30 + Things to Do for Free In San Diego
There are dozens of ways to entertain yourself without spending a penny in this laid-back city. Here's our list of 30 + things to do for free in San Diego (leaving more money for craft beer and fish tacos, obviously).
Hit the Beach
In a town with 70 miles of public shoreline, how do you choose where to dig your toes into the sand? We say: go full Goldilocks and try a bunch. At La Jolla’s Children’s Pool—a gentle inlet created by a seawall in 1932—you can watch harbor seals and sea lions frolic; Coronado’s 1.5 mile powdery sand beach is lined in eye-popping mansions; Ocean Beach has a half-mile long pier jutting into the sea, one of very few places in the city where you can fish without a license. Exploring the tide-pools at Point Loma can be a whole afternoon’s entertainment, with their sea-stars and urchins—just wait for a fee-free day at Cabrillo National Monument. At Sunset, you’ll want to be at La Jolla Cove, with its insta-worthy sandstone cliffs.
Find a Bird’s Eye View
Getting high has always been legal in California—and yes, we’re referring to finding an epic view. Our favorite vista in San Diego is from the clifftop Torrey Pines State Park, where sky-high pine trees stand watch over 1,500 acres of wilderness and seaside lagoons. For a sweeping panorama of La Jolla’s beaches, the mountaintop Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial is the spot. At the new, design-forward branch of the San Diego Public Library, you can get a killer view of the skyline from the rooftop cafe.
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Live it Up
San Diego’s so close to Mexico you can practically touch it, so why not take a day trip to Tijuana? Crime is down, and the hipster-fun is up. Tijuana’s now known for its affordable steakhouses and a burgeoning art scene, and its streets lined with crayola-bright buildings are great for window shopping (FYI, entering the country is free for a day trip if you’re on-foot). Of course, there’s plenty of raucous free fun to be had in downtown San Diego proper, like listening to the bands playing al fresco at Seaport Village, overlooking the yachts of the bay, or even a fee-free beer bus to local bars.
Pack your sunscreen because 70-degree days are the norm here. Hike along Lake Poway and amid boulders to get to Potato Chip Rock, which looks like—you guessed it—a Lay’s Potato Chip, and makes for a great photo op. At the Tijuana Estuary (on this side of the border) you can borrow free binoculars at the visitor’s center to spot 370 species of birds as well as jackrabbits, lizards, and grey foxes. Don't miss a grunion run, when the fish come ashore to spawn on local beaches.
The third Thursday evening of every month, downtown San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art is gratis—making it the perfect night to see exhibitions like Jennifer Steinkamp’s Madame Curie video installation, a panoramic view of more than 40 flowers and trees mentioned in Curie’s biography. To find emerging artists, stop by Visual, an art gallery-meets-pop up shop in the North Park neighborhood with works by, say, local tattoo artists. Music obsessives might enjoy listening to a concert every Sunday afternoon at the 1914 Spreckels Organ Pavilion.
You haven’t properly visited San Diego until you’ve explored Balboa Park, a 1,200 acre expanse of Spanish-Renaissance-style museums and gardens. San Diego citizens get regular free entrance to certain museums (full list here) but there’s plenty to see and learn about without paying a dime, including the 1915 orchid-filled botanical building, with its lily pond. The first Tuesday of every month, the California Surf Museum is free, and all days are free days at San Diego Union Museum, a recreation of the 1868 newspaper office of the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Be California Cool
Just two hours from La-la-land, San Diego has long been home to legendary musicians like Eric Clapton. Learn how his instrument of choice, the guitar, gets made at Taylor Guitars (you'll see raw wood transformed). Film buffs will love The Pearl for their free dive-in movies set above an oyster-shaped turquoise pool, and food-obsessives won't want to miss the new Liberty Public Market, where free events include live music Sundays.
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Let the Kids go Crazy
In the city of SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo, and Legoland, kids are kings, but not everything has a royal price tag. The zoo is free for kids in October (normally $42 a head). Tweens might balk, but younger DIY types will love to make a kite and join the throngs at Mission Bay Park, where the sky teems with floating Technicolor creations. For the wee ones, Chula Vista Live Steamers offers a train ride around Rohr Park that children adore.