With a plethora of family-friendly attractions that highlight history, culture, and wildlife, plus its sunny setting on the Pacific, San Diego is an ideal place to spend a day, no matter what your interests are. Here are the top ways to experience the city with limited time.
Things to do in San Diego
Welcome to San Diego
A quintessentially coastal California town, San Diego welcomes visitors with picture-perfect weather and a surprising variety of things to do. Within its vast city limits, you can scale mountains, embark on desert hikes, and surf at one of many palm tree–lined beaches. You can also learn about military and Spanish colonial history, and eat fresh seafood and Mexican cuisine to your heart’s content. From its laid-back beach neighborhoods—like Ocean, Mission and Pacific beaches—to the bustling nightlife and downtown dining destinations of Little Italy and the Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego offers something fun for every traveler.
Top 10 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....
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....
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....
Essentially a floating city, the U.S.S. Midway Museum is housed inside the namesake ship, formerly one of the U.S. Navy’s flagships from 1945 to 1991. Aboard the hulking vessel, visitors can explore more than 60 exhibits as well as peak inside the museum’s aircraft collection. Exhibits in the U.S.S. Midway Museum include the engine room, the ship’s brig, machine shops, and the crew’s sleeping quarters. You’ll walk along the narrow confines of the upper decks to the bridge, admiral’s war room, and the control tower. On the ship’s flight deck, you can walk right up to aircrafts, including an F-14 Tomcat, F-4 Phantom jet fighter, and an A-7 Corsair. Three flight simulators, music videos, films, interactive exhibits, and the Ejection Seat Theater round out this family-friendly experience....
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....
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....
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....
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....
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....
Top activities in San Diego
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Things to do near San Diego
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