The Top 11 Free Things To Do In San Diego
When people think of a Southern California vacation they think they have to spend a lot of money, especially in a city like San Diego. But that couldn't be further from the truth. While there are a lot of tourist attractions that will cost you a lot, you can make up the difference in all the free things to do in San Diego. Beaches, parks, hiking trails, and some museums in San Diego won't cost you a dime.
But the last thing you want to be doing is hauling around your luggage in the heat of SoCal, so make sure you store it safe and secure here at a luggage storage spot. This way you can take all the time you need to explore all the free things to do in San Diego.
San Diego Waterfront Park
Located down by the harbor of San Diego this public space is a great grassy spot to hang out at with picnic spaces, splash fountains and jungle gyms for kids, and garden rooms for special occasions. It is also close to a number of other interesting spots like the USS Midway Museum, Broadway Pier (where you catch the ferry to Coronado Island), Seaport Village, and Tuna Harbor Park.
Throughout the year there are many festivals and special events that take place at the Waterfront Park, such as Summer Movies in the Park, Sounds of Summer, Waterfront Pumpkin Patch, and the Mac N' Cheese Festival. It is also a perfect spot to watch the Big Bay Boom, the Fourth of July fireworks over San Diego Bay.
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Visit the origins of San Diego's first European settlement with many historic buildings to wander through like the old blacksmith shop, Stewart House, and San Diego's oldest schoolhouse. This area is considered the starting place of not just San Diego, but California itself.
The historic Old Town San Diego holds plenty of festivals and events throughout the year but the one not to be missed is Cinco de Mayo. During the 3 day festival, you can attend free non-stop concerts, Lucha Libre wrestling shows, and one of the largest displays of lowrider vehicles. Make sure to visit America's Most Haunted House, the Whaley House Museum, which is built over a gallows site. Who knows, you might be lucky enough to see one of the ghosts that reside there.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
For those that like exercise and the wilderness, Torrey Pines Reserve is the spot for you. So close to San Diego, CA, yet so very different in its landscape, rugged, wild, and peaceful. The reserve has over 8 miles for walking and hiking. The trail difficulty levels vary from easy to difficult, but almost all offer stunning ocean views at some point along the trail. There are also free walking tours available on certain days.
The reserve cliffs overlook Torrey Pines State Beach, home to miles of pristine beaches and a lagoon that is a vital home to migrating birds. It is one of two places in the world to see the rarest pine trees in America, the Pinus Torreyana; the other place is on Santa Rosa Island near Santa Barbara. It is key to remember that this area is a reserve and not a park so certain rules and laws apply when visiting. For more information on San Diego hikes, read our hiking guide!
There are so many free things to do in Balboa Park you could spend several days here and still not do them all. Keep in mind, while it is free admission into the park many of the venues and events do have an entry fee. If you are going to Balboa Park for the first time or really just want to maximize your time there, make sure you stop by the Visitors Center. They have all the latest updates on what is happening around the park and can help you plan your day there.
The Botanical Building, Lily Pond, and Lagoon are the most photographed scenes in San Diego, CA, and when you get there you will see why. This is one of the most beautiful botanical gardens in California, set in one of the world's largest lath structures. Within the building, there are some sensational displays like the orchids, scratch-n-sniff, and beautiful season ones as well.
The garden is one of seven free-themed gardens in Balboa Park. A few of the other gardens are the Rose, Japanese Friendship, Alcazar, and Desert, plus an additional 17 landscaped spaces.
Over 15 museums reside within the park, and some have an entry fee, like the San Diego Automotive Museum, Museum of Natural History, and Ruben H. Fleet Science Center. But there are quite a few that you can peruse at no charge, such as the Timken Museum of Art, San Diego Mineral & Gem Society Museum. If you are a night owl then make sure you are at the Fleet Center on the first Wednesday of the month. Large telescopes are set up by the San Diego Astronomy Association for an amazing look into San Diego's night sky.
You will also find off-leash dog parks, many kid's playgrounds, A Shakespeare Theater, Frisbee Golf, hiking & walking trails. Other areas of interest to check out are the Spanish Village, Casa del Prado, Balboa Park Carousel, and the miniature railroad ride (there is a fee, but it's small).
Another great thing about being in Balboa Park is that you are right beside the famous San Diego Zoo. You do have to pay to enter, but San Diego Zoo is one of the best zoos in the world and not to be missed.
San Diego's Embarcardero
For a nice relaxing place to chill out, go for a walk, and check out some unreal boats and ships head to the Embarcardero in downtown San Diego. Sit back and watch the cruise ships sail in or out, or dream about owning some of the very impressive yachts in the marina. You will also find the Maritime San Diego Museum here, and though it costs to hop on the boats sitting at anchor, you can gaze at them for free.
The Spruce Street Suspension Bridge
Going for a walk on the 375-f00t long bridge is a great detour if you are out walking the Bankers Hill neighborhood. For most of the walk across, the bridge is firm but once you get to the middle you can feel it sway. Don't panic, it is actually designed like that. It only takes five minutes to cross the bridge if you are doing a straight walk across, but most people take their time and take in the view.
The bridge crosses the Kate Sessions Canyon 70 feet in the air, so if you are afraid of heights, crossing the bridge might not be for you. However, you can cross through the canyon below, as there are trail entrances next to the bridge entrances. There is free street parking at either end of the bridge but just be courteous to the residents of the area.
Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego
The Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego (MCASD) is one of the best free things to do in San Diego. There are over 4,700 works of a variety of media including painting, sculpture, video, photography and more. All have been created after 1950. The most popular collections are minimalism and Pop Art of the 1960s and 1970s among many others.
There are two locations: one is in Downtown San Diego and the other one is in the coastal community of La Jolla. Though it may not be free to enter any time, the Contemporary Art Museum offers free access at the Downtown location at 2 pm every Saturday and Sunday.
In addition, there is free admission on the third Thursday of every month plus extended hours from 5 pm to 8 pm. If you happen to be there in April, the museum offers free entry to every visitor but you must reserve a timed-entry online ticket in advance. To accommodate the diverse needs of their visitors, the museum has most material available in both English and Spanish. Visitors with limited mobility can easily navigate the museum as all public areas are wheelchair accessible.
Coronado Bridge Murals
If street art is your thing you are in for a treat. The Coronado Bridge Murals is one of the best free things to do in San Diego. Chicane Park in San Diego is the place where local street artists paint their heart and soul. But it is not just them. Many artists including internationally known artists took part in the making of these monumental works of art. Chicano Park has by far the largest collection of outdoor murals in the United States and as such well worth the visit.
Located underneath the Intersection of Interstate 5 and the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge in San Diego, this neighborhood established in 1970 became a National Historic Landmark in 2016. Besides beautifying the park, the murals tell the story of how this small community struggled to create the park in the first place after occupying the area for 12 days. Today Chicano Park celebrates Chicano and Mexican culture and the murals are a great part of that. Take a look for street food while in the area, too.
Harper's Topiary Garden
Everyone looking for a fun photo op on the way to or from the airport in San Diego, you have to check this magnificent topiary garden. Park your car on the street and stop by to admire over 50 topiaries, including a collection of pyramids, Buddha, a herd of elephants, a dinosaur and many more.
The garden belongs to the Harpers, residents in the house above the garden. One of the artists behind the pruners is Edna Harper. She and her husband Alex take inspiration from their travels around the world. Edna continuously changes the landscape but the shapes are always fantastic. While it is free of charge to admire this whimsical topiary garden, keep in mind that it is a private residence and be respectful. The Garden is located close to the airport but if you walk from the Park, go across Spruce street suspension bridge and from there it is a 45-minute walk. Many visitors prefer to drive.
Mission Bay Park
This unique aquatic park is the biggest one of its kind in America. With almost the same amount of water as land, Mission Bay Park offers a plethora of free things to do in San Diego.
Mission Bay is a hot spot for all types of water sports, boogie-boarding, paddleboarding, kayaking, or just going for a swim at Mission Beach. If you want to get out on the water without getting wet check out their boat rental facilities where you can rent sail or motorized boats. And if you are looking for a family-friendly beach, there are 19 to choose from, some of which have lifeguards stations to keep your little ones safe.
For those that want to stay on land, hop on a bike or slap on your rollerblades and hit the almost 14 miles of pathways. Basketball courts, children's playgrounds, and Seaworld San Diego are all found within Mission Bay Park. If you get hungry, break out the barbeque or wait until after dark when you can light up the night with a bonfire. You could easily spend a few days doing everything and spending nothing here.
Get Wet in La Jolla
La Jolla is actually within the San Diego city limits, but it feels like a different town. It has a lot of free activities, especially if you like the water. La Jolla Underwater Park is a haven for snorkelers and scuba divers with a pristine marine environment right on the Pacific Ocean. It starts at the La Jolla Cove Beach, where you can go surfing or catch some rays on its golden sandy beach, and stretches to the midway point of La Jolla Shores Beach.
Head to the Children's Pool where you can watch the seals and sea lions. The Sea lions love to "hang out" at this popular spot and sun themselves. The seawall was actually created to make a children's pool but the seals and sea lions have taken up residence there. You can watch them swim, wrestle, and even mate, in the right season. You are not actually going to get wet doing this one, well, unless it is raining.
La Jolla Shores Beach is a long stretch of sand and tide pools from Kellogg Park to the Scripps Pier. Because of the La Jolla underwater reserve, some fantastic seasonal happenings take place in the shallow water like the grunion run and swimming with the (harmless) leopard sharks.
Free Fun in San Diego
San Diego, CA can be harsh on your wallet, but if you keep this guide of free things to do in San Diego handy, you can save money and still have fun. Plan on seeing places like Pacific Beach, La Jolla Cove and Point Loma. Between seeing fantastic spots like Presidio Park and attending activities like concerts and free entertainment, you'll be thrilled with your San Diego vacation.