Free historic attractions abound in San Diego, including the restored buildings of the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park and the National Register of Historic Places-listed Gaslamp Quarter. A large number of free public beaches also offer opportunities for outdoor recreational activities, including swimming and surfing. Some attractions are free only on certain days – please check before you go.
© Courtesy of Art Boardman - Fotolia.com
Balboa Park is one of the United States' oldest dedicated urban public park spaces, set aside for future development in 1835 and officially developed into a park following the passing of protective legislation in 1870. Today, the park spans 1,200 acres northeast of the city's downtown center and is home to a vast number of cultural and family-friendly attractions, including the San Diego Museum of Art, the San Diego Natural History Museum, and the internationally-renowned San Diego Zoo. 17 landscaped garden spaces are displayed throughout the park, which is traversed by Cabrillo and Florida Canyons and divided into three separate mesa spaces. Other major attractions include the Balboa Park Carousel and Miniature Railroad, the Casa del Prado, which features buildings reconstructed from the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition, and a number of theatrical and concert amphitheater venues. Visitors should note that while park admission is free daily, many of the park's attractions require an individual ticketed upcharge.
2.Old Town San Diego
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Old Town San Diego is San Diego's oldest neighborhood, spanning 230 acres near Mission and Bankers Hills. The neighborhood was the site of present-day California's first European settlement, established in 1769 as the San Diego Presidio and Mission San Diego de Alcalá, and remained San Diego's city center until the mid-19th century. Today, the neighborhood is home to the National Register of Historic Places-listed Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, which is home to a wide variety of preserved historic buildings and public educational visitor attractions. Additional historic buildings are preserved as part of Heritage Park, including the city's first synagogue. More than 100 specialty shops are located throughout the neighborhood, including 12 art galleries and the authentic Mexican-style Bazaar del Mundo Shops. Public special events held in the district include the Old Town Art Festival, San Diego's Dia de los Muertos, and the two-day Fiesta Navidad holiday festival.
3.The Timken Museum of Art
© The Timken Museum of Art
The Timken Museum of Art is a fine arts museum within Balboa Park, located adjacent to the San Diego Museum of Art along the El Prado public boulevard. The museum was opened to the public in 1965 to display the private collection of Amy and Anne Putnam, curated by the museum's first director, Walter Ames. It is the only free-admission museum within Balboa Park, open to the public Tuesdays through Sundays during the morning and early afternoon hours. Significant collections of European master paintings are showcased at the museum, highlighting works by famed artists such as Rembrandt, Guercino, François Clouet, François Boucher, Jacques-Louis David, and Girolamo Savoldo. Major works by American artists are also displayed, including John Singleton Copley and Albert Bierstadt.
1500 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101, Phone: 619-239-5548
4.The Spruce Street Suspension Bridge
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The Spruce Street Suspension Bridge is a local favorite pedestrian suspension bridge located within the city's Bankers Hill neighborhood. The bridge was designed in 1912 by Edwin Capps and intended to connect the city's new Fourth and Fifth Avenue trolley lines, traversing the Sessions Canyon that was previously inaccessible to foot travel. Today, the bridge provides stunning views of the canyon from 70 feet in the air, spanning a length of 375 feet. As one of the city's most romantic hidden spots, it is a favorite off-the-beaten-path attraction for locals and tourists alike. It is accessible from Spruce Street near First Avenue, with free street parking available throughout the residential neighborhood. Visitors should note that the bridge can swing slightly during times of high wind or rainy weather conditions.
220 W Spruce St, San Diego, CA 92103
5.The Botanical Building
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The Botanical Building is one of Balboa Park's most-photographed visitor attractions, originally constructed for the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition. The historic building is one of the world's largest lath structures and showcases a collection of more than 2,100 permanent plantings, including significant collections of orchids, ferns, cycads, palms, and other tropical plants. A scratch-and-sniff garden is also highlighted within the building, along with seasonal plant displays. Outside the building, the Lily Pond and Lagoon, also constructed for the Exposition as a reflecting pool, is home to annual plantings of lotuses and water lilies. The building is open to the public during the morning and afternoon hours Fridays through Wednesdays, with the exception of major national holidays, and is located adjacent to the Timken Museum of Art.
1549 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101, Phone: 619-239-0512
6.The Torrey Pines Gliderport
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The Torrey Pines Gliderport is a municipal private-use glider airport in San Diego's La Jolla neighborhood, located approximately 11 miles from the city's downtown center. The gliderport was originally established in 1930 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, often considered to be the "Kitty Hawk of the West" by aviation enthusiasts. Famous aviators who have used the facility in the past include Charles Lindbergh, Woody Brown, and Helen Dick. Visitors may fly model planes, hang gliders, and paragliders at any time throughout the year, weather-permitting. Full-scale sailplanes may also be operated during special permit times in February, March, and April. In addition to flying capabilities, the site provides stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and the downtown San Diego region, with sandwiches and snacks offered for purchase at the facility's Cliff Hanger Cafe.
2800 Torrey Pines Scenic Dr, La Jolla, CA 92037, Phone: 858-452-9858
7.Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego
© Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego
Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego offers two locations throughout the San Diego region, including a downtown location and a second location in La Jolla. The museum was established in 1950 and preserves an internationally-renowned collection of more than 4,700 contemporary and modern artworks across genres such as painting, sculpture, photography, video, and installation, with a focus on raising the voices of emerging and under-recognized artists. Significant special collections include mid-century Pop Art, Latin American art, and artworks from the Tijuana region. The museum's downtown location is housed within the historic Jacobs Building, which formerly served as the baggage building for the Santa Fe Depot. At the La Jolla location, visitors can peruse the Edwards Garden Gallery and shop at the museum's X Store. Both locations offer free admission each third Thursday from 5:00pm to 7:00pm, with docent-led tours offered at 5:30pm for free.
1100 Kettner Blvd, San Diego, CA 92101, Phone: 858-454-3541
8.The Seeley Stable
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The Seeley Stable is a preserved mid-19th century barn used to house the stable horses and stagecoaches of stage line operator Albert Seeley, which conducted transportation services between San Diego and Los Angeles. The property was constructed in 1869, transforming a former two-story barn on farm property with a single-story rear room addition, power windmill, and surrounding sheds and fencing. Though the property was demolished in the late 1920s, it was reconstructed in 1974 and operates as a museum today, housed within Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. The museum offers free admission daily, showcasing collections of 19th-century overland transport equipment and vehicles, including a preserved Concord stagecoach, carreta ox-drawn cart, mud wagon, and tow-wagon freighter. A theater is also offered at the museum, presenting plays and public special events throughout the summer months.
4002 Wallace St, San Diego, CA 92110, Phone: 619-220-5422
9.Coronado Municipal Beach
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Coronado Municipal Beach was voted as the United States' top public beach in 2012 by the annual "Dr. Beach" survey, which ranks the nation's public beaches according to environmental and tourist accommodation factors. The beach showcases four public areas, including Coronado City Beach, Centennial Park, Glorietta Bay Park, and Tidelands Park, which all offer water access, picnic areas, and children's playgrounds. It is known for its glittering sand, which is caused by the presence of mica in beach sand deposits. Other popular visitor activities at the beach include coastline strolling, kite flying, surfing, and volleyball, which is permitted at several beachfront courts. Along the beach's northern end, dogs are allowed to roam freely with owner supervision. The beach is also home to the Hotel Del Coronado, constructed in 1888, which has hosted international luminaries such as Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Strand Way, Coronado, CA 92118, Phone: 619-552-7300
10.The Children's Pool
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The Children's Pool is a small public beach in La Jolla that is partially protected by a seawall, offering free public access between May and December. It was originally created after the 1931 construction of a concrete breakwater with a gift from regional philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps, who wished to create a safe water play spot for area children. The picturesque beach offers stunning panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and is a popular spot for scuba divers due to nearby offshore reefs. In recent years, the beach has become a popular but controversial spot for harbor seal watching, home to a colony of more than 200 seals since the mid-1990s. Visitors should note that while swimming is permitted at the beach, it is discouraged due to the amount of bacteria in the water from seal populations. Visitors are also asked to exercise caution and respect when interacting with the beach's seal population.
850 Coast Boulevard, Village of La Jolla, CA 92037
11.San Diego Public Libraries
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San Diego Public Libraries were established in 1882 as the city's official public library system, opening their first location to the public in July of that year at the city's former Commercial Bank building. IN 1899, the library system was the first public library system west of the Mississippi River to receive a federal Carnegie Library grant. Today, it operates 36 branches throughout the greater San Diego region, including the San Diego Central Library, located on Park Boulevard in the city's downtown. The central library is home to the e3 Civic High School charter school, the only school in the nation housed within a library, and the second-largest baseball memorabilia collection in the United States. On the library's third floor, an Innovation Lab offers 3D printing services and maker workshops and equipment.
330 Park Blvd, San Diego, CA 92101, Phone: 619-236-5800
12.The San Diego Embarcadero
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The San Diego Embarcadero is a major cruise ship hub and harbor in downtown San Diego, home to a wide variety of maritime-themed tourist attractions and retail establishments. The harbor's name means "gathering place" in Spanish and is located along the eastern side of San Diego Bay. It is home to the USS Midway Museum, which preserves the longest-serving aircraft carrier in America and showcases more than 35 exhibits on American maritime and naval military history, and the Maritime Museum of San Diego, which is home to one of the world's largest collections of historic ships. Outdoor recreational opportunities are offered at San Diego County Waterfront Park, while more than 50 shops and restaurants are found at the Seaport Village retail complex. Visitors should note that while the Embarcadero may be explored free of charge, many attractions within the harbor require individual ticket upcharges.
N Harbor Dr, San Diego, CA 92101, Phone: 619-686-6570
13.Torrey Pines State Beach
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Torrey Pines State Beach is a public beach located near La Jolla along Highway 101, adjacent to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve Park. The beach is a popular spot for surfing, swimming, bodyboarding, and sunbathing, showcasing spectacular landscapes of 300-foot sandstone cliffs cultivated by coastal erosion. It is noted as a spot for occasional bioluminescence, particularly at the Los Peñasquitos Lagoon, and is home to a number of coastal bird species. Limited free visitor parking is offered at the South Beach kiosk, with additional street parking offered along Highway 101. To avoid crowds and find free parking, visitors should arrive at the beach during the morning or early afternoon hours.
Torrey Preserve, CA 92037, Phone: 858-755-2063
14.The Wells Fargo Museum
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The Wells Fargo Museum preserves an historic Wells Fargo agent office within Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, located within the park's historic Colorado House. The museum is one of 12 museums operated throughout the United States by Wells Fargo and Company, an American financial services corporation that was originally established in 1852 following the California Gold Rush and has become the second-largest bank in the world today. Exhibits and artifacts on display at the museum include an original 1867 Concord stagecoach, an 1855 panoramic painting of the city of San Diego, a 19th-century pocket watch, and two authentic preserved telegraphs. The museum is open to the public every day during business hours, with the exception of major national banking holidays. Guided tours of the museum are offered with advance reservations for small groups and organizations. A variety of special event programming is offered at the museum annually, including a holiday open house that offers refreshments and children's crafts during Old Town San Diego's winter holiday festivities.
2733 San Diego Ave, San Diego, California 92110, Phone: 619-238-3929
15.Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California, spanning over 600,000 acres throughout the Borrego Springs region. The park is named after 18th-century explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and is located approximately two hours northeast of San Diego, stretching across a distance of 50 by 25 miles near the Santa Rosa, Pinyon, Borrego, Jacumba, and Bucksnort mountain ranges. Natural features showcased in the park's terrain include the Carrizo Badlands and the Salton Trough, with more than 500 miles of vehicular roads available to explore the park's varied terrain areas. At the park's visitor center, a full-sized model of an Aiolornis incredibilis model is showcased, along with a number of exhibits on the region's natural and social history.
200 Palm Canyon Dr, Borrego Springs, CA 92004, Phone: 760-767-4205
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Dog Beach in San Diego was one of the nation's first leash-free beaches, originally established in 1972 by the Ocean Beach town Council. The beach is located in the San Diego community of Ocean Beach, near the ending point of Interstate 8 and the mouth of the San Diego River. Dogs of all breeds are permitted on the beach with current vaccination proof and dog licenses. Lifeguards are staffed at the beach during peak season, with swimming and surfing permitted for human visitors. Public restrooms and showers are offered, along with nearby volleyball courts and picnic areas. A large free parking lot is offered, along with ample street parking available near the beach.
San Diego, CA 92109
17.First San Diego Courthouse
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First San Diego Courthouse is one of many preserved or recreated historic structures within Old Town San Diego State Park, originally designed as a town hall building for the city following the arrival of the Mormon Battalion to the region in 1847. Throughout the mid-19th century, the building served as the city's courthouse, polling place, church, and educational building before it was destroyed in a fire in 1872. In 1992, the building was reconstructed by the First San Diego Courthouse Association for use as a public living history museum. The free-admission museum preserves a variety of artifacts related to the city's early civic history, including recreated court and sheriff's offices and a recreated jail cell.
2733 San Diego Ave, San Diego, CA 92110, Phone: 619-220-5422
18.The Gaslamp Quarter
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The Gaslamp Quarter is one of San Diego's hippest and most historic neighborhoods, spanning 16.5 blocks throughout the city's downtown district. Despite the city's name, it was not powered by or decorated with gaslamps until its 1980s urban revitalization. Today, it is the site of some of the city's top public festivals and special events, including its Mardi Gras celebration, St. Patrick's Day festival, and the Street Scene Music Festival. 94 historic buildings are preserved as part of the neighborhood's National Register of Historic Places listing, including the William Heath Davis House, the oldest surviving structure in the city's Old Town, and the NRHP-listed I.O.O.F. Building. A walking tour brochure of the neighborhood may be obtained from the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation, allowing visitors to explore the neighborhood's historic structures and areas. Additionally, the neighborhood is home to some of San Diego's hottest nightlife spots, including independent theatrical and music venues, dive bars, nightclubs, and cocktail lounges.
19.Harper's Topiary Garden
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Harper's Topiary Garden is a cultivated outdoor garden and topiary museum located at the private residence of Mission Hills resident Edna Harper. Over the past two decades, Harper and her husband Alex have crafted more than 50 elaborate topiary sculptures on their sprawling, hilly property, with many inspired by the couple's world travels throughout their marriage. Notable sculptures include a dinosaur, a buddha figure, an animal menagerie with whales and elephant herds, and a portrait sculpture of the couple's personal gardener. New fantastical topiary sculptures are added to the property on an ongoing basis and may be viewed on foot or by car. Though visitors are welcome to explore the couple's outdoor museum, all visitors are asked to respect that the topiary museum is private property.
3549 Union Street, San Diego, California, 92103
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Julian is a popular getaway town approximately one hour east of San Diego, located within the foothills of the stunning Cuyamaca mountain range. The city was originally developed as a gold mining town during California's Gold Rush and is accessible via state highways 78 and 79, showcasing preserved historic attractions and buildings dating back to the mid-19th century within its Designated Historical District. Its cold-weather climate makes it a unique getaway within the Southern California region. Apple orchards abound, inspiring the city's annual October Apple Festival, which crafts and sells more than 10,000 apple pies each week. A wide variety of other festivals are held annually in the city, including the Fat Tire Bike Festival, the Vintage Cookbook Fair, the Julian Community Fourth of July Parade, and an annual Music at the Marketplace series in November. Picnic sites, hiking trails, boating launches, and fishing piers also provide spots for free outdoor recreation.
P.O. Box 1866, Julian, CA 92036, Phone: 760-765-1857
21.La Jolla Shores Beach
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La Jolla Shores Beach is a mile-long public beach in La Jolla, located adjacent to San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve. The beach is known for its gentle rolling waves during the summer months and is one of nine beaches in the San Diego region staffed by permanent staffs of city lifeguards. It is a popular seasonal spot for swimming, surfing, kayaking, scuba diving, paddleboarding, and sunbathing, though visitors should note that fishing is prohibited due to the beach's proximity to the bordering ecological reserve. Picnic areas are available at nearby Kellogg Park, which offers a large public parking lot area, though visitors should be advised that parking fills up quickly during peak times. Leashed and well-behaved dogs are permitted at the beach during the early morning and late evening hours between April and October.
Camino Del Oro and Calle Frescota, La Jolla, CA 92037
22.Mission Bay Park
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Mission Bay Park is the nation's largest aquatic park, spanning more than 4,235 acres of land and water areas along 27 miles of shoreline throughout San Diego. The park sees over 15 million annual visitors and offers ample opportunities for outdoor recreational activities, including eight beach areas specifically designated as official swimming sites. Boat docks and rentals are offered, along with bike rentals for use on hiking and biking paths throughout the park's lands. Other popular activities include volleyball, kite flying, sunbathing, and picnicking, with 28 public restroom and shower facilities offered throughout the park for visitor use. Nearby paid-admission attractions include SeaWorld San Diego and the Bahia Belle sternwheeler boat, which offers moonlit cruises.
2688 E Mission Bay Dr, San Diego, CA 92109
23.Moonlight State Beach
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Moonlight State Beach is a California state park and beach that is overseen by the City of Encinitas, serving as the town's primary recreational facility. The beach is accessible via Interstate 5 at the western end of Encinitas Boulevard, with free street parking available nearby throughout the town. It is ideal for beginner surfers, due to the beach's gradual slope and safe water conditions. Other popular activities include swimming, sunbathing, and tennis and volleyball at nearby beachfront courts. Lifeguards are staffed at the beach during peak season, with public restrooms and showers available for visitor use. Children's playground areas are also offered, along with public-use picnic tables and fire pits.
386 B Street, Encinitas, CA 92024
24.59 Mile Scenic Drive
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59 Mile Scenic Drive is the official city route for exploring San Diego's top attractions, including attractions along the city's Embarcadero waterfront district such as the Maritime Museum of San Diego and the Cruise Ship Terminal. Maps of the drive are available at the city's Visitor Information Center, with color-coded signs showcased throughout the drive at every quarter-mile marker. Major attractions showcased along the drive's route including Spanish Landing and Shelter Island, which are home to the Yokohama Friendship Bell, a monument symbolizing the city's relationship with its Japanese sister city. From there, the drive continues on to attractions such as Cabrillo National Monument, Mission Bay Aquatic Park, and Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, with public parking provided for attractions along the way. The route ends at the Embarcadero's Seaport Village after passing Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo, taking approximately three hours to complete without factoring in time for attraction stops.
25 Best Free Things to Do in San Diego Year Round
- Balboa Park, Photo: Courtesy of Art Boardman - Fotolia.com
- Old Town San Diego, Photo: Courtesy of georgeburba - Fotolia.com
- The Timken Museum of Art, Photo: The Timken Museum of Art
- The Spruce Street Suspension Bridge, Photo: Courtesy of sherryvsmith - Fotolia.com
- The Botanical Building, Photo: Courtesy of Kit Leong - Fotolia.com
- The Torrey Pines Gliderport, Photo: Courtesy of David Levin - Fotolia.com
- Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Photo: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego
- The Seeley Stable, Photo: Courtesy of Gabriele Maltinti - Fotolia.com
- Coronado Municipal Beach, Photo: Courtesy of Natalia Bratslavsky - Fotolia.com
- The Children's Pool, Photo: Courtesy of Steve Minkler - Fotolia.com
- San Diego Public Libraries, Photo: Courtesy of ilandavid - Fotolia.com
- The San Diego Embarcadero, Photo: Courtesy of Jo Ann Snover - Fotolia.com
- Torrey Pines State Beach, Photo: Courtesy of Anne Worth - Fotolia.com
- The Wells Fargo Museum, Photo: Courtesy of savelov - Fotolia.com
- Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Photo: Courtesy of Zack Frank - Fotolia.com
- Dog Beach, Photo: Courtesy of everydoghasastory - Fotolia.com
- First San Diego Courthouse, Photo: Courtesy of BirgitKorber - Fotolia.com
- The Gaslamp Quarter, Photo: Courtesy of vivalapenler - Fotolia.com
- Harper's Topiary Garden, Photo: Courtesy of ThomBal - Fotolia.com
- Julian, Photo: Courtesy of Mary - Fotolia.com
- La Jolla Shores Beach, Photo: Courtesy of Mcdonojj - Fotolia.com
- Mission Bay Park, Photo: Courtesy of Gabriele Maltinti - Fotolia.com
- Moonlight State Beach, Photo: Courtesy of sherryvsmith - Fotolia.com
- 59 Mile Scenic Drive, Photo: Courtesy of tibor13 - Fotolia.com
- Cover Photo: Courtesy of Sean Xu - Fotolia.com