Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in San Diego
Across the bay from downtown San Diego, Coronado is a pleasant escape from the jumble of the city and the buzz of the beaches. Follow the tree-lined, manicured median strip of Orange Avenue toward the commercial center, Coronado Village, around the landmark Hotel del Coronado. Then park your car; you won’t need it again until you leave.
Locals call Coronado an island, but it's connected to the mainland by the spectacular, 2.1 mile (3.4 kilometer) Coronado Bay Bridge, as well as by a long, narrow spit of sand known as the Silver Strand. The visitor center doubles as the Coronado Museum of History and Art. And then there’s the fabulous, easily recognizable Hotel del Coronado, the interior of which is filled with warm, polished wood, giving the hotel an old-fashioned feel of Panama hats and linen suits. Guests have included 10 presidents and world royalty. For a taste of the Del without the stay, have breakfast or lunch at the beach-view Sheerwater restaurant.
Both a seaside community and a top San Diego attraction, there’s a lot to be said for this little slip of a peninsula. Most easily recognized for its hilly views and the picturesque Old Point Loma Lighthouse, Point Loma is also famous for its historical significance (the first European settlers in California landed here, thus earning it the title “where California began”). People come to Point Loma to view these attractions, as well as to visit its naval base, the Cabrillo National Monument, and walk the hiking trails and take in the stunning views of the bay. With plenty to do and see, it’s no wonder Point Loma is one of San Diego’s most photographed spots.
On the southern tip of Point Loma, at the top of hill, you'll find Cabrillo National Monument. The spot is San Diego’s finest locale for history and fine views across the bay to San Diego's downtown. It's also the best place in San Diego to see the gray whale migration (January to March) from land. After a few minutes here, you may forget you’re in a major metropolitan area.
The visitors center at Cabrillo National Monument has an excellent presentation on Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s 1542 voyage up the California coast, plus good exhibits on the native inhabitants and the area’s natural history. Also here is the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which is appointed with late-19th century pieces, including lamps and picture frames hand-covered with hundreds of shells. On the ocean side, you can drive or walk down to the tide pools (at low tide) to look for anemones, starfish, crabs, and limpets.
Seaport Village is San Diego’s preeminent shopping and dining complex. A slice of independence in busy San Diego, the Seaport Village is beautiful and relaxing escape in an otherwise busy world. Come here to window shop the boutiques, sit on a park bench and stare into the ocean, grab a bite to eat, or to simply have a glass of wine and catch some outdoor entertainment. Just a short walk from the Gaslamp Quarter and plenty of boutique and big name shopping, Seaport Village is a popular hang-out for tourists and locals alike.
For over 60 years, the Maritime Museum of San Diego has enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for being one of the most engaging and imagination-inspiring attractions in San Diego. A history lesson and an adventure in one, the Maritime Museum of San Diego has been repeatedly voted one of the best attractions in San Diego, and visitors from the world over come here to see the excellent collections of historic tall ships, including the world’s oldest active merchant ship, the Star of India, an 1863 iron hulled, triple-mast behemoth. Known the world over for excellence in restoring, maintaining, and operating these historic vessels, a trip to the Maritime Museum will have you exploring (and, on some occasions, even sailing) four different tall ships (the ones with the big masts and sails), two submarines, and several yachts and harbor boats. As you explore these amazing vessels, you’ll discover a sense of what it was like to work and live on these amazing ships.
Mission Beach is a cozy, beachside community that rests on a sandbar between the Pacific Ocean and Mission Bay. It’s a perfect spot to indulge in a myriad of outdoor activities including sunbathing, horseshoes, surfing, bicycling, skateboarding, and tossing a Frisbee. With courts available for both, beach volleyball and basketball are also popular draws to the beach.
For activities away from Mission Beach, there’s SeaWorld in Mission Bay Park and historic Belmont Park in South Mission Beach, which features the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster as well as other rides including the FlowRider, Chaos, Vertical Plunge, Krazy Kars, and Tilt-a-Whirl. Also here is the the Mission Beach Plunge, once the largest saltwater (now freshwater) pool in the world and the only remaining structure left from the original Belmont Park structures. Water activities at Mission Beach include sailboat, rowboat, and kayak rentals, as well as charter boats.
Packed into 40 hectares, the San Diego Zoo presents a stunning variety of nature's largest, smallest, noblest, oddest, and most endangered creatures. This famous zoo has more than 3,000 animals representing over 800 species.
Stop first at the San Diego Zoo visitor center to pick up a map. Highlights of the zoo include the Tiger River bioclimatic exhibit, which realistically recreates an Asian rainforest environment, and Gorilla Tropics, which does the same with an African rainforest. The koalas and the rare giant pandas are also popular.
The gardens at the San Diego Zoo are renowned and some of the plants are used for the specialized food requirements of particular animals. Especially for kids, the Children’s Zoo allows young ones to pet small critters; they will also enjoy the animal nursery, which shows off the zoo’s newest arrivals. For an aerial perspective on the park, take a ride on the Skyfari.
Situated just west of downtown, Shelter Island is connected to the mainland by a thin sliver of land — but feels like worlds away. Ships and yachts bobbing in the colorful marina characterize the quaint seaside village, known also for its serene parks, buzzing food scene, and outdoor events. Toward the end of the island sits the historic Yokohama Friendship Bell, given as a gift by San Diego’s sister city of Yokohama, Japan.
Many nautical adventures launch from here, attracting sailors, sea-loving explorers, and marine animal lovers. Travelers flock to Shelter Island for sea cruises, featuring dolphin watching, sea lion scouting, and yacht gazing. Stay awhile and relax at one of the island’s many hotels or resorts, or bask in the sunshine during summer Concerts By The Bay.
More Things to Do in San Diego
Built in the late 19th century, the Gaslamp Quarter is a 16½ block historical neighborhood, filled with streets lined with wrought-iron street lamps, trees, and brick sidewalks. Along with its many historic buildings, the Gaslamp has the city’s highest concentration of bars, nightclubs, and restaurants. Many of the bars double as restaurants as well, making the whole district the prime nightspot in San Diego.The Gaslamp Quarter is also home to many events and festivals, including Mardi Gras in the Gaslamp, Street Scene Music Festival, the San Diego Comic-Con, Taste of Gaslamp, and ShamROCK, a St. Patrick's Day event. PETCO Park, home of the San Diego Padres is located one block away in downtown San Diego's East Village. Croce's Restaurant & Jazz Bar, named after famous singer Jim Croce, is also located in the Quarter. For a break from the bustling streets of the Gaslamp Quarter, head over to Third Avenue. This is the historic heart of San Diego’s Chinese community.
Long a mainstay for the college crowd and those looking to get out and have a little bit of fun in the sun, the little neighborhood of Pacific Beach is a California-lover’s dream. Bikinis and board shorts, bike paths and boardwalks, and of course miles of pristine beach, Pacific Beach is what many picture as idealized southern California living. From tasty beer taverns to sunny California shacks serving fish tacos, Pacific Beach is an ideal choice for getting out and seeing the young and fit crowd do its thing. North Pacific Beach tends to be quieter and cater to more of a family ambiance, while Tourmaline Beach is a surfing-only beach great for long low waves that are perfect for beginners.
The well-known San Diego Convention Center is a staple structure in the city. The impressively equipped location hosts many of San Diego’s famous events and happenings — most notably, the entertainment bonanza that is Comic-Con International. Enjoy the sunny, bayside views and free WiFi while attending one of the events held here before taking a quick walk to the numerous restaurants and shops nearby in the historic Gaslamp Quarter. Check out what’s going on at the convention center during your next visit for some entertainment.
Built in 1850, the William Heath Davis House is the oldest house in San Diego’s Historic Gaslamp Quarter. It was owned by, you guessed it William Heath Davis, but he didn’t build it in San Diego. The pre-fabricated house was shipped to town from Portland, Maine by boat via Cape Horn.
It was Davis’ dream to build a city near San Diego Bay. New Town as it was called, included a wharf, store, park and several houses, but there was no potable water. When Davis lost his fortune he gave up on the city that would later become the Gaslamp District. The William Heath Davis House is also the home to the nonprofit Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation.
Maritime enthusiasts should spend some time visiting San Diego Harbor. The many attractions here include the Maritime Museum, U.S.S. Midway Museum, the Seaport Village, and Embarcadero Marina Park. The well-manicured waterfront promenades stretch along Harbor Drive and are perfect for strolling or jogging.
On the north end of San Diego Harbor is the Maritime Museum, where a number of antique trading and passenger vessels are moored in the water. South of the museum, The U.S.S. Midway Museum, a museum housed in a Navy battleship, has loads of exhibits and a stellar collection of fighter planes. South of the U.S.S. Midway Museum is Seaport Village, which has a collection of novelty shops and restaurants. Embarcadero Marina Park, with its public fishing pier and open-air amphitheater, lies south.
With its world-class museums, manicured gardens, and world-famous San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park tops the list of sights in downtown San Diego. Its 1,200 acres (485 hectares) makes it the largest urban park in the United States. Apart from its many attractions, Balboa Park also features lengthy hiking trails, distinctive landscaping, Golden Age Spanish buildings, and the world’s largest organ.
Balboa Park is divided up into three sections. The central part of the park has the most attractions. The main attraction here is San Diego Zoo, which has more than 3,000 animals, typically in enclosures that replicate their natural habitat. At the Museum of Man, part of the California Quadrangle and its distinctive arch, you can see Native American artifacts. Nearby, the San Diego Museum houses a number of works from European masters from the Renaissance to the modernists.
San Diego Old Town is a pleasant place to soak up some history, browse for souvenirs, and perhaps enjoy a Mexican meal. Old Town is the site of the original pueblo (village) that sprang up in San Diego below the mission and fortress back in the 18th century. It preserves five of the original adobe (mud brick) buildings alongside scores of recreated structures, including a schoolhouse and a newspaper office.
Your first stop should be the Old Town State Historic Park Visitors Center, which has memorabilia and a video of local history. The center is located in the main plaza. Across from the visitor center is Casa de Estudillo, a restored adobe home filled with authentic period furniture, which is worth a look. Just off the plaza's northwestern corner is the Plaza del Pasado, which has a colorful collection of import shops and restaurants. The area is also home to the Old Town Trading Company, a charming gift shop selling various trinkets.
If the Gaslamp Quarter is heart of Old Town San Diego, then Little Italy is its beating heart. Walk these streets to get a feel for the Mom and Pop restaurants, art galleries, and retail shops that make this northwest end of downtown famous. Festivals frequent Little Italy, and the Farmer’s Market every Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. is widely-hailed for its freshly caught fish, local vegetables, and delicious Italian pastries. Many people prefer to eat and drink their way through this Old World slice of San Diego, and who can blame them? Little Italy is one of the highlights of any trip to this beautiful city by the sea.
The eighth largest city center in the US, downtown San Diego has its fair share of entertainment. Located just minutes from the airport, you’ll find a wonderland of accommodations, restaurants, entertainment and cultural attractions in downtown San Diego. The Gaslamp Quarter is downtown’s most famous district, though you’ll also find neighboring Balboa Park hosts quite a number of San Diego attractions, including the world famous San Diego Zoo. Walk to Petco Park to catch a Padres game, take the kids to the New Children’s Museum, or take a walk down the Embarcadero district and hit the beach, see the USS Midway Museum, or stop and shop in Seaport Village. If you’re in San Diego, downtown is the place to be.
If walls could talk, the Whaley House could fill history books. Completed in the 1857, it served as the home of the Whaley Family, Mr. Whaley's general store, San Diego's first commercial theater, and the second county courthouse. All aspects of the home have been restored and today it is open to the public as a historic house museum.
On the basic tour, visitors explore on their own, but docents are available to answer questions about the house’s history and ghost stories. Rumor has it the house has been haunted since it was built. The Whaleys reportedly believed the spirit of Yankee Jim Robinson haunted the house. Robinson was hanged on the property before the house was built. According to legend, there is a list of ghosts that roam the house, including the Whaley’s daughter Violet, who committed suicide in 1885.
Ghostly legends abound in sunny San Diego, so spooky stories associated with an old cemetery shouldn’t come as a big surprise.
El Campo Santo Cemetery was used in the mid-to-late 1800s. Some of the city’s early pioneers and infamous figures are buried at El Campo Santo Cemetery. One of the most famous grave sites belongs to Yankee Jim Robinson, who was hung at the site of the historic Whaley House, a couple blocks away. Some say his ghost has haunted the Whaley House since it was built in 1857. As San Diego grew, the cemetery was reduced in size. As a result some graves now lie beneath San Diego Avenue and Linwood Street. Tales of car trouble, chills and misty figures have been reported.
San Diego’s El Prado is located in the center of Balboa Park and is considered by many to be the heart of this most beloved San Diego park. The beautiful Spanish Colonial House of Hospitality is located here, and fully restored to its 1915 splendor. Inside you’ll find visitor information and historical highlights of the park. The El Prado courtyard holds The Prado restaurant, famous for its cuisine and outdoor seating. Just steps away you’ll find the Spreckels Organ Pavilion – an open space containing the world’s largest pipe organ and home to free concerts during summer Sundays. This is the best of Balboa Park, and it would be a shame to miss it.
The year of 1911 was historic for the field of aviation. In an even that would shape the aviation as we know it, the Vin Fiz Flyer—piloted by Calbraith Perry Rodger—completed the first transcontinental crossing of the United States in an airplane. The flight required 82 hours of total time in the air—although the entire trip, including ground time, was a remarkable 84 days. Today, commercial jetliners make the trip in a little over five hours, and with the ease of transport that aviation has provided, it’s almost too easy to forget the steps that brought us up to this point. At the San Diego Air & Space Museum, however, every visitor, both young and old, can see how the craft of aviation has changed since its early years. Gaze on an intricate reproduction of the original Vin Fiz Flyer, or examine a replica of Charles Lindbergh’s famous Spirit of St. Louis. Military enthusiasts will love the collection of Hellcats and early fighter planes.
It’s been said that hands-on, experiential learning enhances education, and if that’s the case, then the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is helping to educate every person who walks in the building’s door. Especially enjoyable for families with children, this interactive science center has permanent exhibits on everything from energy to California’s water to the journey of cells in our body. Work with your hands at the “Tinkering Studio” inspired by famous inventors, or watch one of the live experiments conducted by the center’s staff. Learn about genetics and DNA and what’s inside of an atom, or channel your inner architect with the collection of 15,000 building blocks. The biggest treat, however, is the enormous IMAX domed theater with movies on everything from Humpback whales to the most mysterious corners of our Universe. This is the only domed IMAX theater in Southern California, and the movies displayed provide visitors of all ages with an enthralling visual feast.
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