Planning a vacation to America's Finest City? Our insiders put together a list of our top free things to do in San Diego that are sure to be fun for you and your family!
You can enjoy the nearly perfect weather and beautiful sandy beaches without emptying your wallet. One of the draws of San Diego is that it's an inexpensive vacation destination with endless opportunities for fun. These great suggestions can help round out your vacation itinerary.
1. Balboa Park
This beautiful urban cultural park is the heart of San Diego. Containing 15 museums, 19 gardens, a golf complex, a tennis club, trails for hiking and biking, dog parks, multiple playgrounds, restaurants, and so much more, Balboa Park has practically everything you can think of.
While some of the museums charge low fees for admission, many of the attractions are free to the public, including most of the gardens. If you don’t want to spend money at a restaurant (although we do recommend the Prado), pack a picnic lunch and lounge in one of the many open areas.
Be sure to seek out the Spreckels Organ Pavilion featuring one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs – a sight to behold! This pipe organ has been part of the Balboa Park landscape since 1914, so it’s a favorite among locals. You can enjoy free concerts each Sunday at 2PM, showcasing waltzes, show tunes, and other classic organ favorites.
Check out our comprehensive guide of things to do in Balboa Park - top attractions, museums, and more.
2. Seaport Village
Come to Seaport Village to explore 14 acres of shops, restaurants, and entertainment options with the whole family. It's a delightful place to stroll with the kids, and offers plenty in the way of window shopping and affordable bay-front lunches. They also host a number of free events throughout the year, including multiple live concerts and holiday-themed events for families (think photos with the Easter Bunny or Santa).
You'll find more going on in the spring and summer months, too, including their annual Busker Fest. Usually held sometime in March, the Busker Fest is California's only busker festival. It features exhilarating tricks and attractions like juggling, pogo-stick jumping, knife-throwing, and more. They also offer a "Busker After Dark" session in the evenings for the 18+ crowd with more live entertainment.
3. U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista
Visit the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista to take a self-guided free tour, or go on a Saturday to get a complimentary tour provided by the Training Center staff. This 150-acre training facility is one of only 3 in the country.
On your excursion, you'll see the training fields and tracks, athlete dorms, and the Otay Lake Reservoir. This activity is wonderful for young athletes with big dreams!
4. Point Loma
Voyage to Point Loma and let the kids explore the tide pools at low tide. You’ll love getting up close to the variety of sea creatures you'll find here. Flowery anemones, spongy dead man's fingers, and scuttling crabs are just a few of the fascinating animals to discover.
Don't forget about a stop at the Old Point Loma Lighthouse and Cabrillo National Monument - two popular landmarks located in Point Loma.
5. Mission Beach
No San Diego experience is complete without a trip to Mission Beach. Depending on which part of the beach you hit, have a thrilling adventure or a peaceful afternoon. The kids can play in the sand and collect seashells while you bask in the sun.
Bicycle, rollerblade, or walk along the 3-mile Mission Beach Boardwalk, or get in on the action at the Belmont Park area of the beach, a great place for people watching.
6. Mission Bay Park
This 4,200-acre park includes 27 miles of shoreline, a large majority of which is beautiful white sand beaches. In addition to spending time on some of the best beaches around, visitors to Mission Bay Park can look forward to marinas, picnic areas, sand volleyball courts, a horseshoe court, fire rings, children's playgrounds, and paths for biking and jogging.
Mission Bay Park is also home to several wildlife preserves, making it a great place to go and observe California's indigenous birds and other wildlife in their natural habitat.
7. Torrey Pines State Park
A picnic in the park is one of the best free things to do in San Diego with kids. So pack a picnic basket and trek to Torrey Pines State Park for a family luncheon on the gorgeous San Diego coastline.
You’ll be entertained by the daring hang-gliders practicing tricks in the strong winds off the coastal cliffs. This 1750-acre reserve is home to a beach and hiking trails that run through wild pine forests, making it a memorable destination.
8. Torrey Pines Glideport
Torrey Pines is a city-owned glider airport used by paragliders to take flight over the picturesque beaches and rocky dunes surrounding the area. They also offer private paragliding lessons and has been rated the number one paragliding school in the United States since 2000.
While taking lessons here isn't free, enjoying the site itself is, and many families come to the here to picnic and spend the day watching paragliders sail around the clear blue skies.
9. The Gaslamp Quarter
Located in downtown San Diego, Gaslamp Quarter is a 16.5 block section filled with renovated Victorian architecture from the turn-of-the-century and is officially on the National Register of Historic Places. It's a peaceful, scenic location with streets that are lined with boutiques, specialty shops, and art galleries.
Spend the day exploring then stop by one of Gaslamp Quarter's top restaurants for a perfect day in downtown San Diego. If you decide to stick around in the evening, this is also an excellent place for a romantic foodie dinner with more than 100 restaurants to choose from.
Tip: Check out one of the rooftop bars for excellent views of downtown and the Coronado Bridge.
10. Old Town San Diego
This fascinating historic district is the oldest settled are in San Diego and the oldest remaining European settlement in California. It contains many historic structures, from a blacksmith shop to the oldest schoolhouse in San Diego. Other highlights include Seeley Stables, the Estudillo House, the Stewart House, and the Whaley House.
While some of these historic buildings charge a small fee for a tour, many of them do not and you can always wander past without paying a penny. This neighborhood is also famous for its tasty Mexican food and refreshing margaritas, so come hungry! Parking is going to be tricky, so consider hopping aboard a trolley or sightseeing bus.
11. Coronado Municipal Beach
Coronado beach is consistently rated as one of the top ten beaches in the nation, and for good reason. The beach is kept exceptionally clean, and natural protection from a nearby point means that the water is almost always calm and perfect for swimming.
As an added bonus, the north end of the beach (known simply as "North Beach") is dog-friendly, meaning your four-legged pal can get in on the adventure too.
12. San Diego's 59-Mile Scenic Drive
If you want to experience some of the best sites in San Diego in the form of a short, relaxing road trip, San Diego's 59-mile scenic drive is the perfect destination.
This drive takes you past miles of scenic coastline, bays with yachts dotting the water, the San Diego skyline, the surrounding mountains, and even the Mexican border.
The trip can be split up into a couple of days with stops along the way or can easily be driven straight through to the end. Either way, it's a great way to experience the highlights of San Diego.
13. The Children's Pool
In 1931, a philanthropist named Ellen Browning Scrips had a seawall built in order to make a protected area that would be perfect for children to swim in.
Today, The Children's Pool remains a popular destination, thanks in part to the calm waters and also in part to the abundance of seals that visit the area daily. It's the perfect spot to go for a swim and watch the entertaining antics of the seals playing on the beach.
14. San Diego Embarcadero
Another excellent historical site in the city of San Diego, the San Diego Embarcadero is named after the Spanish word for "landing place" and is home to a number of historic ships including the famous USS Midway.
Stop by the Embarcadero to admire the hundreds of ships, tour the USS Midway Naval Museum (admission required), and watch the cruise ships that port at the Embarcadero come and go. Be sure to bring your camera, too, as the sun setting behind these ships makes for a wonderful photo opportunity.
15. Mt. Soledad Veteran's Memorial
This mountain serves as a memorial to all those who served honorably in the US military, and a variety of monuments and plaques can be found on top of it. In addition to this, visiting the top of Mt. Soledad is a great way to take in the full breadth of the city. Its peak offers a stunning 360-degree view of San Diego that is a must-see.
16. La Jolla Cove Wildlife
While there are many activities you can undertake in La Jolla Cove that incur some cost (like kayaking, surfing, or paddle boarding), there's also plenty to do for free in this stunning natural setting.
One of the most popular things to do in La Jolla Cove is to watch the sea lions and seals sunbathe on the beaches. You're most likely to find the sea lions near the cliffs, while the seals prefer the area near the Children's Pool. These fascinating creatures, while excellent subjects for photography, are still wild animals; please maintain a safe distance away to avoid threatening or scaring the animals. Visitors can also opt to enjoy a stroll along the shores – another great chance to snap some memorable photos and enjoy the sea breezes.
17. Hotel del Coronado
This historic hotel was constructed during the late nineteenth century and is a rare example of the Victorian-era beach resort. Today it's a luxury hotel offering the best in accommodation for travelers looking for that extra special experience. Or, if you're not staying there, then the stunning red and white Victorian architecture will serve as an excellent background for that all-inmportant Instagram fodder!
That said, you can explore the hotel's property and its surrounding beaches without paying a dime. We've already mentioned the beach, but did you know that you can also scope out Bayview Park and Centennial Park for free? There are several other park options on the island, too.
If you prefer a more active vacation, then you can play tennis, soccer, or baseball in Coronado Cays Park for no cost. Just bring your own equipment! There's even a world-class skate park for the adventurous among you.
18. Coronado Historical Association & Museum
Located just up the street from the Hotel Del, you'll find the Coronado Historical Association. This non-profit organization is designed to help preserve Coronado's unique architectural, artistic, cultural, and social resources.
If you're interested in learning more about this fascinating little historic island – a charming vestige of a time long gone by – then stop by their Museum. A combination of engaging permanent exhibits and rotating temporary displays tell the story of Coronado Island for kids and adults alike.
A Way to Save on Ticketed San Diego Attractions
We know that this blog post is about listing the FREE things to do in San Diego, but, are you looking to visit a few of the ticketed attractions during your vacation? Consider using a pass for San Diego with Go City® - which includes admission to dozens of the area's most popular attractions - all for one low price. See all available San Diego attractions, passes & prices. A pass for San Diego will save you on combined admission vs paying at the gate.