10 Free Things to Do in San Diego

Photo courtesy of Joanne DiBona
Photo courtesy of Joanne DiBona
By Katie Dillon, San Diego Local Expert

A city full of theme parks, fine dining and multi-million dollar homes might lead visitors to believe that finding free things to do in San Diego is next to impossible. The truth is that the city is full of options that don't require emptying your wallet. And, many of these activities are the things you should be doing here anyway.

San Diego's most popular attractions, the beaches, are free! Sure, depending on where you go, you may find yourself dropping quarters in a parking meter, but with good planning and early arrival, parking spaces in public lots should be available. Pack a picnic, sunscreen and umbrella for a day in Southern California sunshine. Award-winning Coronado Municipal Beach tops our list of favorite beaches for it's gorgeous white sand and relatively calm water that is perfect for kids.

Hike Torrey Pines State Park for spectacular ocean views, the occasional dolphin sighting, bird watching and fabulous exercise. It's a day-use park with a fee-based parking lot but plenty of free, street parking is available during off-peak times. 

The must-do with kids in La Jolla is the Children's Pool. What used to be a swimming area has been taken over (to the dismay of some) by sunbathing seals.

Without further ado, here is the list of the 10 best free things to do in San Diego.

10. Mission Bay Park
Photo courtesy of Keoni Cabral

This park encompasses over 4200 acres, with 27 miles of shoreline of which 19 are sandy beach. Facilities include marinas, a horseshoe court, sand volleyball courts, fire rings, picnic areas, children's play areas, and paths for biking, rollerskating and jogging. The park includes several wildlife preserves, making it a favorite with birdwatchers. It's one of the best places in San Diego to fly a kite and you can even camp here. If you'd like to try your hand at water skiing or wake boarding, tour companies can take you out for a ride. SeaWorld borders Mission Bay, as well. There is no fee to enter the park.

9. Moonlight State Beach

This beach earns its name because residents in the early 1900s used to picnic under the stars here. Today, Moonlight State Beach is a popular beach choice with North County San Diego locals and visitors. A picnic area, restrooms, volleyball courts, tennis courts, equipment rentals, a snack bar and more are just a few of the conveniences offered here. It's located at the end of Encinitas Boulevard and Highway 101, which also happens to be where some of the best restaurants and shopping in Encinitas awaits. Surfing is in a designated area and lifeguards are on duty in the summer.

8. La Jolla Shores Beach
Photo courtesy of Katie Dillon

There is so much to do here, it's hard to begin. Of course, the usual beachgoing activities such as sunbathing and enjoying the ocean are free. This part of the ocean is special as it's the entry point into La Jolla's Underwater Park where an abundance of sea life lives. Seasonal free fun includes grunion running and swimming with leopard sharks. A nice playground, Kellogg Park, offers tots a break from the beach while boot camp, yoga and running enthusiasts have space on the big grassy area to burn calories. Scripps Pier is one of the most popular places for family photos. Just a few minutes walk away are the shops and restaurants of Avenida de la Playa.

7. 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, the new Waterfront Park with spray fountains and a playground for kids, and stretches for several miles south of Lindbergh Field International Airport. 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. 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. Bring the camera as this is an excellent way to see the sights of San Diego.

6. Children's Pool
Photo courtesy of Flickr/rickycliphoto

The Children's Pool is a beach in La Jolla that is famous for seal sightings on sand and in the water. Its name is derived from the beach's original intent. In 1931 local philanthropist, Ellen Browning Scrips, had a seawall built to protect the area and allow kids to swim freely. Sand has since prevented it from becoming a recreational area, however, the seals love it. Some residents believe the seals should go and that the area should revert to its original purpose. In the meantime, the controversial seals remain and draw in tongs of visitors year-round. They are adorable.

5. Torrey Pines State Beach and Park

Along the bluffs overlooking the sea await eight miles of trails through the unique landscape at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Due to conservation efforts the state park is one of the wildest, most undeveloped spots in the state. The twisted Torrey pine tree is found in only two places on earth: in this park and on an island almost 200 miles to the north. The park is day-use only and open daily from 7:15am until roughly sunset. Three hundred feet below at the base of the bluffs is a family-friendly, sandy beach. The northern portion is popular for families, with lifeguards and bathrooms.

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

Find out what life was like in Mexico and early America back in the 1800s. This spot is where the city of San Diego was born, and it contains historic treasures unearthed by archeologists over the years. The historic park includes several original adobes as well as a schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, carriage collection and a museum filled with artifacts (free admission). Surrounding the park are some of San Diego's best Mexican restaurants, famous for homemade tortillas and fish bowl-sized margaritas though you can also bring a picnic. Then digest by browsing the nearby shops. Dance to music in the park on weekends.

3. Balboa Park
Photo courtesy of Katie Dillon

With over 85 cultural and recreational facilities, Balboa Park is a must-see. Start at the Visitor's Center to grab a map and events calendar. Wander through multiple gardens or the botanical building (with over 2000 plant species), take in an outdoor organ concert, or enjoy a presentation at one of several theaters. Getting around the massive complex is easy, thanks to the free tram. Entrance to the park is free; museums within the park are priced individually, however, keep an eye on the Residents Free Tuesday calendar to see which allow free admission to San Diego residents on select Tuesdays.

2. Torrey Pines Gliderport
Photo courtesy of Flickr/tobo

Ranked the #1 paragliding school in America since 2000, Torrey Pines Gliderport is a city-owned private-use glider airport. You can't really beat the view from the sky, but it's pretty spectacular from the ground, too. While lessons and a tandem flight are possible, it's free to stop by to enjoy blufftop views straight out to the blue Pacific Ocean, over the famous Black's Beach. The counter-order Cliffhanger Cafe serves sandwiches, salads and snacks but you can bring a picnic to eat at the tables here. Don't forget your camera and maybe a zoom lens as whales and dolphins can occasionally be spotted from here.

1. Coronado Municipal Beach
Photo courtesy of Joanne DiBona

The seaward side of Coronado Island is exceptionally clean with wide stretches of sand. It's considered one of the best beaches in the nation. The northern end, "North Beach", is dog-friendly and popular for surfing in the summer. The main part, "Central Beach", runs along Ocean Boulevard south to the famous Hotel Del Coronado. Because it is the easiest to get to, it's also the most crowded. Shops and restaurants in downtown Coronado are walkable from here. This is a very family-friendly beach with calm waters due to some protection from a nearby point. The sand also glitters in the water due to a mineral called mica and there's a little tide pool exposed during low tides.