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, which is located at the southern tip of California.
Watch Now: Essential Things to Do in San Diego
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.
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 that were 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 Horton Grand Hotel, the city's oldest hotel.
La Jolla is the area's most upscale prime beach town, 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 in La Jolla like to shop and eat in the excellent restaurants, some of which have lovely ocean views. There's a lot for the active tourist, too, including ocean kayaking, tide pool-hopping, surfing at Windansea Beach, biking, or running along the beach.
One favorite activity of locals and travelers in La Jolla is to take a walk along the cliffs, overlooking the water, and then down to the tide pools. It's also a charming spot for a window-shopping and people-watching stroll through town.
Given San Diego's military ties, it's the perfect place to turn a 1,001-foot (305-meter) 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 of 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. When you hear about what it took to get an airplane into the air, it's an account from someone who was involved. However, the big ship wasn't built for tourists. If you have trouble getting around, you may be exhausted by all the stairs and walking or have to skip some parts of the tour.
Initially built and named "City Park" in 1868, the park located just a 5-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.
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 named among the best in the country, the classic Hotel del Coronado, and a compact, lively little downtown. Coronado's laid-back temperament makes a nice break from the busier parts of San Diego across the water.
Stroll along the beach, stop at the Hotel del Coronado for an ice cream cone or a drink in their bar, or hang out downtown.
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.
Everyone loves the city views from a San Diego harbor cruise, but 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. The bay is well protected, and the water is seldom rough.
Visit the San Diego Zoo
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 animals in the most natural settings possible.
Animals such as California Condors, koalas, and albino pythons, which total more than 3,700 rare and endangered animals, live on the zoo's 100 acres. And although few visitors may notice, there's also a prominent botanical collection, with thousands of exotic plants.
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.
But it's not all sun and fun. In spite of being known for sunshine, San Diego endures more than 100 cloudy days per year, according to data published by The Western Regional Climate Center Desert Research Institute—and a lot of them happen in the summer.
Legoland in coastal Carlsbad, about 30 minutes from downtown San Diego, takes its inspiration from those cute little brick toys that snap together to build all kinds of fun things. It's one of several Legolands worldwide.
You'll find life-sized traffic cops, dinosaurs, and a dizzying collection of other creations made from Lego blocks all over the place, but they're just the decoration that surrounds the park's rides. At Legoland, little ones will find the appropriate rides, with age limits that keep the bigger kids from running all over them—and the adults get a kick out of all the great big Lego creations.
Birch Aquarium is about 10 minutes north of La Jolla. It's not as big as some of the other aquariums in California. Instead, it's 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.
Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first European to visit San Diego. He stepped on the shore near this spot 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.
Besides the magnificent views, there's a historic lighthouse, a visitor center, some beautiful tide pools down below, and good whale-watching in the winter.
Much of the year, there's enough moisture in the air to obscure the views—and it's a long drive out from downtown if you can't see anything. But on a clear day, it's brilliant.
Walk Around One of San Diego's Arts Districts
Discover San Diego's up-and-coming creative side at one of the city's nine art 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.