21 best free things to do in San Diego
With over 70 miles of golden sand, some of the best free things to do in San Diego require little more than a towel and bathers. But this vast, multicultural city also teems with compelling museums, eye-popping architecture, great public art and plenty of gorgeous parks — all of which cost nothing to visit.
Through its historic Old Town, along the ritzy Embarcadero waterfront and in the more vibrant pockets of Downtown, it’s possible to enjoy the best of the city without spending a dime. From hipster photo opportunities at Scripps Pier to family tourist attractions that kids will actually enjoy, here are the 21 best free things to do in San Diego.
Editor's note: during COVID-19, there are restrictions on travel, and some of these free attractions may be temporarily closed or require pre-booking. Always check before departure, and be sure to follow local health guidance.
1. La Jolla beaches
The 70-mile stretch of California coastline that rumbles past San Diego has more than 30 different beaches. A few private stretches aside, all are free to visit. From the wide expanses of golden sand at Oceanside – where wavy-haired surfers emerge from frothy white rollers – to secluded spots with blue topaz tides like La Jolla Cove Beach, San Diego has a beach for everyone.
Coronado Municipal Beach – a sparkling multi-lane motorway of bunker-white sand – is the city’s most popular. It often ranks as one of the best beaches in the US. For a similar experience but fewer folk, head 4.5 miles south to Silver Strand State Beach. Surfers love the Torrey Pines State Beach swells, a rugged stretch of ochre that’s overlooked by 300ft sandstone cliffs and circling paragliders. Its southern stretch marks Blacks Beach, San Diego’s only nudist spot.
2. Balboa Park
Named after the Spanish conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the 18 landscaped gardens and 17 museums that make up this magnificent 1200-acre green space are sewn together by a series of marked and unmarked paths. It’s a great spot for merely wandering, but Explore Tours offers free volunteer-led walks on different themes, including architecture and history, should you want some guidance.
Arrive via the landmark Cabrillo Bridge, the huge white-arched overpass that Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first to cross by car in 1914. Then head for the Alcazar Garden, an unabashed homage to Seville’s famous Moorish castle. To appreciate the remarkable transformation of this park, go to the Florida Canyon Native Plant Preserve, a 150-acre area that retains the area’s original flora. At lunch, join the families that sprawl out on the Sculpture Garden grass.
The park also has several architectural delights, including the Old Globe Theater – modeled on Shakespeare’s playhouse in London – and the Museum of Us, whose statues on its intricate facade depict nine European colonizers, including King Philip III (top left) and King Charles V of Spain (top right).
3. San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park
Some of California’s best and most accessible diving is in this reserve, accessible from La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores. With an average depth of 20ft, the 6000 acres of look-but-don’t-touch underwater real estate are great for snorkeling too. Ever-present are the spectacular bright-orange garibaldi fish – California’s official state fish and a protected species.
Further out you’ll see forests of giant California kelp (which can increase its length by up to 3ft per day) and the 100ft-deep La Jolla Canyon. It’s free to swim in the Underwater Park park, but snorkeling is a budget-friendly alternative as well.
4. Downtown public art
Free public art is what binds each Downtown neighborhood. The city’s most famous piece is Embracing Peace – a 3D sculpture of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic 1945 photograph of a sailor kissing a girl in Times Square on V-J Day – that stands with an old aircraft carrier in the background.
Other works worth seeking out include the multicolored, Medusa-like Arbre de Serpents (Serpent Tree) at Waterfront Park; Fault Whisper in East Village, where two stainless steel spheres sit on opposing sides of the Rose Canyon Fault System; and Fallen Star, a blue house by Korean artist Do Ho Suh that’s been impaled on the seventh floor of Jacob’s House at the University of California.
5. Chicano Park murals
Located underneath the San Diego-Coronado Bridge in Barrio Logan, Chicano Park was founded in 1970 after a group of Chicano (Mexican American) activists and local residents protested against a Highway Patrol station being set up here.
To celebrate the victory, local artists turned the concrete freeway pillars into giant canvases which depict the political, social and cultural struggles of the Chicano community. There are now more than 70 murals. Two of the best include the pop art of Los Grandes by Victor Ochoa and Kiosco's wonderful, fresco-like ceiling.
6. The Children's Pool
The seawall that was erected here in the 1930s was meant to create La Jolla’s Children’s Pool, a family-friendly beach. It has since been taken over by herds of seals and sea lions. Now tourists come in droves to see them larking around, swimming, fighting and mating. The free plaza above the cove is the best spot to see the new residents, but there’s strictly no touching, feeding or selfies allowed.
7. Gaslamp Quarter
Running through Downtown San Diego for sixteen-and-a-half blocks, the Gaslamp Quarter has numerous historic buildings of interest, all accessible on foot. The William Heath Davis House, a prefab from 1850 on Island Ave, is the area’s oldest. It was shipped in from Maine by Heath Davis, the original (but ultimately unsuccessful) founder of New Town, as this area was then known.
Other intriguing buildings include the Old City Hall, a Florentine Italianate property on the corner of Fifth Ave and G St that was built in 1874 (it’s now a restaurant), and the Yuma Building on Fifth Ave. This early Victorian brick house had the dubious honor of being the first place the police stopped during the Great Raid of 1912 – a dawn sting that turfed out the area’s sex workers.
Despite the interest from tourists, the Gaslamp Quarter Archway Sign isn’t as old as it seems. It only went up in 1990. For the best photos, visit the beautiful Ghirardelli Ice Cream Parlor and Chocolate Shop, housed in a former art deco cinema.
8. The Embarcadero
The ritzy, well-manicured waterfront promenades of the Embarcadero welcome the colossal cruise ships that dock in San Diego, but there are some more impressive boats to behold in these waters. The Maritime Museum has a collection of 11 historic sailing ships, steamboats and submarines. Visitors pay to go aboard each, but it’s free to gawk from the jetty.
Among the boats is the Star of India, the iron-hulled square-rigger launched in 1863 to ply the England-India trade route. Also moored here is a replica of the San Salvador that brought explorer and slaver Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo to San Diego in 1542. Nearby, the USS Midway Museum – actually an imposing decommissioned aircraft carrier – is as enthralling from the outside as it is inside.
If it’s hot, the water jet fountains at Waterfront Park are ideal for kids, and the Seaport Village, a 14-acre collection of shops and restaurants with a faux New England theme, often has free entertainment.
9. Torrey Pines State Reserve
Eight miles of trails await walkers and hikers in this well-trodden, 2000-acre coastal state park. Routes vary by difficulty, but the 0.7-mile Guy Fleming Trail offers panoramic sea views and paths through wildflowers, ferns and cacti, and the 1.4-mile Razor Point Trail is good for whale-spotting during the winter.
10. Hotel Del Coronado
San Diego has some fantastic architecture to fawn over, including one of the world's most iconic hotels, ‘The Del’. This all-timber whitewashed architectural fantasy – which featured in the movie Some Like It Hot with Marilyn Monroe – wows with its conical towers, cupolas, turrets, balconies and dormer windows.
Other architecture to gawp at include the San Diego Public Library, with its three-story crystalline reading room and latticework dome; the travertine-marble plaza and mirror-glass laboratory of the Salk Institute; the all-white San Diego California Temple which sparkles like an ice palace; and the ornate Museum of Us in Balboa Park.
11. Harper's Topiary Garden
In the peaceful, unassuming neighborhood of Mission Hills, Edna Harper – or Edna Scissorhands as she’s known locally – has been busy snipping away at the bushes in her front garden for over 15 years. With a little help from her husband, there are now scores of shrubs clipped into the shapes of whales and birds that you can see for free.
12. Mission Beach Boardwalk
Central San Diego's best beach scene is concentrated in a narrow strip of land between the ocean and Mission Bay. There's great people-watching along the Ocean Front Walk, the boardwalk running from South Mission Beach Jetty to the Pacific Beach pier. It’s crowded with joggers, in-line skaters and cyclists any time of the year.
13. Palomar Observatory
High on Palomar Mountain, at an elevation of 5500ft to minimize light pollution, the free-to-visit Palomar Observatory is simply spectacular – as large as Rome’s Pantheon, with a classic design dating from the 1930s. It houses five telescopes including the 200-inch Hale Telescope, once the world's largest. Download the free audio tour from the website before you arrive.
14. Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail
A 20-minute drive inland from Del Mar are a series of wonderful, mostly flat, shady and sunny paths snaking through a lush valley and past a cascading waterfall surrounded by volcanic rock. The main seven-mile pathway is moderately trafficked with runners, walkers and mountain bikers. Look out for butterflies, mule deer and bobcats. The free Easy2Hike app has maps and trail info.
15. Botanical Building
The Botanical Building looks lovely from El Prado, where you can see it reflected in the large lily pond that was used for hydrotherapy in WWII when the navy took over Balboa Park. The building’s central dome and two wings are covered with redwood lattice panels, which let filtered sunlight into the collection of tropical plants and ferns.
16. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
On the site of San Diego's first European settlement, Old Town consists of a cluster of restored or rebuilt historic 19th-century buildings filled with quaint exhibits, souvenir stores and cafes. A good place to start is at the visitor center in 1853 Robinson-Rose House; see the neat model of the pueblo in 1872 and pick up a self-guided tour pamphlet. Staff run free walking tours daily at 11am and 2pm.
17. Timken Museum of Art
Timken Museum of Art is home to a small but impressive collection of American and European paintings, including works by Rembrandt, and Rubens. Download the free app on arrival and you can do a self-guided tour of each painting on display.
18. San Elijo Lagoon
One of Cardiff-by-the-Sea's main draws is this 979-acre ecological preserve popular with bird-watchers for its herons, coots, terns, ducks, egrets and more than 250 other species. A seven-mile network of trails leads through the area and the main path is pushchair-friendly.
19. Spruce Street Suspension Bridge
Consider a detour to the Bankers Hill neighborhood to cross the 375ft Spruce St Footbridge. This treetop suspension bridge, built in 1912 over a deep canyon between Front St and Brant St, wriggles beneath your feet. But don’t worry; it was designed that way.
20. Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier
Built in 1915, this 1084ft-long research pier at La Jolla is used for oceanographic observations. However, it’s now inadvertently become an Instagram hot spot. For the best photos, shoot directly between the legs of the pier and aim out towards the horizon. If you’re lucky, there will be a tangerine-and-peach-colored sunset in the background. For an alternative, head to the historic Crystal Pier along Pacific Beach.
21. Mt Soledad
If it's a clear day, the views from the top of Mt Soledad are the best in San Diego. They stretch from Mexico in the south and Los Angeles in the north – and right out across the sparkling Pacific Ocean.
At the very top you’ll find the National Veterans Memorial, which features 11 curved walls with black granite plaques etched with the stories of over 5000 US war veterans. Its centerpoint is the 27ft-high Mt Soledad Cross, which offers echoes of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro – a prominent presence over the entire city.
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This article was first published by Ligaya Malones in June 2019 and last updated by Daniel Fahey in February 2021.