San Diego is a must-see city on the Pacific Coast of California and one of the major cities of Southern California. If you hear about others raving about it, believe them when they talk about it positively. There’s a lot to see and do in the city of San Diego as an individual, with your friends, or with your family and no matter the place you choose to go visit, you will never feel like you’re alone in seeing them. San Diego will make you get to know California on a personal level with its coastal vibes that leaves you with many activities to do.
This year was my first time visiting San Diego (and kind of on a whim as I was looking to do something to do for my birthday, which I do plan to travel every year for my birthday now and make it a tradition). I have friends who came from here and have heard from so many other travel influencers showcase the beauty of the city. But, what caught my attention and desire to visit the city was the cheap round trip tickets I can find from Phoenix, Arizona. I didn’t travel there by plane though and instead drove about 6 hours there with my family.
If it’s your first time visiting, here are 6 cool things you can consider to check out when you visit San Diego:
1. Balboa Park
If you’re looking for an urban park that consists of a lot of things to see and do, Balboa Park would be a great choice. The park is surrounded by European-inspired architecture and green spaces that you can find in almost every corner you can walkthrough. This park started off as 1,400 acres of land in 1868 by San Diego civic leaders but did not begin to establish itself with the beauty you can see in the park until 1892.
Its long history has stuck around for locals and visitors to make their day jam-packed in one spot with gardens, museums, shopping, restaurants, performing arts, and attractions. Expect to relax and spend time with loved ones in this park. It also makes a great spot for photography, events, and a space for gathering with others. A few of the famous attractions you can find in Balboa Park are: Japanese Friendship Garden, San Diego Air & Space Museum, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego Natural Museum, San Diego Zoo, Botanical Building & Lily Pond, just to name a few. You can find a whole list of other places and businesses that operate within this urban park here.
2. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park: Fiesta de Reyes
Just about an 8-minute drive from Balboa Park, you can find Old Town San Diego. Old Town can introduce you to how life was from the Mexican-American period of 1821-1872. This historic park has many specialty shops to explore and many restaurants to dine at. Although it was night time when my mom and I arrived here to explore, we did get to see Fiesta de Reyes thoroughly.
Fiesta de Reyes is located on the courtyard of Old Town Plaza entrance. This area is pretty interactive from live festive music and many tables set out for relaxing seating to give you the exciting dining experience that you could be needing. You can stumble upon authentic Mexican food here and lots of stores with Mexican trinkets and souvenirs as well as San Diego souvenirs. There are also stores specializing in food like an olive oil shop (all known for olive oil – I’m sure you won’t have a hard time finding a favorite one here) and a booth stand with a variety of mouthwatering fresh nuts (we got them and it was warm and bursting with flavor!).
Some other things I enjoyed being in Fiesta de Reyes was all the Mexican-themed displays, furniture, and architecture that you can scope. You really feel like you could be somewhere in Mexico!
3. La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove, a cove and beach that really gives off the coastal vibes of California, rewards you with picturesque views. This area is known for its marine life and a place for ocean-activity lovers (like swimmers, snorkelers, scuba divers, and surfers). You can watch the sunset here, eat by their many seaside restaurants, or choose to get involved in their water activities.
The day before my birthday, my mom and I got the opportunity to do some sea kayaking (it was my first time!). I found a Groupon from the company Everyday California. (It’s originally $100+ to do it but this Groupon deal I found was $40 for two people in a tandem kayak — what a steal!) What makes this activity special is that it is a sea cave kayak tour and you get to explore La Jolla’s Seven Sea Caves.
Depending on the time of the year, the water here can get very cold, so it’s recommended you wear a wetsuit. For $10 at Everyday California, you can rent a full wetsuit. There are no drybags available for you to rent from them, so remember to bring one before you get kayaking. I don’t recommend bringing valuable items out there though because of how strong waves can get. I did bring a GoPro to record the experience.
Unfortunately, my experience here wasn’t the best because the day we did it, we weren’t able to see the sea caves because there were strong waves in it, which can determine if you will be able to see them or not through your tour. Another thing was that I’ve always been prone to motion sickness, including seasickness.
With some poor decisions of not taking medicine that prevents motion sickness beforehand, I was left with being very nauseous in the middle of the ocean kayaking once we first got out there. I threw up about more than 5 times. So TAKE my lesson and always take some meds or use a Sea-Band to prevent the seasickness you may feel out here so that you can have a smoother experience (here are 6 tips on how to beat motion sickness). If you have never done sea kayaking, you will surely feel the waves from the kayak.
Nonetheless, it was still fun and I’m always grateful for doing new adventures. Since we did not get to see the cave, we got to swim in the middle of the ocean for a little bit and our guide was very helpful and entertained us with some knowledge and history of San Diego and its ocean.
Once an area for children to swim in because of the sea wall built to protect the shore from incoming waves, Children’s Pool is an accessible beach area where anyone can swim in and it has evolved into a marine mammal sanctuary. There are harbor seals and sea lions that have populated Children’s Pool. You can view the many seals that roam and hang around the shoreline from the many accessible walkways around them in a short distance, but it is blocked off from you getting closer and going down that area. Children’s Pool is a wonderfully picturesque spot and in the warm conditions of the water, be able to enjoy taking a dip in. You can watch the sunset go down from here and be rewarded with the Pacific Ocean views.
4. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve was one of the highlights of my visit to San Diego. This state park contains some of the most beautiful landscapes you can come across in the city. What makes Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve extra special is that it contains the rarest pine species in America called the Torrey Pine and Torrey Pines thrive well in this reserve as a liveable habitat for these trees. There’s an entrance fee to go through the park and it’s $15. After paying at the admission gate, with your car, you have the option to park down or go up the cliff. Some of the best hiking spots are when you go up the cliff.
Torrey Pines Reserve Lodge
I recommend before you go hiking here to go check out the Torrey Pines Reserve Lodge and Visitor Center. From there, the first thing you’ll notice is the museum where you’ll find taxidermy of animals that can be found in Torrey Pines, artifacts found, and give you an insight of the ecology and you also have an option to watch a movie about the history and ecology of this state park. If you go behind this visitor center, you can be spoiled with views of the coast and the highways. You can also buy a few Torrey Pines souvenirs from here. (I took home a pin I can place on my hiking backpack!)
Trails at Torrey Pines
After we checked that out, we went by the trails, which is right across the visitor center actually. Just a warning, there are ticks and rattlesnakes that can be found around here. There’s two trails that I did: West Overlook Trail (less than a mile – very short and it can be accessible from a wheelchair and those who can’t truly hike) and the Red Butte, Yucca Point, and Razor Point Trail (1.6 mile, 203 feet elevation gain).
You’ll love these trails because there’s overlooks that will give you a good look into the Torrey Pines trees and there’s sweeping views of the ocean with the cliffs and rocks from million years ago with the different layers of the red butte, Torrey sandstone, and cobblestone. The red buttes definitely have an interesting texture to it with sharp “vein-like” formations on the rocks. Torrey Pines has a mixture of desert elements like the cactus and other plants that grow on desert.
If you want to get access to the beach below the cliffs and trails, you can only access through it by taking the Torrey Pines Beach Trail Loop (2.3 mile, 364 elevation gain).
5. Cabrillo National Monument
On the southern tip of the Point Loma Peninsula in San Diego, you can check out Cabrillo National Monument. This spot was actually recommended by a San Diego local at a Filipino restaurant we stopped by when we first arrived in the city – great recommendation for sure and I recommend it too! At Cabrillo National Monument, you get to have a wonderful and clear view of the whole city and hang out by the edge of these cliffs.
This national monument has the notable tall and well-sculptured monument of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to navigate the west coast. You get to experience and see for yourself the flora that is protected on this park; it’s a coastal Mediterranean ecotype alongside Point Loma. Gray whales can be watched from here because about 25,000 gray whales migrate in this route. They’re best to be watched in January and February and then leave around September to return to the Baja California Sur bays. (I traveled in January and unfortunately, I was not able to spot one at all while sitting out here.)
You can check out the lighthouse that you will spot upon arrival there. It’s the Old Point Loma Lighthouse and it was completed in 1854. It used to have an oil lamp that was first lit in 1855 and welcomed sailors in the next 36 years that was visible for 26 to 28 miles but by 1891, the lamp had to be extinguished. This spot is a great place if you want to sit quietly by the shore and enjoy the coastal breeze.
6. Eat, eat, eat!
You can’t visit a new city or plan traveling without having great foods to taste and eat. As a Filipina, my family and I spent most of our time eating at Filipino restaurants because we MISSED having it living in Arizona. They are plentiful to find here. We had Seafood City, Red Ribbon, Chow King, Manila Sunset, Fredcel Lumpias & Catering, as I can recall. This is a great city if you’ve never tried Filipino cuisine.
Though, we did not get to try other restaurants as much, there are plenty of seafood and Mexican places to check out… And how about considering checking out 50 best things to eat in San Diego before you die? Spoon University also has a great list of recommendations to check out.
Of course with only being there for 3 days, I did not get to check out all the places I would’ve wanted to do, but here are other places you should see in San Diego, according to reviews and research:
- Sunset Cliffs
- USS Midway Museum
- Maritime Museum of San Diego
- Potato Chip Rock
- Coronado Beach
When you visit San Diego, I do hope you get to check out some of the places I’ve mentioned and have a blast experiencing the city’s charm, whether it’s a short trip or not!
Watch me explore San Diego
Find a hotel to stay at in San Diego
Want to save on some attractions? Try CityPass!
The best way to do top tourist things in a city you’re exploring while saving (because paying for admission fees in each attraction ADDS UP!) is using a company that sells discounted tickets. I’ve personally used CityPASS in the past a few times and it always turned out to be a great experience and made me feel blessed to save.
Out of the several destinations they cover, San Diego is luckily one of those destinations! What kind of benefits can you get out of using CityPASS?
- Save up to 50% in ticket sales compared to box office prices
- Skip main entrance ticket lines at attractions
- Have the eligibility to redeem vouchers within 6 months of purchase
- Visit attractions at any available time at any order (the ticket is valid for 9 days)
If you’re interested in using CityPASS, click here to start purchasing so you can enjoy a nice activity-filled trip!
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