San Diego bursts with world-famous attractions for the entire family, including the zoo and the museums of Balboa Park. Then there's the excellent seafood, a buzzing Downtown and beautiful hikes for all.
Plus, more than 60 beaches and the USA's most perfect weather. Spend your fall vacation on a sun-drenched beach in San Diego and make the most of our list of the best things to do there when you're done sunbathing.
Stroll the oceanfront 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. On warm summer weekends, the beaches are packed with people frolicking in sand and sea. While there’s lots to do, perhaps the best use of your time is to walk along the boardwalk, then spread a blanket in the sand, or kick back over cocktails and take in the scenery.
San Diego Zoo
One of SoCal’s biggest attractions, San Diego's justifiably famous zoo has more than 4000 animals representing more than 650 species in a beautifully landscaped setting. The park is divided into geographical zones and bioclimatic environments, and typically enclosures replicate a species' natural habitat. You can see African and Indian elephants, a community of lemurs, dwarf crocodiles, leopards, gelada baboons and meerkats.
The zoo also has the largest colony of koalas outside Australia. Get close up views of polar bears, hippos grazing in the water, and admire the endangered red panda. Its sister park, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, focuses on free-range big game enclosures and is in northern San Diego County. Arrive early at both, as many of the animals are most active in the morning – though some perk up again in the afternoon.
Balboa Park and museums
Balboa Park is a 1200-acre space with a number of gardens, reflecting different horticultural styles and environments, including a formal, Spanish-style garden and Palm Canyon, with more than 50 species of palms. The park is also home to more than 16 museums and cultural institutions.
Key attractions include San Diego History Center with exhibitions on the city; San Diego Air and Space Museum, which is a shrine to all things aviation; the interactive anthropological San Diego Museum of Us; San Diego Natural History Museum, packed with 7.5 million specimens; San Diego Museum of Art and the zoo. All attractions are easily walkable, or jump aboard the park's tram to whizz around them all at speed.
Hotel del Coronado
Marvel at San Diego's history and architecture at "The Del", one of the world's most iconic hotels. It's a beachfront all-timber whitewashed architectural fantasy dating from 1888, complete with conical towers, cupolas, turrets, balconies, dormer windows and cavernous public spaces.
The Del achieved its widest exposure when it was featured in the 1959 movie Some Like It Hot, which earned it a lasting association with Marilyn Monroe. Other guests have included 11 US presidents and various world royalty whose pictures and mementos adorn the hotel’s history gallery. Visitors are welcome in public areas, and tours of the hotel are available.
San Diego is a dream playground for surfers – a good number of residents moved here just for the surfing – and there are many excellent wave-riding beaches. Beginners should head to Mission or Pacific Beach for beach breaks (soft-sand bottomed). About a mile north of Crystal Pier, Tourmaline Surfing Park is a crowded but good improvers' spot for those who are comfortable surfing a reef break.
Want to learn more without getting wet? Then spend an hour in the heartfelt California Surf Museum. It has surf artifacts, a timeline of surfing history, and a radical collection of boards, including the one chomped by a shark when it ate the arm of surfer Bethany Hamilton.
Old Town Historic Park
On the site of San Diego's first European settlement, Old Town Historic Park consists of a cluster of restored or rebuilt historic 19th-century buildings filled with quaint exhibits, souvenir stores and cafes. Start at the visitor center in Robinson-Rose House; see the neat model of the pueblo and pick up a self-guided tour pamphlet. Free hour-long guided walking tours depart from Robinson-Rose House daily at 11am and 2pm on a first-come, first-served basis.
Look for the Casa de Estudillo, the most magnificent of the restored adobe mansions, with a lovely garden and furnished period rooms. Another highlight is the Seeley Stable where you can marvel at old stagecoaches, an ox-drawn cart and a massive two-wagon freighter. While you're in the area, grab a bite of authentic Mexican food at the legendary Old Town Mexican Cafe.
The central Downtown area, now known as the Gaslamp Quarter, is prime San Diego real estate. Handsomely restored 1870s to 1920s buildings house restaurants, bars, galleries, and theaters amid wrought-iron, 19th-century-style street lamps, trees, and brick sidewalks. This 16-block area, south of Broadway between 4th and 6th Aves, is designated a National Historic District. Learn more about and join a guided tour at Gaslamp Museum and Davis-Horton House. Shout House is one of the city's best live music venues with high-energy shows and musicians playing requests.
Seal watching in La Jolla
Built in the 1930s behind a wave-cutting seawall, La Jolla’s Children’s Pool was created as a family beach but has since been invaded by herds of seals and sea lions. Tourists come in droves to see them larking around, swimming, fighting and mating, viewed from the plaza above the cove. There's strictly no touching, feeding or selfies to be taken with the residents – these are wild animals and visitors must give them space. The future of the seals remains in debate: divers and swimmers claim the mammals' presence increases bacteria levels in the water; animal-rights groups want to protect the cove and make it an official seal rookery.
New Children's Museum
The interactive New Children's Museum offers endless activities for kids. Installations are designed by artists, so the future generation can learn the principles of movement and physics while simultaneously being exposed to art. Exhibits change every 18 months or so, so there's always something new. Workshops rotate daily and include clay and paint sessions.
USS Midway Museum
The hulking aircraft carrier USS Midway was one of the navy’s flagships from 1945 to 1991, last playing a combat role in the First Gulf War. On the flight deck, walk right up to some two dozen restored aircraft, including an F-14 Tomcat and F-4 Phantom jet fighter. Admission includes an audio tour along the narrow confines of the upper decks to the bridge, the admiral’s war room, and below deck to the sick bay, galley, laundry and engine room.
Bounded by Hawthorn and Ash Sts on the north and south, and Front St and the waterfront on the east and west, Little Italy was settled in the mid-19th century by Italian immigrants, mostly fishermen and their families, who created a cohesive and thriving community based on a booming fish industry and whiskey trade (which some claim was backed by local Mafia). The community still thrives in the many restaurants and cafes along busy India St. In recent years, the area has had an influx of galleries and gourmet restaurants. Design and architecture businesses have transformed Little Italy into one of the hippest places to live, eat and shop in downtown San Diego.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve preserves the last mainland stands of the Torrey pine (Pinus torreyana), a species adapted to sparse rainfall and sandy, stony soils. Steep sandstone gullies have eroded into wonderfully textured surfaces, and the views over the ocean and north, including whale-watching, are jaw-droppingly superb. Several easy trails (ranging from 0.5–1.5 miles long) wind through the reserve and down to the beach.
Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail
A 20-minute drive inland finds 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 7-mile pathway of Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail is moderately trafficked with runners, walkers and mountain bikers. Look out for butterflies, mule deer and bobcats. Stay alert when exploring – rattlesnakes also favor these arid pathways.
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