If you are visiting San Diego and are looking for some free ways to experience this amazing city, then you’re in luck! There are plenty of fun free things to do in San Diego, from exploring Coronado Island, to visiting the lively Ocean Beach Farmers Market, to swimming with the fish at La Jolla Cove. There are so many activities and things to see without breaking the bank.
So, before you plan your stay, check our fun list of the things to do in dowtown San Diego or our top ten things to do in San Diego at night so you don’t miss out on what this amazing town has to offer. If you are looking for a more exhaustive list of activities and destinations in SD, then browse our top list of the 52 Best Things to Do in San Diego.
1. Coronado Island
Coronado Island is a beautiful resort city that sits directly across the San Diego bay and is a must-visit destination on our top list of free things to do in SD. Coronado is connected to downtown by a large bridge and is technically not a true island, but a peninsula that feels like it’s an island. It is connected to the rest of the mainland by a skinny strip of land known as the “Silver Strand”.
With a lively shopping area in downtown Coronado with great food options and unique boutiques and retailers, you can spend a good part of a day on the island. Be sure to check out the famous and antique Hotel Del Coronado. Sitting directly on the beach, this legendary building represents a rare American/Victorian architecture style. When it opened in 1888, it was the largest resort hotel in the entire world. Coronado Island is an amazing place to visit and you won’t be disappointed.
2. La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove is a small, but gorgeous beach area surrounded by tall cliffs and is a popular swimming and sunbathing destination. The water in La Jolla cove is normally very clear and full of sea life, making it a popular spot to snorkel and scuba dive. At low tides, there are many tide-pools created that you can explore.
Since La Jolla Cove is considered a Marine Refuge area, surfboards and other water toys are not allowed, so this beach is all about enjoying the water, sand, and sea life. We vote La Jolla cove as one of the top free things you should do while you’re in SD.
3. Gaslamp District
This historic downtown San Diego neighborhood is a fun area known for its shopping, great restaurants, and people-watching. With a mix of both national and independent retailers and eateries, there is definitely something for everyone, so take some time strolling this unique neighborhood.
We’d recommend visiting the Gaslamp District if you want to do some shopping or find a lively place to have a good meal.
4. Torrey Pines State Reserve
Torrey Pines State Reserve is an untouched 2000 acre stretch of coastland not far from downtown San Diego and is one of the largest areas of undeveloped coastland in all of southern California. With many hiking trails of different difficulties, you can get lost in the vast open space and explore the Torrey Pines State Beach and the headlands above.
You are bound to see wildlife here, such as foxes, raccoons, coyotes, and rabbits. And during the whale migration season, you can even spot pods of whales from the cliffs as they make their way along the coast!
5. Blacks Beach
Blacks Beach is a popular surfing beach spreading out beneath the cliffs of the Torrey Pines bluffs and neighborhood. Named after the Black family, who owned a large horse ranch overlooking the beach, this beach is famous in the surfing community. Because of the way it’s positioned on the coast, Blacks Beach waves are well-known to be extra powerful and only advanced swimmers and surfers are encouraged to head out into the surf.
6. Potato Chip Rock
Maybe one of the most photographed rocks in the world, this curiously thin “chip-like” rock appears to defy gravity and hang precariously out over a cliff. There are multiple trails that can get you to this odd rock formation, with the shortest one being a 3.75-mile round trip so be prepared for at least a 3-4 hour excursion.
A short drive from San Diego, Potato Chip Rock is located on top of Mount Woodson and we’d recommend making the trek if you have the time.
7. Seaport Village
Seaport Village is a fun, walkable district on the San Diego Bay waterfront and features many restaurants, shops, and retailers of all kinds. With a promenade that borders the water, you can walk all four miles along this district and be joined by joggers, bicyclists, and other tourists enjoying the sights.
8. Coronado Beach
Coronado Beach is a sprawling beach on the west side of Coronado Island and is a great place to picnic or relax if you are spending the day visiting the shops and the downtown area of Coronado.
Part of this beach is designated as a “Dog Beach” so if have a dog with you, then you’ll want to put this on your list of things to do.
9. Waterfront Park
Another great spot to take your kids, Waterfront Park is located in downtown San Diego and looks out over the bay. This park is truly packed with interesting play equipment and water features and is guaranteed to keep your kids entertained for hours.
In addition to the great features for kids, Waterfront Park also has a wedding & event venue, native plants garden, and various public art displayed throughout the park grounds.
10. Point Loma Lighthouse
The Point Loma Lighthouse is a popular historical destination at the tip of the Point Loma peninsula. Located 400 feet above the ocean, this lighthouse was at the highest elevation of any lighthouse in the entire United States. Because of its elevation, it proved to be unuseful on foggy days and was later replaced by a newer lighthouse that sat close to the water.
This old lighthouse is definitely worth a visit if you are exploring the Point Loma neighborhood.
11. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
The Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is an area of coastland that features tall steep cliffs that drop abruptly on the sandy beach far below. This preserved blufftop area has many hiking trails and a few official stairways leading to down to the popular surfing beaches below. But be careful – The cliffs are steep and the trails are not professionally maintained, so you should explore with caution.
Since this is a popular spot to watch the sunset over the Pacific, the area eventually got its name.
12. Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail
The Los Penasquitos Canyon Trail is part of the larger Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve that features many miles of beautiful wilderness, hiking trails, rivers, and even a waterfall. 7 Miles long, this area is a great place to get out of the city and into nature to enjoy a run, hike, or meandering walk.
This trail is fairly flat, so it’s easy terrain for most adults and children. Be sure to check out the hidden waterful!
13. Spruce Street Suspension Bridge
This 375-foot long suspension bridge is a fun hidden gem located in the Bankers Hill neighborhood close to downtown. From the middle of the bridge, you have expansive views of the canyon far below, making this a special and serene walk for local pedestrians and tourists alike. If you are scared of heights, beware – on windy days the bridge does move slightly with the wind and can give you a good scare if you’re not prepared.
14. Chicano Park
Chicano Park is a creative park located underneath the Coronado Bridge where you can see fascinating artwork and art installations that pay homage to the Mexican-American heritage in the San Diego area. Featuring many large colorful murals, sculptures, and earthworks, this unique park could be the most colorful destination in all of San Diego.
15. Old Town San Diego
To get a taste of what the early settlers of San Diego lived like, you should consider visiting Old Town San Diego. This historic district showcases preserved original buildings that date to the early 1800s. Of the remaining buildings in this neighborhood, you can see a schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop, a cigar store, and a carriage house. Along with the historic buildings, this area also features local artisans showing off their unique crafts.
16. Ocean Beach farmers market
For a one-of-a-kind farmers market experience, you should check out the Ocean Beach Farmers Market. Located close to downtown, this market has a funky vibe and is filled with fresh produce and fun vendors & craftspeople from all over San Diego county. For a truly local experience, look no further than the Ocean Beach Farmers Market.
17. Balboa Park
Balboa Park is a huge 1200 acre park at the heart of downtown San Diego and features many destinations and attractions on our top list of things to do in San Diego. In addition to all the museums and the San Diego Zoo, this park has many gardens, open spaces, walking trails, restaurants, and gift shops to explore. You can spend multiple days in Balboa park experiencing all the fun things to do.
If you are visiting for any amount of time and looking for a great free thing to do in San Diego, you absolutely need to visit this park and experience its diverse array of destinations.
18. Little Italy
For a quick trip to the opposite side of the globe, take a stroll around the Little Italy neighborhood. This unique San Diego borough started as an Italian and Portuguese fishing neighborhood and has over the years been gentrified now be a popular area for locals and visitors to experience authentic Italian restaurants, grocery stores, and art galleries.
19. Mission San Diego de Alcalá
The Mission San Diego de Alcalá is a free thing to do in San Diego that showcases the Spanish heritage of the region. Established in 1769, this mission has a rich history and you can learn all about it on a free tour of the grounds. The mission has interesting archaeological ruins, beautiful gardens, and a gift shop.