See also: Where to Stay in San Diego
Think of a never-ending coastline, sandy surfs and pervasive vacation vibes – San Diego in a nutshell. You’ll come for the beaches and laid-back community, and leave with a newfound love of its beautiful architectures and heritage center. Bask in glorious weather as you explore the finest America has to offer. San Diego is a cultural cluster and everyone pleaser.
Embarcadero: a harbor front for everyone
There is nothing more character-embracing than San Diego’s Embarcadero, a laidback harbor front that supplements views, eateries, historical vestiges and open-air entertainment. Families, couples and solo travelers alike will find a hoard of things to do, whether it is splashing about the interactive fountains of the Waterfront Park, or watching the sun set from a terraced restaurant. The iconic USS Midway is also moored at the Embarcadero, as well as the San Diego maritime Museum heritage ships. You can also board a tour boat for some whale spotting. Time your visit around summer or mid-fall to enjoy Bayside Summer Nights by the San Diego Symphony Orchestra and the San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival respectively.
Have fun in Mission Beach
Mission Beach has long grown to embrace the two-mile stretch of sand, boardwalk and nearby entertainments. Having established a party atmosphere come evening, it is mostly populated by young adults seeking freedom. From Belmont Park’s rollercoasters and various vintage amusements to simple boardwalk delights, such as playgrounds, surf shops and palm gardens, Mission Beach is an established recreational space. Let your hair down and go where the fun takes you!
Delve into Balboa Park
Imagine 1,200 acres bisected by the orange hues of Spanish Revival buildings, offsetting the greens of overflowing gardens and tan walkways. Like a city of forest-wrapped landmarks, Balboa Park sprawls in magnificent cultural collection, comprised of 17 museums, San Diego Zoo, themed gardens and event venues. Featuring astonishing treasures such as the Spreckels Organ (largest outdoor pipe organ in the world), a 1915 Botanical Building of over 2,000 plants, and butterfly haven Zoro Garden – it is a dynamic space worth pledging an entire day to. To spice up an otherwise tranquil respite, Balboa Park also hosts live shows in both outdoor and indoor venues.
Explore the San Diego Old Town
Wooden houses, giant-wheel barrows and dry plantation characterize the preserved streets of San Diego Old Town. Drawing on its roots as the first European settlement in California, this neighborhood features historic buildings from between 1820 and 1870. The State Historical Park is the center of these original and replicated adobes, an intersection of Mexican culture and present-day America. Brimming with specialty shops, artisans, small museums and authentic Mexican cuisine, you can expect a few hours of cultural immersion. Annual Cinco de Mayo and Día de Muertos are festivals not to be missed either!
Hit up La Jolla for seaside vibes
It is seaside luxe at La Jolla, an upscale community that mixes commercial fun with nature hotspots. Spend some time meandering through the European-styled streets with boutiques, cafés and low-tiered houses, and enjoy fine dining that offers coastal views. Or, take yourself to the shoreline and dip into the small coves and sea caves that intersperse La Jolla’s multiple sand strips. In particular, Ellen Browning Scripps Park comes alive in summer nights to bring you open-air concerts in balmy breezes. If that’s not enough nature for you, Torrey Pines State Reserve deserves an honorable mention.
Meander through the Gaslamp Quarter
Delve into the heart of San Diego and explore the historical Gaslamp Quarter on foot. A thrumming network of 94 historical buildings spanning 16 blocks, the plethora of must-capture architectures will keep you snapping away. Even the gateway arch that heralds this 1867 concept city center deserves attention; its bold script and teal backing is eye-catching. The Gaslamp Quarter also caters to foodies and partygoers, brimming with craft breweries, rooftop lounges, restaurants and sidewalk establishments. Experience the best of San Diego life here – it’s all about history, food and having a good time.
Take a wild ride in Belmont Park
If you’re at Mission Beach, you have to stop by the vintage Belmont Park. Built by a sugar magnate in 1925, it is the linchpin of the broadwalk. Composed of 12 rides, a mini golf course and miniscule entertainments, the amusement park is ride back in time. Take a spin on the Giant Dipper or rattle along the wooden rollercoaster, historical landmarks in their own right. Adrenaline junkies will shriek with glee on the Control Freak ride, Octotron and Beach Blaster. If you need to cool down, grab a character ice cream cone at the Sweet Shoppe before going another round.
All aboard the USS Midway Museum
We are all a little awed by mammoth constructs and the USS Midway moored at San Diego’s Embarcadero is a military giant (albeit retired). Commissioned in 1945 and permanently stationed since 2004, the world’s longest-serving aircraft carrier once served in the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm. Now, it is a museum that showcases behind-the-scenes of aircraft carriers and naval aviation. Comprising of 30 restored aircraft such as propeller planes and helicopters, its sights extends below deck in a tour of the galley, brig, engine room and other quarters. Be ready to run the simulators and watch footage of on-the-spot happenings – the Midway is full of exciting stories.
The congenial area of Little Italy
The neighborhood of Little Italy speaks for itself, a grove of Italian charm and table-to-mouth flavor. A stark blue and white signboard welcomes you to what were once lucrative tuna tanneries; they were operated by Italian immigrants until the 1980s. Today, the neighborhood exudes a homey, artistic ambiance, a mish-mash of galleries, quirky concept brands, pizzerias, breweries and bodegas. Restaurants and cafés extend out onto patios in friendly chatter, the community feel translating into a Saturday street market that takes over several blocks.
Learn the history behind the Cabrillo National Monument
Another icon of Point Loma, Cabrillo National Monument is a cast of the first European person to ever set foot on the West Coast. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first named the bay San Miguel upon his landing in 1542; it was changed to San Diego fifty years later. The original statue gifted by the Portuguese government has been replaced by a replica in 1988. To learn more about Cabrillo, scope out the adjacent visitor’s center which boasts exhibits and movies regarding his Californian adventures. Regardless of your interest in his person, the view from the monument stretches wide over San Diego’s skyline down to Tijuana – well worth a visit.
Fly high with the San Diego Air & Space Museum
If the rounded Streamline Moderne Ford Building doesn’t tip you off, the futuristic jet models poised outside sure would. The San Diego Air & Space Museum cycles through the evolution of human flight, presenting a timeline from the oldest ‘wing’ conceptualization to space vehicles of tomorrow. Take a close look at the Wright Brothers’ gliders, or first iteration planes like the Aeronca C-3 Collegian or Ryan STA. Keep going until you hit the sleeker Douglas A-4B Skyhawk or space-bound Boeing GPS-12 Satellite, and learn about how aerial technology has improved. Not ambitious enough? Hop into the flight simulators to test your piloting abilities.
Enjoy Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
Not tired of rough, sand-rock breaks yet? Drop by Sunset Cliffs Natural Park for more caves, natural arches and tide pools that make geography fun. Whether you’re drifting down Sunset Cliffs Boulevard by car or perched somewhere within park grounds, you’re guaranteed breathtaking hues as the sun sinks low into the sea.
One with the wild at San Diego Zoo
Ranked among the best zoos in the world, San Diego Zoo was founded by Harry M. Wegeforth to be one of the first cage-less animal habitat. Keeping as natural as possible, these open exhibits are generally sectioned by moats; it’s a considerably innovative design for its early 1900s conception. Take a guided tour bus around the enclosures and pay close attention to the gorilla-inhabited rainforest and free flight aviary. Alternatively, the Skyfari tramway is a cool way to tour the premises as well. San Diego Zoo is also one of the four American zoos to have Giant Pandas, so make it a point to watch these sleep-loving animals.
Grab a seat at Petco Park
Sporting stadiums are nothing new, but Petco Park brings an unusually chill vibe to the venue – entrance hemmed in by palm trees and water walls, it is a relatively modern but casual design of sandstone and steel. You’d almost not believe that it is a top-tier Major League Baseball stadium. Still, its marvels reveal themselves as you swerve within its walls to find not only regular games, but incredible views of San Diego’s skyline and over the bay. There’s also an entertainment zone geared for kids, and a Hall of Fame for diehard baseball fans.
Admire the collections in San Diego Museum of Art
A fitting resident of Balboa Park, the San Diego Museum of Art takes on a Spanish Renaissance façade to match with the rest. The stunning entrance takes inspiration from the Cathedral of Valladolid, ivory stonework intricately carved with motifs, statues and coat of arms. Housed within this 1926 building are paintings of Spanish Renaissance and Baroque style, featuring works of Goya, Veronese, El Greco, van Dyck and Rubens. Recent additions bring attention to Symbolist, Expressionist and New Objectivity art pieces, presenting a beautiful medley of celebrated works. Various film screenings and cocktail evenings round off its daytime highlights.
What else can you expect from 70 miles of open coast but an intense love for surfing? Try your hand at riding the waves or test your mettle against the locals if you’re more experienced; there are more than enough surf spots for you to choose the best fit. While La Jolla and Point Loma are outfitted with rockier outcrops and reef breaks, you can expect much of San Diego’s ocean front to be beach breaks. Drop by Oceanside or Del Mar for expansive surf grounds, or have a go at popular Swami.
Embrace nature at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Leave behind civilization for the rugged plains of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Some 2,000 acres of coast and plateau that redefine ‘pitted cliffs’, it unreservedly presents sweeping views of the Pacific coast. Wear your most comfortable shoes and set off through its eight miles of trails, some of which lead you to empty beaches and potential whale spotting. Named after the endangered Torrey Pine that grows in the area, there’s probably less greenery than you would expect. Nonetheless, it is a charming, un-touristy natural reserve.
Visit the Old Point Loma Lighthouse
Point Loma actually has more than just a lighthouse. This rock peninsula presents jagged cliffs and random shrubbery that opens up to some stunning views; it was also the landing point of the first European expedition in 1542. Its handy lookout position, which guards west of the harbor, drew military presence since the 19th century. It is no wonder then, apart from the simple Point Loma Lighthouse, the grounds of former coastal artillery station houses the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. Over a 100,000 graves and significant memorials are grounded here, marking it as a solemn but historically important landmark.
Hop on a San Diego Harbor Cruise
Take in San Diego at a distance by joining a San Diego Harbor Cruise. The hour long ride around San Diego Bay is a good introduction to the city’s various landmarks and heritage ships, some of which have been featured in popular culture. An experienced guide will layer in lessons on naval history amid some information on marine conservation efforts. You’ll also come close to San Diego-Coronado Bridge as well as the residents of the bay area, including wild pelicans, herons and sea lions.
Explore Liberty Station
We do love a good transformation! Formerly the Naval Training Center San Diego, the renamed Liberty Station has been redeveloped into a waterfront recreational space. Play areas and jogging trails lead into converted office, hotel, educational, retail and residential districts. Most notably, visitors flock towards the Arts District, South Point and the Quarter for a multitude of food choices. Liberty Station also houses the San Diego Art Gallery, Women’s Museum of California and various performance art companies.
Dig deep at San Diego National History Museum
Behind the smooth, beige Spanish Revival exterior is the oldest scientific institution in Southern California. Founded in 1874, the San Diego National History Museum itself can be considered a heritage site. Taking you through California’s rich pre-history through fossils, murals and dioramas, it further fosters interest via interactive stations. You can also learn more about ecosystems, delving in both coastal habitats and dry land; 2D and 3D screenings explore how oceans have transformed since the Ice Age. Special exhibitions gather excavation artifacts from San Diego sites; check the website for the newest findings.
Sunbathe on Coronado Beach
Why not take up two-in-one by traversing the great San Diego-Coronado Bridge for a day at Coronado Beach? Protected against Pacific swells by Point Loma, Coronado Beach is perfect for those hoping to swim the heat away or looking towards calm paddling. The long, glistening stretch has long attributed its shimmering quality to high mica content, luring in social media hopefuls in their summer jams. With the unique red, cone-shaped Hotel del Coronado in the background, the beach entices both visually and via simple comforts. Rent a pedal cart and cruise down Ocean Boulevard to take in its entirety.
Shopping time at Seaport Village
We won’t expound too much on the merits of shopping at Seaport Village, but it is a great place to pick up some souvenirs. Within walking distance of downtown, it is a quaint network of architectural potluck, from adobes to Victorian design. Help yourself to handicraft shops and bay-view restaurants, with a happy dose of live music during summer. Seaport Village is a prime alternative to mainstream shopping malls.
San Diego-Coronado Bridge up close
We may have mentioned the San Diego-Coronado Bridge a few times; it’s a vital courier path and integral piece of San Diego’s skyline. Built in 1969, Robert Mosher designed its curvature and specifications to fit the passage of aircraft carriers. While a harbor cruise will take you around the bridge area, sign up for a guided kayak tour to go under the bridge.
Stroll along Pacific Beach
With the youth clustering around Mission Beach, Pacific Beach has settled into tranquility. Foamy curls roll up the depth of the beach, its depth demonstrated by the Crystal Pier. Stroll to the end of the elevated platform to catch the wind in your hair, or edge along the water towards North Pacific Beach instead. Gentrified, the area is mostly encased with condos, holiday cottages and upmarket restaurants.
Touring the Mission San Diego de Alcala
The powdery white edifice and brick steps of Mission San Diego de Alcala loudly announce its dated conception in 1769. Witnessing many firsts, including the first Franciscan mission and Christian burial, it is a site weighted with religious history. In fact, the first Christian martyr Father Luis Jayme is laid to rest beneath the chancel. Join a daily tour of the compound to see the 15th century choir stalls, the remnant convento and the bells of the campanile. The Mission Museum is also of interest, showcasing pottery, weapons, tools and other archaeological finds that belonged to the Native American Kumeyaay tribe.
Birch Aquarium: a summary of Pacific Ocean
Maybe you’re not a deep sea diver, but why do you need to throw yourself in dark waters when Birch Aquarium brings the Ocean to you? Featuring marine life from the North West to the Indo-Pacific, it is perhaps best known for its 260,000 liter kelp forest tank. Birch Aquarium is great in keeping kids occupied, as they’ll have a blast trying to spot the fishes darting about coral reefs. The Tide-Pool Plaza is also a contender for top attraction, as visitors get close up to starfish, hermit crabs and more shell creatures.
Find space in the Fleet Science Center
Yet another beautiful building that houses an interesting attraction, the Fleet Science Center deserves a mention on your San Diego checklist. Science museum and planetarium combined, the permanent exhibitions take you from San Diego’s water system to outer space, only to land on the minute universe of nanotechnology. Its interactive displays are largely geared towards children, including a Little Learners’ Lab for shape and texture play. If you’re in Balboa Park, drop in for a brief visit.
Escape the city for Mission Trails Regional Park
Just pushing city limits, Mission Trails Regional Park is 5,800 acres of lush woodlands, canyons and wilderness. If your adventurer’s spirit is calling for some sweat and grime, take to the 60 miles of hiking trails. Even better, explore the natural preserve by bicycle or horse riding! For spectacular views over San Diego County, challenge the summit of Cowles Mountain at 486 meters high.
Indulge yourself at Liberty Public Market
Not much has to be said for Liberty Public Market, except that you need to experience it for yourself. As it is open all days of the week, you can plunge into the enticing arms of this urban central market. Help yourself to the fresh produce, quick bites, arts and crafts that pop up in this eclectic venue. Lobster rolls, fresh salads, juices, international street food all await for you to come and eat your day away.
Go whale watching
Kick off your whale watching trip after some time at the Embarcadero, bringing your adventure to the seas. Lasting up to four hours, these cruises are led by certified naturalists from the San Diego Natural History Museum so you can learn more about these massive visitors. Whale watching season is between December and April, when the California Gray Whale migrates to the warmer waters of Baja California from Northern Alaska. You might spot dolphins too, alongside harbor seals and sea lions. In the off chance that you don’t spot any of these extraordinary creatures, you’ll be gifted a free pass for another tour.