Things to Do in San Diego
Across the bay from downtown San Diego, Coronado is a pleasant escape from the jumble of the city and the buzz of the beaches. Follow the tree-lined, manicured median strip of Orange Avenue toward the commercial center, Coronado Village, around the landmark Hotel del Coronado. Then park your car; you won’t need it again until you leave.
Locals call Coronado an island, but it's connected to the mainland by the spectacular, 2.1 mile (3.4 kilometer) Coronado Bay Bridge, as well as by a long, narrow spit of sand known as the Silver Strand. The visitor center doubles as the Coronado Museum of History and Art. And then there’s the fabulous, easily recognizable Hotel del Coronado, the interior of which is filled with warm, polished wood, giving the hotel an old-fashioned feel of Panama hats and linen suits. Guests have included 10 presidents and world royalty. For a taste of the Del without the stay, have breakfast or lunch at the beach-view Sheerwater restaurant.
With its world-class museums, manicured gardens, and world-famous San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park tops the list of sights in downtown San Diego. Its 1,200 acres (485 hectares) makes it the largest urban park in the United States. Apart from its many attractions, Balboa Park also features lengthy hiking trails, distinctive landscaping, Golden Age Spanish buildings, and the world’s largest organ.
Balboa Park is divided up into three sections. The central part of the park has the most attractions. The main attraction here is San Diego Zoo, which has more than 3,000 animals, typically in enclosures that replicate their natural habitat. At the Museum of Man, part of the California Quadrangle and its distinctive arch, you can see Native American artifacts. Nearby, the San Diego Museum houses a number of works from European masters from the Renaissance to the modernists.
Packed into 40 hectares, the San Diego Zoo presents a stunning variety of nature's largest, smallest, noblest, oddest, and most endangered creatures. This famous zoo has more than 3,000 animals representing over 800 species.
Stop first at the San Diego Zoo visitor center to pick up a map. Highlights of the zoo include the Tiger River bioclimatic exhibit, which realistically recreates an Asian rainforest environment, and Gorilla Tropics, which does the same with an African rainforest. The koalas and the rare giant pandas are also popular.
The gardens at the San Diego Zoo are renowned and some of the plants are used for the specialized food requirements of particular animals. Especially for kids, the Children’s Zoo allows young ones to pet small critters; they will also enjoy the animal nursery, which shows off the zoo’s newest arrivals. For an aerial perspective on the park, take a ride on the Skyfari.
Built in the late 19th century, the Gaslamp Quarter is a 16½ block historical neighborhood, filled with streets lined with wrought-iron street lamps, trees, and brick sidewalks. Along with its many historic buildings, the Gaslamp has the city’s highest concentration of bars, nightclubs, and restaurants. Many of the bars double as restaurants as well, making the whole district the prime nightspot in San Diego.The Gaslamp Quarter is also home to many events and festivals, including Mardi Gras in the Gaslamp, Street Scene Music Festival, the San Diego Comic-Con, Taste of Gaslamp, and ShamROCK, a St. Patrick's Day event. PETCO Park, home of the San Diego Padres is located one block away in downtown San Diego's East Village. Croce's Restaurant & Jazz Bar, named after famous singer Jim Croce, is also located in the Quarter. For a break from the bustling streets of the Gaslamp Quarter, head over to Third Avenue. This is the historic heart of San Diego’s Chinese community.
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.
Maritime enthusiasts should spend some time visiting San Diego Harbor. The many attractions here include the Maritime Museum, U.S.S. Midway Museum, the Seaport Village, and Embarcadero Marina Park. The well-manicured waterfront promenades stretch along Harbor Drive and are perfect for strolling or jogging.
On the north end of San Diego Harbor is the Maritime Museum, where a number of antique trading and passenger vessels are moored in the water. South of the museum, The U.S.S. Midway Museum, a museum housed in a Navy battleship, has loads of exhibits and a stellar collection of fighter planes. South of the U.S.S. Midway Museum is Seaport Village, which has a collection of novelty shops and restaurants. Embarcadero Marina Park, with its public fishing pier and open-air amphitheater, lies south.
On the southern tip of Point Loma, at the top of hill, you'll find Cabrillo National Monument. The spot is San Diego’s finest locale for history and fine views across the bay to San Diego's downtown. It's also the best place in San Diego to see the gray whale migration (January to March) from land. After a few minutes here, you may forget you’re in a major metropolitan area.
The visitors center at Cabrillo National Monument has an excellent presentation on Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s 1542 voyage up the California coast, plus good exhibits on the native inhabitants and the area’s natural history. Also here is the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which is appointed with late-19th century pieces, including lamps and picture frames hand-covered with hundreds of shells. On the ocean side, you can drive or walk down to the tide pools (at low tide) to look for anemones, starfish, crabs, and limpets.
Seaport Village is San Diego’s preeminent shopping and dining complex. A slice of independence in busy San Diego, the Seaport Village is beautiful and relaxing escape in an otherwise busy world. Come here to window shop the boutiques, sit on a park bench and stare into the ocean, grab a bite to eat, or to simply have a glass of wine and catch some outdoor entertainment. Just a short walk from the Gaslamp Quarter and plenty of boutique and big name shopping, Seaport Village is a popular hang-out for tourists and locals alike.
For over 60 years, the Maritime Museum of San Diego has enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for being one of the most engaging and imagination-inspiring attractions in San Diego. A history lesson and an adventure in one, the Maritime Museum of San Diego has been repeatedly voted one of the best attractions in San Diego, and visitors from the world over come here to see the excellent collections of historic tall ships, including the world’s oldest active merchant ship, the Star of India, an 1863 iron hulled, triple-mast behemoth. Known the world over for excellence in restoring, maintaining, and operating these historic vessels, a trip to the Maritime Museum will have you exploring (and, on some occasions, even sailing) four different tall ships (the ones with the big masts and sails), two submarines, and several yachts and harbor boats. As you explore these amazing vessels, you’ll discover a sense of what it was like to work and live on these amazing ships.
More Things to Do in San Diego
Both a seaside community and a top San Diego attraction, there’s a lot to be said for this little slip of a peninsula. Most easily recognized for its hilly views and the picturesque Old Point Loma Lighthouse, Point Loma is also famous for its historical significance (the first European settlers in California landed here, thus earning it the title “where California began”). People come to Point Loma to view these attractions, as well as to visit its naval base, the Cabrillo National Monument, and walk the hiking trails and take in the stunning views of the bay. With plenty to do and see, it’s no wonder Point Loma is one of San Diego’s most photographed spots.
San Diego Old Town is a pleasant place to soak up some history, browse for souvenirs, and perhaps enjoy a Mexican meal. Old Town is the site of the original pueblo (village) that sprang up in San Diego below the mission and fortress back in the 18th century. It preserves five of the original adobe (mud brick) buildings alongside scores of recreated structures, including a schoolhouse and a newspaper office.
Your first stop should be the Old Town State Historic Park Visitors Center, which has memorabilia and a video of local history. The center is located in the main plaza. Across from the visitor center is Casa de Estudillo, a restored adobe home filled with authentic period furniture, which is worth a look. Just off the plaza's northwestern corner is the Plaza del Pasado, which has a colorful collection of import shops and restaurants. The area is also home to the Old Town Trading Company, a charming gift shop selling various trinkets.
If the Gaslamp Quarter is heart of Old Town San Diego, then Little Italy is its beating heart. Walk these streets to get a feel for the Mom and Pop restaurants, art galleries, and retail shops that make this northwest end of downtown famous. Festivals frequent Little Italy, and the Farmer’s Market every Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. is widely-hailed for its freshly caught fish, local vegetables, and delicious Italian pastries. Many people prefer to eat and drink their way through this Old World slice of San Diego, and who can blame them? Little Italy is one of the highlights of any trip to this beautiful city by the sea.
Petco Park is an open-air stadium in downtown San Diego located just minutes from the Gaslamp Quarter. In bygone days, you might have heard people refer to this as Qualcomm Stadium, but no more. Since 2004, the San Diego Padres have called Petco Park their home and it’s here you’ll be able to catch a game during baseball season. Known for its comfortable seating, diverse restaurant selection, and even a mini play area for kids before a game, Petco Park is the stadium of choice for anyone visiting the San Diego area.
Take a walk on the wild side at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, an 1,800 acre (728 hectare) open-range zoo where herds of giraffes, zebras, rhinos, and other animals roam the open valley floor. The best part is riding the African Express, an open-air, soft-wheeled tram that ferries you around the world’s second-largest continent in what feels like a 30 minute safari.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park houses some 3,500 animals from about 430 species. Animals are in enclosures so naturalistic it’s as if the humans are the guests. Habitats include Elephant Overlook, Lion Camp, and the African Aviary. In Nairobi Village, young kids will enjoy the nursery, where young animals are seen frolicking about; there’s even a petting station. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park offers many extra animal encounter experiences, including Photo Caravans that drive right up alongside the animals and the chance to stand ringside as a cheetah whizzes by you chasing a mechanical rabbit.
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 well-known San Diego Convention Center is a staple structure in the city. The impressively equipped location hosts many of San Diego’s famous events and happenings — most notably, the entertainment bonanza that is Comic-Con International. Enjoy the sunny, bayside views and free WiFi while attending one of the events held here before taking a quick walk to the numerous restaurants and shops nearby in the historic Gaslamp Quarter. Check out what’s going on at the convention center during your next visit for some entertainment.
Long a mainstay for the college crowd and those looking to get out and have a little bit of fun in the sun, the little neighborhood of Pacific Beach is a California-lover’s dream. Bikinis and board shorts, bike paths and boardwalks, and of course miles of pristine beach, Pacific Beach is what many picture as idealized southern California living. From tasty beer taverns to sunny California shacks serving fish tacos, Pacific Beach is an ideal choice for getting out and seeing the young and fit crowd do its thing. North Pacific Beach tends to be quieter and cater to more of a family ambiance, while Tourmaline Beach is a surfing-only beach great for long low waves that are perfect for beginners.
Lying along the east side of San Diego Bay, the Embarcadero will appeal to fans of the historic maritime vessels and all things associated with the sea. The many attractions here include the Maritime Museum, U.S.S. Midway Museum, the Seaport Village, and Embarcadero Marina Park. The well-manicured waterfront promenades stretch along Harbor Drive and are perfect for strolling or jogging.
On the north end of the Embarcadero is the Maritime Museum, the highlight of which is the Star of India, a historic 19th century vessel. South of the museum, The U.S.S. Midway Museum - a museum housed in a Navy battleship - has loads of exhibits and a stellar collection of fighter planes. South of the Midway is Seaport Village, which has a collection of novelty shops and restaurants. Embarcadero Marina Park, with its public fishing pier and open-air amphitheater, lies to the south.
Ever since 1874, when this Natural History Museum became Southern California’s first scientific institution, researchers have tirelessly been working to showcase the tales of the world around us. In this highly interactive, highly educational, natural history museum, visitors can learn everything from the mysteries of fossils to the saga of California’s water. Go deep inside an Egyptian tomb to see the buried treasures of King Tut, or explore the astounding biodiversity of the greater San Diego region. Sit back and enjoy a film inside the enormous 3D theater, or compare the shapes of over 200 skulls from a wide assortment of animals. The scientists and researchers who work with the museum are some of the top in their field, and who have dedicated their lives to explaining and learning the secrets of the natural world. Whether it’s trying to figure out why whales breach in the nearby waters offshore, or dissecting the facts about everything from penguins to coffee.
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. Cruise ships dock at the B Street Cruise Ship Terminal downtown. Just walk north or south along the water to get to attractions like the Maritime Museum, or grab a taxi or a bike cab outside the port to go beyond downtown. You can also catch the trolley to Old Town or the Gaslamp Quarter, among many other city stops.
Mission Beach is a cozy, beachside community that rests on a sandbar between the Pacific Ocean and Mission Bay. It’s a perfect spot to indulge in a myriad of outdoor activities including sunbathing, horseshoes, surfing, bicycling, skateboarding, and tossing a Frisbee. With courts available for both, beach volleyball and basketball are also popular draws to the beach.
For activities away from Mission Beach, there’s SeaWorld in Mission Bay Park and historic Belmont Park in South Mission Beach, which features the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster as well as other rides including the FlowRider, Chaos, Vertical Plunge, Krazy Kars, and Tilt-a-Whirl. Also here is the the Mission Beach Plunge, once the largest saltwater (now freshwater) pool in the world and the only remaining structure left from the original Belmont Park structures. Water activities at Mission Beach include sailboat, rowboat, and kayak rentals, as well as charter boats.
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