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San Diego skyline and waterfront with several boats
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The 10 Best Things to Do in San Diego

SmarterTravel

There are so many reasons San Diego is nicknamed “America’s Finest City”—and near-perfect weather tops the list. Because it’s 72 degrees and sunny pretty much all year round, the SoCal city is an ideal vacation spot whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast or you just don’t want to worry about rain while you’re sightseeing. And there are so many sights to see. Although San Diego is best known for its beaches, it’s also filled with rich history and culture and is quickly becoming a top destination for foodies. Here are the 10 best things to do in San Diego. 

Lois Alter Mark has lived in San Diego for nearly 25 years. A native New Yorker, she’s traded in her snow boots for flip flops and gotten used to making a right on red. Her perfect San Diego day would be spent at Del Mar Beach after starting with manhole-sized pancakes at Potato Shack. It would include an hour of pickleball at Bobby Riggs Racket & Paddle and end with a Monkey Stick at Station Sushi and double scoop of Pear & Blue Cheese ice cream at Salt & Straw.

Head Straight to the Beach

Belmont Park and Mission Beach in San Diego, California
Crown Point Design | Adobe Stock

With 70 miles of stunning coastline, San Diego is all about the beach. Each one has its own distinct personality and there’s literally a beach to fit every need. It’s always a party at Pacific Beach (“PB” to locals), a favorite of college students. Families tend to gather at Mission Beach, the home of Belmont Park, a beloved boardwalk amusement park featuring the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster.

Drive over the bridge to Coronado, where the mica-filled gold sand actually sparkles and you can take Instagram-worthy beach photos featuring the iconic Hotel del Coronado (“The Del” to locals). Then head north to Encinitas, the quintessential beach town, to play volleyball at Moonlight Beach or admire the surfers hanging ten at Swami’s. You can even prevent tan lines at the clothing-optional Black’s Beach.

Sample a Fish Taco. Or Two. Or Six.

Three fish tacos with mango salsa on a white plate
Magdalena Bujak | Adobe Stock

Because the city is located so close to the border, Mexican food is the star of San Diego’s food scene, with the fish taco its unofficial signature dish. Ask a crowd where to get the best fish taco and you’re likely to get as many different answers as there are people. There are so many good ones and locals are fiercely loyal to their favorites. Although the basic recipe is standard—lightly battered fish, cabbage, fresh salsa and a white cream sauce on a warm, homemade corn tortilla —eateries from food trucks to fine dining restaurants have all come up with their own unique ways to put a personal spin on it.

Here are five to try:

1. Oscars Mexican Seafood (Pacific Beach and Hillcrest)
2. Seafood La 57 (Downtown food truck)
3. Kotija Jr. Taco Shop (Various locations)
4. TJ Oyster Bar (South Bay)
5. Rudy’s Taco Shop (Solana Beach and La Costa)

Explore Balboa Park

Botanical building and surrounding landscape in Balboa Park in San Diego, California
Thanasith | Adobe Stock

Boasting 17 museums and some of San Diego’s top performing arts venues, Balboa Park is the cultural heart of the city. It also happens to be a National Historic Landmark and the largest urban cultural park in the country, with 1200 acres of gorgeous gardens. Consider buying an Explorer’s Pass which gives you access to 16 of the museums (tickets to the brand new Comic-Con Museum must be purchased separately). Although they are all worth a visit, Fleet Science Center, The San Diego Museum of Art and San Diego Natural History Museum are a great mix if you’re short on time. Stop for lunch at The Prado, then take a tour of the lovely Japanese Friendship Garden, ending with a cup of tea. If there’s a performance happening at The Old Globe Theatre, don’t miss it. It’s a magical space and they’ve sent 20 productions to Broadway in the past 35 years.

Cheer on The Padres

Aerial view of Padres Petco Stadium in San Diego, California
Crown Point Design | Adobe Stock

You don’t have to be a baseball fan to have a great time at Petco Park, the San Diego Padres’ home stadium. Named the #1 baseball stadium in the US, it’s conveniently located so you can walk from many of the downtown hotels and enjoy pre- or post-game drinks and eats at some of the city’s best bars and restaurants. Architecturally, Petco Park is a work of art that provides arguably the best sightlines in baseball. And, when it comes to food, the concessions knock it out of the park, offering a taste of San Diego through classics from Hodad’s (legendary burgers born in San Diego) and Board and Brew (the place for sandwiches) to Brigantine Seafood & Oyster Bar (yes, at a ballpark!) to Carnitas’ Snack Shack (authentic Mexican food, of course). Wash it all down with a local selection from Craft Beers of San Diego.

If baseball isn’t happening during your visit, you can visit the stadium on a tour, or catch a concert here.

View Wildlife on Land or Sea

Giraffes walking in open space at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Melanie | Adobe Stock

Because of its excellent weather and ample natural resources, San Diego offers unique opportunities to get up close and personal with some of the most magnificent creatures on the planet. San Diego Whale Watch will not only take you out on the ocean to search for gray whales in winter and spring, and blue ones in summer and fall, but they’ll give you a free ticket to come back if you don’t see a whale or dolphin.

Landlubbers can spend the day at the world-renowned Birch Aquarium, the San Diego Zoo (consistently named one of the best in the country) or the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which offers safari-like experiences through African and Asian savanna habitats where giraffes, antelope, rhinos and other animals wander freely. You can even book a Roar & Snore Safari and spend the night glamping inside the park.

Play Golf on a US Open Course

Hole on Torey Pines Golf Course on the water in San Diego, California
Torey Pines Golf Course

There are only six US Open golf courses that are open to the public and one of them is in San Diego. Torrey Pines Golf Course is a 36-hole municipal course with magnificent ocean views that may understandably distract you from your shot. The South Course is the more challenging of the two and is where the US Open was held in 2008 and 2021. Channel your inner Tiger, then reward yourself with the best burger in town at The Grill at Torrey Pines, located inside the luxurious Lodge at Torrey Pines, where you can spend the night before getting back out there again.

Non-golfing partners can hike the trails at Torrey Pines State Reserve or go paragliding with one of North America’s most experienced pilots at Torrey Pines Gliderport, the most historic aviation site on the continent. Both activities offer unparalleled views of the Pacific Ocean.

Visit The Jewel of San Diego

Shoreline of La Jolla, San Diego, California
Kristofer | Adobe Stock

La Jolla, a gorgeous coastal community north of the city, is pronounced “La Hoya” and is nicknamed after the Spanish word, “joya,” which is pronounced the same way and means “jewel.” You’ll understand why as you explore La Jolla Cove on a kayak tour with Everyday California or take a surf lesson with the fabulous women of Surf Diva. Check out The Children’s Pool, a small beach which is a favorite of harbor seals, and gasp in awe as local surfers tackle the challenging surf breaks at Windansea, instantly recognizable by its palm-covered Surf Shack.

Eat Your Way through Liberty Station

Interior of Breakfast Republic inside Liberty Station in San Diego, California
Interior of Breakfast Republic inside Liberty Station | Liberty StationLiberty Station

In 1923, Liberty Station was a Naval Training Center, welcoming its first recruits. A century later, it’s a vibrant and thriving Town Square centered around Liberty Public Market, a food hall where you can experience San Diego’s growing gastronomy scene bite by bite. This is a great place to come with a group so everyone can choose what they want, from lobster rolls and empanadas to ramen and crepes. Liberty Station also features a wide variety of restaurants—try Slater’s 50/50 for amazing half bacon/half beef burgers and Corvette Diner for comfort food with a side of sass. The Public Market also houses small art galleries, shops and a movie theater.

Celebrate California History

Old style carriages beneath an awning in Old Town, San Diego, California
Art Boardman | Adobe Stock

See where it all began in Old Town, the birthplace of California. The state’s first settlement, Old Town is a fascinating mixture of old and new, showcasing living history through a schoolhouse, blacksmith and woodworking shop depicting Mexican-American life in the 19th century, and highlighting the creative and colorful culture at the Bazaar del Mundo and a multitude of authentic Mexican restaurants.

For more history, get on board the USS Midway Museum to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the US Navy Aircraft Carrier. Not only can you see if you have what it takes to be an Air Combat or F/18 pilot but you can also stand on the deck where Tom Cruise and company recently premiered Top Gun: Maverick.

Get Lit in the Gaslamp Quarter

Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego, California
SeanPavonePhoto | Adobe Stock

Filled with more than 100 trendy bars and restaurants, clubs and intimate entertainment venues, the Gaslamp Quarter is the place to party. You can do it all at The Tipsy Crow, San Diego’s longest-standing bar, located in one of the city’s most historic buildings. Three levels give you plenty of space for eating, drinking, dancing and playing games. For a more secret speakeasy, seek out Prohibition, Room 56 or Noble Experiment.

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