18 Must See Attractions When Visiting San Diego

The 18 “Best Bet” Must See Attractions in San Diego

Planning a trip to San Diego? Be sure to see our San Diego Visitor Guidefor a thorough insider’s guide to all the communities, attractions, water and land activities available to you while enjoying your stay in San Diego!

Whether you are staying in a La Jolla hotel or somewhere in theSan Diego Gaslamp Quarter, you are no doubt close to many fun San Diego attractions. A list of places to go and things to do in San Diego County could be endless. And so unless you are staying in San Diego for a month or more, you can’t possibly see everything.

This is why we offer you a quick guide to 18 “Best Bet” San Diego Attractions to visit while vacationing in San Diego.  While our list of 18 “Best Bets” barely scratches the surface of possibilities, it’s a great way for San Diego visitors to get started.

1. La Jolla

La Jolla California MontageSynonymous with wealth, beauty, culture and elegance, La Jolla is internationally known as one of the most fashionable residential, commercial and resort areas in the world. Often called the French Riviera of the U.S., La Jolla’s seven miles of jagged coastline are the most picturesque in the country and the La Jolla beaches with their soft white sand easily rival any of those found in the south of France. La Jolla offers more cultural activities than one has time for, including a world-class contemporary art museum, a chamber orchestra. La Jolla’s shopping district along Prospect Street and Girard Avenue, has a glamorous international feel and appeal along with many art galleries, unique specialty shops where you can buy uniquely La Jollan gifts and of course there are many fine La Jolla restaurants.

And for a special detailed article on La Jolla lifestyle, history, attractions and more, visit our La Jolla neighborhood page within our insider visitor guide.

2. Balboa Park & Balboa Park Gardens

Balboa Park Architecture

Perhaps one of the most beautiful parks on the West Coast, Balboa Park’s 1158 acres is lushly landscaped with exotic trees, plants and flowers. Named after the Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa, this magnificent city park abounds with museums, theatres and art. Visit San Diego’s Balboa Park for among many other things, its many unique gardens, such as the Rose Garden, the Japanese Friendship Garden , the Botanical Garden and Alcazar Garden. The Spanish-Moorish architecture of its many fine theatres and museums makes Balboa Park one of San Diego’s most visited attractions.

Contact Balboa Park here for more detailed park information.

3. San Diego Zoo

Visit San Diego Zoo to See Amazing Gorillas

Known around the world as America’s Finest Zoo, the San Diego Zoo is Balboa Park’s biggest attraction. The zoo spreads over 110 acres of native and exotic flora with exhibits of rare and exotic animals in their natural habitat. Don’t miss the newest exhibit which just opened in Summer 2011 – Panda Trek. Here you can explore the world of the Giant Panda and other wildlife that share the forests of China. Among many highlights, visitors to San Diego Zoo must not miss the Gorilla exhibit where only a thin plate of glass separates visitors from these captivating mammals. Other great exhibits are Tiger River, an exciting tropical wonderland, the lively Pygmy Chimps and the Wings of Australasia, an incredible aviary complex filled with colorful, rare birds. Special for summer months is “Nighttime at the Zoo” where you can see nocturnal animals on the go and a laser light show. To learn more, contact San Diego Zoo here.

4. The Gaslamp Quarter

Historic Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego

Historic Gaslamp Quarter

An arched iron gate, red brick sidewalks and gaslight-style street lamps welcome downtown San Diego visitors to this renovated historic neighborhood. Stretching over a 16 block area of downtown San Diego, the Gaslamp Quarter has been designated a National Historic District. Many buildings built before the turn of the century have been renovated to become authentic and historical reminders of San Diego’s Victorian past. The Gaslamp is most well-known not for the architecture but for the boutique hotels, trendy restaurants, coffee houses, night clubs and specialty shops found within the buildings. The Gaslamp Quarter is a must-see for any San Diego visitor.

5. Belmont Park

Belmont Park Giant Dipper Roller Coaster

Just off shore from Mission Beach is historic Belmont Park featuring the Giant Dipper. This half-mile wooden track roller coaster is fully restored and as much fun as the original. With its sharp curves, dips and 70-foot drop it’s an incredible delight. But that’s not all you’ll find at Belmont Park. Ride the antique classic Liberty Carousel, swim at San Diego’s largest indoor swimming pool, play video games at the arcade or if you are truly adventurous, surf or body-board on the man-made Wave.

6. Coronado

Coronado Bridge in San Diego

A Nighttime Drive Over Coronado Bridge Will Be a Highlight of Your San Diego Vacation

An island-like city, Coronado is one of the most beautiful communities in San Diego and is a definite “must see” for any San Diego visitor. The magnificent Hotel del Coronado stands out as the island’s crown jewel but there is so much more. Take the Coronado Ferry across San Diego Bay to reach Coronado and be sure to enjoy the Old Ferry Landing where you’ll be left off before moving on to the shop tree-lined Orange Avenue and the beauty of Spreckels Park. Best of all, catch the panoramic view as you drive across Coronado Bay Bridge. To learn more, contact City of Coronado here.

7. Seaport Village

Seaport Village San Diego, California

Enjoy sightseeing, shopping and waterfront dining at spectacular Seaport Village. This shopping extravaganza not only offers a fun day for shoppers and families but also provides a panoramic view of the San Diego skyline, the Coronado Bridge and the San Diego Bay. See fishing boats which sell their catches to San Diego’s oldest fish markets, and ride Seaport Village’s main attraction – a beautifully restored 1890s, Broadway “Flying Horses” Looff Carousel. Seaport Village is great for families as you will find a face painter, balloon artist and even a caricature artist so that you can take your memories home with you.

For hours and information, contact Seaport Village here.

8. Embarcadero

Star Of India

Star Of India

You won’t want to miss the Maritime Museum, home to the renown Star of India, a historic, fully-rigged merchant sailing ship built in 1863 and brought to San Diego in 1926. Along with the Star of India, the Maritime Museum includes two other vessels, the Medea and Berkeley. On board and below deck, the Star of India showcases nautical instruments and other paraphernalia from the long past era of sailing ships, swashbucklers and pirates.

Walk along San Diego Bay to find excellent seafood and be sure not to miss the USS Midway Museum which is just steps away!!

9. Del Mar Fairgrounds: Del Mar Race Track & San Diego County Fair

Del Mar Race Track

Horses Cross the Finish Line at the Del Mar Race Track

Every summer the quiet coastal community of Del Mar comes alive with the opening of the San Diego County Fair (formerly the Del Mar Fair) and the Del Mar Race Track. For summer fair lovers, Del Mar is one of the best, complete with concerts, blue-ribbon farm animal including local cows, goats, horses and giant pigs. And of course, San Diego visitors will be treated to many exciting coasters, fair games and more. For those interested in Fair food, you won’t be disappointed as the San Diego County Fair has everything – fried Oreo, chocolate bacon, giant turkey legs and anything else you could imagine. Soon after the Fair wraps up on July 4, horse racing enthusiasts turn their attention to the Del Mar Race Track, a magnificent seaside oval, which opens July 20, 2011 and is home to the top thoroughbreds in the nation. If you are visiting La Jolla, Del Mar or any other recommended San Diego communities to visit between July 20-September 7, the Del Mar Race Track is guaranteed fun. Alcohol and gambling play a big role at the Track and so although watching the races can be great fun for kids of all ages, think about this if you are bringing the entire family along. To learn more, contact the Del Mar Race Track here.

10. Sea World San Diego

Sea World San Diego

Experience the creatures and mammals of the sea at this world-famous marine life park. Located in Mission Bay just south of La Jolla, Sea World San Diego is one of the most popular tourist attractions in San Diego.  Join Shamu, the world’s most well known Killer Whale, and all his friends.  Sea World is best known for its animal shows, which include performances by dolphins and of course the famous sea lions and otters. The penguin Encounter exhibit, home to the largest collection of penguins outside the Antarctic, is a particular highlight and Sea World’s Summer Nights caps off each evening with spectacular fireworks lighting up San Diego’s skies.

To learn more, contact Sea World San Diego here.

11. Old Town

Old Town Streetcar Homes

Old Town Streetcar Homes

Once the hub of early San Diego life, Old Town stands today as a reminder of the past. Step back in time when visiting Old Town and see some of San Diego’s original structures, including its first cemetery. At the center of Old Town is Bazaar Del Mundo, a Spanish style plaza with festive shops, mariachi musicians and colorful dancers. Old Town is also home to some of the best San Diego dining including of course many Mexican Restaurants. But there are also some excellent Italian Restaurants to wet your appetite.

To learn more, contact the Old Town Chamber.

12.  San Diego’s MissionsMission Basilica San Diego de Alcala & Mission San Luis Rey

Missoin San Diego de Alcala

Missoin San Diego de Alcala

The Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala is commonly referred to as the birthplace of Christianity in the West as it was the first California Mission. In 1769, Spanish missionaries, led by Father Junipero Serra, built the first of 21 California Missions in what is now known as the Presidio Park community of San Diego. Today you can still see historical artifacts of this Mission at the Serra Museum. The Mission San Diego de Alcala was finished in 1774 but was completely restored in 1931. The Mission is open for tours daily and is a wonderful family attraction for San Diego visitors. To learn more, contact the Mission San Diego de Alcala here.

The largest of California’s 21 missions, Mission San Luis Rey was built in 1798. Located in Oceanside, the “King of the Missions” was once home to a large Native American population of more than 3,000 people. Oceanside can be a far drive for San Diego visitors and so it’s not for everybody but you can make a day out of it and visit some of the beach towns in North County, including Encinitas, Solana Beach and Del Mar. To learn more, contact Mission San Luis Rey here.

13.  Mission Bay

Mission Bay In San Diego, California

Mission Bay In San Diego, California

The largest city aquatic park in the country, Mission Bay provides nature and fitness lovers with an ideal in-city recreational center. Once a broad lagoon, today this 4,600 acres of land and water is the perfect place for visitors to enjoy many San Diego water activities such as boating, sailing, water and jet skiing, fishing and swimming. And Mission Bay is also great for San Diego land activities such as kite flying, volleyball, jogging, bicycling and just about ever other type of outdoor recreational activity San Diego has to offer. Grassy picnic areas, fire rings, playgrounds and sandy beaches make Mission Bay a San Diego family favorite for both visitors and locals.

14.  Cabrillo National Monument

Old Point Loma Lighthouse

Old Point Loma Lighthouse

On the tip of Point Loma standing tall overlooking the city and the bay is the Cabrillo National Monument which commemorates Juan Rodrigues Cabrillo’s discover of California. Tour the Old Point Loma Lighthouse and marvel at the incredible San Diego city skyline. Take a guided tour around the point and stop at the whale-watching station to observe migrating gray whales.

To learn more, contact Cabrillo National Monument here.

15. San Diego Zoo Safari Park – Wild Animal Park

San Diego Wild Animal Park African Lions

African Lions at the San Diego Wild Animal Park

Want to take a trip to Africa but can’t find the time? Not to worry, just 30 miles north of downtown San Diego is the incredible 1,800-acre Safari Park preserve where wild animals roam amid exotic settings. A favorite among San Diego visitors is Flightline Safari which allows you to soar above the Park exhibits on a 2/3 mile zip line. Visitors can also meet giraffes and rhinos up-close while riding through the Park in a safari truck. And for a truly special memory, you can call ahead to book a special overnight camping adventure!

To learn more, contact San Diego Safari Park here.

16. Birch Aquarium at Scripps

Birch Aquarium In La Jolla, California

Birch Aquarium Visitors Get A Up-Close and Personal Look at Marine Life

Birch Aquarium is an affiliate of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the University of California, San Diego. Giant kelp forests, tide pools, sharks and octopus inhabit the huge tanks which are designed to simulate marine life habitats just off the coast of La Jolla. One of many attractions that make living and visiting La Jolla truly special, the Birch Aquarium allows for a fascinating, educational and fun place to visit. Take a 5 minute ride into La Jolla Village to enjoy the fantastic Restaurants in Downtown La Jolla Village, do some shopping in La Jolla for Antiques or Jewelry or relax at a La Jolla Day Spa, Nail Salon or Massage Studio.

To learn more, contact Birch Aquarium here.

17.  Torrey Pines State Reserve

Torrey Pines State Reserve In La Jolla, California

Torrey Pines State Reserve In La Jolla

Marvel at pristine nature on this 1,100-acre coastal park located between La Jolla and Del Mar. Originally formed to preserve the Torrey Pine, a tree that grows in only one other place in the world, this park has miles and miles of trails perfect for hiking and viewing native vegetation.  Torey Pines State Reserve has great hiking trails perfect for walking and running.  To learn more, contact Torrey Pines State Reserve here.

18.  San Diego Botanic Garden – Quail Botanical Gardens

Botanic Garden

Thirty acres of lush gardens tucked away in Encinitas, the San Diego Botanic Gardens is a botanical paradise and one of San Diego’s best kept secrets. An unusual 31-acre county park, the Gardens showcase many different species of plants and exotic flora which thrive in San Diego’s subtropical climate. Be sure to visit the bird sanctuary where visitors can feed quail and other birds.

NOW IT’S TIME TO DO ALL 18 “BEST BET” ACTIVITIES DURING YOUR VISIT TO SAN DIEGO

To learn more much more about San Diego, visit San Diego’s BEST VISITOR GUIDE!

Well, you have read all 18 of our Can’t miss San Diego Attractions. There is so much to see but we believe you can’t go wrong by including some or all of these 18 “Best Bet” Things To Do While Visiting San Diego. We hope that you enjoy your vacation.

Blue Book Publishers is a local community resource providing  local business and community information for La Jolla, Rancho Santa Fe and several other small coastal  communities which comprise San Diego.

We produce “local” tips and “insider” information that San Diego visitors love. When planning your San Diego vacation, we encourage you to see our San Diego Neighborhood Guide to learn more about the local communities to visit in San Diego and be sure to see other blog posts for San Diego travel tips covering a wide array of topics including best places to see 4th of July Fireworks, the Smartest Way to Travel While Visiting San Diego and Dog Friendly Hotels in La Jolla.

Enjoy your San Diego Vacation – it is a wonderful place to visit!

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Vanessa Turkeltaub
Vanessa Turkeltaub graduated from UC San Diego with a BA in Communication. She has been with Blue Book Publishers for over 5 years, and has written over five-hundred La Jolla related articles. She enjoys going to concerts, art, and traveling. (vanessa@lajollabluebook.com)

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