San Diego is a favorite SoCal travel destination. It's steeped in history and culture, home to some beautiful beaches, and a wide variety of shopping, dining, and entertainment options. In many ways, the problem is not finding things to see and do, it's choosing what to leave out of your travel plans.
This list should help with that. We've put together 20 must-see destinations that anyone who visits the city won't want to miss. Whether you're there to hit the beach, hit the shops, or just want to see the best of the city before hitting the road, our list will help you know where to go.
Sun, Sand, and Surf
La Jolla Shores
La Jolla (“the jewel” in Spanish) is an upscale beach town outside of San Diego that's a must-see as a whole (hence the entry on downtown La Jolla later in the list), but the beaches in particular are spectacular. We mention La Jolla shores here largely because it's the most famous, and in many ways the most impressive, but any La Jolla beach you can get to is one you should visit.
Coronado Island (which isn't actually an island) is a popular destination for many reasons, including the famous and prestigious Hotel Del Coronado, but the beach is of particular note. Here, you can avoid most of the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city, and just enjoy a little downtime on the waterfront.
Ocean Beach Municipal Pier
While this won't get you on the sand or in the surf, the pier (the longest on the west coast made of concrete) will give you an unprecedented view of the ocean. Take a half-mile stroll out into the open water at any time of day, or if you're more sand castle-inclined, hit the nearby beach for some fun in the sun.
If you're looking to see attractive bodies (or are an attractive body looking to be seen), Pacific Beach is where you want to go. It's a San Diego hotspot for those who like to surf and party on the waterfront, and there's plenty of nearby restaurants and watering holes to keep you fueled up for your day in the sun.
History and Landmarks
Also known for its energetic nightlife and dining scene, the Gaslamp Quarter is made up of a mixture of high rises and19th century Victorian-era landmarks. As you marvel at the beauty of a time now past, you'll find plenty of fine food to keep you going, with restaurants like Rustic Root and Searsucker nearby to cater to your eating interests.
Founded by Confederate veterans of the Civil War, Julian became a gold rush destination in 1870 when former slave A.E. “Fred” Coleman saw a glint of gold in a stream he was crossing. It only lasted until about 1900, while apple trees brought in during the gold rush began orchards still flourishing with prized apples. Top off a mine tour with some famous Julian apple pie.
A location that can be labeled a historic landmark and a cultural mecca with equal ease, Balboa Park is the largest cultural park in the U.S., and includes the San Diego Air and Space Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art, and more. We list it here because it's also home to a host of very old landmarks, including the Museum of Man, which is housed in a building that first opened in 1935 and boasts a 200-foot-tall tower.
No trip to San Diego would be complete without seeing the view from the water. How you actually get to enjoy that awe-inspiring view is up to you, as there are numerous cruises and tours that will take you for a ride in the harbor. Just be sure you get the chance to see it.
Perhaps the most notable piece of history remaining from the early days of San Diego is “Old Town.” This district has been kept more or less in its original condition, and visiting means getting the chance to walk through these historic buildings yourself. It's as close to time travel as you'll likely ever get.
Art and Culture
Visit an Art District
San Diego is famous for its art, and it's easy to see why: there are nine separate arts districts
, all of them with something impressive to display. In these districts, you'll often get a chance to see the works of up-and-coming artists, so for those who like to be on the forefront of the art world, making a stop to see at least one of the nine is a must.
Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego
The Museum of Contemporary Art has two locations: one in downtown San Diego, and one in La Jolla (we told you it was a good place to visit). Visiting either one on the third Thursday of each month between 5:00 and 7:00 pm will get you in for free, and you can enjoy the whole of their exhibitions without paying a dime.
Back in the early 1900's, fishing immigrants from the Mediterranean started their new lives in this once humble neighborhood. Now a cultural mecca, it boasts a multitude of cultural events and festivities, restaurants run by celebrity chefs, the Firehouse Museum, and a bar found in a house dating back to the late 1800's. No matter the time of year, there's always plenty to do in Little Italy.
Shopping and Dining
The Big Bay
Known as San Diego's “largest attraction,” the Big Bay boasts 27 miles of waterfront real estate. That real estate has been filled with a host of parks, shops and restaurants, bikeways, marinas, and promenades. No matter your age or what you're looking for, it's hard to run out of things to do when perusing those 27 miles.
Home to a plethora of free entertainment options, Seaport Village is also a great place to go shopping (or window shopping) in downtown San Diego. When you need to give your feet a rest, take a break on the grass and watch the comings and goings of ships in the bay.
Downtown La Jolla
Just a stone's throw away from La Jolla Cove is a boutique shopping destination like none other. From books to jewelery, fashion to art, there's plenty to spend your hard-earned money on in downtown La Jolla.
The University Towne Centre is a one-stop shop for a wide variety of activities. Go on a spending spree at high-end shops, visit the physical location of several famous online retailers, and enjoy fine dining right there onsite. If there's cash burning a hole in your pocket, UTC is the place to go.
The San Diego Zoo
Sure, there are zoos in other cities, but few are as impressive as the one in San Diego. A frequent mention on top 10 zoo lists, it presents the resident non-humans in the most natural environments possible. What's more, it's one of the few places on the western hemisphere where you can view a giant panda.
A fun destination for any looking for a little thrill, Legoland boasts an atmosphere that fosters the creativity in all who visit. The park features a variety of amusement park rides, with something for every age. There's even an age limit on the rides for little ones, meaning the young Master Builders in your family won't have to compete with the big kids for their share of the fun.
Sea World hasn't always had the most positive image, but that hasn't stopped it from being a unique aquarium experience. The shows are impressive, and few places offer you the chance to get so close to these aquatic creatures.
USS Midway Museum
For those interested in military might, the USS Midway Museum offers a rare inside look into the big toys the U.S. Navy gets to play with. As you tour the aircraft carrier (a marvel to be seen in its own right), you'll see an impressive selection of military aircraft, hear riveting tales from times of war, and learn what life is like for a sailor at sea.