Some of the best things in life are free, and that’s certainly no exception in San Diego. The seaside city may be dotted with skyscrapers, multi-million dollar homes, and fine dining options – but you don’t need to shell out your whole paycheck to have a good time here, even if it just means laying a blanket out on the beach and soaking in the warm California sun. So forget pricey attractions like Sea World and the San Diego Zoo, and take your family & friends to some of these more affordable (but just as awesome) places around the city instead.
1. Visit Balboa Park
Minutes from downtown, Balboa Park is packed with things to do, some of which don’t require digging into your wallet. There are lovely, elegant gardens and walking trails you can explore for no cost, as well as a Botanical Building and Timken Art Museum that offer free admission.
If you do have a little cash to splurge, you could really spend all day here. There’s a wide range of museums (including the Air & Space Museum, Automotive Museum, Museum of Man, and others for art lovers and history buffs), kid-friendly attractions (like the Balboa Park Carousel and Miniature Railroad), restaurants serving a variety of cuisine, and a range of performances, from the traditional ballet and dance to an actual puppet show theater.
2. Drive to the top of Mount Soledad in La Jolla
Not only does Mount Soledad give panoramic views of San Diego and the Pacific Ocean from up top, but this peak in La Jolla has a lot of fascinating stories behind it. The mountaintop is home to the last house Dr. Seuss lived in before he died, and where his widow, Audrey Geisel, still resides today. There’s also an urban legend that back in the ’30s, a group of former Munchkins from movies like “The Wizard Of Oz” built a colony of tiny homes on the slope of the mountain.
Regardless, driving to the top is still a fun way to get spectacular views of San Diego without spending anything (aside from gas). Also from the top of the peak, you can stop and marvel at the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial, a beautiful tribute to fallen soldiers.
3. Walk (or bike) the Mission Beach Boardwalk
Walking or biking the Mission Beach Boardwalk is a great way to take in oceanside views without having to break open your piggy bank. The concrete walkway runs for about 3-and-a-half miles from North Pacific Beach to South Mission Beach. If you happen to have a $10 bill on you, swing by Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach and grab a bite to eat from any of the local restaurants (like Kono’s Cafe, where there’s fluffy pancakes and a patio with oceanfront views).
4. Explore Old Town San Diego
Old Town holds a special part of San Diego history. Marking where the first Spanish settlement happened on the West Coast, this historical park is said to be the “birthplace of California”. The park includes acres of vibrant shops, historical sites, charming old-style buildings, and restaurants varying from Mexican fare to seafood and Italian. While you’re here, swing by the free William B. Kolender Sheriff’s Museum and browse the displays of old badges, uniforms, weapons, and jail cells.
5. Hike to Black’s Beach from Torrey Pines Gliderport
This trek to Black’s Beach won’t cost you a penny – there’s even free parking in the lot at the Gliderport. But it will give you wide open views of the Pacific Ocean – and after climbing back up the steep pathway – very sore muscles later on the next day. The path winds along a cliff face for about 0.4 miles to one of San Diego’s most secluded beaches, beneath the bluffs of Torrey Pines. When you reach the bottom, keep in mind: the stretch of coastline is so remote it’s widely known to be clothing-optional.
6. Check out Seaport Village
Set along San Diego Bay, Seaport Village is a fun complex to browse whether or not you have money to spend. It’s a little touristy, but there are so many things to love about it. You can find charming shopping & dining options galore – including small vendors and artists – or just walk around and enjoy live music and free outdoor entertainment almost every afternoon.
7. Have a picnic at La Jolla Cove
Among the ocean views and sandstone cliffs, La Jolla Cove is one of the most beautiful spots in San Diego to sprawl out a blanket on the sand and eat a sandwich. You might also be able to score one of the picnic tables above the shores at Scripps Park – but show up early – they tend to fill up pretty quick.
8. Wander around San Diego’s “Little Italy”
Instead of getting a passport and paying for a flight to Italy, save your funds and experience the same culture in this hilly side of downtown San Diego. The community was originally established as an Italian fishing neighborhood, and now serves as a quaint home to Italian cafes, shops, pubs, art galleries, hotels, and Amici Park. They hold festivals all throughout the year, as well as a weekly can’t-miss farmers market, known as Mercado.
Have you been to any of these places before? What are some of your favorite free (or cheap) things to do around San Diego?