I love San Diego, and I’ve been taking my family and out-of-town visitors to “see the sights” for 27 years now. Not just the touristy things that suck up all your money, but the things that San Diego residents do over and over again–because they’re proven to be enjoyable and don’t cost anything. So here’s my list of the best free things to do in San Diego. I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy them whether you’re just visiting for a few days or living in “America’s Finest City.” This is part one of a continuing series of free things to do in San Diego.
Take a stroll along the coastline
of Pacific Beach on a paved path (Ocean Front Walk) that goes from Law Street all the way to South Mission Beach. It’s a three-mile path that’s packed with oceanfront vacation homes, restaurants, bike rental shops, and views of the beach for the entire stretch. Highlights include Crystal Pier Hotel at Garnet Ave–a fishing pier built in 1927 with original beach cottages, the Wave House, and Belmont Park’s historic 1925 Giant Dipper Roller Coaster. You will find several grassy parks, and public restrooms are at the foot of Ventura Pl., the south side of Belmont Park, and at South Mission Beach Park. There are plenty of parking lots, but my favorite place to park is on Law Street—it’s not as crowded at that end of the beach.
Hike in Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
This is a beautiful stretch of land above the beach with a variety of hiking trails and a museum. It doesn’t cost anything to walk into the park, and there are free parking spaces along the beach, but it might be easier to pay for parking in the south parking lot ($10-$20). That will allow you to park in the Museum parking lot at the top of the hill as well. Try the Guy Fleming loop trail for starters–it’s only about 1 mile with breath-taking views of the beach.
Attend the San Diego County Fair
For free admission, submit an entry for judging–it can be a flower, a photo, an animal, or whatever! And for free parking, park off-site where shuttles will whisk you to the fair entrance (the Del Mar Horse Park is our favorite place to park). Prepare to be wowed by exhibits, art and photography, gemstones and woodwork, festive foods, colorful lights and displays, and free concerts most nights. In 2016, the San Diego County Fair is open from Jun 3-Jul 4 (excluding these dates: June 6, 7, 13, 14, 20, and 27). I’ve written more information about the Fair here.
Don’t miss Cruisin’ Grand in Escondido
Cruisin’ Grand is the #1 car cruise in America. (Escondido isn’t technically in San Diego, but just a short drive north.) Every Friday evening April to September, from 5 – 9 pm, you’ll see cars from 1973 and earlier: classics, customs, vintage, muscle, and hot rods cruising down W. Grand Avenue. There are Name That Tune & Hula Hoop contests, bands and performers, sidewalk sales , and food vendors, along with crowds of young and old alike strolling Grand and checking out all the action. I’m not a car fanatic, but I actually really enjoy this outing, and I bet you will, too.
Spend some time at La Jolla Cove
snorkeling and relaxing at the park. There’s no charge for parking or snorkeling at this protected marine reserve. Below the kelp beds, you’ll see a variety of fish and sea life, including the bright orange garibaldi. Plenty of pelicans and sea lions, too. The lawn above the cove is great for frisbee, football, or picnicking. Once you’re here, you may also want to see the nearby Sunny Jim Cave for a small fee. It was once used to smuggle Chinese immigrants and contraband whiskey! I wouldn’t take young children, because it can be a little slippery from moisture and there are a LOT of stairs.
For more ideas, see part 2 of my Best Free Things to in San Diego series…
And here’s another hidden free gem near San Diego…the Stein Family Farm