Top 15 FREE Things To Do in San Diego

San Diego from Cat Island aka Harbor Drive

San Diego has the best weather in the US! Ok, so that might be a stretch but San Diego boasts one of the finest climates in the entire nation. The temperature in the city hardly ever drops below 50 degrees Fahrenheit at its coldest during the winter months (unless you are further inland) and tops out at 90 or so during the summer with humidity fairly stable at 56% or so throughout the year. I grew up in sunny San Diego so I should know. The best time of the year to visit is July or any time during the summer especially if you are looking for a beach vacation.

Having lived there most of my life, I, of course, took the beauty of the city for granted yet the place is postcard perfect and offers residents and visitors alike plenty of opportunities to enjoy its beauty for FREE.

Today I am sharing my top 15 free things to do in San Diego. Let's get started!

15. Hike up Cowles Mountain 

Cowles Mountain is a fantastic hiking spot in San Diego. It takes the average person about 45 minutes to climb to the top and another 30-45 minutes down. At the top, you can enjoy great views of the surrounding area and pat yourself in the back for having made it up. Parking can be tough during the weekends as it's a popular spot.

14. Mt. Soledad

Just between Pacific Beach and La Jolla is Mt. Soledad. It offers a great vista of the San Diego coast and surrounding neighborhoods. If you are feeling up for some exercise, park at the bottom of the mountain and bike up (it's a favorite spot for cyclists). I once tried riding my bike up the mountain but failed miserably. However, with an electric bike, anybody can do it. The outlook closes at 10pm.

13. Mt. Helix Park

Just a little inland you will find another mountain outlook (with a cross, did I forget to mention Mt. Soledad has a cross?), Mt. Helix. Take in more sweeping views of San Diego. Nestled in the mountainside are some interesting midcentury homes (but don't expect to catch a glimpse).

12. Snake through Otay Lake

Heading eastward at the end of Highway 94 then right on Otay Lakes Rd you will find one of the best driving roads in San Diego, a road that's popular with motorcycle riders and speed demons alike. It's the same road where you'll find Skydive San Diego. My favorite memory of this picturesque road was weaving through it in my old Miata convertible. In the end of the road, you'll find Otay Lakes County Park and Reservoir where you can have a picnic and enjoy the lake.

11. NTC Park

The old Naval Training Center (NTC), now called Liberty Station, was revitalized in the early teens and now boasts a number of exciting eateries and a waterfront park. If you are in Point Loma make sure to check it out. The airplanes flying overhead, however, can be quite a nuisance.

10. The Torrey Pines Gliderport

The Torrey Pines Gliderport sits on a stretch of unfettered rugged beauty. It's right next to UCSD and the Salk Institute and above Black's Beach, the nudist beach. It's free to watch gliders take advantage of the updrafts created by the cliffs. If you're feeling adventurous for $200 (but probably less) you can tandem paraglide.

10.1 Torrey Pines Hiking

Just a bit further north the coast from the paragliding port you'll find excellent hiking at the Torrey Pines State Reserve. I like parking near the Torrey Pines Golf course and walking north to the trails. You can also access the hiking trails from the beach down the hill but if I recall correctly, there's a parking fee so finding free parking during peak hours might be difficult.

10.2 UCSD Geisel Library

And if you are already in the area, make sure to check out the UCSD Geisel Library. It looks like a spaceship!

9. Old Town

Just east of Pacific Highway and Taylor St is Old Town, San Diego's birth place. Old Town is full of quaint restaurants (most of them Mexican but there's also a cool sushi restaurant too, Harney Sushi, that's great for dates), Spanish style buildings, a haunted house, a coffee shop, live tortilla making at many of the restaurants, and live entertainment at many of the venues. In all, it's a great place to get acquainted with the history of San Diego or enjoy a Happy Hour beer or margarita. Just turn on to Juan St.

8. Balboa Park

Build for the World's Fair at the turn of the last century Balboa Park boasts exquisite European architecture, a wondrous lily pond, lawns upon lawns of green grass perfect for a picnic, live entertainment on weekends, and a pretty fun science center, the Reuben H. Fleet science center, where kids and kids at heart can interact with exhibits and catch a real 3D experience in their globe movie theatre (for a fee). You can also head down and explore the canyons and the surrounding woods if that is more your style. If you are into archery, there's an archery facility too down below the bridge from 6th Avenue. On Sunday's there's also a free organ concert.

7. Seaport Village and the Embarcadero 

Right next to the convention center in downtown is Seaport Village, a bit of a tourist trap but worth checking out in my opinion. You can take in gorgeous views of the bay and enjoy the sight of yachts and boats parked in the marina. If you're lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of one of the huge competitive catamarans that race up and down the coast. If you walk or better yet drive further north on Pacific Highway you will also find the embarcadero with old boats including the USS Midway (now a museum) and an old Spanish schooner-rigged vessel that offers a tour for a fee but is free to admire from afar. Seaport Village and the embarcadero are currently in the process of getting a facelift.

6. Downtown on Foot or even Better LimeBike Scooter or Electric Bike ($)

You can explore San Diego's Downtown including its "Gaslamp" district on foot for free or for just a few dollars rent one of the Lime Bike or Scooters and check out everything downtown has to offer from Seaport Village to East Village. Make sure to check out the new public library, a very architecturally distinct building.

6.1 Top of the Hyatt

For a cool view of San Diego Bay, you must check out the top of the Hyatt at night. Arrive early and catch an epic sunset. When the sun sets, enjoy drinks and catch up with old friends or start your date there.

5. Banker's Hill Suspension Bridge

Hidden in a residential area in Banker's Hill / Hillcrest area is a tiny engineering marvel, the Spruce Street Suspension bridge. It bridges together a deep canyon so if you are afraid of heights it might not be your thing. After 10pm, the bridge closes and there's a private security guard on site to keep guests out and the noise down.

4. Pacific Beach

You can't visit San Diego without a visit to Pacific Beach. At the crossroads of Mission Blvd. and Garnet (or Grand) you'll find a most excellent beach full of good-looking people especially during the summer. Make sure to check out Crystal Pier!

3. Ocean Beach Pier, or Sunset Cliffs If You Don't Care for Piers

The OB pier is laid back but a great place to catch a sunset and super close to OB dog beach (by the way, San Diego has awesome dog parks, my top 3 dog favorite parks are Fiesta Island, OB Dog Beach, and Balboa Park dog park). If piers are not your thing, take a stroll along the rugged Sunset Cliffs also in OB.

2. A Day Trip to Coronado

I love Coronado. It's quaint and upscale. Start your trip at the Ferry Landing and then jump in your car and head toward the Hotel del Coronado. Park and walk along the boardwalk, check out the hotel, or bring your swimsuit and take a dip in the beach. Golf carts have quickly become a favorite mode of transport in Coronado.

1. La Jolla Seals ("Children's Pool")

No visit to San Diego is complete without visiting the Children's Pool in La Jolla. The seals are not even bothered by humans i.e. they will ignore you. There's even a little cement pier that will take you up close and personal with them. In La Jolla Cove a bit up the road you can also catch some pretty amazing snorkeling or suntan on the beach.

So you want to move there...

San Diego is especially good for those who want a laid-back beach lifestyle with all the amenities of a medium density city (although in recent years the population has seemingly exploded).

It is by no means a cheap city especially if you plan to settle in permanently, the weather is going to cost you a fair bit and if you are looking for architecturally unique offerings good luck finding something for less than $1 million. The average home will fetch over $500k in the city. The architectural style of the city falls somewhere between classic A-frame homes (bungalows) built in the 50's to 70's (on average), to Spanish revival at its fanciest.

If you have any other suggestions on free things to do in San Diego I would love to know! Just comment below.



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