Postcards & Passports

Best Free Things to Do in San Diego

This post was most recently updated on February 1st, 2024

I love San Diego, and I’ve been taking my family and out-of-town visitors to “see the sights” for 31 years now. Not just the touristy things that cost a lot of money, but the things that San Diego residents do over and over again–because they’re proven to be enjoyable and inexpensive. 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 some of the best free things to do.

Take a stroll along the coastline

Pacific Beach has a paved path (Ocean Front Walk) from Law Street all the way to South Mission Beach. It’s a three-mile path packed with oceanfront vacation homes, restaurants, bike rental shops, and views of the beach. 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 great for picnicking. 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 nature center 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. Dates are not set for 2022 yet, but generally the fair opens the first week of June and runs through July 4th. 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 strolling Grand Avenue 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

Here you can snorkel or relax at the park just above the Cove. There’s no charge for parking or snorkeling at this protected marine reserve. Besides being fun, it’s also one of the most educational of free things to do in San Diego.  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 or the elderly, because the stairs can be a little slippery from moisture.

More Best Free Things

I’m constantly on the lookout for more free things to do in San Diego, so I’ll be adding more posts as I find them and listing them here just for you. Check back often!

**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.**

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free things to do in San Diego

 free things to do in San Diego

23 thoughts on “Best Free Things to Do in San Diego

  1. Heather

    I LOVE La Jolla Cove (probably as much as I love La Jolla Shores, too!). The snorkeling is definitely a blast and there are fun things to see (including tide pools when the tide is low). What fun San Diego has to offer! 🙂

  2. Pingback: Best Free Things to Do in San Diego, Part II -

  3. Dorothy Teel

    San Diego is one of my favorite spots to visit, I love eating at Anthony on the ocean and I love going out to Coronado Island and want to eat again at Hotel Del (did it once for a Sunday Breakfast Brunch was wonderful).

    1. Tami Post author

      Oh yes, we’ve gone many times to watch the seals at the Children’s Pool in La Jolla! Thanks for reminding me…

  4. Joan Hoffmann

    I do love San Diego! The coastline at sunset is so beautiful! I love the tall
    palms! Is so beautiful there. The weather is perfect:) My trip this summer
    was so much fun with the weather, family, everything about our trip together.
    You are such a great writer and so interesting about all the surroundings:)

    1. Tami Post author

      Unfortunately, my favorite place, Anthony’s Fishette, just closed after 72 years! I’ll be looking for a new favorite myself!

  5. Nancy Hull

    Tami, thank you for all of these ideas. Can you snorkel year round? You mentioned La Jolla, are there others close by also?

    1. Tami Post author

      You definitely can snorkel year-round, but I’m sure you’ll want to wear a wet suit outside of the summer months. Are you looking for other places to snorkel besides the La Jolla Cove? You can snorkel other places but the Cove is a protected reserve, so there are a lot more fish there!

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