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 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.
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DOWNTOWN SAN DIEGO – THINGS TO DO
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).
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 over 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.
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.
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. And yes, there are two separate 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. At the zoo, see the diverse collection of animals, many of which are not present at other zoos in the United States. The Safari Park is inspired by the Serengeti Plains in Africa and the Asian plains and is home to lions, tigers, zebras, which you can see from a 32-acre (13-hectare) safari trail.
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!
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.
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 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, 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.
JAPANESE FRIENDSHIP GARDEN
The Japanese Friendship Garden is located in Balboa Park, but worth calling out as 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. This garden 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.
Looking for more things to do in San Diego? Check out these tours from Get Your Guide.
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. Want to get out on the water? Consider a dinner-dance cruise, Sunday champagne brunch cruise, or my personal favorite thing to do on the water– a speed jet boat ride on San Diego Bay. The 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!
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. This museum, located on a decommissioned aircraft carrier, is one of the most popular attractions in Downtown San Diego. This massive aircraft carrier turned museum is permanently harbored in San Diego, allowing visitors to explore the ship from head to tail, including its living quarters, engine rooms, flight control towers, and brig. The carrier also houses thirty aircraft!
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 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. 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. Aside from baseball, Petco Park also hosts other sporting activities as well as music concerts.
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 is now home to over 130 breweries. 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
Looking for more things to do in San Diego? Check out these tours from Get Your Guide.
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?