When you mention San Diego, everyone has a different image and reaction. Some people picture the beaches, and some start craving the Mexican food. But everyone has the same question: what can we do and see that’s free? After all, I’m a local so I must know the answer, right? With great weather year around, San Diego lends itself to many free sites and places to explore because many of them are outdoors. So there’s never a bad time of year to visit. Here are some FREE ideas for you! See what you think.
1. Mission Bay Park
I never realized until recently that Mission Bay Park is the largest aquatic park in the country with 4,600 acres, including 27 miles of shoreline, 19 miles of sandy beaches, and 8 designated swimming areas. I walk along Mission Bay quite often. It’s a great place to watch the sunset and in the summer, you can enjoy a great view of the SeaWorld fireworks. When I have visitors, we’ll bike all along the bay and over to Pacific Beach. The park has bike and walking paths, boating, picnic areas, playgrounds, basketball courts, swimming, windsurfing, kayaking, and stand-up paddle boarding. There really is something for everyone. And maybe the best part is that there is plenty of parking, and that’s free too.
2. Historic Old Town
Old Town San Diego is a great place to spend an afternoon, and the Old Town Historic Park gives free guided tours. The local area has 17 historic points of interest, with shops and dining all within a mile radius. Make sure you stop at the visitor center for an Old Town map. Old Town is centrally located and is easy to get to using the trolley system.
3. Balboa Park
Balboa Park is known for its architecture. It has beautiful Spanish Colonial architecture and the park is filled with beautiful gardens. You can spend a day exploring the park’s 65 miles of hiking trails. There are free daily park tours, too. I’m particularly fond of both the Rose Garden and the cactus garden. And make sure to catch an outdoor concert in the organ pavilion. The city of San Diego has a civic organist and she’s marvelous. On Sunday afternoons, she gives an organ concert and it’s a lot of fun to experience. Balboa Park is a must-see destination when you visit San Diego.
4. Spreckels Organ Pavilion
I decided to give the organ pavilion its own spot on this list! The Spreckels Organ Pavilion has been a San Diego landmark since 1914 when it was gifted to the city. This is one of the largest pipe organs in the world with 4,725 pipes, with some pipes that are as small as a pencil to some that are 32 feet tall. It offers an amazing sound with free concerts at 2pm every Sunday.
5. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
This past year, this desert park had one of the best blooms ever. There were a few weeks of peak colors and everyone who lives near San Diego went out to catch the season in full bloom. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California with 600,000 acres. Located about two hours from San Diego on the eastern side of San Diego county, this park has 500 miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas, and many miles of hiking trails. It’s a great example of the California Desert!
6. Seaport Village
Seaport Village is touristy, I get that. But even if the shops don’t interest you, walking along the water is pretty and relaxing. The village is a 14-acre waterfront shopping and dining hub. You can walk along the bay and check out the boats, birds, ducks, and turtles. There are also grassy areas for picnicking and kite flying. Don’t leave without visiting the antique carousel. It’s not free, but it’s a few bucks of fun.
7. Olympic Training Center
I was just talking about this place with my friend. We both said we have to get down here and soon! San Diego is home to one of only three official Olympic Training Centers in the country. Actual Olympic athletes offer guided tours at the center each Saturday at 11am, or you can take a self-guided tour daily from 9am to 4pm.
8. Beach Bonfire
I haven’t been to a beach bonfire in a long while, but they are a California beach tradition. In the summer months, fire pits are provided on a first come, first serve basis, with no fires between midnight and 5am. This is a great way to spend an evening roasting marshmallows and catching up with good friends and family.
9. Torrey Pines State Reserve
The hiking trails at Torrey Pines State Reserve offer amazing views of the ocean, and people hike the trails to see the sandstone cliffs and Torrey pine trees. One of the park’s most famous hikes starts at the visitor’s center and winds down to the beach below. Although grueling on the way back to the top, the beach and the views of the cliffs are worth it.
10. SeaWorld Fireworks
I alluded to my favorite spot to catch this firework show earlier in this post. You can take in the show without paying the price of admission. You can set your watch by them every night in the summer, and they can be seen for miles around San Diego. Some people say that South Shores Park is the best place to watch the SeaWorld fireworks; it is off of SeaWorld Drive about 1/2 mile before the SeaWorld parking lot. The show begins around 8:50pm- 9:50pm nightly, but check their website to be sure.
11. Mission Trails Regional Park
Only 8 miles northeast of downtown San Diego, Mission Trails Regional Park provides a beautiful contrast to the urban hustle and bustle. I know, I know, you think San Diego doesn’t have much urban hustle and bustle, but trust me, we do :) There are lots of options in the park such as 60 miles of trails, boating on Lake Murray, and camping at Kumeyaay Lake. There are lots of guided hikes too, and a state-of-the-art Visitor and Interpretive Center.
12. Children’s Pool at La Jolla
If you want to see seals or sea lions in the wild, this is the place for you. Every day, hundreds of harbor seals and sea lions hang out at Sea Rock, which is just north of the beach. Swimming in the Children’s Pool isn’t as weird as it sounds because the cove offers calm waters and is perfect for snorkeling and swimming. It does close from time to time to protect the marine life, so check ahead.
13. Pacific Beach Boardwalk
The Mission Beach – Pacific Beach Boardwalk, also known as Oceanfront Boardwalk, spans about 3.5 miles, from North Pacific Beach to South Mission Beach. Walking, biking, bicycling, and rollerblading are permitted on the boardwalk. It’s a fun place to people watch and hang out.
14. Farmers Market
San Diego has both day and night markets located throughout the city. One of the most well-known and popular ones is the Little Italy Mercato Farmers Market. Throughout the year, every Saturday from 8am to 2pm, this market opens with local produce, meats, gifts, seafood, live music, and food trucks. There are over 200 tents spanning five blocks – for San Diego, that’s a lot!
As I reviewed this list, I realized I needed to get out more and explore San Diego! I haven’t been to some of these places in a long time. It is true though, that San Diego has a unique quality about it that’s hard to name. Everyone who visits here seems to love it, and rarely do you find anyone who lives here complaining much. After all, who can resist a walk along a beach, a hike in the hills, a bike ride along the bay, or watching sea life from the shore? I hope this gives you some ideas of the many FREE opportunities for time well spent in San Diego. If you have anything to add to this list, please let me know!