Visit and you’ll want to move. Move and you won’t want to leave. They don’t call it “America’s Finest City” for nothing. Beyond beautiful weather, beaches, and people, SD has a boatload of fun stuff to do. Check these off your bucket list next time you’re on the best coast.
The city’s most important cultural destination, Balboa Park is just minutes from downtown. At 1,200 acres, it’s America’s biggest urban cultural park, but it’s so much more than green space. Balboa Park boasts hiking and biking trails, performing arts theaters, lovely gardens, a fountain, a carousel, and more than 16 museums.
The Fleet Science Center is a science museum and planetarium; the San Diego Natural History Museum is the second oldest scientific institution west of the Mississippi and the oldest in Southern California; and the San Diego Museum of Art houses a broad collection, with an emphasis in Spanish art. The historic park is also home to the San Diego Air and Space Museum, the San Diego History Center, and the beautiful Botanical Building and Gardens, which features more than 2,100 plant varieties.
After learning about human history and culture at the Museum of Man, climb up 125 stairs to the top deck of the 200-foot-tall California Tower, where you can see all the way to Mexico. (At the time of this writing, the tower temporarily closed as it undergoes a seismic retrofit.) See a play or musical at The Old Globe theatre. Outdoor spaces include the Japanese Friendship Garden, five playgrounds, three dog parks, tennis courts, a golf course, and lawn bowling.
Nestled in Balboa Park is the second best zoo in the world. The San Diego Zoo houses 3,700 animals of more than 650 species and subspecies in large, open enclosures on its 99-acre property. The century-old world-famous zoo is one of San Diego’s most beloved attractions, featuring a hummingbird house, an elephant exhibit, and the Skyfari aerial tram. Don’t miss the 300 roaming species at San Diego Zoo Safari Park, where you can choose your own up-close encounter with creatures including cheetahs, giraffes, and lions. Right outside the zoo’s exit, there’s a miniature train that takes kiddos on thrilling, three-minute rides.
We can all stop boycotting SeaWorld now that public outcry over captive killer whales has put an end to the killer whale show. The theme park has a lot more to offer than Shamu, anyway, including a water park, rides, aquatic animal encounters, aquariums, and entertaining shows. In the summer, Cirque Electrique showcases USBA world freestyle Jet Ski champion Mark Gomez doing backflips on his lit-up stand-up jetski.
Take the expansive Coronado Bridge across San Diego Bay or ride the ferry from downtown to Coronado Island’s iconic, 130-year-old Hotel Del Coronado. The grand, 1888 Victorian property is a National Historic Landmark, and the perfect place to enjoy a beachfront cocktail at sunset.
If you stay at the hotel, you can join beachfront activities like Mermaid Fitness or take a surf lesson. Or, take it easy and lounge on a luxurious Del Beach daybed before roasting s’mores over a private bonfire.
Whether you’re staying in the 28-acre resort’s rooms and suites or not, you can dine in any of the onsite restaurants overlooking the Pacific. The magnificent Crown Room has a legendary Sunday brunch, complete with DIY Bloody Marys and mimosas. Shop coastal trends, designer labels, pop-up shops, one-of-a-kind jewelry, and beach-inspired home décor at the Shops at The Del. It might be worth it to stay at The Del, so you can swim in the infinity pool terrace overlooking the Pacific and treat yo’self to an ocean-inspired spa day, taking advantage of the hotel’s steam rooms and hot tubs.
San Diego's year-round warm weather and consistent waves make it a sensational spot to hang ten. From the beginner breaks at Pacific Beach to the board-breaking La Jolla reefs, San Diego sports some of the best breaks in the country. Newbies can get hands-on lessons from a local instructor.
Pacific Beach is a great place to learn no matter the time of year. This classic SoCal beach community, located between Pacific Beach Drive and the Crystal Pier, is known as “PB” by the locals. Garnet Ave is where you party, but the two-mile sun-drenched stretch of sand, aka “The Strand” is popular with both surfers and sunbathers. Surfers have to stick to designated areas, like Tourmaline Surfing Park. Crystal Pier offers public fishing and city views, while the 3.5-mile boardwalk on the city side is dotted with shops and restaurants.
La Jolla is for more advanced surfers, but everyone can enjoy the rock caves and the tide pools of La Jolla Cove. It’s walkable bluffs and the resident population of sunbathing seals and sea lions make it one of the most photographed beaches in Southern California.
Black's Beach is another popular destination for experienced surfers. Park at the Torrey Pines Gliderport to take a trail down the towering sandstone cliffs that border the clothing-optional beach. Or just stay there and hang glide!
Speaking of the oceanfront reserve Torrey Pines, it is one of the most popular attractions in San Diego. Boarding the Pacific Ocean just north of La Jolla, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is situated about 18 miles north of downtown San Diego. But it’s worth the drive to see the beautiful 1,750 acres of unspoiled land and incredible ocean views.
The reserve is named after America's rarest pine tree and is home to 3,000 Torrey Pines, as well as one of Southern California's last salt marshes and waterfowl refuges.
There are eight miles of hiking trails, featuring beautiful sandstone ravines and badlands, breathtaking coastline views, and wildflowers (during spring). For a short hike, try Guy Fleming Trail; or for a longer, almost 1.5-mile hike, try out Razor Point Trail. Stay on the trail unless you want to encounter a rattlesnake and swim at your own risk—there aren’t any lifeguards on duty.
Torrey Pines opens at 7:15am and closes at sunset. Get there early or go on a weekday to avoid crowds. Parking is available at the North Beach or South Beach lots. Don’t pack a picnic—no food is allowed on the beach or in the reserve. In case you’re bringing your clubs, the Torrey Pines 36-hole golf course sits on the coastal cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean just south of the reserve.
During winter (December-April), more than 20,000 Pacific gray whales make the longest migration of any mammal on earth, traveling 10,000 miles round-trip from Alaska to Baja California, putting San Diego’s 78 miles of coastline in the perfect whale-watching path.
Blue whales migrate into southern California in the spring and summer to chow down on krill, which also attracts dolphins, Finback whales, Humpback whales, Minke whales, and more. Take a boat tour to get an up-close glimpse, or bring your binoculars to try to spy some from the shore.
Okay, so technically Knott's Berry Farm is 100 miles north of San Diego in Buena Park, but we had to include Southern California's original theme park. It’s roller coasters, stage shows, interactive experiences, and waterpark made the 57-acre family-friendly park the tenth-most-visited theme park in North America in 2017. Knott's Berry Farm commemorates its 100-year anniversary in 2020.