San Diego offers visitors a tremendous amount of things to see and do. Home to stunning scenery, miles of sandy beaches, and an abundance of attractions for all ages, like SeaWorld and San Diego Zoo, this Southern California destination is teeming with activities for visitors. Plus, there are plenty of free things to do in San Diego that are fun for those of all ages. In San Diego, visitors can have fun without spending a fortune to do so.
The Best Free Things to Do in San Diego
1) The Beach
There are over 30 beaches open to the public in San Diego—all of which are free to visit. So, suit up, grab your beach bag and towel, and make a day of it by sunning, surfing, searching for seashells and building sandcastles. A few recommendations include Coronado Beach, Pacific Beach and La Jolla Shores. Try to get to the beach as early as possible to avoid the inevitable crowds.
2) La Jolla Cove
For an up-close look at local sea life, La Jolla Cove is ideal. Sea lions frolic along the shoreline and nap in nearby rock and sand embankments, putting some serious cuteness on display. Watching these sea lions in their natural habitat is a first-hand look at the natural side of San Diego. Be sure to leave enough room between you and the sea lions for safety! Remember to respect their boundaries. After all, they are wild animals and you’re entering their home.
3) Gaslamp Quarter
The Gaslamp Quarter, 16-block historic district in downtown, has a distinct turn-of-the-century Victorian vibe and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Originally built in the 1860s, the name of the area comes from the gas lamps used to light the streets. These still adorn the walkways and streets of the area, now home to over 100 shops, restaurants and bars. Take time to stroll the streets and pop into an art gallery, speakeasy, or restaurant.
4) Oceanside Municipal Pier
When you walk along the 1,942-feet of the Oceanside Municipal Pier, you’re walking on a landmark. This pier is the oldest wooden pier on the West Coast, and is great for fishing and wave watching. Bring your camera and try to plan your visit just right. This pier is known for being the backdrop for insanely beautiful sunrises and sunsets! You’ll want to capture your pier memories for life.
5) Brewery Tours
San Diego is the home of America’s craft beer scene, so where better to go on a brewery tour? The Green Flash Brewing Co., Karl Strauss Brewery, Stone Brewing Company and Lo Jolla Brewing Company all have free tours. Sample free beers while getting a behind-the-scenes look at suds making. If you have too much fun at the breweries, have peace of mind knowing there are ways of getting around San Diego without getting behind the steering wheel.
6) Cowles Mountain
Hike to the top of Cowles Mountain for prime panoramic views of San Diego County. At 1,593-feet, the summit is the highest peak in all of San Diego, California. The three-mile hike is a rather strenuous switchback-style uphill trek, but the incredible views are worth the effort. Be sure to arrive early in the morning for the best views and less-crowded trails along the way. Don’t forget to bring your camera along for the hike, too!
7) Point Loma & Cabrillo National Monument
The Cabrillo National Monument, located on Point Loma, commemorates the landing of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo at San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542. Along with the monument, there is a historic lighthouse, with views all the way to Mexico, a veterans memorial, sea cliffs and tide pools to explore. To maximize your visit to Cabrillo National Monument, spend some time at the Whale Watch Overlook. If you time your visit just right, you might be able to see Gray Whales migrating for the season.
8) Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Hiking at Torrey Pines is one of the best ways to see the natural beauty of San Diego. Trails curve around sandy mountains, with views of the bright blue coast, jagged sea cliffs and rare Torrey pine trees dotting the way. Plus, you can swim at the base of the Torrey Pines cliffs. Keep in mind that the nearest gas station is 15 minutes away, so plan ahead! Also, pets are not allowed in this nature reserve. Guided tours are also available on select days and times.
9) Old Town State Historic Park
Trek through the history of California’s birthplace at Old Town, San Diego’s first downtown. There is a distinct feeling of Old Mexico within this 6-block, 12-acre park, with historical sites covering shops, restaurants, museums, preserved adobe buildings and more. It’s easily one of the most authentic free things to do in San Diego. If you’re into the supernatural, be sure to visit the Whaley House in Old Town San Diego!
10) Balboa Park
One of San Diego’s gems, Balboa Park, is teeming with free things to do in San Diego. There are over 65 miles of walking trails at Balboa Park, the largest urban cultural park in America. In addition, there are gorgeous gardens, botanical gardens and spectacular Spanish Colonial Revival architecture to see. Don’t miss the Spreckles Organ Pavilion which hosts free outdoor organ concerts on Sundays at 2:00 pm.
11) California Surf Museum
Surf’s up at this museum, home to a permanent collection of historic boards, photographs and videos. Located in Oceanside on Highway 101, guests can tour through the displays on Tuesdays for free admission. When you tour the California Surf Museum, you won’t question why it made our list of free things to do in San Diego. Kids and adults alike love learning about the history of surfing, iconic surfers, and more through the interactive exhibits.
12) Summer Concerts
During the summer season, a variety of venues host free concerts from local, regional, and national artists. From the Coronado Summer Concerts in the Park to the La Jolla Concert by the Sea, there is an event planned for every week of the summer. At these free concerts, guests are invited to bring their own food, beverages, chairs, and towels for the ultimate concert experience.
13) Seaport Village
Stop by lively Seaport Village for a leisurely stroll along the bayfront, where window shopping, free entertainment and affordable cafes await. Seaport Village hosts the annual Busker Festival each spring, and offers over 75 stores and restaurants. Pop-up concerts and strolling entertainment are also featured on the weekends. Be sure to visit the historic carousel which was hand carved in 1895. Rides on the carousel are $3 each from 10:00 am to 9:00 pm.
14) Sunset Cliffs
The rugged Sunset Cliffs are juxtaposed with modern highways and homes. Truly lovely during the day, the cliffs are made even better in the evening. Watch the sun sink into the ocean horizon and witness an array of pinks and oranges painting the sky. The 68-acre park stretches along the Pacific Ocean over to Point Loma. If you park yourself in the perfect spot, you might also get a glimpse of migrating gray whales during the right season.
15) Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial
Located in La Jolla, Mt. Soledad is an easy-to-access peak with 360-degree views on San Diego. While you enjoy the views, be sure to pay your respects to the brave men and women of America’s armed forces at the Veterans Memorial. Black granite stones tell the stories of those lost, encircling a massive cross honor those who served faithfully. Try to visit Mt. Soledad as early in the morning as possible to avoid the crowds.
The Free Fun is Never Ending in San Diego
As you can see, it’s easy to find free things to do in San Diego. Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast, history buff or entertainment junkie, you can’t go wrong with these absolutely free options. Visitors can experience a fun and unforgettable vacation experience without breaking the budget.
What free activities do you like to do in San Diego? Share your travel experiences in the comments section below.
Ashley is Reserve Direct’s travel expert, visiting San Diego to find the best travel tips, money-saving deals and insider information. With over 10 years of experience in first-hand-travel adventures, she shares her stories, advice, and current events to help you stay in the know.