This post was most recently updated on July 23rd, 2020
San Diego is one of the top 25 destination cities in the United States. Think that makes it an expensive place to visit? It certainly doesn’t have to be. I’ve lived here over 25 years, and although I’ve done my share of the big-ticket tourist sites, I’ve found a lot more activities that don’t cost anything at all. Let me show you some of the best free things to do…
1. Go on a scenic drive. Not just any scenic drive. THE San Diego Scenic
Drive. The route is marked with special seagull signs and leads you to over 20 of San Diego’s best attractions within a 59-mile loop. Some of my favorites include downtown San Diego, Harbor and Shelter Islands, Pt. Loma and the Cabrillo National Monument with tidepools, Soledad Mountain, La Jolla Cove, Old Town, Presidio Park, Balboa Park, Seaport Village, and Sunset Cliffs Boulevard.
For printed maps, go to the International Visitor Information Center at 1140 N. Harbor Drive, San Diego, across from the B Street Cruise Ship Terminal. The Information Center is open 9 am to 4 pm, October through May and 9 am to 5 pm, June through April, 7 days a week. Plan to spend at least 3+ hours to complete the drive, as you will certainly want to spend some time at many of the locations along the way. For more detailed information about the scenic drive, click on this link. Once you’ve made the drive, you’ll have a much better idea what you want to explore, where you want to return for a picnic or where you’d like to take more photos!
2. Stroll through the Mercato Farmers’ Market on W. Cedar Street in Little Italy. Every Saturday morning, from 8 am to 2 pm, W. Cedar St. is closed to all vehicle traffic between Kettner Blvd and Front St. You can stroll the market along with the crowds of people who know this is the best place to find fresh and locally produced cheeses, honey, flowers, produce, meat, seafood, green smoothies, artisan baked goods, and much more!
Live bands set the mood with great music and vendors also display handmade art, jewelry and gifts. Go early if you want to have an easier time finding parking. But do plan to stay awhile. Enjoy free samples, buy specialty food items for a home-cooked meal, and enjoy the music and ambience. Even the local Little Italy residents do their shopping here. It makes a great date or family outing, and it’s something you can do over and over again without tiring of it. It’s the closest thing San Diego has to Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
3. Visit Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.
Here is where San Diego really had its beginnings. Originally a Mexican pueblo, it eventually became an American settlement. There are five original adobe buildings, dating back to 1821. In addition, there are museums, retail shops, and restaurants. Kids love to check out the old schoolhouse and the iron prison, as well as the carriage house and stables. There’s even a blacksmith shop run by volunteers who are happy to explain what they are doing. See all the rooms in La Casa de Estudillo and imagine what it would be like to live in the 1800’s.
There are free tours of the park every day at 11:00 am and 2:00 pm, leaving from the Robinson-Rose Visitors Center. It would be easy to spend several hours at Old Town soaking in all the history. If you want a treat for the kids, there’s an old-fashioned candy store. You can also watch tortillas being made through the windows of the Old Town Mexican Cafe. For more information about hours and ongoing activities, see the California State Park website.
If you’re headed to Old Town, another great free activity is the San Diego Mormon Battalion Historic Site. Parking is free behind this visitor center, making it very easy to visit when you have just an hour or two. This is a beautiful visitor center, dedicated to portraying the history, accomplishments, and faith of the Mormon Battalion (1846-47), which made significant contributions to the settlement of Old Town San Diego. Think “Disney-style”! Guides in period costume welcome you and lead you through an interactive tour which includes talking portraits on the wall and rooms that are outfitted to take you back in history–to an Iowan campsite, a military post store, and a desert camp, as well as a replica of the first San Diego courthouse.
In the courtyard, kids can pan for gold or learn how the early pioneers made oven-baked bricks. There’s a miniature covered wagon for kids to sit in, and the front porch is filled with rocking chairs (great place to watch the sun set over Old Town!). A second-story lookout tower gives great views of the rest of Old Town and Heritage Park. While you are there, you can look up information about Mormon Battalion members and have a free photograph taken and emailed to you for a souvenir.
San Diego is full of rich treasures, ready to explore. I hope you have a wonderful time visiting San Diego without emptying your wallet. For more ideas, check out my first list of the best free things to do in San Diego here.
And if you enjoyed this post, you’re going to love 10 Unique & Free Things to Do in San Diego! You might also like my 10 Reasons to Visit Liberty Station — another really fun place to spend a day in San Diego!
BONUS: I’ve just finished a post on 100 Date Ideas in San Diego — many of them are free and can be adapted to doing with families as well as couples.
**You’ll be glad to learn that I’ve partnered with GPSmyCity to create a GPS-guided app for this article. Just click on this link, and you can download my article FREE or you can upgrade to the GPS-embedded article for a small fee. That way, you can follow my path to the best free things to do in San Diego without needing internet or using your mobile data! I’ll receive a few cents and that helps me to keep bringing you more fun travel tips.**