10 Best San Diego Tourist Attractions

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Are you seeking an unforgettable travel experience? Are you ready to delve into a city that’s brimming with captivating culture, breathtaking landscapes, and a unique spirit that’s hard to find elsewhere? If so, San Diego is calling your name. This Southern Californian gem is a treasure trove of experiences that are far from the ordinary.

From the moment you touch down and pick up your Budget car rental at San Diego Airport, you’ll begin to see that there are countless neighborhoods and things to do in this bustling metropolis. Truly, the sheer range of choices can be overwhelming.

In this article, we’ll cover the 10 San Diego attractions that visitors most often recommend. You’ll also find a list of suggested hotels, guided tour ideas, and other planning tips so you can plan the perfect San Diego vacation.

Top 10 things to do in San Diego, California

Before we begin, we need to mention Go City’s San Diego Explorer Pass. It will help you save up to 50% on admission to over 40 popular attractions and tours, get discounts at restaurants, and more. It’s worth considering if you plan to visit any of the city’s attractions.

Ready to make the most of your time in San Diego? Let’s begin!

1. Balboa Park

Castle in San Diego's Balboa park

Balboa Park is San Diego’s top cultural and recreational oasis. Its history traces back to 1868 when civic leaders designated it as a public park, originally named “City Park.” What makes Balboa Park truly unique is its mesmerizing Spanish Colonial-Revival architecture, a pioneering style in the United States.

One of the park’s standout features is the California Tower, built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal and highlighted San Diego’s role as a gateway to the Pacific.

As you explore Balboa Park, you can enjoy the enchanting melodies of the world’s largest outdoor organ at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. The park is also home to renowned museums, including the San Diego Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History, and the delightful Spanish Village Art Center, where local artisans showcase their crafts.

This is probably the best destination if you’re visiting San Diego for one day from the San Diego cruise port or simply looking for free things to do in San Diego. A visit to Balboa Park offers a diverse range of activities, including exploring museums, strolling through gardens, and enjoying outdoor performances.

  • Address: House of Hospitality, 1549 El Prado Ste. 1, San Diego, CA 92101
  • Website: balboapark.org

2. San Diego Zoo

The San Diego Zoo is a world-renowned tourist attraction known for its commitment to wildlife conservation and education. Located in Balboa Park, it houses over 3,500 animals from around the globe in naturalistic habitats. You’ll explore diverse ecosystems, from lush rainforests to arid deserts, while observing rare and endangered species like giant pandas and California condors.

The zoo’s interactive exhibits and educational programs make it an engaging experience for all ages, offering a unique opportunity to connect with the animal kingdom while supporting vital conservation efforts.

3. Gaslamp Quarter

Sign over the entry to Gaslamp Quarter San Diego California

San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter is a historic and lively tourist attraction in downtown. Renowned for its Victorian architecture, it offers a bustling nightlife scene with bars and live music venues.

By day, visitors can explore boutique shops and art galleries, and enjoy diverse dining options. The district also hosts various events year-round, making it a dynamic destination for immersing in San Diego’s urban culture.

  • Address: Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego, CA 92101
  • Website: gaslamp.com

4. Seaport Village

Seaport Village draws tourists with its picturesque waterfront setting and an array of boutique shops, eateries, and scenic views along San Diego Bay. Visitors can explore unique boutiques, dine at seafood restaurants, or simply enjoy a leisurely stroll while taking in the stunning bay vistas.

With its captivating blend of shopping, dining, and oceanfront ambiance, Seaport Village is a must-visit spot that encapsulates the relaxed and vibrant spirit of San Diego’s waterfront culture.

5. USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum

USS Midway ship

Housed on a retired aircraft carrier, the USS Midway Museum offers a fascinating look at naval history and the experience of life on a carrier. Visitors will enjoy an immersive experience thanks to its extensive collection of aircraft, interactive exhibits, and firsthand accounts from veterans. 

Exploring the decks and hangar bays of this iconic ship allows visitors to appreciate the immense scale of naval operations while learning about the pivotal role it played during the Cold War and Gulf War eras. It’s a must-visit destination for history enthusiasts and families looking for an educational and engaging adventure in San Diego.

  • Address: 910 N Harbor Dr, San Diego, CA 92101
  • Website: midway.org

6. La Jolla

La Jolla, a picturesque coastal neighborhood in San Diego, offers an upscale shopping and dining scene along Prospect Street. With its art galleries and boutique shops, it provides a perfect blend of coastal beauty and urban charm, making it a delightful destination for any San Diego traveler.

If you’re a fan of marine life, you can visit the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography or explore the stunning La Jolla Cove, famous for its clear waters and resident seals and sea lions.

7. Coronado Island

Coronado Island Beach and hotel

Coronado Island, located across the bay from downtown San Diego, is a popular tourist destination known for its stunning beaches, upscale resorts like the historic Hotel del Coronado, and its laid-back atmosphere. 

Visitors can enjoy water sports, explore the island’s picturesque streets, and take in breathtaking views of the San Diego skyline. Rent a bike and explore the island’s charming streets. It’s a perfect spot for a relaxing day trip or a weekend getaway.

8. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park

houses in Old Town San Diego CA

Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is a popular San Diego tourist attraction that offers a glimpse into the city’s rich history. Visitors can explore historic adobe buildings, museums, and shops, immersing themselves in the 19th-century atmosphere of California’s early days.

It’s a vibrant cultural hub with lively events, restaurants serving Mexican cuisine, and informative exhibits, making it a must-visit for history enthusiasts.

9. Point Loma and Cabrillo National Monument

Point Loma and Cabrillo National Monument offer stunning coastal vistas and historical significance in San Diego. Visitors can explore tide pools, enjoy panoramic views of the city and ocean, and learn about the area’s maritime history.

The monument commemorates the landing of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European explorer to reach the West Coast in 1542, making it a captivating blend of natural beauty and historical intrigue.

These are just a few highlights of what San Diego has to offer. The city’s diverse attractions, ranging from cultural landmarks to natural beauty, make it a captivating destination for travelers.

10. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Torrey Pines Beach and coast, San Diego California

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a captivating tourist attraction in San Diego known for its stunning coastal views, rare Torrey Pine trees, and hiking trails

Visitors can explore the unique landscape, enjoy birdwatching, and take in panoramic vistas of the Pacific Ocean. It offers a peaceful escape into nature within the city, making it a must-visit for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers.

  • Address: 12600 N Torrey Pines Rd, La Jolla, CA 92037
  • Website: torreypine.org

Planning tips for the best San Diego trip

Here are some suggestions to help you make the most of your money and time in San Diego.

1. Plan ahead.

Book your flights, hotels, rental cars, and attraction tickets weeks before your planned trip. This way, you don’t have to worry about last-minute searches and reservations. You can have peace of mind during your travel, knowing that everything you need for your trip is ready and paid for.

2. Choose affordable accommodation options.

Consider staying in budget-friendly accommodations like motels, hostels, or vacation rentals like VRBO to save money on your San Diego trip. By choosing affordable lodging options, you can allocate more of your budget to exploring the city’s attractions and dining experiences.

3. Rent a car for added comfort and convenience.

While San Diego has a great public transportation system, nothing beats the flexibility and convenience of having private transportation that you can bring with you anywhere you want to go at any time you please. Consider getting a car rental in San Diego if you want a safe, sound, and comfortable ride during your vacation.

4. Find deals and take advantage of promotions.

Another money-saving tip for your upcoming San Diego trip is to take advantage of deals and promotions for flights, attractions, dining, spa, and other activities. Visit online sites and subscribe to brands’ newsletters to be updated about any current deals or discounts. You may also save money on entry to several of San Diego’s best sites and activities by purchasing a Go City San Diego pass.

5. Consider free parks and museums.

If you don’t want to spend a lot of money on theme parks, zoos, gardens, or adventure places, many San Diego parks and museums offer complimentary entrance. The Spanish Village Art Center, the Timken Museum of Art, the James McCoy House, and the Museum of Photographic Arts are just a few to consider.

6. Try local cuisines.

To truly immerse yourself in the rich San Diego culture, make sure that you try out the city’s local cuisines and delicacies, including street foods and local beers. Some of the local dining options you need to try are California-style pizza, sushi burritos, ceviche, and flavorful California carne asada burritos.

7. Buy souvenirs outside tourist destinations.

If you wish to buy souvenirs and memorabilia about San Diego but don’t want to spend a fortune, head to the local market. Souvenirs at well-known tourist destinations are typically overpriced.

Where to stay in San Diego

Downtown San Diego offers several advantages, such as proximity to popular attractions like the Gaslamp Quarter, Petco Park (home to the San Diego Padres), the USS Midway Museum, and the waterfront. You’ll also find a wide range of dining and nightlife options in the area.

  • High-End: The US Grant is a historic hotel offering luxury accommodations. It boasts an on-site spa and fine dining restaurant, making it perfect for a pampered stay.
  • Mid-Range: Courtyard by Marriott San Diego Downtown is a great option for those seeking comfort without the high price tag. The hotel offers spacious rooms, and a fitness center, and is conveniently located near popular attractions. 
  • Budget: Hostel on 3rd is a budget-friendly option that doesn’t skimp on comfort. The hostel is situated in the historic district, providing easy access to local attractions.

For a quieter, more residential atmosphere within a short drive of downtown San Diego’s attractions, stay in La Jolla. Located north of downtown, La Jolla offers beautiful beaches, fine dining, boutique shopping, and stunning ocean views.

  • High-end: The Lodge at Torrey Pines is a top pick among luxury accommodations in La Jolla. Situated on the edge of the Torrey Pines State Reserve, it offers an elegant ambiance and spectacular views of the Torrey Pines Golf Course and the Pacific Ocean. It’s about a 10-minute drive from central La Jolla, promising an unforgettable stay.
  • Mid-range: The Grande Colonial Hotel sits in the heart of La Jolla, offering a blend of historic charm and modern comfort. Within walking distance of many shops, restaurants, and the famous La Jolla Cove, this hotel offers easy access to local attractions, making it an ideal choice for travelers seeking convenience without sacrificing quality.
  • Budget: The Shoal Hotel La Jolla Beach is near a popular beach area called La Jolla Shores,. It provides comfortable accommodation with easy access to the beach and other local attractions. It’s about a 5-minute drive or 20-minute walk to the central area of La Jolla.

Getting around San Diego

push pin marking San Diego on a map

San Diego, with its sprawling landscapes and picturesque beaches, offers a diverse array of transportation options suited to different travel needs. Here’s a breakdown of how to efficiently traverse this sun-kissed city:

Public transit: The Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) is San Diego’s primary public transportation network. It includes buses and the iconic red trolleys that connect various parts of the city. The trolley system is especially tourist-friendly, taking you to popular destinations such as the San Diego Zoo, Mission Valley, and the Mexican border.

Car hire: If you’re looking for more freedom and flexibility on your trip, consider renting a car. Just remember that parking in downtown areas can be challenging, and the fees can be costly.

Ridesharing and taxis: Uber and Lyft operate extensively in San Diego, providing convenient and fast transport right at your fingertips. Traditional taxis are also readily available in most areas of the city.

Cycling: San Diego’s temperate climate and scenic bike paths make cycling a delightful way to explore. Numerous bike rental shops provide bikes for hire, and the city also supports dockless bike-sharing services.

On foot: For those based in downtown San Diego or staying near the main attractions, walking is an excellent way to soak in the city’s vibrant atmosphere. Areas like the Gaslamp Quarter, Little Italy, and the Embarcadero are particularly pedestrian-friendly.

Sunset in San Diego California. The text overlay says "San Diego."

FAQs about visiting San Diego, California

Where is San Diego?

The city of San Diego is located in Southern California, near the United States-Mexico border. Situated on the Pacific Ocean, it is approximately 120 miles (193 kilometers) south of Los Angeles.

When is the best time to visit San Diego?

The best time to visit San Diego is during the fall (September to November), when the weather is pleasant, the summer crowds have thinned out, and hotel prices are more affordable. However, San Diego enjoys mild and comfortable weather year-round, making it a popular destination at any time.

What is San Diego famous for?

San Diego is famous for its stunning beaches, perfect weather, world-renowned San Diego Zoo, and diverse cultural and culinary experiences. It is also known for its military presence, with several naval and marine bases in the area.

What are the most popular San Diego souvenirs?

Some popular San Diego souvenirs include locally crafted surfboards, beach-themed jewelry, Mexican pottery, vintage postcards, craft beers from local breweries, and San Diego-themed T-shirts and hats. You can also find unique items like sea glass jewelry and artisan chocolates as memorable mementos of your visit.

Final thoughts about these San Diego tourist attractions

San Diego, California, is a fun, vibrant, and interesting place to visit with your family, friends, or loved ones. Now that you know what to do and where to go during your trip, get out there and have a safe and comfortable trip that will leave a lasting memory for years to come!

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Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to over 50 countries. Her insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages inspired her to create As We Saw It, where she documents her trips, shares practical itineraries, and offers insider tips. She’s passionate about helping fellow travelers save time, money, and hassle, and loves to discover new places to explore.

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