San Diego, California, sits right on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, just across the border from Tijuana, Mexico. Southern California is crowded with beautiful beachside locales, but San Diego stands out thanks to its mild weather, amazing bays and coves, fabulous attractions, and laid-back atmosphere.
This city is filled with striking Spanish-style buildings, thanks to its proximity to Mexico. Meanwhile, it boasts world-class attractions like the stunning Balboa Park and impressive San Diego Zoo, alongside unique local museums and bustling shopping and dining districts.
San Diego has something to offer any visitor, whether you’re interested in surf and sand, arts and architecture, or wining and dining. With its incredibly stable climate, you’ll be able to visit any time – temperatures here rarely go above 77°F or below 50°F, meaning you’ll get balmy, T-shirt weather all year round.
With so many things to see and do, you might not know where to begin. So we’ve compiled our list of the absolute best things to do in San Diego for you. Stick to these fun and unique San Diego bucket list recommendations, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an amazing time exploring this amazing coastal city!
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15 Fun and Unique Things to do in San Diego, CA
1. Check out Balboa Park
We had to start the list with Balboa Park, one of the most well-known San Diego attractions. Spread across over 1,000 acres and home to the San Diego Zoo, several major museums, stages, associations, and gardens, Balboa Park is a must on your San Diego bucket list!
Established in 1868, this park was developed with close input from San Diego’s denizens over the past century. You’ll see many modern buildings throughout the park, scattered among hundred-year-old architectural marvels inspired by Indian Pueblo and Mayan designs.
There’s virtually nothing you can’t find at Balboa Park. Theatrical performances, one of the best zoos in North America, hiking trails, cultivated gardens, a sports complex, and museum exhibitions featuring airplanes, folk art, classic masterpieces, and model trains – we could go on!
A great way to spend the day would be to chart out a few places or events you want to check out in the park. Budget an extra hour (or more!) just to sightsee on the grounds, get a snack, and enjoy the environment.
2. Visit the San Diego Museum of Art
Established in 1915, The San Diego Museum of Art resides in beautiful Balboa Park and serves as the city’s primary repository for the fine arts and cultural education. Initially built in 1926, the museum has been renovated and expanded multiple times. The Spanish-Colonial architecture of the entrance renders it one of the most instantly iconic San Diego attractions.
You’ll find beautiful artwork even outside the museum, which features sculptures by great artists like Auguste Rodin, Joan Miró, and others. This open-air exhibition was curated with the aim of making great art freely available to the public.
Inside, you’ll find that the museum specializes in Spanish, “old master” paintings. Think Goya, El Greco, and Zurbarán. The museum’s international collections are also impressive, especially the Asian art holdings. You’ll also find classic works by Monet, Dalí, and Rivera, among many others.
3. Trek over Sunset Cliffs
This 68-acre park is aptly named for the beautiful sunsets and dramatic cliff faces you’ll see situated right on the western coastline of Point Loma. Between the coastal bluffs, carved-out sea caves, and ocean views in all directions, you’re sure to find a nook or point to settle down and enjoy the beauty of San Diego’s coast.
The Sunset Cliffs Park Trail is an easy trek if you’re looking for outdoor San Diego activities. Open year-round, it’ll only take you half an hour to go there and back. It’s definitely worth going for the scenic views. Plus, furry friends are welcome! (Pro tip: the trail will take you past a beautiful beach, so pack your swimsuit.)
Make sure to check out the tide pools, which are filled with marine life – you might get lucky and spot octopi, sea anemones, or huge crabs sunning themselves on the beach. Also, watch out for the surfers and migrating whales off the coast.
4. Eat, Drink, and Shop Your Way through the Gaslamp Quarter
If you’re looking for cool things to do in San Diego, this is one spot not to miss in downtown San Diego. The Gaslamp Quarter is perfect for every occasion, from happy hour to a bachelorette party to dining out with the whole family.
There are over 30 venues on the main strip alone. That includes cigar lounges, comedy dens, live music stages, bars and restaurants of every style and cuisine, and rooftops to look over it all.
In the daytime, Gaslamp is a great spot to shop – you’ll find everything from vintage jewelry to local boutiques to milliners. Stop by Chiefy Cafe for a quick sando and fantastic coffee, or go brunching at Cafe 21.
Come nightfall, you might find yourself sitting down for a fine seafood dinner at Lionfish or an upscale local restaurant like Huntress before grabbing drinks at local favorite The Tipsy Crow or the underground lounge Ginger’s. You can’t do wrong at the Gaslamp Quarter – let your stomach guide you!
5. Enjoy an Open-Air Concert at Spreckels Organ Pavilion
Spreckels Organ Pavilion, located in San Diego’s Balboa Park, is a stunning outdoor concert venue that features a magnificent pipe organ and hosts free concerts throughout the year. This is one of the best San Diego activities if you’re looking for budget-friendly things to do during your trip.
The pavilion, built in 1915, was a gift to the city of San Diego from John and Adolph Spreckels. The organ is one of the largest outdoor pipe organs in the world, boasting over 4,000 pipes.
Every Sunday afternoon, the pavilion hosts free concerts. You’ll be able to enjoy music from Bach to The Beatles while sitting in the stands, lounging on the lawn, or taking a stroll through the park.
From June to Labor Day, the San Diego International Summer Organ Festival starts up, and additional free concerts are offered on Mondays, making this an even better place to visit in the summer. If you’re seeking a musical escape in the heart of the city, the Spreckels Organ Pavilion is definitely one of the must-visit San Diego attractions.
6. Visit the Tigers at the San Diego Zoo
One of the best things to do in San Diego for all ages, the San Diego Zoo is often touted as the best zoo in North America, and it’s earned international acclaim. It houses one of the largest and most diverse collections of animals in the world, with over 3,700 creatures of more than 650 species.
This San Diego bucket list attraction spans over 100 acres and is divided into several regions, each representing fantastically different habitats, such as the African Plains, the Panda Canyon, and the Polar Bear Plunge.
You can explore the zoo on your own or on a guided tour. The tours offer up unique experiences like behind-the-scenes peeks at animal areas. Guides are knowledgeable and invested in animal conservation. The San Diego Zoo is well-known for its sustainability efforts and research programs, all aimed at protecting endangered species and their habitats.
This spot is definitely one of the must-do things in San Diego if you’re traveling with little ones, but it’s also a perfect place to have a unique date or celebrate a special occasion. Not only is the zoo packed with interesting creatures, but it’s a beautiful environment to wander around in for a day.
7. Get the City’s Best Views at Cabrillo National Monument
Cabrillo National Monument is a historic site established in 1913 to commemorate the arrival of Portuguese explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, the first European to set foot on what is now the West Coast of the United States in 1542.
When you visit the monument, you’ll have a special chance to explore the history and natural beauty of the area, with amazing views of the Pacific Ocean, the San Diego Bay, and the skyline. The park features a museum in a converted lighthouse, the highest point of the park that features exhibits on Cabrillo’s voyage and the history of San Diego.
Also in the park, you’ll find other well-known destinations, like Old Point Loma Lighthouse and the Cabrillo tide pools. Meanwhile, hiking trails will take you over the park’s coastal bluffs, offering up more private views of the bay. This park makes the perfect afternoon stop for all the history buffs, sightseers, and adventurers visiting San Diego.
8. Go Snorkeling at La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove is a picturesque beach located in the heart of San Diego’s La Jolla neighborhood. Surrounded by cliffs and featuring a sandy shore that meets the bay’s clear, blue water, it’s one of the most popular San Diego attractions for snorkelers, swimmers, and sunbathers of all stripes.
Keep an eye out for the marine life that frequents the cove, which includes sea lions, seals, and interesting fish. You might even go scuba diving into the kelp forests in the ecological reserve, where you might encounter dolphins, green turtles, and schools of fish.
There are plenty of restaurants and cafes in the surrounding area, so you’ll be able to grab some fresh seafood or peruse the many shops and galleries in the area for gifts. Stick around for the stunning sunset, dipping below the horizon over the Pacific Ocean.
While the cove features a relatively small beach, there’s a reason why it’s one of the most photographed spots in San Diego. You’ll really have to see it to believe it!
9. Try Barrel-Aged Beer at Societe Brewing Company
Societe Brewing Company was founded in 2012 and has since established itself as one of the city’s best. These independent brewers focus on pale ales that confidently step outside of the box.
If you’re looking for fun things to do in San Diego, the Old Town Taproom is located in one of San Diego’s most happening neighborhoods. Get fresh beer on tap with an almost-daily rotation, including rare finds like barrel-aged beers and seasonal specials. The vintage ambiance blends sophistication and casual charm.
Beer geeks will love the tasting room, located right in the brewhouse itself, where you can enjoy the freshest possible brews. And for patio season, make sure you check out the beer garden.
Whether you’re a longtime lover of craft beer or a newcomer to the scene, you’ll enjoy the unpretentious vibes of Societe Brewing Company, and you have plenty of options as to where to enjoy it.
10. View Amazing Works of Art at Mingei International Museum
Mingei International Museum is a truly unique cultural destination in San Diego. “Mingei” means “arts of the people,” which translates into the museum’s mission to feature art from international cultures across all eras.
The collection includes over 20,000 objects, including everything from ceramics, textiles, baskets, and woodcarvings to metalwork, glass, and paper arts. These art objects reflect the museum’s interest in useful, handmade things, embodiments of our daily lives, past and present. In addition to its permanent collection, the Mingei International Museum also presents rotating exhibitions, educational programs, and cultural events.
The Mingei International Museum is one of the most unique things to do in San Diego if you want to celebrate the beauty, craftsmanship, and cultural heritage of folk art from around the world. When you visit, you’ll be able to connect with the rich cultural traditions of societies near and far.
11. Shop Local at Cedros Avenue Design District
Located in Solana Beach, a coastal community just 30 minutes north of downtown San Diego, you’ll find the vaunted Cedros Avenue Design District. One of the coolest things to do in San Diego, this part of town is known for its curated boutiques and high-end galleries.
Home to over 85 restaurants, shops, and trendy boutiques, you’ll be able to find anything you’re looking for here: artful home decor, beautiful clothes, unique jewelry, or gifts and paper goods.
We recommend Bixby & Ball for your home needs. Meanwhile, woman-owned boutique SoLo stocks everything from art books to decor, and it’s the perfect place if you want to find something unique and thoughtfully sourced for yourself or someone else in your life.
After checking out the stores, you might want to unwind at the Carruth Cellars tasting room – great wines, fantastic service, and a great way to close out a day on Cedros.
12. Hit the Surf at Swami’s Reef
One of the most famous San Diego attractions among surfers, Swami’s Reef is a popular surfing spot in Encinitas. It’s named for Swami’s Beach, a cove located near the reef. The reef is famed for its high-quality surf, making it a popular destination for surfers from around the world.
Surfers will appreciate the consistent waves which are generated by a reef break. It’s an enjoyable place to surf, regardless of your skill level, and features a welcoming community overall.
Even if you’re not a surfer, there’s plenty to enjoy in the beautiful scenery around the reef and in the cove. You can enjoy the rolling hills, swaying palm trees, and the endless Pacific views. The reef has a peaceful atmosphere that separates it from other popular beaches in San Diego, like Moonlight or Ponto.
Both Swami’s Reef and Swami’s Cove are part of the San Elijo Lagoon, marking it as a protected habitat filled with plant and animal species that you can keep an eye out for on your visit.
13. Explore the Spanish Village Art Center
Spanish Village Art Center is a public arts center right in Balboa Park. It consists of over 35 artist studios and galleries showcasing local artists. Artists work in a variety of mediums, including painting, ceramics, photography, and jewelry. Each studio is unique, and artists are often out and about, so you can ask about their process and inquire about pieces you’re interested in.
Established in 1935, this center was first built for California Pacific International Exposition and has been serving the San Diego artistic community for over 80 years. You’ll find charming Spanish-style architecture and cultivated gardens, making this a relaxing place to spend an afternoon.
This is one of the must-do things in San Diego for art lovers, and if you’re interested in supporting local art communities, there’s no better place to do it.
14. Stargaze in Lake Hodges
Lake Hodges spreads out over 1,230 acres, and it’s one of the best San Diego attractions if you’re an outdoor enthusiast or a fan of water sports. You’ll find plenty to do on a day on the lake.
Hiking trails surround the lake, offering up scenic views of the water and the surrounding forest. If you’d prefer to get out on the water, you can bring or rent a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard. Take a moment to soak in the wildlife all around. You might see herons, egrets, ospreys, coyotes, or rabbits milling about the area.
At night, Lake Hodges turns into one of the best stargazing sites on the West Coast. For the best view, go on the night of the new moon, a few hours after sunset. Lake Hodges is an oasis in San Diego, the perfect place to escape and enjoy all the natural beauty that Southern California offers.
15. Enjoy Sustainable Seafood at Serẽa Restaurant
Located in the iconic Hotel del Coronado, Serẽa is one of the finest dining establishments in San Diego. One of the best things to do in San Diego for a special occasion, this seaside restaurant serves up sustainable seafood in a fusion of traditional and contemporary culinary styles.
Enjoy Charcoal Grilled Octopus or Local Halibut Ceviche as a starter. Delicious oysters, sashimi, and fresh fish entrees will round out your meal, and you can pair it all with a special selection from the wine menu. Even the dessert is special, with selections like the aptly named Pearl Diver compote and Message in a Bottle sundae.
The restaurant’s ambiance is warm and inviting, taking coastal comfort to the next level. You’ll even be able to see exactly what goes into making your meal in the open kitchen. The restaurant’s commitment to sustainable dining without compromising on service or quality makes it truly stand out in San Diego’s competitive restaurant scene.
There you have it! The 15 best things to do in San Diego. What’s your favorite thing to do in San Diego?
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