We know San Diego isn’t the typical budget vacation, but it doesn’t necessarily have to break the bank. If you know what to look for, it’s a laid back city that offers plenty of free activities if you’re on a budget. When we lived in San Diego we liked to take full advantage of our free options, so that we could save and splurge on food or the spa.
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Last Updated: July 4, 2020
We’ll just get the obvious one out of the way. We all know that San Diego is known for its sunny weather and its beaches. There are over 30 beaches, and in most cases, it’s relatively easy to find free parking. If you have your own gear, you can surf, snorkel, kayak, paddleboard, or scuba dive anytime for free too. Lately, our favorite beach has been Imperial Beach with the pier.
This is our favorite sunset spot in San Diego. The scenery is beautiful. You can climb down to the beach if you want to get away from the crowds or join everyone jumping off the arch at your own risk. We see a lot of people having picnics here too.
5. Get a Glimpse of the Past in Old Town
This historic area of San Diego is rich in history. See the first San Diego courthouse and jail, visit the El Campo Santo Cemetery, and see the historic Whaley House, all within a few blocks. And if history isn’t your thing, there are plenty of shops and restaurants as well!
6. Walk Around the Seaport Village
This 14-acre waterfront shopping, dining, and entertainment complex is a great place to spend the afternoon. Check out their monthly calendars to see upcoming live musical performances too. They have a lot of little shops here that remind me of the shopping area at Pier 39 in San Francisco.
Note: There is a park right next to it where you get great views of the Coronado Bridge and you can have a picnic and fly kites.
This historic landmark always wins awards for its hotel, beach, and dining. Wander the grounds or spend time at their beach to see why.
Local Tip: In the winter they have an ice skating rink, where you can skate and enjoy the sunset on the beach.
8. Hang out with Sea Lions at the La Jolla Children's Pool
A sea wall protects this popular cove that is great for snorkeling and diving. There are usually a ton of sea lions and seals hanging out too.
9. Bike Along the Boardwalk
Take to the boardwalk between Mission and Pacific Beaches. You can walk, bike, rollerblade, or just grab a seat to people watch.
10. Go on a Hike
San Diego has some of the best weather in the US, where you can get outdoors all year round. Cowles Mountain is the most popular hike within the city of San Diego, but our favorite 3 so far are
You don’t have to be in the park to enjoy these fireworks. You can see them from all of the city. The best spots to watch are South Shares Park, Mission Bay Park, and Fiesta Island. Be sure to check their site for the schedule.
Note: Fiesta Island sometimes closes shortly after the fireworks start, so it can be a gamble.
12. Take a 59-Mile Scenic Drive
Take this drive in one afternoon or split it up amongst a few days. This looping drive takes you through everything worth seeing in San Diego and takes roughly three hours to drive in total.
13. Have a Beach Bonfire
Bonfires have to be kept to the official pits that are first-come-first-serve, but there are plenty of options in San Diego. Grab some wood, bring your chairs, and enjoy some s’mores.
There are multiple spots in San Diego where you can discover the little creatures that live in tide-pools. Be sure you check when low-tide will be that day so you can have a few hours to see what you can find. Some popular spots where you can go tide-pooling are:
- Cabrillo National Monument
- Seaside Beach in Cardiff-by-the-sea
- Flat Rock in La Jolla
- Black’s Beach in La Jolla.
15. Watch Hang Gliders at Torrey Pines State Park
Torrey Pines Natural Reserve gives you plenty of options. Hike to amazing views of the ocean, enjoy the beach, or just watch the gravity-defying hang gliders from the Gliderport.
17. Stroll Through the San Giego Botanic Garden
They have been around for years and even after a name change from Quail Botanical Gardens, there is still something magical about these gardens.
18. Farmers Markets
There are a ton of Farmers’ Markets in San Diego happening each day of the week. Check the schedule to find one that best fits your week and go enjoy some of the free samples. From what we hear, the locals love the Hillcrest Farmer’s market (Sundays). It’s not as small as North Park’s (Thursdays), but not as big and overwhelming as the one in La Jolla (Sundays).
19. Catch some Grunion During the Grunion Run
Starting in June and running through August, there is a phenomenon called the Grunion Run where thousands of Grunion make their way up the shore to spawn. Although it’s never a guarantee that you’ll see them, check the schedule to see the peak times. We’ve gone twice and only saw a few, but there are years when they completely cover the beach.
20. Tour the US Olympic Training Center
Swing by Chula Vista and take a self-guided tour through this complex where Olympic hopefuls train. If you want more information, there is a guided tour every Saturday.
Note: Guided tours are between $5-35.
22. Check out the California Surf Museum
San Diego is definitely a surf town and the California Surf Museum is the best place to learn about its history. Visit on the first Tuesday of the month for free entrance.
23. Legends Gallery Featuring the Work of Dr. Seuss
This is a small gallery that’s worth checking out if you love Dr. Seuss. Although they carry art from different artists, the highlight is seeing the illustration art of Dr. Seuss! Did you know that Dr. Seuss is a San Diegan and resided in La Jolla until his death? Many of his works are said to be inspired by the landscapes from the area. We ended up buying our first Dr. Seuss illustration here to give our home some San Diego vibes.
24. Westfield Horton Plaza
Horton Plaza is a Westfield shopping mall in downtown San Diego that is known for its bright colors and architectural tricks. A lot of people say it’s like walking through a Dr. Seuss book. I personally thought it was a little underwhelming. I was under the impression that the entire mall looked Seuss-like, when in reality most of the mall is like any other outdoor mall in California. It was still cool to check out and free!
Pro Tip: The parking garage is $8 an hour, but you can get parking validated for up to 3 hours at several validation machines in the mall without any purchase.
25. Strike a Pose at the Unconditional Surrender Statue
This sculpture was based on a photo by Victor Jorgensen of V-J day in Times Square. See if you can match the pose. There is a parking lot where you have to pay for metered parking. There aren’t many street parking options.
Note: There is free parking after 8 PM. Parking can be a challenge during the day, so it’s easier to go at night.
San Diego Free Attractions Map
More Free Things to do San Diego CA
- Visit Each San Diego Neighborhood Sign – Each area of San Diego is really unique and has its own character. Whether you want to window shop at the thrift stores of Hillcrest, visit the high-end boutiques of La Jolla, or walk through the Gaslamp Quarter in downtown, there is plenty to keep you busy! What we thought was really unique, is that every neighborhood has a distinct sign.
- Dive-In Movies at the Pearl (Free Wednesday movie socials)
- Museum of Contemporary Art (Free on the 3rd Thursday of the month at 5-7 PM)
- Coronado Summer Concert Series (Summer, Sundays)
- Mission Bay Park
- Hang out at the Big Bay
- South Park Walkabout (Quarterly Event)
- Ray at Night in North Park (2nd Saturday of the month)
- Learn to Flyfish at Lake Murray (Sundays at 9AM)
- CityFest in Hillcrest – A Free Community Street Fair (Aug)
- Cruisin Grand in Downtown Escondido (April – Sept, Fridays 5 – 9 PM)
- TGIF Concerts in the Parks in Carlsbad (Summer, Fridays)
- Climb Mount Laguna (an hour away)
- Day trip to Julian (about an hour away)
- Stargaze at Anza Borrego State Park (two hours away)
- Easy to Read California Map
- Southern California Guide with LA, San Diego, and Central Coast
- Top Gun (filmed in San Diego) + Anchorman (set in San Diego though most of it is filmed in LA County) to get you pumped for your visit.
Can you think of any other free things to do in San Diego that are worthwhile? Which of these would you most likely check out if you’re in San Diego?
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Esther + Jacob
Esther and Jacob are the founders of Local Adventurer, which is one of the top 5 travel blogs in the US. They believe that adventure can be found both near and far and hope to inspire others to explore locally. They explore a new city in depth every year and currently base themselves in Las Vegas.
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Esther + Jacob
Esther and Jacob are the founders of Local Adventurer, which is one of the top 5 travel blogs in the US. They believe that adventure can be found both near and far and hope to inspire others to explore locally. They explore a new city in depth every year and currently base themselves in NYC.