. Book yourself onto a paragliding or hang-gliding adventure, soaking up an unforgettable bird’s-eye view of the waves crashing into the coastline as you coast through the skies above the mountains and trees.

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.

Maritime Museum of San Diego

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.

After your visit, take a short stroll east through Waterfront Park to the historic Little Italy neighborhood. One of the chicest destinations in the city, San Diego’s Little Italy teems with trendy restaurants, bars, cafes, and craft breweries. If you’re hungry, see what’s on the menu at one of the many delicious Italian restaurants along India Street, including Davanti Enoteca and Mimmo’s Italian Village.

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

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 perfect 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.

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

If you arrive at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park a little before sunset, you can enjoy a scenic hike along the cliffs to enjoy the natural beauty 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.

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is located just south of Ocean Beach in the community of Sunset Cliffs on the west side of Point Loma. There’s plenty of street parking on the peninsula, but visitors may want to keep in mind that there aren’t many bathroom facilities on site.

Seaport Village

Seaport Village is home to some of the most beautiful 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. 

Seaport Village

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, restaurants, and eateries, walk it off by strolling through the countless boutiques and specialty shops in the district, 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.

Museum of Us

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.

Succulent Garden at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

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.

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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 essential things to do in San Diego, CA.

Mission Trails Regional Park

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—don’t forget your camera!

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.

Birch Aquarium at 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 science-minded adults and families with kids, the Birch Aquarium is a must-see.

When you’re done exploring all the exciting sea life at the aquarium, take a 5-minute drive south to check out La Jolla Shores Beach. With its calm waters, La Jolla Shores is one of the most popular spots in the area for snorkeling and scuba diving. Dip below the waters to see a wide array of colorful tropical fish and La Jolla’s stunning kelp forest, or float up to the surface to hear the sounds of seals and sea lions barking and slapping the shoreline.

Another 10 minutes south along the coastline, La Jolla Cove is another one of the area’s must-see locations. The setting, wedged between towering rock formations, couldn’t be more perfect. Rent a kayak or a paddleboard for the ultimate kayaking or paddleboarding adventure, exploring some of the coolest sea caves in the entire country.

After enjoying the immense natural beauty, head into the village to re-fuel on a taste of Mexico at Puesto La Jolla. The popular restaurant serves up authentic Mexican favorites, from artisanal tacos to burrito bowls. Other options in the area include Hawaiian-inspired food at Duke’s or classic pub fare at The Spot.

Coronado Beach

Need to escape the crowds and bustle of downtown? Scoot over San Diego Bay by ferry or via the legendary Coronado Bridge for a day in the sunshine on Coronado Beach. Less than 15 minutes driving distance from downtown, this stretch of sandy coastline on Coronado Island is the most easily accessible seaside spots in the city.

Coronado Beach

With its Pacific Ocean waters, Coronado Beach is a fantastic destination for water sports like swimming and surfing. Although there’s no fishing pier, fishing from the shoreline is also a popular activity here.

Fancying a luxury getaway? Book yourself in at the historic Hotel del Coronado. Housed in a grand Victorian venue dating back to 1888, the iconic hotel overlooks the sand dunes and waters from a perch above the shores.

LEGOLAND California

If you’re visiting San Diego with children, don’t miss the chance to visit LEGOLAND California. Located in Carlsbad, CA, just 45 minutes from San Diego on the way to Los Angeles, this world-famous attraction is a dream destination for kids, with everything from thrill rides and a water park to an aquarium.

Get your LEGOLAND California thrills at Emmet’s Flying Adventure Ride. Meet some of your favorite characters from LEGO movies at Emmet’s Super Suite. Or take a LEGO journey through ancient Egypt at the Adventurer’s Club in Fun Town.

LEGOLAND California

To escape the hot SoCal weather, slip on your bathing suit and cool down at the LEGOLAND Water Park. Slide through the mouth of a crocodile at Cragger’s Swamp or spin down a half pipe in a giant raft at Orange Rush.

Marine biology enthusiasts will love getting up close and personal with stunning sea creatures at the SEA LIFE Aquarium. Drop by the touch tank to feel spiny sea urchins and starfish. Join in on educational talks to learn everything you ever wanted to know about marine life, like sharks, rays, and octopi. Or check out the aquarium’s newest exhibit, Sea at Night, where you’ll get a chance to stroll through bioluminescent tide under the stars.

Where to stay

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 most popular areas & neighborhoods to stay in include Downtown San Diego, the Gaslamp Quarter, Old Town, and Coronado.

SpringHill Suites by Marriott Downtown/Bayfront

SpringHill Suites by Marriott San Diego Downtown/Bayfront

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.

Hotel Republic, Autograph Collection

Hotel Republic San Diego, Autograph Collection

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.

Staypineapple, Hotel Z, Gaslamp Quarter

Staypineapple, Hotel Z, Gaslamp San Diego

Located in the mix of the historic Gaslamp Quarter, this unique hotel is one of San Diego’s finest. 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.

Treksplorer

Ryan O'Rourke is a seasoned traveler and the founder & editor of Treksplorer, a fiercely independent guide to mid-range luxury travel for busy people. With over 20 years of extensive travel experience, Ryan has journeyed through over 50 countries, uncovering hidden gems and sharing firsthand, unsponsored insights on what to see & do and where to eat, drink & stay. Backed by his travel experience and in-depth research, Ryan’s travel advice and writing has been featured in publications like the Huffington Post and Matador Network. You can connect with Ryan on Twitter/X at @rtorourke.

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