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.
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. Here are some of the best things to do in San Diego, CA!
This post may contain affiliate links. You won’t be paying a cent more, but in the event of a sale, the small affiliate commission I receive will help keep this blog running/pumping out useful and free content. Thanks a lot!
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?
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
- 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
30+ EXCITING THINGS TO DO IN SAN DIEGO – DOWNTOWN SAN DIEGO
Downtown San Diego is sprawling with sights, sounds, culture/history, attractions, restaurants, and bars. So let’s start there!
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 San Diego Model Railroad 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!
MARITIME MUSEUM OF SAN DIEGO
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
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
VISIT NORTH PARK
Over the last decade, North Park (situated north of Balboa Park) has really grown into the trendy, hipster neighborhood of San Diego. Here, you will find many eclectic art galleries, a great food and drink scene, and many laidback breweries. Head to 30th Street and University Avenue to experience the taste of North Park—you’ll be greeted with taquerias, sushi joints, ice cream shops, cafes, and many brunch spots. For beer lovers, North Park is home to Modern Times Brewery and a few other craft breweries. Aside from the food and brews, North Park is dotted with indie boutiques which are sure to pique your interest if you like shopping!
Looking for other things to do in North Park? A weekly farmers’ market takes place at North Park Way on Thursdays. Every second Saturday, the neighborhood also hosts an evening art walk where guests can visit over a dozen art galleries and enjoy outdoor entertainment.
THINGS TO DO – BEYOND DOWNTOWN SAN DIEGO
Now that you’ve gotten the downtown activities out of the way, let’s see what else the rest of San Diego has in store for you. I’m excited for you. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much there is to do beyond downtown SD!
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!
Pacific Beach is one of the more lively, yet laid-back beach towns located within San Diego. Year-round, you’ll often find people surfing, relaxing, picnicking, and posting up in one of the many restaurants and bars here. My favorite lunch spots include Leilani’s Cafe, Kono’s Surf Club Cafe, and Costa Brava.
In addition to all the shops and eateries in the area, Pacific Beach also features a nice little pier, which is a great place to enjoy a California sunset! If you’re looking for things to do after dinner, consider staying in PB because there’s a buzzing nightlife scene here, particularly along Garnet Avenue.
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 State Natural Preserve is open 365 days/year and there an admission fee for each car entering the area ($10-$25 per vehicle, demand-based pricing). 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 address: 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 Brewing Co. 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.
EXPLORE LA JOLLA
Anytime I head to La Jolla, I’m immediately in a calmer and happier state. The weather is always great and the air is always fresh! La Jolla sits right along the coast, just north of Pacific Beach. Though only a few minutes away from the center of SD, the ambiance change will make you feel like you’re a world away. 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)!
Looking for a beer break from all the exploration? Head to The Public House La Jolla. Feeling hungry? Try one of the many restaurants situated between Prospect St. and Pearl St. If you like art, take some time to check out the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. If you’re in the mood for a hike, head to the nearby Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve— you won’t regret your time enjoying these untouched, coastal bluffs.
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.
WHERE TO STAY IN 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.
Where To Stay in San Diego for Families: Mission Bay or Coronado
You will most likely be hitting the beach when you’re in San Diego. If you’re looking to be by the beach, check out Mission Bay or Coronado.
Mission Bay has sandy shores, picnic areas, a calm bay, water sport opportunities, and harbor cruises. It’s also close to SeaWorld.
- For a more luxurious stay –
- The Catamaran Resort & Spa – You can expect tropical landscaping and elegant decor. Every room has a patio or balcony, and with a pool, jacuzzi, and bike rentals, these amenities make this hotel a convenient and luxurious stay!
- For a moderately priced option –
- The Dana on Mission Bay – Located 0.6 mi away from SeaWorld San Diego and 1 mi away from San Diego’s Mission Beach. The hotel features a waterfront contemporary restaurant, 2 outdoor pools, 2 hot tubs and a pool bar.
- Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Spa and Marina – Affordable rooms with great views of the bay and the ocean. There is also a lagoon-style pool with a waterslide that is popular with families.
Coronado, consistently named one of the top beaches in the country, makes an ideal location for lodging, if you can afford to pay a little more. It’s great if you want proximity to downtown and Balboa Park (10-minute drive) without having to actually stay downtown (parking there can be really annoying).
If that sounds like you, there is really only one hotel you should be considering!
- Hotel del Coronado – A historic, full-service beachfront resort and a 4-star Curio Collection by Hilton property. Definitely the ideal hotel for a more luxurious stay with a charming Victorian-style atmosphere!
Where To Stay in San Diego for a Romantic Getaway: La Jolla
A stay in La Jolla grants you sweeping coastline views, stunning beaches, and a beautiful mountain backdrop. Not only will you have lots of shopping, beaching, swimming, and snorkeling opportunities, but you’ll get to enjoy some pretty amazing sunsets.
- La Valencia Hotel – A beautiful Mediterranean-style hotel that offers luxurious accommodations, lush tropical courtyards, Spanish mosaics, and ocean views.
- Lodge at Torrey Pines – Offers expansive public spaces with modern furniture and fireplaces, as well as a poolside cabana and restaurant with views of the coast.
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!
- 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
- Smartphone UV Sanitizer and Charger | Our phones gather all the grime and bacteria we touch throughout the day, and then they are stored in warm, dark places like purses and pockets, which make for great breeding grounds for bacteria to grow. They are the third hand we never wash, but should! Using a UV sanitizer such as PhoneSoap on a regular basis will help keep germs and illness at bay.
- 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. 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?