Things You Must Do When You Visit San Diego

If you're visiting San Diego for the first time, you'll realize there is so much to do. So, how do you decide what to do and where to go? Well, some things are more obvious than others, but there are some things that you must do and see while in San Diego and most of these you can complete even if you only have one day in San Diego.

  • 01 of 09
    Mission beach
    sandiegoa / Getty Images

    No matter what time of year you visit, you need to make your way to the beach; it's what personifies the San Diego lifestyle. Watch the waves roll in from a bluff or on the sand. Soak in the beach life all along the coast and then watch the sunset. Best bet: Make your way to Mission Beach and the Belmont Park rollercoaster for some exhilarating fun by the waves. 

  • 02 of 09
    fish taco san diego
    Kimberly Vardeman / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

    It's San Diego's unofficial delicacy: deep fried, battered fish wrapped in a corn tortilla with cabbage and sauce. If you've never had one, it sounds weird. If you try one, you'll crave one every time you visit San Diego. Best bet: Hit one of the many Rubio's restaurants, the originator of the San Diego fish taco or check out one of these favorite San Diego fish taco options. 

  • 03 of 09
    San Diego trolley
    Alan & Flora Botting / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

    San Diego doesn't have the greatest public transit system, but the San Diego trolley can zip you around to some of the city's top sites. The bright red cars can get you from downtown to East County down to the border and through Mission Valley. If the San Diego freeways seem intimidating, then the trolley can get you to a lot of places, especially within the urban core. Best bet: Buy an all day pass and just ride -- you'll get a good idea of what San Diego is all about.

  • 04 of 09
    San Diego Zoo panda
    brandnewday / Pixabay

    Sure, you can go to Sea World or Legoland, but where else are you going to see those lovable giant pandas than at the world famous San Diego Zoo? The city's venerable tourist attraction is home to numerous giant pandas, which you can also watch on the Panda Cam on the Zoo's website. Best bet: Visit the Zoo early in the morning, that's when you're most likely to see the pandas active and not sleeping.

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  • 05 of 09
    Balboa Park
    Zartan / Pixabay

    After you visit the pandas at the zoo, head over to nearby Balboa Park, which is San Diego's public playground and cultural center. Enjoy the lovely green space and visit one of the many wonderful museums, as well as the famous Old Globe Theatre. Best bet: Visit the park on Tuesdays, when many museums have free admission. Dine at the Prado Restaurant for great food in a fantastic setting, or just bring a picnic lunch and enjoy the scenery.

  • 06 of 09
    Gaslamp Quarter San Diego
    Chad McDonald / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

    It's San Diego's center of nightlife, and the Gaslamp Quarter in downtown is where you'll want to be if you're looking for restaurants, dancing or just people watching. You'll find eating establishments to suit every taste, all within walking distance of one another, plus a variety of bars and dance clubs. If you want to experience San Diego city life, then you must hit the Gaslamp. Best bet: Stroll along Fifth Avenue to take in the vibe of the Gaslamp Quarter. Then take in a meal sitting at a sidwalk table followed by a show at the nearby House of Blues.

  • 07 of 09
    La Jolla
    Ashok Sinha/Getty Images

    Ritzy La Jolla is the seaside enclave that practically every visitor to San Diego has heard about, and it is deserving of its reputation. A beautiful village around a picturesque cove, La Jolla is where the rich and beautiful people live and hang out, but is unpretentious and fun for the non rich and famous, too. Eating at the gourmet restaurants, visiting the stylish boutiques and watching the surf and seals by the La Jolla Cove make for an enjoyable day -- and it'll probably make you want to live there, too, if you could only afford it. Best bet: Head down to the La Jolla Cove and look for sea creatures trapped in the tide pools  within the rocky terrain when the tide is out. 

  • 08 of 09
    San Diego Harbor Cruise
    Port of San Diego / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

    The only way for you to get an idea of how important the waterfront is to San Diego is to sail on San Diego Bay. The Harbor Cruise gives you the best vantage to do this, where you'll cruise by the huge Navy ships, sportfishing and pleasure craft, waterfront hotels, the downtown skyline and under the sweeping San Diego Bay Bridge. Sure it's touristy, but it's also marvelously memorable. Best bet: Don't miss spotting the Star of India tall ship and maybe even an aircraft carrier docked on North Island.

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  • 09 of 09
    Old Town San Diego
    Holger Mette / Getty Images

    Historical San Diego isn't always evident, but a sure bet to take in the city's past is to visit Old Town State Historic Park. Sure, it can be overly touristy and contrived, but if you look hard enough, you can find authentic snippets of San Diego's past. From a visitor's standpoint, though, Old Town is a fun way to spend the day. Best bet: There are many fine restaurants in Old Town, but you the Old Town Mexican Cafe with its homemade tortillas is a popular choice. 

Updated by Gina Tarnacki on June 29, 2016.