Life in San Diego is known for quite a few things – beautiful weather, beaches and fish tacos come to mind to start – but it’s usually not known as a budget travel destination by any means.
Airfare deals can be hard to come by to what’s affectionately known as America’s Finest City, as it’s a hot destination for tourists no matter the time of year.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t deals to be had once you’ve made it to San Diego, and it certainly doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to do outside of budget busters like the city’s wildlife parks that will cost you little to nothing.
San Diego is home to all kinds of low-cost, even free things to do if you’re creative. Check out this guide to 12 of the top free things to do in San Diego and see what the city has to offer even the most budget-savvy travelers. You can do San Diego on a budget!
12 Free Things to Do in San Diego
Hit the Beaches
San Diego is home to some of California’s best beaches, and they’re all free. Head to the pristine sands in Coronado or La Jolla if you’re traveling to San Diego with the kids and the sand castle pails.
Pacific Beach and Ocean Beach are surrounded by casual bars and dining options for when you’re done with the sun and hunger strikes. Both are quintessential beach neighborhoods, with surfers off the shore you can watch from the piers if you’re not athletic enough to surf yourself. And if you’re traveling with your furry friends, San Diego’s best dog beaches allow for off-leash play to tire out the most enthusiastic pet.
There really is a San Diego beach for every personality, and spending the day in the sand and surf is a good way to keep costs to the otherwise pricey city low.
Explore Balboa Park
Visiting Balboa Park is one of the best free things to do in San Diego. This is home to the city’s world-renowned San Diego Zoo and some of San Diego’s best museums, but your timing has to be right if you want to hit the museum free days. If you’re on a budget, forget about the zoo and the associated safari park north of the city.
The two attractions bring thousands of tourists every year for a reason, but prices at both seem to rise annually. Which Tuesday of the month offers free admission varies by museum, too, so your day in Balboa Park can get expensive if you’re not careful.
San Diego insiders know that there are lots of things to do in the park, open 24 hours, by the way, that don’t cost a dime. Embrace the local architecture, including the iconic Botanical Building, watch street performers do their thing or hit one of the numerous trails in and around Balboa Park to keep costs low and enthusiasm high.
People-watching in Balboa Park is a favorite pastime for San Diego locals, as well. Benches and tables under umbrellas offer shaded stops to take a rest and watch the foot traffic pass by.
Create Your Own Walking Tour
While San Diego is a very car-centric city and you’ll certainly open yourself up to more experiences if you rent a car, once you’re in any given San Diego neighborhood, most will be very walkable. Creating your own walking tour will allow you to notice things you may not have expected, and come across San Diego’s hidden gems.
Stroll the boardwalk in Pacific Beach for a potential glimpse of local celebrity Slomo, a retired doctor who now spends his days rollerblading up and down that path.
If you’re staying downtown, Little Italy is made for walking tours. Once home to Italian fishermen who made a living fishing in the nearby bay, the neighborhood is an ode to Italian living with its piazzas and eateries from any region in the European country you can think of. Historical plaques detailing the neighborhood’s beginnings can be found along India Street, the main drag, making walks here a scavenger hunt of sorts.
For more of a hipster vibe, head to University Heights, a small, central San Diego neighborhood with a diverse array of eateries and boutiques. Keep your eyes peeled for ostrich images on your walk, as this part of town used to be home to an ostrich farm.
Take a Hike
With nearly year round sunshine, it’s rare to experience a day in San Diego that’s bad for outdoor activities. If you’re an avid hiker, hitting the trails in and around San Diego will offer you all kinds of opportunities to break a sweat and work up an appetite – this is really one of the best free things to do in San Diego.
Hit the urban 7 Bridges Walk if you’re wanting to stay closer to the city. The city trek will take you across seven of San Diego’s best bridges, including the suspension bridge on Spruce Street. A popular Instagram and wedding photo spot, the bridge hangs above Kate Sessions Canyon and sways a bit as you cross, making it quite the adventurous crossing.
If you have access to a rental car, the world is your oyster in terms of hikes in the area. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is one of the most popular, and for good reason. The Beach Trail is only ¾ mile, but the path will take you from the scenic ocean views at the top to the beach below, home to excellent tide pooling if you want to linger.
Even further, consider hiking at some elevation to see the lakes, river and waterfalls that flow throughout San Diego County. Escondido’s Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve is a good place to start, with hikes that will get you to lookouts over beautiful Lake Hodges.
Take a Scenic Drive
Assuming you’ve rented a car, it costs little outside of the tank of gas to take a scenic drive around the city. One of the most popular routes takes you up to Point Loma and Cabrillo National Monument, a great spot to watch migrating whales during certain times of the year.
Keep in mind that to enter the park you’ll need to either show a national park pass or pay a fee of $20 per vehicle, or $10 per person if you’re entering on foot.
The drive to Ocean Beach and Sunset Cliffs offers spectacular scenery of the rocky coastline below. Stretch your legs with a walk along the cliffs, benches scattered along the way for some time to think about how you’re going to get yourself moved out here.
If you’d like to see what it’s like inland, Highway 78 in Escondido shows off the North County’s backcountry. The vistas here are more about the surrounding mountains, especially if you lengthen your drive to take you all the way to Palomar Mountain.
Pack a Picnic
You’ll need to pick up the fixings, but even a sandwich prepared at your accommodations is upgraded significantly if the views are right. Return to Sunset Cliffs as the sun goes down to see how this area got its name, or stay closer to downtown in Little Italy’s Waterfront Park. The park is surrounded by water fountains that become de facto water parks for children in the neighborhood.
Or find your own patch of beach or bay to watch the boats come in or the seagulls squawk for what’s certainly that delicious meal you’ve packed.
Stroll the Gaslamp Quarter
You’ll likely be tempted to check out one of rooftop bars in the vibrant Gaslamp neighborhood, but taking a walk through the quarter is a great way to spend an afternoon. This part of town is known for its nightlife. During the day, though, visitors are better able to appreciate its history.
Don’t miss the Old City Hall, the first building in the city that was constructed using materials only found in San Diego. The most identifiable spot on your stroll will likely be the Gaslamp Quarter archway, an official welcome to the neighborhood with the Gaslamp’s iconic lamps on each side. The archway got a facelift in 2013.
Admire the Architecture
San Diego boasts a few different styles of architecture depending on the neighborhood.
Central San Diego is home to more of a craftsman vibe, with old Victorian homes overlooking canyons in the city’s pricier neighborhoods and in Old Town’s Heritage County Park, a charming part of the city that should be on any San Diego itinerary. Downtown San Diego is more modern, with taller structures housing the city’s most important political offices.
It’s the Spanish Colonial Revival-style architecture that most people think of when they picture San Diego. You’ll find the tiled roofs and arched doorways of this style throughout the city, but particularly in and around Balboa Park, Mission Hills and Point Loma.
Find Free Concerts & Events
San Diegans love the local music scene, especially when you’re able to enjoy concerts outdoors with no cover charge. The city hosts summer concert series in a number of neighborhoods, including Mission Hills Summer Concerts in the Park, the Liberty Station Concerts from the local arts district and the Point Loma Summer Concerts.
For something more unique, the Spreckels Organ Pavilion hosts free organ concerts on Sundays in the summer months. Many of the city’s farmer’s markets, including the Little Italy Mercato, boast regular musicians, and citywide festivals featuring live musical acts often only ask for a suggestion donation.
No matter when you’re visiting San Diego, make sure you take a look at the city’s calendar of festivals and events happening while you’re there. It’s a great way to experience San Diego on a local level.
Hunt for the City’s Best Murals
San Diego has a number of important art museums, including the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park. But art museums cost an admission fee, and you’re looking for budget-friendly activities and free things to do in San Diego.
The city’s vibrant mural scene is free to experience, and just as impressive. San Diego’s North Park neighborhood is well-known among locals as the spot for a mural hunt. Visit the iconic San Diego postcard mural outside of the Belching Beaver brewery or stop by boutique shop Artelexia to remind yourself that “You Are Radiant,” the name of the colorful artwork there.
Nearby South Park, one of San Diego’s most charming neighborhoods, is also popular with San Diego’s mural enthusiasts. Don’t miss the vintage mural at the Fern Street Coin Laundry for a bit of the history in this part of town.
Walk the City’s Piers
The city’s piers are gathering places in San Diego, where locals and visitors alike go to watch the surfers below, grab a snack at any of the eateries found along the planked walkways, or just get some steps in on a sunny day.
Ocean Beach Pier, the longest concrete pier on the West Coast, is well-known for its sunset views and fishing opportunities for the amateur anglers out there. The Point Loma pier is a great place to spot harbor seals looking for fresh bait and catch from fishermen in the area, along with one of the best local bars in the city, Fathom Bistro, Bait and Tackle. If you’ve rented a car, the historic Oceanside Pier is also worth the trip.
Hang Out With the Wildlife
You don’t need to head to the city’s wildlife parks for animal encounters while in San Diego.
Try to spot even a fraction of the 400 bird species that call San Diego home at the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, Cabrillo National Monument or the 37 acres of the Fomosa Slough wetlands. You’ll have access to varieties of seabirds and herons, ducks and terns on nature walks in these areas.
La Jolla Cove is a must-stop on any San Diego itinerary. The cove is home to a steady population of sea lions. The nearby Children’s Pool offers even more access to the sea lions here, as the cove is protected from human activity on the sandy shore.
Keep in mind that if you choose to ignore posted warnings about approaching the wildlife there, you will be reprimanded over a loudspeaker.
Final Considerations On The Free Things To Do In San Diego
With so many free things to do in San Diego, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to enjoy the city. Don’t let your budget stop you from visiting San Diego, a city where you can take advantage of free activities no matter the season.
This post was contributed by Agnes, the regular person behind Travel on the Reg – a place for people who travel regularly and in a regular fashion. In her world, travel is awesome, but it can also be scary, funny or less than Insta-perfect. She’s here for all of it. She is currently living the dream in San Diego, America’s finest city. Follow her on Instagram to see where she’ll find herself next!
Further Readings About California
Make sure to check my other posts:
- A Fabulous 3-Day Itinerary For San Francisco
- The Best Day Trips From San Francisco
- The Best Things To Do In California
- 9 Great National Parks In California