SD is so much more than laidback vibes, sun, and surf. And hey, I’m not complaining, those are all very dreamy characteristics of any city! If you’re looking for a healthy dose of urban exploration in a bustling city, Downtown San Diego’s got that for you!
From the historic Gaslamp Quarter to the waterfront of San Diego Bay, from fine dining and nightlife to arts/culture museums and theater — Downtown San Diego is chock-full of exciting and entertaining things to do.
No matter where you turn, there is no shortage of things to do in Downtown San Diego.
Traveling to San Diego as part of an extended vacation or even just for a weekend? We’ve got you covered on your perfect San Diego itinerary. Just pick out the things from this post that excite you.
Here are some of the best things to do in Downtown San Diego, CA!
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Table of Contents
SAN DIEGO IN A NUTSHELL
Here’s a quick overview of all the useful info you need to plan an awesome trip!
- When To Go: Any time of the year! We recommend spring or fall for fewer crowds, cheaper accommodations, and pleasant weather. Summer is also excellent for beaching and hiking, but it’s high season so expect pricier flights and hotels!
- Where To Stay: The US Grant ($$$) – Kimpton Hotel Palomar San Diego ($$) – Staypineapple, Hotel Z, Gaslamp San Diego ($)
- Nearest Airport: San Diego International Airport (SAN)
- How to Get Around: You will need a car. We recommend using Rentalcars.com to find the best deal.
- Must-Do’s: Visit Balboa Park and its plethora of museums, spend a day (or even two!) at the world-renowned San Diego Zoo, take the kids to LEGOLAND California, and visit ALL the beaches you can, including Coronado Beach, La Jolla Cove, and Mission Beach.
- Before You Go: Buy all your theme park tickets in advance and make reservations to restaurants you plan to go to, if possible. San Diego attracts travelers from all over the place during all of its seasons, so you’ll want to make sure your trip is all squared away before actually getting there.
- Money-Saving Tip: To save yourself lots of money on park tickets, tours and excursions, consider picking up either a San Diego CityPASS or a Go City San Diego digital attraction pass.
Planning your trip to SD? Save on travel costs by booking your accommodations through this platform! Their ‘no prepayment’ and ‘free cancellation’ features are unbeatable.
WHY VISIT SAN DIEGO, CA?
There are so many reasons why you should visit San Diego. Where do I even start?
- Simply amazing weather all-year-round. With very few rainy days in the year, you can bet there will be decent to amazing weather during your visit. In the winter months, the weather ranges from the 40s (low) to mid-60s (high). Summers are wonderfully warm, with average highs in the mid-70s. You’ll get the occasional “June Gloom” (cloudy, overcast skies with cool temperatures during the late spring and early summer) but it’s nothing unbearable.
- Simply amazing beaches at every turn. You must hit up a beach at least once during your trip–there’s a perfect beach for every type of traveler! Black’s Beach is popular with nude sunbathers and surfers, while Pacific Beach is great for its youthful atmosphere. Mission Beach is a family favorite and Coronado Beach is perfect for swimmers that like easygoing, lapping waves. And that barely even scratches the surface!
- The beer culture is unmatched. Well, with the exception of Portland, OR. San Diego has got the craft brew lifestyle down. The craft beer experience is massive in this region, with more than 150 breweries in existence. There is even a signature style here, the West Coast-Style IPA! If you enjoy beer, don’t miss it.
- The food scene is unique and delightful. Among many other things, SD is known for its unique cross-border flavor, Cali-Baja fresh cuisine. Try a California burrito or fish tacos while you’re in town! Not interested in that? Don’t worry, there are many other restaurants that have mastered the rest of the cuisines out there.
- San Diego is filled to the brim with California history. San Diego is considered the birthplace of California (as the first Spanish settlement was established in 1769 in Old Town SD). Many historic buildings in Old Town San Diego have been preserved, and you can still tour the missions in the area today!
- It’s easy to find nightlife in San Diego. If you’re looking to party, drink, sing, or dance, you’re in the right place. You’ll always find the party at the Gaslamp Quarter, Pacific Beach, or Hillcrest.
- The amount of outdoor adventures you can partake in is endless. From hiking at Potato Chip Rock or Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve to kayaking at Mission Bay or La Jolla Sea Caves to boating on the San Diego Bay, there’s really something for everyone.
- The world-renowned zoo is in San Diego. Animals. Need I say more?
WHAT TYPE OF TRAVELER IS SAN DIEGO BEST FOR?
San Diego is a great destination for a WIDE variety of travelers, including:
- Beach Lovers: San Diego is known for its beautiful beaches, and there are plenty of options to choose from. Some of the best beaches to visit include La Jolla Cove, Coronado Beach, and Mission Beach.
- Families: San Diego is such a family-friendly destination with its many theme parks! Some of the best things to do with kids include visiting the San Diego Zoo, Legoland California, and SeaWorld San Diego.
- Outdoor Enthusiasts: Not a beach bum? Not a problem! Some of the best non-beach outdoor spots to visit include Potato Chip Rock, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, Balboa Park, and Mission Trails Regional Park.
- Foodies: SD has a thriving food scene, with plenty of options to satisfy any palate. Some of the best places to eat include the Little Italy neighborhood, the Gaslamp Quarter, and ALLL the breweries and seafood restaurants in La Jolla.
- Beer Lovers: The craft beer culture here is crazy! San Diego has become increasingly popular for its locally-crafted brews and is now home to over 130 breweries (and growing!).
- History Buffs: San Diego has a rich history. While you’re here, you’ll definitely learn a thing or two about California’s history and its association with Mexico. Some of the best places to visit include the USS Midway Museum, Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, and the Cabrillo National Monument.
- Art and Culture Lovers: Expect plenty of museums, galleries, and theaters to explore. Some of the best places to visit include the San Diego Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, and the Old Globe Theatre.
- Nightlife Seekers: It’s poppin’ in SD at night — no matter if you’re looking for casual or bougie upscale vibes. Some of the best areas to visit include the Gaslamp Quarter, Pacific Beach, and North Park.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT SAN DIEGO, CA?
Because San Diego is located in sunny Southern California where the weather is mighty fine all year long, there really is no bad time to visit SD. I know, I know, some people can’t stand that answer. But it’s true — San Diego is visitable all year long!
However, if you’re looking for specific seasons for the best time to go, I’d recommend a visit during the spring (March to May), summer (June to August), or fall (September to November) when the weather is mild and the crowds are smaller.
During the spring and fall months, the temperatures are comfortable, with average highs in the mid-60s to mid-70s Fahrenheit (18-24 degrees Celsius), and there is less rainfall than in the winter months. The spring months are also a great time to see the blooming wildflowers in the nearby Anza-Borrego Desert State Park!
- Bottom Line: If sightseeing is your main objective (as opposed to beaching), these seasons are the best time to go.
Summer (June to August) is also amazing. This is the peak tourist season in San Diego, with warm temperatures and plenty of sunshine. It’s the best time of year to visit if you want to hit the beaches or enjoy outdoor activities like hiking, surfing, and kayaking the La Jolla Sea Caves!
Having said that, this is the busiest time of year, with larger crowds and higher prices for accommodations and attractions. However, the summer months are also a great time to visit the beaches and enjoy outdoor activities like hiking, surfing, and kayaking.
- Bottom Line: If hitting the beaches and spending time in the water are your main objectives (as opposed to visiting theme parks or sightseeing around town), summer is the best time to go.
Winter (December to February) is considered the off-season in San Diego, with cooler temperatures and occasional rain. However, the winter months are still a great time to visit for those who want to avoid the crowds and enjoy lower prices on accommodations and attractions! Winter is also the best time to see the migrating gray whales off the coast of San Diego.
TRANSPORTATION: HOW TO GET TO SAN DIEGO, CA
There are a few different ways to get to San Diego, CA. All of them make traveling to San Diego pretty darn convenient. The transportation method you choose depends on your where you’re coming from and what your budget is.
Coming from out of state or internationally?
- Fly into San Diego International Airport (SAN). Flights may likely be a bit more inflated compared to flying into LAX, but once you land, you’ll be literally minutes away from Downtown San Diego.
- Fly into Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Flights are usually cheaper flying into LAX than SAN since LAX is a larger airport. From LAX, simply rent a car and drive down to San Diego (120 miles).
Coming from Los Angeles?
- Drive – it’s about 120 miles from city center to city center (2 hours)
- Tip: Be sure to depart at a strategic time to avoid LA rush hour traffic! Aim for before 10am or after 8pm for the least amount of traffic. If you drive during rush hour, the trip could take upwards of about 4 hours
- Amtrak – operates trains from Los Angeles to San Diego hourly (2h 54m)
- Bus – like Greyhound, Megabus, etc. Cheapest option, best for budget travelers who don’t want to drive (3 hours)
- Fly – this is the priciest option and I would not recommend it over the above options (50 minutes)
Coming from somewhere else in CA but don’t want to drive?
- Fly – Either fly direct to SAN, or fly into LAX and drive 2 hours the rest of the way there.
- Amtrak operates trains from various cities in CA to San Diego. Take a peek at their site to see if there’s a stop/direct route near you.
- Bus – like Greyhound, Megabus, etc. Cheapest option, best for budget travelers who don’t want to drive.
TRANSPORTATION: HOW TO GET AROUND SAN DIEGO, CA
Need a rental car for your trip? To find cheap rental cars, I recommend using Rentalcars.com. Their search tool is one of the best I’ve found!
- Drive – Having a car to explore San Diego is crucial if you want to get out and explore past the downtown area. There are lots of freeways in SD and the sights you want to see may have some decent mileage between them. Not only will you get to your destination faster, but you’ll also be able to stow things in your trunk (such as surf/beach gear, picnicking supplies, hiking boots, etc.) Either come in your own car or rent one.
- Public Transportation – San Diego and its surrounding areas have affordable public transit systems that include trolleys, buses, trains, and shuttles. Find more about each of these transit systems here.
- Rideshare Apps – San Diego is serviced by both Uber and Lyft. Download your preferred app and easily request a ride to and from your destinations. (I like Lyft.)
MAP OF THINGS TO DO IN SAN DIEGO, CA
BEST THINGS TO DO IN DOWNTOWN SAN DIEGO, CA
The entire San Diego area offers so many great things to do, it can be difficult to pick a plan for the weekend.
For starters, I’d recommend you visit Downtown San Diego first. There are many exciting activities and experiences that await your arrival in San Diego’s downtown and this list will help you find exactly what you’re looking for!
DINE IN LITTLE ITALY
This vibrant cultural neighborhood is one of a kind and a must-visit landmark in Downtown San Diego. In my opinion, it sits above the rest of the other Little Italy’s I’ve been to in the USA!
San Diego’s Little Italy has so much going on, no matter what day it is or what time it is. This neighborhood is filled to the brim with a grand assortment of restaurants (both traditional and modern), art galleries, and a great Saturday farmer’s market.
What you’ll find here is a number of great Italian restaurants, bakeries, wine bars, and even boutique shopping.
During dinner time, the neighborhood really comes alive and becomes the perfect spot for al fresco dining, taking a stroll, and even people-watching. Some of my favorite eateries here include Barbusa, Civico 1845, and Queenstown Public House.
For dessert, head to Pappalecco for authentic gelato and one of the best blueberry muffins ever made. Little Italy is also the site of ArtWalk, the largest art festival on the West Coast.
The Gaslamp Quarter is another one of those lively, must-see neighborhoods in San Diego. This 16-block Victorian neighborhood is a San Diego destination for dining, bar hopping, and pure entertainment.
If you’re looking for fine dining, looking to meet up with friends or want a night out on the town, Gaslamp is for you. Though the Gaslamp Quarter is classified as a historic district, the sheer number of entertainment and nightlife options here is as up-to-date as you can get.
Aside from the many restaurants located here, you’ll find a number of rooftop bars, pubs, clubs, art galleries, theaters, and music halls. Not only is it home to the San Diego Symphony, but it is also home to the San Diego Film Festival which takes place every fall.
Looking for a rooftop bar option with stellar views? Visit the Altitude Sky Lounge. Looking to go dancing or clubbing? Head to Omnia Nightclub. And if you’re here in the morning or early afternoon, make sure to grab some coffee and bagel sandwiches at Spill The Beans!
Don’t miss out on the chance to eat at the Gaslamp District! Explore the best eats in the Gaslamp Quarter on a walking tour with an expert guide who’ll give you the rundown on the district’s popping restaurant and bar scene.
On this 2.5-hour culinary walking tour, you’ll sample delicious dishes at several eateries, sip drinks, and learn about the rich history of the district (includes interesting stories about the early ‘women of the night’ and where they worked).
HAVE A DRINK AT THE ALTITUDE SKY LOUNGE
Drink in hand? Check. Amazing sunset views? Check. See all of Downtown San Diego from this iconic rooftop bar located at the Marriott Hotel in The Gaslamp Quarter.
The bar is on the twenty-second floor and has incredible views of the city! The Sky Lounge opens in the late afternoon, so it’s recommended that you get here soon after so you can grab a good seat and watch dusk settle over downtown.
If you love food halls, then you’ll have to add Liberty Station and Liberty Public Market to your list of places to visit. Liberty Station, formerly the Naval Training Center, is a repurposed landmark with strong historical significance.
Over the years, the Navy gradually wound down activity at NTC and officially closed in 1997. The grounds gradually transitioned into what it is now, a center for shopping, dining, history, and arts.
Liberty Public Market is the main highlight here, which makes for a great spot to hang out for lunch or dinner. It’s essentially a large food hall that hosts a wide variety of different restaurants, bakeries, shops, and breweries.
Meandering through the food hall is always a ton of fun since there are so many food and drink options available at your fingertips. If you like beers and gardens (and beer gardens), Stone Brewing has an awesome outdoor dining space located here, Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens.
When you’re done eating or picnicking, take a stroll, and explore historic landmarks as you wander the spacious courts and plazas. All in all, Liberty Station is a great place to grab a bite to eat and spend a few hours outdoors.
SPEND A DAY AT THE SAN DIEGO ZOO
You can’t take a trip to San Diego and not visit this world-renowned zoo! The San Diego Zoo is not only one of the best zoos in the country but in the entire world.
With a safari park, an arboretum, an aviary, and various spacious habitats for its thousands of different animal species, the zoo is an amazing place to spend a day or two.
Located among the many other museums and attractions in Balboa Park, the zoo is easily accessible from Downtown San Diego. Just so you get a sense of how big the zoo is, it spans 100 acres and houses more than 3,700 rare and endangered animals.
Once you leave a habitat with a plan to come back later, it might actually be too far to walk back to! There are plenty of restaurants throughout the park as well as a good amount of beer stations for those of you who want an afternoon pick-me-up.
Plan to spend at least a half-day at each park to get the full experience, which includes shows and animal presentations.
Only have one day to dedicate to the park? Not a problem. There’s a skip-the-line ticket for a 1-day admission to the zoo as well. Trust me, the line at the entrance can be a beast on any given morning. And it’s no wonder since this is a world-famous zoo!
SPEND THE DAY AT THE SAN DIEGO ZOO SAFARI PARK
No, this is not a repeat of the last item. Yes, there are two separate zoo-related parks in San Diego!
Let me explain. The San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Safari Park are both popular attractions in San Diego, but they offer different experiences for visitors.
At the 100-acre San Diego Zoo (in Balboa Park), you get to see the diverse collection of animals, many of which are not present at other zoos in the United States.
The Safari Park, on the other hand, is located in Escondido and covers 1,800 acres of land. It’s inspired by the Serengeti Plains in Africa and the Asian plains and has a completely different layout, with large open spaces and natural habitats for the animals. The Safari Park focuses more on large African and Asian animals, such as elephants, rhinos, and giraffes.
By far the standout attractions at the Safari Park are the safari experiences, including the Africa Tram, which takes visitors on a guided tour through the park’s large open habitats, and the Caravan Safari, which offers a closer look at the animals and allows visitors to feed some of them.
Want to experience both parks? This skip-the-line ticket allows you to spend two days at the San Diego Zoo, or split your time between the Zoo and the Safari Park!
OLD TOWN SAN DIEGO
Old Town San Diego is a great place to stop and stroll around for a few hours. This area features acres of Mexican heritage, historical sites, colorful shops, eclectic restaurants, and more.
It’s known for its historical buildings, as it features a train museum, the El Campo Cemetery (houses lots of historic gravesites from the 1800s), and the Whaley House (one of only two officially designated haunted houses in California).
The Junípero Serra Museum in Old Town’s Presidio Park is also one of the most familiar landmarks in San Diego, recognized as the site where California began. Shopping and eating in Old Town is also a lot of fun!
Don’t miss Old Town Marketplace, an open-air courtyard, home to a variety of carts and shops that sell handcrafted goods traditional to the Mexican culture.
Looking for food and history all bundled up into one stellar tour? Coming right up! Taste your way through Old Town San Diego during this historical tour with culinary samplings. Tequila, tacos, and tortillas included. What more could you ask for on vacation?
Spend an hour in Downtown San Diego and I assure you you’ll see one of these bad boys rolling through the streets. Riding the trolley car is one of the most traditional ways to get oriented and acquainted with all of the many landmarks Downtown San Diego has to offer. Once onboard, the driver narrates the history of the area you’re passing through.
Choose your own adventure as you get on and off the trolley at any of the 12 stops (including the Gaslamp Quarter, the San Diego Zoo, USS Midway and the Cruise Ship Terminal, Little Italy, etc.)
The trolley tour is a ton of fun, and the perfect solution to exploring during hot, sunny days. You can get off anytime you please to explore a different downtown district, then when you’re ready to move to the next one– jump back on the trolley!
Added perk: you’ll get some fantastic coastal views during your ride (the trolley runs down Harbour Drive down to Seaport Village).
Join the trolley tour at several stops in Downtown including at Seaport Village, the Embarcadero, and in the Gaslamp Quarter. Tickets come with unlimited hop-on, hop-off privileges so you can create your own itinerary on your own time.
EXPLORE BALBOA PARK AND ITS MUSEUMS
Balboa Park is a 1,200-acre urban oasis, known as the home to nearly 30 museums and cultural centers, including the world-famous San Diego Zoo.
No visit to San Diego is complete without a trip to this jam-packed wonderland. Just a short walk or trolley ride from Downtown, the park is one of the largest urban green spaces in the entire country and is completely worth visiting.
Many of the park’s attractions, such as the Desert Cactus Garden and the Zoro Garden, are free to the public. A few paid attractions worth considering include the San Diego Museum of Man, The Natural History Museum, San Diego Air and Space Museum, and the Train Museum.
If you don’t want to visit museums or spend money here, no problem. Take a stroll through the park and check out the Organ Pavilion and the botanical gardens dotted nearby.
Honestly, there are so many walking trails here. Might I recommend the 4.5-mile Balboa Park Loop? Should you choose to walk this urban loop trail, it will be a great few hours spent in San Diego.
👉 Pro Tip: If you plan to tour many of Balboa Park’s museums, consider buying the Balboa Park Explorer Pass, which gets you into 16 attractions for $67. There’s also the Go City San Diego digital attraction pass, which gets you access to 50+ attractions for one set price. I personally LOVE the Go City San Diego pass because of how much choice you have!
JAPANESE FRIENDSHIP GARDEN
The Japanese Friendship Garden is located in Balboa Park, but worth calling out an activity in itself. This serene garden has been open for 100 years and will transport you to Japan as soon as you step in. Perfect for those who have no plans to visit Japan anytime soon!
This garden is more special than other Japanese-inspired gardens because it was made as an expression of friendship between San Diego and its sister city in Japan, Yokohama! Enchanting Japanese gardens, koi ponds, and bonsai trees line the winding paths of this unique area.
Once you’ve had a chance to fully explore the garden, spend a few moments on the tea pavilion and soak up that California sun. There is an admission fee, but very well worth it for such a calming experience in the middle of a bustling city.
VISIT THE SAN DIEGO MUSEUM OF ART
The San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park is home to an impressive collection of art from around the world, spanning several centuries and genres.
Among the European art, you can see works by famous artists such as El Greco, Rubens, and Van Dyck. On the American art front, you can see works by American masters such as John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer.
The museum’s Asian Art collection includes works from China, Japan, Korea, and India and features all kinds of ceramics, sculptures, and textiles. There’s also a ton of contemporary art as well as decorative arts (furniture, glassware, and ceramics) to enjoy.
Though it’s technically not a part of Downtown San Diego, Coronado is close enough to be on this list. The dreamy town of Coronado is located on a nearby island comprised of beach hotels, resorts, and restaurants. Make the short two-mile journey over the Coronado Bridge or take the ferry to get here, the beach is a must-see.
You’ll be greeted by one of the best beaches in California, perfect for those who like calm waters and fine sands with speckles of gold in it! The main entertainment hub, which hugs Orange Avenue, is filled with shops and restaurants, as well as the famous Hotel Del Coronado.
If you’re in the area earlier in the day (which I recommend as parking tends to fill up by mid-morning on weekends), head over to The Henry for a casual sit-down brunch or grab some delicious coffee and pastries to enjoy on the beach.
Located adjacent to Downtown San Diego along the bay, San Diego’s Embarcadero is chock-full of maritime history complete with historic ships and museums, as well as a fishing harbor, cruise ship terminal, and tons of lively restaurants and shops.
Another notable thing to do at the Embarcadero (other than enjoying museums) is to hang out at The Waterfront Park, which is a great place to picnic on the grassy lawn, while the kids enjoy the various splash and play zones and water fountains. The Waterfront Park also hosts regular outdoor events including a weekly Farmer’s Market and various festivals.
The exciting jet boat ride is a ton of fun and you will definitely get wet (perfect for those hot summer days). I’ve done it twice thus far and have had so much fun both times! It’s an attraction that my bestie and I love to bring SD first-timers to.
If you love old ships and submarines, you’re in for a treat. There is a massive exhibition of antique ships at the Maritime Museum of San Diego waiting for you.
This collection of fully restored vessels date back to the mid-1800s, with even a fully functioning replica of a Spanish Galleon from 1542. You’ll not only get to explore the ships and submarines here, but the museum also displays permanent and temporary exhibits on art, maritime history, commerce and exploration.
Fun Fact: The HMS Surprise here was featured in the Pirates of the Caribbean films!
USS MIDWAY MUSEUM
This 971-foot-long floating museum is the best way to learn about San Diego’s naval community. The USS Midway served in the U.S. Navy from 1945 to 1992, and is now permanently docked in San Diego as a museum.
Visitors to the museum can explore the ship’s many decks and compartments, including the flight deck, hangar deck, and engine room.
One of the highlights of the museum is the opportunity to see 30+ restored aircraft on display, including fighter jets, helicopters, and more. You can also learn about the history of naval aviation and the role that the USS Midway played in various conflicts, including the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm.
In addition to the exhibits and displays, the museum offers a variety of interactive experiences and activities, such as flight simulators and virtual reality experiences! If you don’t feel like walking through and learning all about the naval history yourself, you can also take guided tours of the ship, led by knowledgeable volunteers who share their personal experiences and stories of life on board the USS Midway.
Pro Tip: Because this is one of SD’s most popular attractions, you’ll want to get your skip-the-line tickets in advance so you can save time/avoid the crazy lines when you get there!
TUNA HARBOR DOCKSIDE MARKET
Love all things seafood? Then check out this super cool place to shop for fresh seafood! The Tuna Harbor Dockside Market is an open-air seafood market offering consumers fresh-caught seafood direct from local fishermen and vendors.
If you happen to be in San Diego on Saturday, make sure to catch the weekly market in the morning. Some stalls sell fresh tuna, some sell lobster and shrimp, while others offer uni (sea urchin) and crab. For people who prefer cooked seafood, this is available at the market as well.
BASEBALL AND CONCERTS AT PETCO PARK
Baseball lovers, this one is for you! If you happen to be here on the right day, you can catch a home game of the San Diego Padres baseball team at Petco Park.
Known for its unique and innovative design, Petco Park seamlessly integrates modern amenities with nods to San Diego’s history.
Spectators not only get to enjoy the game but, depending on where they are seated, they get to enjoy fantastic views of Downtown San Diego and the San Diego Bay.
Petco Park has a designated area known as the “Beach,” where fans can relax in a sandy space reminiscent of a beach scene while still enjoying the excitement of the game. The “Park at the Park” section allows fans outside the stadium to watch games on a large screen from the grassy area, so fun!
Aside from baseball, Petco Park also hosts other sporting activities as well as music concerts. Check out their full events calendar here.
SPANISH VILLAGE ART CENTER
Want to take a break from urban exploration with some shopping and dining? Seaport Village is a huge shopping complex filled with dining options, unique stores, and free live music. The best part? You can enjoy all of this while enjoying waterfront views!
Make sure to wear comfortable shoes as there are over fourteen acres of shops, boutiques, art galleries, and eateries to wander through.
After shopping, enjoy a glass of wine at the San Pasqual Wine Tasting Room or fill up on fresh seafood dishes from Marion’s Fish Market overlooking Coronado.
TAKE A FOOD AND BEER TOUR
San Diego has become increasingly popular for its locally-crafted brews and growing food scene. Due to the growth of the vibrant homebrewing community, San Diego County is now home to over 150 breweries. That’s a crazy high number of places to grab a pint!
Some local favorites include Ballast Point Brewing Company, Stone Brewing, Eppig Brewing, Karl Strauss Brewing Company, and Modern Times Beer. But this is just barely scratching the surface.
It would be hard to try all of the top restaurants and breweries all on your own, so why not maximize your food and beer tasting with a tour?
- San Diego Brewery Tour
- Food and Wine (and Beer!) Walking and Trolley Tour: Historic Old Town San Diego
CATCH A COMEDY SHOW
As with any major city, comedy shows are a staple. There are several comedy clubs in San Diego that you could check out while you’re in town, including:
- The Comedy Store: a popular comedy club located in La Jolla that features a variety of stand-up comedians and comedy shows.
- American Comedy Co.: located in the Gaslamp Quarter
- National Comedy Theatre: an improv comedy theater located in the Midtown area that features family-friendly shows and interactive performances.
Be sure to keep an eye out on their events calendar for shows that pique your interest!
ATTEND COMIC-CON INTERNATIONAL
If your trip dates just so happen to coincide with the dates of Comic-Con, you need to celebrate — and then you need to go!
Comic-Con is an annual convention that takes place in San Diego and is one of the best things to do in the city for fans of pop culture, comics, and entertainment. The epic convention is held over four days and attracts over 130,000 attendees from around the world. It’s so popular that tickets usually sell out way in advance!
During Comic-Con, visitors can attend panels and presentations featuring celebrities, artists, actors who play your favorite superhero, and creators from the worlds of film, television, comics, and gaming.
One of the highlights of Comic-Con is the cosplay, or costume play, where attendees dress up as their favorite characters from movies, comics, and TV shows. The convention also features screenings of upcoming movies and TV shows, as well as autograph signings and meet-and-greets with celebrity guests.
Truly, there are SO many photo ops and chances to see (and even meet) your favorite figures in the world of comics!
THE PRESTIGE MAGIC LOUNGE
The Prestige Magic Lounge & Showroom in San Diego is a unique and immersive dining experience that offers a fun and entertaining evening for guests. This is the perfect activity for you if you love magic!
The experience takes place in a private dining room, where guests are treated to a multi-course meal before participating in an evening of magic presented by the best magicians in the world!
Your parlour-style dinner experience includes salad, choice of entrée and a dessert presentation that alone is worth coming to see. Once dessert is cleared, your experience is capped by 45 minutes of award-winning stage magic by the most renowned magicians in the world!
If the SD location is out of spots, there’s a La Jolla location too — The Mystique! Both promise a great meal with a heavy side of impressive magic.
LITTLE ITALY FARMERS MARKET
The Little Italy Farmers Market, held every Saturday, stands out as one of the premier farmers markets in San Diego. Nestled in the heart of the charming Little Italy neighborhood, this market is an energetic and bustling hub of local flavors, artisanal crafts, and friendly vibes all rolled up into one massive market!
What sets the Little Italy Farmers Market apart is its perfect blend of high-quality vendors and their diversity. As you enter the market, your senses will be mindblown at the array of stalls showcasing an abundance of farm-fresh produce, gourmet treats, handmade crafts, and more.
Whether you’re seeking ripe, seasonal fruits or unique handcrafted gifts, the Little Italy Farmers Market offers an eclectic selection — so eclectic that you’re sure to find something you want to buy!
After you’ve browsed the market’s offerings, you can easily explore the surrounding boutiques, cafes, restaurants, and art galleries, making it a complete outing in downtown San Diego!
PUNCH BOWL SOCIAL SAN DIEGO
Looking for things to do in San Diego that don’t include sight-seeing? Punch Bowl Social in San Diego presents an all-encompassing entertainment experience that brings together a variety of activities for an unforgettable outing.
With stylish bowling lanes, a diverse collection of arcade games, and private karaoke rooms, it’s a hotspot for groups of friends looking for a fun night out! Shuffleboard and ping pong provide friendly competition, while the outdoor patio offers a relaxing space to enjoy San Diego’s pleasant weather.
The on-site gastro diner offers a wide selection of comfort foods and creative menu items, complemented by a hefty selection of craft cocktails and local beers.
CATCH A PLAY OR BROADWAY SHOW
When it comes to enjoying a play, an opera, or other performing arts show in downtown San Diego, there are several excellent venues to consider. The San Diego Civic Theatre and the Balboa Theatre stand out as two top choices for experiencing captivating performances.
The San Diego Civic Theatre, located in the heart of downtown, is a premier venue known for hosting a wide range of Broadway shows, concerts, ballets, operas, and more.
Equally impressive is the historic Balboa Theatre, a cultural gem nestled in the Gaslamp Quarter. This beautifully restored theater boasts a rich history and a cozy atmosphere that makes it feel like you’re getting to enjoy an exclusive movie available to a handful of others.
In addition to these two prominent venues, you might also want to explore other options such as the Lyceum Theatre and the Spreckels Theatre, both of which offer a mix of entertainment, including plays, concerts, and dance performances.
SAN DIEGO SPEED BOAT ADVENTURES
San Diego Speed Boat Adventures gives you the chance to don your captain’s hat and embark on a thrilling self-driving speedboat adventure – one of the most exhilarating activities to partake in while in San Diego.
Imagine the rush of being at the helm of your very own vessel, zipping through the harbor’s sparkling waters. And here’s the best part: you don’t need to be a seasoned sailor to navigate these boats! With a steering wheel that feels just like a car and a simple throttle mechanism with three positions, it’s an accessible and adrenaline-pumping experience for anyone who wants to try!
You can choose to leisurely cruise, allowing the sights to unfold at a gentle pace like a lazy houseboat. Or, if you’re up for an adrenaline-charged escapade, throttle up and zoom across the water with the speed and agility of a jet ski!
Throughout your water adventure, you’ll be treated to sights such as the Navy Ships and Star of India standing proud, the USS Midway aircraft museum, and the Coronado Bridge gracefully spanning the horizon.
GET BREAKFAST / COFFEE AT THE INVIGATORIUM
The Invigatorium is as whimsical as it is tasty. This café is decked out in dinosaurs and features a mosaic dragon on the wall. Be prepared for ALL the whimsy that comes with a meal here!
This is a partnership between brewery and coffee roaster Modern Times, and local restauranteurs in the East Village — it’s essentially two small eateries in one.
If you’re in the mood for breakfast tacos, get one here! They’re great. Also, try the Lavender London Fog latte.
GRAB DRINKS AT NOBLE EXPERIMENT
Noble Experiment is one of the many speakeasy-style bars in San Diego. While there are lots of others, you can choose from, none deliver so far above and beyond the novelty quite like this swanky yet cozy cocktail lounge hidden in the back of a burger restaurant!
To get in, you’re going to have to look for the hidden door by the stack of kegs. Once you’re in, tuck into a plush leather booth next to the wall of golden skulls and get to sippin’ on the best craft cocktails in the city!
Reservations are almost always a must so be sure to call ahead to secure your spot.
THE NEW CHILDREN’S MUSEUM
Traveling to San Diego with the kids? The New Children’s Museum is going to be a fun one for the kids!
This museum is a haven of creativity and imagination nestled in the heart of downtown San Diego. It’s a must-visit destination for families seeking a hands-on experience that blends art, play, and learning all into one fun afternoon! If you’re looking for an unforgettable day with your kids, this museum is the answer.
Here’s a taste of what types of exhibits await you and your children:
- “Wobbleland”: An exhibit that challenges balance and coordination as kids navigate a whimsical landscape that’s delightfully unsteady.
- “Sketch Aquarium”: A digital wonderland where children’s drawings come to life and swim alongside their aquatic companions on a large screen.
- “Whammock!”: An interactive hammock-like structure that encourages cooperative play, imagination, and relaxation.
- “Tinker Lab”: A hub of creativity where children can experiment with materials, tools, and ideas, fostering a love for hands-on learning.
- “No Rules…Except”: A multi-sensory experience that invites kids to explore and engage with unusual textures and materials, encouraging sensory discovery.
- “Rain House”: An exhibit that allows kids to manipulate the flow of water, teaching them about the fundamental forces of nature in a playful manner.
THINGS TO DO IN NEARBY LA JOLLA
If you’ve exhausted all there is to do in Downtown SD, I recommend spending the rest of your time exploring the rest of San Diego — starting with La Jolla!
The amount of outdoor activity you can do here is endless— you can rent bikes and ride around the spectacular houses or along the coastline, relax at the beach, kayak through sea caves, hang out with the sea lions at La Jolla Cove, go whale watching, or even snorkel with whale sharks (in the late summer)!
WHERE TO STAY IN DOWNTOWN SAN DIEGO, CA
Where To Stay in San Diego for First Time Visitors: Downtown San Diego
Downtown San Diego is great for first-timers simply because of its proximity to everything. Being minutes from the airport and with easy access to public transportation, you’ll get a great intro to SD by staying in this area.
The prime location puts you within a few blocks of the Gaslamp Quarter, home to some of the city’s best dining, shopping, and entertainment. A few blocks west of downtown is the Waterfront and Seaport Village. A few blocks northeast of downtown lies Balboa Park, where some of the best museums and the San Diego Zoo are located. Expect lots of skyline views and restaurants galore!
- For a more luxurious stay –
- The US Grant– a Starwood Luxury Collection hotel that was built by the son of President Ulysses S. Grant over 100 years ago. Work out at the hotel’s fitness center, dine in the hotel’s signature restaurant, or even relax with an in-room massage. The rooms look and feel so luxurious.
- For a moderately priced, stylish option –
- Kimpton Hotel Palomar San Diego – Boasting a rooftop pool and bar and an on-site restaurant, this luxury design hotel features stylish guest rooms with an on-site fitness center. Nightlife in San Diego’s vibrant Gaslamp District is a 1-minute walk away.
- Hotel Indigo San Diego – Gaslamp Quarter – This Gaslamp Quarter hotel features unique guest rooms with contemporary amenities. Rooms have hardwood floors and plush bedding. The hotel’s onsite restaurant is open for breakfast and dinner with stunning views of the city.
- For budget-conscious travelers –
- Staypineapple, Hotel Z, Gaslamp San Diego – Offers pet-friendly accommodations, all rooms come with a private bathroom with guest bathrobes and free toiletries. There’s also free use of bicycles!
Pro Tip: Be on the lookout for overnight parking fees when staying at a downtown hotel. Parking rates at even budget hotels can be high. If you’re traveling with young kids and need a bathtub, pay attention to the bathroom descriptions, as many guest rooms are shower-only.
ANNUAL/LOCAL EVENTS IN SAN DIEGO, CA
- San Diego Restaurant Week (January) – With more than 180 participating restaurants to choose from, you can enjoy some great discounted prix-fixe two-course lunches and three-course dinners.
- San Diego Museum Month (February) – offers 50% off admission at over 30 member museums throughout the month of February.
- San Diego Chinese New Year Food and Cultural Fair (February) – 2-day festival celebrating Chinese New Year; eat traditional food, shop for Chinese handicrafts, enjoy live entertainment.
- San Diego County Fair (May) – San Diego’s county fair is the largest fair in California, offering a variety of food, entertainment, exhibits, rides & games.
- Comic-Con (July) – held at the San Diego Convention Center in Downtown San Diego
- 4th of July – Big Bay Boom (July) – the largest fireworks display in the county.
- Del Mar Horse Racing (July to September) – Experience the magic of horse racing at the Del Mar Racetrack! There are about 12 races a day; be prepared for loud cheering, boozy cocktails, and dapper attire!
- Miramar Air Show (September) – This three-day event is the largest military air show in the U.S. Experience an amazing lineup of military and civilian performers, including the world-famous U.S. Navy Blue Angels.
- KAABOO San Diego (September) – A 3-day music festival event that combines rock-n-roll music and tastemaking events.
- Kids Free San Diego (October) – Kids will get free admission to attractions, meals on the house, and tons of other great perks throughout the city.
- Beer Week (November) – A 10-day celebration of local, craft beer with multiple events happening across the county.
- Wonderfront (November) – 3-day music, culinary and arts festival held at the waterfront of downtown San Diego from Broadway Pier to the Embarcadero Parks.
- San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival (November) – Featuring dozens of culinary events celebrating wineries, craft beer and spirits, as well as local chefs and nationally recognized celebrities.
ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST: SAN DIEGO, CA
- First Aid Kit | It’s always good to carry a first aid kit around with you when traveling. Road trips make it easier to do this since all you need to do is toss it in the trunk!
- Hiking Boots | If you plan on hiking, bring well broken-in boots with good ankle support and good traction. My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort, which is extremely important if you want to prevent blisters from the start.
- Hiking Socks | If hiking, make sure you have a good pair of cushioned wool hiking socks. For extra toe protection and to prevent blisters from developing from skin-to-skin contact, go with a pair of Injinji toe socks.
- Adventure Sandals | Tevas and Chacos are my go-to brands for multipurpose summer sandals. If you’re planning on having an adventurous day or two, you should definitely consider getting adventure sandals — comfortable for long-distance walking, safe for submerging in water, and super durable.
- Walking Shoes | One pair of closed-toed shoes (walking shoes or running shoes) is always crucial for any trip. These are the ones that I’ve been traveling around with the longest; they are super light and breathable. I can even walk 15+ miles in them before getting sore feet!
- For women: Adidas Cloudfoam runners are classic-looking and ultra-comfortable.
- For men: ON Running Shoes have risen in popularity, and for good reason! They are comfortable as heck, my boyfriend loves his pair.
- Puffy Jacket | If you’re traveling in the fall or wintertime, you’re going to need layers for this coastal weather, which tends to get pretty cool nights. You have a lot of options here, but I personally have the North Face Thermoball, and it’s kept me warm throughout my many years of adventuring!
- Daypack | I’m a fan of the Osprey Daylite Daypack. Even when I’m not hiking! It has ample room for all the snacks and water you’ll need, as well as for your camera and the safety essentials for the hike.
- Sunhat | Sun protection is key for any California destination.
- SPF 30+ Sunscreen (For Face) | COOLA sunscreen is my new go-to facial sunscreen. My face doesn’t feel sticky or goopy, which is so important for feeling comfortable when you’re out and about in hot or humid areas. I tend to not go below SPF 30 in hot and sunny climates.
- Sunscreen (For Body) | Applying sunscreen to your body is absolutely necessary for sunny destinations like the West Coast. Even if it’s overcast and cloudy, the UV index can be very high, so be sure to apply whenever you’re outdoors.
- Hand Sanitizer | Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
- Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross after a hike or bike ride but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
- Travel Towel | These are light and quick-drying, which is exactly what you need in hot climates. They are super useful especially if you plan on having beach days. This one is a great option.
- Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures… the last thing you want is to be driving along with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
- Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated throughout the day with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. I love the packability of these bottles!
And there you have it, some of the best things to do in Downtown San Diego. What are some of your other favorite activities in the area?