San Diego. Warm weather year round. Gorgeous beaches. Culture. It’s a place I’m very excited to visit later this year, but, as with most of my trips, I’m all about doing it on a budget.
Whether you’re headed there for a family vacation or #FinCon16, there’s no shortage of budget-friendly things to do. For everything the city has to offer, it’s actually an affordable destination when compared to other cities on the Californian coast.
Here are 25 FREE things to do in San Diego on your next visit:
Arts & Culture
1. Museum of Contemporary Art
With locations in San Diego and La Jolla, the Museum of Contemporary Art is great for families or young adults. That’s because in an effort to encourage youth participation in the modern art scene, this attraction is free for those 25 and under. (Just bring your ID if you’re not obviously a child.)
Other people that get free or discounted admission include:
- Military members and their family (FREE)
- Students age 26 and older ($5)
- Seniors ($5)
Just be sure to bring the appropriate ID if you fall into any of these categories. Regular admission is $10.
2. Celebrate the Greatest Generation
Not too far from the Museum of Contemporary Art is an outdoor art installation honoring military history. The Greatest Generation Art Collection is located amidst other military memorials in Tuna Harbor Park. You can download a PDF for a walking, guided tour here.
3. Art in the Park
On the first and third Sunday of every month, the Coronado Art Association hosts Art in the Park at Spreckels Park. All artists are local, have been carefully curated by the Coronado Art Association and are present to talk about their pieces with the public.
4. International Cottages’ Lawn Program
Every Sunday from 2p-3p through early December, The House of Pacific Relations hosts a multicultural event including ethnic food, music, dancing, traditional costumes, arts and crafts. The organizations owns 33 cottages, each representing a different country/culture from around the world. For these Sunday events, each house takes turns. For example, here are the countries that will be featured in mid-late September:
- September 18- House of Mexico
- September 25- House of Germany
If you’re visiting any other time of year, be sure to check out the full schedule so you can see which country will be featured during your visit.
5. California Surf Museum
Founded by a resident who didn’t want to see the early days of surfing go forgotten, the California Surf Museum preserves boards, trophies, photos and other memorabilia for a truly one-of-a-kind experience.
The first Tuesday of every month is free to everyone, but prices aren’t too bad should you choose to come any other time:
- Adults- $5
- Military members, students, and those older than 62- $3
- Children under 12- Free. Always.
6. Contemporary Art at the University of California San Diego
Want to see art like you’ve never seen it before? Go on this fun, self-guided tour of the numerous contemporary art pieces on display around UCSD’s campus. The Stuart Collection has a downloadable app to show you around, so you won’t even have to bust out the printer.
7. Queen Califia’s Magical Circle
Queen Califia’s Magical Circle is a sculpture garden created by the late Niki de Saint Phalle. Each sculpture is inspired by Native American, Mexican and Pre-Columbian art. This fantastic art display is free to the public and open from 9a-12p on the second Saturday of every month, weather permitting.
8. Visit the Chicano Murals in Barrio Logan
You can’t talk about San Diego without looking at the contributions of the Hispanic community. Founded by activists in the 1970s, Chicano Park in Barrio Logan celebrates this culture through art. In fact, the entire neighborhood is experiencing a revival, and on top of the free-to-view murals, you’ll be able to stop in a lot of design studios that are a result of and boosting the revival.
9. Take a Living History Tour
Want to see what San Diego looked like when it was first established? How about what it felt like? You can do exactly that with free living history tours in Old Town Wednesdays through Sundays at 11am and 2 pm. Original and restored buildings line the streets of this 12-acre area where Mexican history is brought to life.
10. Ray at Night
Ray at Night is a monthly arts festival with gallery crawls, live music, food that’s so good it’s considered art and craft vendors. This free event happens the second Saturday of every month from 6p-10p at Ray Street and University Avenue in North Park.
There are over 30 beaches in San Diego, including two that are consistently rated as top beaches in the entire country: La Jolla and Coronado. (For FinCon-ers, Coronado will be closer to the hotel.)
The other two that will be closest to our location will be:
- Point Loma Beaches- Instead of sand, think rocky reefs and breathtaking cliffs overlooking the surf.
- Ocean Beach- Ideal for surfing, swimming, sun bathing and dog owners. This one is, in fact, sandy.
That’s three, but like I said, there are 30. To find the one that’s perfect for your trip, be sure to explore more here.
12. Get Schooled in Fly Fishing
Ever wanted to learn how to go fly fishing? This is your big chance. Every Sunday at 9a, San Diego Fly Fishers hosts a free clinic at Lake Murray. It’s free, and there’s no reason to fret if you don’t have your own equipment. You can borrow some from the instructor.
13. Mission Bay Park
Mission Bay Park is a 4,600 acre park graced by 27 miles of seashore. It’s also home to more than 20 miles of scenic paths that are perfect for biking, hiking or jogging, and lots of space to barbecue or take a picnic.
Word to the wise: parking here fills up quickly in the summer months!
14. Mission Trails Regional Park
If you thought Mission Bay Park sounded huge, wait until you hear the square acreage of Mission Trails: 5,800 acres! It doesn’t touch the ocean, but there’s no shortage of things to do. There’s a mountain to climb, trails to bike (or hike,) faces to rock climb, vistas to view, a river and two lakes to play in, and a massive visitor’s center to tour.
The visitor’s center focuses on both the geological history of the area, and also the history of the Kumeyaay Native Americans who call this region home. As with everything else on this list, it’s completely free.
15. You’re allowed to skateboard.
Aside from skate parks, there’s so few places you’re actually allowed to skateboard where I’m from. Not so on the West Coast! The Mission Beach and Pacific Beach boardwalk welcome the activity, along with rollerblading and biking.
16. Torrey Pines State Reserve
The Torrey Pines State Reserve exists to protect the United States’ rarest pine tree: the Torrey Pine. It also protects a salt marsh and waterfowl refuge, which are hard to come by anymore in southern California.
The reserve has trails to explore and guided tours, but there are some restrictions because of the reserve’s mission. Be sure to check them out before you make your trip.
Also, there’s a golf course.
17. Go Scuba Diving
Scuba diving and snorkeling can be magnificent at La Jolla Shores. You can also kayak, or chill around one of the numerous beach fires at night. Bring your own gear to make this activity 100% free.
Nearby is Children’s Cove. It was originally set up to be a safe place for kids to swim, but now sea lions and seals use it to protect their own young.
18. Check out the Longest Wooden Pier in the West
Located in Oceanside Harbor, the historic Oceanside Municipal Pier is 1,942 feet long, and perfect for long walks or fishing.
19. Birds, Birds, Birds
Into bird watching? Or want to be? The Nature Center at the San Elijio Lagoon Conservancy offers free, guided walks every Saturday from 10-11a and amazing Family Fun Days where kids can learn more about nature and the local ecosystem in a hands-on environment on the first Sunday of every month from 11:30a-1:30p.
20. Tide Pools
Have you ever checked out a tidepool at low tide? If not, you totally should. It’s amazing to watch all the creatures that call these natural enclaves home, and much easier to do when the water’s low. The reef that makes La Jolla Shores so great for snorkeling also makes this a perfect place to observe the abundant ocean life when the tide’s gone out.
21. The Headquarters at Seaport
This one has the potential to be a little dangerous as The Headquarters is a shopping hub, but they do have free entertainment on the weekends! It is also home to the Police Museum, as it is the old police headquarters. Admission is free, and you can take selfies in an old, 1939 jail cell block.
You may remember that the husband and I went on a super cheap date night, including a free tour and stargazing session at our local observatory.
I’ve been telling you this happens across the country, and I’m here to tell you again! On the first Wednesday of every month, you can attend Gazin’ With the Experts at Balboa Park for F-R-E-E at the dark sky observatory complex.
23. Listen to the 101-Year-Old Organ
Every Sunday starting 2p, there is an outdoor organ concert in Balboa Park. The organ, which just happens to be the second largest in the world, was gifted to the city in 1915, and is still going strong 101 years later!
If you visit during the summer, there are also concerts on Monday evenings featuring not just the organ, but also live art demonstrations and silent movies.
24. Tour the US Olympic Training Center
The first warm-weather Olympic Training Center was built in San Diego and is still actively used to this day. You can go on a free-guided tour every Saturday at 11, or guide yourself around during any other hours they are open with maps from the Visitor’s Center.
25. Go Ohm
The Self-Realization Fellowship Temple and Ashram Center was founded in the 1930s by the great Paramahansa Yogananda, who introduced the Western world to the concept of self-realization through meditation. This is actually the site where he wrote Autobiography of a Yogi. You can attend lectures, pray or meditate here or at their gardens during any hours that they are open. And they’re open almost all of the hours!
Know of any other free things to do in San Diego that should be added to the list? Share them in the comments below!
This post is in collaboration with SDTA.