San Diego has some of the most beautiful scenery in the country, visitors will love exploring the various beaches and enjoying the wonderful outdoor activities. With the city’s military history, there’s also museums and monuments that instill a reverence for our country’s history.
Here’s a few our favorites things to do in San Diego:
1. San Diego Zoo
San Diego Zoo is one of the most famous zoos in the world is a must-see while in town. It occupies over 100 acres of Balboa Park and has over 3,700 animals.
Rare animals include Buerger’s tree kangaroos of New Guinea, long-billed kiwis from New Zealand, wild Przewalski’s horses from Mongolia, lowland gorillas from Africa, and giant tortoises from the Galapagos.
Popular exhibits include:
• Monkey Trails – features an elevated walkway that allows visitors to get a canopy-level view of many species of primates.
• Panda Trek – San Diego Zoo is one of only four in the United States that houses giant pandas, and six pandas have been born there.
• Elephant Odyssey – includes a herd of 7 elephants plus other animals such as lions, jaguars, and tapirs. Fossil Portal allows visitors to compare the prehistoric animals of Southern California to their current counterparts.
• Polar Bear Plunge – includes polar bears and over 30 other species from the Arctic, including reindeer, caribou, and Arctic foxes.
The Zoo was founded in 1916 after the Panama-California Exposition was held in Balboa Park as a celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal. Dr. Harry M. Wegeforth founded the zoo after hearing a lion roar at the Exposition and deciding the city needed a zoo. The Zoo had the only female zookeeper in the world, Belle Benchley, from 1925 until 1953. It was also a pioneer in using open-air, cageless exhibits that mimic an animal’s natural habitats – read more here (Photo by fortherock)
2. Torrey Pines State Reserve
Torrey Pines State Reserve is one of the wildest stretches of land on the Southern California coast and is located just north of La Jolla and about 20 miles north of San Diego.
The coastal wilderness contains pine forests, sandstone canyons, and cliffs with breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. The reserve is home to (and named after) the nation’s rarest pine tree – Pinus torreyana, which only grows here and on Santa Rosa Island off the coast of Santa Barbara. A salt marsh lagoon is one of the last waterfowl refuges in Southern California and is vital to migrating seabirds.
Hiking the trails is the best way to experience the reserve, and Torrey Pines has trails that cater to every level:
• Guy Fleming Trail – a 2/3-mile loop with two scenic overlooks
• Razor Point Trail – a 2/3 mile to the Razor Point Overlook, passing coastal sage scrub, gnarled trees, and sandstone gorges and gnarled trees.
• High Point Trail – a short, steep that offers a panoramic view of the entire reserves and the ocean beyond.
• Beach Trail – this steep, A 3/4-mile trail descends to Torrey Pines State Beach
Go to Torrey Pines State Reserve for hiking, bird-watching, photography, and walking, and picnicking on the beach. There is a visitors center on site. Since the area is a reserve, dogs are not allowed, and food and drink (except water) is not allowed anywhere except on the beach – read more here (Photo by Tim Buss)
3. Balboa Park
Balboa Park dates back to 1835 and is one of the oldest, largest, and most popular public parks in the United States. At 1,200 acres, the place is huge. Balboa Park offers something for everyone, including open space areas, natural vegetation green belts, over 15 gardens, walking paths, over 15 museums, several theaters, and the famed San Diego Zoo. There are also many recreational facilities and several gift shops and restaurants.
The Museums at Balboa include:
• San Diego Air & Space Museum
• San Diego Museum of Art
• San Diego History Center
• San Diego Automotive Museum
• San Diego Natural History Museum
• Centro Cultural de la Raza
• San Diego Art Institute
• San Diego Museum of Man
• San Diego Model Railroad Museum
• Mingei International Museum
• San Diego Hall of Champions
• Museum of Photographic Arts
• Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
• Japanese Friendship Garden
• Desert Garden
• 1935 Cactus Garden
• Alcazar Garden
• Australian Garden
• California Native Plant Garden
4. Cabrillo National Monument
Cabrillo National Monument is located at the southern tip of the Point Loma Peninsula and is named after Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the Portuguese sailor who was the first European explorer to navigate the coast of present day California.
A limestone statue of Cabrillo looks out across the bay and commemorates his landing at San Diego Bay in 1542. The Visitors Center screens a film about Cabrillo’s voyage and has exhibits about the expedition. An historic Military building present exhibits on the history of Fort Rosecrans.
San Diego’s only national park also has plenty of natural attractions:
• Bayside Trail – hiking on the two-mile reveals spectacular views of San Diego Bay
• Point Loma Tide Pools – give visitors a chance to view near shore creatures
• Old Point Loma Lighthouse – was built in 1855 and has been restored. Includes exhibits that depict the life of the light keepers and their families.
• Whale Watch Overlook – the perfect place to spot Gray Whales migrating in January and February.
Point Loma is a narrow spur of land jutting out into the Pacific Ocean with rocky cliffs that drop 400 feet to the sea. The entire Point Loma Peninsula area offers stunning views, especially at sunset – read more here (Photo by Edward Kim)
5. USS Midway Museum
The USS Midway is the longest-serving U.S. Navy aircraft carrier of the 20th century, and visitors can explore it as part of their visit to this maritime museum. The aircraft carrier opened for public touring as a museum in 2004. It is docked at the Navy Pier in downtown San Diego. It was on duty from 1945 to 1992, and approximately 200,000 servicemen and women served aboard the carrier.
Admission to the Museum include a self-guided audio tour, and their are also docents available who love to tell stories about what life was like on the ship. Visitors to the The USS Midway Museum may tour the following areas: bridge, flight deck, hangar deck, mess deck, primary flight control, Tactical Flag Command Center, enlisted and junior officer quarters, the captain’s and admiral’s quarters, sickbay, and an engine room. Free access to the forward flight deck is available by request at the ticket office. Kids will enjoy trying out the flight simulators and listening to the child’s audio tour that is specifically geared toward 7-12 year-olds.
In addition to the aircraft carrier, the Museum also houses over two dozen restored aircraft from the World War 2, Korean War, Vietnam War, and Desert Storm. They are on display on the hangar deck and flight deck of the USS Midway, and visitors can climb inside many of them – read more here (Photo by Alastair Campbell)
6. Coronado Island
Coronado Island lies on across the scenic Coronado Bridge from San Diego and is known for being one of the wealthiest and most historic resort towns in America. Drive the famous bridge, or take the ferry across. Once there, explore the circa-1888 Hotel del Coronado, then visit the restaurants, shops, and theaters in the downtown district along Orange Avenue. The town is very family friendly and there’s plenty for everyone to do.
Be sure to spend some time on the beach – it was rated by Travel Channel in 2012 as the best beach in the country.
7. San Diego Zoo Safari Park
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is located thirty miles north of San Diego near Escondido. It is run by the same organization that runs the San Diego Zoo, but the park is more of an expansive wildlife preserve. It is home to species from Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America, and Australia. The Safari Park houses over 2,600 animals from more than 300 species, plus 3,500 plant species.
One of the most popular attractions is The Africa Tram, which explores the expansive African exhibits. The tram takes visitors through free-range enclosures of antelopes, warthogs, giraffes, buffalo, cheetahs, lions, cranes, and rhinos.
8. Old Globe Theatre
The Old Globe Theatre was built in 1935 for the California Pacific International Exposition as a replica copy of the famous Globe Theatre in London where Shakespeare’s plays were first performed. The facility is located in Balboa Park and consists of three theatres: the Old Globe Theatre (600-seat and fully enclosed), the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre (250-seat theatre in the round), and the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre (615-seat, outdoor).
The professional Old Globe Theatre produces about 15 plays and musicals annually during the winter and summer seasons.
9. San Diego Fly Rides
San Diego Fly Rides offers electric-powered bikes for both rental and guided tours of the San Diego area. There are three guided tours available:
• La Jolla – on this scenic (and hilly) tour, riders will explore some of the most expensive real estate in San Diego and traverse the hills of Mt. Soledad, which will afford panoramic views of the beautiful Pacific coastline..
• Coastal La Jolla – this tour explores La Jolla’s coastline, where riders will see La Jolla Coves, WindanSea Surf Beach, Children’s Pool and Seal Beach, Crystal Pier, and beautiful homes. Much of this ride is on nice bike paths.
• Spanish Twist Tour – Balboa Park is one of the largest and oldest cultural parks in the world, and this tour allows riders to explore the 1200 acres of beautiful gardens and architecture of San Diego’s large city park.
The motorized e-bikes are powered by a small electric motor and a battery, so they are clean and quiet. They are super-fun and easy to ride. The more the riders pedals, the farther the bike will go on a charge. Guided tours are led by professional tour leaders with extensive local and historic knowledge of San Diego. They also rent the bike for people who want to explore on their own – read more here (Photo by Richard Masoner)
10. Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego
The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego focuses on art from 1950 to the present and includes in its collection more than 4,000 works. Artists represented include Piero Manzoni, Ad Dekkers, Christo, Jules Olitski and Franz Kline. Of particular note in the collection are fine examples of minimalism and Pop Art from the 1960s and 1970s and conceptual art from the 1960s to the present.
The Museum building was originally the residence of philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps and sits on a high cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The grounds of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego include a beautiful sculpture garden – read more here (Photo by Lord Jim)
11. SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego is the original and most famous SeaWorld and is home to the original Shamu. The facility opened on the shore of Mission Bay in 1964 and featured a few dolphins and sea lions in two seawater aquariums. After attracting good crowds in the first year, SeaWorld was able to expand for subsequent years. The original Shamu arrived in 1965, and the San Diego location is currently home to 26 animal habitats, 10 killer whales, 10 rides, and 20 shows. Other locations have opened in Ohio, Orlando, and San Antonio.
Favorite exhibits at SeaWorld San Diego include:
- Shark Encounter
- Turtle Reef
- Dolphin Point
Favorite shows include:
- One Ocean
- Blue Horizons
- Sea Lions LIVE
Go for the shows and animals (whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, penguins, polar bear, sharks, stingrays, turtles) and the rides. There are also rides and roller coasters. Visitors can pay extra to swim with the Beluga whale and dine with Shamu – read more here (Photo by Jack View)
12. La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove is a relatively small, picturesque beach with calm, clear water that’s perfect for swimming, diving, and snorkeling. It is part of the San Diego La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve, which means there’s lots of sea life, including the occasional sea lion. The Cave is within walking distance and can be accessed through The Cave Store. The Children’s Pool is just around the corner and is great for viewing seals and sea lions. There is an excellent grass park adjacent to The Cove with bathrooms, showers, picnic tables, a paved pedestrian walkway and several public gazebos.
13. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is a 68-acre park stretching along the Pacific Ocean on the western edge of the Sunset Cliffs neighborhood in Point Loma. The park is basically a strip along the coast and includes 2 beaches, coastal bluffs, arches and sea caves. with the beautiful, panoramic views, the vibe is romantic and relaxing.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park makes for a great place to watch the sunset, explore the caves, or watch California Gray Whales as they migrate between the Bering Sea and Baja California. Because of the cliffs, it’s not a very good place for young children – read more here (Photo by SD Dirk)
14. Another Side of San Diego Tours
Another Side Of San Diego Tours offers guided tours of San Diego by Segway. Choices of tour destinations include the Gaslamp Quarter, Mission Bay, Embarcadero, Balboa Park, and La Jolla. For people who don’t want to travel by Segway, tours can also be taken by bike, boat, horseback, or walking. Another Side also offer food tours of the city. Another Side Of San Diego Tours has informed, friendly guides, and their tours are a great way to learn more about San Diego’s culture and history. It’s also a good way to meet fellow travelers – read more here (Photo by Port of San Diego)
15. Gaslamp Quarter
The Gaslamp Quarter is the historic heart of San Diego and the center of the nightlife activities. The Gaslamp Quarter encompasses 16.5 blocks of restored late 19th and early 20th century buildings. Go during the day to explore and shop; go at night to dine at the restaurants, and party at the bars and clubs.
The area earned the name “Gaslamp Quarter” due to the prevalence of gas lamps in the neighborhood’s heyday. In a nod to the past, four new gas lamps have been installed at the intersection of Market Street and 5th Avenue. The same intersection features a pedestrian scramble, which means all car traffic at the intersection is stopped so that walkers can cross the intersection in any direction they desire, including diagonally – read more here (Photo by Allie_Caulfield)
16. Maritime Museum of San Diego
The Maritime Museum of San Diego was established in 1948, and it holds one of the largest collections of historic ships and sea vessels in the United States. The centerpiece of the collection is the Star of India, the world’s oldest active sailing ship. There’s also the circa 1898 Steam Ferry Berkeley ferryboat, a B-39 Soviet Submarine, and the extreme deep-diving USS Dolphin submarine. Bothe kids and adults will enjoy touring the vessels. Exhibits include the Age of Sail and the Age of Steam.
The Maritime Museum of San Diego is in the process of constructing a full-sized, functioning replica of the San Salvador, which is the ship Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo used to explore the coast of California.
17. Petco Park
Petco Park has been home to the San Diego Padres baseball team since it opened in 2004. The stadium was designed with a combination of colors meant to evoke its environment, including the sandy color of San Diego cliffs and beaches, the blue of the ocean, and the white sails of boats on the nearby bay.
Petco is located south of downtown in the burgeoning East Village neighborhood and offers amazing views of downtown and the harbor. The “Park at the Park” is a grassy berm that slopes upward behind the outfield fence and allows fans to watch the game for a small price of $5. The Western Metal Supply Co. building in left field is a 100 year old brick structure that was incorporated into the design of the ballpark.
18. Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery
Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery is a federal military cemetery that was founded in 1882 and houses soldiers from as far back as the Mexican–American War of 1846 to the Spanish-American War, both World Wars, Vietnam, and more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fort Rosecrans was actually built on the site of the Battle of San Pasqual in the Mexican–American War, where 19 of Brigadier General Stephen W. Kearny’s men lost their lives.
Fort Rosecrans is located on a hill on Point Loma that offers spectacular views of San Diego and San Diego Bay on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. The soldiers are honored with small white gravestones that are perfectly aligned and stretch out in every direction, filling the visitor with a sense of both humbleness and awe. Soldiers from the Spanish American War are buried next to soldiers from Vietnam, and captains and buried next to privates.It’s especially majestic at sunset.
Fort Rosecrans is named after William Starke Rosecrans, who was a Union general in the American Civil War. The cemetery was registered as California Historical Landmark in 1932. It covers 77 acres, and an estimated 112,000 people have remains there, including at least 23 Medal of Honor recipients. The cemetery is currently is closed to new interments except for those who already have a burial site.
19. Sail Stars & Stripes USA-11
Sail Stars & Stripes USA-11 is the same boat that Dennis Conner raced during the 1992 America’s Cup in San Diego, and it is now available for exhilarating 3-hour tours on San Diego Bay.
The sailboat is harbored at the Kona Kai Resort on Shelter Island, and the boat is in pristine condition. Guests are encouraged to be fully involved on the boat as crew members as they ride on one of the fastest and most famous sailboats in the world. Guests get to to help raise the sails, grind the winches, and even steer the boat – all under the guidance of the Captain and the friendly crew. The boat is incredibly fast and blows by the other sailboat that dares to race it. Sailing on the bay gives visitors a wonderful view of San Diego.
During the sail, the crew does a good job of explaining the history of the America’s Cup and of the Stars and Stripes. Complimentary water, soft drinks, and light snacks are offered, and the crew takes lots of complimentary pictures and video for sharing. There is also an America’s Cup Sailing souvenir gift shop, restaurant, and bar at the resort.
20. Mission Beach
Mission Beach spans nearly 2 miles of beachfront on the peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and Mission Bay, north of downtown San Diego. Many of the residential homes there were originally summer cottages that date back to the 1930’s. The beach area is clean and people-friendly and offers swimming, surfing, skating and biking, and volleyball.
There are plenty of bars and cafes along the beach for refreshments and dining, and there’s also good nightlife in the area.