Whatever you do, don't start your trip to San Diego without this guide of things to do in San Diego that are among the most popular and the best. Regardless of whether you're traveling with a loved one, your kids, or on your own, this list of 13 things contains the most popular and most fun things to do on your trip to the southern tip of California.
Chill Out in La Jolla
La Jolla is San Diego's most upscale prime beach town. 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.
La Jolla visitors like to shop and eat in the excellent restaurants, some of them with lovely ocean views. There's a lot for the active visitor, too, including ocean kayaking, tide pool-hopping, surfing at Windansea Beach, biking, or running along the beach.
My favorite thing to do in La Jolla is to just take a walk. Sometimes that's along the cliffs, overlooking the water and then down to the tide pools. Other days it's more of a window-shopping/people-watching stroll through town.
Tour the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier
Given San Diego's military ties, it's the perfect place to turn a 972-foot-long aircraft carrier into a tourist attraction. Don't just skip this one, thinking the last thing you want to do is visit an old ship, no matter how big it is.
The USS Midway was the longest-serving U.S. Navy carrier of the 20th century and largest ship in the world from 1945 to 1955, carrying more than 4,000 people. The ship is impressive enough by itself, but you'll also find more than 25 aircraft 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 Midway 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.
On the downside, it's a big ship that 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.
Explore Balboa Park
Initially built for temporary use during the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition, Balboa Park became 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 at Balboa Park. In Balboa Park, you can take a walk, ride a bike, see a Shakespeare play, ride a carousel, or go to the San Diego Zoo. With eight gardens and 15 museums to choose from, you could be busy here for days.
Check Out Coronado Island
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, it's a narrow strip of land between the San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean, 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, a classic hotel, 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.
Take a Harbor Cruise
Water plays a prominent role in San Diego. Downtown faces it. Point Loma and Coronado surround the large, calm bay. With its oceanfront location, there's a lot to see along its 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, and 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 often shows up on top zoo lists and is active in animal conservation. The zoo put its first animal on display in 1916, a Kodiak bear named Caesar. Today, it's is a far cry from the zoos of yesteryear, with animals in the most natural settings possible.
Undoubtedly the zoo's most famous inhabitants are the Giant Pandas. But pandas are far from the only thing you can see. Besides California Condors, koalas, warty pigs, and an albino boa constrictor, more than 4,000 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 more than 700,000 exotic plants.
Visit the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park offers a different kind of animal experience. Its name is the clue, and it indeed provides a more safari-like experience. Lots of large animals live in the same big, open areas here; predators are kept away from prey, but otherwise much as they would in their natural habitat.
The highlight is the safari-style tour, which may be the closest many of us will ever come to seeing these critters in the wild. Besides that, you'll find lots of other animals also in natural environments, including a pride of lions. At the Petting Kraal, you can get some hands-on time with the tamest critters.
Go to the Beach
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 sand castle competition, go for a walk, explore a tide pool, 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 102 cloudy days per year, according to data published by The Western Regional Climate Center's Desert Research Institute—and a lot of them happen in the summer.
Take the Kids to Legoland
Legoland 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 rides just for them, 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.
See the Sea Creatures at Birch Aquarium
Birch Aquarium is north of San Diego in La Jolla. It's not as big as some of the other aquariums in California or as flashy as the big sea-themed park down the road. Instead, it's just right, filled with exciting exhibits and home to leafy sea dragons like the one above, and with creatures so improbable they look more like something from a children's book than from the ocean.
Take in the Views From Cabrillo National Monument
Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first European to visit San Diego. He stepped on shore near this spot in 1542. We don't know if Cabrillo climbed to the top of this promontory or not, but people who make it up here nowadays 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.
Go to Sea World
Shows are central to the Sea World experience, and there are many of them, but you'll also have opportunities to see marine creatures close up. In a few cases, you can even touch and feed them.
Explore One of San Diego's Arts Districts
Discover San Diego's up-and-coming artistic side at one of the city's nine arts districts. The popular Barrio Logan is home to young artists and designers, while North and South Park are chock full of great food and fashion-forward boutiques. (The latter is also home to one of the city's most famous pieces of street art.)