The Best Things to do in San Diego for a First Time Visitor

Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego

Planning your Southern California getaway to San Diego for the first time or even a repeat visit? We’ve got you covered with our guide for all the BEST things to do in San Diego for a first time visitor. This guide includes places to visit in San Diego and what to do in San Diego to help you plan the perfect San Diego vacation.

Known as the birthplace of California, San Diego has so many incredible things to offer from one of the best zoos in the world to an incredible craft brewery scene and even home to the most haunted home in the United States! Wow!

There’s something for everyone here, so we are here to help you plan the perfect San Diego vacation with our guide for best things to do in San Diego. We also have put together a great 3 day San Diego itinerary to also help you plan your trip.

Table of Contents
    1. Balboa Park
    2. Old Town San Diego
    3. Little Italy
    4. Coronado
    5. Gaslamp Quarter
    6. San Diego Zoo
    7. San Diego Vacation Spots Outside of Downtown
    8. Experiences to Try in San Diego
    9. Transportation in San Diego
    10. Where To Stay in San Diego

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Balboa Park

Botanic Building at Balboa Park in San DiegoOne of our favorite places to visit in San Diego is visit Balboa Park. There is at least a few days worth of activities here alone from museums, exhibits, hiking, to photography!

Balboa Park is a hotbed for San Diego museums including the San Diego Museum of Art, the Natural History Museum, and the Museum of Man to name a few.

Balboa Park Points of Interest:
  • Fleet Science Center – This is not only a science museum with interactive and hands-on exhibits but there’s also a planetarium and IMAX theater here with cool events happening all the time.
  • Spanish Village Art Center – This colorful and lively area of Balboa Park is one of our favorite things to do in San Diego. Perfect for photos this is where you will find tons of artists working in their galleries and selling their work. There’s also the Mineral and Gem Society here!
  • Museum of Man – This museum is about the human experience in the world including exhibits from cannibalism to human and pets relationships and even beer!
  • San Diego Museum of Art – This museum is curated full of fine art collections from Spanish to Italian classics to an outdoor sculpture park with a restaurant serving up local craft brews.
  • Botanical Building – One of the most iconic buildings in Balboa Park and one of the best places to visit in San Diego and home to a collection of rare plants and species from all over the world.
  • Spreckels Organ Pavilion – One of the most unique things to do in San Diego and the world’s largest pipe organ outdoors with free live performances every Sunday afternoon.

Check out our complete guide for Balboa Park for your San Diego vacation since its one of the most awesome places to visit in San Diego.

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Old Town San Diego

Wells Fargo Museum in the Colorado House at Old Town San DiegoOne of the most underrated places to visit in San Diego is visit Old Town. This is the oldest settlement in San Diego where the fort and mission once was. Today this is the cultural hotbed in the city with historic buildings, experiences, and GREAT Mexican cuisine!

We highly recommend spending an afternoon or evening here during your San Diego vacation and exploring what we think is some of the most interesting places to visit in San Diego.

Old Town San Diego Points of Interest:
  • Whaley House – Considered the most haunted house in America! This is one of the best things to do in San Diego if you’re a fan of the paranormal or just a fan of history. The Whaley House was built on an old graveyard and has had hauntings dating back to the original owners. Many paranormal investigative TV shows have filmed here.
  • Fiesta de Reyes – This fun plaza is filled with independent shops selling all kinds of neat items from olive oil to authentic Spanish tiles. There are also a few open-air authentic Mexican restaurants here with the greatest ambiance.
  • Tequila, Tacos, & Tombstone Tour – One of our favorite things to do in San Diego was enjoying this tour with SoDiego tours. The tequila, tacos, and tombstone tour through Old Town takes you from one incredible food & tequila stop after another while giving the history of the local cuisine and Old Town itself! Book your Tequila, Tacos, and Tombstone tour here.
  • Presidio Park – Another one of the most haunted things to do in San Diego is Presidio Park! This was the original site of the mission and fortress used as the capital of Baja California during the rule of Mexico. Today it’s pretty much a park with hiking and a great place to just take a stroll or visit the Junipero Serra Museum. Be sure to read up on your ghost stories about here before your San Diego vacation.
  • Cosmopolitan Hotel – You wouldn’t think that visiting a hotel would be high on your list of things to do in San Diego but when you’re in Old Town this is one special stop. This hotel was newly renovated and feels like its frozen in time with an old fashioned saloon and real antique furnishings. This is one of the oldest buildings in the state of California!

Check out our complete guide for Old Town San Diego to help you plan your San Diego vacation.

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Little Italy

Mikkeller beer in their tasting room in Little Italy San Diego

Another one of the best places to visit in San Diego is the Little Italy neighborhood. Don’t mind the planes practically landing over your head at San Diego airport as you’re exploring this neighborhood either! Even though we stayed in a hotel in this neighborhood we were mystified every time a low flying plane passed over our heads about a few minutes.

The Little Italy neighborhood has a great food scene, go figure! But what came at a surprise to us is that there are tons of great food options beyond Italian cuisine and every place we tried was a hit!

Little Italy Points of Interest:
  • Farmer’s Market – Every Saturday from 8 am – 2 pm there’s a farmers market with over 150 vendors sampling food from fresh produce to arts and crafts. There are tons of free samples and plenty of things to buy here.
  • Mona Lisa Italian Foods – If you’re looking for some great fresh Italian pasta or foods for sale you might want to stop at the Mona Lisa Italian Foods shop. There’s also a restaurant attached if you’re hungry! I almost went crazy in buying my weights worth of fresh noodles and ravioli at the deli along with pounds of Italian cheeses!
  • Mikkeller Brewing Little Italy – One of our favorite things to do in San Diego is enjoy all the great craft brews in the area. One of our favorite tasting rooms in Little Italy is Mikkeller. They not only have the BEST artwork for their packaging, but they have tons of great beers on draft.
  • Ballast Point – Another great brewery in Little Italy is Ballast Point. Besides being a brewery there’s also a great restaurant here too. This is another one of our favorite beers of San Diego microbrews.
  • Crack Shack Chicken – Another food stop for you on your San Diego vacation. The Crack Shack has a few locations now throughout California and one right here in Little Italy. Their fried chicken is ahhhmazing and they have a great selection of unique sauces for dipping and a nice selection of craft brews on draft.

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Coronado

Villa Capri hotel exterior on Coronado in San Diego CaliforniaOne of the best things to do in San Diego is spend time on Coronado. Famous for its white sandy beaches that have won multiple awards as being one of the top beaches in the US but also the iconic Hotel del Coronado. We also love retro touches some of the businesses and buildings around Coronado have.

The island shares its slice of paradise with the US Navy and is where the Naval Air Station and US Navy SEALS train. But there’s a whole section of the island to enjoy as a visitor.

Coronado Island Points of Interest:
  • Hotel del Coronado – The most famous hotel in San Diego and easily one of the most famous on the west coast. There’s an incredible history of this hotel and a great place to visit even if you don’t stay here. There are great beach cabanas and a restaurant. Some even say there’s a resident spirit or ghost on site!
  • Coronado Walking Tour – One of the best ways to enjoy Coronado on your San Diego vacation is to do an educational and historical tour of Coronado with the historical society. The tour takes place every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 11 am starting at the historical Glorietta Bay Inn across the street from Hotel del Coronado. The tour takes you to all the hot spots on Coronado. Did you know the Wizard of Oz was written on Coronado? You’ll stop at the house where it was written plus much more!
  • Coronado Brewing Company – Our favorite place for lunch is at the Coronado Brewing Company. Their menu has GREAT food options and they have tons of beer on tap to try.
  • Watch Dogs Surf – You heard that right! One of the cutest things to do in San Diego is watch pro surfing dogs at Imperial Beach. While you can’t be guaranteed to see them just any day there’s an annual dog surfing competition in July.
  • Sand Dunes – Coronado Island has their very own sand dunes you can visit! On the other side of the sand dunes are some of the best pieces of real estate on the island worth checking out including John Spreckel’s former house that has a recent history and is considered to be haunted and ALWAYS on the market. When you’re visiting the sand dunes you might also notice a peculiar design, from above it spells out Coronado and was done by workers on the island.
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Gaslamp Quarter

Ghiradelli neon sign in the Gaslamp Quarter San DiegoAnother one of the best things to do in San Diego especially in the evenings is enjoy the best of the Gaslamp Quarter. In the heart of downtown San Diego, this area has seen a since 2004 when Petco Park was built.

Petco Park is credited to finally turning around downtown San Diego from a dangerous area everyone avoided to one of the most popular places to stay and play in San Diego. Not to mention the rebranding calling downtown San Diego the Gaslamp Quarter.

In fact, when they rebranded the Gaslamp Quarter they wanted to associate this area of the city as a historical spot even though they didn’t actually have gaslamps. It’s a bit bizarre that they used ‘gaslamp’ in the name without actually having any gaslamps so they placed 4 gaslamps in this area during the rebrand.

The history is rather interesting here, since the mission and fort was inland a few miles, where Old Town is, this was the port where everyone passed through and ended up being the red light district.

Nowadays, there’s the convention center right across the Gaslamp Quarter, hotels, and plenty of restaurants to enjoy.

Gaslamp Quarter Points of Interest:
  • Brothels, Bites, & Booze Tour – This is a great option for learning about the history of the Gaslamp Quarter as a red light district while eating and drinking your way through the area. We were impressed with the array of dishes we tried as well as the fun tid bits about the area that tell the history that once took place here. Book your Brothel’s, Bites, and Booze tour here.
  • Horton Plaza – This is for the shoppers! The Horton Plaza is a multi level outdoor mall featuring different shops in the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter.
  • USS Midway Museum – Technically not a part of the Gaslamp Quarter but right next to it at the Navy Pier is San Diego’s number one family tourist attraction. The museum has the aircraft carrier midway and is a maritime museum on the ship. This ship was the second longest seving aircraft carrier of the 20th century.
  • Rooftop Bars – The Gaslamp Quarter is famous for its nightlife scene and bars and is one of the most fun places to visit in San Diego if you’re looking for some night time entertainment. There are tons of great rooftop bars in the Gaslamp Quarter offering stellar views of the city, you can see a list here!

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San Diego Zoo

Pretty KittyOne of the most famous things to do in San Diego is visit the zoo. This is one of the most famous and oldest zoos in the world with over 3500 animals in open air non-caged enclosures. They also have a great exhibit on animals from Australia and their newest exhibit Africa Rocks focusing on animals from Africa.

The San Diego Zoo also has a world-renowned breeding program and wildlife species conservation programs.

Besides the zoo there’s also the San Diego Zoo Safari Park which is even more open for the animals replicating a closer home to their native environment. One of our best friends actually got married here and it was a really unique experience!

Before your San Diego vacation be sure to check on the animals from the zoo’s web cams!

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San Diego Vacation Spots Outside of Downtown

Sunny Jim's Cave to the ocean in La Jolla San Diego

La Jolla

One of our favorite places to visit in San Diego is La Jolla, about 20 minutes north of downtown and one of the most beautiful coastal cities in California. I can’t help but be reminded of Laguna Beach when we are in La Jolla because it’s a small, beautiful coastal town with a lot of art studios and galleries, just like Laguna!

You can easily spend an entire San Diego Vacation here in La Jolla but if you only have a day that’s possible as well.

La Jolla Points of Interest
  • Children’s Pool – a beach that was made for children quickly became a safe haven for sea lions who have taken over and call this spot home. I honestly prefer it this way because you can get close to these wild creatures and observe them in their natural habitat. I can’t help but fall in love with the sea lion pups and feel like I could stand at the observation deck for hours just watching them do their thing. There are various different spots to view the sea lions, but please don’t be a jerk and get too close! We witnessed people ignoring signs saying not to disturb the wildlife and they still went ahead and got as close as possible to take images. Keep a respectful distance – that is not okay.
  • Sunny Jim’s Cave – Another unique thing to do in San Diego is visit this famous sea cave in La Jolla. Sunny Jim’s Cave is one of the oldest landmarks in the city where smugglers and bootleggers used to hide their loot! Today you can take pay a small fee and descend down a staircase to the cave opening up to the ocean but back in the day you had to repel down a rope! Find more fun information here.
  • Birch Aquarium at Scripps – This is one of the best things to do in San Diego if you’re a fan of marine life! The aquarium has over 3,300 animals with a mission of conservation and protecting wildlife.
  • Torrey Pines – You don’t have to be a fan of golf to enjoy one of the most famous places to visit in San Diego. Yes, there’s a famous golf course here but there’s also incredible coastal hiking trails for everyone to enjoy.
  • Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego – Another fantastic museum in San Diego with a curated collection of art from the 1950s and beyond with over 50,000 pieces from post World War II.
  • Ho Chi Minh Trail – Frequented by skilled surfers down to Black’s Beach (a famous nude beach!) this trail can be enjoyed by anyone who dares. The narrow and steep climb down through the white slot canyon requires holding on to a cable part way down. You’ll be shocked that surfers are able to do this with their surf boards! If you still want to enjoy Black’s Beach without doing the trail you can access the beach from Torrey Pines parking lots.
Del Mar

The next beach up north past La Jolla in San Diego is the town of Del Mar. Famous for their horse race track and a great San Diego vacation spot for just rest and relaxation along the beach.

Torrey Pines is also easily accessible from Del Mar as its located on the northern tip of the State Park.

Del Mar Points of Interest:
  • Del Mar Race Track – if you’re a lover of gambling or horse racing this is the place for you! Besides hosting races there are also a variety of events that take place here from concerts to charity events.
  • Spa L’Abuerge – This is where the relaxation comes in on your San Diego vacation. This is one of the best things to do in San Diego if you’re looking to rejuvenate and enjoy a day at the spa. They offer a variety of spa treatments and are considered one of the best spas in the US!
  • Fletcher Cove Beach Park – If you’re looking for a great beach in San Diego look no further. Flether Cove Beach Park is where to go if you want to relax by the Pacific Ocean outside of the city.
  • Free Flight Bird Sanctuary – If you’re a lover of animals and giving back then this next thing to do in San Diego is for you! In Del Mar you can visit the Free Flight bird sanctuary and animal shelter to wildlife and exotic birds. Their efforts go towards the preservation of these species and helping some animals find foster homes or adoption services.
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Solana Beach

Another quaint beach community to visit along the San Diego coastline is Solana Beach. With great restaurants and views of the ocean, this is a place to go for some peace and quiet on your San Diego vacation.

Encinitas

Another great place to visit in San Diego if you’re looking for some fantastic beaches in Encinitas in North County. Great beaches include Moonlight State Beach,  Swami’s State Beach, and San Elijo State Beach. Another great stop in Encinitas is the San Diego Botanic Garden.

Carlsbad

Our last place to visit in San Diego is Carlsbad in North County. From Legoland for the kids, flower fields, to a large outlet mall for the shoppers! This is another great thing to do in San Diego for families on a San Diego vacation.

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Experiences to Try in San Diego

retro beach cabanas on Coronado in San Diego

San Diego is full of unique experiences that are native to Southern California. We recommend checking out as many of these as possible on your San Diego vacation

Microbreweries

San Diego has become a famous destination for beer lovers! With over 150 microbrews in the county, it would take well more than one San Diego vacation to even do a dent to that list. There are tons of breweries to choose from so be sure to do some research, this guide is great to help you choose which ones to visit.

Our personal favorites are Stone Brewery, Lost Abbey, Mikkeller, and Ballast Point.

Do a tour!

This San Diego brewery tour offers a 3-hour transport and tour to different San Diego breweries. Customize the tour to your preferred breweries for you and your friends. You can book this San Diego brewery tour here.

Tiki Bars

Did you know San Diego has a tiki bar scene? I mean it makes sense to have tropical themed bars in a place that has a TON of beaches and incredible sunset spots! Be sure to check this tiki bar guide for San Diego to see if there are any tiki bars near where you will be during your San Diego vacation for a fun and tropical nightlife experience

Mexican Food

This goes without saying that one of the best things to do in San Diego is to enjoy the best Mexican food in the country. Being right on the border with Mexico you can bet that there are plenty of incredible authentic restaurants to choose from. Our favorite spots were in San Diego Old Town but we recommend checking out this guide for more great Mexican restaurant options for your San Diego vacation.

White Sand Beaches

There is no shortage of beautiful white sand beaches to enjoy on your San Diego vacation. Coronado has been named one of the US’s best beaches year after year and other great beaches include La Jolla Beach, Pacific Beach, Flat Rock Beach, and South Mission Beach to name a few.

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Transportation in San Diego

taxi outside of cathedral in Old Town San DiegoIf you don’t have your own car or a rental car don’t worry there are plenty of options for public transportation in San Diego as well as rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft.

In downtown San Diego and certain beach cities like La Jolla, there are scooter rentals literally all over the place which are nice for getting around short distances that are a stretch too far for a walk.

By Bus: San Diego has different bus options if you’re in North County you will want to check the Breeze website for routes and for the rest of San Diego you can check the Metropolitan Transit System.

By Trolley: This is great for popular stops near downtown San Diego they run about every 15 minutes. There are three different trolley lines that will get you anywhere you need to go on your San Diego vacation downtown.

By Train: There are various train systems in San Diego from the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner which can bring you in from a further destination to the Coaster and Sprinter which help connect San Diego county by train. If you plan on adventuring up to North County these are great options.

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Where to Stay in San Diego

light trails at night at Balboa Park in San DieogHere are a few of the best places to stay in San Diego, if you’re looking for more options be sure to check out our full guide for where to stay in San Diego by neighborhood and budget.

$ Found

Located in one of the most desirable areas of the city in Little Italy Found is a great option to stay during your San Diego vacation if you’re looking for something a little budget friendly. This is a great boutique hotel that has some rooms with shared bathrooms. We did one of these rooms due to a last minute planned trip and we are glad we did because it was a great experience. Our bathroom was only shared with one other room and it was kept very clean. If you fancy your own bathroom those rooms are available too.

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$$ The Keating Hotel

Another great option for where to stay is also our picks for one of the best things to do in San Diego. The Keating Hotel is a fine 4-star hotel in a historic 19th century building with modern and eclectic rooms in the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter. The hotel has an artsy feel to it and is located right next to Horton Plaza. If you’re feeling like you want a fun and unforgettable night out on your San Diego vacation then you can also enjoy the burlesque club that is on site.

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$$$ Hotel del Coronado

If you want to experience your San Diego vacation in style like many celebrities have for decades before you then you will want to splurge and do the ultimate thing to do in San Diego by staying at Hotel del Coronado. Besides being one of the best historic hotels and buildings on the west coast you’re also located on one of the best white sand beaches in the US.

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We hope you found this guide for all the best things to do in San Diego for a first-time visitor helpful to plan your perfect San Diego vacation helpful. Be sure to also check out our guide for where to stay in San Diego.

And to sign off with the famous words of Ron Burgundy, Stay Classy San Diego!


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Best Things to do in San Diego