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14 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in San Diego

Written by Lana Law and Karen Hastings
Mar 10, 2020

Located in Southern California, not far from the Mexico border, San Diego is the oldest town in California. It has an enchanting natural beauty and a mild Mediterranean climate, with plenty of sunshine — perfect for outdoor adventures. Some of the city's most popular tourist attractions are the museums, gardens, and Spanish Colonial-style architecture found in Balboa Park; the world famous San Diego Zoo; and the Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum.

For a little history and shopping, you can stroll the streets of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park or wander through the Gaslamp Quarter. If you want to soak up some of the famous year-round sunshine, San Diego beaches are some of Southern California's best, with more than 68 miles of coastline in and around the city for sunning, swimming, and surfing.

Plan your sightseeing in this beautiful SoCal city with our list of top attractions and things to do in San Diego.

See also: Where to Stay in San Diego

1. Balboa Park

Balboa Park

Balboa Park is a one-stop wonderland for tourists. This 1,400-acre site encompasses historical buildings, numerous museums, gardens, and green space. The park was created for the Panama California Exhibition of 1915-1916, and most of the buildings remain from that event. The predominant architecture is Spanish-style, with low-rise buildings that blend in with the natural surroundings.

Among the highlights of the park are the botanical gardens and lily pond, the Museum of Man, the Museum of Natural History, the San Diego Museum of Art, and the famous San Diego Zoo. Even if you never go into a building, the park is simply a beautiful place to visit.

Address: 1549 El Prado, San Diego, California

Official site: http://www.balboapark.org/

2. San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo

A top tourist attraction in Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo is one of the largest and most famous zoos in the United States. Visiting this family-friendly attraction is also one of the top things to do in San Diego with kids. Plan at least a whole day here to really get the most out of your visit.

You can see all kinds of exotic animals here, but perhaps its most famous residents are the giant pandas, which have been successfully bred here. Other favorite animals include gorillas, grizzly bears, koalas, leopards, bonobos, polar bears, rhinos, and sloths, and all the animal enclosures are designed to recreate natural settings for each species.

Want to have more time with your favorite animals? You can upgrade your experience by signing up for behind-the-scenes and close-up animal experiences.

Spread out along a beautifully landscaped canyon, the zoo also displays an impressive botanical collection — more than 700,000 plants from around the globe grace the grounds.

If your feet get sore from walking around the park, you can always hop on the Kangaroo Express Bus or glide over the exhibits in the Skyfari Aerial Tram. Better still, purchase a Skip-the-Line San Diego Zoo ticket, which includes admission, as well as unlimited rides on the bus and tram. You'll also avoid any long lines at the entrance.

The non-profit San Diego Zoo Global runs the zoo; conservation organizations; and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which lies about a 40-minute drive north of downtown San Diego. True to its name, the safari park offers more of an African-style wildlife-watching experience, with free-roaming animals on large acreage. It's a good option if you have older children who don't mind walking longer distances. Insider's Tip: Bring binoculars!

Address: 2920 Zoo Drive, Balboa Park, San Diego, California

Official site: http://www.sandiegozoo.org/

3. Gaslamp Quarter

Gaslamp Quarter

Adjacent to Petco Park and the Convention Center, the Gaslamp Quarter National Historic District is the hub of the city's nightlife. It's a great place to visit if you're looking for things to do in downtown San Diego — especially after dark.

Restored late-19th- and early-20th-century Victorian buildings house buzzing entertainment venues, trendy shops, art galleries, and restaurants serving every kind of cuisine you can imagine, from Persian food to pizza. This is a great place to catch some live jazz, comedy, or theater performances.

The district runs for about 16 blocks, from Broadway to San Diego Bay, and it's easily walkable, but you can also hop on bike taxis if your feet need a break.

Thanks to its great location in the heart of the city, the Gaslamp Quarter is also a great place to stay. High-end hotels range from boutique properties like the Pendry San Diego to big-brand properties like the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego, a short stroll away from all the action.

Official site: http://gaslamp.org/

4. Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum

Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum

Walking along the San Diego waterfront on the Embarcadero, you might be surprised when you come across one of the US military's largest ships. The decommissioned USS Midway is permanently berthed at Navy Pier.

The highlights of a visit to the USS Midway Museum include more than 60 exhibits and 25 restored aircraft. More than 225,000 military service personnel served on the ship, and you can take a self-guided audio tour to learn all about its history. For an additional fee, you can also try a flight simulator on board.

To save time on your busy sightseeing agenda, consider purchasing a Skip the Line: USS Midway Museum Admission Ticket. This will allow you to bypass the crowds at the entrance, so you have more time to visit other top San Diego attractions.

Address: 910 North Harbor Drive, San Diego, California

Official site: http://www.midway.org/

5. Seaport Village

Seaport Village

San Diego's Seaport Village is a delightful place to stroll around and spend an afternoon. Located right on the waterfront, this area of unique shops and restaurants is one of the city's must-sees. Picnic tables, benches, and waterfront patios are sprinkled throughout the area, and weekends can be very busy. Eclectic performers take to the outdoor stage regularly in the afternoons. Kids love riding the historic carousel with hand-carved wooden horses.

The area is easily accessible on foot from many of the nearby attractions, including the USS Midway. Since there is limited and expensive parking at Seaport Village, it might be best to park a little distance away and enjoy the stroll along the waterfront to the site.

Address: West Harbor Drive and Pacific Highway, San Diego, California

Official site: http://www.seaportvillage.com/

6. San Diego Beaches

Aerial view of Black's Beach

Year-round sunshine and miles of beautiful surf-washed coastline make San Diego a perfect place to visit for a beach vacation. No matter what you like to do, San Diego's best beaches offer conditions for every type of activity.

For basking in the sunshine and people-watching, head to Mission Beach with its buzzing beachfront boardwalk and seaview cafés. Ocean Beach delivers a dose of hippy chic, and pet owners can let their pooches run off-leash here at the aptly named Dog Beach. Surfing is also popular at these famous beaches.

If surfing is your top priority, Del Mar is one of the most consistent locations. Other popular surf spots include Pacific Beach, Trestles, Swami's, and Black's Beach, and beginner surfers should head to Oceanside or La Jolla Shores.

Want to take the kids for a day of sun, sand, and sea? The best family-friendly beaches are Del Mar, Silver Strand, Coronado Beach, and La Jolla Shores. And if you prefer a wild and rugged slice of coastline, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve fits the bill, with scenic hiking trails and soaring sea cliffs.

Wondering about the best time to visit San Diego for a beach vacation? It depends on your chosen activity. If you're a surfer, winter storms bring big swells. If you're a swimmer, summer is the best time to take a dip, and if you're headed to the coast to soak up some sunshine or stroll along the shore, you can do that at any time of the year.

7. Old Town State Historic Park

Old Town State Historic Park

At the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, you can travel back in time and soak up some of the rich culture from San Diego's early days. The park recreates the feel of the Mexican and early American periods, from 1821 to 1872, when this settlement grew from a small Mexican pueblo.

Visit a working blacksmith shop, shop for authentic Mexican crafts, browse the art studios, enjoy live Mariachi music, and dine on a sunny patio at one of the atmospheric restaurants. Many of the historic buildings, including five original adobe structures, have been repaired, and others have been added in the same historical architectural style.

The Old Town State Historic park is one of the most visited state parks in California. There is no admission fee, and many of the attractions are free. You can also sign up for free walking tours offered twice daily.

Address: 4002 Wallace Street, San Diego, California

Official site: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=663

8. Point Loma and Cabrillo National Monument

Point Loma and Cabrillo National Monument

Breathtaking views out over San Diego and the Pacific Ocean make Point Loma one of the best places to visit in this beautiful city. You can start soaking up the vistas on the scenic road up to Point Loma. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Mexico, and you might even be lucky enough to spot dolphins or whales.

This is where Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first landed on the west coast of the United States in 1542. You can learn about the history of his incredible "Voyage of Discovery" through a variety of displays and exhibits at the Cabrillo National Monument. A large statue dedicated to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo gazes out over the land he discovered.

Also located on Point Loma is the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, built in 1858. Visitors can tour the refurbished lighthouse building.

Hiking the scenic trails is another popular thing to do here. If you have children in tow, take the one-mile Bayside Trail to the tide pools.

Official site: http://www.nps.gov/cabr/index.htm

9. Mission Beach

Boardwalk at Mission Beach

The seaside neighborhood of Mission Beach epitomizes San Diego's sunny Southern California lifestyle. The beautiful blonde-sand beach is the focal point here. Swimming, sunbathing, surfing, and beach volleyball are popular things to do, and a three-mile scenic boardwalk skirts the shore. Come here on a sunny day, and you'll see locals rollerblading, skateboarding, strolling, and cycling along here, or dining at one of the many beachside cafés or restaurants.

A highlight of Mission Beach is Belmont Park, an East-Coast-style seaside amusement park complete with a historic roller coaster, excellent restaurants, fairground eateries, and street performances. It's a favorite San Diego attraction for kids.

10. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

Romantics will appreciate the awe-inspiring experience of a Southern California sunset. One of the best places to visit is Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, which stretches for 68 acres along coastal bluffs above the Pacific Ocean. The location provides an incomparable viewpoint to take in the ocean panoramas as the sun transforms the horizon from blue to glorious rosy-toned hues.

During the gray whale migration season, the Sunset Cliffs Natural Park offers a chance to spot these graceful creatures as they migrate to Baja California in Mexico.

11. San Diego Harbor Cruises

San Diego harbor cruise

San Diego sits right on the water, and boat tours are a great way to do some sightseeing and soak up some sunshine and fresh air at the same time. Hopping aboard a San Diego harbor cruise also gives you a fresh perspective of this beautiful seaside city. On this one- or two-hour narrated cruise, you can learn a little history, see the city skyline, and possibly spot some seals and sea lions basking along the rocky shore.

Tours include a cruise under the Coronado Bridge, and you can choose to sit either indoors or out on deck. Snacks and beverages are also available for purchase.

12. Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala was California's first mission. In 1769, the Spanish Franciscan Father from Majorca, Junipero Serra, founded the mission stations, the first of which was built in San Diego. A few years after it was founded, however, it was moved six miles inland because disputes had arisen between the Spanish troops and the Indians.

In 1775, the Indians set fire to the new mission, the Fathers sought refuge with the army, and it wasn't until 1777 that they built a new mission station with the help of the Indians.

Today, the mission is a National Historic Landmark, and it's a wonderful place to learn about San Diego's early history. Highlights include visiting the old church with a bell tower, declared a basilica in the 1970s; strolling around the peaceful gardens; and browsing the fascinating exhibits in the small museum. You can take a self-guided tour or book a guided tour in advance through the website.

Address: 10818 San Diego Mission Road, San Diego, California

Official site: https://www.missionsandiego.org/

13. San Diego Museum of Art

San Diego Museum of Art

Art lovers looking for a dose of culture should head to the San Diego Museum of Art. Its distinctive facade is a copy of the 17th-century University of Salamanca, in the so-called plateresque style, with finely-chiseled terra-cotta work. Busts of Spanish painters adorn the entrance, and their artworks are among the many eclectic exhibits displayed here.

The museum's collection covers a broad spectrum of works from around the world, including pieces that date back 7,000 years. Highlights include works by Spanish and Italian old masters, along with South Asian paintings and art from the Americas, including 19th- and 20th-century paintings and sculptures.

Address: 1450 El Prado, San Diego, California

Official site: http://www.sdmart.org/

14. San Diego Whale Watching Cruises

Whale watching in San Diego

San Diego is one of the best places in Southern California to spot migrating whales. Blue whales, gray whales, humpbacks, and minke whales swim these waters at different times of year, and you also have the chance to spot seals, dolphins, and even orcas. Whale watching trips are one of the top things to do in San Diego in December through April, when the gray whale migration kicks into gear. Blue whales usually migrate during the summer months, from mid-June through September.

The best way to see these gentle giants up close is aboard a San Diego whale watching cruise. This 4.5-hour cruise takes place aboard a replica of the old sailing schooner that won the 1851 America's Cup. In addition to an exhilarating sailing experience, you'll also learn about the different species of marine life, as well as US Navy sites you pass along the way. Drinks, snacks, and a whale sighting guarantee are all included in the tour.

Where to Stay in San Diego for Sightseeing

In San Diego, the prime tourist attractions are spread out over a large area. However, staying downtown affords easy access to many of the top sites, including the Gaslamp Quarter; Balboa Park; San Diego Zoo; the harbor; Horton Plaza shopping; Little Italy; and Petco Park, where the Padres play. From downtown, it's about a 10-minute drive to the quieter shores of Coronado, a popular weekend escape. Here are some highly rated San Diego hotels in a convenient, central location.

  • Luxury Hotels: In San Diego, luxury-seeking travelers don't have to sacrifice sea views for a central location. The Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego overlooks the sparkling San Diego Bay, a short hop from Seaport Village, the Gaslamp Quarter, and the USS Midway Museum.

    In the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter, The US Grant is steeped in historic elegance, while the Omni San Diego Hotel is connected to Petco park via a pedestrian skywalk. Both also sit central to other top attractions, such as Balboa Park and Little Italy.
  • Budget Hotels: Travelers watching their wallet but still seeking a central location should consider the Comfort Inn Gaslamp Convention Center, in the heart of its namesake district, and the Days Inn by Wyndham San Diego, five minutes by car to Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo.

    Another affordable, good-value option is Old Town Inn, a 10-minute walk from Old Town, with easy access via the trolley to Balboa Park, the Gaslamp Quarter, and the harbor.

Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to San Diego

Sightseeing Tours: To see all the top sights in San Diego, the Hop-On Hop-Off Trolley Tour is the way to go. With the city's year-round mild climate, this is the perfect tour in any season, and it allows for complete flexibility. Get off and explore the areas that interest you or just stay on to see the city at a leisurely pace without having to worry about driving or parking. One or two day passes are available.

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More Things to See and Do near San Diego: If you have more time up your sleeve, you might want to include some San Diego day trips in your travel itinerary — you can even take a quick trip to Mexico. Looking for an active vacation? Check out some of the top outdoor adventures in San Diego, from kayaking and sailing to hiking and biking the beachfront bike trails.

San Diego Family Travel: If you're traveling with children, San Diego has plenty of rewarding things to do with kids. Wondering where to stay in San Diego for a kid-friendly vacation? Check out some of the best resorts for families. And if you're also bringing your furry family members, San Diego has some excellent pet-friendly hotels.

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