On the tip of the Southern California coast sits a Pacific gem that’s the envy of almost every city in the United States. With it’s mild Mediterranean climate, stunning beaches, gorgeous parks, mountains and world-class attractions, there’s a lifetime’s worth of places to see San Diego.
Add in the laid-back Southern Cal vibe and nothing else compares. Residents and visitors alike attest that its motto as ‘America’s Finest City’ is quite fitting. Years ago, I was asked what was so special about San Diego. I responded that, “when you live in this wonderful place and you are not physically at work, you feel like you’re on vacation.” Twenty-five years later, I still feel the exact same way.
Whether you just moved here or are one of our 35 million visitors who flock to San Diego County each year, here are the not-to-be missed places and things to do in this coastal paradise.
Things to do in San Diego
San Diego Zoo
The world-famous San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park sits on over 100 acres of rambling hills with multi-level exhibits and outdoor escalators. With more than four million visitors annually, it’s the most visited zoo in the U.S. and is considered one of the best zoos in the world.
Home to 4,000 animals representing 650 species and subspecies in open-air, cageless exhibits that recreate natural animal habitats, the Zoo specializes in the preservation of endangered species. The multitude of exotic animals here is impressive, as is the lush native and exotic vegetation.
A double-decker bus and another with hop-on-hop-off tours are available along with a sky lift for moving around the Zoo. Meandering walking trails are well marked and nicely shaded.
San Diego Safari Park
If you wish to see animals within a more natural habitat, then the San Diego Safari Park is ideal. Once serving as the San Diego Zoo’s lab, veterinary, and breeding facility 30 miles north of the city, the Safari Park was not originally meant to be open to the public. Therefore, its enclosures and environment are even more expansive and natural allowing many animals to safely interact with one another.
With its many exhibits and natural biomes, the Safari Park is another world-class zoological facility. It is, however, open and can be considerably warmer than coastal San Diego. Make sure to bring shades, sunscreen or an umbrella when visiting in the summer.
San Diego has no shortage of charming communities. Residing just over the high-arching bridge from downtown San Diego, Coronado is renowned as the home of the famous historic Hotel Del Coronado. This impressive resort is an iconic San Diego landmark with its white Victorian architecture and red turreted roof. The ‘Del,’ as the locals call it, has hosted royalty, presidents, celebrities and the public for nearly 135 years. Recently renovated, the Del is even more stunning in the twilight hours.
Coronado Island, which is really a not an island at all, but rather a long peninsular spit, is also accessible by ferry from downtown. It’s home to the North Island Naval Air Station, a lovely downtown boulevard with restaurants and boutique shops, and stunning residences ranging from quaint cottages to impressive seaside abodes. The town is bicycle and dog-friendly and its beaches are legendary. Grab your canoes, kayaks and surfboards because this locale brings together all the ingredients of a great time.
An upscale neighborhood with a stunning shoreline, La Jolla (pronounced La Hoya) is as California as it gets. Two beautiful beaches and a seaside park, spectacular rocky La Jolla Cove, sea caves, shops, and restaurants make La Jolla a popular and picturesque San Diego destination.
At the crescent shaped ‘Children’s Pool’ you can view the famous seals, but it’s illegal to get too close or touch them. On the other end of the rocky shoreline, noisy sea lions boisterously vie for the best sunbathing spots.
Snorkelers and divers love exploring the cove, swimming with docile leopard sharks and other sea life while surfers brave the waves and kayakers and paddle boarders roam the bay.
Both a marine life and an amusement park, San Diego’s Sea World blends the two harmoniously with exhibits, entertaining animal shows, and cleverly water-themed amusement rides and park neighborhoods. Yes, there are chills and thrills, but the real goal is educating the public about the fragility and importance of our planet’s aquatic life.
The orcas (killer whales) no longer perform, but the dolphins and sealions do. The landscaping, night time shows and fireworks are spectacular.
Right in the heart of downtown San Diego, the Gaslamp District is a historic section of town known for its restaurants and nightlife. It’s lively after dark and a great place to have fun with family and friends enjoying San Diego’s more urban vibe.
Home to 94 historic buildings, The Gaslamp hosts several annual events and festivals, including Mardi Gras, Street Scene Music Festival, Taste of Gaslamp, and ShamROCK, a St. Patrick’s Day event. Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres, is located a mere block away in the East Village neighborhood.
This 1,200-acre historic San Diego urban cultural park consists of open space areas, natural vegetation zones, green belts, gardens, and walking paths, but it’s most noted for its museums, theaters, cultural venues and of course, the San Diego Zoo. Designated to host the 1915–1916 Panama–California Exposition, the Park is home to impressively ornate Spanish Colonial Revival architecture that makes it one of the most picturesque parks in the nation.
Balboa Park hosts over a dozen museums and cultural attractions. The Museum of Us, the San Diego Natural History Museum and the very impressive San Diego Air & Space Museum are among the most popular.
Other frequented park venues include the Reflection Pond, latticed Botanical Building, Spreckels Organ Pavilion, Old Globe Theatre complex, House of Pacific Relations International Cottages and the beautiful Spanish Village Art Center.
USS Midway Museum
Paying homage to San Diego’s longtime embrace of the US Navy and Marine Corps, the USS Midway Museum impressively honors our military servicemen and women. The Midway was launched right after World War II in 1945 as the largest ship in the world. Serving gallantly through numerous conflicts for 47 years, this museum ship on the San Diego waterfront is now the city’s most popular attraction.
Onboard tours are led by veteran docents, many who served onboard and share their real-life experiences. The museum’s numerous aircraft, exhibits, shipboard spaces, simulators and artifacts are guaranteed to fill your day. A fantail café and gift shop are also available.
San Diego’s giant 25-foot statue ‘Unconditional Surrender’ depicts the iconic sailor-nurse Times Square kiss celebrating the end of World War II. With the USS Midway as the dramatic backdrop, this site is a major draw for photographers of all ages.
Old Town San Diego reflects authentic Mexican culture as this site commemorates the original settlement of San Diego. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park in the center of this neighborhood contains many adobe structures dating back to San Diego’s earliest days. The surrounding community’s architecture and ambience maintain the Old Southwest character of its roots.
Shops, museums and plazas celebrate San Diego’s Hispanic heritage blending the cultural past with the modern present. Guests can shop in historic buildings, dine in many of the Mexican Southwest restaurants and stroll the pages of history admiring artifacts, homes, hotel, carriage house, Wells Fargo Museum and more to experience life in the Old West.
San Diego Bay and Embarcadero
In this area, guests engage in almost every activity having to do with water. It’s a centerpiece for people wanting to enjoy sailing, boating, jet skiing and more. One and two-hour harbor cruises are popular with narrated tours past naval installations, Coronado, and Point Loma.
The Embarcadero bordering the bay is home to the Maritime Museum of San Diego showcasing 10 display vessels including the Star of India, the oldest ship still sailing regularly and the oldest iron-hulled merchant ship still afloat. HMS Surprise, a 1970 replica of a Royal Navy frigate was featured in “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. San Salvador, a replica of the galleon used by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo when he first sailed into San Diego Bay in 1542 can also be seen here.
The Embarcadero hosts numerous restaurants, the USS Midway, multiple military monuments, and the San Diego Cruise Ship Terminal.
Cabrillo National Monument
This monument located at the end of Point Loma commemorates Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s 1542 Expedition on the site where he first stepped ashore on the west coast of what we now call the United States. An on-site museum displays period artifacts from this era and provides panoramic views of North Island Air Station and the entrance to San Diego Bay.
The Old Point Loma Lighthouse and Museum showcases the life of an early San Diego Lighthouse family. The area also houses a small modern Coast Guard lighthouse community and a shoreline excellent for tide pooling.
A classic old-time seaside amusement park, Belmont Park is one of the most family friendly places I’ve listed. Filled with the clickety clack sounds of a historic wooden coaster and lively arcade music, its heaven for kids of all ages looking for fun. In addition to the iconic rollercoaster, there are bumper cars, boardwalk games, and even a zip-line to ride if you’re up to the challenge.
Not only are there places to keep the kids occupied like laser tag and mini golf, there’s also a plethora of restaurants and a boardwalk to enjoy.
Torrey Pines State Reserve
Whether camping or just looking for a picturesque hike, Torrey Pines State Reserve has a lot to offer. Towering oceanfront cliffs, sandstone bluffs and hiking trails past steep canyons provide an exhilarating outdoor experience.
Dolphins and whales can often be spotted from the bluffs. Trails lead along tall ocean ridges with stunning vistas and down to picturesque cliffside beaches.
On the northside of Point Loma, Sunset Cliffs sports the best place for viewing some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world. Locals and visitors alike flock to these cliffs to see the sun gently descend and sink past the Pacific Ocean horizon. Dusk and dawn are the best times to go if you want to fully experience the natural beauty of this area. The shoreline here is comprised of rugged cliffs, some even sporting hidden caves.
Where to Stay in San Diego
As a major American and global tourist destination, San Diego offers a variety of hotels fitting most budgets. Your best bet is to find accommodations centrally located near downtown as the attractions we’ve listed are spread out – you’ll need a car. Use the map below to help you get started.
I guarantee you’ll run out of time before you run out of things to do in San Diego. That didn’t dismay me on my first visit, it just gave me plenty of reasons to come back. And return I did, again and again, and then finally to live. Not only am I proud to call San Diego home, I’m happy to share America’s finest city with you.
Last Updated on February 2, 2023