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Andrew and I have been so lucky to spend almost three years visiting this city nearly every weekend. From the ocean to the food, there’s certainly no shortage of things to do, food to eat and places to see. We are absolutely in love with San Diego, California and wanted to share 25 things you absolutely can’t miss in this beautiful coastal city.
1. Chow down at Liberty Market
Liberty Market, located in Liberty Station, is one of our favorite spots for a casual bite to eat. Open 7 days a week, this marketplace offers the best of San Diego’s cuisine from thai food to lobster rolls. There’s indoor seating with a bar to watch your favorite sports games, and there’s also outdoor seating perfect for families (and dogs!).
I’ve eaten from pretty much every vendor in the market, but my favorite is the lobster roll from Wicked Maine Lobster followed by the creamiest ice cream from Scooped. If you’re looking for more upscale dining, there are also restaurants that are located just around the Market. We love Buona Forchetta, but our favorite is Breakfast Republic (see #23!).
2. Take a sunset harbor dinner cruise
A sunset dinner cruise on the harbor is perfect for an anniversary or when family comes to visit. Andrew and I took my parents on a Flagship dinner cruise when they first visited San Diego. This was hands down one of my favorite memories to date. This dinner cruise offered a three course meal, a flight of beer (*this may have been offered just when we cruised– Ballast Point hosted it), a cash bar and dancing. We became friends with the most entertaining DJ, and he played many of our favorite songs. As we cruised along the harbor, we were lucky enough to see some fireworks (not provided by the dinner cruise company) which really made our evening even more special. I highly recommend a sunset dinner cruise!
PS. ALWAYS check Groupon for a good deal on a cruise.
3. Watch a sunset at Sunset Cliffs
If you don’t quite have the time for a dinner cruise, watching a sunset at Sunset Cliffs, a coastal neighborhood, is the next best. Known for its expansive ocean views, you can take a short walk along the coastline and watch the sun go down. There is actually a sea cave 50 feet wide by 50 feet tall that is accessible by kayak and by foot if the water is negative low tide (note: we’ve gone several times and have never been able to see anyone get into it). You are able to see the cave from the cliffs above as well.
Parking is available along the street anywhere in the Sunset Cliffs neighborhood.
4. Check out the tide pools at Point Loma
Located at the Cabrillo National Monument, the tide pools are visited by nearly 200,000 people a year. Your best bet to see the most tide pool creatures is in the fall and winter when the most low tides are visible during the day! We’ve gone several times to visit these tide pools, and there is always a very long line to get into the park. The parking lots can be packed as well which backs up the entrance to the park (and you’ll have a long trek down a very steep hill to get to the tide pools if that happens). Plan your visit accordingly. The best time to visit the tide pools is two hours before low tide and two hours after low tide. The tidepool area closes daily at 4:30 PM.
There are fees to get into Cabrillo National Monument (free for military). Make sure you also check out the National Park Service’s website before visiting to see if there are any closures due to dangerous conditions.
5. Hike Torrey Pines
One of our favorite hikes in San Diego is at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Located on the coastline, Torrey Pines offers beautiful panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. There are several short trails located in the Reserve that make it perfect for everyone, including families with small children. Because parking ($12-$25 a day) for the hike and Torrey Pines State Beach are in the same places, bring along your bathing suit and surfboard for a day at the beach.
6. Ride the ferry to Coronado
Most people travel to Coronado by car, but if you really want a special experience in Coronado, we suggest riding the ferry! There are two ferry routes, one from the Broadway Pier on the hour or Convention Center every half hour. After a scenic 15 minutes, you’ll arrive at the Coronado Ferry Landing where you can enjoy everything Coronado Island has to offer! One way tickets are $5, and round trip tickets are $10. Children under 4 are free. To buy tickets and see the full schedule, click here.
7. Visit Centennial Park for epic views of the San Diego skyline
Once you arrive at the Coronado Ferry Landing, head straight to Centennial Park (a 3 minute walk) to check out the skyline of San Diego. We’ve done this at nighttime as well, and it’s just as beautiful during the day. After, walk directly up Orange Avenue, and you’ll have a good pick of restaurants to choose from (we like the Coronado Brewing Company). If you want to walk directly to the Hotel Coronado (our next pick!), it’s just a 28 minute walk.
8. Check out the Hotel del Coronado
Originally opened in 1888, the Hotel del Coronado is a luxury beachfront hotel that regularly accommodated celebrities, royalty and politicians. Designated a California Historical Landmark in 1970, the hotel has been part of numerous books and movies, such as Some Like It Hot (1959) starring Marilyn Monroe.
In my opinion, the inside of the hotel that is open to non-guests, including the lobby, appears dated (probably due to preservation efforts). However, according to the photos on the website, the rooms look updated and luxurious. Currently owned by Hilton, you can stay on the property beginning at $290 per night. If that’s not quite in your price range, you can spend the day basking in the sun at the expansive Coronado Beach.
9. Go to a Padres game
If you’re looking for some good old fun, there’s nothing more American than a baseball game! Check out San Diego’s own Major League Baseball team. The park is beautiful, the food delicious, and the beer refreshing! For even more fun, take in a game when the Padres play the Dodgers. People get very serious about their Southern California baseball teams.
10. Eat your heart out in Little Italy
Like many cities, San Diego has its own downtown Little Italy. Stroll along the 10,000 square foot piazza complete with fountain during the daytime or under the lights at night. For a more relaxed feel, visit during lunchtime. If you want bustling action, visit Little Italy during the dinner rush. Andrew’s favorite lunchtime stop is Mona Lisa Italian Foods. My favorite dinner spot is Buon Appetito.
11. Scarf down delicious donuts at Donut Bar
MMM, donuts. My favorite baked good. For the best donuts in San Diego, try Donut Bar. They have some of the largest and fluffiest donuts I’ve eaten. In order to get first pick of the flavors, we suggest going early before opening because they’ll likely have a line (it goes quickly!). It is honestly 1000% worth the wait! After Amelia was born, Andrew left the hospital to surprise me with some Donut Bar. Try the Strawberry Split donut!
12. Visit the San Diego Zoo!
Located on 100 acres adjacent to Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo is home to 3,700 animals and 650 species and subspecies. Your family will be sure to love the Skyfari, a gondola lift that provides an aerial view of the zoo. Many have rated the San Diego Zoo as the best zoo they’ve ever visited which I certainly have to agree with!
The zoo has a deal on Groupon right now that will last from now until 09/30/2021. Get your tickets here!
13. Get even closer to the animals at the Safari Park
Located 36 minutes northeast of the San Diego Zoo in Escondido is the Safari Park which offers a different experience than a day at the zoo. The exhibits at the Safari Park are larger than at the more condensed zoo. The Safari Park offers more experiences, such as wildlife safaris that put you in closer contact with the animals.
Andrew and I were able to take an African wildlife safari to get up close and personal with the rhinos, giraffes, antelope and more!
Somehow we managed to get a personal tour since no one joined our truck (a $460 value!). Andrew and I were able to feed the animals whole buckets of food instead of just one piece each. It was a really incredible experience!
Note: don’t try to do both the Zoo and Safari Park in one day. If you want to see more types of animals, I would suggest the San Diego Zoo. If you want to be closer to the animals, then I 100% suggest the Safari Park.
14. Find your purpose at the Meditation Gardens in Encinitas
If you find yourself needing to recharge, step into tranquility at the Meditation Gardens, a part of the Self-Realization Fellowship. With spectacular koi ponds, tropical plants, “meditation nooks” and incredible views of the Pacific, you can take a break from the monotony of daily life and meditate in silence. We’ve been able to see a pod of dolphins from here as well.
15. Go surfing
You’ll fit in with the locals if you surf here in San Diego. For beginners, we suggest renting a board and a wetsuit (or take a class!) from PB Surf Shop and head to Tourmaline or Ocean Beach for good beginner waves. If you’re an advanced surfer, head out to Windansea Beach or Black’s Beach known for more powerful dynamic waves. Just know, you better be good because the locals can be territorial if your surfing isn’t on their level.
16. Take your dog to the beach at Ocean Beach
San Diego is a very dog friendly city which works out for us and our doggo, Samson. Open all year to dogs, Ocean Beach Dog Park is the place to be if you have a four-legged pup no matter the size. In addition to off-leash dog frolicking, many people swim and surf here as well, so you’ll have no problem staying at the beach all day with Fido.
17. Visit the USS Midway
Visit the USS Midway to learn about this historic naval aircraft carrier, the longest serving aircraft carrier to date (1945-1992). Aboard this maritime museum, there is a self-guided audio tour that explains the features and purposes of each part of the ship. There are also several experiences and exhibits offered to fully appreciate the aviation and naval history of the Midway. To get your tour of the USS Midway, visit their website.
18. Go paragliding at Torrey Pines
If you’re an adrenaline junkie, check out the Torrey Pines Gliderport where you can take a tandem hang gliding or paragliding flight. You quite literally walk off a cliff with your highly experienced tandem pilot and soar high above Black’s Beach. You also get a peek into how “the other half lives” by flying over their cliffside homes.
Andrew and I both did tandem paragliding flights, and it was such a thrill! Prices for a tandem paragliding and hanggliding flight are $175 and $225, respectively. Torrey Pines Gliderport does not take reservations. Order is based on a first come, first serve basis. We suggest calling before you go to see if the wind speed permits flying.
19. Take a stroll through Balboa Park
Visiting Balboa Park is must-do for those seeking a cultural or nature experience. With over 16 museums, several performing arts venues, fountains and gardens, there’s much to see at Balboa Park. Located next to the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park is a special spot for both locals and tourists. You often see food vendors and entertainers in the park which makes it a great place to stop for a picnic. Our favorite thing to do in Balboa Park is simply walk along the gardens.
Pro tip: San Diego’s flora is the most beautiful in the spring. We suggest planning your trip to Balboa Park then. Also, the park is significantly quieter but just as beautiful at night.
20. Have a night out at the Gaslamp Quarter
If you fancy a night out on the town, head downtown to the Gaslamp Quarter. Home to bars and swanky nightclubs, you’re sure to find your place in the crowd. The bustling Gaslamp Quarter is a unique neighborhood with casual to upscale dining and hotel accommodations, comedy clubs, theatre and live music. We’re 100% sure you’ll have a good time if you spend a night in the Gaslamp Quarter.
21. Take a picture with Windansea’s famous Surf Hut
Built back in 1946, this surf hut made of palms is a prominent landmark in La Jolla. At Windansea Beach, you’ll see the surf hut located on top of the rocks. Although it’s been torn down from weather over the years, locals always rebuild it to its original integrity.
22. Visit the seals and sea lions at La Jolla Cove
When friends and family come to visit, the first place we always take them is La Jolla Cove. Although you can smell the sea life from a half mile away, the sea lions and seals draw thousands to the Cove. At times, there will be hundreds of sea animals basking in the sun on the rocks. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a baby seal or sea lion too.
If you are visiting La Jolla, check out our Top 20 Things to Do in La Jolla, California!
23. Have the best brunch of your life at Breakfast Republic
AHH, just like my love of Donut Bar, I also have a love of Breakfast Republic brunch. Pancake flights, french toast sampler, eggs benedicts, seasonal mimosas. Need I say more? If you’re a true foodie, I promise Breakfast Republic will not let you down. There are multiple locations throughout San Diego, so you don’t have an excuse not to go!
24. Enjoy 360 degree views at Mt. Soledad
Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial is a beautiful tribute to veterans, both living and deceased. The monument complete with a large white cross marks the highest point in La Jolla. On a clear day, from the top of Mt. Soledad, you can see Mexico to the south, mountains to the east and the beautiful Pacific Ocean. Mt. Soledad is a beautiful quiet place to sit in remembrance of those who fought and continue to fight for our beautiful country.
25. Drive the Pacific Coast Highway
So, the Pacific Coast Highway actually extends all the way to San Francisco, but if you’re in love with beautiful views and have limited time, drive the PCH through San Diego County. You’ll drive through coastal towns, reminiscent of those in Australia, and find views of the Pacific you won’t find anywhere else.
26. BONUS: Have a baby in San Diego!
Our precious Amelia was born in this beautiful city, and we, born and raised East Coasters, are pumped that she gets to represent the West Coast for the rest of her life!
We hope this list of 25 things you can’t miss in San Diego helps plan your trip to this beautiful coastal city. If you’re interested in more in-depth suggestions for La Jolla, California, a neighborhood of San Diego, check out that post here. If you’ve got your eye on Windansea Beach, check that out here!
Andrew and I hope you enjoy San Diego as much as we do. If you’ve been to any of these places, we’d love to hear about it in the comments below.