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Looking to visit San Diego, California? Who wouldn’t want to visit the land of sunny, 75-degree weather and sandy beaches? Well, you’re in luck because we happen to live in America’s Finest City and know a thing or two about the best things to do in San Diego for first-time visitors.
Many of the items below are among our favorite things to do and places to go on the weekends.
At the end of each list item, we’ve included the costs of each activity as of the time of this writing (May 2020).
So here you go–the 9 most amazing things to do in San Diego for your first time, in no particular order. Nine things may not sound like much, but believe us, these will keep you occupied for days.
Visitors flock to San Diego’s expansive beaches throughout the year, but especially during the summer. If you’re in need of beach gear, Costco sells inexpensive Tommy Bahama folding beach chairs and umbrellas, sunscreen multi-packs, beach towels, coolers, pool noodles, boogie boards, water toys, and beach carts to tow all that stuff. You name it, Costco’s got it.
The Beach, brought to you by Costco.
Don’t have a Costco membership? If you have a Costco store near you, consider signing up for a membership, because Costco has all sorts of cool gear for the beach, kitchen, home, garden. and beyond.
Popular beaches near central/downtown San Diego include La Jolla Shores Park, Windansea Beach, Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, and Coronado Beach. Visitors staying north of San Diego will find great beaches in Del Mar, Solana Beach, Encinitas, and Carlsbad. Nudists will appreciate Black’s Beach; non-nudists will not (you have been warned)!
Free public parking lots are few and far between around San Diego’s beaches, and they fill up fast, particularly in the summer. Plan to arrive at the beach early in the morning–we’re talking 8:00 AM. Otherwise, we’ve had success finding free parking in neighborhoods and side streets and have rarely (or possibly never) paid for parking at a beach.
Beach access is free, but parking fees may apply.
2. San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park
The San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park are two very different parks in very different parts of the San Diego area, but we lumped them together because visitors can buy 2-day tickets to visit both parks.
The world-famous San Diego Zoo, often described as one of the best zoos in the United States, is located in Balboa Park, near downtown San Diego. While the famous pandas sadly returned to China a while back, the Zoo has many more animals to make up for the loss. Entrance tickets include a guided bus tour and the Skyfari aerial tram, which glides over the Zoo from one end to another.
Besides the animals, we appreciate the lush trees and landscaping that provide a tropical feel and plenty of shade. We love the Zoo so much, we have an annual membership and visit several times a year.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is located in Escondido, about 30 miles from San Diego. As the name may suggest, the Safari Park has a desert-y, Africa theme. Its inland location and lack of large trees and shade can make for an uncomfortably warm visit in the dead of summer. The Safari Park houses an exhibit called Walkabout Australia, where you can stroll through an enclosure with (usually napping) kangaroos. The Africa Tram carts you out to the African Plains, home to giraffes and other ungulates.
If you only have enough time for one, the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park wins hands down. The Zoo and Safari Park are without a doubt the best things to do in San Diego with kids, but adults will have a grand time, too!
- 1-day pass: adult (12 years+) $58, child (3-11) $48
- 2-visit pass: adult (12 years+) $92.80, child (3-11) $82.80. The 2-visit pass can be used for 1 visit to the Zoo and 1 visit to the Safari Park, 2 visits to the Zoo, or 2 visits to the Safari Park.
- 3-for-1 pass: adult (10 years+) $154, child (3-9) $144. Includes 1 visit to the Zoo, 1 visit to the Safari Park, and 1 visit to SeaWorld. Note that for this pass, the age range for children ends at age 9 versus 11.
3. Balboa Park
Besides the Zoo, Balboa Park is home to several museums, gardens, walking paths, and cultural buildings. Balboa Park’s buildings and grounds were built and designed for the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal.
From art to history to model railroads, Balboa Park has a museum to pique anyone’s interest:
- San Diego History Center
- San Diego Natural History Museum
- San Diego Museum of Man
- San Diego Air & Space Museum
- San Diego Automotive Museum
- San Diego Model Railroad Museum
- San Diego Mineral and Gem Society
- Fleet Science Center
- Centro Cultural de la Raza
- Marston House
- Mingei International Museum
- San Diego Art Institute
- Museum of Photographic Arts
- San Diego Museum of Art
- Timken Museum of Art
- Veterans Museum at Balboa Park
- World Beat Center
- Comic-Con Museum (coming soon)
The Botanical Building, Japanese Friendship Garden, and Rose Garden are our favorite gardens within Balboa Park, but the Park offers many more gardens to explore.
Events are frequently held at the Organ Pavilion, and street fairs with food vendors and performers fill the grounds. December Nights, held the first weekend of December, brings live entertainment and international food vendors to the Park.
The Prado is an excellent restaurant, but our favorite place to eat in the Park is Panama 66 at the San Diego Museum of Art. Panama 66 is a casual outdoor bar and restaurant adjacent to the museum’s sculpture garden and duck pond. Entrance to the museum is not required.
The Park itself is free, including parking lots and street parking. Parking is usually not a problem unless the park hosts a large event. Many museums have entrance fees. The Botanical Building is free, but it’s closed on Thursdays and holidays and is open for limited hours the rest of the week. The Rose Garden is also free.
The Japanese Friendship Garden has an entrance fee, but visitors with a membership card from the American Horticulturist Society or a garden participating in their Reciprocal Admissions Program may receive free admission.
4. Sea lions and seals at La Jolla Cove
First-timers MUST visit La Jolla Cove to see the seals and sea lions. These amusing creatures live at opposite ends of the Cove–barking sea lions at one end and lazy, sleepy seals at the other end. A walking path follows the coastline between the two habitats. Watch them splash in the water, flop onto rocks, and hit one another while changing sleeping positions. Prepare yourself for their unpleasant smell.
Sometimes snorkelers, swimmers, and kayakers are out in the water not far from the sea lions.
If you have time and an adventurous spirit, sign up for a guided sea kayaking tour. We kayaked in La Jolla Cove our first time in San Diego. Our two-person kayak tipped over in the water, and we had a heck of a time getting back into it, but we enjoyed the experience. The tour guide pointed out the multi-million dollar homes along the top of the bluffs that will eventually fall into the ocean due to cliff erosion.
Parking right around the Cove is brutal, but free street parking may be available near the shops and restaurants of La Jolla. Time limits may apply, so pay attention to the parking signs.
Free to park at and walk around the Cove.
5. Take the ferry or drive over the bridge to Coronado
Coronado, a ritzy part of San Diego, is home to the famous Hotel del Coronado (often referred to as simply Hotel del). Film buffs may remember the Hotel del Coronado was featured in the 1958 movie Some Like it Hot, starring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis.
There are a few ways to get to or from Coronado:
- Ride the ferry
- Drive over the iconic San Diego-Coronado Bridge
- Drive across the Silver Strand
The ferry to Coronado departs from Broadway Pier every hour or from the Convention Center every half hour. This is not a vehicle ferry, so once you get to Coronado you will need to walk or arrange transportation to your desired destination, or take a bike (or Segway!) with you on the ferry for free. The Hotel del Coronado is about 1.5 miles from the Coronado Ferry Center on the opposite side of the peninsula.
A bike path runs the course of the Silver Strand, so one could ferry to Coronado with bikes and pedal through Coronado, the Silver Strand, and Imperial Beach back to Broadway Pier or the Convention Center. At the end of the ride your legs will be on fire!
Cost: $5/person each way
San Diego-Coronado Bridge
Drive the two-mile San Diego-Coronado Bridge–Coronado Bridge, for short–for remarkable views of the city. Don’t be deterred by the toll booths; tolls are no longer collected to cross the bridge. Stopping the car or walking on the bridge is strictly prohibited. Bicyclists are not permitted.
Another option is to drive across the Silver Strand between Imperial Beach and Coronado. The Silver Strand is not particularly scenic, but it provides a different view than the bridge. Silver Strand State Beach is located along this stretch. For the best of both worlds, drive over the Coronado Bridge in one direction, and drive across the Silver Strand the other direction.
Cost: Free, unless you stop and park at Silver Strand State Beach.
6. USS Midway Aircraft Carrier
History lovers won’t want to miss the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum. Visitors can tour the WWII-era Aircraft Carrier and observe numerous planes on deck.
The museum does not have its own parking lot, but since the museum is located near downtown, parking garages abound. Of course, they charge parking fees. Street parking, if you can find any open spots, is usually metered or time-restricted.
Tickets for adult admission are $26, and there are options for seniors, students, kids, and veterans. There are also discounts if you add on a San Diego Harbor cruise. Purchase on the museum’s website rather than the ticket booth for discounted prices. LivingSocial or Groupon frequently have discounted admission deals (when we checked, Groupon had a deal for $12 admission).
We admittedly have never been to LEGOLAND, but we hear the kiddos love it. It’s a top thing to do with kids in the San Diego area, so if you and/or your children have an interest in going we recommend checking it out.
LEGOLAND California Resort consists of a theme park, a water park, and SEA LIFE aquarium. The water park and aquarium have additional fees on top of the theme park ticket. The resort also features two hotels: the LEGOLAND Resort Hotel and the LEGOLAND Castle Hotel.
Varies from day to day. Pricing starts at $89.99 for a 1-day theme park-only ticket, or $99.99 for a 1-day theme park plus aquarium ticket. Various ticket packages are available that may add on to the price. Online prices are lower than at the gate, so be sure to book online in advance. Check LivingSocial, Groupon, or local Costco stores for deals.
SeaWorld San Diego provides plenty of entertainment and is a great thing to do in San Diego with kids. Engage with orcas and dolphins, view comical sea lion shows, learn about sea creatures of all shapes and sizes, and experience thrilling rides.
Ticket prices are lower when purchased online in advance than at the gate. Pricing varies by day and by package, but when we checked the cheapest option appeared to be $73. Try checking out LivingSocial, Groupon, or Costco for deals.
9. Cabrillo National Monument
For panoramic views of downtown San Diego, San Diego Bay, Coronado, and the ocean, nothing compares to Cabrillo National Monument. Besides the view, visitors can tour the Old Point Loma Lighthouse; learn about the monument’s namesake, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to step foot on the West Coast of the U.S.; explore the visitor center; watch for whales during the winter months; and view sea creatures in the tidepools at low tide.
Prepare for a lengthy wait at the entrance gate on the weekends.
For a 7-day pass:
- Passenger vehicle: $20
- Motorcycle: $15
- Walk or bike: $10
Visitors with an America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass (aka Interagency Pass) can show their pass and ID at the entrance for free entry. This includes holders of an annual pass, annual 4th grade pass, senior pass, access pass, and volunteer pass.
Other things to do in San Diego your first time
If the list above isn’t enough for ya, or you’re planning an extended stay, here are some other great things to do in San Diego for first-time visitors.
Bringing a canoe, paddleboard, or kayak? Take them to Mission Bay, an enormous park where the water is calm enough to enjoy water sports without ocean waves.
Belmont Park and Mission Beach
If you visit Mission Beach, check out the nearby amusement park, Belmont Park, which boasts a wooden rollercoaster in operation since 1925. Admission and parking are free, but you’ll have to purchase tickets for the rides.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Hikers and nature lovers should explore Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve (TPSNR) in Del Mar, a beach city north of San Diego. TPSNR offers splendid views of the ocean and neighboring cities. All the trails are fairly short–the longest is 1-1/4 miles long–and many are flat, but there are a few heart-pumpers for more active souls. The Reserve is free to enter for those on foot or on bike, but vehicles must pay a parking fee that can range from $15-25. Word of warning: the parking lots fill up by late morning, so arrive early. Otherwise, you will be forced to park elsewhere and walk or Uber to the Reserve.
To learn the history of San Diego and savor Mexican fare, head to Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.
Torrey Pines Golf Course
Die-hard golfers should book a tee time at the world-renowned Torrey Pines Golf Course, where the 2021 U.S. Open will be held.
Baseball game at Petco Park
Baseball fans visiting in the summer should catch a San Diego Padres game at Petco Park. Even in the summer, evening games can be a little chilly, so take a light jacket.
Depending on the weather, a harbor cruise is an enjoyable way to view San Diego from the water. Many cruises offer dining options and special events, such as craft beer or wine tastings. Check LivingSocial or Groupon for discounted tour tickets.
If you’re here between late November and March or April, book a whale-watching tour (again, LivingSocial and Groupon are great sources for discounted tours). Take along binoculars, a warm jacket, and a camera. We took Christina’s parents on a whale-watching tour one December and saw four whales!
Go San Diego card
Visitors planning to go to several attractions (the Zoo and Safari Park, USS Midway, LEGOLAND, SeaWorld) may wish to look into the Go San Diego Card. Multiple card types and lengths are available.
- Build Your Own pass: visitors select the sights they wish to see.
- Explorer pass: visitors choose whether to visit 3, 4, 5, or 7 attractions.
- All-Inclusive: visitors can purchase multi-day passes offering unlimited access to attractions.
Pricing varies depending on the options chosen, so visit the Go San Diego Card website for pricing.
Hope this list was helpful!
We hope the list inspires you to explore San Diego and the wonderful things to do here.
Already been to San Diego and done all the things above? Stay tuned for future posts about things to do in San Diego that aren’t as well-known! (Hint, hint, subscribe to our blog below to get updates on new posts!)
Have you been? Would you go?
Have you been to San Diego? If so, do you agree with our list of 9 top things to do in San Diego for the first time someone visits? Do you have something to add? Tell us in the comments!
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