Top 10 Things To Do In San Diego That are Fun and Cheap

Nature, culture, sun, surf—San Diego has it all.

From its pristine sandy beaches to renowned Balboa Park, San Diego offers visitors and residents alike plenty of things to do and see, no matter your inclination or interest. Outdoor buffs can enjoy a hike along sandstone cliffs or hang ten in one of the city’s many beaches.

But no need to worry if sun and sand aren’t your thing—there are plenty of quirky shops, tasty restaurants, and exciting nightclubs that make San Diego the ideal vacation destination.

Consult this definitive guide to plan your trip and find things to do in San Diego.

1. Hike Sandstone Cliffs in Torrey Pines State Reserve

Torrey Pines State Reserve
Flickr/ Ryan Benoit

With over 8 miles of hiking and opportunities for bird watching, the 1700-acre Torrey Pines State Reserve is a nature lover’s paradise.

Visitors of all hiking abilities can enjoy the spectacular coastal views offered by the reserve’s trails, while those looking for a place to cool off can take a dip in one or two of San Diego’s more secluded beaches—Torrey Pines State Beach to the north and Black’s Beach to the south.

Even if you’re not up for a hike or a swim, you’ll have the chance to glimpse one of the rarest pine species in the U.S., the Torrey Pine.

Admission to the reserve costs between $10 and $15, depending when you go and where you park.

2. Shop till You Drop at Seaport Village

Seaport Village
Flickr/ San Diego Convention Center

Balance your days in the sun and sand with a trip to Seaport Village. Located on San Diego’s Big Bay, this 14-acre waterfront complex recreates a century-old harbor side setting and features a wide array of shopping, dining, and entertainment options for travelers of all ages and interests.

Seaport Village is housed in the city’s Old Police Headquarters, which offers a destination in itself, particularly for architecture and history fans.

With over 50 shops, 17 restaurants, and unique events, concerts, and festivals like the Busker Festival, Seaport Village has something for everyone.

3. Get a Different Perspective on a Boat Tour

Boat Tour
Rudee Flipper

One of the highlights of a trip to San Diego—and one of the things that draws thousands of visitors each year—is the city’s breathtaking aquatic landscape. While you can swim along the city’s many shorelines or watch a stunning sunset from an ocean side bar, one of the best ways to explore San Diego’s watery avenues is on a boat tour.

There are so many types of boat tours you can enjoy in San Diego: a wide array of companies and charters offer sightseeing tours, wildlife and history tours, dining cruises, sailing and paddling adventures, water taxi services, and ferry boat services.

Prices for boat tours depend upon the type of tour you’re looking for, as well as the number of people in your party.

4. Watch Out for Whales on a Whale Watching Tour

Whale Watching Tour
Wikimedia Commons/ Luca Nebuloni

Perhaps one of the most exciting things to do in San Diego is to take a whale watching tour. Even if you’re not much of a sailor, you can’t help but be mesmerized by the sight of a whale in its natural habitat.

And if you’re not lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one of these magnificent mammals from shore, charter a tour for the chance to see the annual migration of many species of whale.

There are too many whale watching tour companies offering year-round tours to count—check the San Diego Tourism Authority website for a list of your options and pricing.

5. Snap a Photo in La Jolla Cove

La Jolla Cove
Wikimedia Commons/ Dirk Hansen

La Jolla Cove is a tiny, picturesque cove and beach tucked away among stunning sandstone cliffs. Even first time visitors to the cove may recognize the place: its astonishing beauty make La Jolla Cove one of the most popular destinations for photographers in Southern California.

Aquatic life and marine flora and fauna are abundant here, since La Jolla Cove is part of the San Diego La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Preserve.

What’s more, with little surf and few surfers to go along with it, La Jolla Cove is the ideal beach for scuba diving, snorkeling, and swimming, especially in summer.

6. Take a Trolley Tour in the Gaslamp Quarter

Gaslamp Quarter
Flickr/ Chad McDonald

While San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter is known for its nightlife, you don’t have to be a night owl to enjoy this 16-block entertainment district. Victorian style structures house the Gaslamp Quarter’s myriad shops, restaurants, art galleries, and nightlife venues.

Stroll through the main outdoor shopping center, Horton Plaza, or some of the side streets for eclectic finds and tasty treats. You can even hop on an Old Town Trolley Tour for a historic view of the neighborhood and the rest of the city.

After a day of shopping and eating, if you’re not ready to party the night away, enjoy a drink or snack from one of the many patios and rooftop lounges that line the streets of this iconic neighborhood.

7. Get Cultured in Balboa Park

Balboa Park
Wikimedia Commons/ Bernard Gagnon

No trip to San Diego is complete without a visit to Balboa Park. This huge, 1200-acre park is the cultural center of San Diego and houses a variety of museums, galleries, gardens, and other attractions like the world famous San Diego Zoo.

Take a walk, ride a bicycle, or have a picnic in one of the park’s many sprawling green spaces.

Visit one of its 15 museums, catch a play at the Old Globe Theater, or simply admire the stunning Spanish-Renaissance architecture that comprises many of the park’s buildings and structures. While admission to the park itself is free, some of the attractions charge their own admissions fees.

If you’re planning to spend a few days exploring Balboa Park, the Passport to Balboa Park, which costs $89 for adults and $52 for children, offers admission into all the museums and the zoo for 7 days.

8. Go Wild at the San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo
Flickr/ Rob Osborne

You’d be hard-pressed to see everything the San Diego Zoo has to offer. The iconic 100-acre park houses almost 4000 animals in sprawling natural habitats. An expansive network of designated trails links the different exhibits and also brings visitors into contact with a variety of monkeys and colorful birds.

Since the zoo is so extensive, you might consider taking a bus tour to get your bearings and help you decide which of the many trails you’d like to explore. You also have the option of hopping aboard the Skyfari aerial tram, which offers riders a bird’s-eye view of the zoo and its habitats.

The San Diego Zoo is located in Balboa Park. Hours vary based on season, but admission fees stay the same no matter the season: $46 for adults 12 and up, and $36 for children ages 3 to 11.

9. See Even More Animals at SeaWorld San Diego

SeaWorld San Diego
Flickr/ C.

If you didn’t get your fill of marine wildlife at the San Diego Zoo or on one of the city’s many whale watching tours, you can check out sharks, whales, manta rays, and more at SeaWorld San Diego. SeaWorld has something for visitors of all ages, making it an ideal destination for families with children.

SeaWorld also boasts rides like the Manta Rollercoaster and Journey to Atlantis, and shows featuring your favorite aquatic performers.

Some of the not-to-miss animal exhibits include the underwater shark viewing tunnel and the park’s penguin habitat, home to almost 300 birds! You can buy tickets online for $69 each; if you purchase them at the park, the fee is $89 per ticket. An additional $16 fee for parking makes SeaWorld a pricey, though fun, experience.

10. Navigate Life on an Aircraft Carrier at the USS Midway Museum

USS Midway Museum
Flickr/ Al_HikesAZ

Step aboard the USS Midway, the 20th century’s longest serving U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, and enter a city at sea. Once on board, you’ll be able to walk in the footsteps of Midway sailors and relive 50 years of American naval history as you explore over 60 different exhibits with 29 restored aircraft on the historic vessel.

While your admission includes a self-guided audio tour to exhibits like the crew’s sleeping quarters or the primary flight control and bridge, be sure to take advantage of the docents who you’ll meet along your journey.

These docents, many of whom are military veterans, are eager to share facts, information, and stories to enhance your experience on board this historic aircraft carrier.

Adults pay $20 for admission, seniors $17, and children ages 6 to 12 and retired military $10, though you’ll receive a $2 discount on each ticket if you purchase them through the museum’s website.

No matter your interests or budget, it’s easy to find activities and attractions in San Diego to make your trip to the city unforgettable. In fact, there are so many things to do in San Diego that one vacation just might not be enough to explore all the city has to offer.

That shouldn’t be too much of a problem, though, since the city’s numerous beaches, parks, restaurants, shops, monuments, and museums beckon visitors back time and time again—sometimes, for good!

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