37 Must-See Attractions in San Diego

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Juliet Bennett Rylah

Welcome to San Diego, California: a beachside idyll with near-perfect weather all year long. It’s renowned for its surfing and sand but, beyond that, there’s also plenty to do when it comes to art, culture, food and architecture. You can explore a sea cave, indulge in a tiki drink, travel back to the 1800s and eat at one of the city’s longest-running authentic Mexican restaurants – all in the space of a day. Here are the must-see attractions in San Diego (and that doesn’t even include the more unusual attractions).

1. Balboa Park

Museum, Park, Zoo

Casa Del Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA, USA
Leslie Yu / Unsplash
A sunken butterfly garden, the San Diego Zoo, museums, gardens, the California Tower – this 1,200-acre (486ha) park contains a slew of attractions. It was built in 1868 and hosted the Panama-California Exposition, which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal, in 1915. Key museums include the San Diego Air & Space Museum, the Museum of Us (formerly the San Diego Museum of Man), the San Diego Museum of Art, the San Diego Natural History Museum, the Timken Art Museum and the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. There are also more than a dozen different gardens to wander, as well as a carousel and multiple theaters.

2. San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Botanical Garden, Park, Zoo

Cheetah strutting in San Diego Safari Park.
Pavan Kumar / Unsplash
Containing 3,600 animals from more than 300 species, this 1,800-acre (728ha) wildlife sanctuary and botanical garden has plenty to keep you busy. Every day are guided tours and talks from the zoo keepers. There are also plenty of opportunities to get up close with some of the park’s friendlier inhabitants, like petting goats. Too many animals to keep up with? Enjoy a change of scenery with a short hot air balloon ride over the park.

3. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park


Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, San Diego, United States
Jesse Weatherholt / Unsplash
For the best ocean views in town, visit Sunset Cliffs Natural Park: a 68-acre park where people do indeed come to take in the colorful sunsets. The promise of a gorgeous Pacific panorama has made the area incredibly popular with hikers, surfers and birdwatchers.

4. Potato Chip Rock

Natural Feature

Potato Chip Rock, Poway, United States
mimi lalaa / Unsplash
This unique geological formation looks like a sliver – hence the Potato Chip name – but is sturdy enough to support the weight of a person or two. The rock is the reward for a challenging hike up Mount Woodson and is a great spot for some Instagram-worthy snaps. If you’re tempted to make the climb, bring lots of water and start early: temperatures can get very high in the area.

5. San Diego Comic-Con

Building, Architectural Landmark

Should you secure a ticket to this annual festival of all things geek, you’ll get to check out countless panels, screenings and parties. It’s the biggest convention in San Diego, maxing out the convention center each year with up to 130,000 attendees, many of them in elaborate costume. According to the Guinness Books of World Records, it’s the biggest comic/pop culture festival in the world as well.

6. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve


Torrey Pines Natural Reserve, San DIego, CA.
Josh McCausland / Unsplash
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is home to the Torrey Pine, a particularly rare species of pine tree, as well as other native wildlife. The area is popular with hikers thanks to its trails of various difficulty levels, and offers incredible views of the coast. Guided tours are available on the weekends and during some holidays.

7. Check out the tiki scene

Bar, Authentic

Every year, San Diego hosts a Tiki Oasis convention, where some 3,500 people converge to celebrate Polynesian culture. In addition, you can enjoy cocktails anytime at popular venues such as The Grass Skirt, a tiki speakeasy (try saying that three times drunk). Also try Bali Hai Restaurant, which has been slinging stiff mai tais since 1954.

8. Las Cuatro Milpas

Restaurant, Mexican

This family-owned Mexican restaurant has been in operation since 1933. The menu is simple, affordable and cash-only, but promises genuine delicacies from south of the border, including rolled tacos, tamales and chorizo & eggs. They serve breakfast and lunch only, and tourists are advised there will likely be a line to get a seat at one of the checkered-cloth tables.

9. The Cat Cafe

Cafe, Coffee Shop, Pastry Shop, American, Coffee, Pastries

Cat cafes have been popular in countries such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea for a while now. However, Southern California didn’t get its first until 2015. At the Cat Cafe, you can have coffee, tea, lunch and desserts in the company of furry friends – and there are as many as a dozen at a time, all adoptable. Book your hour-long slot in advance; entry is $14 for adults and children aged six or older.

10. Heritage Park

Park, Synagogue

At 8 acres (3ha), Heritage Park is smaller than some of San Diego’s vast wilderness reserves. But, this green grassland features six Victorian homes, all of which have been restored and moved here especially for public viewing. The park also contains San Diego’s first synagogue, Temple Beth Israel.

11. USS Midway Museum


USS Midway Museum, North Harbor Drive, San Diego, CA, USA
Jeremy Huang / Unsplash
This maritime museum is centered around the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier that was in use from 1945 to ‘92. It opened in 2004, and allows visitors to take an audio tour of the ship. Inside, you’ll find the engine room, machine shops, the sick bay and even the jail. Other exhibits include films, flight simulators and around 30 restored aircraft. Activities and events pack the calendar year-round, including fireworks, film screenings, lectures and concerts from military bands.

12. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park


Cafe Coyote Old San Diego Town, Mission Hills, CA, USA
Kara Peak / Unsplash
Step into the bustle and landscapes of 1800s California. There are several historic buildings to be found, including five adobes, a hotel dating back to 1870, and a reconstructed courthouse and stable. Educational events are frequent occurrences, from theatrical performances to blacksmith demonstrations to tours.

13. Catch a Padres game

Park, Stadium

Petco Park, San Diego, United States
Derek Story / Unsplash
The San Diego Padres play at Petco Park, which you can find downtown. Thanks to the year-round sun, a ball game is usually a good excuse to sit outside at any point in the season. If baseball isn’t your thing, though, the stadium also hosts a variety of other sports and concerts. In the past it’s hosted packed-out gigs from the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Taylor Swift.

14. La Jolla Sea Caves

Natural Feature

Coastline in La Jolla, San Diego, USA
Zach Josephson / Unsplash

There are seven sea caves in the beachside city of La Jolla, each of which is ripe for exploring. One, affectionately dubbed Sunny Jim, can be entered via a tunnel in the back of the La Jolla Cave Store. The rest can only be accessed by water. Luckily, you can book kayak tours to get to them; they not only let you see these magnificent caves, but get some exercise while you do.

15. San Diego Art Institute


When founded in 1941, the San Diego Art Institute was called the San Diego Business Men’s Art Club, only permitting male members. By the 1950s, women were allowed in and the name had been changed. The cultural institution now showcases experimental art from a diverse array of artists from the Southern California/Baja Norte region. Admission is free.

16. Queen Califia’s Magical Circle


A sculpture garden in Kit Carson’s Park, Escondido, Queen Califia’s Magical Circle is filled with large, colorful pieces by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle. That includes several totems as well as a maze adorned with a snake. The spot is named after a mythical queen who ruled over the Island of California in Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo’s The Adventures of Esplandián (1510).

17. Drink Craft Beer


Yes, you can drink beer in every American city. However, San Diego County is home to a staggering 125 craft breweries. Heavy hitters include Stone Brewing Co., Modern Times, Pizza Port, Bellast Point Brewing Company, AleSmith Brewing and Karl Strauss. From sours to stouts, there’s something for every beer aficionado. You can even book a city beer tour via companies like San Diego Brew Tours or Scavengers. If you really want to try as many beers as possible, plan a visit that aligns with San Diego Beer Week, during which many themed events will be happening all over the city.

18. Keys Creek Lavender Farm


Flower Fields Carlsbad, California
Samantha Fortney / Unsplash
If you’re a flower lover, you can make a day trip out of visiting two magnificent gardens: the Carlsbad Flower Fields and the Keys Creek Lavender Farm, both in Valley Center. The fields are open to the public in May and June, and ticketed tours are available. You can also book a room at the farm’s cottage, or attend a chef-driven dinner on the property.

19. Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park


This 27-acre (11ha) ranch was built by actor and conservationist Leo Carrillo (The Cisco Kid) in the 1830s, but it’s now a Historic National Landmark that’s been operating since 2003. Find peacocks, windmills, nature and historic adobe structures via a guided or solo walking tour. A video on the history of the ranch plays in the old barn. Be sure to wear athletic clothing and bring along some water.

20. San Diego Botanic Garden

Botanical Garden

The San Diego Botanic Garden is a sprawling and serene 37-acre (15ha) oasis. There you’ll see plants from Australia, Africa, Central America, the Canary Islands and a tropical rainforest, as well as native California. There’s a garden of olive trees, a bamboo grove, a bird and butterfly garden, and a herb garden too. Once there, you’re free to wander the grounds at your own pace.

21. Hotel del Coronado


Donhu Rickerby / Unsplash

The luxurious, world-famousHotel Del’ (as locals call it) is a National Historical Landmark located on the picturesque Coronado Island, accessed from the mainland via bridge or ferry. Originally built in 1888, you might recognize it from the 1958 Marilyn Monroe film Some Like It Hot. Capture a bit of that 50s glamor for yourself with an overnight stay or champagne brunch. If you’re feeling a bit less flush just come for ice cream and a gander around the historic lobby. Recommended by local insider Lauren Rogers.

22. Cabrillo National Monument


The Cabrillo National Monument is located on the southern tip of the Point Loma Peninsula in San Diego, commemorating the Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landing in San Diego Bay in 1542. This was the first European-led expedition to land anywhere on the west coast. On clear days, the surrounding park offers incredible views across San Diego’s harbor and skyline, Tijuana and even Mexico’s Coronado Islands. Each October, the monument hosts a historical festival with reenactments alongside Kumeyaay, Portuguese and Mexican singing, dancing and food stands. Recommended by local insider Hebah Bukhari.

23. Liberty Station

Architectural Landmark

Built on a former naval training station, Liberty Station is a development that offers plenty in the way of shopping, dining and leisure activities. Play a round of golf on the historic Loma Club Golf Course, whose origins date back to the 1920s, hire a bocce court at Stone Brewing or engage in some retail therapy while admiring the former buildings today’s attractions are housed in. While you’re here, it’s worth visiting the 52 Boats Memorial, which stands as tribute to the 52 US Navy submarines and 3,505 submariners lost during World War Two. Recommended by local insider Hebah Bukhari.

24. Encinitas

Architectural Landmark, Natural Feature

Encinitas, California, EE. UU.
Carlos Bastias / Unsplash

Just 35 minutes north of San Diego, Encinitas is a beach town with a big surf scene. It’s 100 percent worth the trip just to watch the acrobatics from Beacon’s Beach, and if you’re determined to catch some waves yourself, there are plenty of hire shops and surf schools. Once you’ve packed your board away, there’s a lively downtown food and bar scene to explore – check out Culture Brewing Co for local craft beer and La Especial Norte for some of the tastiest Mexican food around. Alternatively, head to Le Papagayo for food and live music. Recommended by local insider Lauren Rogers.

25. Solana Beach

Natural Feature

To experience a slower pace of life and indulge a little in the pleasures North County San Diego has to offer, head to Solana Beach. This relaxed, well-heeled beach town is filled with art galleries, boutiques and artisan coffee shops, and every Sunday there’s a farmer’s market selling local produce. You can lose hours browsing down the main Cedros Avenue – give yourself plenty of time and make a day of it, and perhaps head to Fletcher Cove for a sunbathe or a paddle afterward. You have plenty of dining options here: local insider Lauren suggests Lofty Coffee for hot drinks and sweet treats; gastropub Pillbox Tavern and pizzeria-brewery Pizza Port for dinner; and Belly Up for late-night live music. Recommended by local insider Lauren Rogers.

26. Carlsbad

Architectural Landmark

The Statue of Liberty made out of legos in display at LEGOLAND California
Samuel Ramos / Unsplash
Carlsbad is a buzzing beachside city about 45 minutes north of San Diego. If you’re visiting with kids, you may well end up over this way to visit LEGOLAND California – which is brilliant fun even for adults. But Carlsbad’s attractions don’t end there. There are good surfing opportunities, several luxury hotels and a lively bar scene. Pour your own beer samples at Barrel Republic, listen to live mariachis over dinner at Casa De Bandini, or engage in something entirely more restorative (but no less Californian) at the Mantra Yoga Studio & Juice Bar. Recommended by local insider Lauren Rogers.

27. Little Italy Mercato Farmers' Market


For those looking for a lazy Saturday inside city limits, the Little Italy Mercato Farmers’ Market offers a wide range of stalls selling food, flowers, crafts and more – it’s a pleasant place to browse around. Pick up some fresh produce for a lunchtime picnic, or tuck into something hot and delicious from one of the many food stands. Enjoy live performances from local artists as you make your way through the stalls for a perfectly balanced culinary and creative trip out. Recommended by local insider Hebah Bukhari.

Self-Realization Fellowship Temple Gardens

Founded in 1920, the Encinitas Temple is a branch of the Self-Realization Fellowship, a worldwide organization that teaches the scientific principles behind meditation and mindful living. The temple’s gardens are open to the public, providing a great place to walk and reflect with views over the Pacific Ocean and what locals now call ‘Swami’s Beach’. The gardens and koi ponds are meticulously maintained making for the perfect photo opportunities. Come for a relaxing Sunday, perhaps after grabbing some brunch at a spot nearby. Recommended by local insider Lauren Rogers.

Juniper Canyon

With significantly less foot-traffic than neighboring Balboa Park, Juniper Canyon is another piece of nature in South Park. Full of foot paths, indigenous vegetation, and hilly vistas, this park is a breath of fresh air in the middle of the neighborhood. This piece of wilderness looks the same as did hundreds of years ago, with many of the native animals still living there. Many bird species, like the California gnatcatcher, and many small mammals can be spotted here while on a twilight walk. Recommended by local insider Jed Johnson.

Ginseng Yoga

Yoga is a big part of many Californians’ daily routine, and finding a good yoga studio is just as important as finding a quality coffeehouse. South Park’s top pick is Ginseng Yoga; open to regulars and one-time visitors alike, as well as participants of all ability levels, this sunny and friendly space is one of the top yoga studios in all of San Diego. A variety of classes are offered, including Vinyasa, “Chillax” on Friday nights, and Bheemashakti. Recommended by local insider Jed Johnson.

Graffiti Beach Boutique

This local boutique has a unique mixture of clothing, jewelry, and original souvenirs, all of which are made with Southern California in mind. Graffiti Beach partners with local San Diego artists to create some of the most authentic goods you’ll find anywhere in the city. Even though most of the store’s wares are handmade, the prices are on par with big box stores, which makes Graffiti Beach Boutique a sure pick over larger chain stores. This store is laid-back, artsy, and unpretentious, just like the larger South Park neighborhood. Recommended by local insider Jed Johnson.

Community Actor’s Theatre

Community Actor’s Theatre is a nonprofit, all-volunteer theatrical troupe dedicated to providing drama and a creative outlets to the neighborhood. CAT started in 1982 and has since given a voice to local playwrights and actors. Their goal is to make this art available to the community. They also aim to educate and offer theatrical training through drama and theater workshops. These workshops are available to people of all ages and topics include theater acting skills, theater terminologies, stage presence, auditioning skills, enhance oratorical skills, and build self-esteem. Recommended by local insider Sierra Brown.

Manzanita Canyon Trail

This beautiful trail is truly a sight to see with its flourishing greenery and tranquil environment. This is the perfect spot to go during the day for a walk with family and friends or a romantic date. The trail’s surface begins rocky but smooths out and remains that way. The trail is heavily wooded and easy to follow. It crosses over the Yerba Stream, which will require some rock hopping. This 4.2 mile trail provides access to Lobo Peak, Flag Mountain, and Gold Hill. On your visit to San Diego, make time to hike the Manzanita Canyon Trail and have a rewarding experience. Recommended by local insider Sierra Brown.

Pancho Villa Farmer’s Market

Pancho Villa Farmer’s Market‘s founder, Stephen W. Boney, began with Boney’s Market Place which specialized in health foods, produce, and vitamins. Then he decided to dedicate himself to something new: a Hispanic grocery. He began to collect an extensive variety of latin foods, flavors, and spices. At Pancho Villa the goal is to provide great customer service and to perfect their departments: grocery, meat, deli/hot foods, produce, bakery, and tortilleria. The departments encompass authentic hispanic culture and are something you won’t want to miss out on. Recommended by local insider Sierra Brown.

Soda Bar

Soda Bar is a cozy music venue that calls upon indie artists and accommodates those who want to have a good time with standing areas, a room for dancing, seating in retro padded booths and more. This live music bar serves beer and mixed drinks. Soda Bar is a popular place among locals as well as visitors. On your visit to City Heights put this venue on your to-do list since this is a unique establishment. The bar plays different music genres seven nights a week, making it the perfect spot to host a party or event. Recommended by local insider Sierra Brown.

Queen Bee’s Art & Cultural Center

Queen Bee’s Art & Cultural Center, a multi-purpose venue, hosts everything from dance classes to open mic nights, art shows, private parties, and much more. They feature large stages. Queen Bee’s mission is to support local musicians and artists by opening up their space to a wide variety of concerts and events. Inside, there are usually many things going on at once. The venue features a bamboo hardwood dance floor, crystal chandeliers, sound system, and several walls for hanging artwork. Recommended by local insider Sierra Brown.

The Comedy Store La Jolla

San Diego’s branch of the famous LA comedy hotspot is a great group hangout. Bring some friends, place your orders at the bar and settle down to watch some of the country’s best-loved comedians do their thing. Find out when your favorite is on and reserve in advance, or come on a random weeknight to see what the local scene has to offer. You’ll have a great night and might even catch the next big thing before everyone else does. Recommended by local insider Hebah Bukhari.

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