Famous for its lovely climate, 70-mile shoreline, and cultural diversity, San Diego is the vibrant city where the state of California was born.
Named after a Spanish saint, San Diego was first colonized by the Spaniards in 1542 and declared part of the Mexican Empire in 1821.
The resulting Hispanic culture currently coexists beautifully with American culture, as well as with those from recent waves of immigrants, creating several historical and must-see places on top of the city’s natural scenery.
If you love tacos, tortillas, beaches, and a blend of various cultural identities, San Diego should be your next travel destination.
Here’s a list of the best things to do in San Diego, CA if you don’t know where to start.
1. USS Midway Museum
Now operating as a museum located in downtown San Diego, the USS Midway used to be an aircraft carrier in the 1900s.
It was the United States’ longest-serving naval aircraft carrier, having served from 1945 to 1992, and has seen over 200,000 sailors aboard during its time.
Since its opening as a museum in 2004, the USS Midway Museum has seen millions of visitors exploring the 60 carefully restored, interactive exhibits.
Over 700 events a year take place on board, some seen on TV.
In 2015, it was named the most popular naval warship museum in the country.
Experience life at sea during the 20th century.
Each admission allows you to see WWII-era aircraft, cabins, engine rooms, uniforms, laundry rooms, and even navy showers.
If you have headphones with you, take the self-guided audio tour narrated by real former sailors!
Four graduates from the University of California dreamed of founding an underwater restaurant in the 1960s.
Because this idea was deemed unfeasible, they decided to build a park instead.
SeaWorld began with only a few dolphins and sea lions, but in its first year, over 400,000 visitors loved their little park. The rest is history.
Don’t leave San Diego without forming new friendships with gentle animals at SeaWorld!
The aquariums, exhibits, fabulous shows, and memorable encounters at SeaWorld will make you realize just how valuable marine life is.
Explore SeaWorld’s well-maintained aquariums and watch walruses, beluga whales, penguins, sharks, turtles, orcas, and many other marine creatures happily swimming about.
There are also touch pools available, where you can pet bat rays, sturgeons, and shovelnose guitarfish.
There are also exciting performances to watch, brought to you by dolphins, sea lions, and orcas.
3. La Jolla Playhouse
Founded in 1947, La Jolla Playhouse is a professional theater that has since produced both original plays and classics and received numerous awards.
It’s easy to understand how La Jolla Playhouse won more than 300 honors.
All aspects of each performance at La Jolla Playhouse are top-notch — from the writing and acting to costumes and sets.
The venue itself is state-of-the-art, making special digital effects onstage possible.
Because the Playhouse aims to promote theater as a vital social, moral, and political platform, educational opportunities are offered to everyone interested in the art of performance and the creation of a performance.
It’s highly recommended to watch a show at La Jolla Playhouse when you’re vacationing to San Diego!
Check out their calendar for upcoming performances of the season as new shows are constantly produced.
4. Balboa Park
Packed with trails, gardens, museums, zoos, theaters, concert stages, and recreational facilities, it’s one of the biggest tourist attractions in the entire state of California.
Nature lovers can stroll through dozens of landscapes that include everything from lily ponds to zen gardens.
History buffs can take tours through museums, memorials, art houses, science centers, and cultural institutes.
Do you like culture? Someone is always hosting an open-air concert or theater production.
Do you like games? There are ballparks, bowling alleys, and remote-controlled racetracks.
There are even fun and unique places to visit like archery ranges!
And, there are so many cool places to see in Balboa Park that you might need to plan a second vacation just to experience it all.
It’s easily one of the best things to do in San Diego, California, so give yourself plenty of time to explore it!
5. San Diego Zoo
Dr. Harry M. Wegeforth, the founder of the Zoological Society of San Diego, was inspired by the exotic animal exhibitions at the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.
Unlike the exposition, however, Dr. Wegeforth was one of the early advocates for cageless exhibits.
The San Diego Zoo houses 3,500 animals representing over 650 species.
Its exhibits re-create natural habitats from around the world, ranging from an African rainforest and an Arctic tundra to an Australian Outback area, each featuring the native plant life of these habitats.
San Diego Zoo offers families the top things to do in San Diego with kids, with its world-class exhibits, rides, and fun, educational programs.
Meet elephants, polar bears, penguins, leopards, tigers, and many more at the zoo.
Aside from exciting animal encounters, San Diego Zoo also has an aerial tram, botanical garden, 4D theater, bird shows, play areas for kids, and several buses to show you around.
6. Balboa Park
The area that Balboa Park sits on used to be home to the indigenous Kumeyaay village, which soon became an 1835 Spanish park, and then an American city park in 1870.
It was named after the first European to cross Central America, Vasco Núñez de Balboa.
San Diego Zoo is actually located within the much larger Balboa Park, together with 16 museums, historic buildings, gardens, trails, theaters, restaurants, and a whole lot more.
Like Old Town, Balboa Park has the best cultural attractions in San Diego that you shouldn’t miss.
There is a lot of stuff to do in a 1,200-acre attraction.
Balboa Park has art museums, a natural history museum, a railroad museum, historic houses, gardens, a cultural center, and many other surprises.
You can also ride a miniature train around a portion of the park.
For extra fun, check out their site’s calendar to see special performances and events scheduled right this weekend or the next.
7. San Diego Air and Space Museum
Have you ever seen the planet from a bird’s eye view?
At the San Diego Air and Space Museum, it’s not just possible; it’s a standard feature.
This museum offers all kinds of pictures, videos, displays, exhibits, and models that celebrate the intersection of science and technology.
The halls are filled with reproductions of aircraft and spacecraft.
The galleries immortalize the names and faces of pilots, astronauts, engineers, and other important people in the field.
There are even interactive portals where you can watch a rover in action or snap a selfie in a space suit!
If you’ve ever watched The Martian and dreamed about having Matt Damon’s job, the San Diego Air and Space Museum is your chance to get up close and personal with the skies.
It’s easily one of the best places to visit in San Diego.
8. Lake Hodges
With an activity roster that includes everything from kayaking to barbecuing, Lake Hodges is one of the most fun places in California.
It’s about a half-hour drive from San Diego, so you’ll need to be okay with taking a detour, but escaping the city lights will be worth it.
You’ve never seen a glittering blanket of stars like this one.
The lake itself is a reservoir that stretches for more than 1,200 acres.
That translates to miles and miles of shoreline that can be used for boating, fishing, picnicking and more.
A concession stand offers snacks, and a bait and tackle shop has rentals and licenses for various activities.
There’s nothing like deep lungfuls of fresh, clean air to make you feel connected to nature.
At Lake Hodges, you’ll be absolutely dizzy with it.
It’s the best lake in the San Diego region for getting away from it all!
9. Little Italy
The immigration of thousands of Italian families to San Diego in the early 1900s gave birth to what once was a sleepy fishing community.
But through consistent hard work, San Diego’s Little Italy outlived many of the other Little Italies throughout the United States.
Travel to Italy just by visiting downtown San Diego!
This Little Italy is the heart of the most exquisite food and drinks today in the city.
You will love the harmony of Italian traditions converging with Italian modernity through the neighborhood’s eateries, streets, and architecture.
Savor the flavors of Italy by picking from among this neighborhood’s wide selection of restaurants.
For a classic, old-fashioned Italian dining experience, there’s Filippi’s Pizza Grotto, the long-time favorite of Italian locals in the area.
Because this is one of the most active neighborhoods downtowns, you can expect to witness festivals and events here now and then, such as Little Italy Carnevale, ArtWalk, Sicilian Festival, and Little Italy Festa.
10. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
With a name like “Sunset Cliffs,” you might expect this place to be amazing.
The good news is that you’d be right.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is one of the most gorgeous locations in San Diego, so it’ll make an unforgettable memory for you during your vacation.
The first step is actually getting there.
For the best views, you’ll need to hike to one of the clifftops to watch the sun sink behind the horizon.
You can also explore caves, caverns, and coastlines with amazing rock formations and colorful displays of nature and sea life.
One of the best tourist spots is an underground cave with an open ceiling where you can watch the clouds and stars drift by.
Another popular location is a bluff where you can go cliff diving into the water.
If you’re looking for fun things to do in San Diego at night, swing by Sunset Cliffs Natural Park.
It more than lives up to its name with its breathtaking summits.
If you’ve heard about Embarcadero more than once while planning your San Diego itinerary and don’t know what it means, the name is Spanish for “boarding place.”
Embarcadero is a terminal for ships located along the San Diego harbor on the east side of the San Diego Bay
If only San Diego’s Bay area can talk, it won’t run out of stories from this region’s rich maritime history.
From the expanse of the USS Midway Museum to the floating Maritime Museum, the Embarcadero has a lot to show you in terms of San Diego’s history and culture.
It is also the site of San Diego County Waterfront Park, a perfect place for you to unwind while the kids get busy with the modern playground and splash pads.
One day might not be enough to explore all of the Embarcadero.
Aside from seeing the exhibits at the huge maritime museums along the harbor, you can relax at the waterfront park, hop on a cruise ship, shop and dine at the Seaport Village, and witness seasonal festivals.
Expect bayfront views, surf shops, seafood, boardwalks, and a touch of Spanish architecture from the city’s colonial past.
12. San Elijo Lagoon
Coastal wetlands are disappearing from California, but the San Elijo Lagoon is one of the few remaining holdouts.
It’s fiercely protected by local environmental groups because of both its beauty and its biodiversity.
Visitors to the San Elijo Lagoon are encouraged to start at the nature center.
It was built with recyclable, sustainable materials and runs on solar power, so it gets a gold seal when it comes to eco-friendliness.
It’s filled with samples from the lagoon and artifacts from the Native American tribes who used to live on it.
When you’re ready to go outside, there are ample trails for walking and hiking.
They range in difficulty depending on their length, terrain, and elevation.
Some wind around the marshes and shrubs for miles; others are just short treks to see the birds.
The San Elijo Lagoon is proof that San Diego attractions don’t have to be razzle-dazzle to be awesome.
A quiet afternoon on the trails will be just as fun as some of the other things in the city!
13. San Diego Natural History Museum
This museum dates way back to the San Diego Society of Natural History in 1874, who later purchased the current lot in 1917.
Just like the San Diego Museum of Art, this is one of the interesting things you can find in Balboa Park.
There’s nothing wrong with being a science nerd!
The San Diego Natural History Museum shows you just why nature and the world are supposed to be compelling.
From colorful precious gems and minerals to eight million well-preserved specimens (some you can touch), the beauty and strangeness of nature will draw you into a rabbit hole of curiosity.
Travel back to the time of dinosaurs and see how the world has changed through the Natural History Museum’s millions of specimens on display.
If imagining the animal kingdom and natural environment indoors isn’t enough, the museum’s naturalists and volunteer guides can take you on an outdoor hiking adventure or whale-watching excursion.
14 Gaslamp Quarter
Gaslamp Quarter is what you can consider the sequel to the story of Old Town San Diego.
If you’re wondering why downtown San Diego isn’t located at the Old Town site, it’s because a newcomer in the 1860s, who happened to be a real estate developer, began to promote the development of the area now named Gaslamp Quarter.
Gaslamp Quarter is currently the birthplace and the heart of all activity of downtown San Diego.
Victorian buildings stand beside skyscrapers, all of them home to restaurants, inns, shops, galleries, and entertainment venues.
Explore trendy boutiques, international cuisines, symphony halls, art galleries, and nighttime entertainment at every turn as you make your way through the streets of Gaslamp Quarter.
Large, vibrant events like Mardi Gras, Street Scene Music Festival, Taste of Gaslamp, and ShamROCK all take place in this district too.
15. South Bay Drive-in Theatre
This drive-in theatre isn’t just a drive-in that longs to relive the yesteryears.
South Bay Drive-in Theatre really had its beginnings in the 1950s and was a backyard favorite among local kids and teens.
South Bay Drive-in Theater lets you experience the old-time drive-in theater that your parents romanticized.
If you’re worried about the equipment is outdated, the drive-in’s powerful stereo transmitters and Technalight projectors will prove you wrong.
Looking for things to do in San Diego tonight?
Hop on your car and drive to South Bay Drive-in Theatre for an old-fashioned drive-in movie.
If you can’t go without the traditional popcorn while watching the film, the drive-in has a snack bar full of candy, popcorn, and nachos!
Enjoy the rest of the night with a movie and excellent views of San Diego Bay.
16. Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave
If you’re pouring over a map of San Diego and wondering where to go, consider Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave.
Formerly a smuggler’s tunnel, it’s become one of the best-known attractions in the city for folks who like cool historical locations.
Your journey starts in a small, wood-shingled beach shop.
There are hundreds like it in California, but this one has a secret exit that will lead you down sandstone cliffs and into a sea cave.
The trip will be dark, wet, humid, and slippery.
There are stairs and rails, but they’re built directly into the caverns, and the tides wash over them quite often.
The danger is part of the appeal, however.
It truly looks and feels like the bootlegger’s passage that it used to be.
If you want to make some fun, lasting memories while you’re in San Diego, grab your flashlight and venture into Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave.
17. San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge
San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1999 to protect the endangered and threatened wildlife species in the area.
Sitting on 316 acres, the San Diego Bay Wildlife Refuge features the Sweetwater Marsh Unit and South San Diego Bay Unit, both working together to shelter animals and restore their habitats and have been successful in their efforts.
These refuge units boast salt marshes, eelgrass beds, mudflats, tidal flats, and various species of animals.
Hike, bike, and watch wildlife in their natural habitats.
San Diego Bay Wildlife Refuge offers you peaceful respite from the hustle and bustle of downtown.
As you discover San Diego’s spectacular natural terrain, you’ll spot shorebirds, waterfowl, savannah sparrows, sand bass, slough anchovies, green sea turtles, and light-footed clapper rails, and many other animals who call the state home.
18. Sugar Sweet Farm
Established in 2004 by a mother-and-daughter duo, Sugar Sweet Farm offers families one of the best fun things to do in San Diego, California.
Who would’ve thought doing yoga with goats jumping around you would be a thing?
And that’s not where the fun ends.
The farm is also home to happy, friendly llamas, horses, pigs, sheep, and a cow, so get ready for a lot of cuddles and giggles.
Stretch those limbs and try your best to concentrate on your chakras while goats snuggle up against you or kiss your toes!
After an hour of this hilarious yet refreshing session, stroll through the farm’s organic orchard and meet the friendly animals who love posing for pictures.
19. Coronado Ferry
The Coronado Ferry has been serving San Diego since 1915, making it the oldest working wooden ferry in the United States.
Broadway Pier is located at the scenic Embarcadero, where there’s already a lot going on.
But Broadway Pier is also where the ferry to Coronado leaves and arrives, making it a gateway for more of the best things to do in San Diego, CA.
See the entirety of the San Diego Bay for 15 minutes by taking the Coronado Ferry.
For an extremely low price, you’re entitled to the gorgeous views of San Diego’s skyline and access to a resort city within San Diego County, where you’ll be met with beaches, cafes, and shops.
20. San Diego Model Railroad Museum
You never really outgrow a childhood obsession with trains, and at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, you can embrace that fact.
It’s a place that you won’t find in a lot of travel guides, but as the largest museum of its kind in the entire world, it’s a valuable sightseeing location in California.
Model trains cover every inch of the space.
Some are miniature replicas of historic, real-life locomotives; others are imaginative toys built for kids that have colorful pieces and moving parts.
If you like learning about trains, there’s a reference library in the back of the museum, and it includes books, videos, manuals, blueprints, and antiquated footage that was saved from the ravages of time.
Visit the San Diego Model Railroad Museum if you’re looking for cool places to go that aren’t listed in every single brochure about San Diego.
Sometimes, the little-known spots can offer the best experiences.
21. Children’s Pool Beach
Are you looking for fun things to do in San Diego with kids?
You might like Children’s Pool Beach.
Originally commissioned as a place where children could swim without the danger of high waves, it quickly became a nesting spot for local seals.
They flocked to the area by the hundreds, and it actually became unsafe for kids to be in the water because of their bacteria.
If you visit Children’s Pool Beach this weekend, you’ll find that swimming is technically allowed but highly discouraged.
Kids still love it, however, because of the seals.
They dive, splash, call to each other, sunbathe on the rocks, and generally have the time of their lives in their adopted habitat, so it’s a sightseeing opportunity like none other.
If you love animals, Children’s Pool Beach is one of the best places to visit in San Diego.
It offers a zoo-like experience of getting close to wildlife, but it’s all-natural.
Your kids will be talking about this memory for years to come.
22. Mission Trails Regional Park
A hike in Mission Trails Regional Park is one of the best things to do in California.
The whole preserve spans more than 7,000 acres and depending on where you enter, you can see everything from bare, rocky cliffs to green fields bursting with life.
Outdoor enthusiasts will love the wide range of activities offered at the park.
You can walk on the trails or bike along the river; you can camp in the mountains or go picnicking in the plains.
There are even areas for horseback riding if you want to try some fun vacation activities that you can’t get at home.
The Mission Trails Regional Park is one of the most beautiful places to visit in San Diego, and since it’s open 365 days per day, you don’t even have to plan your trip around it.
It’ll always be there.
Just grab your hiking boots and go!
23. UTC Ice Sports Center
San Diego might be known for its sunshine, but there are plenty of places to go if you’re in the mood for something chillier.
One of these sites is the UTC Ice Sports Center.
Located in a shopping center, the UTC Ice Sports Center offers an indoor ice-skating rink for visitors of all ages.
Free skating is their popular pastime, but they also have shows, classes, hockey games, ice polo lessons and more.
Your skill level doesn’t matter.
You can be a complete beginner and still have fun.
They actually offer free classes if it’s your first time on the ice!
The UTC Ice Sports Center is a little piece of winter even during the blazing days of a California summer.
It’s one of the best things to do in San Diego when you’re tired of the heat, and thanks to its full rotation of shows, classes and lessons, you’ll never want for things to do.
Another bonus is that it’s located within a shopping center, so when you tire of skating, just put your regular shoes back on and hit the theater or the food court!
24. Red Fox Steakhouse and Piano Bar
Located in a single dimly-lit room with red walls and wooden furnishings, the Red Fox Steakhouse and Piano Bar is like a blast from the past.
It has the kind of rustic charm that defined old-school California architecture, so when you step through the doors, you half-expect to see miners or gold rushers kicking up their boots after a long day of work.
The menu, however, is thoroughly modern.
There are steaks and kebabs; there are crab legs, lobster tails and shrimp cocktails.
When you’re done with the main course, order some cheesecake or chocolate mousse pie for dessert!
Another fun thing about the restaurant is that it has a piano bar.
Several nights per week, you can enjoy live music from local musicians.
Some will even sell their music after the show if you want to take home a souvenir from San Diego.
The Red Fox Steakhouse and Piano Bar is a must-see while you’re in San Diego.
Not only does it have a one-of-a-kind atmosphere, but its steak is some of the best in the city.
You’ll definitely leave this place with a loosened belt!
Address: 2223 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92104, United States
25. San Diego Bay
Bursting with shops, resorts, restaurants, malls, and other hubs of events and activities, San Diego Bay is one of the most vibrant waterfront communities in California.
There are so many things to see and do that your neck will have a permanent crick as you try to look at everything all at once.
Are you hungry?
Grab a bite to eat at one of the many burger joints and shrimp shacks.
Are you restless?
Hit the water with a boat, kayak, yacht, or cruise ship.
Are you looking for a cultural experience?
Check out one of the floating museums or art galleries.
Depending on when you visit the city, you might also catch some spectacular annual events.
There are fireworks on the Fourth of July and a parade of holiday lights during Christmas.
Check the bay’s website to see if there’s anything happening this weekend!
If you’re wondering what to visit in San Diego, make time for San Diego Bay.
It’s a must-see for tourists, but even the locals have fun here.
26. California Tower
With the mountains to the east and the ocean to the west, the views from California Tower have to be seen to be believed.
Not only will you enjoy a stunning panorama of sky, air, land, and water that stretches in every direction, but you’ll get to do it from eight stories high.
Tours are available every day.
You reserve a ticket for a specific time, and a guide will take you up the tower while sharing facts and stories about everything that you pass on the ascent.
It takes about 40 minutes in total, and when you’re done, you’ll be at the eighth-floor observation deck.
You might also like the view from the ground.
The California Tower has an ornate and intricate design that combines features of Baroque, Plateresque, and Gothic architecture.
It’s the kind of landmark that you can admire from great distances as it looms over San Diego.
Do you like historic monuments?
Do you enjoy aerial views in 360° visibility?
Make the climb up the California Tower.
You won’t regret it.
Address: California Tower, 1350 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101, United States
27. Liberty Public Market
When asking people for recommendations on what to do during a trip to San Diego, they’ll probably mention Liberty Public Market.
It runs all day and every day, and it offers a staggering amount of goods from dozens and dozens of vendors.
Whether you’re looking for rare books, artisan cheeses, homemade jewelry or cheesy t-shirts saying “I Heart California,” you can find them here.
The market is housed in an old Navy building, so there’s an industrial feeling to the space even as you move among bouquets of fresh flowers and bread that are still warm from the oven.
You can drink and dine; you can shop ’til you drop.
Every corner holds a new opportunity, especially if you’re open to trying new foods or swapping stories with stall owners.
Expect a crowd.
Liberty Public Market is one of the major points of interest in San Diego, so there are always folks milling near and within it.
If you don’t mind a little hustle and bustle, however, Liberty Public Market is definitely one of the best stops in San Diego.
It’s the kind of iconic destination that you have to visit at least once!
Address: 2820 Historic Decatur Rd, San Diego, CA 92106, United States
28. Mormon Battalion Historic Site
The Mormon Battalion Historic Site was built in 1847 to honor the Mormons who served in the Army during the Mexican-American War.
Real-life Mormon missionaries will guide you around the historic site through an interactive video tour in each room.
Learn about the journey of the Mormon migration and battalion, particularly the struggles they experienced during the war.
Aside from watching the video clips in each exhibit that makeup one whole film, the Mormon Battalion Historic Site also offers demonstrations that everyone can take part in.
These include panning for gold, making bricks, posing for photographs the old-fashioned way, and many other unique activities that you can’t find anywhere else.
Best of all, these are all free of charge! If you’re after cheap yet quality destinations for the entire family, “pay” this site a visit!
29. Del Mar Thoroughbred Club
Located a few miles outside of San Diego, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club offers the latest and greatest in horse racing.
Spectators fill the seats in their finest fashion; gamblers are allowed to bet on more than a dozen races per day.
Its southern-style charm has been transported from Kentucky to California.
There are even kid-friendly days if you’re looking for San Diego attractions that the whole family can enjoy.
Though it’s primarily a place for adults, the racetrack has also been used for concerts, carnivals, food truck festivals, and more.
Are you feeling lucky?
California’s gambling laws can be complicated, but at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, everything is legal and regal.
It’s a high-class attraction for folks who are ready to hit a jackpot.
Address: 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd, Del Mar, CA 92014, United States
30. Petco Park
Petco Park is home to the San Diego Padres.
Opened in 2004, the stadium was built as part of a redevelopment plan of the aging downtown area of San Diego.
If you’re a fan of the Padres, by all means, watch them play!
At the time of its opening, Petco Park was also hailed as “the world’s best ballpark in America’s finest city” for its architectural concept.
Petco Park has hosted several baseball milestones and notable events since its opening.
You can watch rugby, tennis, motorsports, golf, basketball, football, ice hockey, and even concerts here.
If you’re an athlete or sports enthusiast, check the park’s schedule to catch the Padres’ spring training and regular-season games.
Guided tours are also available if you want a behind-the-scenes experience.
31. San Diego Zoo
La Jolla Cove is an iconic marine reserve located in the thriving La Jolla seaside community, well-loved by both locals and tourists during the summers and solo adventurers during the colder seasons.
Visitors flock over to La Jolla Cove for its natural features and rich marine life.
Surrounded by cliffs and picturesque greenery, the cove’s calm waters are famous for being home to sea kelp, dolphins, turtles, sea lions, caves, and canyon walls, all of which you can see for yourself!
Swim, snorkel, go scuba diving, and watch sunsets.
A popular activity in La Jolla Cove is observing the sea lions who love this beach.
If you go coastal walking to the north, you’ll find seven famous sea caves waiting to be explored.
La Jolla’s best restaurants are just a walk away from the beach.