Free Things to Do in San Diego

There's a lot to do in San Diego that will cost you nothing.

San Diego has a slew of attractions that are free. Here are some ways to be entertained while spending time in San Diego without having to spend a fortune.  

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    Best Beaches in San Diego for Visitors (Windansea Beach Shown)
    ••• Best Beaches in San Diego for Visitors (Windansea Beach Shown). Images by Steve Skinner Photography/Moment/Getty Images

    The beaches of San Diego are its greatest natural asset and -- unsurprisingly -- San Diegans love their beaches, but sometimes take them for granted. Don't forget that San Diego's miles of sandy shoreline are free every day of the year to enjoy. Whether it's for sunbathing, swimming, surfing, picnicking or people watching, the beaches provide entertainment to no end. There's surfing at Windansea Beach, the boardwalk of the beaches in PB and Mission Beach, Dog Beach at Ocean Beach, pristine Coronado Beach and family-friendly La Jolla Shores. Pick the best free beach for your interests and lay back on the sand and simply enjoy the ambiance. 

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    Balboa Park is the jewel of public open space in San Diego and is cherished by anyone who appreciates its natural beauty as well as all the recreational and cultural activities offered within its vast acreage. Pack a lunch and head over to stroll along the picturesque El Prado museum row, or let the kids romp at the Pepper Grove play area, hike along the miles of Balboa Park trails or enjoy free classical concerts at the outdoor Organ Pavilion. And don't forget Free Tuesdays, where museums open their doors for free every Tuesday (on a rotating basis). Both recreation and culture can be found for free in Balboa Park.

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    San Diego's local neighborhood library branches offer up numerous free events and activities on a weekly basis. Whether it's storytelling for children, or book clubs, or lectures, or film screenings, the San Diego city and county libraries provide lots of activities to keep you occupied and interested. Oh yeah, and don't forget the stuff that we head to libraries for: books, CDs and DVDs -- all for free to check out and provide entertainment at home.

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    Everyone who has shopped at the San Diego IKEA in Mission Valley knows how budget-friendly it can be when it comes to home furnishings, and it is one of those few retail stores that is extremely kid-friendly. However, it's not readily known that IKEA hosts free kids birthday parties on the first Tuesday of every month. The party is for all children turning 10 years old or younger during the selected attended party date and includes face painting, a magic show, soda and cake. Plus, each birthday child will receive a gift from IKEA. 

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    Ray at Night Artwalk in North Park

    To local art lovers, Ray Street in North Park is known as a vibrant hub of art galleries and studios. On the second Saturday of every month, this narrow, one-way street off of University Avenue, just east of 30th Street, becomes Ray at Night, a gallery art walk event often drawing over 1,500 people. From 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., you’ll find a wide variety of artwork on display including paintings, sketches, sculptures, ceramics, blown glass, organic art and jewelry. There is often entertainment at the event – everything from jazz, blues and cultural music to poetry readings and performances by dance groups. Since its inception in 2001, Ray at Night has steadily grown to over two dozen participating businesses. It's a great way to discover North Park.

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    Sea World Fireworks

    The good thing about fireworks displays is that if you have a good vantage point, you can see them for free. If you head down to Mission Bay from April through September, you can "ooh" and "ahh" at the Sea World fireworks display. 

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    At dusk on the first Wednesday of each month, following the monthly "Sky Tonight" planetarium show in the Space Theater, members of the SDAA set up telescopes on the north side of the Fleet Center building by the large fountain in Balboa Park for free public sky viewing. Though the sky is not as dark and clear as one might hope, viewers can enjoy a variety of sights, from the moon and planets to the brighter stars.

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    Old Town State Park is one of San Diego's most popular attractions, and because it's a tourist stop, locals sometimes forget that it is a genuine historical center and not something that has been fabricated. You can take part in free educational tours during which park aides lead informative and friendly tours around Old Town State Park. Reservations are taken, though they're generally not necessary and you can typically just show up at the Old Town Visitor’s Center at the Robinson Rose building on the plaza before the scheduled tour time, which you can find out by calling 619-220-5422.

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    Because of their protected status, some of the best tidepools in California can be found right at Cabrillo National Monument. On the western side of Point Loma lies the rocky inter-tidal zone, a window into the ocean ecosystem that lies along San Diego's coast. During low tide, pools form along this shore in rocky depressions. Since the tide pools are within the Cabrillo National Park, it is patrolled by park rangers. Ranger walks are available during most low tides and a slide program is shown daily at the Cabrillo Park Visitor Center.

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    Coronado Bridge stretching across San Diego Bay
    ••• Coronado Bridge stretching across San Diego Bay. Glowimages/Glowimages/Getty Images

    A San Diego Bay walk provides you with million dollar views, and it'll cost you nothing but a willingness to spend some time exploring. San Diego Bay has many different areas and sights. Harbor Island gives you some of the best panoramic views of the city skyline while a stroll along the embarcadero gets you near the historic Star of India tall ship. You can also see larger ships, such as gigantic ocean liners making a port of call or the famous U.S.S Midway aircraft carrier floating museum. And don't forget public art displays and Seaport Village, from which you can see the Coronado Bridge. 

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    U.S. Olympic Training Center

    The U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista is the first USOC training facility to be master-planned from the ground up and is dedicated to the development of America's future Olympic athletes, with many making the Olympic team. Opened in 1995, the Training Center rests on a 150-acre complex adjacent to Lower Otay Lake and provides training for athletes in nine Olympic sports: archery, canoe/kayak, cycling, field hockey, rowing, soccer, softball, tennis, and track and field. Free guided tours are offered Tuesday through Saturday at 1:30 p.m. Complimentary self-guided tours are available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week.

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    Centrally located and only eight miles northeast of downtown San Diego, Mission Trails Regional Park provides a quick, natural escape from the urban hustle and bustle. If you like hiking, there are 40 miles of challenging trails, including the popular trek up Cowles Mountain, giving you a spectacular view of the city. You can explore the Old Mission Dam, which the Kumeyaay Native Americans built to provide water for the San Diego Mission. There are also miles of biking trails to explore. If you haven't been, you'll want to start at the Mission Trails Regional Park Visitor Center at One Father Junipero Serra Trail.

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    Taylor Guitars makes some of the finest acoustic guitars around, and they are manufactured right here in El Cajon. Known for their meticulous craft, Taylor Guitars offers guitar fans a free guided tour of the Taylor factory every Monday through Thursday at 1 p.m. (excluding holidays). The Taylor Guitars Factory Tour takes guests through the steps of guitar construction, from wood selection to final assembly. No reservations are required and you can just check in at the receptionist desk in the lobby of Taylor Guitar's main building by 1 p.m. to register for the tour.

Updated by Gina Tarnacki on July 19, 2016.