San Diego sightseeing: where to go in America's Finest City

Ellie Seymour

Ellie Seymour

Free and easy San Diego* in southern California* has it all. We're talking perfect weather, 70 miles of coastline, historic neighbourhoods with expansive parks, thrilling views, a tempting food scene and spirited nightlife.

Relax by the waterfront on Coronado Island
Relax by the waterfront on Coronado Island © Ian Dagnall - Alamy Stock Photo

Add the distinct cultural heritage thanks to its closeness to Mexico and you'll understand why, what's known as America's Finest City, is an enticing and eclectic holiday destination on the USA's Pacific west coast.

Getting to San Diego: find the latest offers on flights and holidays to San Diego* as well as breaks to California* with the experts at Travelbag*.

Beach life

With its 31 beaches, San Diego is a classic sun-sea-surf lifestyle destination. Whether it's rocky cliffs and wilder waves, or calm waters and soft sand for family fun, there's a San Diego beach for all tastes.

Favourites include Coronado Beach with its iconic Hotel Del Coronado backdrop; Pacific Beach, San Diego's wildest beach scene, loved for its 3.5-mile waterfront promenade always buzzing with skaters, cyclists and pedestrians.

Mission Beach offers classic beachfront fun: a bustling boardwalk and a historic amusement park complete with Giant Dipper roller coaster, built in 1925, bumper cars, and other classic carnival rides, while 68-acre Sunset Cliffs Natural Park near the laid-back Ocean Beach neighbourhood is a favourite spot for (experienced) cliff jumpers.

Lose yourself in Balboa Park

Best known as home to the San Diego Zoo, this fascinating 1,200-acre Balboa Park has its roots in 1915, when it was originally developed for the grand Panama-California Exposition.

Explore the grounds of Balboa Park
Explore the grounds of Balboa Park © Andy - Adobe Stock Image

Today, its ornate collection of buildings is the setting for 16 museums and galleries, several beautiful, landscaped gardens, and walking trails. Climbing to the top of the California Tower for a view over the park and city is a good way to get your bearings, before tackling one of the cultural establishments.

Art lovers will discover an extensive collection of Spanish old master paintings, including works by El Greco, Goya, Ribera, Sanchez Cotàn, and Zurbaràn at the San Diego Art Museum, while the San Diego National History Museum, or Nat as it's known by locals, set up by a group of local amateur naturalists in 1874, tells the story of the region's unique flora and fauna.

Visit a farmers' market

San Diego County is home to 5,000-plus farms, so the city's farmers' market calendar is extensive. Experiencing one is a good way to get acquainted with San Diego's neighbourhoods and enjoy the city like a local.

There are so many to choose from, popping up around the city on any given weekday. The market on Coronado Island, with its quaint small-town atmosphere, offers shopping with a San Diego Bay backdrop every Tuesday afternoon, while the relaxed Ocean Beach Certified Farmers' Market on Wednesday evenings hosts live bands.

Feast on tasty treats in Little Italy
Feast on tasty treats in Little Italy © Gabriele Maltinti - Adobe Stock Image

On Saturday morning, the lively Italian American neighbourhood is the setting for Mercato Little Italy, also home to whimsical brunch spot, Morning Glory, a favourite with the Instagram crowd.

Explore Barrio Logan Cultural District

This culturally distinctive area in the shadow of the San Diego-Coronado Bridge is home to San Diego's Mexican, Latin, Indigenous and Chicano cultures.

Logan Avenue is the centre of the action, along which Low Rider cars hop and Cadillacs cruise at the weekend.

If you need a bite to eat, Barrio Dogg is an essential stop for a hot dog in a fluffy white bun, with infinite topping choices from sour cream, salsa and roasted peppers to spicy cactus fruit salsa and crispy fried onion rings.

Gentrification has certainly crept in, but many of the businesses you'll eat, drink and shop at here are still rooted in the community's culture, many owned by women.

Have a night out uptown

Where southern San Diego is all about sleek beach towns, Uptown is emerging as the city's coolest area, home to the North Park and South Park neighbourhoods, magnets for creatives, professionals and young families attracted by the cool bars, restaurants, indie shops, live music venues and theatres.

Where University Avenue and 30th Street meet in North Park is an epicentre for beer, home to Mike Hess Brewing, where locals play board games at long wooden tables, North Park Beer Co. and Thorn Street Beer.

Craft cocktails are also a mainstay, with bars like Part Time Lover, a cocktail bar hidden inside a record shop, offering creative concoctions. While in South Park, it's more about indie shops, progressive galleries and restaurants that promote ethical ingredients like seasonal organics and sustainable meats and seafood.

Take in the city views

San Diego's coastal expansiveness is best witnessed from up high. There are several top spots around the city for a thrilling perspective. For an uninterrupted panorama of the San Diego skyline, Coronado Island, a short drive or ferry ride from downtown San Diego, is the place to go.

From the shore closest to the downtown waterfront, you'll see San Diego's biggest high-risers, some taller than 91 metres, including the city's tallest: the 152-metre, 34-storey, obelisk-shaped One America Plaza, reflected in the calm waters of the bay.

See big ocean views from the summit of Mount Soledad
See big ocean views from the summit of Mount Soledad © James Reininger - Adobe Stock Image

For seascape views, a good one can be found at the top of 250-metre-high Mount Soledad, stretching across the rooftops of the high-end beach neighbourhood, La Jolla, to its seal-speckled shores. Also located up here is The National Veterans Memorial to 3,500 soldiers who recently served.

Climate in San Diego

  Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Maximum daytime temperature °C
Hours of sunshine (daily)
Days with some rainfall
Sea temperature °C

The above guide shows the climate in San Diego. Find out more about conditions across the state in our complete guide to the climate in California.

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Ellie Seymour

Ellie Seymour

Ellie Seymour is a Brighton-based freelance travel writer, author and blogger. A lover of New York City, she specialises in destinations across the USA and southern Europe. She writes for The Independent, The Guardian and LoveExploring among others. She is also the author of two bestselling guidebooks, Secret Brighton and Secret Sussex.

Posted on Monday 5th February 2024 in: City Culture North America

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