The Top 20 Things to Do in San Diego, California

Sunset at La Jolla Cove
Nicholas Anderson / Getty Images

Before you go on a trip to San Diego, one of the biggest cities in the country, it's helpful to learn about all the great attractions the area has in store. "America's Finest City" features everything from beautiful beaches to historic and artistic districts and beloved zoos and parks. Regardless of whether you're traveling with family or on your own, find out about the most popular and fun things to do in San Diego.

01 of 20

Stroll Around Little Italy

Lovely Little Italy in San Diego

David Madison / Getty Images

Address
Little Italy, San Diego, CA 92101, USA

The Little Italy neighborhood—a charming and walkable area in downtown San Diego—is the city's oldest business district, dating back to the 1920s. It's a great place to dine on Italian food at casual and elegant restaurants, some with lovely outdoor patios. Visitors also enjoy sipping on an espresso in local cafés, exploring small shops, and checking out annual cultural events such as the Mission Fed ArtWalk in late April and Taste of Little Italy in the middle of June.

02 of 20

Learn About History in the Gaslamp Quarter

The Gaslamp Quarter sign shining in the early evening

Mindy_Nicole_Photography / Getty Images

Address
Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego, CA 92101, USA

The Gaslamp Quarter near The San Diego Convention Center downtown is not very large, so it is easy to walk around. Learn about one of the city's oldest neighborhoods and its restored 19th-century buildings—many of which were once saloons and brothels. The Gaslamp appeals to travelers and locals who enjoy the many eateries such as the award-winning Japanese-Peruvian fusion restaurant Nobu, along with nightclubs, shops, and other businesses. While you are there, check out the charming Victorian-style Horton Grand Hotel, the city's oldest hotel.

03 of 20

Chill Out in La Jolla

La Jolla Cove

TripSavvy / Sharyn Umaña-Angers 

Address
La Jolla, San Diego, CA, USA

La Jolla is the city's prime seaside neighborhood, about 20 minutes north of downtown San Diego. In Spanish, La Jolla means "the jewel," and its location on the cliffs overlooking the ocean certainly makes it a gem of a place to visit. Visitors like to shop and eat in La Jolla's excellent restaurants, some of which have lovely ocean views. There's a lot for the active tourist, too, including ocean kayaking, marveling at tide pools, surfing at Windansea Beach, biking, and running along the beach. The neighborhood is also a charming spot for window shopping and people watching while strolling through town.

04 of 20

Tour the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier

USS Midway Museum in San Diego

TripSavvy / Ana Alarcon

Address
USS Midway, 910 N Harbor Dr, San Diego, CA 92101, USA

Given San Diego's military ties, it's the perfect place to turn a 1,001-foot-long aircraft carrier as tall as a 20-story building into a tourist attraction at Navy Pier in downtown San Diego.

The USS Midway was the longest-serving U.S. Navy carrier in the 20th century, working from 1945 through 1992. There were 4,500 men on the crew. The ship is impressive enough by itself, but you'll also find more than 30 aircraft and helicopters on display, a fraction of its theoretical capacity of more than 100.

The best part of the Midway are its docents; many of them are military retirees who served on the ship or other aircraft carriers, and you will hear firsthand accounts of what it was like to work aboard such vessels. Note that while the ship wasn't built for tourists, 60 percent of the exhibits are wheelchair-accessible as several elevators and access routes have been added.

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05 of 20

Explore Balboa Park

The Botanical Building at Balboa Park
TripSavvy / Ana Alarcon
Address
San Diego, CA, USA
Phone +1 619-239-0512

Initially built and named "City Park" in 1868, the park located just a five-minute drive from downtown San Diego was renamed and used during the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition. Now, Balboa Park is the city's most-loved park. It boasts buildings beautiful enough to be considered attractions in themselves, especially if you're a photographer. Trees, lawns, and fountains surround them, but that's only the beginning. Families and individuals of all ages and interests can likely find something to enjoy. In Balboa Park, you can take a walk, ride a bike, see a Shakespeare play, hop on a carousel, or go to the San Diego Zoo. With numerous gardens and 17 museums to choose from, you could be busy here for days.

06 of 20

Check Out Coronado Island

Aerial view of high rise hotels along the beach

TripSavvy / Sharyn Umaña-Angers

Address
Coronado Island, Coronado, CA 92118, USA

Coronado isn't an island but a peninsula—a fact that doesn't get in the way of the name most people use for it. Whatever you call it, the narrow strip of land between the San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean is barely a few blocks wide. What Coronado lacks in size it makes up for in fun, with a beach that's been ranked among the best in the country, the classic Hotel del Coronado, and a lively downtown. Whether you stroll along Coronado Beach or browse the peninsula's boutique shops, Coronado's laid-back temperament makes a nice break from the busier parts of San Diego across the water.

07 of 20

Go on a Harbor Cruise

Boats in the San Diego Harbor

TripSavvy / Ana Alarcon

Water plays a prominent role in San Diego. Downtown faces it, and Point Loma and Coronado surround the large, calm bay. With its oceanfront location, there's a lot to see along the shores, and much of it is best explored by boat. While sailing around the harbor, you'll not only get lovely city views, you'll also get a peek at the Pacific Fleet consisting of 46 Navy ships, several vessels, and more. Also, a harbor cruise is the best way to get a feel for just how tall the Coronado Bridge is.

08 of 20

Visit the San Diego Zoo

A red panda sleeping in a tree

TripSavvy / Kathleen Messmer

Address
2920 Zoo Dr, San Diego, CA 92101, USA
Phone +1 619-231-1515
4.8

The San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park often shows up on top zoo lists and is active in animal conservation. One of the first animals on display was a Kodiak bear named Caesar in 1916. Today, the San Diego Zoo is a far cry from the zoos of the past, with the animals living in the most natural settings possible. Among the animals on the zoo's 100 acres, you'll find California Condors, koalas, and albino pythons. And although few visitors may notice, there's also a prominent botanical collection featuring thousands of exotic plants.

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09 of 20

Relax and Swim at the Beach

A bench at the beach on Coronado Island

TripSavvy / Sharyn Umaña-Angers 

Head west from any part of San Diego, and you'll probably end up at a beach. When you get there, you can swim, surf, watch a sandcastle competition, go for a walk, or play with your dog. The trick is to know which beach is the right one for you. La Colla Cove, with its grottos and protective restrictions, is great for diving and snorkeling, while Windansea Beach is a surfer's paradise thanks to its steep ocean floor and reef break. But if you're just here to relax and take in the sunshine, nothing beats Coronado Beach.

10 of 20

Take the Kids to Legoland

Legoland Coast Cruise
Courtesy of Legoland California
Address
One Legoland Dr, Carlsbad, CA 92008, USA
Phone +1 888-690-5346

This theme park in coastal Carlsbad, about 30 minutes from downtown San Diego, is one of several Legolands worldwide. Here, kids of all ages will find rides, activities, and attractions to enjoy, including Coastersaurus, Emmet's Flying Adventure Ride, and a Lego factory tour, where they can learn how the bricks are made. Surrounding the rides, you'll find life-sized traffic cops, dinosaurs, and a dizzying collection of other creations made from Lego blocks all throughout the park.

11 of 20

See the Sea Creatures at Birch Aquarium

Birch Aquarium, La Jolla

 Richard Cummins / Getty Images

Address
2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA
Phone +1 858-534-3474

Birch Aquarium is about 10 minutes north of La Jolla. While it's not as big as some of the other aquariums in California, it is filled with exciting exhibits for the whole family to enjoy. Marine life from leafy sea dragons to leopard sharks is found in more than 60 habitats. Some creatures seem so improbable they look more like something from a children's book than from the ocean. If you get hungry, stop at Splash Café or Shark Café, which overlooks the ocean. 

12 of 20

Soak in the Views From Cabrillo National Monument

View of people visiting the Monument with a view of San Diego Skyline behind them

TripSavvy / Sharyn Umaña-Angers

Address
1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr, San Diego, CA 92106-3601, USA
Phone +1 619-557-5450

The first European to visit San Diego, Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo stepped on the shore near Cabrillo National Monument, located at the southern end of the Point Loma Peninsula, in 1542. We don't know if Cabrillo climbed to the top of this promontory or not, but people who make it get some of the best views of San Diego, looking across the Bay and back toward downtown.

While much of the year, there's enough moisture in the air to obscure the views, the scenery is absolutely breathtaking on a clear day. In addition to the gorgeous vista, there's a historic lighthouse, visitor center, some beautiful tide pools down below, and good whale-watching in the winter.

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13 of 20

Walk Around One of San Diego's Arts Districts

One of San Diego's art districts

TripSavvy / Ana Alarcon 

Discover San Diego's up-and-coming creative side at one of the city's 14 cultural districts. The popular Barrio Logan in south-central San Diego is home to young artists and designers, while hip North Park and South Park—each about 10 minutes northeast of downtown San Diego—are full of great food and fashion-forward boutiques. South Park is also home to one of the city's most famous pieces of street art, a mural of a Burmese monk by Shepard Fairey, who created the Barack Obama Hope poster.

14 of 20

Gorge on Fish Tacos

Fish tacos

Oscar's Mexican Seafood / Facebook

You didn't think you could go to San Diego without trying fish tacos, did you? While you really can't go wrong with a round of the city's finest fare at pretty much any eatery in the city, we're a huge fan of Oscars' Baja-style, battered fish and shrimp tacos, each served on corn tortillas and topped with cabbage, onion, tomato, and cilantro. If you want to take things up a notch, go for the Taco Especial—made with smoked fish, shrimp, and scallops—or the grilled octopus taco. Rubio's, too, is a popular chain that has been dishing out fresh fish since 1983. With multiple locations around the city, their original fish taco—which features beer-battered, wild Alaska Pollock as the base—is polished off with mild salsa, cabbage, and a white sauce. And if you want your tacos with a side of beer, make your way to Coronado Brewing Company, where you can choose between beer-battered cod, Cajun-spiced shrimp, and blackened seared ahi to pair with your IPA.

15 of 20

Hike at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Torrey Pines State Park, San Diego California USA
AutumnSkyPhotography / Getty Images

This 1,750-acre reserve is one of only two places in the U.S. where you can see the country's rarest pine tree—Pine torreyana—and serves to protect some 3,000 Torrey Pines as well as other wildlife indigenous to the area. With 8 miles of trails, you can see everything from sandstone canyons and awe-inspiring views of the Pacific Ocean to one of Southern California's last salt marshes and waterfowl refuges. Hike the Guy Fleming trail, a 0.7-mile loop that features two overlooks and an abundance of wildflowers come spring (winter visitors, however, would do well to come for the migrating gray whales off the coast). On the 1.4-mile, round-trip Razor Point Trail, you'll get incredible views of ravines and badlands, while the aptly named, quarter-mile Beach Trail ends down at Torrey Pines State Beach—a perfect place to picnic. There's also a visitor center, where you can sign up for one-hour guided tours on weekends and holidays.

Address
12600 N Torrey Pines Rd, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA
Phone +1 858-755-2063
16 of 20

Sample One or More of the City's 150-Plus Breweries

Societe Brewing Company

Courtesy of Societe Brewing Company

Self-described as the Craft Beer Capital of America, San Diego more than earns its title by boasting more than 150 breweries, dozens of tasting rooms, an annual beer week, and beer-centric events like the San Diego Brew Festival. So while you're here, it goes without saying that sipping some of the city's famed West Coast-style IPAs should be on your agenda (in fact, we have Green Flashing Brewing Co. to thank for trademarking the style). Take a trip to their tasting room to get a taste of the beer that started it all, then make your way over to Societe Brewing Company and sample four categories of beers—Out West, Old World, Stygian, and Feral—and be sure to try The Coachman, a session IPA that's claimed the gold at the Great American Beer Festival twice.

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17 of 20

Tour Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá
Ray Tan / Getty Images

Founded in July 1769, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá (also called Mission San Diego) is the first of California's 21 missions, the rest of which you can visit on California's Historic Mission Trail. The church was rebuilt in 1931, and today features a 46-foot Campanario (bell tower), the first historic cemetery in the state, and gardens blooming with hibiscus, succulents, and olive trees. Learn about the history and role of the mission through informative displays, and check out the Casa de los Padres room, where you can see large drawings depicting mission events. The onsite Padre Jayme Museum is currently undergoing expansion, and it will detail the history of the mission from the pre-16th to the 20th centuries and showcase original artifacts when it's completed. Head to the mission's website to book an individual or group tour.

Address
10818 San Diego Mission Rd, San Diego, CA 92108-2498, USA
Phone +1 619-283-7319
18 of 20

Ride Coasters at Belmont Park

Roller Coaster
paule858 / Getty Images

Open since July 4, 1925, this beachfront amusement park and entertainment center in the city's Mission Bay area will take you straight to the theme parks of yesteryear. You could easily spend an entire day here, with 13 rides—including the historic Giant Dipper roller coaster, which was designated a National Landmark in 1990—and six attractions. Tee off at the 18-hole, tiki-themed mini-golf course, soar up to 15 miles an hour on the zipline, and play laser tag in a three-level arena. When you need a refreshment, grab a quick bite at El Jefe taco shop, choose between one of the 70-plus beers on draft at Draft Mission Beach, or splurge on shareable plates and cocktails at the oceanfront Cannonball.

Address
3146 Mission Blvd, San Diego, CA 92109, USA
Phone +1 858-488-1549
19 of 20

Ride the Waves at One of the City's Legendary Beaches

Young male surfer surfing a wave, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, USA
Yew! Images / Getty Images

With 70 miles of open ocean coastline, San Diego draws surfing pros and novices alike to hang ten. While Windansea Beach is arguably one of the city's most popular surf spots (see above), you can find equally good waves at less crowded locales. Oceanside and Pacific Beach are both excellent places for beginners to hone their skills, while Cardiff State Beach is a favorite among experts (pro surfer Rob Machado is known to regularly ride the waves here). If you're new to the sport, you can find great surfing schools throughout the city, including Pacific Surf Group and San Diego Surf School, both of which offer private, semi-private, and group lessons. For those who just want to observe, the annual World Bodysurfing Championship and the Imperial Beach Surf Dog Competition (yes, surfing dogs!) welcome spectators from all over.

20 of 20

Watch the Sunset From Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

Last Light - Sunset Cliffs
Images by Steve Skinner Photography / Getty Images

Located on Point Loma's western shoreline and spanning 68 acres, Sunset Cliffs Natural Park boasts 400-foot sea cliff formations, caves, an intertidal zone, and, as its name suggests, pretty spectacular views at sunset. And, if you happen to be here between December and early April, the regional park is an excellent spot to watch gray whales swim up the coast during their annual migration. Be sure to arrive early: It can get crowded.

Address
Sunset Cliffs, San Diego, CA 92107, USA
Article Sources
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  1. San Diego Tourism Authority. "The Craft Beer Capital of America." Retrieved on February 4, 2022.

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The Top 20 Things to Do in San Diego, California