17 Free Things to Do in San Diego

March 12, 2022

You don’t have to break the bank when you visit America’s Finest City. San Diego is brimming with free things to do!

Whether it’s the miles of beautiful Pacific beaches, the cultured cuisine, or the idyllic year-round weather that brings you to San Diego, you’re in for a good time at one of the best cities in the United States. Even better, the list of free things to do in San Diego is a long one.

There are attractions on every corner of the City in Motion, so round up your family and friends to hit the theme parks, like SeaWorld or the famous San Diego Zoo. Once the night hits, downtown San Diego is both historical and happening. However, you don’t even have to be 21 to have a good time!

Pro Tip: If your time in San Diego is cramped and you want to experience both of these fan-favorite attractions in one day, we recommend visiting the San Diego Zoo in the morning because animals are often out and about earlier in the day. Then, when the hot afternoon sun is high in the sky, you can cool off in the splash zone at a SeaWorld show.

If you prefer a slower, more solitary day, explore some of the many San Diego hiking trails. You haven’t truly experienced the city until you’ve seen it from a coastal bluff at golden hour. Dark blue waves lined in gold at sunset make an Instagram-worthy backdrop; however, they’re best experienced without care of captions or likes.

Related Post: How to Spend 3 Days in San Diego

This ever-popular West Coast city has it all, from crowded tourist hotspots to scenic natural landscapes. So, read on for a list of our favorite free things to do in San Diego. 

Waves and Surfer at Pacific Beach - San Diego, California, USA

The Beach

First things first. If there’s one must-do in San Diego, it’s taking a trip to the beach! So grab your swimmies and sunnies, then hit the sand at one of the gorgeous Pacific beaches found in the Plymouth of the West. The Coronado Municipal Beach, Pacific Beach, and Bermuda Beach are three top picks.

Pack a picnic lunch, build sandcastles, splash in the waves, or read a book. Beach day activities are plentiful and budget-friendly! 

La Jolla Cove

Moreover, La Jolla Cove Beach is another great choice for seaside shenanigans. There’s much more to do here than just laze on the beach, though! Watch the sunbathing sea lions or explore the fascinating sea caves of La Jolla Cove. 

Exciting outdoor activities are abundant in San Diego, but the tide pooling is especially superb along this rocky coastline. Tide pools are great places to catch sight of enchanting marine creatures. 

Related Post: San Diego on a Budget: How to Save BIG With a Go City Pass

In addition, La Jolla Village is a charming spot to stroll. Window shopping and people watching are prime activities here. If you can spare a little change, grab a snack, too. Above all, you have to check out the local art galleries!

Gaslamp Quarter

Soak up the city life of San Diego in this lively 16-block district! If you’re looking for a great date night spot, the Gaslamp Quarter is one of our top picks. There are so many fantastic options for food and drinks, but you will need to drop some cash if you decide to fill up here!

If you want to save your money, the happening nightlife atmosphere set against a gorgeously rich backdrop of historical buildings alone is worth the visit. 

Pro Tip: One of the other must-see historic spots in San Diego is the USS Midway Museum, a Navy aircraft carrier museum. It’s only about an eight-minute taxi or Uber ride from the Gaslamp Quarter!

view of gaslamp quarter street at night in san diego

photo credit: Gaslamp Quarter via Facebook

Oceanside Municipal Pier

In a word, the Oceanside Municipal Pier is iconic. It’s been around since 1888 and boasts some of the best ocean views, whether you’re visiting at sunrise, sunset, or somewhere in between.

A great way to fill your time here is fishing! There’s no fee or license required to cast a rod-n-reel at this public pier. However, you will need to bring your own equipment or rent some at the pier’s bait shop for a small cost.

Related Post: Ultimate Guide to SeaWorld San Diego: Coupons, Discounts, and Deals

Photo Alert: A photo beneath the pier at sunset is a classic shot. Come in your favorite dressy beach outfit and swap out that profile picture!

View of the water and a light orange sunset from the under the Oceanside Municipal Pier in San Diego, California, USA

photo credit: Mark Albrent via Facebook

Mission Bay Park

Over 4,000 acres of both land and sea make up this action-packed park. Ever-popular park activities like picnicking and kite flying are even better with the bay in the background.

Cruise down the 14 miles of bike paths found at Mission Bay Park or take a dip in one of the eight swimming areas. Come on in. The water’s fine!

If you crave the crash of ocean waves, take the boardwalk from the bayside of the peninsula to the beachside. Mission Beach is a quintessential oceanside atmosphere complete with the smell of suntan lotion in the air and swimsuit-clad frolickers lounging about.

Cowles Mountain

As you hike, run, or bike the moderate, three-mile ascent to the top of Cowles Mountain, keep in mind there’s a big payoff at the top. One of the highest points in San Diego awaits, with a 360-degree view that does not disappoint. Keep an eye out for gorgeous wildflowers throughout your hike, too!

Related Post: 11 Fun & Free Things to Do in San Diego with Kids

Pro Tip: We recommend hiking shoes or boots for this hike. Due to its popularity, the worn-down paths can get a bit rocky. 

View from the top of Cowles Mountain with a bright cloudy sky overhead in San Diego, California, USAPoint Loma & the Cabrillo National Monument

History buffs won’t want to miss the chance to pay homage to the first European to make it to the West Coast: Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. But, then, after viewing the Cabrillo National Monument, there’s much more to explore in the area!

The Old Point Loma Lighthouse, a charming Cape Cod-style structure, was in use starting in 1855. Take a spiral staircase to the top of the tower for great views of Point Loma. In addition, the tidepools at Cabrillo are an excellent place for the kiddos to explore and learn about local marine life.

Pro Tip: The cliffs of Point Loma offer prime whale watching in the winter! Time it right, and you just might catch sight of one of these fascinating creatures.

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

One of the best things to do in San Diego is hands down, visiting the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. A range of hiking trails takes visitors of all skill levels to the top of the cliffs above Torrey Pines State Beach. The park shows off its diverse landscape, which features everything from forests to canyons. 

So, get away from the crowds and enjoy a wild and rugged outdoor excursion! The spirit of adventure is alive at this beloved San Diego scene.

Related Post: All You Need to Know About Torrey Pines Hiking Trails

Pro Tip: Pets aren’t allowed at this reserve, so leave your furry friend behind this time.

cliffs overlooking the beach at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve near San Diego, California, USA

Old Town State Historic Park

Known as the birthplace of California, Old Town is rich in history and culture. Historical structures, like preserved adobe buildings, house everything from restaurants to museums.

An Old Mexico feel is prevalent as you walk the nine blocks. But, if you’re not one to fall for tourist traps, the Old Town State Historic Park is a taste of authentic San Diego culture. One of the best ways to see it all is to take a self-guided walking tour of the park.

For a spooky twist on the experience, tour the Whaley House for free! It’s built on a site where the gallows once stood, which explains its haunted rap. 

Balboa Park

This wonderland of museums, gardens, and trails is also home to the San Diego Zoo. Meander through the 65 miles of Balboa Park’s beautiful trails, past gorgeous Spanish architecture and thriving plant life.

Related Post: Ultimate Guide to the San Diego Zoo: Coupons, Discounts, and Deals

Once you’ve had your fill of strolling, take a free tour at the Timken Museum of Art. In addition, the Botanical Building is free to visit. Ooh and ah at a vast collection of the plant kingdom’s finest.  

Photo Alert: Don’t miss a chance to pose in front of a classic photo spot! The Botanical Building’s lily pond and lagoon is a stunning backdrop sure to rack up the likes.

external view of lily pond at casa de balboa in San Diego, California, USASummer Concerts

There’s no better way to celebrate the freedom of summer than dancing the night away in the warm San Diego air at a free concert! Throughout the summer months, plenty of venues in the city offers free shows for every flavor of music lover, from pop fans to mariachi maniacs.

Related Post: Current Festivals and Events in San Diego

Balboa Park hosts Twilight in the Park summer concerts throughout August. Alternatively, the Santee Summer Concert Series happens all summer long, every Thursday night.

Spare change jingling around in your pocket? Spring for some food truck fare to make the night even better! 

Pro Tip: Bring your own lawn chair or beach towel so you can take a seat in case you need a break from dancing and singing along. 

Seaport Village

This scenic setting is a lively waterfront venue to shop and dine at. If you’re trying to experience Seaport Village sans moolah, however, there are plenty of ways to do that too!

The duck pond is a fantastic place to wildlife watch. Turtles, koi fish, and, of course, ducks can be seen out and about at this delightful location. In addition, sit and chat with friends or people watch at the outdoor food court!

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

This park is another San Diego beauty, best experienced at -- you guessed it -- sunset. Spanning 68 acres, there is an abundance of beauty to soak in as you explore these oceanside bluffs.

Related Post: Which is Better: SeaWorld vs San Diego Zoo

Visitors who are scared of heights will have to muster up some bravery at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, as many of the trails along the cliffs do not have guard rails. 

Pro Tip: Parking is available off of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, but this area will probably be the most congested. Opt for the parking lots on Ladera Street or Lomaland Drive for a better chance at thinner crowds.

Wide shot of where the ocean meets Sunset Cliffs Natural Park and part of the beach in San Diego, California, USA

photo credit: John Nicksic via Facebook

Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial

The Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial is a chance to pay utmost honor and respect to military members past and present. Plaques at the memorial even feature pictures of the individuals they recognize.

Veterans from the Revolutionary War to today’s War on Terror are represented at the memorial. In addition, a cross sits atop the summit, which offers sweeping views of the city. 

San Diego Visitor Center

One of the best places to start getting acquainted with San Diego is the San Diego Visitor Center. The locals on staff can direct you to the most fun things to do in San Diego for free! They can also provide handy resources like maps and calendars of events.

Waterfront Park

This peaceful park is a rejuvenating place to rest. With its well-designed green lawns, sculptures, and splash fountain, Waterfront Park boasts an ideal location to take a walk in the park.

Related Post: 26 Unforgettable Romantic Things to Do in San Diego for Couples

Bring the whole family! The littles will love the play equipment and splash pads, while the grownups will appreciate the frequent festivals and farmers’ markets. 

Explore Surrounding Cities

Location, location, location. Another excellent characteristic of San Diego is its proximity to so many other cities worth marveling at! One such city is Del Mar, part of San Diego County. Other favorites include Carlsbad, Solana Beach, and Encinitas

Road trips set the scene for some of the best memories! Once you arrive, revel in strolls by lovely shops and restaurants, or scout out local parks and trails.

San Diego is a gem of the Golden State worth visiting. It’s possible to experience it in a way that’s easy on the budget, too! So whether your bank account is overflowing or nearly empty, fill your itinerary with hiking, concerts, and beach trips.

Which Free Things to Do in San Diego Are You Going to Try?

Share your travel experiences in the comments section below.


michaela smiling holding magazine with body of water in background

Written By Michaela

Michaela is a journalist who views every story she writes as an adventure, leading her to explore new places and meet new people. She is based in the Midwest ...

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