San Diego is blessed with interesting topography, including beaches, mountains, and canyons. Luckily, there are a number of spots where you can take in the breathtaking views and get a sense of "where is where." Best of all, it costs nothing, or very little, for the experience. Here are our picks for best panoramic views in San Diego.
Cabrillo National Monument
When it comes to views, it's hard to beat the view atop the Point Loma Peninsula at the Cabrillo National Monument. From here, you take in everything that makes San Diego what it is: the Pacific Ocean on one side, the perfect natural bay, the downtown skyline, the Navy jets on North Island, and the Laguna Mountains in the east. A view from here really gives you a sense of what Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo saw when he discovered San Diego Bay in 1542. Nominal parking fee.
If you live in San Diego you've likely heard all the legal wranglings about the cross atop Mount Soledad in La Jolla (the whole church/state argument). But in regards to the topic of stellar views, the bottom line is the view from 822-foot Mount Soledad is spectacular: 360 degrees of the Pacific, La Jolla, the north coast and even Mexico on a clear day. A veteran's memorial is also situated at the base of the cross. Free parking.
You might say Mount Helix, located between La Mesa and El Cajon, is the east county counterpart to Mount Soledad. It even has a cross atop (though it sits on private land, thus no legal challenges). The 1,370-foot peak offers an amazing view of eastern San Diego County, from the lovely estates on the mountain, to the bustle of the El Cajon Valley. The park at the top has a nice amphitheater and is used for events, weddings, plays, and just soaking in the view. Free.
Cowles Mountain, in the San Carlos neighborhood of San Diego, is one of the highest peaks in the city at 1,592 feet. It's also part of the sprawling Mission Trails Regional Park, one of the county's best-loved and used recreation areas. Unlike the other mountains, catching a view from Cowles isn't as easy as driving up to the top since you have to hike all the way up. But it'll be worth the effort with panoramic views of the entire city and Lake Murray below. Free, with some effort.
Unfortunately, San Diego doesn't have a towering landmark building where tourists and residents can take in a panoramic view, like Seattle's Space Needle or the St. Louis Arch. The closest thing we have is a restaurant: Bertrand at Mister A's. Located in Banker's Hill atop an office building, Mister A's gives you the best view of downtown, especially of planes landing right at eye level. Dinner might be pricey, but at least go up for drinks—it'll be worth it.
San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge
OK, first off: you have to take in the view from the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge quickly because you can't stop on the bridge. But it's a nifty view driving across the bay to Coronado, with a sweeping view of San Diego Bay, the Silver Strand, Coronado, and downtown. And the bridge itself, with its sweeping curve, is one of the most handsome around. Best of all, there is no toll, so it's free. Just be sure to pay attention to the road if you're driving.