Things to Do in San Diego
The world-famous San Diego Zoo presents a stunning variety of nature’s largest, smallest, exotic, and most endangered creatures. The epic zoo has more than 3,700 animals representing over 800 species in a beautifully landscaped 100 acres (40.5 hectares), typically in lush enclosures that replicate their natural habitat. San Diego Zoo is considered to be one of the best and well-known zoos in the world, and is a must-see attraction in sunny Southern California.
Across the bay from downtown San Diego, the small resort town of Coronado is an idyllic escape from the city with a wide, sandy coastline and a tree-lined main drag that’s home to shops and restaurants. Visitors go to hang out on the beach, tour historical sites, and watch the sunset.
Formerly the US Navy’s longest-serving aircraft carrier of the 20th century (1945 to 1991), the USS Midway Museum comprises an entire floating city. Aboard the hulking vessel docked in San Diego, California, visitors can now explore more than 60 exhibits as well as peek inside the museum’s impressive aircraft collection.
Home to world-class museums, manicured gardens, and the world-famous San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park tops the list of San Diego city sights. Its 1,200 lush acres (486 hectares) comprise the largest urban park in the United States. Apart from its many attractions, Balboa Park also features lengthy walking and hiking trails, distinctive landscaping, Golden Age Spanish buildings, and one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs.
The epicenter of San Diego’s party scene, the lively Gaslamp Quarter offers much more than just pulsating nightlife. The charming downtown neighborhood is also rich with cultural museums, art galleries, concert venues, and symphony halls, plus loads of lovely alfresco eateries. But back to the nightlife: Clubs, dive bars, and cocktail lounges draw the university crowd, while diverse audiences fill the Spreckels and Balboa theaters for performing arts, comedy shows, and live music.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park, part of the larger San Diego Zoo, is an 1,800-acre (728-hectare) open-range park housing some 3,500 animals from about 430 species. The park’s open layout allows herds of giraffes, zebras, rhinos, and other animals indigenous to Africa to roam the re-created valley floor.
From steamships to submarines, the Maritime Museum of San Diego welcomes you aboard an array of historic ships, letting you delve into the rich maritime history of San Diego. Each vessel offers its own exhibits and experiences. The museum’s fleet ranges from the world’s oldest active sailing ship—Star of India—to modern submarines.
The city’s waterfront Embarcadero district is one of the San Diego Bay's most vibrant areas. From museums to maritime attractions, and from Seaport Village's shops and restaurants to the area’s parks, the San Diego Harbor is known for its entertainment offerings and family-friendly attractions.
On the southern tip of the Point Loma peninsula, which separates the Pacific Ocean from San Diego Bay, Cabrillo National Monument stands in honor of Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who journeyed up the California coast in the mid-1500s. Stop at the statue for views of the open sea, bay, and San Diego skyline.
Dating to 1769, Old Town San Diego is the site of California’s first European settlement. To see the district's prime attraction, stop at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park with its preserved adobe buildings and living history demonstrations such as blacksmithing. The area is also home to restaurants, shops, and live entertainment.
More Things to Do in San Diego
Point Loma sits on a hilly peninsula west of Downtown San Diego, overlooking the Pacific Ocean and San Diego Bay. This seaside community is best known for its tide pools, historical landmarks, and sweeping views of the bay and the San Diego skyline. With plenty to do and see, it’s no wonder it’s one of the city’s most photographed spots.
A harborside hub buzzing with shopping, dining, and entertainment, Seaport Village attracts tourists and locals alike. The historic-style waterfront has everything from upscale eateries to vendors selling fresh fish. Stroll the boardwalk, ride the carousel, or indulge in seafood while listening to live music.
Once home to generations of Italian families who who made their living in San Diego’s flourishing fishing industry, Little Italy is now a lively neighborhood packed with restaurants, patio cafés, craft brewpubs, urban wineries, and little plazas with fountains and views of the bay. The trendy, walkable neighborhood—in San Diego’s historic Gaslamp Quarter—also has upscale boutiques, art galleries, chic shops, boutique hotels, and live music venues, so there is far more to experience here than just the delicious food.
Home to the San Diego Padres major league baseball team, Petco Park opened in 2004, replacing the old Qualcomm Stadium with a new venue whose design reflects San Diego’s coastal setting. Visitors can enjoy modern amenities, views of the city skyline, and even behind-the-scenes tours.
Situated just west of downtown, Shelter Island is connected to the mainland by a thin sliver of land — but feels like worlds away. Ships and yachts bobbing in the colorful marina characterize the quaint seaside village, known also for its serene parks, buzzing food scene, and outdoor events. Toward the end of the island sits the historic Yokohama Friendship Bell, given as a gift by San Diego’s sister city of Yokohama, Japan.
Many nautical adventures launch from here, attracting sailors, sea-loving explorers, and marine animal lovers. Travelers flock to Shelter Island for sea cruises, featuring dolphin watching, sea lion scouting, and yacht gazing. Stay awhile and relax at one of the island’s many hotels or resorts, or bask in the sunshine during summer Concerts By The Bay.
San Diego's Embarcadero sits on the east side of San Diego Bay, and its waterfront promenades stretch along Harbor Drive—perfect for a leisurely stroll with many sightseeing opportunities and unobstructed views of Coronado Bridge. Its attractions include the Maritime Museum, USS Midway Museum, Seaport Village, and Embarcadero Marina Park.
There’s more to sports in San Diego than the Padres, Aztecs, and Chargers. Sport has played an enormous role in this California city’s history, and here at the San Diego Hall of Champions, exhibits display how sailing and surfing have also shaped the town’s heritage. Inside the halls of what’s officially the nation’s largest multi-sport museum, visitors will find everything from the history of the America’s Cup to a collection of the 100 different San Diego athletes who have graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. This is also the site of the Breitbard Hall of Fame—a display that recognizes native San Diegans who have excelled in professional sport. Currently, the hall of fame recognizes 135 athletes from 20 different sports, and over 42 sports in total are represented in this soaring, three-story museum.
Humans, in a word, are utterly and truly fascinating. Creating art is a human tendency as old as humans themselves, and here at the Mingei International Museum, folk art from over 140 countries is on intriguing and captivating display. Though exhibits here are constantly changing, examples of work include handmade dolls that date to the 19th century, to exquisite, hand turned, wooden bowls and weavings from grass and leaves. There have sections devoted to global headdresses and an extensive collection of tequila bottles, and—in true San Diego fashion—a large exhibit made entirely from surfboards that explores the art of surfing. Above all, it’s human creativity itself on display that’s manifested in thousands of forms, and there’s an uplifting, unifying, and inspiring spirit that accompanies a day spent browsing the genius of our planet’s myriad cultures.
The year of 1911 was historic for the field of aviation. In an even that would shape the aviation as we know it, the Vin Fiz Flyer—piloted by Calbraith Perry Rodger—completed the first transcontinental crossing of the United States in an airplane. The flight required 82 hours of total time in the air—although the entire trip, including ground time, was a remarkable 84 days. Today, commercial jetliners make the trip in a little over five hours, and with the ease of transport that aviation has provided, it’s almost too easy to forget the steps that brought us up to this point. At the San Diego Air & Space Museum, however, every visitor, both young and old, can see how the craft of aviation has changed since its early years. Gaze on an intricate reproduction of the original Vin Fiz Flyer, or examine a replica of Charles Lindbergh’s famous Spirit of St. Louis. Military enthusiasts will love the collection of Hellcats and early fighter planes—including an exhibit on early aircraft that flew in World War I. There are educational placards that date all the way back to 18th-century hot air balloons, and also look forward to the next frontier of exploring the corners of space. For kids, a large, 3D movie theater offers thrilling movies from the air, and there’s even the chance to take the joystick on the simulator of an F15.
San Diego, where the locals brag about their 70-degree-and-sunny weather nearly year-round, can fill almost any desire you have for a day in port. Historical or naval-related? Check out Old Town or the USS Midway Museum. Culture, nature and animals? Head to Balboa Park and the famous San Diego Zoo. Beach and water activities? Make your way to Coronado Island or take a speedboat tour.
If you feel like simply exploring, go on a walking tour around districts like Little Italy or Seaport Village.
San Diego’s El Prado is located in the center of Balboa Park and is considered by many to be the heart of this most beloved San Diego park. The beautiful Spanish Colonial House of Hospitality is located here, and fully restored to its 1915 splendor. Inside you’ll find visitor information and historical highlights of the park. The El Prado courtyard holds The Prado restaurant, famous for its cuisine and outdoor seating. Just steps away you’ll find the Spreckels Organ Pavilion – an open space containing the world’s largest pipe organ and home to free concerts during summer Sundays. This is the best of Balboa Park, and it would be a shame to miss it.
Located between La Jolla and Mission Beach, Pacific Beach (or PB, as the locals refer to it), is one of the most popular beach towns and beaches in San Diego. A favorite with a younger crowd and families, Pacific Beach offers miles of sand and surf, a boardwalk, plenty of restaurants, bars, and shops, and a lively nightlife scene.
If walls could talk, the Whaley House Museum could fill history books. Completed in the 1857, it served as the home of the Whaley Family, Mr. Whaley's general store, San Diego's first commercial theater, and the second county courthouse. All aspects of the home have been restored and today it is open to the public as a historic house museum.
A classic example of mid-nineteenth century Greek Revival architecture, the Whaley House was designed by Thomas Whaley and built using bricks from his own brickyard.
On the basic tour, visitors explore on their own, but docents are available to answer questions about the house’s history and ghost stories. Rumor has it the house has been haunted since it was built. The Whaleys reportedly believed the spirit of Yankee Jim Robinson haunted the house. Robinson was hanged on the property before the house was built. According to legend, there is a list of ghosts that roam the house, including the Whaley’s daughter Violet, who committed suicide in 1885.
The Whaley House offers evening ghost hunting tours for visitors more interested in the supernatural then architecture.
Between the South Mission Jetty and Pacific Beach Point stretch 3 miles (5 kilometers) of pure, unadulterated sun-kissed southern California beach scene. The center of this scene is Ocean Beach Pier, the largest concrete pier on the West Coast, perfect for strolling, fishing, and just watching the waves.
Amid the swimsuit-clad crowd and the anglers, Ocean Beach Pier invites people-watching. Along the pier, you’ll find a café, benches, and bait and tackle shops should you want to try your luck with the fish. Under the pier, skillful surfers slalom the pilings.
Ocean Beach Pier is part of Ocean Beach, San Diego’s most bohemian seaside community. You can get tattooed, shop for antiques, and walk into a restaurant barefoot. Ocean Front Walk bristles with joggers, in-line skaters and cyclists. Back from the beach, Mission Boulevard consists of block after block of surf shops, burger joints, and beer busts.
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