Things to Do in San Diego
Across the bay from downtown San Diego, Coronado is a pleasant escape from the jumble of the city and the buzz of the beaches. Follow the tree-lined, manicured median strip of Orange Avenue toward the commercial center, Coronado Village, around the landmark Hotel del Coronado. Then park your car; you won’t need it again until you leave.
Locals call Coronado an island, but it's connected to the mainland by the spectacular, 2.1 mile (3.4 kilometer) Coronado Bay Bridge, as well as by a long, narrow spit of sand known as the Silver Strand. The visitor center doubles as the Coronado Museum of History and Art. And then there’s the fabulous, easily recognizable Hotel del Coronado, the interior of which is filled with warm, polished wood, giving the hotel an old-fashioned feel of Panama hats and linen suits. Guests have included 10 presidents and world royalty. For a taste of the Del without the stay, have breakfast or lunch at the beach-view Sheerwater restaurant.
Packed into 40 hectares, the San Diego Zoo presents a stunning variety of nature's largest, smallest, noblest, oddest, and most endangered creatures. This famous zoo has more than 3,000 animals representing over 800 species.
Stop first at the San Diego Zoo visitor center to pick up a map. Highlights of the zoo include the Tiger River bioclimatic exhibit, which realistically recreates an Asian rainforest environment, and Gorilla Tropics, which does the same with an African rainforest. The koalas and the rare giant pandas are also popular.
The gardens at the San Diego Zoo are renowned and some of the plants are used for the specialized food requirements of particular animals. Especially for kids, the Children’s Zoo allows young ones to pet small critters; they will also enjoy the animal nursery, which shows off the zoo’s newest arrivals. For an aerial perspective on the park, take a ride on the Skyfari.
Both a seaside community and a top San Diego attraction, there’s a lot to be said for this little slip of a peninsula. Most easily recognized for its hilly views and the picturesque Old Point Loma Lighthouse, Point Loma is also famous for its historical significance (the first European settlers in California landed here, thus earning it the title “where California began”). People come to Point Loma to view these attractions, as well as to visit its naval base, the Cabrillo National Monument, and walk the hiking trails and take in the stunning views of the bay. With plenty to do and see, it’s no wonder Point Loma is one of San Diego’s most photographed spots.
On the southern tip of Point Loma, at the top of hill, you'll find Cabrillo National Monument. The spot is San Diego’s finest locale for history and fine views across the bay to San Diego's downtown. It's also the best place in San Diego to see the gray whale migration (January to March) from land. After a few minutes here, you may forget you’re in a major metropolitan area.
The visitors center at Cabrillo National Monument has an excellent presentation on Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s 1542 voyage up the California coast, plus good exhibits on the native inhabitants and the area’s natural history. Also here is the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, which is appointed with late-19th century pieces, including lamps and picture frames hand-covered with hundreds of shells. On the ocean side, you can drive or walk down to the tide pools (at low tide) to look for anemones, starfish, crabs, and limpets.
Seaport Village is San Diego’s preeminent shopping and dining complex. A slice of independence in busy San Diego, the Seaport Village is beautiful and relaxing escape in an otherwise busy world. Come here to window shop the boutiques, sit on a park bench and stare into the ocean, grab a bite to eat, or to simply have a glass of wine and catch some outdoor entertainment. Just a short walk from the Gaslamp Quarter and plenty of boutique and big name shopping, Seaport Village is a popular hang-out for tourists and locals alike.
For over 60 years, the Maritime Museum of San Diego has enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for being one of the most engaging and imagination-inspiring attractions in San Diego. A history lesson and an adventure in one, the Maritime Museum of San Diego has been repeatedly voted one of the best attractions in San Diego, and visitors from the world over come here to see the excellent collections of historic tall ships, including the world’s oldest active merchant ship, the Star of India, an 1863 iron hulled, triple-mast behemoth. Known the world over for excellence in restoring, maintaining, and operating these historic vessels, a trip to the Maritime Museum will have you exploring (and, on some occasions, even sailing) four different tall ships (the ones with the big masts and sails), two submarines, and several yachts and harbor boats. As you explore these amazing vessels, you’ll discover a sense of what it was like to work and live on these amazing ships.
Long a mainstay for the college crowd and those looking to get out and have a little bit of fun in the sun, the little neighborhood of Pacific Beach is a California-lover’s dream. Bikinis and board shorts, bike paths and boardwalks, and of course miles of pristine beach, Pacific Beach is what many picture as idealized southern California living. From tasty beer taverns to sunny California shacks serving fish tacos, Pacific Beach is an ideal choice for getting out and seeing the young and fit crowd do its thing. North Pacific Beach tends to be quieter and cater to more of a family ambiance, while Tourmaline Beach is a surfing-only beach great for long low waves that are perfect for beginners.
Built in the late 19th century, the Gaslamp Quarter is a 16½ block historical neighborhood, filled with streets lined with wrought-iron street lamps, trees, and brick sidewalks. Along with its many historic buildings, the Gaslamp has the city’s highest concentration of bars, nightclubs, and restaurants. Many of the bars double as restaurants as well, making the whole district the prime nightspot in San Diego.The Gaslamp Quarter is also home to many events and festivals, including Mardi Gras in the Gaslamp, Street Scene Music Festival, the San Diego Comic-Con, Taste of Gaslamp, and ShamROCK, a St. Patrick's Day event. PETCO Park, home of the San Diego Padres is located one block away in downtown San Diego's East Village. Croce's Restaurant & Jazz Bar, named after famous singer Jim Croce, is also located in the Quarter. For a break from the bustling streets of the Gaslamp Quarter, head over to Third Avenue. This is the historic heart of San Diego’s Chinese community.
More Things to Do in San Diego
If the Gaslamp Quarter is heart of Old Town San Diego, then Little Italy is its beating heart. Walk these streets to get a feel for the Mom and Pop restaurants, art galleries, and retail shops that make this northwest end of downtown famous. Festivals frequent Little Italy, and the Farmer’s Market every Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. is widely-hailed for its freshly caught fish, local vegetables, and delicious Italian pastries. Many people prefer to eat and drink their way through this Old World slice of San Diego, and who can blame them? Little Italy is one of the highlights of any trip to this beautiful city by the sea.
With its world-class museums, manicured gardens, and world-famous San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park tops the list of sights in downtown San Diego. Its 1,200 acres (485 hectares) makes it the largest urban park in the United States. Apart from its many attractions, Balboa Park also features lengthy hiking trails, distinctive landscaping, Golden Age Spanish buildings, and the world’s largest organ.
Balboa Park is divided up into three sections. The central part of the park has the most attractions. The main attraction here is San Diego Zoo, which has more than 3,000 animals, typically in enclosures that replicate their natural habitat. At the Museum of Man, part of the California Quadrangle and its distinctive arch, you can see Native American artifacts. Nearby, the San Diego Museum houses a number of works from European masters from the Renaissance to the modernists.
San Diego Old Town is a pleasant place to soak up some history, browse for souvenirs, and perhaps enjoy a Mexican meal. Old Town is the site of the original pueblo (village) that sprang up in San Diego below the mission and fortress back in the 18th century. It preserves five of the original adobe (mud brick) buildings alongside scores of recreated structures, including a schoolhouse and a newspaper office.
Your first stop should be the Old Town State Historic Park Visitors Center, which has memorabilia and a video of local history. The center is located in the main plaza. Across from the visitor center is Casa de Estudillo, a restored adobe home filled with authentic period furniture, which is worth a look. Just off the plaza's northwestern corner is the Plaza del Pasado, which has a colorful collection of import shops and restaurants. The area is also home to the Old Town Trading Company, a charming gift shop selling various trinkets.
Situated just west of downtown, Shelter Island is connected to the mainland by a thin sliver of land — but feels like worlds away. Ships and yachts bobbing in the colorful marina characterize the quaint seaside village, known also for its serene parks, buzzing food scene, and outdoor events. Toward the end of the island sits the historic Yokohama Friendship Bell, given as a gift by San Diego’s sister city of Yokohama, Japan.
Many nautical adventures launch from here, attracting sailors, sea-loving explorers, and marine animal lovers. Travelers flock to Shelter Island for sea cruises, featuring dolphin watching, sea lion scouting, and yacht gazing. Stay awhile and relax at one of the island’s many hotels or resorts, or bask in the sunshine during summer Concerts By The Bay.
San Diego’s El Prado is located in the center of Balboa Park and is considered by many to be the heart of this most beloved San Diego park. The beautiful Spanish Colonial House of Hospitality is located here, and fully restored to its 1915 splendor. Inside you’ll find visitor information and historical highlights of the park. The El Prado courtyard holds The Prado restaurant, famous for its cuisine and outdoor seating. Just steps away you’ll find the Spreckels Organ Pavilion – an open space containing the world’s largest pipe organ and home to free concerts during summer Sundays. This is the best of Balboa Park, and it would be a shame to miss it.
The year of 1911 was historic for the field of aviation. In an even that would shape the aviation as we know it, the Vin Fiz Flyer—piloted by Calbraith Perry Rodger—completed the first transcontinental crossing of the United States in an airplane. The flight required 82 hours of total time in the air—although the entire trip, including ground time, was a remarkable 84 days. Today, commercial jetliners make the trip in a little over five hours, and with the ease of transport that aviation has provided, it’s almost too easy to forget the steps that brought us up to this point. At the San Diego Air & Space Museum, however, every visitor, both young and old, can see how the craft of aviation has changed since its early years. Gaze on an intricate reproduction of the original Vin Fiz Flyer, or examine a replica of Charles Lindbergh’s famous Spirit of St. Louis. Military enthusiasts will love the collection of Hellcats and early fighter planes.
Humans, in a word, are utterly and truly fascinating. Creating art is a human tendency as old as humans themselves, and here at the Mingei International Museum, folk art from over 140 countries is on intriguing and captivating display. Though exhibits here are constantly changing, examples of work include handmade dolls that date to the 19th century, to exquisite, hand turned, wooden bowls and weavings from grass and leaves. There have sections devoted to global headdresses and an extensive collection of tequila bottles, and—in true San Diego fashion—a large exhibit made entirely from surfboards that explores the art of surfing. Above all, it’s human creativity itself on display that’s manifested in thousands of forms, and there’s an uplifting, unifying, and inspiring spirit that accompanies a day spent browsing the genius of our planet’s myriad cultures.
There was once a time when traveling by train was the image of American romance— galloping across the open plains on the back of a steaming steel horse. With the advent of planes and automobiles, however, the era of train travel in the United States has long since passed its twilight. Unless, of course, you’re at the Model Railroad Museum, where the power of locomotives is as clear as the trains are timeless. Here at this 27,000 square foot enclosure inside of Balboa Park, railroad clubs have created artistic scale models of classic American trains. Follow a train as it plies the rails of the historic Tehachapi Pass, and look at models for the Pacific Desert Line—a track that was planned from San Diego to the east but never came to fruition. The meticulous craftsmanship that’s gone into the models is nothing short of astounding, and in addition to the models and trains themselves, visitors can learn about the legendary history of traveling the U.S. by train.
From the original Native American settlers who called this desert home, to the Spanish explorers who constructed missions through the San Diego region, this city has one of California’s lengthiest and richest histories. Here in the San Diego History Center, the series of events that created the city are on intricately detailed display—where over 2.5 million historical photographs help weave the city’s tale. On a visit to the famous Balboa Park museum, examine postcards of how San Diego looked while it was still in its original infancy, and learn the lengthy military history of the nearby bases and ships. Explore a collection of pottery and textiles from early San Diego residents, as well as an extensive collection of fine art relating to San Diego. This is one of America’s only museums that tells the history of a town, and after an hour spent reading the city’s history and walking the photo lined halls, visitors will have an entire new perspective.
There’s more to sports in San Diego than the Padres, Aztecs, and Chargers. Sport has played an enormous role in this California city’s history, and here at the San Diego Hall of Champions, exhibits display how sailing and surfing have also shaped the town’s heritage. Inside the halls of what’s officially the nation’s largest multi-sport museum, visitors will find everything from the history of the America’s Cup to a collection of the 100 different San Diego athletes who have graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. This is also the site of the Breitbard Hall of Fame—a display that recognizes native San Diegans who have excelled in professional sport. Currently, the hall of fame recognizes 135 athletes from 20 different sports, and over 42 sports in total are represented in this soaring, three-story museum.
Before you even walk in the door of the San Diego Museum of Art, you’re already looking at the piece of art that’s the building’s soaring façade. With heavy influence from the cathedrals and universities of cities in central Spain, the ornamented building is like a slice of Europe in the middle of Balboa Park. On the museum’s interior, the artwork continues with an extensive collection that spans over 7,000 years, from classic paintings by European masters to an array of South Asian art. Compare the style of Francisco de Goya with El Greco or Henri Matisse, or peruse the fascinating global collections from Quebec, Mexico, or China. There’s an entire section of native artwork from the Americas and across the Pacific, as well as gripping photography from some of the world’s original photojournalists. It’s the oldest and largest museum of its kind in the entire surrounding region, and since the temporary exhibits are always changing.
It’s been said that hands-on, experiential learning enhances education, and if that’s the case, then the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is helping to educate every person who walks in the building’s door. Especially enjoyable for families with children, this interactive science center has permanent exhibits on everything from energy to California’s water to the journey of cells in our body. Work with your hands at the “Tinkering Studio” inspired by famous inventors, or watch one of the live experiments conducted by the center’s staff. Learn about genetics and DNA and what’s inside of an atom, or channel your inner architect with the collection of 15,000 building blocks. The biggest treat, however, is the enormous IMAX domed theater with movies on everything from Humpback whales to the most mysterious corners of our Universe. This is the only domed IMAX theater in Southern California, and the movies displayed provide visitors of all ages with an enthralling visual feast.
From the collection of Harley Davidson motorcycles and exhibit on Steve McQueen, to the famous, 1947 Louis Mattar Cadillac that drove 6,300 miles without stopping, the San Diego Automotive Museum is a cache of classic cars. Here you’ll find a permanent collection of classic American cars, as well as a rotating display of historic cars that define automotive nostalgia. In addition to the collection of nearly 80 cars, there’s a section on general automotive history, a look at the historic “Plank Road” that led to San Diego’s growth, and a scavenger hunt for kids to find the facts about different cars. Visiting the museum takes approximately an hour—unless of course you’re a mechanic or racer—in which case you could spend the better part of the day in this sanctuary of horsepower and design.
There are two things on display at San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts: A collection of over 7,000 images from 850 artists, and the actual art of photography itself in all of its many forms. The pieces inside this small museum run the gamut of photography’s history, from early daguerreotypes dating back as far as the 1840s, to images of Russia in the mid-20th century and award-winning photojournalism. There’s a modern movie studio inside of the museum that highlights the evolution of film, and displays on photography’s technological advancements show how far the art form has come. More than just the photos themselves, however, it’s the different story that each photo tells that makes this a memorable stop. Considering that many of the photos on display are historical and social documentaries, the museum offers a lens into photographer’s roles in capturing societal change.
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