Best Things to Do in San Diego

Best San Diego Attractions to See on Your Vacation

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 pack 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 them away from the gorgeous sandy beaches, SeaWorld offers special experiences like dinner with Shamu or behind 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 bears 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 O.K. to be seen in half of a day, too.


Cabrillo National Monument
Photo courtesy of Joanne DiBona

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.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Cabrillo Monument is an often-overlooked National Park with incredibly scenic views. Kids love it, too.

Katie's expert tip: Plan to spend some time at the tide pools, one of the last and best-preserved rocky Intertidal areas open to the public. They're located below the Cabrillo Monument.

Read more about Cabrillo National Monument →

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.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: PETCO Park is home to the San Diego Padres, our Major League baseball team.

Katie's expert tip: It's possible to take a behind the scenes tour of the park 7-days a week. Buy tickets online.

Read more about PETCO Park →

San Diego Embarcadero
Photo courtesy of Joanne DiBona

"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.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: A stroll along the water here is a must, especially if you're staying downtown.

Katie's expert tip: Pedicabs for up to four people operate up and down the Embarcadero. Negotiate a price and enjoy San Diego's harbor views from a romantic carriage.

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Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Photo courtesy of Joanne DiBona

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.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Old Town San Diego is considered the birthplace of California. The area's shops, museums and restaurants definitely celebrate this!

Katie's expert tip: If you plan to indulge in a margarita or two, remember the trolley can take you Downtown and to a few other nearby spots. Also, it can be crowded on the weekends here so call ahead or arrive early to find a parking place.

Read more about Old Town San Diego State Historic Park →

SeaWorld San Diego
Photo courtesy of Joanne DiBona

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 more. SeaWorld also offers exciting rides such as Wild Arctic Encounter, Shipwreck Rapids and Journey to Atlantis to get the adrenaline 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.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Despite recent scrutiny, SeaWorld is a major reason why tourists visit San Diego.

Katie's expert tip: If you can, visit on a weekday morning. Check to see if any ticket promotions are running prior to your visit. Also, Costco sells Sea World memberships at a discount (call to verify).

Read more about SeaWorld San Diego →


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.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: The USS Midway gives visitors--especially kids--an appreciation for the military.

Katie's expert tip: Volunteer museum docents are scattered throughout the ship and are enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge with Midway visitors.

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San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Photo courtesy of Joanne DiBona

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.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: Animals are exhibited in their natural environment versus cages here. Species conservation is the main purpose of the park.

Katie's expert tip: Check the schedule before you go to see if there are any must-see behind-the-scenes activities happening on the day of your visit.

Read more about San Diego Zoo Safari Park →

LEGOLAND California
Photo courtesy of Joanne DiBona

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! You MUST check their calendar before visiting as they are not open daily during off-peak season and hours vary.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: LEGOLAND California Resort, now with a water park and hotel, draws visitors from all over the world.

Katie's expert tip: LEGOLAND is best for kids ages 10 and under and completely fine for a half-day visit if you are short on time. SEA LIFE Aquarium has an average visit time of under an hour as well.

Read more about LEGOLAND California →

Balboa Park

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 via one ticket. 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.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: It's the nation's largest urban cultural park and full of diverse fun for all ages. The gardens are stunning, too.

Katie's expert tip: Download the Balboa Park iPhone App which will tell you everything you need to know about visiting this historic area. Don't forget to duck into the gift shops for unique gifts all ages will enjoy.

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San Diego Zoo
Photo courtesy of Joanne DiBona

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 as well as over 700,000 exotic plants. 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. Check the calendar for special behind-the-scenes experiences that will certainly enhance your stay.

Recommended for Best Attractions & Activities because: It's world-famous for a reason. The conservation efforts are outstanding and the grounds are beautiful.

Katie's expert tip: The best time to visit the Zoo is in the morning. The gorgeous vegetation shades many of the walking paths and some animals are typically more active.

Read more about San Diego Zoo →


Meet 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...  More About Katie