Welcome to San Diego, a beachside city with near-perfect weather all year long. Beyond the surf and sand, this diverse city has plenty to offer when it comes to art, culture, food and architecture. Explore a sea cave, indulge in a tiki drink, check out some fresh art, and eat at one of the city’s longest-running authentic Mexican restaurants, all in the space of a day. Here are 20 must-dos in San Diego (and that doesn’t even include the off-the-beaten-path attractions).
Museum, Park, Zoo
This 1,200-acre park contains numerous attractions, including a sunken butterfly garden, the San Diego Zoo, museums, gardens, and the California Tower. The park 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 San Diego Museum of Man (anthropology), 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 over a dozen different gardens to wander, as well as a carousel and two theaters.
More than 3,000 animals, accounting for over 300 species, roam this 1,800-acre wildlife sanctuary and botanical garden. Guests may go on guided tours, attend daily talks from zoo keepers about various animals, pet goats, and enjoy up-close meet and greets with some of the park’s friendlier inhabitants. Guests can also take a short hot air balloon ride over the park.
This unique geological formation looks like just a sliver—hence the name “potato chip”—but is sturdy enough to support the weight of a person or two. Many hikers trek to this spot for Instagram purposes, striking yoga or superhero poses. The rock is the reward for a challenging hike up Mount Woodson. Hikers are advised to take along lots of water and start early, as temperatures can be high in this area.
Should you secure a ticket to this annual festival of all things geek, you’ll have your chance to check out panels, screenings, parties and exhibitors. It is the biggest convention in San Diego, maxing out the convention center on an annual basis at about 130,000 attendees, many of them in elaborate costumes. It is also the biggest comic/pop culture festival in the world, according to the Guinness Books of World Records.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is home to the Torrey Pine, a particularly rare species of pine tree, well as other native wildlife. The area is popular with hikers as it has numerous trails of various difficulty levels, and offers stunning views of the coast. Guided tours are available on the weekends and some holidays.
Every year, San Diego hosts a Tiki Oasis convention where some 3,500 people converge to celebrate Polynesian culture. Yet visitors can enjoy tiki anytime at popular venues including The Grass Skirt, a tiki speakeasy, and Bali Hai Restaurant, which has been slinging stiff Mai Tais since 1954.
This family-owned Mexican restaurant has been in operation since 1933. A simple menu contains a small but formidable list of affordably priced items 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. Cash only.
Though animal cafes have been popular in countries like Japan, Taiwan and South Korea for a while now, San Diego didn’t get its first cat cafe until 2015—the first in Southern California. At The Cat Cafe, guests can enjoy coffee, tea, lunch and desserts in the company of furry friends. Guests select their food and drinks first, then are allowed to spend quality time with as many as a dozen adoptable cats. (Guests who choose not to purchase food or drinks must pay a $5 fee.)
A smaller park at eight acres than some of San Diego’s vast wilderness reserves, this charming outdoor attraction features six Victorian homes that have been restored and moved here for public viewing. It also contains San Diego’s first synagogue, Temple Beth Israel.
This maritime museum is centered around the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier that was in use from 1945 through 1992. The museum opened in 2004, and allows visitors to take an audio tour of the ship. Inside, find the engine room, machine shops, the sick bay, and even the ship’s jail. Other exhibits include films, flight simulators, and 29 restored aircraft. The museum also hosts various activities and events, including fireworks, film screenings, lectures, and concerts from military bands.
Here, visitors can experience what it might have been like in the 1800s. 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 occur frequently, including theatrical performances, blacksmith demonstrations, and tours.
The San Diego Padres play at PetCo Park, located in downtown San Diego. With San Diego’s year-round pleasant weather, a ball game is usually a good excuse to sit outside at any point in the season. If baseball isn’t your thing, however, the stadium also hosts a variety of other sports and concerts. Past acts have included The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Taylor Swift.
The beachside city of La Jolla contains seven sea caves, ripe for exploring. One cave, known as Sunny Jim, can be accessed via a tunnel in the back of the La Jolla Cave Store. The rest can only be accessed by water. Visitors can book kayak tours, which not only allows them to see these magnificent caves, but also get some exercise, too.
San Diego Art Institute
When founded in 1941, the San Diego Art Institute was called the San Diego Business Men’s Art Club and only allowed male members. By the 1950s, women were allowed to participate 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 $5.
Queen Califia’s Magical Circle is a sculpture garden found in Kit Carson’s Park in Escondido, filled with large, colorful pieces from French artist Niki de Saint Phalle. The art includes several totems as well as a maze adorned with a snake. Queen Califia is a mythical queen who ruled over the Island of California in Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo’s The Adventures of Esplandián.
While it’s true that you can probably drink craft beer in just about every major American city, 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 truly will be something for every beer aficionado. The city of San Diego maintains a list of breweries, and many are available for tours and tasting. Or, you can book a tour via companies like San Diego Brew Tours or Scavengers. But if you really want to try as many beers as possible, plan a visit that aligns with San Diego Beer Week, during which numerous beer-themed events will be happening all over the city.
Flower-loving visitors to San Diego County could swing by the Carlsbad Flower Fields and the Keys Creek Lavender Farm, located in Valley Center, in one day. Keys Creek is an organic lavender farm, where the fragrant flower is grown and then used in a variety of products, including lotions, essential oils and perfumes. 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.
This 27-acre ranch was built by actor and conservationist Lee Carrillo (The Cisco Kid) in the 1830s, but it’s now a Historic National Landmark that has been open to visitors 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. Guests are advised to wear athletic clothing, bring along some water, and take a step back in time.
San Diego Botanic Gardens is a sprawling and serene 37-acre oasis with several gardens, many organized by geography. See plants from Australia, Africa, Central America, the Canary Islands and a tropical rainforest, as well as native Californian plants. There’s a garden of olive trees, a bamboo grove, a bird and butterfly garden, and herb garden, too. Guests are free to wander the grounds at their leisure, and may pack a picnic to eat in the Eucalyptus Garden.