Must-Visit Attractions in San Diego

People at No Surf beach, Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
People at "No Surf" beach, Sunset Cliffs Natural Park | © joseph s giacalone / Alamy Stock Photo
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).

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Balboa Park

Museum, Park, Zoo

Balboa Park, San Diego
© SiliconValleyStock / Alamy Stock Photo
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.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Botanical Garden, Park, Zoo

Visitors watch animals from an open truck, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Escondido, California, United States of America
© Jason O. Watson (USA: California photographs) / Alamy Stock Photo
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.

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park


People on North Garbage Beach on a January afternoon. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, San Diego, California, USA.
© joseph s giacalone / Alamy Stock Photo
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.

Potato Chip Rock

Natural Feature

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.

San Diego Comic-Con

Building, Architectural Landmark

Overview of exhibit hall at San Diego Comic Con 2018
© Yuen Li / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve


Magnificent view of Torrey Pines State Reserve - Seashore cliff in San Diego, California, United States of America. Panorama. Pacific Ocean. Horizon.
© Woohyeok Choi / Alamy Stock Photo
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.

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.

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.

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.

Heritage Park

Park, Synagogue

Mc Conaughy House at the Heritage Park, San Diego, California, United States
© Richard Cummins / Alamy Stock Photo
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.

USS Midway Museum


General view across the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum, San Diego Bay, California, United States
© Maurice Savage / Alamy Stock Photo
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.

Old Town San Diego State Historic Park


San Diego, JUN 27: Beautiful building in the historical old town on JUN 27, 2018 at San Diego, California
© Chon Kit Leong / Alamy Stock Photo
Sstep 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.

Catch a Padres game

Park, Stadium

Baseball game in San Diego, California
© Julia Hiebaum / Alamy Stock Photo
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.

La Jolla Sea Caves

Natural Feature

View of la Jolla caves, California
© Julia Hiebaum / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

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.

Queen Califia’s Magical Circle


Niki De Saint Phalle s Queen Califia s Magical Circle Escondido California United States of America
© LHB Photo / Alamy Stock Photo
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).

Drink Craft Beer


Outside seating of the Ballast Point Brewing Company, a micro brewery in San Diego, in August 2014.
© dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

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, Green Flash 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.

Keys Creek Lavender Farm


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.

Lee Carrillo Ranch Historic Park


This 27-acre (11ha) ranch was built by actor and conservationist Lee 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.

San Diego Botanic Garden

Botanical Garden

Tropical Rain Forest garden, San Diego Botanic Garden, Encinitas, California
© George Ostertag / Alamy Stock Photo
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.

Interested in exploring more of the US? Check out our eight-day adventure to Colorado and Utah – highlights include hiking in Arches National Park and whitewater rafting down the Colorado River. Alternately, browse our collections of Epic Trips, Mini Trips and Sailing Trips to find your next exciting destination.

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