25 Free Things to Do in San Diego

25 Free Things to Do in San Diego

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.

25 Best Free Attractions in San Diego

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Last Updated: August 15, 2019.  Originally Created: Nov 11, 2015

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.

Imperial Beach Pier (25 Free Things to Do in San Diego).

Ramona, 92065, map

This is a popular hike in San Diego. We have mixed feeling about it, which you can read on our full post, but at least you can take an Instagram photo that’s sure to impress people who have never seen it in person.

Stand on Potato Chip Rock on Mount Woodson (25 Free Things to Do in San Diego).

3. Watch the Sunset at Sunset Cliffs

Ladera St, 92107, map

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.

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park (25 Free Things to Do in San Diego).

1980 Gillespie Way, El Cajon, 92020, map

We did the tour on our first visit to San Diego since Jacob plays a Taylor guitar. Here you can see how guitars are made at one of the top manufacturers. Free tours happen every Mon-Fri at 1 PM (with a few exceptions).

Taylor Guitar Factory Tour in El Cajon (25 Fun Free Things to Do in San Diego).

4002 Wallace St, 92110, map

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!

849 W Harbor Dr, 92101, map

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.

Seaport Village + 25 Free Things to Do in San Diego CA // Local Adventurer
Seaport Village + San Diego Free Attractions You Don't Want to Miss // Local Adventurer

1500 Orange Ave, Coronado, 92118, map

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.

Hotel del Coronado (25 Fun Free Things to Do in San Diego).

8. Hang Out with Sea Lions at the La Jolla Children’s Pool

La Jolla, 92037, map

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.
Visiting San Diego on a budget? Save this pin and click to see the 25 fun free things to do in San Diego California // Local Adventurer #sandiego #visitsandiego #california #visitcalifornia #usa #budgettravel

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.

Bike Along the Boardwalk at Pacific Beach (25 Free Things to Do in San Diego).

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 

  1. Torrey Pines beach trail
  2. Los Penasquitos Canyon
  3. Ho Chi Minh Trail (shown below with some scrambling required).

Ho Chi Minh Trail San Diego (25 Fun Free Things to Do in San Diego).

S Shores Park Dy, San Diego, CA 92109, map

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.

SeaWorld Fireworks San Diego (25 Free Things to Do in San Diego).

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.

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.

Beach Bonfire at Tourmaline Surfing Park (25 Free Things to Do in San Diego).

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:

  1. Cabrillo National Monument
  2. Seaside Beach in Cardiff-by-the-sea
  3. Flat Rock in La Jolla
  4. Black’s Beach in La Jolla.
 

Tide Pooling - Finding Amazing Sea Life at the Cabrillo National Monument Tide Pools.

2800 Torrey Pines Scenic Dr, La Jolla, 92037, map

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.

Torrey Pines Gliderport (25 Free Things to Do in San Diego Today).

Balboa Park, map

Trails, gardens, historical sites, museums, and more fill this 1.875 square mile park. There is plenty to do and explore even if you’ve been before. Take Advantage of the Free Museum Days at Balboa Park on Tuesdays for residents like the Air and Space Museum.

The Lily Pond in Balboa Park San Diego // localadventurer.com

230 Quail Gardens Dr, Encinitas, 92024, map

They have been around for years and even after a name change from Quail Botanical Gardens, there is still something magical about these gardens.

Local Tip: Every first Tuesday of the month, the entrance fee is waived for San Diego County residents.

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).

Farmers Market (25 Free Things to Do in San Diego).

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.

25 Free Things to Do in San Diego
Grunion Run San Diego CA

2800 Olympic Pkwy, Chula Vista, 91915, map

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.

US Olympic Training Center (25 Things to Do in San Diego For Free).

6905 La Jolla Scenic Dr S, La Jolla, 92037, map

Check out the Veteran’s Memorial at the top of Mount Soledad, and you can also enjoy a panoramic view of San Diego.

Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial (25 Free Things to Do in San Diego).

22. Check Out the California Surf Museum

312 Pier View Way, Oceanside, 92054, map

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.

California Surf Museum (25 Free Things to Do in San Diego).

23. Legends Gallery featuring the Work of Dr. Seuss

1205 Prospect St, La Jolla, 92037, map

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.

Dr Seuss Museum San Diego
25 Free Things to Do in San Diego

24. Westfield Horton Plaza

324 Horton Plaza, 92101, map

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.

Westfield Horton Plaza (25 Free Things to Do in San Diego).

25. Strike a Pose at the Unconditional Surrender Statue

55 Tuna Lane, 92101, map

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.

Unconditional Surrender Statue San Diego + Top Free Things to Do in San Diego

Photos courtesy of (creative commons): 11. Bill Gracey 14. Chris Palmer 20.Amy Ash Craft 22. Roman Konigshofer

San Diego Free Attractions Map

More Free Things to Do San Diego CA

These didn’t make the top of our list, but if you’ve done all the above, here are some more ideas for free activities in San Diego.

Essential Tips

What to Pack for Your __

Best Places to Stay in San Diego

Compare Special Hotel Deals and reviews

More Resources

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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Top Free Things to Do in San Diego Checklist
25 Fun Free Things to Do in San Diego California
25 Best Free Attractions in San Diego

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“Discovery consists not of seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes” – M. Proust

25 Free Things to Do in San Diego

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.

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. For #25, the statue area has free parking after 8 p.m. During the day, it is quite difficult to find parking. I would suggest to go at night. There is less traffic, and the area has bright lights if you want to take a picture. Also, the USS Midway is right next to the statue.

  2. Wow- this is so great! Super excited to go next week for the first time!

  3. Great list! I’ve jotted some of these down and looking forward to visiting them this week. Thank you!

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