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Gaslamp Quarter
Photograph: John Bahu/Gaslamp Quarter

The 20 best things to do in San Diego

This city isn't just for beaches. From museums to tacos, check out the best things to do in San Diego this year

Written by
Jonathan Thompson
Sarah Medina
Kai Oliver-Kurtin

When you think of San Diego, otherwise known as Los Angeles’ chilled out younger sibling, you think of sandy beaches, ice-cold drinks and a bunch of seriously laid back people. But that isn’t all there is to do in this beautiful city (though the sandy beaches are a lot of fun). San Diego is actually a cultural hotspot, full of art, amusement parks and picnic spots, whether you're looking for things to do with kids or to party all night. 

The best bit? The weather is pretty much always great. So whether you’re here for San Diego Beer Week, Comic-Con or the triathlon, you can do it in sunshine, and buzzing food and nightlife scene has more than enough on offer to keep you going. Think craft breweries and street food stalls and fish tacos on the beach. Think old chapels, luscious parks and museums with after-hours parties. Oh, and there’s whale watching, obviously. So whatever you’re after in this beachy city, there’s bound to be something for you. Here’s our pick of the very best things to do in San Diego right now. 

🍽️ The best restaurants in San Diego
🏨 The best San Diego hotels
🍹 The best bars in San Diego
🏘️ The best Airbnbs in San Diego

Fun things to do in San Diego

  • Attractions
  • Park Laurel

San Diego is not short of beautiful parks, but Balboa is the undisputed king of them all. You’re going to want to factor in at least half a day for this, as the 1,200-acre park is home to 18 fantastic museums, some international houses and the unmissable Old Globe Theatre. You could get lost for hours strolling through its gardens and admiring its architecture, but if you want to do it properly, book a walking tour of the park. 

  • Attractions
  • Park Laurel

Oh yeah, Balboa Park is also home to San Diego Zoo. Did we mention that? Well anyway, add it to your list, because this zoo is a must see in San Diego. The first zoo to introduce cageless, open air exhibits, San Diego Zoo pioneered these natural animal habitats, which are really something to behold. It’s one of the only places outside China where you can spot Giant Pandas, and the zoo offers everything from strolls at sunrise to overnight camping. And if you can't get enough, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is nearby too. 

  • Hotels
  • Tent City
  • price 4 of 4

No, you’re not going crazy. You might well have seen this hotel before, whether you’re a local or not. The Hotel del Coronado was featured in none other than Some Like It Hot – and that’s not all it’s known for. This is a buzzing, tourist-filled, iconic landmark in San Diego, serving up Hollywood history and great food (yes, there’s brunch) in a seriously glamorous setting. 

  • 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 Oceanif you keep your eyes open, that is.


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 sunbathing.

  • 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.


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 beer are par for 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. 

  • 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 celebrated its 150th anniversary in recent years. As the former site of San Diego's red light district in the 19th century, the area has been revitalized over the last 25 years and is now home to more than 100 retail stores.


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. 

  • Museums
  • Greater San Diego

The monumental USS Midway was the longest-serving aircraft carrier in U.S. 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.

Barrio Logan neighborhood
Photograph: Courtesy

11. Barrio Logan neighborhood

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.

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 scene. 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, where you can refuel on a huge range of delicious bites, from short rib truffle fries and herb-crusted salmon to butternut squash tacos and key lime pie.


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.

  • 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.

  • Art
  • Park Laurel

The region’s oldest, largest and most-visited art museum, the San Diego Museum of Art has a nationally renowned permanent collection that includes Spanish and Italian old masters, as well as 19th-century American paintings and sculptures. They also throw some of the best after-hours parties in the city, including Culture & Cocktails and Bloom Bash. Don't miss the outdoor sculpture garden!

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 held Saturdays and Wednesdays, 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.


Whale-watching trips from the city are both plentiful and fruitful, with blue whales at the center of attention between June and September and their gray cousins taking over from December through April. San Diego Whale Watch offers year-round excursions for $40 per person. Don't worry - if you don’t see a whale or dolphin during your tour, your next trip is free!

  • Attractions
  • Grantville

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.

  • 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 want to try the sport, visit Surf Diva in La Jolla, the world’s first all-woman surf school, for a private lesson.

Pretty much every local has an opinion on the best fish taco in town, but one definite standout is 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 + your choice of scallops or octopus with cabbage, onion, tomato, cilantro and cheese) is well worth the wait. Just thinking about it has our mouths watering.

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