The 15 best things to do in San Diego
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Things to do in San Diego
- Gaslamp Quarter
- Old Town San Diego
- San Diego Zoo
- Balboa Park
- San Diego Model Railroad Museum
- San Diego Museum of Man
- San Diego Museum of Art
- San Diego Air & Space Museum
- Timken Museum of Art
- San Diego History Center
- USS Midway
- Point Loma and Cabrillo National Monument
- SeaWorld San Diego
- Coronado Island
- Beaches & more
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San Diego is one of my favorite cities in the U.S. It’s constantly overshadowed by its more famous neighbors to the north, Los Angeles and San Francisco, but it’s a great city with just as much to do as its bigger California rivals. It can be a great weekend getaway, but there’s enough to see that you could spend a few weeks here and never run out of activities or sights to see.
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San Diego History Center
The San Diego History Center is a great place to begin any trip to San Diego, as you’ll get an overview of the city. They’ve got family-friendly exhibitions and activities, with folks on hand to assist. It’s also right in the heart of Balboa Park. There’s no fixed admission fee, but a $5 donation is suggested.
The Victorian Gaslamp neighborhood is a national historic district that’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and has been revitalized after decades of urban decay. It was built starting in the 1860s, but many of the remaining structures date back to the late 1800s. It was once the “red light” area of San Diego and retains its reputation as a hub for parties. This is the neighborhood to visit if you’re looking for bar, restaurants and clubs, and it’s quite a hopping area after dark.
Old Town San Diego
This is the oldest part of town, and was actually where the first Europeans, the Spanish, settled in California back in 1789. It was the heart of San Diego until the development of the Gaslamp Quarter. There are plenty of shops, restaurants and historic sites to explore in Old Town. Two parks in the area — Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and Presidio Park — are both on the National Register of Historic Places.
San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo is among the most famous attractions in San Diego. It gets more than 4 million visitors a year and is the most visited zoo in the U.S. It has more than 3,000 animals representing more than 600 species, and it’s one of the few zoos in the world that’s successfully bred and raised giant pandas, although you won’t be able to see any of them at the moment (they’ve all been sent back to China). The zoo’s red pandas, however, are still on display. San Diego Zoo was one of the first to have a “no cages” system, so you’ll see most animals in open-air habitats meant to mimic their natural settings.
The zoo sits on 100 acres in Balboa Park (more on that in a minute) and has tigers, leopards, penguins, sharks, giraffes, cheetahs, polar bears and camels, making it a great San Diego activity for the whole family. Like many of the city’s attractions, the zoo was developed as part of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Admission to the zoo is $58 for adults and $48 for children.
Related: Things to do in San Diego with kids
The San Diego Zoo is just one attraction in San Diego’s sprawling Balboa Park area. The park was designed by forward-thinking city leaders back in the 1800s and is the largest urban cultural park in the country. Home to 15 museums, gardens and sports venues, you could easily spend an entire week in the park and not run out of things to do and see. The best part? Admission is always free.
San Diego Model Railroad Museum
The San Diego Model Railroad Museum makes a great pit stop for the entire family — or just you, if you’re a railway buff. Its mission is “to research, collect, preserve and present the heritage of American railroading with scale models of California railroads.”
Its claim to fame is that it houses one of the largest model train layouts in the entire nation. The museum is in Balboa Park, just a few minutes from the San Diego Zoo. There’s lots to see here, but it can be toured during a very manageable hour-long visit. You can see many historic models including the The San Diego and Arizona Eastern and Desert Lines. It’s $12.50 for adults and $6 for children, but children under 3 get in for free.
San Diego Museum of Man
Nearby, the San Diego Museum of Man takes a look at the human species through the centuries. It’s housed in a beautiful building from the Panama-California Exposition of 1915. The exhibits trace a journey all the way back to prehistoric times with cool interactive exhibits and games that are fun for everyone. There’s quite a bit here to explore, including exhibits on the ancient Egyptians and the Maya, and it’s a great place to take the kids. Admission is $13 for adults, $10 for kids over 10, and kids under 10 are free. There’s an additional admission fee for special exhibits.
Related: Planning a family trip to San Diego
San Diego Museum of Art
The San Diego Museum of Art (SMDA) calls itself the oldest and largest fine arts museum in the city. The building was also built as part of the 1915 Panama-California Exhibition in Balboa Park. Inside are some of San Diego’s most valued treasures, including a solid collection of Spanish artists such as El Greco and Goya. The collection ranges from prehistoric to 21st-century art. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for seniors, $8 for college students and free for those 17 and under.
Timken Museum of Art
The Timken Museum of Art also features work by dozens of old masters, and contains the only Rembrandt in a San Diego museum. One of the best things about this small, intimate museum is that it’s free. The museum is also located in Balboa Park and is easily accessible from the area’s other attractions. The museum was formed in 1965 through the work of two prominent San Diego families.
San Diego Air & Space Museum
Another fun museum in Balboa Park is the Air and Space Museum, with its collection of aviation and space memorabilia. It has lots of galleries and exhibits that explore the city’s contributions to aviation, including the B-24D Liberator built in San Diego for the U.S. Army in the 1940s.
There’s also an exhibit dedicated to the once-beloved Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) which existed from 1949 to 1988 before it was absorbed by USAir, which later became U.S. Airways and then, finally, American Airlines. Visitors will also discover the Apollo 9 Command module from 1969. Adult admission is $19.95, and kids ages 3 to 11 can get tickets for $10.95.
SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld is a 22-acre aquatic park on the shore of Mission Bay in San Diego. It opened in 1964 and has since grown to include an amusement park that sits alongside its popular exhibitions of marine animals such as seals, dolphins and orcas. Seal and sea lion encounters are popular, and guests can enjoy roller coasters and water rides, as well as attractions for younger kids. Admission starts around $74 for people ages 3 and up.
The U.S.S Midway was the longest-serving aircraft carrier of the 20th century and was named after the famous 1942 Battle of Midway, though the ship only entered service after World War II ended. It’s permanently docked in the port of San Diego. You can explore the U.S.S Midway at the Navy Pier and, while onboard, you’ll also see more than 30 restored aircraft and rotating exhibits. Admission is $26 for adults, $18 for students ages 13 to 17 or those with a college ID, and $12 for kids ages 6 to 12. Kids 5 and under are free.
Maritime Museum of San Diego
Don’t forget to check out the nearby Maritime Museum of San Diego, which features one of the largest displays of historic naval vessels in the country. The star of the show is appropriately named the Star of India, an iron-hulled sailing ship from 1863 that’s docked at the port. Adults can enter for $20 and kids get in for $10.
Point Loma and Cabrillo National Monument
The Cabrillo National Monument is on the southern tip of the Point Loma Peninsula. It commemorates the location where the first European explorers landed on the West Coast of the U.S. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed here on Sept. 28, 1542, and there are great views of the San Diego skyline and Coronado Island from this position. Nearby, you’ll find the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, a local landmark. It’s all part of the U.S. National Park Service.
Coronado is a resort town across San Diego Bay from the city. The town was developed around the famous Hotel del Coronado — a national landmark and still considered one of the country’s most famous resorts — in the late 1800s. It’s now a Curio by Hilton property, and was just renovated to the tune of $400 million. Rates start at $372, or about 94,000 Hilton Honors points per night, and there’s a $35 daily resort fee.
The area is also home to some of San Diego’s best beaches. There’s a boardwalk and a nice shopping area, as well as plenty of recreation opportunities including windsurfing and paragliding. There’s a small history museum here, and the nearby terminal lets you catch ferries to and from Seaport Village on the edge of downtown San Diego.
Best San Diego Beaches
You don’t have to go far from San Diego to discover beautiful California beaches and hikes. Some of our favorites include Ocean Beach, Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, Mission Beach, Flat Rock Beach, Pacific Beach and many more.
Best day trips from San Diego
Day trips from San Diego include the seaside community of La Jolla, about 11 miles north of downtown San Diego (about 11 miles). Known for gorgeous ocean views, tidal pools and rocky beaches, it’s called the jewel of the West Coast for a reason. It’s home to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the Salk Institute — and it also has among the highest real estate prices in the country.
If you’re more ambitious, you could take the 45-minute drive to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park about 40 miles east of San Diego.
Another great day trip is Mission San Juan Capistrano, north of San Diego. This former Spanish mission dates to 1776, and is home to the oldest continuously used building in California. It’s also famous for the cliff swallows, birds that once stopped here en masse between spring and fall every year during their 6,000-mile migration to South America. Sadly, the birds haven’t been showing up for the past 20 years. Scientists blame overdevelopment.
If you’re feeling really adventurous, you could even pop down to Mexico for the day — seriously! Tijuana is a short 30-minute drive down the I-5.
Related: The best national parks in America
How to get to San Diego
Flights to and from San Diego are generally inexpensive. There’s serious competition between the major airlines for the city’s business and, in general, round-trip flights can be purchased from most destinations for less than $400. I found flights from New York-JFK to San Diego International Airport, formerly known as Lindbergh Field (SAN), for $346 in the main cabin. Using miles? American Airlines has flights from many of its hubs for 12,500 miles each way in coach or 25,000 for first class. Flights on Delta from Chicago in July were $251, and flights on Alaska Airlines from Seattle were $207.
Where to stay in San Diego
There are so many great hotels in San Diego, and you can use miles or points at many of them. The Andaz San Diego is in the Gaslamp district, where everybody goes to party. I spent a few nights here and really enjoyed this high-end hotel (especially the rooftop bar). Rooms at this Category 4 Hyatt hotel start around $276 a night, or 15,000 points, but there’s also an annoying “destination fee” that will set you back $25 per night.
Related: The best Hyatt Category 4 hotels
My favorite hotel in San Diego, though, is the Grand Hyatt Manchester. I had one of the best stays of my life here when I was upgraded to the presidential suite, and brought my whole family to stay with me when we were in San Diego for a wedding. There are two massive towers, and the views are really worth the price of admission, as it were. If you get lucky, you’ll catch fireworks over San Diego Bay. Rates start around $219 a night, or 15,000 points, but there’s a $35 a night “destination fee” here as well.
Another popular option is the Hard Rock Hotel San Diego, which is located at the entrance to the Gaslamp Quarter and is near the San Diego Convention Center and Petco Park. Rates begin at $151 and can cost double $300, depending on the season. Other hotels we recommend include the InternContinental San Diego (opened in August 2018); the famous U.S. Grant, a Luxury Collection hotel, the Fairmont Grand Del Mar and the Loews Coronado Bay Resort.
How many days should I stay in San Diego?
San Diego is a great city with plenty to do and see, whether you’re staying two days or two weeks. I recommend staying at least three days to get properly acquainted with the city, and if you can stay a week or two, you’ll still never run out of things to do.
How can I find free attractions?
One of the most affordable ways to see the city is to start at a location like Balboa Park or Seaport Village and just take a long walk. There’s plenty to do and see without paying admission fees. Visitors should also take advantage of the many beaches and hiking trails in San Diego.
Many of the city’s museums have free admission days, and some museums don’t ever require admission, such as the San Diego History Center and the Timken Art Museum.
What’s the best time to visit San Diego?
The great thing about San Diego is the mild California climate. For most of the year, temperatures are moderate and suitable for sightseeing. The best months to visit are probably March through May and September through November, as it can get hot in the summer. Even then, though, temperatures average around 76 degrees. You’re almost guaranteed good weather when you visit Southern California.
Featured image of morning light on the San Diego Bay, view from Coronado, San Diego, California by Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.
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