Travel can get expensive. On a recent trip to Southern California, we searched out free things to do in San Diego. Besides being free they had to be interesting and engaging. After all, we were on vacation and wanted to do memorable things. We wanted to share our favorite free things to do in San Diego with you. Hope some enjoy them as much as we did.
On the Waterfront
Hit the beaches
Hitting the beach tops our list. We love living in Santa Fe which, as I often tell people, has everything but the ocean. We need our saltwater fix and head for the left coast as often as we can. San Diego is our favorite SoCal destination for a number of reasons. When there, we try to get to the beach everyday whether it’s to sit on the sand and listen to the sound of the surf or at sunset for the nightly show. Free beaches along the Pacific include Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, and La Jolla Shores. We prefer the more rustic breaches. One of our favorites is the stretch of sand just north of Torrey Pine State Beach (a fee area), where if you’re lucky, you can bag a free parking spot. You can get a full list of San Diego County beaches here.
Catch a sunset
Want to see a perfect San Diego sunset? La Jolla, from the south end of Coast Boulevard to La Jolla Cove, offers an excellent vantage point to view superb sunsets and attracts a crowd each evening. Mission Beach is also known for great sunsets. The view from Sunset Cliffs, at the city’s south end, is special; the sandstone cliffs turn gold in the setting sun. Go early as parking is at a premium.
For some reason, seals fascinate people. The best place to see them up close in San Diego is the Children’s Pool in La Jolla. It was created in 1932 as a safe place for children to swim in the unpredictable ocean. While still open to swimmers, today it’s a place where harbor seals and sea lions hang out and they really own the beach. The best place to watch these curious critters is from above. The seals and sea lions seem to love swimming in these waters and sunning on the rocks and the beach. If you’re lucky, you may see some baby seals.
Explore tide pools
What are tide pools? Tide pools are seawater puddles in concave rocks at the ocean’s edge. When the tide comes in they fill with water. When the tide goes out, these pools are left with water and sea life that came in with the tide including limpets, snails, barnacles, mussels, sea stars (star fish), urchins, anemones and sea hares. The best time to explore them is at low tide during fall and winter months. San Diego has a lot of tide pools. Many of the best are in La Jolla including Shell Beach at the south end of Ellen Browning Scripps Park, Tourmaline Surf Park, and Dike Rock located just north of Scripps’ Pier. Cabrillo National Monument, at the city’s south end, has some of the best tide pools in San Diego. We’re cheating a bit as there is a fee to access the park, but at $10 for a permit that’s good for seven days, it’s well worth it. The Visitors Center has a film about the tide pools as well as one on whales. In season (December through February) you may spot gray whales passing Point Loma on their way to Mexico. There’s also a historic lighthouse to explore. Click here for more tide pool locations in San Diego.
Balboa Park, a gem in the city
Balboa Park, built on the site of the original City Park, came about as a result of the Panama-California Exposition of 1915. It commemorated the opening of the Panama Canal. Many of the Spanish-Renaissance style buildings on the park’s El Prado pedestrian walkway, built for the Exposition, now house museums which do have admission fees. Viewing these unique buildings from the outside is worth a visit. A few areas at the park are free of charge including The Botanical Building, the Timken Museum of Art, the Spanish Village Art Center and a host of gardens. The Spreckels Organ Pavilion (built for the Expo), one of the largest outdoor pipe organs in the world, holds free concerts on Sundays at 2pm. There are free programs on Sundays from March through October at 2pm on the lawn of the park’s International Cottages. The park offers free tours; check with the Visitors Center for days and times.
Old Town State Historic Park
San Diego’s Old Town dates to 1821. Part of this area has been turned into Old Town State Historic Park. The Park reflects life in the area from 1821 when Mexico declared its independence from Spain to 1872 when a fire ravaged Old Town. Government documents were moved to New Town (the current downtown area) and Old Town was no longer the hub of San Diego. Much of the park is very commercial; the state leases the historic buildings to shops and restaurants. Luckily, some buildings such as La Casa de Estudillo, La Casa de Machado de Stewart, La Casa de Machado y Silvas, the Mason Street School circa 1865, a blacksmith shop and the office of the San Diego Union, the city’s first newspaper, are pretty much as they were back in the day. Old Town has a few reconstructions including the Seeley Stable (the original was demolished in 1920) which now houses a carriage museum, the First San Diego Courthouse (the original burnt down in 1872) and the McCoy House (originally built in 1869).
After touring the State Park, walk the streets of Old Town where you’ll discover the historic Whaley House, now a museum, and the Derby Pendleton House, one of a dozen prefabricated houses shipped from Maine to San Diego in 1850.
Visit a mission
Mission San Diego de Alcala, built by Frey Junipero Serra (now a Saint) in 1769, was the first of 21 missions built in California. It was moved to its present site in 1774. It was destroyed by earthquakes twice; in 1808 and 1812. The mission, which is a National Historic Landmark, was subsequently rebuilt. Steve remembers going to church there with his grandparents, who had retired to San Diego. While there’s a charge to see the museum, the church and its peaceful courtyard are open to the public free of charge. Feel like a ride? Visit Old Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, built in 1798, in Oceanside, in the northern reaches of San Diego County.
See San Diego on foot
San Diego is a very walkable city with many diverse neighborhoods to explore. Some of the more interesting ones are:
Little Italy, where Italian immigrants settled in the late 19th century, was once the home of the city’s sardine fishing fleets. Later it fell on hard times and many families left when I-5 bisected the neighborhood. Walk along India Street and you’ll get the feel for the neighborhood that has historic buildings and a thriving restaurant scene. On Saturday’s, the area hosts Little Italy Mercato, the biggest farmers market in the city.
The Marina area is home to the Embarcadero and Seaport Village, both great places to explore on foot. The Seaport Village, a commercial area full of shops and eateries, also offers cobblestone walkways that meander through gardens, as well as a boardwalk along San Diego Bay. There’s often free entertainment. You’ll find a schedule on their website. The caveat: free parking is hard to find.
Liberty Station, on the site of a now-closed naval base, is a small city offering housing, shopping, restaurant and bars, a designated arts area and more. A few places to check out on foot are the Liberty Station NTC (Naval Training Center) Park on San Diego Bay, Historic Decatur Road and the Arts District. If you get hungry or want a drink, check out the Liberty Public Market.
San Diego has a lot of free art. There are galleries scattered around the city, free museums and street art.
While most museums have admission fees, a few, such as the Timken Museum of Art in Balboa Park and the New American Museum at Liberty Station, offer free admission. You can visit both the VISIONS ART MUSEUM, a quilt museum, and the Woman’s Museum of California, both in Liberty Station, for free as part of Friday Night Liberty on the first Friday of each month.
San Diego has some wonderful outdoor art worth checking out. Murals of La Jolla puts public art on private buildings around the tony enclave some call the Beverly Hills of San Diego. There’s a map online or pick up a hardcopy at the La Jolla Athenaeum Music and Arts Library 1008 Wall Street. While you’re in La Jolla, stop at the University of California Campus San Diego and view the Stuart Collection, “a unique collection of site-specific works by leading artists of our time.” Currently, 18 sculptures are scattered around the 1,200-acre campus. There’s a map here and they have an interactive app for iPhones and iPads as well. Two Santa Fe artists, Terry Allen and Bruce Nauman, have work on the campus.
Chicano Park, in Barrio Logan, has one of the largest collections of outdoor murals in the USA. The 7-acre park is set beneath the approach ramps for the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge. The park came about when the people of Barrio Logan, the city’s oldest Mexican neighborhood, took over the area to protest the construction of a Highway Patrol office on the site. They won and the park was born. Over 40 murals decorate the concrete bridge abutments. The first ones date to the early 1970s, the second phase murals were created in the mid-1970s and a third phase was painted in the latter part of that decade. There are also later additions.
Food and lodging in San Diego
There are two musts for traveling, food and lodging. It’s easy to find San Diego hotels that fit every budget. The city boast a wide variety of lodging options including luxury resorts, ocean-front properties, chic city hotels, historic properties, national chains and budget options. You’ll definitely find something that works well for you.
When it comes to eating, San Diego has a ton of restaurants from pricey farm-to-table dining to bargain taco joints and lots in between. Fans of Asian cuisines including Chinese, Japanese, Korean or Vietnamese will love the Asian section along Convoy Street in the Kearney Mesa area. You can also buy prepared foods at the area’s Asian groceries. For great Thai at bargain prices, head to Saffron on International Restaurant Row.
We discovered so many free things to do in San Diego. We’ve done many of them but not all. We’ll be back!
What are your favorite free things to do in San Diego?
Thanks to Heidi Preusse of Crumbs on Travel for the Chicano Park mural photo.