This post contains all the information on things to do in San Diego for free!
San Diego, often dubbed “America’s Finest City,” is a treasure trove of attractions, natural beauty, and cultural experiences. The best part? You don’t need to break the bank to enjoy this coastal paradise. Here’s our ultimate guide to 30 fantastic things to do in San Diego for free.
If you’re visiting San Diego soon, then you will need to check out our other local guides!
1. Balboa park
It wouldn’t be a trip to San Diego if you didn’t visit Balboa Park. Fun fact, Balboa Park is actually larger than Central Park in New York! Balboa Park hosts 1200 acres within which a magnitude of several activities are available. While there are a lot of museums that charge admission, you don’t need to visit any of them to enjoy the park in the heart of San Diego.
Free attractions within Balboa Park include:
- Rube Powel Archery Range: If you’re a fan of archery, or simply want to try something new, check out the free archery course.
- Spreckles Organ Pavillion: Did you know the world’s largest outdoor organ is in San Diego!? While San Diego has many claims to fame this one has to be the most unique. The Organ plays every Sunday at 2 p.m. all year round.
2. La Jolla Cove
The cove is a beautiful spot to go if you’re in San Diego. It’s another one of those attractions that you HAVE to visit if you’re ever in town. La Jolla Cove has a lot to offer from viewing sea life, and enjoying the quaint beachy shops, to snorkeling and sun tanning.
If you do visit the cove for the sea life, please be respectful and maintain an appropriate distance! Remember that we are in their territory. Do NOT touch them or antagonize them in any way.
The snorkeling in La Jolla Cove is probably the best in San Diego. The rocky geography makes for really interesting underwater features. There is plenty of sea life to see like sting rays, tiger sharks, guitarfish, etc. All you need is a snorkel and swimsuit for some excitement!
3. Hike Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Lace up your hiking boots and explore the rugged trails of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve for panoramic ocean views. There is plenty of beach-side parking for free along PCH. If you go early enough, then you are guaranteed to secure a spot.
Make sure you don’t leave valuables in the car! This spot is not known for smash and grabs, but it’s always better to play it safe.
4. Visit Old Town State Historic Park
Step back in time to Old Town, a state historic park filled with original adobe structures, shops, and museums. Old Town is definitely one of my favorite spots to walk around. Even after living in San Diego for 3 years, I don’t get tired of visiting. This quaint little town is home to many shops and booths you can browse around without having to spend any money.
5. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
Catch a stunning Pacific sunset from the cliffs of this natural park, a perfect spot for picnicking and photography. Did you know the beach is also accessible from Sunset Cliffs? Look around for the staircase that takes you down to the water for a secret and secluded look at the Pacific Ocean.
6. Coronado Beach
Walk along the famous Coronado Beach, consistently ranked as one of the best beaches in the United States. You can also go inside the hotel and walk around, which I highly recommend.
The hotel was founded in 1888 and is one of the true historic structures in San Diego. The lobby recently went through a restoration process to maintain its glory.
7. USS Midway Museum (Exterior)
While the museum itself has an entrance fee, you can still admire the aircraft carrier’s exterior, including the iconic flight deck. It’s not often you get to see an aircraft carrier. The USS Midway is parked off the Embarcadero all year round.
If you head North from the USS Midway, you will run into the Maritime Museum which also hosts several types of ships and submarines to take a look at.
8. Cabrillo National Monument Views
Enjoy sweeping views of San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean from Cabrillo National Monument’s surrounding areas. I do have to warn you, however, there is a fee to get into the parking lot at Cabrillo National Monument.
If you are truly exploring for free you can park in Point Loma and bike into the monument for free as an alternative option. It still is one of the things to do in San Diego for free if you do it right!
9. Explore Mission Beach
Swim, surf, or simply soak up the sun at Mission Beach, known for its vibrant boardwalk and seaside atmosphere. Mission Beach has a super lively boardwalk with roller skaters, runners, vendors, you name it.
There is always something to see and do at the Mission Beach boardwalk. You can even walk through Belmont Park because there is no admission fee. Mission Beach is a great spot if you enjoy people-watching.
10. Free Summer Concerts
Check out free summer concerts at various parks and venues around San Diego, featuring diverse musical acts. There’s an event almost every weekend and if you don’t check you will definitely miss out. Check out sandiego.org for free things to do in San Diego as far as events go.
11. Botanical Building and Lily Pond
Wander through the stunning Botanical Building in Balboa Park and take in the beauty of the adjacent Lily Pond. This spot is super picturesque and the perfect place for a photo op!
12. Embrace the Local Murals
Explore the vibrant street art scene in San Diego, with notable murals in neighborhoods like Barrio Logan and North Park. Don’t be afraid to brush up on some of the neighborhood history also.
13. Liberty Public Market
Discover Liberty Public Market in Liberty Station, where you can sample local cuisine and shop for artisanal goods. There are many booths to browse around and look at. If you’re not interested in eating, you can walk around Liberty Atation for a relaxing experience.
14. Ocean Beach Pier
Stroll along the Ocean Beach Pier, a great place for fishing and enjoying panoramic ocean views. While Ocean Beach Pier is popular, don’t forget your other option of Crystal Pier located in PB. Crystal Pier is also open to the public with cute cottages for rent on it.
15. Mission Bay Park
Enjoy picnicking, kayaking, and scenic views at Mission Bay Park, one of the largest aquatic parks in the country. While at Mission Bay Park you can swim and barbeque!
16. Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial
Pay your respects at the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial while taking in breathtaking views of the coastline. Located high in a ritzy neighborhood in La Jolla you will see all different parts of the city from coastal to inland on top of Mt. Soledad.
17. Self-Guided Brewery Tours
San Diego is renowned for its craft beer scene. Many breweries offer free tours, and some even have complimentary tastings.
18. San Diego Public Art
Discover public art installations throughout the city, including sculptures, murals, and interactive pieces. Some museums in Balboa Park are also open with free entry. They come and go as installations move through, so don’t be afraid to check when you’re visiting.
19. Ocean Beach Farmers Market
If you’re in town on a Wednesday evening, explore the Ocean Beach Farmers Market, featuring local food and live entertainment. Along with the Ocean Beach Farmers Market, there is also the North Park Market and Little Italy Market as well as one down in Gaslamp. Your options are not limited!
20. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Venture east to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park during wildflower season for stunning desert blooms. Be sure to go in the Winter to Springtime to witness the super blooms and avoid the pressing heat, however!
21. Julian Apple Pie Tasting
Make a day trip to Julian, a charming mountain town known for its apple pies. Many shops offer free samples. Just walking around Juliain’s cute downtown for free will make the one-hour drive out worth it.
22. La Mesa Secret Stairs
Discover La Mesa’s Secret Stairs, a series of hidden staircases that provide unique urban hiking experiences. This one may seem odd, but if you haven’t been to Southern California before then you will notice how hilly it actually is. La Mesa decided to put in pedestrian stair accessways throughout the city. Many people enjoy discovering and walking them!
23. Tijuana Estuary Visitor Center
Learn about the local ecosystem at the Tijuana Estuary Visitor Center and explore its nature trails. If you love nature then this one is for you. There are a lot of protected marshlands and lagoons around San Diego. Depending on the time of year you visit, you can see really amazing wildlife such as some of the native birds.
24. Julian Pioneer Museum
While visiting Julian, stop by the Julian Pioneer Museum to delve into the area’s Gold Rush history. The West Coast is rich (pun intended) with Gold Rush and settler migration history. If that’s your thing, you definitely need to make a stop at the Julian Pioneer Museum.
25. Point Loma Tide Pools
Explore the tide pools at Point Loma during low tide, where you can observe fascinating marine life. Remember to always be conscious of where you’re stepping and leave no trace! This is one of the natural options for things to do in San Diego for free.
26. Chula Vista Olympic Training Center
Take a guided tour of the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista to see where elite athletes prepare for the games. This is another one of San Diego’s unique claims to fame. Believe it or not, Southern California trains a lot of high-level athletes looking to go to the Olympics!
27. Santee Lakes Regional Park
Escape the city at Santee Lakes Regional Park, offering free fishing and serene lakeside trails. Santee Lakes is only one out of several lakes and reservoirs all around the county. Lake Murray and Lake Hodges are a couple more. Each of these also offers great trails to hike around if you’re looking to break a sweat.
28. San Diego Beaches and Bays
Beyond the famous beaches, explore lesser-known gems like Windansea Beach, Blacks Beach, and Fiesta Island. For sand volleyball, Whispering Sands is going to be your go-to beach. For nude tanning head over to Blacks! And yes, it is actually a nude beach, so make sure you know before you go.
Fiesta Island is a great place to have a beach bonfire with friends. The fire pits are free!
29. Cowles Mountain / Mission Trails
Hike to the summit of Cowles Mountain for a challenging workout and panoramic views of the city. Cowles Mountain is actually one of five peaks in the Mission Regional Trails Park. If you’re up to a challenge, some people try hiking or running all five peaks in one day!
Make sure you only do this if you’re conditioned for it and try to avoid going in the summer months.
30. Border Field State Park
Explore the southernmost point of California at Border Field State Park, where you can view the U.S.-Mexico border.
With so many free attractions, San Diego beckons travelers with its diverse experiences and natural beauty. Whether you’re a beach lover, history buff, or nature enthusiast, “America’s Finest City” has something memorable in store for you, all without opening your wallet.
So, pack your sunscreen and adventurous spirit, and get ready to explore San Diego on a budget. Whether you’re looking to relax or get a sweat on, you’ll experience the essence of this stunning coastal city without spending a dime.