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10 Must-See San Diego Attractions

SmarterTravel

Deciding which places to visit in San Diego can be a daunting task. This sunny city offers world-class cultural experiences, theme parks aplenty, a vibrant food and beer scene, many of the country’s best beaches, and much, much more. Still, to those who know the city intimately, certain San Diego attractions do stand out above the rest; below are 10 you’ve got to see.

San Diego Attractions

The following San Diego points of interest have something to offer any type of traveler, from couples to kids.

Balboa Park

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When it comes to San Diego attractions, Balboa Park is the one you should not miss. As the city’s most important cultural destination and America’s biggest urban cultural park, it’s home to wonderful performing arts centers, as well as California’s best collection of museums. There are 16 of them here, including the Fleet Science Center, the San Diego Natural History Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art, the San Diego Air and Space Museum, the San Diego History Center, and the Botanical Building.

At the Museum of Man, climb 125 stairs into the iconic 200-foot-tall California Tower to get to its top deck, where you can see all the way to Mexico. Balboa Park also has wonderful outdoor spaces—the gorgeous Japanese Friendship Garden, five children’s playgrounds, three dog parks, tennis courts, a golf course, lawn bowling, and hiking and biking trails.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

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The world-famous San Diego Zoo Safari Park is one of the most beloved San Diego attractions, and for good reason. This century-old institution in Balboa Park lets you meet its 3,500 animals on foot or via an engaging double-decker bus tour, a favorite especially among children. Don’t miss the hummingbird house, the elephant exhibit, the Skyfari aerial tram, or the safari tour during which you can see 300 roaming species, including cheetahs, giraffes, and lions.

Legoland

If you’re traveling to San Diego with children between the ages of 2 and 12, Legoland is a definite must-do. The 128-acre family theme park opened in 1999 and is primed for making memories, whether or not your kid is obsessed with the popular Danish bricks. Legoland has 60 exciting rides, plus engaging themed zones, wonderful shows, and worthwhile shops—not to mention thousands of Lego models created from millions of colorful bricks.

Highlights include the Legoland Water Park (bring bathing suits!), the Star Wars mini land, Sea Life Aquarium, Ninjago World and its interactive ride, and Deep Sea Adventure, a new submarine ride complete with live sharks and stingrays. Stay at the original Legoland Hotel or the brand-new Legoland Castle Hotel, with its three themed floors and ocean views.

SeaWorld San Diego

Sea world

SeaWorld is one of the most famous San Diego attractions, best known for its orca and dolphin shows. It’s also worth a visit for its many rides, excellent aquarium, and animal exhibits that get you eye-to-eye with penguins, sharks, and polar bears. For the littlest visitors, there’s a Sesame Street-themed area with rides and a parade.

Gaslamp Quarter

The Gaslamp Quarter is a lively 16-block district centered around dining and nightlife. This energetic neighborhood is simultaneously historic and modern, with preserved Victorian-era buildings alongside contemporary architecture.

The Gaslamp is one of the best San Diego attractions for socializing—it’s got trendy rooftop bars, hot new restaurants, and stylish lounges that stay thumping late into the night. Also here: unique shops, an array of excellent hotel options and upscale art galleries, plus the Padres’ Petco Park and the San Diego Convention Center, home of Comic Con.

La Jolla

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La Jolla means “the jewel” in Spanish, and there could not be a more appropriate name for this treasure of a town, perched on a scenic stretch of coastline. In addition to waterfront hotels, charming boutiques, and remarkable restaurants (such as George’s at the Cove), there are amazing beaches, like La Jolla Shores, and one-of-a-kind attractions, including the fascinating Birch Aquarium at Scripps.

Art lovers should check out the town’s public murals and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Down in La Jolla Cove, a protected marine enclave with sea caves and a kelp forest, adventurers dive, snorkel, and kayak among pelicans, seals, garibaldi, sharks, and rays.

Old Town San Diego

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History buffs—and lovers of Mexican food—shouldn’t miss Old Town San Diego, a state historic park where old-timey exhibits and businesses pay tribute to California’s first people and the state’s Spanish settlers. Catch costumed docents giving demonstrations of quilting, blacksmithing, and carpentry, and play games that date back to the 1800s. You can also visit California’s first mission and try the authentic tacos at Casa Guadalajara or a tasty margarita at Cafe Coyote.

Little Italy

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San Diego’s Little Italy district got its start when fishing immigrants from the Mediterranean landed here in the early 1900s. Food is important to Italians, so there are many wonderful restaurants here, including celebrity chef Richard Blais’s hotspot du jour, Juniper & Ivy.

Highlights in this hilly neighborhood include the San Diego Firehouse Museum, Amici Park and its recipe tables, and excellent nightlife spots like M Winehouse and Waterfront Bar. Don’t miss the lively Mercato Farmers’ Market every Saturday, where vendors hawk fresh fish, colorful fruits and vegetables, and bright flowers.

Seaport Village

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Overlooking the harbor, Seaport Village is a waterfront shopping, dining, and entertainment complex featuring cobblestone sidewalks and ocean scenery. It’s a lively collection of more than 50 shops, more than a dozen casual eateries, four fine-dining restaurants, lots of live music, a historic carousel, and wow-worthy street performers.

Adjacent to Seaport Village is its sister property, The Headquarters, featuring unique boutiques, artisan food makers, and upscale restaurants like Puesto for fantastic tacos. As the restored site of the former San Diego Police headquarters, the center was once a jail, courtroom, and shooting range, so it’s got a tiny museum with preserved jail cells and a wall showcasing historical mugshots.

Cabrillo National Monument

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A gem among San Diego points of interest, Cabrillo National Monument, now run by the National Park Service, commemorates the place where explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to land on the U.S. West Coast in 1542.

Explore the teeming tidepools, check out the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, photograph the monument itself, stop in at the visitors’ center and gift shop, watch whales from shore, and inspect the onsite WWII bunker. Casual hikers will love the easy 2.5-mile Bayside Trail and its spectacular views over the Pacific.

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—Original reporting by Avital Andrews. Follow her on Twitter @avitalb.

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