When some people visit San Diego, the only things on their list to see are a sandy beach and the Pacific Ocean… and they might even include a hiking trail if it leads to the beach. Others might add a museum or two to their lists… perhaps a theme park… and some fun restaurants and breweries. And in our opinion, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that sort of San Diego vacation plan!
We hope that you’ll think of the tourist attraction suggestions below as a smorgasbord from which you pick and choose what you find most appealing. Also, in addition to these San Diego attractions, as you plan your vacation or weekend getaway we know that you’ll want to consider information about the San Diego area beaches, the area’s theme park offerings and the almost overwhelming San Diego museum list. That’s why we wrote separate article about those topics.
The first section below will introduce attractions and other places to go, see and have fun in and around the city center, the San Diego Bay and the downtown area. Thereafter, attractions in some of the areas in and around San Diego are discussed; if you’d like to skip immediately to those outlying area discussions, you can use these links:
Balboa Park, San Diego – This is a “must-see,” even if its myriad of museums and world-renowned zoo don’t interest you. Established in 1868, this is the largest urban cultural park in the U.S., and it consistently lands on “best urban parks” lists.
The 1,200-acre gem is home to the San Diego Zoo and a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, as well as multiple gardens, a Spanish-style promenade and about 17 museums (see the museums article linked above). The park is free to enter (although many of the museums require admission), and there are several large parking lots. (balboapark.org)
Cabrillo National Monument & the Old Point Loma Lighthouse – Located approximately 10 miles from San Diego, this location offers superb, panoramic views of the city and is a good place to watch for migrating whales during the winter months. In addition, the National Park Service has refurbished the location’s historic 1880s lighthouse, and ranger-led talks, displays and brochures are available to explain its interesting past. (nps.gov/cabr/index.htm)
Chicano Park – Located beneath the San Diego-Coronado Bridge in Logan Heights (Barrio Logan), a predominantly Mexican-American and Mexican-immigrant community, this park is home to the world’s largest conglomeration of outdoor murals (67), as well as other artworks that celebrate the community’s cultural heritage. Like Berkeley’s People’s Park, Chicano Park was borne of a non-violent, militant community takeover, and every year on April 22 (or the nearest weekend), the anniversary is revered with a “Chicano Park Day” fiesta. (chicano-park.org)
Coronado Island – This small “island” town (it’s actually a peninsula) is connected to the city by the San Diego-Coronado Bridge. Although best known for the Hotel del Coronado (“The Del”), its numerous parks and beaches make it ideal for enjoying outdoor activities, and its marinas provide even more options –- from paddle boats to yachts! We recommend that you try to spend at least a day at Coronado. (coronadovisitorcenter.com)
Historic Gaslamp Quarter – With buildings dating to the late 1800s (some with a bit of a checkered past), the Gaslamp area is now where you’ll find some of southern California’s hottest hotels, restaurants and nightlife. For those who prefer to explore the area during the day, the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation offers maps and information about the area as well as a guided walking tour on Saturdays at 11am. (gaslampquarter.org)
Historic Old Town San Diego – Considered the “birthplace” of California in the U.S., Franciscan friar (and now saint) Junipero Serra built the first of the state’s 21 missions on a hillside overlooking this area in 1769. In the 1820s, a small Mexican community of adobe buildings formed at the base of the hill, and by 1835 it had evolved into El Pueblo de San Diego. Now the site of a state historic park featuring the five original adobes, the complex has an open, “olden-days” feel to it (parks.ca.gov/?page_id=663). Presidio Park — where the first mission was built — lies a few blocks north of Old Town, and its lovely grounds offer spectacular views of the bay and harbor. The colorful and vibrant Bazaar Del Mundo (“shopping of the world) is also nearby. (bazaardelmundo.com)
Little Italy – Around since the 1920s, this is downtown San Diego’s oldest continuous neighborhood-business district. Today, you can find lovely restaurants, lodging and shopping here. If you venture to Amici Park, you may even see residents enjoying a game of bocce ball or, near the court, a monument that pays tribute to marinara sauce, complete with a plate of steel ravioli on a red-checker-clothed table. What fun! The Maritime Museum is also nearby and definitely worth checking out if you’re in the neighborhood. (littleitalysd.com)
Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala – Founded in 1769 by Junipero Serra, the first of 21 Spanish missions built in what’s now the U.S. was moved here from its original location near Old Town San Diego in 1774. Designated a landmark in the early 1800s, the church still holds mass every Sunday and rings its 200-year-old bell several times a day. The museum and gardens are open daily, 9am-4pm. (missionsandiego.org)
Mission Bay Park – About a 10-minute drive from downtown San Diego, this is the largest man-made aquatic park in the country and consists of 4,235 acres (half water/half land) and more than 27 miles of shoreline. Stop by the Visitor Information Center (2688 East Mission Bay Drive), open from 9am to dusk, for exhibits and maps that will help you enjoy the activities this location offers, including SeaWorld San Diego and Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. You’re also close to Point Loma and surrounded by the Mission Beach, Ocean Beach and Pacific Beach trio. (sandiego.gov/park-and-recreation/parks/regional/missionbay)
PETCO Park – This architecturally magnificent stadium has served as home to the San Diego Padres baseball team since 2004, and it celebrates the area’s natural beauty, cultural diversity and unique spirit. Public tours are offered, and the venue also hosts special events like concerts on occasion. (petcoparkevents.com)
Seaport Village – This 14-acre waterfront shopping, dining and entertainment complex is set among three distinctive plazas designed to evoke Old Monterey, Victorian San Francisco and traditional Mexico. It includes lots of one-of-a-kind shops and several options for either casual or bay-view dining. Seaport Village is also near the USS Midway Museum and Tuna Harbor Park with its oversized Sailor Kissing Girl / Embracing Peace popular statue. (seaportvillage.com)
Tijuana, Mexico – The world’s most-visited border city is easily accessed from San Diego via the trolley. You can find all the details on the San Diego Metro Transit System’s website, where you’ll want to look for the UC San Diego Blue Line Trolley that runs from America Plaza to San Ysidro. Of course, there are also companies that offer package tours if you prefer to delegate the day trip logistics.
La Jolla (“the jewel”), about 15 minutes from downtown San Diego, has wonderful beaches, cultural activities and restaurants. You should allow at least one day to enjoy everything this lovely community has to offer.
Children’s Pool Beach – At the tip of the La Jolla peninsula, this beach offers panoramic coastline views. Additionally, during much of the year you can see harbor seals and sea lions here, and the Seal Rock reserve is just offshore. The shallow cove, partially protected by a seawall, has small waves and no riptide (hence its moniker), and it is also popular with scuba divers. (sandiego.gov/lifeguards/beaches/pool)
Birch Aquarium at Scripps – Situated on a bluff in La Jolla that overlooks the Pacific Ocean, this complex includes an interactive museum, an outdoor, tidepool “touch tank” and more than 60 indoor tanks that feature the colorful saltwater fish that inhabit Pacific waters from the cold Northwest to tropical Mexico. Additionally, the south wing offers the largest hands-on oceanographic exhibition in the country, “Exploring the Blue Planet.” A concession sells food, and there are outdoor picnic tables at which to enjoy the aquarium’s picturesque location. (aquarium.ucsd.edu)
Mount Soledad Memorial – First used as a memorial park in 1914, its iconic 29-foot Latin cross was dedicated in 1954 to honor Korean War veterans. Transferred to the Federal Government in 2006 as a national veterans memorial, its 822-foot elevation affords a 360-degree, awe-inspiring view. (soledadmemorial.com)
La Jolla Caves – Over 100 years old, this is a one-of-a-kind attraction. While there are seven caves, only one is accessible by land – the Sunny Jim Cave – and the entrance to it is at La Jolla Cave Store, a coffee bar that displays historic photos and also sells gifts and souvenirs. The tunnel took two years to dig, consists of 145 steps and provides a fascinating glimpse into what lies under the scenic California coastline. The other caves are accessible by kayak, and various local companies offer guided tours. (cavestore.com)
This area is often referred to as North County, and it’s where you’ll find a couple of fun theme parks — Legoland California and Safari Park — in addition to the below attractions.
Del Mar Racetrack, Del Mar – About 20 miles north of San Diego, this track offers some of the best thoroughbred horse racing in America. The racing season opens in mid-July, and races are presented six days a week through early-September. Sometimes an add-on season runs during select days in November. The history-rich track, opened in 1937, was considered the “summer playground to the stars” in the 1940s. It’s still the place to be and be seen, and you’ll see women wearing stylish outfits and hats and some men dressed in sports jackets and suits. (You’ll also see folks in flip-flops and t-shirts, too; dressing up is optional.) (dmtc.com)
The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch – The largest independent garden center in the western U.S., its 50-plus acres of Giant Tecolote® Ranunculus flowers bloom and band the landscape with their vibrant hues for about eight weeks, from early-March to early-May. Its 33,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility offers seasonal displays and gardening events as well as a retail section stocked with garden accessories, gifts, clothing and garden blooms and plants. (theflowerfields.com)
Leo Carrillo Ranch, Carlsbad– This former working ranchero, once owned by actor, preservationist and conservationist Leo Carrillo (1880-1961), contains and protects hand-crafted adobe buildings, antique windmills, a reflecting pool and many other beautiful historic structures. Visitors can enjoy four miles of trails through gorgeous gardens alive with agave, bougainvillea, Birds of Paradise, plentiful trees and dozens of vibrant peacocks. (carlsbadca.gov/Home/Components/FacilityDirectory/FacilityDirectory/48/7400)
Mission San Luis Rey, Oceanside – Founded in 1798, this is the largest of the 21 California Missions and includes the state’s first pepper tree on its 56 acres. The museum, picnic gardens and gift shop are open daily, 10am-4:30pm. (sanluisrey.org)
Photo of Balboa Park Botanical Garden by Simon Brisebois via flickr (Creative Commons); Photo of Surfing at the Hotel del Coronado by hoteldelcoronado via flickr (Creative Commons); Photo of Public Art in Little Italy, San Diego by Joe Wolf via flickr (Creative Commons); Photo of Petco Park, San Diego by Dirk DBQ via flickr (Creative Commons); Photo of Children’s Pool, La Jolla by Phil Konstantin via flickr (Creative Commons); and Photo of The Flower Fields, Carlsbad by Rob Bertholf via flickr (Creative Commons).