29 Suntastic Things to Do in San Diego
My family loves to visit San Diego, CA. We’ve been twice in the last two years and find that there is a huge variety of activities. We wan to share with you what to do in San Diego from its plentiful beaches and amusement parks to its hip and happening Gaslamp Quarter and natural areas like Balboa Park.
Oh, and combine that with some of the most perfect weather in the U.S., and you have a winning combination for families whether you’re visiting for a week or the weekend.
So if you’re looking for things to do in San Diego? I’ve got lots of ideas! Let me tell you more…
What to Do in San Diego: 29 Awesome Ideas
1. Get up Close to Sea Lions
It is crazy fun to just walk right up to a sea lion in the wild — and it’s free! While you’re supposed to stay 10 feet away, that’s still a pretty close encounter with these crazy creatures.
They hang out all over the cliffs in La Jolla Cove, and there are plenty of places where you can walk right out onto the rocks and have a look. We got a kick out of listening to them hoot and holler, bark loudly, step all over each other and lazily hang out in the sun. Five stars for kids!
2. Wander the Gaslamp Quarter
The Gaslamp Quarter is a trendy and bustling area of San Diego’s downtown. There are endless restaurants (try Brians 24 open 24 hours to please all ages and palates or Union Bar & Tap) with outdoor seating and live music and plenty of opportunities to find local craft beer.
You’ll also find comedy clubs, the historic Balboa Theatre, hip hotels like the Hard Rock, Petco Park where the San Diego Padres play, tons of nightlife options and the colorful outdoor five-story Horton Plaza Mall (which truly only works in a city with weather as great as as San Diego!).
3. Snorkel With Leopard Sharks
Do you love wildlife? Kids dying to see a shark? This is a safe way to get up close with sharks as they fill the waters off the coast of La Jolla (just north of San Diego) from July through September. According to Visit San Diego, these sharks are timid, docile and completely harmless.
Take a gander from the cliffs up high or you can get right out there and snorkel with them. Another option is to take a kayak tour like we did with Everyday California. Not only will you get to see the sharks by kayak — and some sea lions too — if conditions are right, you can paddle right into sea caves that sit along the coast. Uber cool!
4. Visit LEGOLAND California
If you have kids who enjoy Legos at all and have one who is at least 10 years old or younger, I highly recommend LEGOLAND California, which itself is just a mile from the ocean!
They have some fun rides — nothing too scary — and you can definitely get your LEGO nerd on. Don’t miss the Star Wars section where they have an iconic scene from every movie made out of LEGOs (truly amazing!) and the world’s largest LEGO model, the X-Wing Fighter; the model shop where you can see real LEGO masters building; and the new interactive LEGO NINJAGO ride.
Take advantage of the Southern California CityPASS to save significantly on tickets to LEGOLAND, as well as SeaWorld San Diego and Disneyland just a couple hours north in Anaheim.
5. Stay at the LEGOLAND California Hotel
Spend an overnight at the wonderfully-themed LEGOLAND California Hotel, which is literally just outside the doors of LEGOLAND and built for kids down to every little detail from the kid-size peep hole to the toilet training seat on every potty :).
I personally LOVED the “disco elevator” and on-property floor whoopee cushion (you’ll have to see for yourself).
6. Stay a Night at Hotel del Coronado
Coronado Island, just across San Diego Bay from the city, is an incredibly charming island and home to the iconic Hotel del Coronado, which though expensive, is worth staying for a night or two if you can swing it. You just can’t beat the old elevator complete with attendant!
Plus, it has its very own ghost story. The hotel is now part of Hilton’s portfolio, so you can use Hilton Honors points to book a stay.
7. Spend Time on Coronado Island
There is a beautiful beach on Coronado Island, which has been named one of America’s top beaches, and you might just come across Navy Seals in training like we did :). Certainly, you will see jets flying overhead. Our kids had a ball playing in the large waves and the adults enjoyed some beachside relaxation.
We also rented bikes from Pedels at Hotel del Coronado and rode around the island along San Diego Bay, enjoying gorgeous views. The houses are adorable and leave you wanting your own vacation beach home there — just bring a couple million dollars and you should be set!
Here are more family-friendly beaches in Southern California.
8. Stroll Through Balboa Park
Balboa Park is a wonderful respite right in the midst of the city. Full of gorgeous gardens, meditation ponds and museums, it can easily fill a day.
Great spots for families include the San Diego Air & Space Museum, San Diego Model Railroad Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art and San Diego Natural History Museum. The nation’s largest urban cultural park and ranked as one of the Best Parks in the World, Balboa Park is a must-see in San Diego.
9. Spend a Day at Pacific Beach
There are lots of great beaches around San Diego, many ideal for surfers with towering waves, including one of our favorites, Pacific Beach. Our kids spent plenty of time in the water, playing in very sizeable waves with body boards to ride them to shore. Pacific Beach, known as “P.B.” by locals, has the vibe of Venice Beach outside L.A., but is cleaner and more family-friendly.
Just north of San Diego is Orange County, which also offers many beautiful beaches. Surfers may want to check out Huntington Beach.
10. Stay Beachside at the Blue Sea Beach Hotel
We stayed at the Blue Sea Beach Hotel, a hip property right on the ocean that has been renovated inside and out with a midcentury modern flair.
Don’t miss the vintage arcade games that are free to play in the lobby, and it’s easy to rent beach chairs, boogie boards and beach towels right from the front desk!
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11. Spend Time in Charming La Jolla
La Jolla is just north of San Diego and one of our favorite spots in the area. It is a charming and an absolutely gorgeous seaside village mostly set on rocky cliffs, but with a few beaches set apart as you see in the picture above. However, plan on relaxing with sea lions by your side :).
This is a wonderful area to take a stroll along the sea and the cliffs, check out the local Italian restaurant and head out to kayak sea caves with Everyday California.
12. Make La Valencia Your Home in La Jolla
In La Jolla, we stayed at the romantic Mediterranean-themed La Valencia hotel with amazing ocean views, a fantastic pool for the kids and spacious rooms with fireplaces. Plus, it had truly one of the best showers we’ve ever experienced (who can argue with a great shower!?) and it’s right in the heart of town and just a few blocks from the water.
13. Stop by SeaWorld San Diego
I was SO impressed with seeing Shamu in person, and, as you can see above, you can “dine with Shamu,” which means you can sit right next to him while eating. He just plops right up on the platform!
We learned about all the great things SeaWorld does to help with the conservation of wildlife along the coast, and as best I can see, they are doing a great job. I think it’s important for people to learn about wildlife up close so that we have a vested interest in protecting these creatures.
SeaWorld also has some really outstanding thrill rides. I must have ridden the Manta roller coaster about a thousand times, because it was so much fun!
14. Score Freebies for Kids in October
Every October, more than 100 San Diego hotels, restaurants, attractions, museums and transportation companies offer special deals and discounts for kids. “Kids Free San Diego” lets families visit this beautiful city on the cheap and save on the many amazing things to do there.
Kids 11 and younger get FREE admission to the famous San Diego Zoo. At SeaWorld San Diego, one child age 3 to 9 is admitted free with a paying adult (don’t miss the opportunity to Dine With Shamu; see above picture). One child age 12 or younger can ride free on a bike or kayak rental from Bike and Kayak Tours Inc and the list goes on… See all the deals.
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15. Check Out Belmont Park in Mission Beach
If you’re looking for the classic California boardwalk amusement park experience, you’ll find it at Mission Beach’s Belmont Park. Mission Beach is another area just north of San Diego, and it sits both on the ocean and on Mission Bay, making it a water lover’s paradise. Mission Beach also happens to be the home of SeaWorld San Diego.
Belmont Park offers all the classic attractions you’d expect to find at a boardwalk park, like a wooden roller coaster, massive arcade, bumper cars, tilt-a-whirl and more. If you’re staying in Pacific Beach, just north of Mission Beach, you can even walk south along the ocean for about 30 minutes to get to the amusement park. 10,000 steps? Check!
16. Walk in a Sea Cave
In the La Jolla area of San Diego, you can literally walk down into a sea cave from, get this, the inside of a store! Step inside The Cave Store, and for $5 for adults and $3 for kids, you can head down the manmade tunnel carved out of the rock and stand inside the cave that looks out on the ocean.
Definitely a top activity for kids of all ages!
17. Hike Torrey Pines State Reserve
This state park near La Jolla offers uninterrupted natural views of San Diego and the Pacific Ocean from high above. Hike up from the beach if you’re looking for a more strenuous outing or drive your car up to the top to one several trailheads at Torrey Pines State Reserve that give you picturesque views of the cliffs and surf below. The cost is $10-$20 per car.
My family loves to hike, so we’re always looking for our options in the city we’re visiting. This is a great choice with fantastic views that is suitable for all ages.
18. Visit the San Diego Zoo
Always ranked among the best in the nation, the 100-year-old San Diego Zoo located in Balboa Park is a top family stop. See pandas, koalas, gorillas and more from atop a double-decker bus or from the air via the Skyfari to take in this 100-acre park filled with more than 4,000 animals.
Here is a great review of the San Diego Zoo from An Emerald City Life blog.
19. Eat in Little Italy
Another of my favorite areas of San Diego, at least when it comes to food, is Little Italy! After spending time in Italy, we find ourselves craving authentic Italian food, and San Diego ranks at the top of my list for some of the best options in its Little Italy neighborhood of downtown.
Next door to the Gaslamp Quarter, Little Italy is utterly charming with lights strung across the streets and block after block of Italian restaurants. There’s also a large weekly farmer’s market and all-the-time Italian markets where you can get imported olive oil, fresh pasta and more.
20. Cruise San Diego Bay
I always enjoy seeing a city from the water for a completely different viewpoint and perspective. A great way to see San Diego is from San Diego Bay, which runs right along downtown and across to Coronado Island.
You can rent a boat from Seaforth Boat Rentals and cruise around the bay. We enjoyed seeing sea lions on piers in the water, the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier (also in the bay) and the city skyline.
21. Get a History Lesson in Old Town San Diego
Learn about the beginnings of California at Old Town San Diego, the site of California’s first settlement in 1769 just a few minutes north of downtown.
There you can wander through historic buildings, including the Whaley House Museum (said to be one of the most haunted buildings in the U.S.); enjoy live Mexican music; eat at one of many restaurants; and watch craftsmen at work. Visit at night if you can when gas lamps and luminarias light the darkness.
22. Stroll Seaport Village
Just a few-minute stroll from the Convention Center downtown is San Diego’s Seaport Village, a charming Spanish-style village filled with a variety of restaurants and shops. While attending Comic Con, we took a break from the action and enjoyed a family walk in the San Diego sunshine down to Seaport Village.
In addition to 17 restaurants, kids can enjoy a ride on the 1895 carousel. There are also lots of unique stores like Alam Flag Store, Kite Flight kite shop, the Seaport Village Magic Shop and Mistletoe Christmas store.
23. Hang Out in a Cat Cafe
Cat Cafes are popular in Japan as a way to de-stress and relax from busy city life by playing with cats! San Diego has its very own Cat Cafe in the Marina district downtown where can sip a coffee and pet a furry friend :).
The cats in the cafe are rescues and may be adopted after hours. You will need to purchase a drink or snack in order to play with the kitties.
24. Experience Birch Aquarium
Part of UC San Diego, the Birch Aquarium, just north of La Jolla and San Diego, gives visitors a look at the region’s various sea animal and plant life, including seahorses, fish and kelp, as well as information about the university’s oceanography research.
There are more than 60 different habitats on display filled with a variety of fish. Plus, the facility is set high over San Diego, offering fabulous views of seashore and La Jolla cove.
25. Spruce Street Suspension Bridge
According to HiddenSanDiego.net, just north of downtown but south of the trendy Hillcrest neighborhood is an unexpected suspension bridge that crosses a canyon. Built to connect neighborhoods separated by the canyon, apparently the bridge sways quite a lot and is set high above, so beware!
26. Cabrillo National Monument
Did you know San Diego has a National Park? You’ll find it at Cabrillo National Monument at Point Loma, just a short drive from the airport or downtown. In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first European to visit the West Coast of the U.S., and the monument tells his story.
You can visit his statue and then explore the Old Point Loma Lighthouse built in 1854. Afterward, spend time exploring area tidepools looking for octopus and other sea creatures temporarily caught in the shallow pools. From this vantage point, you can also see whales in January and February.
27. Mt. Soledad National Memorial
At this fantastic site, not only can you honor American veterans, you can enjoy one of the best views of San Diego and the Pacific Ocean there is, as it is set at a high elevation in the city!
The Mt. Soledad Memorial features a stunning 27-foot cross and pays tribute to more than 3,500 veterans both living and dead from the Revolutionary War to current conflicts.
28. See a Desert
It’s hard to believe, but just east of the city is a desert! At Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, part of the California parks system, you’ll discover 600,000 acres of canyons and desert. There are a variety of trails from which to choose that range from an easy half-mile to 3 miles roundtrip. Or take the Erosion Road Driving Tour by car. Visit from late February through spring to see its beautiful display of wildflowers.
The park sits along the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs more than 2,600 miles from Mexico to Canada, passing through five California state parks. It’s also an International Dark Sky Park, meaning it’s a great place to see the stars without the light pollution of a city. The cost to enter is $10 per car.
29. Explore the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier
Step on a boat that is the size of a city at the USS Midway Museum in San Diego Bay, the area’s most popular family attraction. The longest-serving Navy aircraft carrier of the 20th century, the USS Midway gives you the opportunity to see what life was like aboard this massive vessel, touring crew sleeping quarters, its jail and post office, and lets you hear real pilot conversations from Desert Storm.
There are also lots of restored aircraft to see and two flight simulators that allow you to experience being a pilot.
Note: I received some complimentary or discounted accommodations and activities for some of the above in exchange for a fair and honest review.
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