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The 20 best things to do in San Diego

Visiting sunny beaches, eating delicious Mexican food and petting zoo animals are among the best things to do in San Diego

Written by
Jonathan Thompson
,
Sarah Medina
&
Kai Oliver-Kurtin
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As the country's eighth-largest city, San Diego isn't the sleepy beach town many once thought of as Los Angeles' laidback neighbor. While there's still plenty of surfers and Navy servicemembers to be seen here, San Diego is an international mega-region stretching from Imperial Beach to Oceanside. Come here for the beaches but stay for the culture. 

Whether it's Comic-Con that brings you to town, San Diego Beer Week, a triathalon or just a beach getaway, take time to enjoy some of the best things to do in San Diego while you're here, from many of the best beaches in California to the world's most renowned zoo. And if you're toting along kids, you'll be happy to know that San Diego doubles as one of America’s top family-friendly destinations with no shortage of delicious, family-friendly restaurants, iconic amusement parks, cuddly pandas(!) and tons of parks and picnic spots, too.

For the 21+ crowd, it’s also a craft brewery and nightlife mecca. While fish tacos may be the most sought-after dish in San Diego, it's the craft beer industry that has solidified the city's nickname as "The Capital of Craft" with its more than 150 craft breweries. Combining the two is highly recommended! 

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Find out more about how Time Out selects the very best things to do all over the world.

Best things to do in San Diego

  • Attractions
  • Park Laurel

No visit to San Diego is complete without taking in Balboa Park. The sprawling 1,200-acre public park is home to The Old Globe theatre, a gargantuan outdoor pipe organ, a cluster of international houses representing 32 cultures, and no less than 15 major museums. You could easily spend an entire day strolling through the lush gardens and peeping historic architecture, and since you have an awful lot of ground to cover, it's worth signing up for a segway or walking tour to see it all.

  • Attractions
  • Park Laurel

Within the vast, verdant Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo is home to an astonishing amount of wild animals, from big cats to komodo dragons. And there's a pretty solid reason why it's described as one of the best zoos in the world. The San Diego Zoo pioneered the concept of open-air, cageless exhibits to recreate more natural animal habitats, and remains one of the few zoos outside of China to house Giant Pandas. You can also partake in one of the animal experiences and fulfill your dream of becoming a keeper for the day, or enjoy a sunrise stroll where you'll see everything that happens before the park officially opens to the public.

Make the journey to its sister property, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, to get even closer to the bigger African and Asian animals.

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  • Hotels
  • Tent City
  • price 4 of 4

Famous for its peaked red roof, classic Victorian architecture and serene ocean vistas, Hotel del Coronado is an iconic San Diego landmark that puts on an legendary Sunday brunch in its Crown Room overlooking the ocean. Enjoy a Socal Benedict (the classic you know and love upgraded with avocado and braised kale) while you soak up a little of the resort’s glamorous history. This was once the playground of Hollywood’s biggest stars, on-screen and off: The hotel was the backdrop for the gender-swapping hijinks of Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot.

  • Attractions
  • Mission Beach

The thrilling centerpiece of this vintage amusement park in Mission Beach is called the Giant Dipper – and it's a national, historic landmark in its own right. Why? Because the construction of this incredible wooden roller coaster dates back to 1925, the so-called "Golden Age" of wooden coasters, but it can still be ridden today thanks to a $2 million restoration. For just $7 per person you can ride its famous dips and turns (at 48 mph!) while you take in beautiful views of neighboring Mission Bay and the Pacific Ocean (if you keep your eyes open, that is).

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Dubbed the “jewel of Southern California,” La Jolla is a curiously quaint Mediterranean-style village just a few minutes drive from downtownbut feels like you’ve accidentally taken the exit for Greece or Italy. There’s plenty to keep you entertained here, including some of the city’s finest restaurants like Nine-Ten in the Grande Colonial Hotel. Don't miss the nearby Legends Gallery, which boasts a nice collection of artwork by former La Jolla resident Dr. Seuss, or the Instagram-friendly La Jolla Cove, where you’ll almost always find groups of seals and sea lions.

  • Sports and fitness
  • La Jolla Shores

Enjoy a bird’s-eye view of San Diego’s exceptional Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve by swooping serenely overhead in a paraglider. Torrey Pines Gliderport is home to one of the most successful paragliding schools in North America, and flight experiences start from $175 ($165 if paying with cash). You’ll be strapped to a qualified pilot so there’s nothing to worry about except enjoying the sweeping ocean views of the 2,000-acre reserve, its numerous hiking trails and sandstone cliffs beneath you.

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Home to the San Diego Padres MLB team, Petco Park baseball stadium is located smack-dab in the middle of downtown San Diego, and it's a great family-friendly destination to watch America's favorite pastime. Sure, hot dogs and light beer are par the course here, but some of San Diego's top restaurants also have food stalls within the stadium for a high-end culinary experience. And there's no shortage of craft beer options, so it's also a great chance to try different local brews. Depending on the game, tickets can be found for as low as $18, and from certain seats you can even spot the ocean or catch a sunset. 

Music fans have flocked to San Diego’s live venues for years to discover local bands like Jason Mraz, Iron Butterfly and Blink 182 before they broke onto the mainstream. The Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach is renowned for breaking the latest hip-hop, jazz and reggae acts. There's also an on-site bistro, Tavern (temporarily closed), where you can refuel on a huge range of delicious bites, from truffle fries and blackened salmon to street tacos and key lime pie.

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  • Museums
  • Greater San Diego

The monumental USS Midway was the longest-serving aircraft carrier in US Navy history when it was decommissioned in 1992. Now the feted ship—the size of a floating city—is a maritime museum open to the public, berthed along San Diego Bay in downtown. Climb aboard for a fascinating insight into what naval life is really like, courtesy of a self-guided audio tour narrated by some (refreshingly honest) former Midway sailors. Plus, if you've got young ones who love being onboard, you can find activities for little skippers.

You’re tantalizingly close to the border, but you don’t need to cross it for some seriously authentic Mexican food. Beeline for the Barrio Logan neighborhood, the epicenter of San Diego’s Hispanic community, for lunch or dinner. The city’s freshest handmade tortillas can be sourced at Las Cuatro Milpas, an unassuming eatery with lines often extending around the block. For dessert, stroll to nearby Panchitas Bakery, which holds legendary status among San Diegans for its homemade Mexican pastries and steaming hot chocolate.

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The Whaley House in San Diego’s Old Town is one of only two officially designated haunted houses in California (yes, official!). Built in 1857, on the town’s former gallows’ site, the house was once home to the wealthy but troubled Whaley family—and rumor has it that various members of the clan never left. Other ghosts said to haunt the house include a grand larcenist who fought ferociously to keep himself alive at the gallows.

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Pretty much every local has an opinion on the best fish taco in town, but one definite standout would be Oscars, a traditional Mexican seafood joint with three locations around the city. You might have to stand in line but trust us, the ‘taco especial’ (shrimp or smoked fish with cabbage, onion, tomato, cilantro and cheese) is well worth the wait. Just thinking about it has our mouths watering.

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  • Things to do
  • La Jolla

With an impressive 70 miles of coastline, San Diego is a surfer’s dream. The most famous spot is Swami’s Reef in Encinitas, which achieved legendary status courtesy of the Beach Boys’ classic 1963 hit “Surfin’ USA.” Turn up the volume and drive down to watch the action—but don’t attempt Swami’s yourself unless you’re an experienced surfer. If you’re a novice but keen to try the sport, visit Surf Diva in La Jolla, the world’s first all-woman surf school, for a private lesson.

  • Nightlife
  • Greater San Diego

As the alluringly charismatic and historic heart of downtown San Diego, the 16-and-a-half-block Gaslamp Quarter blends Victorian charm with a 21st-century entertainment, shopping and nightlife scene. Impressively, the Gaslamp Quarter recently celebrated its 150th anniversary. As the former site of San Diego's red light district in the 19th century, the area has been revitalized over the last 20 years and is now home to more than 100 retail stores.

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To get a feel for the real San Diego, do as the locals do: Grab your reusable bag and head for the Little Italy Mercato Farmers’ Market, where you'll discover an array of beautiful, fresh, local produce and straight-outta-the-ocean seafood. There's also live music and made-to-order food. If you can't make this one, farmers’ markets take place every day of the week, with more than 20 held across the city every weekend. For a complete schedule, visit the San Diego Farm Bureau.

  • Attractions
  • Grantville

Note: Guided tours are currently suspended.

The first and grandest of the California missions is Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala, founded by the Spanish in 1769. The Basilica—nestled down in stunning Mission Valley near the San Diego River—is a beautiful and serene place to visit. History buffs can make reservations for a tour, attend mass in the original chapel, visit the mission’s museum and stroll the oldest known cemetery in California.

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  • Attractions
  • Wooded Area

Sitting proudly amongst the astonishing cliffs of Point Loma, Cabrillo National Monument commemorates the historic moment when Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed into San Diego Bay under the Spanish flag in 1542. The monument boasts spectacular 360-degree views of San Diego Bay, downtown and the surrounding region. On a clear day, you can even see the hills of Tijuana, Mexico. Once you've taken in the incredible vista, check out the quaint exhibit hall next to the monument, which is dedicated to the Cabrillo's life.

Opened in 1937 by singer Bing Crosby, Del Mar Racetrack was once a playground to the stars who rode the train down from Hollywood for a day of fun on the turf. General admission tickets are just $6 and minimum bets can be made for only $2. So it doesn't cost much to put a little skin in the game by picking your favorite pony to win each race. The summer racing season runs July through September, and the fall season is typically held through the month of November. 

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