8 of the best things to do in San Diego

Roughly two hours south from the hustle of Hollywood (depending on LA traffic), oh-so laid-back San Diego offers a different Californian experience.

Despite being the second largest city in the state, you’ll find innumerable quiet corners and scenic views – an ideal destination for having your cake and eating it, too, when it comes to enjoying both city and nature in one go. Around 50 miles of pristine beaches offer plenty of variety, making it enticing to sneak away for some blissful solitude or indulge in the opposite by grabbing a drink at a buzzy beach bar. It’s easy to hop between many different realities here.

There aren’t so many large cities we’d readily describe as “relaxing,” but San Diego is one of them. The city is anything but sleepy, though – with nightlife ranging from elegant to eclectic – luring in socialites to sample its myriad bars, breweries and events of all styles. Whether you’re looking for a packed bar blasting early 2000s hip-hop or a sparklingly fancy rooftop with skyscraper views, you’ll find both (and everything in between) here. 

Here’s our guide to the best things to do in San Diego. 

A building with a tall bell tower in landscaped parkland
Balboa Park has many different attractions to explore, including the zoo and several museums © Dancestrokes / Shutterstock

1. Explore the arts, culture and gardens of Balboa Park

Think of it as the Central Park of San Diego: the leafy Balboa Park sprawls over 1200 acres in the heart of the city, bordering both downtown and the neighborhoods of North and South Park. More than a beautiful green space (although that reason alone is definitely worth visiting for), it’s also home to multiple museums, the beloved San Diego Zoo, a Japanese garden, arts and crafts shops, plus eateries. Head over and picnic under the shade of a massive pine tree, or make a whole day of it and tick off the park’s attractions one by one.

Planning tip: If you want to do it all, the park’s Explorer Pass is the most simple and cost-effective way.

2. Discover your favorite San Diego beach

Every beach in San Diego has its own personality, and whichever one you prefer says something about you (if you were to ask a local). Whether you’re a surf enthusiast or prefer to be horizontal under the sunshine with minimal movement, there’s a coastline for you. 

Up north around La Jolla, Windansea Beach beckons with salty rock formations and dazzlingly bright sand greeted by strong waves. It’s an idyllic place to unwind, seemingly far from any city. Mission Beach and Pacific Beach are two classic San Diego beach picks, neighboring each other northwest of downtown. A long boardwalk frequented by cyclists and skaters creates a lively feel, and you’re never too far away from a place serving margaritas. There’s plenty of party to be had, not to mention a giant roller coaster steps from Mission Beach. Expect crowds, especially at sunset.

Further south, Ocean Beach draws volleyball enthusiasts and a typically chill crowd. You might even encounter a random drum circle if you’re lucky. Even further south, Coronado Beach might be the chillest of the lot, a short drive over a long bridge from downtown. The views do not disappoint. This non-exhaustive list should be enough to get you started – though we highly recommend exploring on your own to discover the rest.

Local tip: Check out the farmers market on Wednesdays on Newport Ave just off of Ocean Beach. It’s a vibe.

A rocky bluff out into the ocean with a boardwalk weaving through the headland
Feel like you’re having a camping adventure right near the city at Torrey Pines © Rocky89 / Getty Images

3. Walk around Torrey Pines Nature Reserve

Twenty-ish minutes from downtown San Diego, Torrey Pines Nature Reserve is simply chef’s kiss when it comes to seaside hiking and staggering cliffside views. This coastal state park is still within the city limits, but feels far from it. The meandering sandy trails, together with the fresh scents of pine trees and sage shrubs, give off the vibes that you’re on a camping trip and should be setting up a tent at any moment. Hike around the rolling hills, then descend down the steps to the beautiful Torrey Pines State Beach.

Detour: While you’re in the area, check out the Birch Aquarium. It’s just south of Torrey Pines, home to some lovely marine life and equally as lovely views of the sea.

4. Enjoy art and great food in Barrio Logan

Barrio Logan, an area south of downtown, is full of Mexican-American heritage and arts at every corner. It’s full of delights for the senses, from galleries and large-scale murals to fragrant taco joints and craft breweries. In the heart of Barrio Logan, Chicano Park lies under the Coronado Bridge, a historical landmark where settlers from Mexico arrived back in 1890 – and is now essentially an outdoor art museum doused in vibrant hues of color across dozens of intricate murals.

Planning tip: Arrive hungry. Barrio Logan is definitely a foodie’s destination, with incredible Mexican cuisine that’s worth saving room for. The tacos and tamales at Las Cuatro Milpas are the real deal. If you’re wondering what to eat in San Diego, let this be the first place you try.

Several seals sun themselves on a rock
Sea lions can be seen from a distance near La Jolla Cove © Daniel M. Silva / Shutterstock

5. Check out La Jolla Cove

The cheerful neighborhood of La Jolla sits right on a rugged coastline, where jagged rocks form tide pools full of tiny little undersea worlds. La Jolla Cove is one particularly gorgeous strip of the coast, where you’ll understandably encounter plenty of onlookers for the postcard-like vista – and oftentimes a plethora of sea lions lazing about onshore. Order a scoop of Bobboi Natural Gelato (the most delicious in San Diego) and enjoy it while you walk around the cover area.

Planning tip: After too many accounts of selfie-stick-wielding people getting way too close to sea lions, the city decided to close La Jolla Beach to the public – meaning you can’t access the actual beach but can observe the views from above. It’s still 100% worth a visit, but plan on posting up on the sand elsewhere.

6. Hang out in North Park and South Park

Most visitors stick to the coastal neighborhoods, missing out on North Park and South Park. These two neighborhoods blend into one another, full of funky hangouts and minimalist-chic coffee shops that would make any hipster proud. Though mostly residential, the main drags of North Park (University Ave and 30th St) are replete with restaurants of all cuisines, creatively designed bars, and little boutique shops. It’s quieter down in South Park, but you’ll encounter the same charm. Grab a drink at Part Time Lover, a bar and record shop combination with an opulently designed interior.

Local tip: Parking in North Park can be a nightmare on the weekends. Plan to walk a little bit, or just Uber or take public transportation into the area.

Shopping in South Park? Visit this vintage store, and other independent shops in San Diego

A night time shot of a busy street scene. A large banner sign reads "Gaslamp Quarter: historic heart of San Diego".
Head to the Gaslamp Quarter for its nightlife after an event at Petco Park © LPETTET / Getty Images

7. Watch a game or attend a concert at Petco Park

Even if you’re not a baseball enthusiast, watching a game at Petco Park is pretty iconic. Backed by shiny skyscrapers, this stadium is home to the San Diego Padres, embodying the spirit of the city and all its hometown pride. Petco Park is busy year-round, even when the team is away. The stadium also hosts plenty of concerts by big-name artists and newer performers.

Detour: The Gaslamp Quarter is right next to Petco Park – a lively area full of restaurants, bars and clubs. Things can get rowdy at night, and if you’re looking for a party, you’ll find it here.

8. Wine and dine in Little Italy

Upscale cocktail bars and inviting restaurants with al fresco dining line the streets of Little Italy, a neighborhood that earned its name from generations of Italian heritage. You will, indeed, find Italian food – but also a whole collection of international fare from top chefs, putting this area on the map as one of San Diego’s finest dining destinations. In the heart of the neighborhood is Piazza della Famiglia – a European-style plaza – that makes the name “Little Italy” all the more convincing. 

Planning tip: Visit on Saturdays or Wednesdays for the Little Italy Mercato: the largest farmers market in town, spanning six blocks.

This article was first published Jun 17, 2021 and updated Jun 3, 2024.

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