San Diego, one of 18 cities in Southern California's San Diego County, is the eighth largest city in the United States. Sharing a border with Mexico, San Diego is known for its mild, dry climate, with a year-round temperature average of around 68 degrees F (20 degrees C) and low rainfall, occurring mostly between December and March. Coastal areas are generally cooler than inland parts of the city. Like most large cities, San Diego encompasses a variety of neighborhoods and communities, including casual beach towns, downtown business areas, and both new and historical sections. Tourism is a major industry, attracting visitors to its 70 miles of beaches, family theme parks, and attractions, museums, golf courses, craft breweries, and restaurants.
ATTRACTIONS TO VISIT IN San Diego
1. Balboa Park
Balboa Park is a one-stop wonderland for tourists. This 1,400-acre site encompasses historical buildings, numerous museums, gardens, and green space. The park was created for the Panama California Exhibition of 1915-1916, and most of the buildings remain from that event. The predominant architecture is Spanish-style, with low-rise buildings that blend in with the natural surroundings.
Among the highlights of the park are the botanical gardens and lily pond, the Museum of Man, the Museum of Natural History, the San Diego Museum of Art, and the famous San Diego Zoo. Even if you never go into a building, the park is simply a beautiful place to visit.
2. San Diego Zoo
A top tourist attraction in Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo is one of the largest and most famous zoos in the United States. Visiting this family-friendly attraction is also one of the top things to do in San Diego with kids. Plan at least a whole day here to really get the most out of your visit.
You can see all kinds of exotic animals here, but perhaps its most famous residents are the giant pandas, which have been successfully bred here. Other favorite animals include gorillas, grizzly bears, koalas, leopards, bonobos, polar bears, rhinos, and sloths, and all the animal enclosures are designed to recreate natural settings for each species.
If your feet get sore from walking around the park, you can always hop on the Kangaroo Express Bus or glide over the exhibits in the Skyfari Aerial Tram. Better still, purchase a Skip-the-Line San Diego Zoo ticket, which includes admission, as well as unlimited rides on the bus and tram. You'll also avoid any long lines at the entrance.
The non-profit San Diego Zoo Global runs the zoo; conservation organizations; and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which lies about a 40-minute drive north of downtown San Diego. True to its name, the safari park offers more of an African-style wildlife-watching experience, with free-roaming animals on large acreage. It's a good option if you have older children who don't mind walking longer distances. Insider's Tip: Bring binoculars!
3. Gaslamp Quarter
Adjacent to Petco Park and the Convention Center, the Gaslamp Quarter National Historic District is the hub of the city's nightlife. It's a great place to visit if you're looking for things to do in downtown San Diego — especially after dark.
Restored late-19th- and early-20th-century Victorian buildings house buzzing entertainment venues, trendy shops, art galleries, and restaurants serving every kind of cuisine you can imagine, from Persian food to pizza. This is a great place to catch some live jazz, comedy, or theater performances.
The district runs for about 16 blocks, from Broadway to San Diego Bay, and it's easily walkable, but you can also hop on bike taxis if your feet need a break.
Thanks to its great location in the heart of the city, the Gaslamp Quarter is also a great place to stay. High-end hotels range from boutique properties like the Pendry San Diego to big-brand properties like the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego, a short stroll away from all the action.
4. Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum
Walking along the San Diego waterfront on the Embarcadero, you might be surprised when you come across one of the US military's largest ships. The decommissioned USS Midway is permanently berthed at Navy Pier.
The highlights of a visit to the USS Midway Museum include more than 60 exhibits and 25 restored aircraft. More than 225,000 military service personnel served on the ship, and you can take a self-guided audio tour to learn all about its history. For an additional fee, you can also try a flight simulator on board.
To save time on your busy sightseeing agenda, consider purchasing a Skip the Line: USS Midway Museum Admission Ticket. This will allow you to bypass the crowds at the entrance, so you have more time to visit other top San Diego attractions.
5. Seaport Village
San Diego's Seaport Village is a delightful place to stroll around and spend an afternoon. Located right on the waterfront, this area of unique shops and restaurants is one of the city's must-sees. Picnic tables, benches, and waterfront patios are sprinkled throughout the area, and weekends can be very busy. Eclectic performers take to the outdoor stage regularly in the afternoons. Kids love riding the historic carousel with hand-carved wooden horses.
The area is easily accessible on foot from many of the nearby attractions, including the USS Midway. Since there is limited and expensive parking at Seaport Village, it might be best to park a little distance away and enjoy the stroll along the waterfront to the site.
6. San Diego Beaches
Year-round sunshine and miles of beautiful surf-washed coastline make San Diego a perfect place to visit for a beach vacation. No matter what you like to do, San Diego's best beaches offer conditions for every type of activity.
For basking in the sunshine and people-watching, head to Mission Beach with its buzzing beachfront boardwalk and seaview cafés. Ocean Beach delivers a dose of hippy chic, and pet owners can let their pooches run off-leash here at the aptly named Dog Beach. Surfing is also popular at these famous beaches.
If surfing is your top priority, Del Mar is one of the most consistent locations. Other popular surf spots include Pacific Beach, Trestles, Swami's, and Black's Beach, and beginner surfers should head to Oceanside or La Jolla Shores.
Want to take the kids for a day of sun, sand, and sea? The best family-friendly beaches are Del Mar, Silver Strand, Coronado Beach, and La Jolla Shores. And if you prefer a wild and rugged slice of coastline, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve fits the bill, with scenic hiking trails and soaring sea cliffs.
Wondering about the best time to visit San Diego for a beach vacation? It depends on your chosen activity. If you're a surfer, winter storms bring big swells. If you're a swimmer, summer is the best time to take a dip, and if you're headed to the coast to soak up some sunshine or stroll along the shore, you can do that at any time of the year.
7. Old Town State Historic Park
At the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, you can travel back in time and soak up some of the rich culture from San Diego's early days. The park recreates the feel of the Mexican and early American periods, from 1821 to 1872, when this settlement grew from a small Mexican pueblo.
Visit a working blacksmith shop, shop for authentic Mexican crafts, browse the art studios, enjoy live Mariachi music, and dine on a sunny patio at one of the atmospheric restaurants. Many of the historic buildings, including five original adobe structures, have been repaired, and others have been added in the same historical architectural style.
The Old Town State Historic park is one of the most visited state parks in California. There is no admission fee, and many of the attractions are free. You can also sign up for free walking tours offered twice daily.
8. Point Loma and Cabrillo National Monument
Breathtaking views out over San Diego and the Pacific Ocean make Point Loma one of the best places to visit in this beautiful city. You can start soaking up the vistas on the scenic road up to Point Loma. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Mexico, and you might even be lucky enough to spot dolphins or whales.
This is where Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first landed on the west coast of the United States in 1542. You can learn about the history of his incredible "Voyage of Discovery" through a variety of displays and exhibits at the Cabrillo National Monument. A large statue dedicated to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo gazes out over the land he discovered.
Also located on Point Loma is the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, built in 1858. Visitors can tour the refurbished lighthouse building.
Hiking the scenic trails is another popular thing to do here. If you have children in tow, take the one-mile Bayside Trail to the tide pools.
9. Mission Beach
The seaside neighborhood of Mission Beach epitomizes San Diego's sunny Southern California lifestyle. The beautiful blonde-sand beach is the focal point here. Swimming, sunbathing, surfing, and beach volleyball are popular things to do, and a three-mile scenic boardwalk skirts the shore. Come here on a sunny day, and you'll see locals rollerblading, skateboarding, strolling, and cycling along here, or dining at one of the many beachside cafés or restaurants.
A highlight of Mission Beach is Belmont Park, an East-Coast-style seaside amusement park complete with a historic roller coaster, excellent restaurants, fairground eateries, and street performances. It's a favorite San Diego attraction for kids.
10. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
Romantics will appreciate the awe-inspiring experience of a Southern California sunset. One of the best places to visit is Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, which stretches for 68 acres along coastal bluffs above the Pacific Ocean. The location provides an incomparable viewpoint to take in the ocean panoramas as the sun transforms the horizon from blue to glorious rosy-toned hues.
During the gray whale migration season, the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park offers a chance to spot these graceful creatures as they migrate to Baja California in Mexico.