The Top 10 Things To Do and See in Downtown San Diego

Coffee shops, bars and other attractions line University Avenue in North Park
Coffee shops, bars and other attractions line University Avenue in North Park | © joseph s giacalone / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Jed Johnson
21 May 2020

You’ll find much more than beaches and sunshine in San Diego, California. Aside from having what some consider to be the best climate in the United States, Downtown San Diego is a vibrant cultural hub where historic Spanish-influenced architecture stands next to gleaming modern high-rises. Here are the best attractions in or near Downtown San Diego.

Balboa Park

Museum, Park, Zoo
Map View
No visit to San Diego is complete without a trip to this urban oasis. Home to many of the city’s main attractions, Balboa Park combines museum complex with themed gardens to create an enchanting Southern California landscape. Just a short walk or trolley ride from Downtown, the park has hosted many international exhibitions and is one of the largest urban green spaces in the entire country. Many of the park’s attractions, such as the Desert Cactus Garden and the Zoro Garden, are free to the public.

Spanish Village Art Center

Art Gallery
Map View
The Spanish Village had its origins as an artists’ colony for the California Pacific International Exposition during the 1930s. It is now occupied by more than 200 artists, who practice everything from enamel painting to photography. Thirty-seven working artist studios and galleries are free and accessible to the public every day of the week and many art classes are offered as well. Located in the middle of Balboa Park, the Spanish Village is an authentic and unique destination for art lovers.

Seaport Village

Shopping Mall
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A prominent shopping area located on the Pacific Ocean, Seaport Village has 14 acres (five hectares) of fine dining, unique stores and live musical waterfront entertainment. Its centerpieces include an antique hand-painted carousel from 1895 and a long waterfront boardwalk offering unparalleled sunset views.

Japanese Friendship Garden

Park
Map View
A collaborative effort between San Diego and its sister city, Yokohama in Japan, this serene garden has been open for 100 years and was originally the site of an authentic Japanese teahouse. Cherry blossoms, koi ponds and bonsai trees line the winding paths of this unique part of Balboa Park. Once you’ve explored the garden to its fullest, take a seat on the modern tea pavilion and soak up that California sun.

Little Italy

Historical Landmark
Map View
This vibrant and unique neighborhood is one of a kind in California. Originally San Diego’s Italian neighborhood and a worldwide center of the tuna fishing industry, Little Italy retains its Italian heritage with a variety of restaurants, art galleries and a weekly farmer’s mercato. It is also the site of ArtWalk, the largest art festival on the West Coast.

USS Midway Museum

Museum
Map View
This aircraft carrier, the largest ship in the world when it was christened in 1945, is permanently harbored in San Diego and is one of the most popular attractions in the city. It really is the perfect day out, with visitors free to explore the ship’s living quarters, ready rooms, flight control towers, brig and many aircraft. Enjoy!

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (Downtown)

Art Gallery, Museum
Map View
Created in 1941, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s Downtown location is one of the foremost contemporary art museums on the West Coast. The museum primarily features minimalist art and Pop art, especially from Mexico and California. Vast exhibition spaces allow for large temporary installations while providing ample room for its permanent collection.

Gaslamp Quarter

Historical Landmark
Map View
This elegant 16-block Victorian neighborhood is a San Diego hub for fine dining, cosmopolitan art galleries and rooftop bars. It is also the site of Copley Symphony Hall, home of the San Diego Symphony and Lyceum, which shows off-Broadway musicals and plays. Additionally, the San Diego Film Festival takes place here every fall. Make sure to stop by the Altitude Sky Lounge to sip cocktails 20 stories above the ground and enjoy the view that comes with it.

San Diego Museum of Man

Museum
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Located in one of the most stunning buildings in Balboa Park, this anthropological museum hosts exhibits ranging from Ancient Egyptian mummies to artefacts from the original peoples of San Diego, the Kumeyaay American Indians. The museum is also home to the California Tower, a 200-foot (61-meter) structure that makes for a great vantage point.

San Diego Zoo

Zoo
Map View
The San Diego Zoo is not only one of the best zoos in the country but in the entire world. With a safari park, an arboretum, an aviary and habitats to for its thousands of different animal species, the zoo sprawls across the entire north end of Balboa Park with easy access to and from Downtown. The zoo is one of the only places in the world to see giant pandas in captivity and has the largest population of koalas outside of Australia.
These recommendations were updated on May 21, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.