Ahh, the beaches of San Diego! What a delight they are to visit, but what do you do when you’ve reached your max on salty air and raucous surf? We have gathered the top 10 attractions in San Diego to cover all of the bases on your journey to America’s Finest City. We include a trip through the best beaches and breweries in the area, and every place you’ll want to visit to make your trip to San Diego complete, from the border of Mexico to the Flower Fields of Carlsbad Ranch and Beyond. Welcome to our guide to the Best Attractions in San Diego!
1- The Glorious Beaches of San Diego
The beauty and diversity of San Diego’s 70 miles of beach compete with any across the globe. There are wide and straight stretches of exotic beaches and other areas with steep cliffs and rocky coves. Romance can be found in secluded spots at Fletcher Cove in Solana Beach or along Windansea Beach in La Jolla. La Jolla also has the best spot to take your kids, the Children’s Pool Beach, where seals and sea lions come out to play. For great views of the Pacific Ocean, visit the breathtaking Sunset Cliffs in Point Loma, and an ocean walk is perfect along the vast stretches of beach in Silver Strand, Imperial Beach, and Coronado Beach. For the best beach with bars nearby, head to Pacific Beach. From Pacific Beach Pier, follow a line down Garnett Avenue for a busy collection of bars to hop through, which start their day laidback and pick up as the college students roll onto the scene in the evenings.
For an area so blessed with ocean Beauty naturally, there is a HUGE watersports base here. From surfing, Paddleboarding, and windsurfing to Snorkelling, Scuba Diving, and Kayaking there is something for everyone in the phenomenal Pacific waters.
2- Balboa Park
Balboa Park has been named one of the world’s best parks by numerous organizations. It is a spectacular park with wild and cultivated gardens, including the Rose Garden, which holds 2,000 rosebushes, and the Botanical Building, which sits behind a lily pond and lagoon. It has numerous fountains and pools, century-old buildings, and 350 species of trees across 1,200 sprawling acres. Also, Balboa Park houses the Globe Theatre, which consists of the Old Globe Theatre, Harvey White Theatre, and the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre. This trio of performance stages brings some of the finest theatrical productions in Southern California, including a few plays that premiered here and eventually ended up on Broadway. In addition, each summer, a Shakespeare festival occurs at the Globe Theatre, which makes sense, with a rotating collection of William’s plays. This year included Much Ado About Nothing and The Tempest.
3- The San Diego Museum of Art, Plus Other Museums
In addition to the mesmerizing architecture, Balboa Park is considered the “Smithsonian of the West” because of its large concentration of museums and art galleries. There are 17 such spots on the Balboa Park premises, including the Fleet Science Center, Comic-Con Museum, Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego Air & Space Museum, San Diego Automotive Museum, San Diego History Center, San Diego Model Railroad Museum, San Diego Museum of Man, San Diego Natural History Museum, and a few museums of art, including our pick for San Diego’s best museum attraction: The San Diego Museum of Art. The museum is home to an extensive collection of artwork from 5000 BC to current times. Italian and Spanish masters are prominent, along with German expressionists such as Gustav Klimt. However, there are also 19th and 20th Century American art, a large sculpture garden, and programs for children.
Outside of Balboa Park, you will find the USS Midway Museum at Navy Pier in Downtown San Diego. The museum is actually the longest-serving U.S. aircraft carrier of the last century, commissioned from 1945-1992. The USS Midway Museum is the most popular naval warship museum in America, and a self-guided tour directs you through the engine room, galley, bridge, brig, officers quarters, sleeping quarters, mess hall, and atop the deck where you can climb into the cockpits of U.S. military aircraft.
4 – San Diego Zoo
Panda’s were the Zoo’s most famous inhabitants!
Of all the attractions in San Diego, the San Diego Zoo is the most popular, following the beaches. Balboa Park also holds this 100-acre gem that has a mind for the exemplary preservation of endangered animals and conservation of the world’s wild kingdoms, while showcasing beautiful animals in extravagantly constructed habitats that replicate each animal’s natural environment. Representing 800 species of animals among the 4,000 in the park, you will observe many creatures that you might never see in your life otherwise, including giant pandas, koalas, gorillas, and polar bears.
Regularly voted the best Zoo in the World the San Diego Zoo has very few Equals, both in terms of presentation to the public and its work in protecting the wildlife it Showcases. Only Loro Parque in Tenerife, Spain, and the UK’s Chester Zoo (very local to where we hail!), come close.
Full Guide to San Diego Zoo along with Discount Ticketing Options!
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
If that wasn’t enough there is also the Sister Zoo the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. This much larger park offers you the chance to get out and take a “mock” safari in large enclosures based on natural habitats such as African Savannas, Australian Outback, or Gorilla Forests.
If you are an Animal Lover then San Francisco Zoo is more than you could have ever dreamed of, however, with the addition of the Safari Park, San Diego is a true Paradise for Animal Lovers. And that’s before we begin to discuss the Marine Life in the Area!… Speaking of which:
5 – Whale Watching Tour
You have seen the ocean from the beach, but the beach from the ocean is an even better view, especially when whales are involved. Whale watching season hits its peak in January and February when thousands of gray whales migrate to warmer weather in the south, where they give birth. While you can get a glimpse of the whales from Point Loma at the Cabrillo National Monument’s Whale Overlook, we found it more of a thrill to take a chartered tour for a closer look at these magnificent beasts that measure 35-40 feet and weigh up to 60,000 pounds! We paid $40 to take a whale-watching trip from Embarcadero, with a whale expert from Birch Aquarium at Scripps leading the way, along with 50 other tourists, on a large boat.
The Summer Brings the opportunity to See Blue Whales. These are harder to find so the chances of finding one are less but it’s worth the chance to see these colossal creatures. If you think the Grey Whales are huge the Blue whales are just unimaginable! Up to 98 feet and weighing up to 380,000. They are truly staggering. Not only the largest animal on earth they are the Largest Animal EVER to Exist on earth. No photo ever does these Giant’s justice and you really need to see one in person to really appreciate the scale.
Most trips offer some type of money-back guarantee that if you don’t see whales you get your money back or another trip. This is often a little misleading as they never mean the target whale (Blue/Grey) but any Whale which can also include Dolphins, and the crews know how to find dolphins no Problem. Of course, just being out on the Ocean and enjoying the abundant sea life (whales, dolphins, and sea lions, maybe even Orca?) is more than enough for us, and even if a Show Piece Whale doesn’t show we still think it’s money well spent. Even the Out of Season Bay Cruises are a fantastic way to spend a morning.
If you aren’t into checking out the earth’s largest mammals, or you are not visiting San Diego from January to May, another exhilarating option is a speedboat ride from Speed Boat Adventure, where YOU pilot a boat, at high speeds, with a skilled guide through the San Diego Harbor.
6- LEGOLAND California Resort
Take your kids to LEGOLAND; they will love you forever. What started out as a LEGO theme park has now turned into a full-fledged resort with two hotels, the Sea Life Aquarium, and a water park. Of course, the original LEGO park has been the highlight of the operation since it opened in 1999. With rides and activities for kids age 2-12, it is a great time for the family. You can trek through Egyptian ruins on the Lost Kingdom Adventure, coast through a castle on the Dragon Coaster, and throw fireballs, ice, lightning, and shockwaves while on the NINJAGO The Ride, a 4-D experience. Be dazzled by Miniland U.S.A., which is a recreation of U.S. iconic sites using 34 million LEGO bricks, and there is also a Star Wars Miniland that showcases all of your favorite George Lucas creations.
7- SeaWorld San Diego
After an international backlash against SeaWorld for the mistreatment of its killer whales—also called Orca – which has been the marine park’s main attraction for years, changes have been made. SeaWorld has refocused its Orca program toward education and conservation and not a sideshow that involves carnival stunts. These majestic marine animals now showcase their natural behaviors from the wild, though they still live in giant pools and are still trained to perform for an audience. We can only applaud the Parks for this stance and the fact No more Orca will be added to the collection and once this generation passes (hopefully years from now) that will be the end of Orca’s in Captivity, at least in the USA.
Outside of shows involving animals that also include sea otters, dolphins, and house pets, there are 187 acres of bayfront property that feature an assortment of exhibits and rides in a tropical setting. There is a 280,000-gallon shark tank with a 57-foot clear tube that you walk through to see these sea menaces, as well as Turtle Reef, and Penguin Encounter. SeaWorld has begun re-inventing itself as an Ocean Themed theme park and has now many top Thrill rides. Journey to Atlantis is a thrilling ride with a 60-foot plunge, and Manta is the park’s steel, launch roller coaster. And New for 2018 is Electric Eel, San Diego’s Fastest and Highest Coaster.
We have a full guide on Sea World where we look at the Rides, and the Shows, and really look at the whole issue surrounding Orca in captivity!
8- Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Torrey Pines feels like a long way from Downtown San Diego or any other bustling community in the area. Stretched across 1,600 acres of deep ravines and sandstone bluffs, you follow well-kept trails through an oasis of Torrey pines that are found only in this natural reserve and offshore on Santa Rosa Island. The network of trails leads you down oceanfront cliffs to Black’s Beach where you can find an isolated spot to spread your towel and have a picnic, surrounded by a beautiful view. If you need an escape from the big city, take a trip to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.
Craft Brewery Tour
San Diego has become the place for craft beer with 90 microbreweries and counting, so it is worth your time to check out a few if you are visiting on a Saturday or a lazy Sunday afternoon, which is when we hopped through a few breweries. Our choice for the best breweries in San Diego are Stone Brewing World Gardens and Bistro, which was founded in a basement in 1996, Ballast Point Brewing Company with a taproom in Little Italy, Alpine Brewing, whose brewmaster was once a fire captain, and AleSmith Brewing Company, which makes one brew from Indonesian coffee berries that have been eaten and passed by the Asian palm civet.
The best way to visit a few breweries is to take a six-wheeled Swiss safari vehicle through the urban jungle of San Diego, while drinking ice-cold craft beers along the way, as a SOBER beer geek guides you. This service is offered by Scavengers Beer Adventures, which takes you to three craft breweries, with 3-4 samples at each spot, a tour at one of the breweries, and a delicious meal at Phil’s BBQ.
As well as a fantastic Craft Beer industry San Diego also has a large number of Urban Wineries. A day spent exploring these, taking in a few samples is a very pleasant way to relax and unwind from the stresses of visiting the theme parks and attractions of Sandiego or just getting away from reality. We have a full guide to all the BEST Wineries in the San Diego area!
10- False Idol – Night Life
Sneaking out into the San Diego night is something we couldn’t pass up, and neither should you. Mingling with other tourists and locals in liquor-drenched bars and clubs is a right of passage for any traveler if you really want to know all angles of a city.
After several stops through America’s Finest City, two nightspots really stood out among the dozen we attended. The Rooftop by STK at the Anandez hotel is a peacock of a lounge where fashionable attendees strut their stuff around the poolside. With a killer view of downtown, private cabanas, DJs spinning dance music, and flowing cocktails, there is always a party happening at this Gaslamp Quarter favorite that once brought Prince Harry out to play, while participating in military helicopter training at a nearby Naval station.
However, False Idol is more our style. The Little Italy speakeasy fills up quickly on the weekends, so make online reservations early in order to grab a spot. This tiki bar that sports wall-to-wall Polynesian artifacts and pop art provides a bit of escapism for the average Joe, where time is suspended – like the hanging puffer fish on the ceiling – in the immersive environment. You really do feel like you are a world away and hidden from society with a group of elite in the cavernous space. The entry to the False Idol is hidden within a gastropub called Craft & Commerce, by way of a stainless steel door that leads to a walk-in cooler where tropical fruit is stored. Beyond that, you will find another door that opens to the tiki bar, where there are pricey and potent tropical drinks full of rum.
Bonus: LEAVE! – Take an Excursion Outside of San Diego
An excursion outside of San Diego is always pleasant with deserts and mountains to the north and east, and there is even a whole other country to the south. While Mexico is beautiful in parts, the border towns across from San Diego are a bit sketchy, as they are crime-ridden and much of the police force is corrupt.
We twice crossed the border to Mexico and ran into trouble. Our first time, we walked across and took a taxicab to visit the clubs and bars in Tijuana, and another time, we drove across in our personal vehicle to surf down the coast of Baja California. Both times, Mexican officers ordered us to pay them money or go to jail! And we are still clueless as to why were held up until we did. The first time, we were standing in line to go into a bar, and another time, “Federales” ordered us to pay money at a highway inspection station in the middle of nowhere. We do not recommend visiting this particular area of Mexico without a very knowledgeable tour guide who knows the language and is familiar with the local scene. Going from California to Mexico is easy because there are no passport requirements, but RETURNING TO THE STATES DOES REQUIRE A PASSPORT. Do not forget this if you head south of the border.
Instead of heading south, we suggest you go north to the Flower Fields of Carlsbad Ranch, which lies 35 miles from Downtown San Diego. During the spring, particularly in May, 50 acres of Giant Tecolote Ranunculus, roses, and poinsettias bloom in fields of vibrant colors that provide an explosion of delight the mind can hardly handle.
The Final Word on San Diego Attractions
San Diego is a splendorous place that provides quiet spots, raucous joints, and family-friendly attractions. The city has it all. You never feel cheated in San Diego because everything seems authentic, the people are friendly, and your money is always well spent. Take the time to really delve into San Diego’s diverse options because there are many that are exclusive to the city, and even the chain spots seem unique to Southern California’s vibe.
Go San Diego Card
A lot of the attractions listed here are available on the Go San Diego Card. If you feel like you are likely to visit several of these attractions then you may find the card could save you quite a bit of cash. Check out our Detailed Review HERE. It really can Save you Quite a bit of cash if you are planning on visiting a few Paid attractions.
Have Your Say?
Let us know what your favorite things to do in San Diego are? Are you all about Wildlife and stunning Nature or more focused on City-based attractions? What is your Number one must-do attraction? Beaches? Sea World? San Diego Zoo? Maybe you love something that didn’t make our list? Just drop us a comment if you have anything at all to say about things to do in America’s Finest City! And as ever if you have any questions then ask away below!