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The 20 Best Things to Do in San Diego for First Time Visitors

Whenever you visit a new city for the first time, it is important to get the most out of your visit by enjoying some of the top activities and attractions in that city. San Diego is an amazing city to visit, and it can offer a diverse experience as there are things to do that will suit all types of people and their personal interests. Although you will not have difficulty finding activities to enjoy during your visit, it is important to know which will give the best overall experience of the city so that you are sure you have got the best out of your San Diego vacation. With that in mind, here are the 20 best things to do in San Diego for first-time visitors.

20. Old Town San Diego State Historical Park

For a true experience of San Diego’s culture and history, you should head to Old Town, says The Crazy Tourist. This is the first settlement in San Diego, so it is where San Diego was founded. You can try authentic Mexican food and visit many art galleries in this part of the city. However, the highlight of Old Town is the State Historical Park, which boasts many restored historic buildings and a little museum. You can spend a full day exploring Old Town State Historic Park

19. Belmont Park

Belmont Park is a waterfront attraction that offers the option for a relaxing day by the beach or some fun for all the family. It is a boardwalk and amusement park that first opened in 1925. Those who want a bit of excitement can enjoy the thrilling rides, include the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster and the traditional carousel. There are also many other fun activities, including mini-golf and amusement arcades. You can also take a relaxing stroll along the boardwalk or grab a bite to eat at one of the eateries.

18. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Those who have an appreciation for nature will love spending a day at Torrey State Natural Reserve. US News says that this is a great place to get away from the urban vibe and appreciate the beautiful natural side of this amazing city. This coastal reserve covers 1,750 acres of unspoiled land and offers stunning views across the ocean. It is so-called because it is home to more than 3,000 Torrey Pines, which are a species of tree that is unique to San Diego and Santa Rosa Island. Although hiking and birdwatching are the most popular activities at this reserve, you can also enjoy a picnic, go tidepooling, or just spend a day relaxing in stunning surroundings.

17. South Bay Drive-In Theater

If you want to do something a little different during your first visit to San Diego, then an evening at the South Bay Drive-In Theater offers a unique experience. You can enjoy outdoor screenings of movies from a variety of genres at the drive-in, and it is a fun activity for an evening when the weather is good. This venue also serves food, so you can enjoy your evening meal in front of the big screen.

16. Cabrillo National Monument

One of the most historically significant landmarks in San Diego is the Cabrillo National Monument, so this is definitely something you should take the time to see during your visit. This attraction is a chance to learn more about the history and culture of the area. The monument was built in the 1880s, and it has been lovingly restored. While you are visiting the monument, you can explore the surrounding area. It is just a short walk from the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, and there are also historic military buildings. The monument is set in stunning coastal countryside that you can explore during your visit.

15. Eat and Drink in the Gaslamp District

The food culture in San Diego is amazing, and the cuisine focuses on the fresh produce of the area. You should make sampling some of the finest examples of San Diego cuisine part of your vacation. One of the best neighborhoods for dining out is the historic Gaslamp District, as this area features street after street of bars and restaurants. Although many focus on local cuisine, there are also many international restaurants offering cuisine from around the globe. After enjoying a delicious meal, you can continue your evening by enjoying drinks in one of the many surrounding bars.

14. San Diego Trolleys

You can make getting around the city part of your San Diego experience by taking the trolleys, says Trip Savvy. These are an interesting and fun way to get around the city, and you can enjoy some sightseeing along the way. It combines the practical purpose of getting from one activity to the next attraction with exploring parts of the city that you might not otherwise see during your stay.

13. Mission Beach

As San Diego is a coastal city, it makes sense to spend some of your time making the most of the beaches. There are many stunning beaches lining the coast, and one of the best of these is Mission Beach. This is a lively beach that attracts locals and tourists alike, and it personifies the San Diego lifestyle. The beach features an expansive stretch of golden sands and crystal-clear waters. There are many activities that you can enjoy in the water, or you can simply relax on the beach. Mission beach is also lined with shops, restaurants, and bars for you to enjoy.

12. Coronado Island

Coronado Island is just off the coast of San Diego, and its beaches have been voted as some of the best in the United States. You can access the island either via the Coronado Bay Bridge or by taking the Coronado Ferry. The village on the island boasts beautiful architecture, some amazing restaurants, and unique shopping opportunities. One of the best landmarks to visit is the historic Hotel de Coronado, which was featured in a Marilyn Monroe movie. Bicycles are one of the best ways to get around the island, and there is the option to rent bikes during your visit.

11. San Diego Natural History Museum

An interesting fact about the San Diego Natural History Museum is that is the oldest scientific institution in Southern California and the third-oldest in the west. This museum is dedicated to exploring and preserving the natural environment in Southern California. The exhibits include everything from flora and fauna to woolly mammoths and dinosaurs. There are many interactive aspects to the displays to enjoy, so it is a fun and informative day out for everyone.

10. San Diego Air and Space Museum

Located within Balboa Park, San Diego Air and Space Museum is a fascinating attraction that focuses on the history of aviation and space exploration. It is the third-largest museum of its kind in the United States. This museum is home to some famous aircraft along with replica models of vehicles that are significant in aviation and space history. The exhibitions cover various periods of history, from the beginnings of aviation to the modern-day. Visitors are kept entertained by the many interactive elements of the exhibitions.

9. San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Animal lovers should head to San Diego Zoo Safari Park, says Go City. Although this is associated with San Diego Zoo, it is a separate attraction approximately 40 minutes away that offers a completely different experience. The safari predominantly features animals that are indigenous to arid environments and are native to countries including Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America, and Australia. Some examples of the animals include rhinos, antelopes, buffaloes, cranes, and giraffes. There is also a tiger enclosure, a petting zoo, a walk-through lemur enclosure, the gorilla house, and botanical gardens.

8. USS Midway Museum

Located on the harbor of downtown San Diego is the USS Midway Museum. This is a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier that was converted into a museum that is dedicated to the history of the U.S. military after the carrier was retired. Although this is an activity that people of all ages can enjoy, it is particularly well-suited to children, as there are plenty of interactive activities that give them a fun learning experience. Other than the interesting artifacts and the fun experience, you should also visit to enjoy the views. From the flight deck, you can see Seaport Village, Point Loma San Diego Bay, and Coronado Island.

7. San Diego Bay

San Diego Bay is an idyllic natural attraction that is the perfect example of the beauty of this part of the world. One of the most popular activities when visiting San Diego Bay is a cruise from the harbor, and many companies offer these tours. Amphibious vehicle excursion and whale watching expeditions are also popular, so you can find something to do that matches your personal interests.

6. La Jolla Cove

La Jolla is one of the prettiest areas of San Diego, so you should choose a nice day during your trip to visit the area. The main features of this seaside town are the sandy coves and rugged cliffs along the crystal-clear waters. While in La Jolla you can enjoy a picnic, stroll along the coast, and visit Point La Jolla.


If you are visiting San Diego with your children, then LEGOLAND is an amusement park that you should definitely include on your itinerary. Everything in the park is Lego themed, and it is aimed at families with children between the ages of two and 12. The park is divided into creatively designed zones that feature a wide range of rides and attractions.

4. SeaWorld San Diego

A fantastic family day out is SeaWorld San Diego. Not only is this a fun place to visit, but it is also an educational experience. The aim is for visitors to connect with aquatic life, and the park is home to a vast array of marine life. The highlights for most people are whales, dolphins, and sharks. There are also rides and exhibitions to enjoy in addition to the animals.

3. Maritime Museum

If you are interested in ships and anything with a maritime theme, then the Maritime Museum is an excellent attraction to include in your itinerary for your first visit to San Diego. This museum has earned an international reputation for restoring, maintaining, and operating historic ships. It is well-known for its outstanding collection of historic vessels, including the Star of India, which is the oldest active ship in the world. You will see some impressive sights and magnificent vessels at this museum.

2. Balboa Park

Balboa Park offers a multitude of activities for visitors to enjoy. The park spans 1,200 acres, and it is considered a cultural hotspot. In addition to the vast expanses of gardens, this park is also home to the zoo, several museums, the Robert H. Fleet Science Center, the Botanical Building, the Japanese Friendship Garden, and a beautiful lily pond.You may need several trips to Balboa Park to expereince everything the venue has to offer. It also hosts many events throughout the year.

1. San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo is arguably the best attraction in San Diego, and it is one of the largest zoos in the United States. Although it is part of Balboa Park, Tripster feels that this element of the park is worthy of separate mention as you can spend a full day in the zoo alone. There are more than 800 species in the zoo, totaling more than 3,000 animals. It is an amazing space as the zoo replicates the natural habitats of the animals. Just some examples of the animals you can see include giant pandas, polar bears, giraffes, elephants, and tigers. This is a great day out for people of all ages.

Garrett Parker

Written by Garrett Parker

Garrett by trade is a personal finance freelance writer and journalist. With over 10 years experience he's covered businesses, CEOs, and investments. However he does like to take on other topics involving some of his personal interests like automobiles, future technologies, and anything else that could change the world.

Read more posts by Garrett Parker

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