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12 Unmissable Things to Do in San Diego

12 Unmissable Things to Do in San Diego

San Diego is famed for its idyllic climate, gorgeous white-sand beaches, vibrant culture, epic food scene, and happening nightlife. This Californian coastal city is often dubbed “America’s Finest City” for its natural beauty. However, the easy-going atmosphere and laid-back culture make it possibly the coolest city in the country!

If you find yourself in this part of California, you won’t be at a loss for what to do in San Diego. There is entertainment and activity on every corner, from famous attractions to impressive street art to unique local breweries. If you’re thinking about heading here on a weekend break or part of an extended trip, read on to discover the top things to do in San Diego.

Best Things to Do in San Diego

I’ve included a diverse mix of San Diego activities and attractions on this list. So, whatever you’re into, you’ll find several appealing ideas for your upcoming trip.

But first: Don’t miss the other California city guides for an epic trip, including where to stay in San Diego!

Explore the Old Town

San Diego Old Town is a hub of culture and activity and an unmissable stop on any San Diego itinerary. The Old Town has a rich Mexican heritage, full of historical sites, colorful shops, and some of the best restaurants in town.

There are various ways to explore this part of the city. You can stroll around at your peril or hop on the sightseeing bus for a narrated tour. Alternatively, you can sign up for a unique experience like the Old Town Tales, Tacos, and Tequila walking tour

I recommend booking an experience like this as you get to see the ‘local-side’ of the Old Town and visit many hidden gems. For example, you’ll sample handmade tortillas from authentic tortilla makers and enjoy tastings at an authentic tequileria. Plus, you’ll hear stories about some of the old brick buildings in this part of the city and learn about the indigenous people living here before the arrival of the European settlers.

Check out Balboa Park

The 1,200-acre Balboa Park is one of the most popular San Diego attractions and a place where every visitor goes at least once during their trip. Balboa is not a standard city park; it’s a hub where culture, art, science, and nature collide. Here you will find 16 museums, multiple performing arts venues, landscaped gardens, and much more.

While here, take a stroll through the peaceful Japanese Friendship Garden, watch a show at the Old Globe Theater, and check out the interactive exhibits at Fleet Science Center. Be sure to visit The Spanish Village Artist Center too. This vibrant corner of the park showcases every type of local art you can imagine.

Soak up the vibes in Mission Beach

Mission Beach is a laid-back neighborhood attracting surfers, sunbathers, and volleyball players. Here you will find a hive of activity no matter the time of day. The best way to explore this area is to stroll along the boardwalk parallel to the beach and the bay. 

The biggest attraction of Mission Beach is Belmont Park. This historic beachside amusement park is full of existing rides for all ages. The most famous is the ​​Big Dipper, a roller coaster built in 1927 that features a 70-foot drop. The park is free to enter, and you can either pay per ride or purchase an unlimited ride and play pass. Also, check out the arcade that has over 70 games.

There are also several excellent beachfront cafes, restaurants, and bars in Mission Beach. Beach House Grill is a popular choice, featuring a huge alfresco dining area, tasty burgers, and creative cocktails. Alternatively, check out the fair-style vendors in Belmont Park for some old-school treats.

Go paddleboarding in Mission Bay

Mission Beach adjoins the expansive Mission Bay and is a popular spot for water sports like kite surfing and sailing. However, the activity you’ll see the most people participating in is paddleboarding. You can rent a SUP from Mission Bay Stand Up Paddle and test out your balance on the bay’s calm waters. You can also take lessons here or even join a SUP Yoga class!

Party at Pacific Beach

By day Pacific Beach is a relaxed and trendy neighborhood with boutique shops and yoga studios. But after sundown, the area becomes one of the most happening nightlife spots, drawing in a young, bar-hopping crowd to the strip of cheap and casual drinking spots.

Yes, it’s not the place to go if you’re looking for a sophisticated evening of dinner and cocktails. Still, you’ll undoubtedly have a laugh here, whether you get involved in the craziness or just watch from the sidelines. 

As Pacific Beach is popular with college kids, you’ll find great deals every night of the week. However, Taco Tuesday is the most significant event, consisting of tasty Mexican food, strong margaritas, and lots of dancing. 

Take a sunset cruise along the bay

The picturesque San Diego Bay is a famous sailing spot, offering priceless views of the city skyline. Many companies offer cruises along the bay, but it’s highly recommended to go at sunset. 

The Sights & Sips 2-hour Sunset Cruise is a fun yet relaxing way to end a busy day in the city. Onboard, you’ll enjoy a vast menu of mouthwatering cocktails, canapes, and entertainment. The cool activity takes place every Friday and Saturday throughout the summer, departing from North Harbor Drive.

While admiring the sun setting over the pacific ocean, you’ll pass many famous sights. Notable attractions to look out for include San Diego’s historic warships, the USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Midway, Coronado Bay Bridge, and Seaport Village.

Have a night out in Gaslamp Quarter

Gaslamp Quarter is another must-visit if you’re in San Diego for the nightlife. This lively downtown district is full of clubs, dive bars, and cocktail lounges. Rooftop bars are trendy here, too. Andaz San Diego has an impressive rooftop pool, fire pits, and various comfy chairs and beds to lounge on.

There are also excellent theaters that put on a diverse selection of music, comedy, and drama shows. So even if you’re not much of a party animal, you’ll still find some suitable evening entertainment. Moreover, Gaslamp Quarter has many excellent restaurants, so it’s worth arriving early to fill your belly ahead of your night out. 

Besides the modern amenities, Gaslamp Quarter is a historic neighborhood full of magnificent Victorian-style buildings spanning about 16 blocks so it’s also worth taking a wander around during the day. 

Go to Coronado Island

Coronado Island is a land-tiered island connected to the mainland by a tombolo (a sandy isthmus). You can reach it by driving across Coronado Bridge from downtown or driving up Silver Strand Boulevard from South San Diego.

Coronado Island features a gorgeous shoreline that goes on for miles, a charming village with historical buildings and boutique stores, and endless picturesque scenery and views. Despite its close distance to the city center, Coronado Island boasts a relaxed, peaceful vibe and an alternative experience. Plus, Coronado beach offers some of the best sunset views in the entire city!

Go sea cave kayaking

La Jolla’s Ecological Reserve in north San Diego is one of the best places to visit in San Diego for anyone into adventure, nature, and watersports. La Jolla is a vast underwater park featuring artificial reefs & kelp beds that help protect marine life in the area. It’s a popular site among avid divers, thanks to its 600 feet underwater canyon. However, another fun activity you can do here is sea cave kayaking

During a 90-minute kayaking tour, you’ll follow a guide, paddling through the reserve and the Seven Sea Caves. You’ll learn about (and maybe spot) some of the fish, dolphins, turtles, sea lions, and whales living in the protected area. You’ll also get to kayak inside the illuminating green waters of Emerald Cave.

Catch a wave on Black’s Beach or La Jolla

San Diego has some of the best surfing breaks on the California Coast and the ideal surfing climate. If you’re an experienced surfer, you’ll love Black’s Beach, south of Torrey Pines State Reserve. The surf here is good all year round, with breaks in long, organized lines.

However, if you’ve always wanted to give it a go but never had the chance, now is the perfect opportunity. La Jolla Shores is the best beach in San Diego for learning to surf. It’s partially protected from the prevailing southwest wind, making it safer and gentler than other surf spots. 

You can book a surfing lesson at La Jolla, which caters to beginner and intermediate levels. Here in the calm waters, they’ll teach you the fundamentals of surfing in a fun and safe environment.

Shop in Seaport Village

Seaport Village is a popular waterfront shopping and dining complex right by San Diego Bay. The village also gives views of some famous San Diego sightseeing landmarks like the maritime USS Midway and Coronado Bridge.

Seaport Village has over 70 shops, galleries, and eateries between landscaped green spaces with picturesque water features like fountains and ponds. You’ll find a mix of chain and independent businesses, so there is something for everyone. The Carousel area also puts on live music every weekend afternoon, and there are often other events taking place, too.

Go hiking in Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

If you want to make time for some relaxation time in between all the excitement and fun, spend an afternoon at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. You’ll find this 2,000-acre coastal state park in La Jolla, and you can enjoy the wilderness oasis on the short hiking trails here. 

The Guy Fleming Trail is less than a mile long and features two scenic overlooks with 360-degree views of the state park and ocean. Alternatively, the short Beach Trail will take you along a rustic footpath in the Upper Reserve and then down a 300 feet descent to the beach.

If you’re traveling solo and don’t want to go hiking alone, you can join one of the guided hikes organized by the state park. Guided hikes occur at 10 AM every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from the visitor center. There are also special mindful walks at 8 AM, every 1st and 3rd Sunday of the month.

San Diego FAQs

When is the best time to visit San Diego?

You’ll find plenty of things to do and see in San Diego all year. However, the best time to visit is during the shoulder seasons; March to May and September to November. During spring and fall, there are fewer crowds and lower prices. The shoulder seasons also have the best weather, avoiding the hottest and rainiest months.

How many days do you need in San Diego?

Most people find that they need around 3 days to see all the sights of San Diego. One day is definitely too short for exploring the city center, let alone the surrounding neighborhoods. So it’s best to spend at least 3 days in San Diego (although you could easily stay for a week!)