California’s birthplace and the first spot in the United States where Europeans stepped ashore, San Diego is a city with great appeal.
To go with the comfortable climate and laid-back style, San Diego Bay and its natural harbor have a rich military heritage.
The colossal aircraft carrier USS Midway speaks to this, and stands as the mother of all museum ships.
San Diego’s easy-going culture and miles of beach breaks may awaken the surfer dude in you, while Coronado and La Jolla have two of the best family beaches in the whole country.
Set just north of the border, the city has a Mexican influence that spreads to its delectable cuisine, and there’s a deluge of culture at the museums, monuments and theatres of Balboa Park.
Let’s explore the best things to do in San Diego:
1. Cryotherapy – GoCryo in Clairemont
Cryotherapy San Diego, CA – Cold Therapy and Cryo Slimming
2. Balboa Park
You’ll keep returning to this 1,200-acre urban park for its world-class zoo, restful cultivated areas, museums in refined Spanish Revival buildings and live shows.
There’s a tapestry of gardens around the park, planted with more than 350 plant species hand-selected at the turn of the 20th century by the botanist Kate Sessions, the “Mother of Balboa Park”. An emblem for the park and San Diego is the Botanical Building, one of many splendid holdovers from the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition.
Among the largest lath buildings in the world, the Botanical House contains 2,100 individual plants and is fronted by a pond with annual displays of lilies and lotuses.
Suggested tour: San Diego Walking Tour: Balboa Park with a Local Guide
San Diego’s walkable harbour-front is brimming with shops, interesting sights and eateries, and looks across the bay to Coronado Island.
A lot of the Embarcadero’s interest is literally floating on the water, at the USS Midway and the heritage ships belonging to the San Diego Maritime Museum.
This is also the place to board tour boats around the harbour and out in the ocean to spot whales.
When the mercury rises kids can go wild at the interactive fountains in the Waterfront Park and adventure through the creatively designed playgrounds.
In November the Embarcadero stages the San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival, while the San Diego Symphony Orchestra plays the Bayside Summer Nights from late-June to the start of September.
4. USS Midway Museum
The longest-serving aircraft carrier in the world has been permanently moored at San Diego’s Embarcadero since 2004. Commissioned in 1945, the USS Midway served in the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm, before becoming the largest museum dedicated to aircraft carriers and naval aviation anywhere.
GetYourGuide.com offers a self-guided audio tour of this humungous vessel, during which you’ll see over 30 restored aircraft, including 8 propeller planes, 14 jet aircraft and 8 helicopters.
You’ll be led through the galley, brig, crew’s sleeping quarters, pilots’ ready rooms and engine room, and hear exciting snippets from people who served aboard the Midway.
You’ll have lots of chances to get involved, testing simulators, climbing into cockpits and watching films documenting the dramatic events that took place where you stand.
5. Point Loma
The west side of San Diego Bay is embraced by a long rocky peninsula that merits a visit for jagged topography, thrilling history and views you won’t soon forget.
We’ll touch on a few of the sights on Point Loma later, but in 1542, this was the landing point for the first European expedition to what is now the West Coast of America.
Given the peninsula’s setting, protecting the west flank of the harbour, Point Loma has a military presence going back to the 19th century.
The 77.5-acre Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery (1882) is on the grounds of a former coastal artillery station.
There are more than 100,000 graves here, and solemn memorials like the USS Bennington Monument, recording an accident in San Diego Bay that claimed 66 lives in 1905. Head to the marina for whale watching expeditions, and to Osprey Point were climbers scale the rocks and fishers camp over the water.
Available tour: GPS Talking Tour Cars: Point Loma & Beaches Loop
6. La Jolla
The upscale oceanfront community of La Jolla is on a rocky headland poking out into the Pacific and surrounded by water on three sides.
La Jolla means fine dining, cliffs with sea caves and little coves where seals and sea lions rest on the sand.
We’ll stop by La Jolla many times on this list, visiting the famous Torrey Pines and its State Reserve, beaches and golf course.
La Jolla proper has a cosmopolitan, European feel in its cafes, boutiques, low-rise houses and steep stairways.
At Ellen Browning Scripps Park by La Jolla Point you can contemplate the majesty of the Southern Californian coast, catch open-air concerts on summer evenings and see the fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Make a detour to the Legends Gallery on Prospect Street, which has original art by former La Jolla resident Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr Seuss).
Available tour: Segway Tour in La Jolla
Surf culture is woven into San Diego’s identity and the county’s 70 miles of open ocean coastline has more surf spots than we could list here.
Much of the shore has southwest facing beach breaks, while there are rockier sections with reef breaks at La Jolla and Point Loma.
Avid surfers are always ready to travel for the perfect wave, and this might mean a trip up to the highly popular Swami’s, which was mentioned in the Beach Boys’ Surfin USA. The river mouth point break at Trestles is world renowned and hosts WSL competitions from May to September.
Honourable mentions go to the beach breaks at Oceanside and the spacious Del Mar, where you won’t have to jostle for a wave.
There are shops for gear rental near every major spot.
And if you’d rather keep your feet on dry land, you can watch some great surfing action from the rocks at Windansea in La Jolla.
8. Cabrillo National Monument
At the southern tip of Point Loma you’ll stand where a European person first set foot on the West Coast.
Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo’s expedition arrived here on 28 September 1542, and he named the bay San Miguel (this would change to San Diego in 1602). The original heroic statue of Cabrillo was donated by the Portuguese government in 1939, while the current replica has stood since 1988. The national monument’s visitor centre has a movie and exhibits to retrace Cabrillo’s voyage along the Californian coast.
Outside you can still see the old coastal batteries that protected the harbour and check out the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which has been converted into a museum.
But maybe best of all is the widescreen view of San Diego’s skyline, the harbour, across to Coronado and down to Tijuana.
9. San Diego Old Town
The site of the first European settlement in present-day California, the San Diego Old Town is a visitor-friendly neighbourhood with historic adobe buildings from the city’s early days between 1820 and 1870. There’s wonderful set of preserved streets in the State Historical Park, which we’ll talk about next.
In the 40-acre Presidio Park you’ll be at the site where the San Diego Mission and the San Diego Presidio, the first settlements in modern day San Diego, were founded in 1769. The Old town is a great place to go for real Mexican food and brims with specialty shops and art galleries.
There’s lots of colour during annual festivities like Fiesta Navidad, Cinco de Mayo and Día de Muertos in November.
Suggested tour: Old Town San Diego: Hop-on Hop-off Narrated Tour
10. Old Town San Diego State Historical Park
A time warp back to the mid-19th century, the State Historical Park in the Old Town is scattered with restored historic buildings, including five original adobes, as well as detailed replicas.
The finest of the adobes is the Casa de Estudillo from 1827, one of the oldest remaining pieces of Spanish architecture in California.
The park is free to enter and gives a sense of the intersecting cultures, as a Mexican pueblo became an American settlement.
There’s constant activity, with burros to pet, shopkeepers happy to share their stories, and artisans showing off their knowhow: At the Black Hawk Smithy & Stable you can see a blacksmith working the forge.
There are shops, little museum and restaurants, while the Historic Plaza has a full schedule of cultural celebrations and events.