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25 Free Things to Do in San Diego

Visiting San Diego on a budget? Don’t miss these free things to do.

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 to save and splurge on food or the spa.

25 Best Free Attractions in San DiegoPin

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Last Updated: April 16, 2024

25 Fun Free Things to Do in San Diego

If you want more options, check out 101 Things to Do in San Diego, a bucket list we’re constantly updating.

1. Visit One of the Many Beaches →

We’ll just get the obvious one out of the way. 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, paddle board, or scuba dive anytime for free too. Lately, our favorite beach has been Imperial Beach with the pier.

We like to make a bucket list of things to explore in each city we move to. In Portland, we chased waterfalls, and in San Diego, we tried to visit every beach.

More: Your Complete List of San Diego Beaches

coronado island beachPin

2. Stand on Potato Chip Rock

Ramona, 92065, map

This is a popular hike in San Diego. We have mixed feelings about it, which you can read in our full post. Stand in line for the iconic shot that makes you appear to be standing on a cliff.

More: Most Popular Instagram Spots 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 (13 Best Photography Spots in San Diego) // localadventurer.com

4. Tour the Taylor Guitars Factory

1980 Gillespie Way, El Cajon, 92020, map

On our first visit to San Diego, we toured the Taylor Guitars Factory since Jacob plays a Taylor guitar. Here you can see how guitars are made by one of the top manufacturers. Free tours happen every Mon-Fri at 1 PM (with a few exceptions).

More: See Our Tour of Taylor Guitars Factory

taylor guitar factory tourPin

5. Get a Glimpse of the Past in Old Town

4002 Wallace St, 92110, map

This historic area of San Diego is rich in history. Within a few blocks, you can see the first San Diego courthouse and jail, the El Campo Santo Cemetery, and the historic Whaley House, the most haunted house in America. When we went, the staff told us they saw all sorts of paranormal activity. And if history isn’t your thing, there are plenty of shops and restaurants!

6. Walk Around the seaport Village

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 calendar to see upcoming live music performances. They have little touristy shops that remind me of the shopping area at Pier 39 in San Francisco.

Local Tip: There is a park right next to it where you can picnic, fly kites, and get great views of the Coronado Bridge.

7. See the Iconic Hotel del Coronado

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.

More: Skating by the Sea Hotel del Coronado

hotel del coronado san diegoPin

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

La Jolla, 92037, map

A sea wall protects this popular cove which is great for snorkeling and diving. There are usually many sea lions and seals lazing around 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 #budgettravelPin

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.

pacific beach boardwalk san diegoPin

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 three so far are 

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

More: How to Hike the Secret Ho Chi Minh Trail

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11. Enjoy the Seaworld Fireworks Show

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 over 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.

Local Tip: 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 over 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 must be kept to the official first-come-first-serve pits, but San Diego has plenty of options. Grab some wood, bring your chairs, and enjoy some s’mores.

bonfire san diegoPin

14. Go Tide-Pooling

There are multiple spots in San Diego where you can discover the little creatures that live in tide pools. 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.

More: Amazing Sea Life at Cabrillo National Monument Tide Pools

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

15. Watch Hang Gliders and paragliders at Torrey Pines State Park

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

Torrey Pines Natural Reserve gives you plenty of options. Hike to incredible ocean views, enjoy the beach, or just watch the gravity-defying hang gliders from the Gliderport.

hang gliding san diego at torrey pines state parkPin

16. Visit balboa Park

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.

Local Tip: Every Sunday at 2 PM, enjoy a free organ concert at Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

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

17. Stroll Through the San Diego Botanic Garden

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.

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 enjoy some 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

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.

21. Pay Respect at the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial

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

Visit the Veteran’s Memorial at the top of Mount Soledad, and enjoy a panoramic view of San Diego. We were trying to go on our recent visit, but Google Maps failed us, and then we ran out of time.

Note: If you use the landmark on Google Maps, it will take you to a spot on the highway. Input the address or coordinates instead, even if it points to the same place.

Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial (25 Free Things to Do in San Diego).
photo: Art4TheGlryOfGod by Sharon

22. Check Out the California Surf Museum

312 Pier View Way, Oceanside, 92054, map

San Diego is 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.

More: 15 Absolutely Amazing Surfing Beaches in California

23. Legends Gallery Featuring the Work of Dr. Seuss

1205 Prospect St, La Jolla, 92037, map

This small gallery is 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 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 bought our first Dr. Seuss illustration here to give our home some San Diego vibes.

24. Chicano Park

32.699656,-117.1451626, map

Chicano Park is a National Landmark and where you can find the largest collection of outdoor Chicano murals. Stroll through the park and admire the 80+ murals.

chicano park san diegoPin

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.

Local Tip: There is free parking after 8 PM. Parking can be challenging during the day, so it’s easier to go at night.

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

San Diego Free Attractions Map

More Free Things to Do in 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.

horton plaza san diegoPin

Best Places to Stay

Planning Checklist

More Resources

Can you think of any more worthwhile free things to do in San Diego? Which of these would you most likely check out if you’re in San Diego?

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Esther and JacobPin

Esther + Jacob

Esther and Jacob are the founders of Local Adventurer, one of the top 5 travel blogs in the US. They believe that adventure can be found 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.

Follow on Instagram (E + J), YouTube, TikTok, and Pinterest.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Ana Dianesi

    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.

    1. jacob

      Great tip – thanks Ana!

  2. Lisa

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

  3. Estrella Gomez

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

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