San Diego is a great holiday destination but yeah, it can get a bit expensive. The good news is that you can see San Diego on a budget and have tons of fun too! We've compiled a list of 25 awesome things to do in San Diego - all for free!
On a personal note, San Diego will always have a special place in my heart. It was the very first US city we visited. That was back in 2009, when our boys were only 5 and 7. We enjoyed it so much that we stayed for 10 full days! We did many of the things on this list, so I know you're going to love them - traveling with kids or not.
1. Tour the Many Beaches
There are over thirty beaches to enjoy in San Diego. You can’t go anywhere without being greeted by sand and surf! These beaches are free to access and open to the public year-round, so you never have to begrudgingly miss a day at the beach.
The sunsets observed from the shoreline are breathtaking, perfect for getting some great snapshots and enjoying time with friends and family around a bonfire. From Carlsbad to Solana, there is a beach along every mile that’s waiting for your presence to bring the calm tranquility of nature to your destination visit.
Not sure which beach to choose? Read our complete guide to the beaches of San Diego here.
2. Take a Hike Along Potato Chip Rock
Potato Chip Rock is one of the most popular hiking destinations in the San Diego area. The 7.6-mile path is heavily trafficked and popular among nature enthusiasts of all activity levels. All 365 days of the year, Potato Chip Rock offers visitors mountain biking, hiking and nature-walking activities.
This path is also home to some of the most scenic views of San Diego and the Pacific Ocean. This makes it a great photo opportunity for those looking to commemorate the beauty of their visit. Parking for the trail in Lake Poway is free on weekdays, so you don’t have to pay for the privilege of basking in the glory of this rugged adventuring destination.
Note: The path is extremely exposed, so make sure to bring sunscreen and water for your safety!
3. Bask in the Beauty of Sunset Cliffs
This 68-acre regional park is the go-to spot for many locals and visitors alike who want to get the best view of the sunset. The 1.5-mile expanse along Point Loma’s peninsula is a stunning collection of cliff formations, caves, ocean views and native coastal plant life.
This area appeals to international visitors and locals alike due to the unique and awe-inspiring panoramic views. Ever since its dedication in 1983, Sunset Cliffs has rapidly become one of the most frequently visited and most well-loved of attractions along the San Diego coastline.
The photographs you may see of Sunset Cliffs are beautiful in their own right, but the best way to appreciate the beauty of this spot is to visit it for yourself.
4. Take a Tour of Taylor Guitars Factory
Monday through Friday and starting at one in the afternoon, visitors can take a free tour of the Taylors Guitar Factory on Gillespie Way. The 90-minute tour guides guests through the guitar construction process, from the raw wood stage to a fine and finished instrument that’s ready to be strummed.
The tour is free, but you can also commemorate your visit with a stop by the gift shop if you so choose.
If your party is of ten people or more, you are recommended to call ahead of time to schedule your tour. This ensures that there is room for everyone and all people can enjoy themselves without being cramped. The tour itself involves a fair amount of walking, but nothing strenuous.
5. Pay a Visit to Historic Old Town
This iconic, 230-acre neighborhood in San Diego throws modern guests into a charming backdrop reminiscent of San Diego’s history. While there is much to do in terms of entertainment and shopping, many people like to simply visit and stroll through the beautiful streets of Old Town.
The area is rich in historical significance, so there is a lot to see! From museums to parks to the Mormon Battalion Historic Site, there is something for every history buff to sink their teeth into.
Don’t forget to stop and take plenty of pictures of the classic architecture, vivid colors and delightful sights so that you can enjoy your experience at Old Town for years to come!
6. Explore Seaport Village
Seaport Village is a hub of family-friendly activities enjoyed by guests and locals in equal measure. For a leisurely walk by the bay, there is no better destination! Food and shopping are available in Seaport, of course, but many people come to breathe in the crisp ocean air and bask in the natural beauty of San Diego.
There are lovely views in every direction, making this a great spot for a romantic lover’s stroll at sunset. Many couples have even gotten engaged in this popular and highly scenic spot! Don’t forget to grab your camera and get lots of pictures – you’re not going to find this view anywhere else.
7. Visit Hotel del Coronado
This luxurious beachfront hotel is an expensive place to stay, but you don’t have to pay to enjoy the property! Classical architecture, a beach that’s open to the public, and cultural significance make Hotel del Coronado a hot spot for guests, even those on a budget!
Have you ever seen the film starring Marilyn Monroe, Some Like it Hot? How about My Blue Heaven, starring Steve Martin? This hotel has played host for Hollywood legends and can be spotted in these films and at least a dozen others! Famous guests of the hotel’s include many US presidents, actors like Katharine Hepburn and even Thomas Edison.
There is even some speculation that the hotel is haunted, so if you’re into the paranormal, there’s another reason to visit this legendary hotel.
And of course, to get there, you get to drive over the famous Coronado Bridge! Some would say that's an item in its own right on any list of free things to do in San Diego!
8. Meet Some Seals at La Jolla Children’s Pool
Don’t let the name mislead you – this is not actually a children’s pool. It was intended to be one, but local maritime wildlife decided that they had different plans. Harbor seals in particular decided that the pool, which is blocked off naturally by a seawall, was the perfect place to come and hang out. So now, it is a fantastic photography spot for lovers of nature and area wildlife.
The area is host to a narrow walkway that allows visitors to get a safe but distinct look at the seals that gather here. Parking on the road and admission are both free of charge, so you don’t have to spend a dime to enjoy the sights of the children’s pool.
9. Visit Torrey Pines Natural Reserve
This stretch of coastline is one of the wildest and most natural areas in all of Southern California. For a trip away from the hustle and bustle of modern city life, Torrey Pines boasts 1,500 acres of unspoiled California terrain. This is the closest that anyone will ever get to seeing what California was like before it became the bustling and highly-populated place we know it to be today.
Lagoons, rare Torrey pine trees, expanses of breathtaking forest and beaches that play as host to migratory sea birds welcome respectful guests with impressive views and once-in-a-lifetime photographing opportunities. Stroll through the woods to see California in a way that you have never witnessed it before.
10. Free Museum Days at Balboa Park
This urban cultural park spans over 1,200 acres and brings some of the greatest museums to the people of San Diego. There are nearly 20 museums located across this impressive acreage, with many of them having free days for San Diego residents – and sometimes guests, if we’re talking about the museum’s permanent exhibits.
Free days are conducted on a rotating schedule, so be sure to check the Official Balboa Park Free Days Schedule to make sure that you’re going to the right museum at the right time. All free days are on Tuesdays, with the first, second, third and fourth Tuesday of each month providing different museum opportunities to guests for free.
Balboa park is a great place in its own right, even if you're not getting inside any of the museums. Try to get there on the weekend for street performances and an overall fun vibe!
11. Feel Serene at the San Diego Botanic Garden
The 37-acre garden used to be known as Quail Botanical Gardens and was established in 1961. It is home to some of the most impressive botanical plant life, including what is suspected to be the largest bamboo grove in the United States. Other exhibits include desert gardens, an herb garden and a garden filled with plant life native only to California.
The first Tuesday of every month grants free access to the botanical garden’s many features, so take up that opportunity when you can! You might never see anything quite like it again, especially not in California. The collection of plant life here makes for an experience that is both educational and beautiful.
12. Pay Your Respects at the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial
There are many veterans’ memorials across the United States, and rightfully so. Still, Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial is truly a sight to behold as one of the most unique memorials in the country. Black plaques made of granite commemorate fallen veterans from wars throughout American history – from the Revolutionary War to today’s wartime losses.
13. Take in the California Surf Museum (free entry first Tuesday of the month)
It’s hard to not think of surfing when your mind drifts toward the sunny shores of California. If you have ever had dreams of taking to the ocean on a board of your own or simply want to learn more about California surfing culture, look no further.
From historic surfboards to magazines and other press memorabilia, the California Surf Museum has everything that’s relevant to the state’s love of surfing. More than that, the museum has a lot to offer for those interested in a more international story of what surfing has meant to the people in countries all around the globe.
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Admission is free for the first Tuesday of the month, so plan carefully unless you’re okay with paying a fee.
14. Check out Dr. Seuss’ Work at the Legends Gallery
It might be hard to imagine, but there is a fine art gallery that your children are bound to love – as well as all the grown-ups in your party. The Legends Gallery is home to art from numerous well-loved artists, but perhaps the biggest draw is the Dr. Seuss artwork that can be found here.
Not only do guests get to view the work of one of America’s most beloved storytellers, but they get a deeper insight into what Dr. Seuss’ process was like. You may even be able to buy some of Seuss’ treasured artwork collection, if you so choose. But rest assured that you don’t have to spend anything to enjoy a leisurely stroll through this impressive yet surprisingly quaint gallery.
15. Take Stunning Photos from Oceanside Municipal Pier
Nearly 2,000 feet of wood comprises the Oceanside Municipal Pier. One of the longest piers along the coast, Oceanside provides ample opportunities for visitors to check out the sights and experience San Diego at its best.
Lovers of marine wildlife are sure to love the seagulls, rays, dolphins and more that emerge near the pier in plain sight of human spectators. Morning, afternoon or night, the sights are unique to the San Diego shoreline and can’t be compared to anywhere else in the world.
16. Get into the Craft Beer Scene with a Brewery Tour
Ballast Point Brewery and Spirits provides one of the few free brewery tours in San Diego – and what a tour it is! This brewery was named Small Brewery of the Year in 2010 by the World Beer Cup, which alone stands as a testament to the quality of the beers produced here.
The tour is free of charge, including a tasting at the very end. From the start of the tour you will learn all there is to know about Ballast Point Brewery and Spirits’ brewing process. This is a great educational opportunity for beer lovers and tourists who want a genuine taste of San Diego.
17. Climb Cowles Mountain
At 1,594 feet, Cowles Mountain is the highest peak in all of San Diego. It is one of the most popular hiking spots in the San Diego area, with hundreds of guests walking along the paths every single day. The hike itself is not terribly challenging, but it does make for a great workout for a few hours.
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At the end of the hike, you will be greeted by a 360-degree view of San Diego. This is by far the greatest draw of Cowles Mountain. Even if you aren’t up for a full hike, a stroll through the area is just as delightful. You will be immersed in native California plant life and may even get a chance to see the animal life that makes their home here.
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18. Take in the Sights of Little Italy
48 square blocks of authentic Italian living make San Diego’s Little Italy the biggest in the country. There is shopping, entertainment and lodging in Little Italy, but you don’t need to spend a cent to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of this scenic neighborhood. Are you looking to photograph some of the most unique features of San Diego? You should definitely put Little Italy on your itinerary!
San Diego’s Little Italy is host to Amici Park, an inclusive recreational spot that includes bocce ball courts and a dog park.
19. Free Art Walk at Liberty Station in Point Loma
For the past fourteen years, Liberty Station has been hosting an annual August art walk. Visual and interactive art as well as music make for an immersive experience that can be appreciated by art lovers of all walks of life. The scenery of Liberty Station is a work of art all on its own, most notably the beautiful rose garden.
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Liberty Station is easily accessed on a flat and grassy terrain. Parking is abundant and free, as is admission. A hand-crafted work of art is priceless, but you get to view the art of many budding and established artists for absolutely free.
20. Catch a Bike Race at the Velodrome
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Every Tuesday, visitors can sit down and catch a thrilling bicycle race at San Diego’s Velodrome. It was constructed in 1975 and then revived in 2010 to be better than ever, hosting more bicycling events and races than ever before. Cycling USA hosts official races and training events at the Velodrome in San Diego. Enjoy the heart-pounding exhilaration of competitive bike racing on a sunny California afternoon!
21. Participate in the Grunion Run
A type of fish known as the grunion only emerges on the San Diego shoreline to spawn. During the months between March and September, the life cycle of the Californian grunion comes to fruition – and thousands of people gather at the water to check it out.
You may observe the small, silvery-looking fish in the middle of the night, as this is when they come out to spawn. Unlike other fish, the grunion actually comes out of the water to lay their eggs. More curiously than that, though, they do so on a schedule that’s really easy to predict. This phenomenon happens in various locations along the San Diego coast, with spawning dates changing from location to location.
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Grunion watching is considered a sport in itself and it is totally free. Many visitors also like to fish for grunion, but this requires purchasing a valid fishing license for the state of California.
22. Visit Mission Bay Park
Mission Bay Park is the largest man-made aquatic park in the United States. 4,235 acres of property is divided into nearly equal parts water and land. 15 million people visit the park each year to participate in water sports, camp and explore the lush beaches of the San Diego shoreline.
On land, guests can bike, picnic and simply enjoy the sun and surf that surrounds them. Certain areas of the park even allow for dogs to be left off-leash to roam in the sunlight and sand. For a fun and free afternoon spent in breathtaking scenery, Mission Bay Park is a one-of-a-kind experience.
There are designated areas for all kinds of activities, including:
- Skiing and use of personal watercraft
This is a great place to be for any lover of nature, so bring the family (including the dog) for a day of sun and surf!
23. Catch the Fireworks from Sea World
The fireworks of Sea World can be observed from various points along San Diego, but Mission Bay Park has one of the clearest views to offer. The impressive firework display is well-known across California and beyond, but you don’t need to be inside of Sea World to get a full view of the show. Stretch out a blanket at any one of the areas in Mission Bay Park, Sail Bay, or even on the adjacent street to enjoy the colorful lights in the sky.
24. Go Back in Time in the Gaslamp Quarter
Filled to the brim with Victorian-era architecture, the Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego is a 16-block expanse located downtown. It is home to many nightlife opportunities and annual events, but you don’t have to spend anything to enjoy the beautiful sights of this historic neighborhood.
The development of this district was begun in 1867 and is an impressive merger between modern life and a bygone era. 94 Victorian buildings line the streets of this area, making for plenty of splendid photographing opportunities.
The Gaslamp Quarter is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On this register, it is known as the Gaslamp Quarter Historic District.
25. Take in a Summer Concert
The city of San Diego often hosts free concert series in the summer. Locals and visitors alike are sure to enjoy the multitude of talents that grace the public during the warmest months of the year. These events are usually host to regional and local music acts that span across many different genres.
Point Loma hosts many such concerts, for example. Click here to see the schedule of events for Point Loma. Check back periodically for updates! For free you get the highest caliber of local entertainment that San Diego has to offer. All you need to bring is your own seating!
Any more suggestions?
Have you visited San Diego? Or maybe you live there? If you can add more to this list, that would be fantastic! Please leave your suggestions in a comment below and thank you!