America’s Finest City is the bedrock of sunshine, blue skies, and fun in California. What makes San Diego so great (and one of the reasons why I’ve lived here for 25 years) is that the city has so much to offer. Whether you’re an artist, outdoor enthusiast, or simply need to be by the beach, there are a myriad of things to do. Even in 25 years I still have yet to experience everything San Diego has to offer.
I'm often asked what are some free and cheap things to do in San Diego, so I thought I'd share my top 20 favorite activities:
1. Enjoy a stroll or have a picnic in Balboa ParkThis 1,200 acre oasis is the cultural heart and soul of downtown San Diego. You can visit art galleries, sit and people watch around the water fountain, or spread out a blanket and enjoy a picnic in the lush grass. If you have kids, there’s also a playground close to the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.
If you’re a San Diego resident, Balboa Park museums offer Residents Free Tuesday. If you’re a visitor, the Timken Museum of Art is always free. I also love strolling through the Botanical Building and watching the koi fish swim around in the lily pond in front of the building. Nature lovers will enjoy the Zoro Garden where butterflies come to visit. Art lovers will want to check out the Spanish Village Art Center which is right across the way from the Natural History Museum.
2. Seaport VillageThis is home to many unique shops and restaurants right by the marina in downtown. Enjoy a cup of coffee and a pastry in the Upstart Crow Bookstore, kids can ride the historic carousel, or take a stroll along the waterfront. The recent addition to Seaport Village includes many more restaurants and shopping options. Oh, and since you’re in the area, take the elevator up to the Top of the Hyatt where you can take in spectacular panoramic views of downtown San Diego and the Bay. (There’s also a bar and lounge up there that opens at 3 pm if you fancy yourself a drink, but it’s not cheap.)
3. Ferry ride from downtown San Diego to CoronadoTake a scenic 15 minute trip across the bay to the island of Coronado. The Coronado ferry landing has restaurants, eateries, and quaint little shops. You can take a bike on the ferry for free and ride along the scenic bike path that goes around the bay. Stop by the Coronado Tidelands Park and enjoy a picnic or take Instagram-worthy photos of the Coronado bridge. Ferry tickets are $4.75 each way and can be purchased at the docks. View the schedule here.
4. Hiking at Torrey Pines or Cowles MountainThe hiking enthusiast will discover Heaven in one of the many hiking trails in San Diego. Torrey Pines and Cowles Mountain are two of my favorites. Torrey Pines State Reserve has quite a few trails with outstanding views of the beach and ocean, but can get crowded on the weekends. The locals enjoy Cowles Mountain, which is about a 20 minute drive east of downtown San Diego. The trail can be quite rigorous, so proper hiking shoes and a bottle of water is highly recommended. Cowles Mountain is a 1,593-foot summit, which is the highest point in the city of San Diego. On a clear day you can take in views of the city in the distance, plus a nice view of Lake Murray across the way. Speaking of...
5. Family fun at Lake MurrayIf hiking isn’t your thing, but you do enjoy outdoor activities, take a walk around Lake Murray in Mission Trails Park. There is a wide, paved trail (6 miles total) for walkers, joggers, and bicyclists. It’s a large reservoir that’s home to beautiful wild flowers and many ducks and geese, so bring your stale crackers or bread to feed them. You can also rent a paddle boat for $15 per hour or a kayak for $10 (single)/$12 (double) per hour.
6. Take a drive to JulianLocated on the outskirts of San Diego, the small mountain town of Julian will take you back in time. It’s famous for mouth-watering apple pies and a great place to get away from the hectic energy of the city. Explore gold mines, go wine tasting, or browse through some of the one-of-a-kind shops. My favorite place to eat is the Julian Cafe, which has an old western saloon vibe.
7. Stroll through Old TownThis historic area is just a hop, skip, and a jump from the hotels in Mission Valley or a short trolley ride from downtown. Enjoy a tasty lunch at one of the many traditional Mexican restaurants or taco shops, visit the historic sites, or enjoy looking at handmade goods from local artisans during the weekend Harney Street Market.
8. Stroll through the historic gaslamp districtWhat I love about downtown San Diego is that it’s a city with a small town feel. Many of the buildings in the gaslamp quarter still have the architecture from the 1800’s and early 1900’s. Fifth Avenue is the main drag, which is lined with a plethora of shops, bars, restaurants. Right next to Horton Plaza Mall is the newly renovated Horton Plaza Park where you can people watch and enjoy a cup of coffee at the Starbucks pavilion.
Most of the restaurants in downtown offer happy hour deals including my favorite sports bar, Whiskey Girl, which has a variety of $5 happy hour food options. I also love Cafe 21 for farm-to-table food, plus they have a fantastic $6 happy hour menu. If you’re a real foodie, you may want to schedule your trip during restaurant week so you can take advantage of high-end restaurants at budget-friendly prices.
9. Chill out at one of the many sun-kissed beachesOf course, an article about free things to do in San Diego wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention the beaches, and there are certainly plenty of them. Most of the tourists visit Mission Beach or Pacific Beach, but if big crowds aren’t your thing you may want to head to where the locals hang out including Silver Strand Beach in Coronado (includes RV parking), Marine Street Beach in La Jolla, or Black’s Beach in La Jolla. FYI: Black’s Beach is a nude beach, so if you don’t mind people walking around in their birthday suits, then you’ll be just fine.
10. Enjoy a sunset at Sunset CliffsTechnically, you can view a beautiful sunset from just about anywhere along the coast in San Diego, but Sunset Cliffs in particular is picturesque and romantic. There are a few small parking lots that overlook the cliffs, so you can relax in the car and take in the setting sun or walk down the cliffs during low tide and get up close and personal with the large crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean.
11. Visit the sea lions at La Jolla CoveThe cove is a very small beach tucked away in the cliffs. You’ll often see sea lions sun bathing along the shore or along the cliffs, but don’t get too close because they may snap at you. Actually, some of the sea lions are so used to having humans around that they don’t mind you taking a selfie with them. There’s also a small park where you can chill out on the grass and take in the saltwater air.
12. Feel the zen at Meditation GardensLocated at the Self-Realization Fellowship in Encinitas, the meditation gardens is your place to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It is the perfect place to decompress and really take in the chill California vibe. Stop and smell the flowers, sit and watch the koi fish, or sit on a bench and meditate.
13. Take a drive down the famous Pacific Coast HighwayTechnically, PCH starts in Orange County and runs North along the coast. South of Orange County it’s referred to as CA Highway 1, which takes you through San Clemente and sleepy beach towns like Carlsbad and Solana Beach. You’ll encounter multi-million dollar homes and stunning views of the coasts. Drive down right before sunset for an even more visually breathtaking treat.
14. Visit a Farmer’s marketSan Diego is full of farmer’s markets, but my favorite one is located in the Little Italy area of downtown. The market is open on Saturday from 8AM-2PM with tons of vendors offering everything from fresh organic produce and food to local handcrafted items. After the market you can enjoy a tasty lunch in one of the many restaurants or small eateries lined up along India Street.
15. Waterfront ParkA hop, skip, and jump away from the Little Italy area is this newly built park located just across the street from the marina. If you have kids or feel like being a kid for the day, there is a big playground including a mini rock climbing wall, plus many water fountains for frolicing around on a warm day.
16. Belmont ParkIt definitely isn’t anything like the roller coasters at Magic Mountain, but if you fancy yourself a little thrill ride, perhaps the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster by the beach will do the trick. Belmont Park also has an arcade and a host of other smaller theme park rides. It’s free to enter and you can pay for each individual ride ($3-$6).
17. Go on a walk around the Sweetwater Reservoir Trail or Rohr ParkIf you’re the outdoorsy type who likes walking or hiking along dirt roads or being one with nature, you’ll enjoy these trails in the ‘burbs. The Rohr Park jogging trail (5K or 3.3 miles) goes around a small lake full of ducks and geese, golf course, and baseball/soccer fields. Occasionally you’ll run into someone on horseback, so make sure to watch out for horse manure!
The Sweetwater Reservoir Trail is right next to Rohr Park, which is a low-key, less-traveled trail that offers a zenful hiking experience. The area is home to quite a few equestrian estates, so horse lovers will
18. Cabrillo National MonumentThe site honors Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a navigator and explorer who landed on San Diego Bay in 1542. Enjoy a spectacular bird’s eye view of San Diego and explore the old lighthouse that was built in 1885, which is now a small museum.
19. Enjoy a walk down Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach or the less crowded Ocean Beach PierThere’s nothing like a nice, leisurely stroll down the pier after dinner on a warm summer day. Feel the cool breeze, take a few selfies for postcards, and be one with the ocean.
20. Carlsbad Flower FieldsThis is heaven for flower lovers and a spring tradition for many locals. Behold the most colorful display of flowers stretching over 45 acres. Take a 15-20 minute wagon ride around the fields or explore on your own, but make sure to wear comfortable walking shoes. Please also note that the fields are only open from early March to May each year. Prices: Adults: $14.00 Seniors 60+: $13.00 Children 3-10 yrs.: $7.00 Children 2 yrs. & under: Free. Daytrippen shares a tip on how to see the flowers for free.
What are your favorite things to do in San Diego?