From hiking and breathtaking beaches to maritime museums, seafood and amusement parks, here are the best things to do in San Diego.
San Diego is a picture-perfect California town with a lot to offer.
It’s got gorgeous beaches and a laid-back vibe – along with year-long perfect weather.
Do yoga on the beach, munch on some fish tacos and join the boardwalk crowds to applaud the sunset. Or explore colonial and maritime history and wander through massive lush gardens.
San Diego is California’s second-largest city. But it doesn’t feel like it with its juniper-lined residential streets and quaint Old Town.
San Diego has something for everyone.
Here are the best things to do in San Diego:
1. USS Midway Museum
The USS Midway is an aircraft carrier transformed into a floating museum with a 4-acre flight deck packed with restored aircraft.
Explore 60 different exhibits and 29 restored aircraft (including fighter jets and rescue helicopters) that have served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm. Volunteer military veterans give you an insider’s look at life aboard an aircraft carrier.
Tour the crew’s sleeping quarters, the engine room and the ship’s control room at this family-friendly museum. The flight simulators and interactive exhibits are especially popular with kids. The can climb into the cockpits and watch documentaries about the carrier’s history.
The USS Midway is the US Navy’s longest-serving aircraft carrier of the 20th century. It’s hosted some 225,000 sailors in its lifetime.
Self-guided audio tours are available with narration by former sailors.
2. La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove is a cliff-lined beach famous for its frolicing sea lions, rich marine life and labyrinths of caves perfect for snorkeling and kayaking.
Swim with the seals and immerse yourself in their landscape surrounded by caves and pristine waters. Or just watch the sea lions frolicking on the rocks and lounging in the sun. But beware: they do smell very fishy.
The site is an ecologically protected area that’s home to some very diverse wildlife.
And it’s also excellent for snorkelers of all levels. You’ll see marine life from starfish to leopard sharks. Hire a guide and snorkel in the sea caves or go kayaking through the labyrinth of coves and caves.
Catch the leopard shark season (from June to October) and snorkel alongside these magnificent but harmless creatures as they descend on La Jolla to mate and lay eggs.
Or catch an unforgettable sunset. There are grassy lawns atop the cliffs with stunning ocean views – arrive early to grab a parking space. Locals bring fold-out chairs and picnic on the grass or read novels along the rocks.
Head to downtown La Jolla for upscale shopping, niche boutiques, art galleries and ocean-view restaurants. Browse photos and paintings of La Jolla by local artists and stroll the rows of shops with the wide ocean just below.
3. Balboa Park
This 1,200-acre (486-hectare) lush wonderland is packed with gardens, Spanish Revival architecture and thousands of exotic plants and orchids.
There’s also a wide array of museums, gardens, theaters and restaurants right inside the park – you could easily spend days exploring Balboa Park.
Start at the iconic Botanical Building and its luscious facade. Inside there’s a collection of more than 2,100 plants including some stunning orchids.
Stroll through the grounds and explore the rose garden, the cactus garden and the Japanese-style garden. There are also lots of hiking trails and beautiful landscaping that includes everything from Zen gardens to lily ponds.
Don’t miss the Spreckels Organ Pavilion – the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ.
And if you’re travelling with kids, they’ll love the San Diego Air & Space Museum and the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. There are also ballparks, bowling alleys and remote-controlled racetracks to keep them entertained.
Balboa Park also houses some of the city’s best art museums, including the San Diego Museum of Art and the Museum of Photographic Arts.
4. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
This natural wonder offers breathtaking views of the ocean and its rugged, unspoilt wilderness.
The reserve sits on a plateau surrounded by sandstone cliffs and unforgettable views of the Pacific below.
It’s home to 3,000 endangered Torrey Pines, which only grow in California. And it features 8 miles of trails, wild beaches and gardens that are every nature-lover’s dream.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve boasts 1,750 acres of protected oceanfront land that offer a glimpse of the California coast before it was settled. You’ll see salt marshes, waterfowl refuges, sandstone ravines and badlands all along the winding trails.
And there’s even a nude beach for adults.
Come in spring to revel in the fields of blooming wildflowers. Or spot some gray and blue whales from the cliffs during migration season.
Hike the Guy Fleming Trail (.7 miles) for two gorgeous ocean overlooks. Or try the longer Razor Point Trail (1.4 miles) for a look at the reserve’s geological features.
5. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
With stunning ocean views, geological marvels, caves and tide pools, Sunset Cliffs is a nature lover’s dream.
Hike the rustic trails for breathtaking Pacific views, catch a magnificent sunset from a clifftop or kayak to meet the dolphins and seals. You can even spot some gray whales from December to April.
This gorgeous natural park boasts 3 miles of trails with sandstone cliffs and spectacular views. You can also explore some incredible rock formations, caves and caverns with their intriguing marine life.
There are numerous trails right alongside the ocean through the unspoilt greenery and rustic landscape.
And the sunsets are arguably some of the most stunning in the city – so arrive early to grab a spot, and bring a sweater as it gets chilly in the evening.
6. Birch Aquarium
Perched on a bluff overlooking the ocean, Birch Aquarium showcases hundreds of incredible creatures and marine life from across the world.
The aquarium, at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, includes sharks, sea turtles and starfish. There are exhibits that showcase more than 60 different habitats.
Don’t miss the interactive tide pool with starfish and lobsters and a Giant 260,000-litre Kelp Forest.
The immense Hall of Fishes has exhibits on habitats from the frigid seas to the tropics. There’s also a very popular rescued loggerhead turtle and one of the world’s largest sea dragon habitats.
And don’t miss the haunting exhibit on the effects of climate change.
7. Cabrillo National Monument and Point Loma
Point Loma has incredible views, hiking trails and a historic lighthouse perched on a cliff with magnificent views of the San Diego Bay.
The Cabrillo National Monument, honoring the first European explorer in Californian, offers sweeping views of the ocean and the naval base below. On a clear day you can even make out the distant mountains of Tijuana.
The deep blue waters below are criss-crossed by graceful sailboats and framed with lush greenery. It’s one of the most breathtaking – and underrated – views in the city.
Hike the 2.5-mile round-trip Bayside Trail (which ends right at the water) to explore this unforgettable landscape.
And stop at the restored Old Point Loma Lighthouse – the highest-elevated lighthouse in the U.S. – perched atop a 121-meter cliff.
Built in 1855, the lighthouse is now a museum with exhibits that showcase the former living quarters of the lighthouse keepers. These rugged guards grew their own vegetables and fired shotguns on foggy nights to warn ships away from the rocks.
8. Old Town San Diego
Dating back to 1769, this historic district features old adobe homes, local handicrafts and some incredible Mexican food.
Old Town San Diego is the site of California’s first European settlements. It includes the beautiful San Diego Mission and lots of art galleries and local artisan shops. It’s a must-see in San Diego for any history buff.
Old-time craftsmen like blacksmiths and jewelers do historic demonstrations of their crafts.
The charming streets and Spanish-style buildings are a pleasure to explore. And this part of San Diego also boasts some incredible street food and some of the best Mexican restaurants in the city.
And the neighbourhood really knows how to put on a celebration. Visit in May to experience the Cinco de Mayo festivities or in December for the Fiesta Navidad.
9. Pacific Beach
Pacific Beach is a local favorite for its lively boardwalk, gorgeous coastline and buzzing nightlife.
Grab some tacos from a local eatery and head to the pier to watch the sunset. Shop for some fun souvenirs along Mission Blvd. and watch surfers ride the morning waves. Stay for the night for upscale dinner along the water or a bar-hop along the sidestreets.
Pacific Beach boasts 3.7 kilometers of boardwalk lined with hip cafes and shops selling flip-flops and surfboard-shaped magnets. Ocean Front Walk and Ocean Blvd. are lined with small but gorgeous homes full of potted succulents and dreamy balcony views.
Mission Blvd. is the main artery lined with restaurants, surf shops, bars and hotels.
Walk towards the mansion-topped cliffs and climb up the staircases for spectacular, sweeping views of the ocean.
Pacific Beach has some of the best nightlife in the city. Head to Garnet and Grand Avenue for the bars and clubs popular with locals and university students.
And don’t miss Taco Tuesdays at Pacific Beach for tequila shots and great Mexican food along Garnet. It’s popular among students but the crowd is diverse depending on the eatery.
Head to Cabo Cantina for the best tacos and to Pacific Beach AleHouse for a more laid-back vibe.
10. Maritime Museum of San Diego
The Maritime Museum boasts one of the world’s finest collections of submarines and historic vessels – and hands-on exhibits about maritime history and exploration.
Climb aboard the ships, docked right on the water, to explore the lives of old-time sailors and explorers.
The collection includes the spectacular Star of India, the world’s oldest active sailing ship, with a history as long as the piles of ropes on her deck. This full-rigged ship braved a mutiny and a collision on her voyages to India. Then it spent more than a decade taking emigrants from Europe to New Zealand.
And don’t miss the HMS Surprise, a replica of an 18th-century Royal Navy frigate. It was build in 1970 and famously used in films like Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean.
You can even book a sailing adventure aboard this vessel, which was lovingly built by master craftsmen and volunteers.
There’s also the Soviet B-39 submarine that once carried 24 torpedoes – a favorite with kids. And don’t miss the Steam Ferry Berkeley. It brought thousands of survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to safety.
The exhibits inside the vessels transport you back in time. They include old maps and instruments used in the discovery of new waters. And they offer an inside look at the cramped quarters of fishermen who one lived below deck.
The hands-on exhibits and friendly staff makes this museum one of the best things to do in San Diego with kids.
Where to stay in San Diego
San Diego has some stunning hotels with dreamy swimming pools and Pacific views.
The Bahia Resort Hotel is one of the best in the city with views of the ocean and tropical gardens. And it’s just a short walk to Mission Beach. The San Diego Mission Bay Resort is great for families. There are dive-in movies, sailing lessons and waterfront fine dining for the adults.
Where to eat in San Diego
San Diego excels at Mexican food, especially fish tacos – from waterfront snack stands to Michelin-starred restaurants like The Taco Stand and Oscars Mexican Seafood.
Head to Dockside 1953 for all the American classics and plenty of vegetarian options. They’re right at the Bahia Resort and have some incredible waterfront views of the bay and the sailboats. Or try the Oceana Coastal Kitchen for California cuisine and a gorgeous bayfront view.