Best Attractions in San Diego to See on Your Vacation
By Katie Dillon
San Diego Local Expert
You've decided to visit San Diego and aren't sure what to do. Or, perhaps you live here and would like to explore the city more than you have in the past. Not to worry, this list of 10 Best San Diego attractions helps plan a fun-filled itinerary regardless of age, budget or traveling companions.
Have kids? San Diego is one of the most popular family-friendly destinations in the world. If you can pull your them away from the gorgeous sandy beaches, SeaWorld offers special experiences like dinner with Shamu or behinds the scenes tours. LEGO enthusiasts definitely need to head up to LEGOLAND and neighboring SEALIFE Aquarium for a day.
All ages should plan a visit to the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Not only will you enjoy seeing pandas, hippos, koalas, polar bars and more roam spacious enclosures, you will also be supporting the Zoo's conservation efforts while learning along the way.
Budget-conscious travelers can take advantage of the beach, stroll through Balboa Park and perhaps duck into a museum or two. It's also free to soak up California history and sunshine in Old Town though a Mexican food meal there doesn't have to break the bank either.
Attractions are spread out all over the city, so think ahead regarding what to visit, when and how to get there (rental cars are advised). If you're short on time, any of the big amusement parks are OK to be seen in half of a day, too.
Cabrillo National Monument
Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo is credited with discovering San Diego in the 16th century. The Cabrillo Monument, located on the cliffs of Point Loma where he is thought to have first set foot, is dedicated to telling the story via displays and films at the Visitor's Center. The view of Downtown San Diego over the Pacific Ocean from here is postcard-perfect. Snap away and then also pose next Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo's giant statue. There is also a two-mile walking trail, areas for picnics, tidepools to explore and much more for a fun half-day out. Whales can be seen from here during the early winter months. (619-557-5450)
If it's major league baseball time, why not grab some tickets to a Padres home game at PETCO park if they're in town? Not only does PETCO park have the best sight lines in baseball, there's also great views of San Diego from some spots. Innovative design features make it an intimate sports viewing environment and there are also state-of-the-art amenities to suit fans of any budget. Tailgating prior to games is permitted on a limited basis so check PETCO Park's website for details. Driving and parking at the game is relatively easy with 9000 spots designated specifically for Padres fans. The ballpark is operated in an eco-friendly manner due to the Padres' commitment to green practices. (619-795-5000)
San Diego Embarcadero
"Embarcadero" is a Spanish word meaning "landing place" and San Diego's welcomes cruise ships, is home to the USS Midway and other historic ships, and stretches for several miles south of Lindbergh Field International Airport. Daily dinner cruises also depart from here. A leisurely walk will take you past these attractions to Seaport Village, a relaxing waterfront marketplace with a variety of fine restaurants and unique shops (mostly souvenirs and trinkets). The San Diego Convention Center and several upscale hotels edge the waterfront leading to Embarcadero Park South, a gorgeous area where the San Diego Symphony performs its popular summer pops series. (619-686-7210)
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Relive San Diego's early days in Old Town, a state park that recreates life in the Mexican and Rancho California periods of 1821 to 1872. Original adobes are part of the complex, which also includes historic buildings such as a schoolhouse, a stable with carriage collection, San Diego's first newspaper office, and a blacksmith shop. Stroll through the colorful boutiques and specialty shops selling everything from ceramics to piñatas, and enjoy traditional Mexican food, fine California cuisine and margaritas of every flavor in Old Town's signature restaurants. It's a festive and fun stop on any San Diego itinerary with plenty of space in the main park for kids to run around. (619-220-5422, 619-291-4903)
SeaWorld San Diego
Pet a dolphin, watch the antics of barking seals and walruses, enjoy polar bears taking an icy plunge, view penguins in their icy habitat, come eye-to-eye with a shark, see cats and dogs (and even pigs) doing amazing tricks, and thrill to the intelligence and dexterity of Shamu, the killer whale. SeaWorld also offers exciting rides such as Wild Artic Encounter, Shipwreck Rapids and Journey to Atlantis to get the adrenalin rushing. Ride the Sky Tower for an unforgettable 360 degree view of San Diego and the Pacific Ocean. The park also offers a variety of behind-the-scene tours (for an extra fee) for an up-close and personal interaction with a variety of sea creatures. Young kids will love the rides and other activities in Elmo's World. (619-226-3901, 800-380-3203)
Experience what it's like to be a "city at sea" without leaving port. Located at the Broadway Pier on the San Diego Embarcadero, the USS Midway Museum has become one of the city's most popular attractions since it opened in 2004. Kids and adults alike will find something fascinating to do as they explore this massive aircraft carrier with a 50-year history. Take advantage of the self-guided audio tour free with admission, designed for both adults and kids. Discover the inner workings of this floating city by visiting the crew's sleeping quarters, the engine room, and even the ship's post office and jail. Visit the bridge over the flight deck and enjoy view over San Diego Bay. Climb-in aircraft, flight simulators, and 25 restored vintage aircraft round out the experience. (619-544-9600)
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Get nose-to-nose with a lion, feed a giraffe, see rhinos tending their young, view an elephant herd splashing in a pond, and marvel at the fact that you can have a mini safari experience right here in the USA. A tram takes you through the heart of the park, which shelters over 3,200 animals on more than 1,800 carefully designed, African-themed acres. The park recently added Flight Line Safari for a soaring view over the park at 160 ft. As an alternative, take the tethered Balloon Safari for a bird's-eye view of the entire park. And, don't forget to see a show, which is included in the park admission. It's also possible to spend the night here if you book a Roar and Snore Safari! (760-747-8702)
This is the place for kids and the kid in you. LEGOLAND California is perched on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Carlsbad, a 40-minute drive north from Downtown San Diego. Miniland USA, with its miniature models of famous cities and landmarks, is one of the most popular exhibits. The SEA LIFE Aquarium next door offers educational and hands on exhibits and a walk-through tunnel where you can view sting-rays and other sea creatures swim right in front of your eyes. An interactive water park is a great experience during warmer months and boasts a 45-foot-tall LEGO tower. And, now guests can stay in the LEGOLAND Hotel located right next to the park entrance! (760-918-5346)
With over 85 cultural and recreational facilities, Balboa Park is a must-see. It's probably best to start at the Visitor's Center to grab a map and events calendar (if you aren't able to use the iPhone App), or to purchase a Balboa Park Passport, which provides entrance to most of park's attractions. The Zoo is a big attraction, but there are also 15 museums, cultural centers, lawn bowling, a carousel, and a miniature railroad ride. Getting around the massive complex is easy, thanks to the free tram. Entrance to the park is free while attractions within the park are priced individually. Residents can visit certain museums for free on Tuesdays. (619-239-0512)
San Diego Zoo
A trip to San Diego isn't complete without a visit to the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Located in Balboa Park on 100 acres, the Zoo is home to more than 4,000 animals and 800 species, many of them rare or endangered. Wander through the lush landscaping of over 700,000 exotic plants. Combined, the backdrop makes the Zoo a perfect place for a morning walk. Most of the exhibits are designed around particular habitats. Malaysian tiger families can be seen roaming their grassy canyons in Tiger River, playful polar bears live in Polar Bear Plunge while giant pandas sleep (and occasionally move around) in the Panda Trek exhibit. All ages will appreciate a trip to the zoo and feel good about the conservation programs supported by doing so. (619-234-3153)
About Katie Dillon
Katie Dillon originally moved to the seaside community of La Jolla to attend UC San Diego. When the opportunity presented itself, she and her husband set off for a 7 year stint overseas as expats in London and Hong Kong. After traveling the world, they returned to the La Jolla sunshine, with a young daughter in tow. Katie now writes a lifestyle site called La Jolla Mom and is the author of a book called, “Flying With Kids.” Her work can be seen on NBC San Diego, Red Tricycle, Yahoo! Shine and Have Family Will Travel, a Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts blog.
Read more about Katie Dillon here.