Let’s be honest: there’s no such thing as a bad time to vacation in San Diego. But when’s best to visit will mostly depend on what kind of break you’re looking for. Cultural sightseeing trip? Visit in February for half-price entry to dozens of museums during San Diego Museum Month. Traveling on a budget? You’ll find some of the best hotel rates between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. Just looking to top up your tan? July through September is when beaches swarm with sun-worshippers as temperatures soar. Check out our short guide to the best time to visit San Diego, by season.
March through May is a fine time to visit San Diego, with low hotel rates compared to the summer season and Balboa Park’s thousands of flowers coming into spectacular bloom. Pack a picnic and make a pilgrimage to the city’s great green lung, where March is your last opportunity to admire flowering succulents and cacti in the Desert Garden, all brilliant reds, oranges and pinks contrasting with the dark green flesh of these otherworldly plants. Conversely, the neighboring Rose Garden is just getting started, with its near-200 varieties creating an absolute riot of scent and color through its peak in April and May. Meanwhile, March's enchanting Cherry Blossom Festival in the zen-like Japanese Friendship Garden will make all your Instagram dreams come true.
This time of year sees beach life in San Diego already in full swing, with skaters whizzing along the boardwalk at Pacific Beach, firepit cookouts in front of the legendary Hotel del Coronado and kids foraging for mussels, anemones and hermit crabs at low-tide in the kelp-rich tidepools under Ocean Beach Pier and around La Jolla Cove. You can swim, snorkel and surf in the San Diego sea year-round, but you'll want to bring a wetsuit (or rent one from one of the city’s many, many surf shops) if you’re planning on getting wet in March, when the water temperature is still a teeth-chattering 60°F.
May tends to bring overcast skies to San Diego. This coastal phenomenon is known locally as the ‘May Gray’ and just happens to make for ideal conditions for hiking the canyons, exploring Balboa Park’s trails or renting a bike to explore the long, rugged coastline with its plethora of sandy beaches. Indeed, for active outdoor types, this may be the best time to visit San Diego, when you get to have all the fun without the sweat. It’s also when the huge zydeco, blues and crawfish festival that is Gator by the Bay rolls into town, with great live music and dancing, plus 10,000 pounds of live crawfish imported straight from Louisiana and cooked to sizzling perfection, Cajun and Creole style!
As summer kicks off in earnest, you’ll find wetsuit-free locals and vacationers splashing around in the sea, even as the May Gray continues, becoming – wait for it – the ‘June Gloom’. Don’t worry, it’ll soon burn off! This is the season when sun-worshippers in search of that perfect California tan can be found lounging on beaches along the coast, with an occasional languid foray into the water to cool off. Average daily highs hit 77°F in August, so don’t forget your essentials: sunglasses, an oversized floppy hat and lashings of sunscreen!
As well as being San Diego’s hottest season, it’s also its most expensive, with prices soaring in tandem with the summer temperatures, particularly in July when the massive comic book convention that is Comic-Con takes over Downtown, pushing hotel prices higher than Superman can fly – that’s if you can even find a Downtown hotel with any rooms left available. Hillcrest – heart of San Diego’s thriving LGBTQ+ community – also hosts the annual Pride Festival around this time, putting a further squeeze on the city center, but otherwise making it a lively time to visit. Prices increase everywhere at this time but, if you like your summer break a little less hectic, you may find the laid back beachy vibe of family-friendly La Jolla and boho Ocean Beach a little more palatable.
Cool off at the San Diego International Beer Festival in June, when ale aficionados can sip, slurp and sample their way through hundreds of beers and ciders from nearly 200 breweries. Of course, great beer is a year-round preoccupation here in the craft-brewing capital of the US, where you can barely leave your hotel without accidentally stumbling into a microbrewery taproom, especially in hip young neighborhoods like North Park, Hillcrest and Ocean Beach. This convention at the Del Mar Fairgrounds merely serves to cement that reputation. Bottoms up!
September through November delivers some of the best times to visit San Diego, with clear blue skies, balmy Santa Ana breezes and relatively low rates between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. With kids back at school, major attractions like Pacific Beach, SeaWorld and San Diego Zoo are way less crowded, while late summer and early fall also sees some of the best surfing conditions, when surfers ride the gnarly swells beneath Sunset Cliffs and off the La Jolla coastline, especially at Black’s and Windansea beaches.
A glut of events and celebrations lend a real carnival spirit to fall in San Diego, when the world’s fastest super-boats tear around Mission Bay for the San Diego Bayfair and America’s biggest military air show lifts off in Miramar. In October, kids go free at many of San Diego’s biggest attractions, including the zoo, LEGOLAND and the USS Midway Museum. Meanwhile, November’s rock-bottom rates, week-long beer festival (yes, another!) and the San Diego Bay Food and Wine Festival make for a fine cocktail of affordable gluttony and boozy revelry.
Winter is a great time to visit San Diego, thanks to the mild climate and stacks of seasonal events. Prices are inevitably up again during the festive period, but it’s worth it for the opportunity to ice-skate in your shorts at Hotel del Coronado’s annual Skating by the Sea event, right? Come for the Christmassy goings-on at Balboa Park’s December Nights festival, including magical light displays, carol singing and fab street food; stay for the Parade of Lights, when boats draped in colorful festive lights and holiday decorations cruise through San Diego Bay by the dozen.
December to March is whale-watching season, when gray whales migrate en masse from Alaska to the warm calving grounds of Baja’s lagoons and spotters crowd the cliffs from La Jolla to the Point Loma peninsula in the hope of catching a glimpse. Get up close on a whale-spotting boat trip: there are plenty departing from in and around Mission Bay every day during migration season. You’ve nothing to lose: most will guarantee a sighting or refund your money, and you really can’t say fairer than that.
Culture vultures make a beeline for San Diego’s world-class museums every February when Museum Month knocks 50% off the entry price at close to 50 venues. This includes big-hitters such as the San Diego Museum of Art and Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park as well as Downtown’s historic Gaslamp Museum and New Children’s Museum. Associated events in public libraries, where you can pick up your pass, are free.