12 Things to Do in San Diego That You'll Actually Like

Two women cyclists chatting on beach, Mission Bay, San Diego, California, USA
••• Mission Beach, San Diego. Corey Jenkins / Getty Images
  • 01 of 13

    Chill Out in La Jolla

    Waves crashing against rocks on La Jolla, California
    ••• Watching the waves in La Jolla. Betsy Malloy Photography

    Whatever you do, don't start your trip to San Diego, don't even start planning it, without this guide of things to do in San Diego that I think you'll actually like.

    The last one in this list is the most popular, so hold onto your seat and get ready for the thrill of all the things you can do with your honey, your kids, or on your solo trip to the southern tip of California. 

    Visit 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...MORE down to the tide pools. Other days it's more of a window-shopping/people-watching stroll through town.

    On the downside, parking can be aggravatingly hard to find on a busy day - and those shops whose windows we like to look through are more than pricey.

    Spend a few hours, go there after dinner to enjoy a beautiful California sunset, or find out ​how to spend a day or two in La Jolla

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  • 02 of 13

    Tour the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier

    Touring the USS Midway
    ••• Touring the USS Midway. André Ribeiro/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    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. It's worth noting that Tripadvisor reviewers rank the Midway #1 of all attractions in San Diego. And its appeal seems to span all ages and genders. Use this guide for everything you need to know about visiting the USS Midway

    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.

    To me, the best part of the Midway is its docents, many of them 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,...MORE it's an account from someone who was actually 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. 

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  • 03 of 13

    Explore Balboa Park

    Balboa Park, San Diego
    ••• Balboa Park, San Diego. Yenwen Lu/Getty Images

    Originally 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. They're surrounded by trees, lawns, and fountains, 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. Plan your trip with this guide to how to visit America's largest urban cultural park

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  • 04 of 13

    Check Out Coronado Island

    Hotel Del Coronado Holiday Lights at Twilight
    ••• Hotel Del Coronado Holiday Lights at Twilight. Courtesy of the Hotel Del Coronado

    Coronado isn't really 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. Use this guide when visiting Coronado Island.

    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.

    I like to 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. If you're the curious type, I think the excellent Coronado Walking Tour is one of the best we've taken anywhere, equal parts dishy gossip and interesting history.

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  • 05 of 13

    Take a Harbor Cruise

    San Diego Harbor Cruise
    ••• San Diego Harbor Cruise. ©Betsy Malloy Photography

    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 the 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 really is. The bay is well protected and the water is seldom rough. Find out  How to Make the Most of a San Diego Harbor Cruise

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  • 06 of 13

    Visit the San Diego Zoo

    Panda eating bamboo at San Diego Zoo
    ••• Panda eating bamboo at San Diego Zoo. Ray Bouknight/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    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 popular 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.

    Find out more about whether you will like it and what to do at the San Diego Zoo.

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  • 07 of 13

    Visit the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

    San Diego Zoo Safari Park
    ••• The San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Virginia Hill/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

    The San Diego Zoo Safari Park offers a different kind of animal experience. Its name is the clue, and it indeed offers a more safari-like experience. Lots of large animals live in the same big, open areas here - predators kept away from prey, but otherwise much as they would in their natural habitat. Use this guide to plan your trip to the San Diego Safari Park.  

    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.

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  • 08 of 13

    Go to the Beach

    Mission Beach, San Diego
    ••• Bicyclists at Mission Beach, San Diego. Corey Jenkins / Getty Images

    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. Find out with this complete guide to San Diego beaches.

    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.

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  • 09 of 13

    Take the Kids to Legoland

    Let's Go to Legoland!
    ••• Let's Go to Legoland!. eyeliam/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    Legoland theme park 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.

    Use this guide to plan your Legoland visit.

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  • 10 of 13

    See the Sea Creatures at Birch Aquarium

    Leafy Sea Dragon at the Birch Aquarium
    ••• Leafy Sea Dragon at the Birch Aquarium. Nathan Rupert/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    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 interesting 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. Plan your trip with this guide to La Jolla's Birch Aquarium

    Birch Aquarium is nicely sized, and a good choice especially for smaller children who may feel less overwhelmed than at a bigger place - and the price is right-sized too.

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  • 11 of 13

    Take in the Views From Cabrillo National Monument

    Lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monument
    ••• Lighthouse at Cabrillo National Monumen. Russell Street/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

    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 great 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.

    Use this guide to plan your visit to Cabrillo National Monument.

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  • 12 of 13

    Go to Sea World

    A dolphin show at Sea World in San Diego
    ••• Watching a show at Sea World is one of the top things to do in San Diego. Betsy Malloy Photography

    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.

    The Sea World chain has taken on a lot of negative publicity in recent years, but you might want to see what a skeptical visitor had to say after making an in-person visit. You can find her perspective along with tips for how to enjoy it in the  Easy Guide to Sea World San Diego.

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  • 13 of 13

    More Things You Can Do in San Diego

    Festival of Sail, San Diego in September
    ••• San Diego Festival of Sail. Port of San Diego/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    There's a lot more to do in San Diego than just these few things, even though they are the most popular. Like other destinations, San Diego is also chock full of tourist traps. Here' s a list of them and why you should skip some of those places you've heard about

    And then there are the places that we didn't have room for on this list. They're fun and interesting and you might even like them better than the top 12. Check them out in the list of Things You Didn't Know You Wanted to Do in San Diego.

    If you're traveling with kids, they're sure to be entertained and ready for a nap after visiting these best places to take kids in San Diego.

    If your budget is limited (which applies to most of us), you can have a lot of fun without spending a penny. Use this Guide to Things to Do for Free in San Diego.

    Even though San Diego weather is mostly sunny, it might rain in the winter. Here's what to do in San Diego if those raindrops start falling on your head. And...MORE if it's summertime when you visit, you'll definitely want to know what to do on a summer night in San Diego.