New York has its cabbie, Chicago its bluesman and Seattle its coffee-drinking boho. San Diego has its surfer dude, with tousled hair, a great tan and gentle enthusiasm; they look like they're on a perennial vacation, and when they wish you welcome, they really mean it.
San Diego calls itself ‘America’s Finest City’, and its breezy confidence and sunny countenance filter down to folks you encounter every day on the street. It feels like a collection of villages each with their own personality, but it’s the nation’s eighth-largest city and we’re hard-pressed to think of a more laid-back place.
What’s not to love? San Diego bursts with world-famous attractions for the entire family, including the zoo, the museums of Balboa Park, plus a bubbling Downtown, beautiful hikes for all, more than 60 beaches and America’s most perfect weather.
The best hikes among San Diego’s incredible trails
6 min read — Published March 24th, 2021
From urban hikes to backcountry adventures, San Diego is a year-round, all-inclusive outdoor buffet.
Discover some of the most unique and fulfilling experiences your next destination has to offer.
Tips & Travel trends to help you pick the perfect time to visit this destination.
Add visiting these must-see local hot spots and culture centers to your next travel itinerary.
Check out these fun-filled activities that the entire family can enjoy.
Plan a day trip full of local flavor and get back in time with these same-day options.
Ways to maximize the fun without spending a dime on your next great adventure.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout San Diego.
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. The pinnipeds don't seem to mind – but there's strictly no touching, feeding or selfies to be taken with the residents. 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. Except during pupping season (December 15 to May 15) swimming is technically allowed but not recommended because of the water quality and potentially aggressive animals. History The idea of the Children’s Pool was first mooted in 1921 by the local journalist and philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps. A strong cross current along La Jolla’s coastline had caused a spate of drownings in the area and Scripps – who also founded the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and built the La Jolla Public Library – wanted to create a safe haven where families, and in particular children, could swim safely. Scripps funded the Pool herself and asked Hiram Newton Savage to design and build the breakwater. The project took 10 years to come to fruition but on the day of its grand unveiling, Scripps was too unwell to see it officially open. For decades, the Children’s Pool was used as intended – it even got a brief cameo in the 1977 Peter O’Toole movie, The Stunt Man, where the beach was repurposed as a WWI battlefield – but in 1992, concerns began to be raised about the number of seals to take up residence on the sands. The Children’s Pool became a Marine Mammal Reserve in 1994 and the first seal pups were born on the beach five years later. It is estimated that around 200 seals now call the Pool home. In 2013, a 'Seal Cam' was installed at the beach. It was meant to promote tourism by allowing people to watch the seals live on the internet. However, some locals complained that the webcam was filming people in areas where there were never any no seals. The camera was removed the same year, but in 2021 the La Jolla Village Merchants Association was said to be exploring it returning. Nearby restaurants Gourmets and gourmands alike love Whisknladle 's ‘slow food’ preparations of local, farm-fresh ingredients, served on a breezy covered patio and meant for sharing. Else head to the fabulous Puesto La Jolla, a colorful warehouse-style restaurant doused in Californian spray-paint artist Chor Boogie designs, that serves Mexican street food in the form of tacos, freshly made guacamole (in three varieties) plus Baja fish, lime-marinated shrimp ceviche and carnitas. How to get to La Jolla’s Children’s Pool The stairway down to the Pool is next to 850 Coast Blvd. Other practicalities The Children’s Pool is free to visit and is open 24 hours a day.
This state-of-the-art aquarium is a wonderous underwater world home to 5000 fish. Visitors can watch sharks dart, kelp forests sway, and even meet a rescued loggerhead turtle. The Hall of Fishes has more than 60 fish tanks, simulating marine habitats from the Pacific Northwest to tropical seas. The Tide Pool Plaza, with its fabulous ocean views, is the place to get touchy-feely with sea stars, hermit crabs, sea cucumbers, lobsters and tidal-zone critters. Don't miss the new Seadragons & Seahorses exhibit. Marine scientists were working at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) as early as 1910 and, helped by donations from the ever-generous Scripps family, the institute has grown to be one of the world’s largest marine research institutions. It is now a part of University of California (UC) San Diego. Tickets and other practicalities Birch Aquarium at Scripps is open daily from 9am-5pm (September to June) and until 6pm (July and August). Tickets, which currently must be reserved in advance, are priced at $19.50 for adults and $15 for children aged 3-17 years. Children under two go for free. Discounted tickets and promo codes regularly appear online at websites like Groupon. Exhibits There are eight permanent exhibits at the aquarium, including Seadragons & Seahorses, where several species of seahorses and pipefish are on show including Weedy Seadragons bred at the museum, and Oddities which shows visitors some of the ways that marine life has developed to survive. There is also Research in Action: 100 Island Challenge, an experimental reef that helps scientists develop their research techniques. Other exhibits include the Hall of Fishes, which has 60 Pacific habitats on show, a Giant Kelp Forest that's home to Giant Black Sea Bass and Moray Eels, and Expedition at Sea: R/V Sally Ride Gallery, which recreates the experience of being on a ocean research boat. There are local Leopard Sharks on show at the Shark Shores section outside as is the Tidepool Plaza, where hermit crabs and lobsters can be found beneath the living tide pools. Restaurants and food Open 10am-3pm, the Splash! Café is the Birch Aquarium's onsite restaurant, serving burgers, baguettes and salads. Visitors are also allowed to bring their own food as well, provided it's eaten in the designed eating areas. Alternatively, Pinpoint Cafe and Caroline's Seaside Cafe are both a short walk from the aquarium. Simply head downhill and towards the sea. Otherwise, we recommend Shore Rider Cafe, a little further south, which serves great fish and chips, Baja chicken and cheese melts and seafood ceviche.
It's easy to spend an hour in this heartfelt museum of surf artifacts, from a timeline of surfing history to surf-themed art and a radical collection of boards. It also houses the camera that Doc Ball, surfing's first dedicated photographer, used to snap pioneering images in the 1930s. Exhibits change frequently; previous themes have included Women of Surfing, Adaptive Surfing and Surfers of the Vietnam War. The surfboards which appeared on the TV show American Pickers are still on display in the Plastic Fantastic section. Bethany Hamilton's surfboard The museum's most popular exhibit is the surfboard of professional surfer Bethany Hamilton, which has a huge shark bite taken out of it. Hamilton lost her left arm in the 2003 attack at Kaua'i 's Tunnels Beach in Hawaii, but she has since recovered and continues to surf professionally. The bikini she wore on the day of the attack makes up part of the exhibit too. Tickets and other practicalities The California Surf Museum is located at 312 Pier View Way in Oceanside, San Diego. Admission costs $5 for adults, $3 for students and children under 12 years go free. On the first Tuesday of month, tickets are reduced to $1.
Next to the new Waterfront Park, this collection of 11 historic sailing ships, steam boats and submarines is easy to spot: just look for the 100ft-high masts of the iron-hulled square-rigger Star of India, a tall ship launched in 1863 to ply the England–India trade route. Also moored here is a replica of the San Salvador that brought colonial explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo to San Diego's shore in 1542. It's easy to spend hours looking at exhibits and clambering around vessels. Star of India As the world’s oldest active sailing ship, the Star of India is the museum's star attraction. With its history of collisions, cyclone damage and 21 circumnavigations around the world, it's surprising this iron-hulled yacht is still afloat. Yet here she is, her thick sails blustering in the breeze. The cabins, the hull and much of the onboard equipment are all original. B-39 Submarine For more than two decades, the Russian Foxtrot Class attack submarine B-39, which sits in the water of the Maritime Museum of San Diego, followed US and NATO warships across the world with 24 torpedoes onboard should they be required. Known as the Black Widow, the sub was originally installed for a temporary exhibition in 2005, but it proved so popular that it's still onsite. However, recent storm damage to its exterior has left the bare metal beneath to rust. The museum hopes to allow visitors to board the B-39 for one last time in 2021 before it is moved. Historic bay cruises The museum also offers trips on some of the boats. Options include a four-hour sail on the replica gold-rush-era schooner Californian, the official tall ship of the state of California (adult/child $79/52) and a plunge into San Diego's military legacy on a 75-minute ride aboard a swift boat (adult/child $30/20). Tickets and other practicalities Located at 1492 N Harbor Driver, the Maritime Museum of San Diego is open 9am-9pm (late May-early Sep) and 9am-8pm for the rest of the year. Admission costs $20 for adults, $15 for students (13-17 years), seniors and members of the military, and $10 for children aged 3-12 years. Under twos go free. Tickets can be booked online in advance. Walk-up tickets are generally available at the ticket booth, until 4pm. Discounted tickets sometimes appear online through websites like Groupon. Nearby restaurants Carnitas' Snack Shack Eat honestly priced, pork-inspired slow food on Carnitas' Snack Shack's cute outdoor patio on the Embarcadero. The tangy triple-threat pork sandwich comes with schnitzel, pepperoncini, pickle relish, shack aioli and a brioche bun. Burger Lounge Else, the swingin’ Burger Lounge serves chic comfort food. There’s just a simple menu, but what they do with it! Plump burgers (grass-fed beef, free-range turkey, veggie, or Alaskan cod), crisp fries, great salads, shakes and root-beer floats.
Waves have carved a series of caves into the sandstone cliffs east of La Jolla Cove. The one below the Cave Store, a shop selling vintage curios, is 200,000 years old and the only one accessible from the land. Named the Sunny Jim Cave – by Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz no less, who remarked that the cave entrance resembled Sunny Jim, a cartoon character created to promote Force cereal – the tunnel that links the shop to the sea was built in 1902 by two Chinese laborers for then-shop owner Gustav Schultz. Watch your head as you descend into the (artificial) tunnel from the store and down 144 steps to the natural cave. During 1920s prohibition, the cave was used to smuggle alcohol into La Jolla. It takes around 15-20 minutes descend to the viewing platform at the bottom and return to the top. Tickets and other practicalities The Cave Store, which is located at 1325 Coast Blvd, is open daily from 9am-5pm (last entry into the tunnel is 5pm). Tickets are priced at $5 for an adult and $3 for a child.
This justifiably famous zoo is one of SoCal’s biggest attractions, showing more than 3000 animals representing more than 650 species in a beautifully landscaped setting, typically in enclosures that replicate their natural habitats. Its sister park is San Diego Zoo Safari Park in northern San Diego County. Arrive early, as many of the animals are most active in the morning – though many perk up again in the afternoon. Pick up a map at the zoo entrance to find your favorite exhibits.
This 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 superb. Volunteers lead nature walks at 10am and 2pm on weekends and holidays. Several trails wind through the reserve and down to the beach.
This interactive children’s museum offers interactive art meant for kids. Installations are designed by artists, so tykes can learn principles of movement and physics while simultaneously being exposed to art and working out the ants in their pants. Exhibits change every 18 months or so, so there's always something new.
South of Plaza de Panama looms the tiered benches, curved colonnade and ornate pavilion housing a 5017-pipe organ, said to be the world’s largest of its kind outdoors. Donated by the Spreckels family of sugar fortune and fame in 1914, the instrument came with the stipulation that San Diego must always have an official organist. The best time to visit is during the free concerts held from 2pm to 3pm Sundays and 7:30pm to 9:30pm Mondays.