Known as America’s finest city and for its perfect weather year-round, San Diego is easily one of the most popular destinations in California. With Pacific beach after Pacific beach, an exploding craft beer scene in its Gaslamp Quarter, outstanding restaurants in Little Italy, and the massive USS Midway museum, San Diego, California doesn’t disappoint.
From trendy restaurants, cafes, and bars to beautiful beaches filled with sea lions, San Diego has a little bit of everything and it appeals to just about everyone. During our week in San Diego, we had a chance to scope out some of the coolest spots in the city, and it quickly became one of our favorite spots in the United States.
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You can see clips from our time in San Diego and our entire California Coast roadtrip in this short 3 minute video
Best Things to Do in San Diego
1. Go to a San Diego Padres Game
Over the years, the Padres have built a great team. Going to a Padres game is more than just watching a good team, though. It’s more than just baseball.
When you get a ticket to a Padres game, you’re paying for an experience that transcends just balls and strikes. Petco Park is the home of the San Diego Padres, and it is one of the most fun stadiums in all of baseball. With awesome craft beers, lively fans, great food, sunny weather, and some really fun players to watch, Padres games are easily one of the best things to do in San Diego. You can buy Padres tickets here.
2. Explore Balboa Park
Balboa Park is so massive that it’s hard to really describe what it is. This giant, urban oasis is filled with things to do, and is the largest urban cultural park in the United States. There are restaurants and food vendors, museums, the World-Famous San Diego Zoo, botanical gardens, and more.
We errantly went to Balboa Park for an evening thinking it was a checkbox type of thing to do, and we realized pretty quickly we wouldn’t even have time to see or do 1% of what it had to offer. On your trip, if you’re looking for the best things to do in San Diego, I advise you to budget at least a full day for Balboa Park to soak in all of its fun activities and beautiful sights.
Just to the northeast of Balboa Park is North Park, which is a trendy neighborhood filled with great coffee shops. This diverse neighborhood is especially popular with young professionals and families with young kids, as its main street is filled with good places to shop, eat, and caffeinate.
3. Check Out the Sea Lions in La Jolla
La Jolla is an upscale and adorable town to the north of San Diego. While many people visit La Jolla for its great restaurants and beautiful hiking trails, a large portion of tourists come for another thing in particular: sea lions!
On the rocks at La Jolla Cove, there are tons of sea lions swimming, playing, and talking to one another. If you haven’t had the chance to see sea lions before, I highly recommend making the trip up to La Jolla. It’s only a half hour or so north of San Diego, and watching the sea lions in their natural habitat is absolutely one of the best things to do in San Diego.
While San Diego does have a Sea World location, there is truly no better way to see these animals than in their own habitat. Watching the sea lions play, dive, and slash through the water is really a beautiful experience, and it’s something you don’t want to miss out on while in San Diego.
4. Grab Dinner and Drinks in the Gaslamp District or Little Italy
The Gaslamp District is one of the coolest parts of downtown San Diego. This hip and upscale neighborhood is bursting with cool spots to eat and drink.
From trendy breakfast places like Breakfast Republic to upscale Italian eateries like Nonna + Zucchero to adorable cafes like Bird Rock Coffee Roasters and local breweries like Ballast Point, an evening in the Gaslamp District is a great way to enjoy the local culture and cuisine of San Diego while making new friends. The Gaslamp District is a great place to catch a happy hour, and you’re bound to find plenty of San Diegans doing the same!
Little Italy is adjacent to the Gaslamp Quarter, and it’s another neighborhood you absolutely have to visit your first time in San Diego. While the vibe is a bit more relaxed than in the Gaslamp Quarter, this neighborhood is filled with incredible food served in a casual dining environment.
5. Wander Through Old Town San Diego
San Diego used to be very much so a part of the Wild West, and that is on full display in Old Town. You can see the old Spanish and Mexican roots here and how they blend with the traditional image that we tend to hold of the Wild West. After all, San Diego was the first European settlement in California!
From saloons to Wild West-themed stores, this part of the city is very unique and deserves an afternoon out. It’s also a great break from the big city, and you can grab some food and drinks here! While San Diego is definitely more famous for its miles of beaches, there are plenty of historic buildings worth checking out as well, and many of these are in Old Town.
6. Visit San Juan Capistrano Mission
Have you ever noticed that all of the big cities in California have Spanish Catholic names? I wrote a whole post on this, but in short, each city was named after the Spanish Catholic Mission that it was built around. Between the big cities of San Diego and Los Angeles is one of the most preserved Spanish Catholic Missions in all of California – San Juan Capistrano Mission.
This beautiful property has been in the hands of different owners throughout the years, including Mexican governors and presidents, but it has since been restored to a Catholic foundation. Now the Mission seeks to preserve its legacy and history, as it was one of the most successful Catholic Missions in the area. If you have the time to venture out of San Diego or you’re making the trip down from Los Angeles, this place is a must-see, and it’s easily one of the best things to do in San Diego.
7. Check Out the Tide Pools at Cabrillo National Monument
Located in the Point Loma part of the city, Cabrillo National Monument is a unique park that is definitely worth checking out. Located just a few miles south of the famous Ocean Beach, this park is famous for its hiking trails, lighthouses, and tide pools.
Tide pools are depressions in the natural rock that house a diverse blend of marine life during low tide. When the water recedes, shallow pools filled with octopi, sea cucumbers, and other creatures are left exposed. Generally, tide pools are very rare to find, but in this area of San Diego, they are everywhere.
8. Visit Some of San Diego’s Most Famous Beaches
Known as one of the best beach cities in the United States, San Diego’s miles of beaches do not disappoint. Each beach has an entirely different vibe, and they are all pretty accessible from the heart of San Diego.
Some popular beaches to visit are Mission Beach in Mission Bay, Solana Beach, La Jolla Cove, and Pacific Beach. With so many days of sunshine each year, taking a dip in the Pacific Ocean is always a good idea.
9. Take a Day Trip to Tijuana, Mexico
San Diego is famously located right along the Mexican border, and I highly recommend taking advantage of this while visiting. The American town of Chula Vista sits just south of San Diego, and its San Ysidro border checkpoint is one of the busiest along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.
While San Diego has some of the best Mexican food in the United States, the street food gets even better when you cross into Mexico itself. Tijuana has a sketchy reputation, but we spell out everything you need to know in our complete guide to safely visiting Tijuana.
10. Spend a Day Exploring Coronado Island
Coronado Island is located in San Diego Bay, and it is most famous for its historic Hotel del Coronado. This island has long been an exclusive retreat for the city’s wealthiest families, and a quick drive around the island will show you why.
It is truly a special place filled with charm. Just a quick drive from San Diego’s city center, Coronado Island is a place you don’t want to miss while visiting San Diego.
How to Get to San Diego
San Diego is a major city, and just like any other major city, it has an international airport. San Diego International Airport (SAN) is a moderately sized airport offering direct flights to 70 destinations in 6 countries. If you are lucky enough to be coming from one of those 70 cities, flying directly into San Diego may be the best way to get there.
If there is not a direct flight from your city, odds are you will only need one layover to get to San Diego. However, if you’re looking to save some money and don’t mind adding a little bit of travel time, there may be an even better option.
San Diego is conveniently located just two hours south of Los Angeles, which is the home of one of the busiest airports in the world. If you read my tips for finding cheap flights, you may remember that one of the best ways to land cheap airfare is by utilizing hub airports.
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is basically the poster child of hub airports, at least when it comes to Southern California cities. So, if you’re looking to save potentially hundreds of dollars on your flight and potentially score a direct route, check out flights to LAX instead of SAN.
To sweeten the pot even further, LAX operates significantly more budget airline flights than SAN, meaning you can score ridiculously cheap airfare if you’re willing to leave the suitcases at home. For tips on flying with budget airlines, including how to avoid their hidden fees, be sure to check out my Budget Airline Guide.
How to Get Around San Diego
BUS | TRAIN | TROLLY | ELECTRONIC SCOOTER
All things considered, San Diego is a relatively small city. Typically in small cities, public transportation isn’t the best. With San Diego, this is not the case at all.
The public transportation here, between buses, trains, and trollies is fantastic!
With that being said, if you want to get to places outside of the city, having a car is probably a good idea. The trains do connect San Diego to places like La Jolla, but it’s a lot easier and faster to just drive there. If you don’t want to rent a car, you will be able to get by with public transportation, though!
Another thing that San Diego has, which you’ll know is a favorite of mine if you’ve read my other posts, is shareable electronic scooters, like Lime and Bird. These are one of my favorite ways to get around anywhere because they’re so easy to use and conveniently located.
What Is The Best Time to Visit San Diego?
Strictly from a weather standpoint, the summer is the best time to visit San Diego. This city certainly doesn’t experience the June gloom, as San Diego’s weather is gorgeous all year round. While the weather is beautiful over the summer, I wouldn’t say it is the best time to visit the city.
During these months, the weather is perfect for outdoor activities like water sports and hiking, the lines are all shorter, and accommodation prices tend to be lower.
San Diego’s rainy season runs from October through April, but the city doesn’t actually receive that much rain. If these are the only dates you are free to travel, the weather will likely be perfectly enjoyable, even if it is a bit too cold to go to the beach.
Is San Diego Safe to Visit?
San Diego is located a stone’s throw away from Tijuana, which has often been referred to as one of the most dangerous places in Mexico. I wrote about this extensively in my Tijuana travel guide, but to sum it up, Tijuana isn’t really that bad. It’s actually a great day trip from San Diego, as I wrote above!
With that being said, is San Diego safe to visit? Yes! It is actually an extremely safe little city, and you have very little to worry about when visiting San Diego.
Its proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border has certainly caused safety issues over the years, but that isn’t normally an issue you need to worry about. If you take the normal precautions that you would take in any other city, you have very little to worry about.
While some other Californian cities, like San Francisco, have been experiencing spikes in crime rates, San Diego is relatively isolated from this trend. Whether you are in the historic heart of downtown San Diego or somewhere out in the coastal areas, you probably won’t run into any safety issues.
Is San Diego Worth Visiting?
While San Diego has always been a popular city, its popularity has further exploded over the past couple of decades. In our opinion, San Diego is the best major city in all of California.
This is nothing new, either. My grandpa used to travel frequently for work back in the day, and he has often said that San Diego was his favorite place to go on business trips. As its popularity has exploded, so has the list of cool attractions and eateries that the city has to offer. While there is cuisine from all over the planet in San Diego, it is most famous for its Mexican and Italian restaurants.
So, is San Diego worth visiting? Pretty much anyone that has ever visited, including me, would say yes. The city and all that the area offers are incredible.
Between hosting the busiest border crossing in the world, some awesome parks, and endless gastronomic options, San Diego is worth visiting without a doubt. While the west coast is loaded with fantastic places to explore, I would go as far as to rank San Diego as the best city to visit in California.
That’s all we have for you about San Diego! If you’re planning a trip to San Diego, comment below! We’d love to chat ahead of time and answer any questions you have.
Hello I just wanted to say nice blog on San Diego , and correct you with something- being a home grown SD native I would have to say I don’t agree with what you wrote about June- May is known as May gray and June is known for June Gloom-
If your one that prefers warm weather then I’d say your best time to come to San Diego are between
It’s pretty safe to say that SD us known for 2 trips – 1st time you come is for vacation, business, School, Military,Comic Con , etc.. then the next time is because you fell in love with it and your moving here haha –
Anyway thanks again – take care
And good luck with your travels – Lp
Hi Leslie, this is great feedback. I really appreciate you taking the time to let me know – I always strive to provide the most accurate information possible for my readers. I want you to know I talked to a good friend of mine in San Diego today who FULLY AGREED with what you had to say. I’ll be updating the post shortly. Thanks for reading and contributing!