Unique and free in San Diego? If you’re asking, “What should I do in San Diego?”, a long-time resident might be the best qualified to answer. Who else will know the best tourist sites, the best attractions, the hidden gems, unique things to do, and everything that’s free? Here’s where I step in with a fun list of 10 unique and free things you can do in and near San Diego!
1. Mt Soledad National Veterans Memorial
Perched high atop Mt. Soledad in the La Jolla community of San Diego is the Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial. You can’t miss the 29-ft tall cross on top of a 14-ft platform because you can see it from many miles away. Surrounding the cross are walls covered with the images and stories of over 3200 veterans. It’s the only memorial that honors both the living and the deceased, with photo images. A few well-known veterans whose names can be found here include Jimmy Stewart, Harry S Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and A. Glenn Miller. Besides being a notable memorial, there are also stunning 360-degree views of San Diego from Mt. Soledad.
Tip: This is a great place to photograph a full moon, too!
2. Seals at La Jolla’s Children’s Pool
Years ago, in 1932, a sea wall was built in La Jolla to create a protected swimming area for children. That’s how this became known as the Children’s Pool. As it turned out, it was also an idyllic place for seal lions and harbor seals. Now it is a popular site that attracts many visitors hoping to get a close glimpse of the seals. It is also a beautiful place to watch the waves crash against the sea wall or to watch the sun set. There are restrooms and showers available to the public here.
Tip: Do not get too close to the seals, as they do bite!
3. San Diego Mormon Temple grounds
While commonly called the Mormon Temple, its accurate name is the San Diego California Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Members of the church consider this to be a holy place, but the beautifully landscaped grounds ARE open to the public. It is a popular place for wedding portraits, and many a photographer can be seen trying to take a photo that includes the gold angel Moroni on the top of the east spire. With many benches placed around the sacred edifice, it is a wonderful place to go to pray or meditate.
Tip: See if you can find where it says: “The House of the Lord — Holiness to the Lord”.
4. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve Extension
Many have heard of the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. It’s a stunning coastal area that includes a beach, a lagoon, hiking trails, sandstone cliffs, a visitor center, and the rare Torrey Pine (which only grows in a few places in California). But very few people know about the Torrey Pines extension — another pocket of Torrey Pine trees and hiking areas to the north, in Del Mar, CA. Parking is free, and there is no fee to enter the extension. The hiking is easy to moderate, with some fantastic views. And no crowds. You might even have the entire extension to yourself! More information is available at this hiking website.
Tip: Do bring water and wear sunscreen for your hike!
5. Harper’s Topiary Garden
Harper’s Topiary Garden is a labor of love by Alex and Edna Harper. Inspired by their own travels and a desire to give back to the community, they have sculpted the cape honeysuckle plants growing in their yard into whimsical shapes representing places they’ve been. It’s fun to visit and just sit and try to figure out what all the shapes are. You’ll find this garden at 3549 Union Street, in the Mission Hills area near the San Diego International Airport.
Tip: Remember it is private property and don’t try to walk in the garden! Here’s a San Diego Union Tribune article about this free attraction if you’d like to know more.
6. Visit Liberty Station and the USS Neversail
Liberty Station is a new development for business, history, and the arts…on the site of the former Naval Training Center. The original buildings were built in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, with graceful arches and classic lines. It’s a lovely setting, near an inlet of San Diego Harbor, where you will find a daily public market, plenty of unique restaurants and businesses, and the “USS Neversail” (a 2/3 lifesize training ship that sits on dry land — once used for Navy training). You can stroll along the water, enjoy a free summer concert, take a historical walking tour, or watch a free outdoor movie.
7. San Diego Convention Center Funicular
I visited the San Diego Convention Center many times before noticing there was a funicular. You can take the stairs, but it’s way more fun to ride a circle-shaped glass car to the top level of the convention center patio, where you will enjoy views of the San Diego Harbor. The funicular is located between entrance C and D along the stairs that lead up and over the convention center. It operates 24/7, and it’s free of charge. As of today’s date (July 2017), it is currently undergoing some repairs for technical problems, but I was promised it will be up and running again soon!
8. Free Lawn Bowling Lesson in Coronado
In the beautiful Coronado neighborhood is a nearly new lawn bowling green at the Coronado Lawn Bowling Club. If you are 18+ and interested in learning what lawn bowling actually is, you can enjoy a free lesson, provided by one of the Club’s members. Just click on this link for information on how to reserve your free lesson. My husband and I took advantage of this and thoroughly enjoyed it! You can read about our lesson here.
Tip: If you don’t want to stand out as a novice, wear all white clothing (though it’s not required).
9. Stein Family Farm
Tucked in the middle of a residential area in National City and close to an industrial zone is the 100-yr old Stein Family Farm. This might be as close as you will get to stepping back in time and finding yourself on an authentic working farm south of San Diego. With a farmhouse, orchard, gardens, and plenty of animals, everything is much like it was when the house was built. Docents take you on tours of the farmhouse and you can pitch in and help weed or feed the turkeys. You can even try your hand at doing the laundry with a washboard! Here’s my account of my visit to the farm.
Tip: Don’t forget to check out the barn which houses several antique vehicles. While it is free to visit, the Stein Family Farm gladly accepts donations of household items for the caretaker, antiques from this time period, garden tools, and cash.
10. Experience the Fallen Star Art Installation at UCSD
‘Fallen Star’ is a house that sits atop the Jacobs Engineering Building on the UCSD Campus in La Jolla. It’s also an art installation designed by Korean artist Do Ho Suh. This is no normal house as it appears to teeter precariously on the corner of a 7-story building. It represents the displacement Do Ho Suh experienced as he adjusted to life in the United States after arriving from Seoul, Korea. It is particularly disorienting to stand inside the house and try to reconcile the plane of the windows with the horizon outside.The exhibit is open to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12:30 – 2:00 pm.
Tip: While admission is free, parking on campus during these hours is not. I parked at the Hopkins Parking structure at the rate of $2.00 an hour. Once you’re on campus, you might as well enjoy all of the other art available to the public!
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I hope you’ve enjoyed my list of ten free and unique things to do in San Diego. If you’re looking for more San Diego attractions that won’t crack your wallet open, please check out these posts:
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