Blake Walsh

15 Best Things to Do in San Diego County, CA

  • Published 2023/03/20

San Diego County in California is America’s fifth most populous county.

It has the eighth-most populous city in the United States; the county also has more than three million people.

San Diego County comprises a large metropolitan area that includes San Diego City, Chula-Vista, and Carlsbad.

In contrast, the remaining area includes small coastal cities/towns and villages.

Whether you’re a solo traveler or a family on vacation, consider yourself lucky; this county has something for everyone.

You’ll find everything from coastal hills, fantastic beaches, amusement parks, famous markets, top-notch restaurants and clubs, and thriving nightlife.

Besides, you’ll see Presidio Park, Barona Cultural Center & Museum, Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial, and the stunning view of Coronado Bridge.

Here’s a list of the best things to do in San Diego County, California, to make your exploration of this place worth remembering.

Spot Exotic Wildlife in San Diego Zoo

Entrance to San Diego Zoo

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The San Diego Zoo deserves a special mention for its uniqueness in terms of the diversity of wildlife it harbors and the variety of activities it hosts throughout the year.

As one of the largest zoos in the world, it shelters more than 4,000 animals belonging to more than 600 rare species.

It also has massive botanical collections representing more than 70,000 exotic plants grown in different parts of the world.

Flamingos at San Diego Zoo

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Spread across an area of 100 acres. It draws millions of tourists every year.

It allows them to see exotic animals and their behaviors as they roam freely, as they did in their natural habitats.

The San Diego Zoo is one of the first zoos in the world that recreated specific natural environments for each type of animal so that they can roam freely in open-air enclosures.

Penguins at San Diego Zoo

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Have Fun at Balboa Park

Casa de Balboa at Balboa Park

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Spanning 1000 acres, Balboa Park is a sophisticated recreational hotspot in San Diego.

It has theatres, buildings of international cultural associations, houses and museums, walking trails, gardens, and open grounds.

Some of the park’s significant museums are The Nat: Natural History Museum, the Comic-Con Museum, the Fleet Science Center, the House of Pacific, the Japanese Friendship Garden, and the Centro Cultural de Lo Raza.

Another museum that deserves a special mention is the Museum of Us, whose displays tell stories of the Maya traditions and culture.

Bell tower at Balboa Park

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Take a tour of the iconic California Tower, a historic landmark of San Diego that narrates the origins and histories of Balboa Park and other nearby settlements.

If you are a nature lover, count yourself lucky, as Balboa Park is abundant in natural beauty.

Visit the Palm Canyon, a tropical oasis with more than 450 palms, a butterfly garden named Zoro garden, and several pathways.

A garden at Balboa Park

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Soak up the Sun at La Jolla Coast & Beaches

Sunny day at La Jolla Coast

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La Jolla Coast & Beaches is famous for surfing and comprises vast stretches of golden flat sand shores and sea cliffs.

It is an ideal destination for spending quality time with family or indulging in some water adventures alone.

People usually flock here for sunbathing, and families come with their kids to see the variety of marine habitats this coastline offers.

Tourists visit a deep water bay bordered by sea caves and reef rocks.

You can go scuba diving, snorkeling, or snorkeling, watching beautiful sea creatures like the orange Garibaldi fish, etc.

A sea lion at La Jolla Coast

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You may also bump into a sea lion or seal on the beach while walking or jogging on the beaches.

Don’t miss out on learning to surf at La Jolla Beaches.

It provides a quintessential South Californian surfing experience.

Likewise, it is relatively safe since lifeguards stay around all the time.

Once you’re done surfing, you may swim on La Jolla Beaches like Black’s, Shell, Boomer, and Windsea.

Aerial view of La Jolla Coast

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Visit Old Town San Diego

Signage of Old Town San Diego

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Known to be the birthplace of California, Old Town San Diego is the most popular tourist destination in San Diego County.

It features Native American culture and Mexican heritage.

Old Town San Diego is a colorful town with a colorful past embodying a suburban feel.

Tourists travel back in time and explore an incredibly diverse range of experiences there.

Head straight to the Old Town San Diego Historical Park in San Diego to witness the colonial history of San Diego.

Buildings at Old Town San Diego

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It is a living example of the county’s past, culture, and life from 1820 to 1870, when the town transitioned from Mexican to American rule.

Built in 1986, this park is a museum exhibiting preserved structures from that era.

The park also contains the San Diego Presidio, built in 1769 by Spanish settlers.

Likewise, you can visit the Colorado House, which used to be a famous hotel, the First Brick Courthouse, the Schoolhouse, and the Mommon Battalion Historic Site.

Small square of Old Town San Diego

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You’ll also come across historic buildings like San Diego Avenue and the Casa de Estudillo.

The Casa portrays the lifestyle of a prominent San Diego family through its 13 rooms and displays belonging to the 16th to 20th century period.

Also, don’t forget the first theatre and County Courthouse of San Diego, dating back to 1856.

Check out the Whale House Museum, formerly the home of the Whaley family but is now an officially designated haunted house in California.

Market of Old Town San Diego

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Featuring numerous fancy shops selling souvenirs and period furniture to ornaments, jewelry, and clothing, Old Town is also a popular shopping hub in California.

Different markets like Bazar del Mundo and Santa Fe abound in the district.

You’ll find numerous restaurants serving the best Mexican and American cuisines here.

Street performances and celebrations like Dia de Los Muertos, Fiesta Navidad celebrations, and Cinco de Mayo will be an additional treat.

Check Out the Del Mar Farmers’ Market

Explore the Del Mar Farmers’ Market in Del Mar Village.

This market is known for its meat, seafood, and international cuisine.

Grab fresh produce, antipasti, or cheese from the market; otherwise, enjoy street food and delicacies while lounging on the beach.

Enjoy the sophisticated small-town vibes at the Del Mar Farmers’ Market in the scenic Del Mar Village.

Many Hollywood stars enjoy the village for its pristine beaches, sandstone canyons, open beachfront playgrounds, and favorable weather.

Hike the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Aerial view of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

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Towards the California Coast lies a 1750-acre-long wild stretch of sandstone canyons and pine trees, the Torrey Pines State Natural Preserve.

This park preserves the endangered pine forests growing on a typical Californian desert landscape and the surrounding wildlife, including one of the greatest salt marshes in America.

Desert patches contrasted with pine greenery and the pristine blue sea at Torrey Pines State Natural reserve make it one of the prettiest natural attraction sites in the country.

Hikers at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

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You can spend hours sitting on one of the rugged cliffs or walking the trails while taking in the picturesque views of the Pacific Ocean.

The Torrey Pines State Natural Preserve also has an Underground Ecological Reserve and the widely known Torrey Pines Golf Course you must explore.

Sandstones at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

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Chill at Embarcadero

Benches along Embarcadero

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Along the downtown’s western edge is the Embarcadero, a waterfront park with a waterfront boardwalk hugging the San Diego Bay.

It also has a museum dedicated to the country’s maritime history and many eateries.

Laze around at the Seaport Village while enjoying the incredible harbor views, or shop around until your legs tire.

Then, you might want to dine at a fine restaurant at the Headquarters at Seaport.

A trail at Embarcadero

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Visiting the USS Midway Museum, the oldest-serving aircraft exhibiting maritime displays, is a must for every tourist traveling to San Diego.

After visiting the USS Midway Museum, go to the Maritime Museum of San Diego, a floating museum exhibiting many historic ships, including the 150-year-old “Star of India” and the Greatest General Collection showcasing historic military artworks.

If you’re lucky, you might find some event at the San Diego Symphony or a cruise event, especially the whale-watching adventure.

If you plan to spend an entire day at Embarcadero, you must hop on a cruise and explore San Diego bay.

Enjoy Italian Food at Little Italy

Entrance arch of Little Italy

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Little Italy is the busiest neighborhood in San Diego County and is filled with cultured shops and Italian cafes, world-class restaurants, sophisticated hotels, and art galleries.

It was home to Italian people whose livelihood depended upon the sea and was an important center for the thriving tuna industry.

Now, it is the prime dining hub in San Diego, with internationally renowned chefs opening their eateries.

Buildings at Little Italy

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You’ll find many good Italian restaurants and bars on Indian Street, like the classic Fillipi’s Pizza Grotto, Mona Lisa Italian Foods, and Little Italy Food Hall.

The famous Piazza della Famiglia and well-known Italian markets are at the heart of this neighborhood.

The piazza della famiglia at Little Italy

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Join a Safari with San Diego Zoo Safari Ride

Escondido is an old city in San Diego County with a rich historical and cultural legacy situated at the foothills of North Inland.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park is a prime attraction in Escondido.

It has thrilling caravans, carts, and a safari ride where you can see animals like antelopes, giraffes, rhinos, and more.

Bring your family to San Diego Zoo Safari Park for a wildlife adventure.

It’s an experience you will never forget.

Watch Beautiful Sunsets at the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

Daytime view of Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

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The Sunset Cliffs Natural Park spreads across 63 acres along the Pacific Ocean and flanks the western coastal edge of Point Loma.

Full of sea caves, sandstone cliffs dating from the Cretaceous period, and coastal bluffs, this landscape is one of its kind.

While in San Diego, spare an afternoon to watch beautiful sunsets and gaze over the stunning ocean vistas.

Gorgeous sunset at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

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The cliffs are 300-400 feet tall, the sandy cliff-top trail stretches for about a mile, and you’ll have to take the stairs to the beach.

It gets crowded when California’s gray whales migrate from the Bering Sea to Baja California and back, and you can spot them from the cliffs.

People at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

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Soak up the Sun at the Coronado Island Beaches

Sunny day at Glorietta Bay Beach

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Coronado Island lets you soak up the sun in San Diego County.

Check out white sand beaches like Glorietta Bay Beach, the Ferry Landing Marketplace, and Coronado Central Beach.

Make the most of your visit to Coronado Island.

Beach umbrellas at Coronado Central Beach

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Ride a Segway or a bike around the island and enjoy its mesmerizing seaside views.

Have a great time at Coronado Island beaches!

People at Coronado Central Beach

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Explore Cabrillo National Monument

Daytime view of Cabrillo National Monument

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Towards the farthest end of the Point Loma neighborhood in San Diego County lies the Cabrillo National Monument, the only National Park in San Diego.

Established in 1913 and named after Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, this museum commemorates Cabrillo’s achievements.

Cabrillo reached San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542, marking the first European expedition to the USA.

Signage of Cabrillo National Monument

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The exhibits tell the story of San Diego’s early days to the city’s contribution to WWI and WWII.

As one of the highest lighthouses in America, the 19th-century Old Point Loma Lighthouse still draws tourists even though it’s abandoned.

The tide pool area is famous for watching whales in the bay’s waters, and the entire peninsula is full of hilly sunset-watching viewpoints and rugged hikes bordering the bay.

Close view of Cabrillo National Monument

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See the Stunning Carlsbad Flower Fields

Scenic view of Carlsbad Flower Fields

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Carlsbad Flower Fields is Southern California’s most unique attraction, with millions of gorgeous ranunculus flowers spread across 50 acres on a pretty hillside overlooking the Carslbald’s coastline.

These flower fields at the Carlsbad ranch also serve as venues for live music performances, theatre performances, and events.

Close view of Carlsbad Flower Fields' vibrant flowers

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Catch the Girl Scout Days, Bloomin’ Yoga & Tea in the Garden, and the food truck treats from Carlsbad’s Strawberry Shacks.

During spring, when rows of colorful flowers are in full bloom, the northern hills of San Diego County present a spectacle of unmatchable beauty.

People at Carlsbad Flower Fields

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Go Surfing at Swami’s Beach

Surfers at Swami's Beach

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Encinitas is a beautiful beach city with much more than just beach activities.

This city has some gorgeous beaches in San Diego, which are exceptionally popular for surfing, including Swami’s Beach.

Named after Swami Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, the beach is home to the organization’s buildings, gardens, and open fields.

The ashram’s Meditation Center is on the beach.

The waters of Swami's Beach

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Go there early in the morning to do some yoga with other people visiting the hermitage and seeking spiritual bliss.

When the sun goes up, you can surf in one of the beach’s many surfing spots.

You can also take surfing lessons from nearby surfing schools.

Swami’s Beach is terrific for surfing throughout the year, but winter is the best for seeing big waves.

Surfing at Swami's Beach

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Explore Mount Helix Park

Gorgeous views from Mount Helix Park

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Just 9 miles from downtown San Diego is the beautiful Californian city of La Mesa.

It is one of the most sought-after residential suburbs in San Diego County.

Hike a bit to reach Mount Helix Park and enjoy a panoramic view of San Diego County.

Cross memorial at Mount Helix Park

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Walk the Yawkey Trail to discover the different flora and fauna in this part of the country.

Explore the city by walking, leading you to some historical landmarks.

Explore the outdoors at Mount Helix Park!

Steps trail at Mount Helix Park

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Final Thoughts

If you want to spend more time in San Diego County, you can cruise or surf while exploring more beaches.

Stop daydreaming about it and discover the best things to do in San Diego County, California!

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