This article originally appeared on PCH1 Road Trip and has been republished with permission.
San Diego is the eighth-largest city in the United States and boasts of a population of 1.3 million. The city area consists of many charming neighborhoods and communities including La Jolla, Little Italy, Gaslamp Quarter, La Mesa to name a few. San Diego is famous for its year-round mild climate, untouched pristine beaches, and a host of family attractions that attract visitors of all ages. Tourists to San Diego are spoiled for choice as the city promises a memorable vacation experience for everyone.
Best Things to do in San Diego
San Diego was historically a part of the Spanish possessions. It is greatly influenced by Mexico which is reflective in its cuisine, way of living, museums, and monuments. The city has many breathtaking architectural marvels. Visitors can smell the lilies and lotuses in the Botanical house in Balboa Park or go searching for seals and sea lions at the La Jolla Shores. You can indulge in the comfort of a California Burrito followed by a stroll in the quaint neighborhood of Little Italy. San Diego has something to offer for everyone.
This 1,200-acre urban park is the epicenter of San Diego’s tourist attractions. There is a distinct charm to it. Balboa Park has a world-class zoo, beautifully landscaped areas for family picnics and people watching, and historic museums designed in the Spanish Revival style of architecture. Kids especially love visiting the San Diego Zoo. They can see rare and endangered species of animals in their naturalized enclosures including giant pandas, leopards, zebras, arctic fox, mole rats, and even polar bears. Kids also enjoy hopping onto the three minute Balboa park miniature Railroad for a fun trip across the park. There are many museums for cultural tourists in the park including the Natural history museum, San Diego Air & Space Museum, Art Institute, etc. Visitors can also take a stroll in the Spanish village art center located near the zoo. The Botanical Building and Lily Pond is a must for garden lovers. Balboa Park has multiple gardens and contains over 2,100 individual plants. It looks beautiful in spring and is one of the best places to see spring blossoms in southern California.
San Diego’s Historic Gaslamp Quarter houses 94 historic buildings in a 16 block area. The best way to explore the Gaslamp Quarter is on foot. You can see heritage buildings in Victorian architecture and museums that narrate the area’s history. One of the popular photo ops is the Gaslamp Quarter Arched Sign located on Fifth Avenue. Installed in 1990, this sign has become an icon of the area. The quarter is a great place for foodies and those in search of nightlife. Inside the quarter, you will find an array of over 100 sidewalk restaurants, craft breweries, cocktail bars, dive bars, and rooftop lounges. to let you meld in the charm of San Diego nightlife. Many events are held at the Gaslamp Quarter year round including the Comic-con which is held in July, the Mardi Gras parade on Fat Tuesday, and St Patrick’s day festivities in March.
San Diego’s walkable waterfront harbor is dotted with boutique stores, souvenir shops, and eateries. The Embarcadero overlooks Coronado Island and the San Diego bay. This is a great place for people watching or for whale watching in the Pacific Ocean. Visitors can rent boats or go on whale-watching cruises across the harbor. Kids of all ages love the Embarcadero. They can have a fun time splashing in the interactive fountains at the Waterpark or play at one of the play areas. The Embarcadero is home to the San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival while the San Diego orchestra often plays concerts here from late June to the beginning of September.
USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum
San Diego’s Embarcadero is home to the longest-serving aircraft carrier in the world, the USS Midway. The aircraft carrier has been permanently moored here since 2004 and is open to visitors. The USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum is the largest museum of its kind in the country. It is dedicated to aircraft carriers and the naval aviation history of the US. Visitors can opt for a self-guided audio tour of this gigantic vessel. During the visit, they can see over 30 restored aircraft including 8 propeller planes, 8 helicopters, and 14 jet planes. Visitors can also have many hands-on experiences at the museum including testing the stimulators, climbing into the cockpit, and watching videos about the aircraft carriers’ history.
San Diego Zoo
Located in the famous Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo is a must-visit if you are visiting the West Coast with kids. This is a world-famous zoo and has served as teh model for modern zoos the world over. In its innovative natural habitats, you can see a variety of animals and birds including giant pandas, elephants, tigers, polar bears, and California condors. There are many other things to do in San Diego Zoo apart from seeing the animals. Families can ride the aerial tram to see the zoo from above or visit the Children’s Zoo to pet animals. You ideally need half a day to see the zoo completely.
San Diego Harbor & Whale Watching Cruises
All along the Pacific Coast Highway road trip, you can have beautiful and memorable animal encounters. One of the best places to go for a whale-watching cruise along the West Coast is the San Diego harbor. Along with whales, you can spot pelicans, herons, as well as sea lions. Visitors can also go on a 1-hour cruise around the San Diego bay. On the cruise, you can see over 50 local landmarks – including the San Diego Coronado bridge – and some of the ships themselves are those popularized by movies and pop culture. The experienced cruise guides entertain and educate visitors about San Diego’s history and narrate anecdotes about the navy. The cruise along the deep blue water of the Pacific Ocean is a great refreshing and relaxing experience for all visitors.
The waterfront mall of Seaport Village is an actual little village! It is full of restaurants like Pier Cafe and Edgewater Grill where you can taste fresh seafood and delectable regional cuisine. The Seaport Village is located very close to Downtown – just a little south of the Embarcadero. As a result, you can easily see the Downtown, Embarcadero, and the Seaport Village in a single day. Visitors can explore the narrow lanes and alleys to see historic buildings in a variety of architectural styles from the Spanish Adobe style to Victorian architecture. Seaport Village is especially vibrant on the weekends. Stores and markets are open everywhere and tourists can pick up unique souvenirs like hand-painted tiles, San Diego mugs, or even listen to live music and bands on summer weekends. Seaport Village is also home to a historic carousel, located just off the parking lot off Pacific Coast Highway. Kids of all ages can ride on the beautiful carousel which was hand-carved in 1895.
Visitors to San Diego love the famous 2-mile long resort community of Mission Beach. This beachfront neighborhood town is a peninsula with the Mission Bay on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other side. It has a long boardwalk which is perfect for a stroll. Mission Beach has many rental shops where you can get kayaks, paddleboards, jet skis, and bike rentals. Belmont Park is a classic boardwalk amusement park with exciting rides such as the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster, bumper cars, arcade games, rock climbing, miniature golf, and the Beach House Grill – a great restaurant. Visitors can indulge in a host of activities like biking, beach volleyball, surfing, whale watching, sport fishing, and scuba diving. Mission Beach also has surfing lessons for people of all ages.
As mentioned before, Belmont Park in Mission Beach is a great place to take the kids while in San Diego. This beachfront amusement park has twelve rides, three oceanfront eateries, a mini-golf course, and smaller attractions like arcade games that will keep the kids busy for an entire day. One of the highlights of Belmont Park is the wooden roller coaster, the Giant Dipper. Other thrilling rides such as Control Freak, Beach Blaster, and bumper cars are a hit with preteens and teens. The best part is that Belmont Park has free parking and admission; you just pay for the rides you sit on.
Old Town State Historic Park
The Old Town State Historic Park in San Diego has many carefully preserved structures and historic buildings dating from the 19th century. The park commemorates the early days of San Diego and its Mexican heritage. Located in the Old Town neighborhood, you can see adobe structures, colonial buildings, and schoolhouses at the park. Along with buildings, this historic district is home to authentic handicrafts and delicious Mexican cuisine. Visitors can listen to Mariachi bands, attend street performances, and participate in cultural festivals like Cinco De Mayo, Dia de Los Muertos. December is a great time to visit Old Town, you can see holiday lights as well as parades. Other attractions include the Visitor Center in Robinson-Rose house, the Seeley Stable and Livery which has horse-drawn carriages, wagons, and liveries, and the Colorado House which houses the Wells Fargo museum. The museum is open from 10 am to 4 pm from Monday to Friday. Free street parking is available near Old Town.
Cabrillo National Monument
Located at the southern tip of the Point Loma peninsula, the Cabrillo National Monument is a must-visit attraction while in San Diego. It was here that Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s expedition landed in the San Diego Bay on 28th September 1542. This was the first European expedition to reach the West Coast of the country. Cabrillo named the bay San Miguel which was later renamed to San Diego. At the monument, visitors can see a replica of the original statue of Cabrillo donated by the Portuguese government. The Visitor Center has movie shows and exhibits relating to Cabrillo’s voyage across the Pacific Ocean to the coast of California. Other things to see include the old coastal batteries and Old Point Loma lighthouse which has been converted into a museum. From the park, you can see exceptional views of the San Diego skyline, the bay, Coronado Islands, and even Tijuana in Mexico.
Old Point Loma Lighthouse
Located inside Cabrillo National Monument, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse is a historically significant building and deserves a special mention. The lighthouse is one of San Diego’s oldest monuments. It was built in 1855. It served as a beacon for ships navigating the waters of San Diego Bay. The lighthouse was in commission for a short period after which it was deactivated when the new lighthouse was built closer to the shore. The lighthouse complex was converted into a tourist attraction and opened to the public in the 1930s. It is now a prominent landmark in the city. On a tour of the lighthouse, you can see the keeper’s living quarters, logbooks, service equipment, turning mechanism, and the original Fresnel lens.
Sunset Cliffs National Park
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is a 68-acre park along the Pacific Ocean in San Diego. The park has expansive ocean views, coastal cliff formations, sea caves and arches, and coastal sage habitat. The extensive and rugged coastline is popular with surfers and beachcombers. The park is one of the most popular places in San Diego to enjoy breathtaking sunset views along the Pacific. Visitors can also see gray whale migrations along the coast. The park also has many hiking trails and connects with Point Loma Ecological Reserve.
Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala
This historic church was the first Franciscan Mission in the Spanish territories. It was founded in 1769 and is a national historic landmark. The current mission church was restored in 1931 and largely stands as a revamped model of the old structure. On a visit to the mission, visitors can see the bell tower with 5 bells, a baptistery arch, original sidewalks, and wooden lintels above the doorways. One of the mission bells has been preserved in its original condition and dates back to 1802. A small onsite museum displays artifacts and information from colonial times. The mission garden is home to California’s first European cemetery and has hibiscus, succulents, olives, and avocado trees.
San Diego Museum of Art
At the San Diego Museum of Art, visitors can see beautiful artwork from Spanish and Italian Old Masters, South Asian paintings, and American paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries. The museum collection is nationally renowned and the museum receives hundreds of visitors every day. The museum also hosts many cultural and educational programs for children and adults including Culture and Cocktails, Film in the Garden, and Art After Hours. The museum is a must-visit for art patrons.
Little Italy is one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in San Diego. It is very walkable and has many attractions including a thriving food scene. Visitors can try unique dishes such as stuffed artichokes, fava bean spread, and fish tacos in Little Italy. This part of downtown San Diego has a rich history. It was settled by Italian and Portuguese immigrants and has roots in the tuna fishing industry that once flourished here. The neighborhood has art galleries, furniture, and design stores, restaurants, breweries, wineries, and cafes. The small, beautiful Amici Park is a great place to go for a stroll while in Little Italy.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a coastal state park located in La Jolla. The park consists of over 2,000 acres of the Pacific coastline north of La Jolla, The reserve is located on a plateau and has several high cliffs and coastal bluffs. From the park, visitors are treated to stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. This park is home to the rare and endangered Torrey Pine trees which are found only in certain parts of the California coastline. The park also has a lot of wildlife including bobcats, foxes, rabbits, and more. You can also spot grey and blue whales during the migration season. Must visit attractions at the park include the Pueblo-style Visitor Centre and the beach hiking trails.
La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove perhaps has the best beach in San Diego. This beautiful attraction has seaside coves, sunning sea lions, gorgeous sunset views, and soft pale sand. The beach is lined by palm trees and the clear water is a beautiful turquoise. The low surf and shallow gradient make this beach especially popular among families. There are plenty of adventure and ocean activities at La Jolla Cove. Visitors can go sea kayaking, snorkeling, and scuba diving. At night, La Jolla is alive with beach bonfires and parties. There are also several restaurants along the La Jolla shores. Other activities include going on a coastal walk, exploring the tide pools, checking out the murals, and touring the historic district.
Coronado Island is located in the San Diego Bay a ferry ride away from downtown San Diego. This resort city is a popular city escape for visitors to San Diego. The historic Hotel del Coronado has beautiful wooden Victorian architecture and is worth a look. You can take a stroll on the Old Ferry landing and people watch. You can also relax by the waterfront or build a sandcastle at the beach with the kids. You can eat fresh seafood and authentic California cuisine on the island. Coronado Island also has many specialty shops, art galleries, a Farmer’s Market, and the popular Coronado Museum of History and Art. The island is a perfect day trip from downtown San Diego.
Legoland California theme park located in nearby Carlsbad is a must-visit when in San Diego with kids. The theme park has over 60 rides and attractions that keep children of all ages happy and engaged. The theme park also has a water park for hot and sunny days. The theme park is a perfect place for Lego fans. Kids can see everything shaped and built like Lego bricks. Kids can drive actual lego cars and play in Lego play areas. Plan an entire day for the theme park as there are lots of things to do and the expensive entry ticket deserves a full day’s worth of time.
SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego is a must-visit amusement park for those who love wildlife and marine life. Kids and adults alike will be mesmerized by seeing the many animals in their natural habitats. The theme park has many learning opportunities. Kids can know more about the different animal habitats, dietary requirements of animals, scientific classification, and more. Visitors can spot sharks, stingrays, penguins, dolphins, and otters in the oceanarium and marine mammal park. The theme park has many shows including Orca encounters and sea lion shows. SeaWorld San Diego also houses rescued animals and provides them with a safe place to stay. Along with animal exhibits and interactions, SeaWorld also has thrilling rides and roller coasters for kids.
San Diego Air & Space Museum
Balboa Park has many museums but the San Diego Air & Space Museum is particularly interesting to many visitors. The museum outlines the evolution of human flight and displays many rare artifacts and models. Visitors can see reproductions of the Wright Brothers gliders, North American rocket planes, rocket engines, flight simulators, and Boeing satellites. The museum has a dedicated play area for kids and a 3D/4D movie theatre where visitors can watch shows like the Legend of Apollo. The museum is a must-visit for aviation and space enthusiasts.