Located along the coast of Southern California, San Diego is a vibrant and diverse community that combines laid-back beach vibes with a lively urban atmosphere. With 17 miles of coastline and nearly year-round sunshine, San Diego is a beach vacation filled with adventure, culture, and nightlife. Whether in the city with friends, on a family vacation, or traveling solo, things to do in San Diego, California, are plentiful!
Explore the iconic Balboa Park, home to museums, gardens, and the famous San Diego Zoo. Take a leisurely stroll along the vibrant Gaslamp Quarter, where you’ll find a lively mix of restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues. Enjoy the laid-back atmosphere of Pacific Beach or venture to La Jolla to witness breathtaking coastal views and explore the Birch Aquarium.
History buffs can visit Old Town San Diego, the birthplace of California, or explore the maritime heritage at the USS Midway Museum. And with its pleasant climate, San Diego provides ample opportunities for outdoor adventures such as surfing, hiking, and kayaking.
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular things to do in San Diego while on vacation!
1. USS Midway Museum
The USS Midway, commissioned in 1945, served as an aircraft carrier in the United States Navy for nearly 50 years. It was the longest-serving aircraft carrier of the 20th century and was decommissioned in 1992. Today, the USS Midway is a museum showcasing the rich history of the ship and its role in American naval aviation.
From the flight deck to the mess hall, this massive vessel has over 60 exhibits, including a collection of restored aircraft. You’ll want to give yourself at least 3 to 4 hours to appreciate this museum fully. However, one-hour guided tours and self-guided audio tours are also available.
2. Hotel del Coronado & Coronado Beach
Hotel del Coronado, a historic landmark in San Diego, has a rich and storied history dating back to its opening in 1888. It was one of the world’s largest resort hotels at that time and has hosted numerous notable guests, including presidents, royalty, and celebrities. The iconic hotel even served as the backdrop for the classic romantic comedy “Some Like It Hot” (1959), starring Marilyn Monroe.
Today, Hotel del Coronado continues to host guests, but if you’re only interested in visiting, historic, haunted, and self-guided audio tours are available. You can admire Victorian architecture, enjoy a meal, visit boutique shops, or enjoy Coronado Beach. Pro tip: skip the car and take the ferry to Coronado. It’s only a few bucks each way!
3. Belmont Park & Mission Beach
Belmont Park, situated along San Diego’s Mission Beach boardwalk, is a family-friendly amusement park with gorgeous ocean views. This historic park opened in 1925 and has a giant wooden roller coaster, bumper cars, laser tag, mini golf, a zipline, a rock wall, and many other rides and entertainment options. The park also hosts events, including live bands and weekend comedy nights, and has several beachfront restaurants. Fun fact: the Giant Dipper roller coaster is one of the oldest wooden roller coasters still in operation on the west coast.
Mission Beach itself is a great place to spend the day. You can enjoy the sun, sand, and surf, ride bikes or rollerblade down the boardwalk, play a game or two of beach volleyball, or grab a drink and a bite to eat while watching the sunset.
4. Balboa Park
Balboa Park, known as the cultural heart of San Diego, is an urban oasis filled with gardens, walking trails, museums, and theaters. The park has sixteen gorgeous gardens, including the Japanese Friendship Garden, the Botanical Building, and the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden, which has over 2,400 rose bushes! There are also fifteen museums and theaters in Balboa Park, such as the Comic-Con Museum, San Diego Air & Space Museum, and The Old Globe Theatre. Balboa Park is also great for picnics, shopping, and dining.
5. San Diego Zoo & Safari Park
The San Diego Zoo, located in Balboa Park, is one of the largest zoos in the world, with over 3,000 animals. From camels and cheetahs to elephants and grizzly bears, you and your family will thoroughly enjoy visiting the San Diego Zoo. To help you get around, the zoo has private cart tours, double-decker bus tours, a hop on hop off bus, and even the Skyfari aerial tram. If you’re interested in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, where you can enjoy a safari-like experience in the back of an open-air truck, you’ll need to travel about 45 minutes to an hour to Escondido, CA.
6. Historic Gaslamp Quarter (Downtown)
The historic Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego is a vibrant neighborhood with a lively mix of entertainment, dining, and nightlife. From trendy rooftop bars and upscale restaurants to beautiful Victorian architecture and art galleries, the Gaslamp Quarter offers cultural exploration by day and a fun night out come sunset. Explore boutique shops, visit the Gaslamp Museum, catch a show at the underground American Comedy Co., enjoy a drink at the bar, or hit the nightclubs for an evening of dancing. San Diego’s Gaslamp District is a great place for all tastes and interests.
7. Old Town
Old Town San Diego, known as the birthplace of California, offers a wealth of cultural and historical attractions. It was the site where the first European settlement in present-day California was established back in 1769. Old Town has the largest concentration of authentic adobe buildings in the state, which reflect the architectural style of the early Mexican and American periods.
Visit the State Historic Park, which features adobe structures, museums, and landmarks that showcase the area’s rich heritage. Then indulge in delicious Mexican cuisine at the many authentic restaurants and street food vendors. Experience live entertainment at one of the theaters or local events which feature mariachi bands and folkloric dance shows. Old Town San Diego offers a charming blend of history, culture, and culinary delights, providing visitors a captivating glimpse into California’s past.
8. Little Italy
San Diego’s Little Italy has a rich history that dates back to the late 19th century when Italian immigrants began settling in the area. Initially, it served as a fishing village, and over the years, it transformed into a charming community with Italian markets, restaurants, and businesses, preserving its cultural heritage and becoming a beloved neighborhood in San Diego.
Experience the lively energy of the Little Italy Mercato, a popular weekly farmer’s market. Browse stalls offering fresh produce, artisanal products, and flowers while listening to live music and sampling delicious food. Treat yourself to an exquisite culinary journey at the neighborhood’s authentic Italian restaurants. From cozy trattorias to upscale dining, you can savor Italian flavors like handmade pasta, wood-fired pizzas, and decadent desserts.
Explore the unique boutique and specialty stores, from boutiques to artisanal craft shops and gourmet food stores. Then discover the local art scene by visiting the numerous galleries and studios scattered throughout Little Italy. But before you leave, don’t forget to stop for gelato or a coffee!
9. La Jolla & La Jolla Cove
Known for its affluent coastal charm, beaches, shops, and restaurants, La Jolla is a popular neighborhood stretching 7 miles of coastline. Stroll along the picturesque La Jolla Cove, where you can witness breathtaking ocean views and even spot seals and sea lions basking in the sun, then kayak or scuba dive into the calm waters of the La Jolla Shores.
Delve into the art world at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, or indulge in a little retail therapy along Girard Avenue and Prospect Street, home to boutique shops, art galleries, and charming cafes. And if you’re looking for a family-friendly activity, stop by the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where you can explore the ocean’s wonders.
10. Pacific Beach
Stroll along the iconic Pacific Beach Boardwalk, where you can soak up the sun and enjoy breathtaking ocean views. Join the vibrant beach culture at Tourmaline Surfing Park, a surfing-only beach park. Explore the trendy shops, surf boutiques, and beach-themed bars along Garnet Avenue, where you can find unique souvenirs, beachwear, and delicious eats. As the sun sets, experience the lively nightlife scene with numerous bars, clubs, and restaurants offering live music, dancing, and delicious coastal cuisine.
11. Liberty Station
Liberty Station has a rich history dating back to its origins as the Naval Training Center (NTC) from 1923 to 1997, where up to 50,000 Navy recruits were trained yearly for its 60 years of operation. After the base closed, the area was repurposed into a vibrant mixed-use development. Blending historical architecture with contemporary amenities, the all-in-one hub features five districts: Arts District, The Quarter, The Neighborhood, South Point, and NTC Park.
At Liberty Station, you can browse artisanal food vendors and indulge in delectable bites ranging from gourmet sandwiches and international cuisines to freshly baked pastries and craft beverages. Explore the local craftsmanship by perusing the unique boutiques and specialty shops featuring handmade goods, jewelry, artwork, and home decor. Additionally, you can attend classes, live music performances, and special events.
12. Cabrillo National Monument
Cabrillo National Monument, located at the southern tip of the Point Loma Peninsula in San Diego, holds historical significance and offers a range of activities. The monument commemorates the landing of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese explorer, in 1542, marking the first recorded European landing on the West Coast of the United States.
Explore the Cabrillo Visitor Center, which provides insight into Cabrillo’s journey and the region’s history. The park features scenic coastal trails, offering panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, tide pools, and the iconic Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which has guided ships along the coast since 1855.
13. Sesame Place
Sesame Place is a beloved family-friendly amusement park offering fun and entertainment inspired by the beloved Sesame Street characters. This whimsical park brings the magic of Sesame Street to life with thrilling rides, engaging shows, and interactive experiences for children of all ages. Meet and greet your favorite characters like Elmo, Big Bird, and Cookie Monster, and enjoy live performances featuring singing, dancing, and puppetry. From exciting roller coasters and water slides to gentle rides and play areas, Sesame Place provides endless excitement and laughter.
14. SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego promises a captivating and educational experience for the whole family. As one of the premier marine parks in the world, SeaWorld offers a unique opportunity to get up close to marine life and learn about its conservation. Watch shows featuring incredible dolphins, majestic orcas, and playful sea lions showcasing their natural behaviors and intelligence.
Explore the exhibits and aquariums, where you can encounter a variety of marine species, from colorful tropical fish to graceful sea turtles. For thrill-seekers, exciting rides like the Manta roller coaster and the Journey to Atlantis water ride provide adrenaline-pumping adventures. Don’t miss the chance to feed and touch animals at interactive experiences like the Dolphin Encounter or the Explorer’s Reef.
This article originally appeared on Wander With Alex. Featured Photo Credit: [@welcomia/DepositPhotos]
Alexandrea Sumuel is a travel writer and the founder of Wander With Alex, where she provides vacationers and travel enthusiasts with trip ideas, travel guides, news, and itineraries. She travels to experience, eat, and explore-- and, on occasion, escape! Alex’s mission is to help people travel a little easier.