The San Diego area is so much more than laidback beach vibes, sun, and surf. And hey, I’m not complaining, those are all very dreamy characteristics of any city! What many people don’t know is that SD is also a metropolitan city, so if you’re looking for a healthy dose of urban culture traditionally found in bustling cities, San Diego’s got that for you! From the historic Gaslamp Quarter to the waterfront of San Diego Bay, from beach towns to breweries, and hiking to kayaking– the sheer amount of things to do in San Diego is unreal. No matter what your interests are or what neighborhood you end up in, there is no shortage of things to do in San Diego.
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THINGS TO DO IN SAN DIEGO – DOWNTOWN SAN DIEGO
EXPLORE AND 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.
VISIT THE GASLAMP QUARTER
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).
DINE AT LIBERTY PUBLIC MARKET (LIBERTY STATION)
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.
VISIT 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. 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?
TAKE A TROLLEY TOUR
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 & 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 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.
VISIT THE EMBARCADERO
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 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. 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.
SPANISH VILLAGE ART CENTER
The Spanish Village Art Center located in Balboa Park is occupied by 200+ local artists, who practice a variety of arts including enamel painting sculpting, metalsmithing, jewelry designing, printmaking, photography, and more. The dozens of artist studios and galleries here are free and accessible to the public every day of the week and many art classes and demonstrations are offered as well. In addition to the studios, you can enjoy the beautiful and colorful courtyard as well as visit the onsite glass blowing facility.
GO SHOPPING AT SEAPORT VILLAGE
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.
Looking for more things to do in San Diego? Check out these tours from Get Your Guide.
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
THINGS TO DO – BEYOND DOWNTOWN SAN DIEGO
VISIT OTHER VIBRANT NEIGHBORHOODS
There are so many diverse neighborhoods within San Diego, each with its own culture and quirks, and it would be a shame to not spend some time exploring a few of them! A few notable neighborhoods worth a stroll or a few hours of exploration include North Park, Hillcrest, and Pacific Beach.
Interested in exploring additional San Diego neighborhoods? Check out my San Diego neighborhood guide here!
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.
KAYAK OR SUP AT MISSION BAY
If you’re looking for some time with the water or just some time in the outdoors, look no further than Mission Bay! From kayaking and standup paddleboarding to water skiing, sailing, kite surfing and everything in between, Mission Bay is a one-stop-shop destination. On land, families can stroll, bike, picnic, or barbecue with the bay as a serene backdrop. Ski Beach a hot spot for family parties, casual picnics and beach bonfires, while Santa Clara Point hosts the Aquatic Center, offering water sports rentals and instruction. If you’re looking for kayak or SUP rentals, check out Aqua Adventures Kayak & Paddleboards.
CATCH THRILLS AT BELMONT PARK
Belmont Park is a historic amusement park located in the Mission Bay area of San Diego. Just like Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in Northern California, it’s a nostalgic California experience, reminiscent of traditional thrill parks that Americans enjoyed in the early 1900s. This small ocean-front amusement park is hard to miss, thanks to the massive wooden roller coaster called Giant Dipper. In addition to the main attraction, there are also other attractions including Tilt-a-Whirl, bumper cars, rock-climbing, mini-golf, an arcade, and a carousel. More into food/drink than rides? They also have 69 beers on tap and monster waffle cones!
TORREY PINES STATE NATURAL PRESERVE
Located north of Downtown San Diego, this 1,750-acre oceanfront reserve features sweeping ocean views, dramatic coastal bluffs, and an all-around memorable day outdoors. The reserve provides outdoor enthusiasts miles and miles of trails through pine forests and sandstone canyons as well as a 4.5-mile state beach to enjoy (Torrey Pines State Beach). Torrey Pines is open 365 days/year and there an admission fee for each car entering the area. Once you get out to explore, you’ll realize that the admission fee was totally worth it.
Sunset Cliffs is hands-down the most popular area at dusk for travelers and locals alike. Why? For the sunsets, of course! Sunset Cliffs rewards visitors with panoramic ocean views that are absolutely breathtaking with the ongoing sounds of waves crashing onto rocks. Part of the neighborhood overlaps with Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, a 68-acre reserve known for its sea caves, rock formations, and seaside bluffs. If you happen to be there during super low tide, you can actually walk out to the Sunset Cliff’s sea cave!
Local Tip: Pack a picnic and get there 1.5 to 2 hours before sunset. Otherwise, you may have trouble finding parking. The earlier the better!
SPRUCE STREET SUSPENSION BRIDGE
If you’re more into hidden gems rather than the large, main attractions, this one is for you. Located in the residential Bankers Hill neighborhood (close to Balboa Park), the Spruce Street Suspension Bridge is an awesome historical structure that you can enjoy even today. You only really need about 30 minutes here, so if you’re in the area, make a pit stop to walk across. Parking is in a residential neighborhood, so please be respectful and enjoy it mindfully! Location: Spruce St 1st Ave, San Diego, CA 92103.
DEL MAR RACETRACK
The Del Mar Racetrack is a fun time if you’re interested in horse races that’ll get your heart pumping. The track holds about 8 to 12 races daily and is open Wednesday through Sunday. The best day to visit is Opening Day, where visitors wear elaborate costume hats and dress to impress. Throughout the season, they also host other events like food truck fairs, beer festivals as well as a summer concert series. General admission tickets are $6.
SHOP IN DEL MAR
One Paseo is San Diego’s destination for the most highly curated mix of restaurants, shopping, and wellness. Relax and stroll the beautiful urban village while perusing independent boutiques and popular lifestyle brands. You can eat at one of the many restaurants here, as well as enjoy a beer or two at Harland Brewery. A few of the eateries include North Italia, Cava, The Butchery, Juice Crafters, Blue Bottle, Salt and Straw Ice Cream, and Shake Shack. The best part about One Paseo, there is a ton of outdoor space for relaxing and enjoying your meals al fresco!
LA JOLLA COVE
La Jolla Cove is an upscale seaside village which is located a quick 20-minute drive from downtown San Diego. First, walk through Prospect Street to browse locally-owned shops and dine at a variety of restaurants. Next, walk along Coast Boulevard for breathtaking photo-ops with the seaside cliffs. Then, stop by Children’s Pool to sit with sunbathing seals! They are truly a sight to see, and the fact that you get to be so up close to them is awesome. At any point during your time at La Jolla Cove, you can hang out at Ellen Browning Scripps Park, a grassy area ideal for picnics and catching a sunset. So don’t forget to bring a blanket/towel!
Local Tip: During late summer in the months of August and September, leopard sharks make an appearance in the cove. You can actually snorkel with them here, which is a very unique experience to have in California.
Black’s Beach is a famous clothing-optional beach below the gliderport parking area on Torrey Pines Mesa. This beach is one of our favorites in San Diego, as it sits along a portion of the rocky and beautiful La Jolla coastline. It has also become a beloved surf spot for locals. It does take some effort to get here, which is why we love it (due to its accessibility, it’s a much calmer beach than some of the more popular ones in SD such as Pacific Beach or Mission Beach). There are multiple routes to get to the beach, but they all involve a bit of rock scrambling and a steep climb.
Local Tip: Pack light–getting up the hill back to your car is much more challenging than coming down, especially after a full day in the sun.
HIKE POTATO CHIP ROCK
Potato Chip Rock is one of those Instagram-famous hikes, featuring a curiously thin, potato chip-like rock formation. It is located outside of San Diego in Poway, and to get here, you’ll have to commit to hiking a total of 7.6-miles roundtrip. The Mount Woodson trailhead starts at the end of Lake Poway Road at Lake Poway and offers hikers a challenging trail up to the famous potato chip boulder and Mount Woodson Summit. A word of warning, this hike is a leg-burner and makes for a great workout! The hike is very exposed to the sun, so remember to bring plenty of water and sunscreen.
And there you have it. I hope this guide has helped you plan your next trip to San Diego! What are some of your favorite things to do in San Diego?