Winter in San Diego: Weather, What to Pack, and What to See

Winter Storm Brings High Surf to Southern California Beaches
Gabe LHeureux / Getty Images

Some of the best reasons to visit San Diego in the winter are the holiday celebrations. You can go ice skating within sight of the beach, watch a big balloon parade, or see Santa Claus ride a surfboard. And if you travel outside of the holiday period, you can also get lower prices on hotel rooms.

Unfortunately, winter isn't perfect, even in sunny San Diego. Winter is the rainiest and cloudiest time of the year. The maximum average rain is only a couple of inches per month—but it can all fall within a day or two, and if you're the unlucky visitor who arrives during a rainstorm, you'll need a Plan B, which would be to try some of the things to do on a rainy day in San Diego.

Winter Weather in San Diego

Winter's daytime temperatures are generally comfortable, but it can be cloudy and rainy, a real disappointment if you were dreaming of a sunny getaway. A local might tell you that winter is the wettest and coldest time of year in San Diego, but, of course, it's all relative. What seems cold to Californians may feel like a summer day if you're coming from the Midwest or Northeast.

  Average High Temp. Average Low Temp. Average Days of Rain
December 65 F (18 C) 51 F (11 C) 4 days
January 65 F (18 C) 51 F (11 C) 4 days
February 66 F (19 C) 52 F (11 C) 4 days

Southern California rainfall varies widely from year to year, so use the averages with care. In a dry winter, you might see nothing but blue skies and sun. In a wet one, you might get drenched in a downpour. The only way to find out what conditions will be during your trip is to check the forecast a few days ahead of time.

Even though the air temperature may be warm enough to sit out on the beach, the water temperature of the Pacific Ocean is pretty cold in winter, so it's not the best time to go swimming or surfing (unless you have a wetsuit). Water temperatures dip to about 60 F (16 C) by December and stay there through February.

You can get a look at the average climate conditions year-round in the San Diego weather and climate guide.

What to Pack

As a starting point, pack T-shirts, light jackets or sweaters, and comfortable pants or jeans. Instead of letting rain gear take up too much of your suitcase, take a medium-weight waterproof jacket with a hood. That will get you through all but the rainiest of days. Winter days that are warm enough to sit out on the beach are entirely possible in San Diego, so don't assume you won't need a bathing suit or other beach gear.

Most of the time, you can wear casual, comfortable clothing that's appropriate for the weather. For a meal in a fancy restaurant, men can get by with nice jeans and a collared shirt. For women, casual dresses or dark pants are perfect. In general, the California style is quite relaxed.

If you want to spot migrating whales from the land, don't forget your binoculars. And if you plan to go across the border to visit Tijuana, take your passport.

Winter Events in San Diego

San Diego is one of those fortunate places where even in the middle of winter, you can comfortably be outside and enjoy the sunshine. The city takes full advantage of that privilege with all types of outdoor events to enjoy.

  • December Nights: This holiday festival that takes place in Balboa Park is one of the biggest annual events in the city. Visitors can snack on meals from local food trucks, goggle at the elaborate light displays, and even meet Santa. The 2020 festival has been turned into a drive-through event and takes place December 4–6.
  • Ice Skating by the Sea: There are few places where people can ice skate and then walk over to and swim at the beach, but San Diego is one of those places. At the Hotel Del Coronado, you can go ice skating with the Pacific Ocean as your backdrop. For winter 2020–2021, Skating by the Sea is canceled.
  • Holiday Bowl Balloon ParadeThose folks in New York City aren't the only ones who can put on a parade with big balloons. In fact, San Diego's version has more enormous balloons than any other parade and is typically held in late December, coinciding with the big Holiday Bowl football game. However, both the parade and game are canceled in 2020.
  • San Diego Brew Festival: Beer lovers can taste over 150 beer options from 70 different local breweries and international breweries at the San Diego Beer Festival. For one admission price, you can drink an unlimited amount of beer, so it's easy to get your money's worth. The festival takes place at Liberty Station on January 9, 2021.

Winter Travel Tips

  • San Diego whale watching season runs from December through March, as the grey whales are migrating to warmer waters. You can book a whale-watching cruise to get up close or even see them from land at Scripps Park in La Jolla or the Old Point Loma Lighthouse.
  • Except during the year-end holidays, you can get reasonable prices in the winter on hotel rooms and package accommodation deals.
  • Different areas of San Diego each have their own pros and cons, so pick the hotel in the right neighborhood for your trip.

If you're not sure when to visit, check out the guide on the Best Time to Visit San Diego for more tips