San Diego is one of the most beautiful places in the world with an endless amount of things to do. This city seems to have it all — lovely beaches, a thriving city center and a lot of history. It’s sunny all year, and you can surf, play beach volleyball, or just enjoy the sunshine during almost every season. On top of all the natural beauty, San Diego also offers a variety of cultural activities and family-friendly things to do.

San Diego is a city with something for everyone. San Diego has things to do for people interested in history, architecture, wildlife, and more. A vacation in San Diego can mean many things to different people, whether you’re looking for a city escape or a beach vacation.

1. Visit Old Town San Diego

Old Town San Diego

Image by Peter Thomas from Pixabay

San Diego’s Old Town is the historic center where the first settlement in San Diego was developed. Spanish missionaries established the Mission San Diego de Alcala in 1769. San Diego became a city long before California became part of America, and the old town still has a lot of Spanish influences in its restaurants, shops, and architecture.

Many original buildings from the early days are still standing, and the city even relocated additional historic buildings here to preserve the look and feel of Old San Diego. One of the best ways to see Old Town is by taking the Hop-on Hop-off trolley. There are more than 100 points of interest and the narrated tour is the perfect way to take it all in.

Nowadays, visiting the old town is a fun thing to do in San Diego as it is full of specialty shops, museums, and restaurants. Old Town is well known as the perfect place to celebrate traditional Mexican holidays. If your vacation in San Diego takes place during Dia de Los Muertos or Cinco de Mayo, you should head to the old city.

It would be a great idea to check the events calendar for San Diego’s old town to check whether there are any festive things to do during your trip.

2. Spend a delightful and educational day in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

San Diego Zoo Safari Park is less like a Zoo, and more like an outdoor animal preserve. This is unlike any zoo that you might have seen before. Animals live outdoors, grouped together depending on their natural habitats in the wild. The Safari Park also includes predators like tigers and lions, although their enclosures are separate from other animals for quite obvious reasons!

In order to explore the Park, visitors can take different types of safari by car. However, it is possible to even zip line over the animal habitats. Imagine seeing these majestic animals from a bird’s eye view!

One of the most unique things to do at San Diego’s Wildlife Safari Park is to spend the night at the grounds. Doing so allows you to go on safari trips to see the animals after the day’s crowds go home. You can even spend the night in tents just outside the animal enclosures of the antelope, giraffes, rhinos, and much more.

One of the reasons we love the Safari Park is that the ultimate goal of the Safari Park is species conservation. One of the proudest achievements of the Safari Park was its role in renewing California’s critically endangered Condor population. In 1987, there were only 22 Condors found in the wild. Thanks to the breeding program, the San Diego Safari park introduced 191 Condors into the wild, and there are now 369 Condors found in the California wilderness.

3. Spend a Day Exploring Balboa Park

Balboa Park in San Diego

Photo by Zachary Sawchuk from Pexels

Balboa Park is the largest city park in North America, larger in fact than Central Park in New York. Most buildings in Balboa Park were built in 1915 for the Panama-California World’s Fair. The city later added more to the Park in 1935.

Balboa Park boasts an impressive botanical garden with many tropical plants. It’s an excellent opportunity to see a diverse array of plants in one place. Other popular destinations for visitors are the outdoor cactus garden and the Japanese Friendship Garden.

Locals enjoy roaming throughout the historic buildings of the Spanish colonial era. Walking in Balboa Park is like walking in a completely different country! You can also find seventeen museums in Balboa Park.

Take a look at the Balboa Park events calendar to find fun things to do in San Diego. There are regular events and art exhibitions in public, like symphony concerts and free concerts at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Balboa Park even has a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe theater, where you can see live performances year-round.

4. Visit the San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo

Image by Curtis Yancey from Pixabay

Not to be confused with the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the San Diego Zoo was initially built as part of the California Exhibition in Balboa Park. It is the most visited zoo in America, with over 4 million visitors a year.

Visiting the San Diego Zoo is one of the best things to do in San Diego because it is the largest zoo in North America. It is home to over 3,500 animals from 650 unique species. The zoo pioneered the concept of natural enclosures, in which cageless barriers such as moats keep animals safe in their habitats. The zoo is also unique in how its efforts to recreate the habitats like they would be seen in the wild.

Its claim to fame is that it is one of the only zoos with a breeding program for giant pandas. At the heart of the zoo’s mission is its dedication to conservation and a focus on protecting endangered species. The zoo invests considerable time and money in conservation endeavors in 45 countries around the world. In fact, they have returned more than 44 species to the wild, including the endangered California condor. Don’t forget to get your skip the line tickets ahead of time online.

5. Board the USS Midway Museum

The USS Midway Museum offers visitors the opportunity to board a retired aircraft carrier in San Diego Embarcadero. This ship was built shortly after World War II and was the largest aircraft carrier in the world until 1955. The vessel was used in the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm during the 1990s.

The museum now houses military aviation vehicles and other exhibitions. Visitors can see what life was like for an airforce soldier. You can visit bedrooms, engine rooms, control rooms and more.

Guests love the interactive displays at the USS Midway Museum, including a flight simulator. It is even possible to climb aboard some of the airplanes on display at the museum.

6. Stroll along the Embarcadero

Embarcadero means “landing place” in Spanish, which is why it is San Diego’s main port. The largest cruise ships arrive at the port in San Diego Embarcadero.

Not merely a harbor, the Embarcadero is an area along the water where visitors can see San Diego’s historic boats and museums dedicated to maritime history. The area also includes a public park with shopping, a fountain, and a sprawling waterfront lawn. If you’d like to see the Embarcardero from a different angle, a very popular thing to do is to take a Harbor Cruise at sunset. We have found great discount on fun activities on the on Tiqets website, like their 1-hour Harbor Cruise and Sea Lion Adventure.

Be sure to check out the events at Embarcadero during your vacation to find out about things to do in San Diego. The district hosts a food and wine festival, symphony concerts, and a Big Bay Boom celebration on The Fourth of July. The most famous festival held at Embarcadero is the U.S. Sand Sculpting Challenge and Art Expo.

7. Explore the Caves of La Jolla

La Jolla Caves in San Diego

Image by jpjenn26 from Pixabay

Unlike the sandy beaches in southern San Diego, the north coast consists of rocky cliffs, rocky shores, and numerous caves. La Jolla Caves is one of the more unique things to do on this part of the San Diego coast. Located near La Jolla Bay, most of the caves are only accessible from the water.

One of the fun things to do in San Diego is to take a guided kayak tour into the largest of the seven La Jolla Caves, the Clam Cave. Or, take a footpath to the only cave reachable by foot, the  Sunny Jim Gate. There are 145 steps, but the views at the end are worth it!

8. Get acquainted with the island lifestyle of Coronado Beach

Hotel Coronado in San Diego

Image by nathanhill0070 from Pixabay

Coronado Beach is located on Coronado Island near San Diego Bay. To get there, you must drive over the Coronado Bridge, which rises 200 feet above the Bay. Another fun way to get to Coronado is to use a Coronado ferry or a water taxi directly from the city center.

You will soon see that Coronado Island is like a mini-community in San Diego. The main street, Orange Avenue, is full of quirky shops. Don’t miss the Hotel del Coronado, a chic hotel that offers a beautiful setting at sunset. Fans of beer will enjoy visiting Coronado Brewing Company, an award-winning craft brewery on the west coast.

9. Breathtaking views at Cabrillo National Monument

A historical thing to do in San Diego is to visit the Cabrillo National Monument. The memorial is where the first Europeans encountered the west coast of America. Named after Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who landed here in 1542. If you’re visiting San Diego in October, you can even witness a reenactment of the historical events.

You can also visit the old army camps and the lighthouse, which has been in place since 1855. Even if you’re not drawn to the historical significance, the area is well worth a visit to take in San Diego’s gorgeous coastline.

Top things to do in San Diego

About the author

Monica Wörner, Owner of The Backpacking Site
Monica Wörner
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Monica is an avid traveler and backpacker who seeks to inspire others to embark on great adventures off the beaten path. Originally from California, she has travelled to over 60 countries, most of which she explored while backpacking or camping. She currently lives in Berlin, Germany with her husband, who she met in Costa Rica while they were both solo-backpacking!

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