The top 30 best free things to do in San Diego: beaches, museums, parks, and more

People from all across the world are drawn to San Diego for its glorious weather, golden-sand beaches, and thriving arts scene. The best part? A lot of fun things to do in San Diego are free!



San Diego is a dream city for a lot of people. Sitting on the coast of California, it boasts over 70 miles of pristine beaches and 266 days of sunshine every year. Vitamin D is free and flowing in San Diego!

With its close proximity to Los Angeles and ideal living conditions, San Diego is often ranked in the top 10 most expensive cities in the US. But visiting there doesn’t mean you have to say goodbye to all of your savings, especially if you’re smart with your money!

Luckily for us, there are a ton of free things to do in San Diego. In fact, a lot of the most important museums, monuments, parks, and beaches are free, so you won’t feel like you’ve missed out, and you’ll spend less money. 

We’ll also show you how you can stay in San Diego for free!

Top fun things to do in San Diego for free

Explore San Diego's parks

Balboa Park

Balboa Park is one of the most popular and famous things to do in San Diego. The park goes beyond its diverse and stunning gardens, it’s also home to 17 museums and the San Diego Zoo.

Whilst not everything inside Balboa Park is free — San Diego Zoo for example — you are free to wander and admire the ever-changing gardens. There are over 65 miles of trails for you to embark on inside the park, each trail taking you on a unique adventure in different environments.

Torrey Pines Gliderport

There are two big reasons to visit Torrey Pines Gliderport. Firstly, it offers panoramic views of San Diego, and second, it’s a great spot to watch paragliders take off.

Paragliding isn’t a free activity to do in San Diego, but at least watching them will cost you nothing. Grab a picnic blanket and some snacks, then before you know it hours will have passed by just watching hundreds of gliders take to the clear blue skies.

Skate Parks

Even if you’re not a skater yourself, there’s something remarkably mesmerizing about watching skaters going up and down, practicing their tricks.

Skateboarding has been extremely popular in California since the 1950s, and it’s still the case today. Linda Vista Skatepark and Robb Field Skatepark are two of the best skateparks to visit in San Diego.

Learn about San Diego's history and culture

Chicano Park Murals

Want to tick the largest collection of outdoor murals in the US off your bucket list? You probably didn’t even know that was something you wanted to do, but luckily you can visit Chicano Park Murals in San Diego.

The murals depict the displacement of the locals from the nearby neighborhood, and their struggle to reclaim the space. The murals are truly beautiful pieces of art with very powerful messages.

Self-Realisation Fellowship Encinitas Temple

The Encinitas Temple was built by the Self-Realisation Fellowship, an international religious organization founded in 1920. The meditation gardens associated with the temple are open to everyone. They are a beautiful spot to sit down, relax, and let your mind find peace.

If you want to get involved, the Temple offers a full program of inspirational lectures, meditations, and readings.

Timken Museum of Art

The Timken Museum is one of the best free museums in San Diego. Situated within Balboa Park, it’s a must-visit after you’ve walked around the magnificent gardens in the park.

The museum displays the Putnam Collection of European old masters, American art, and Russian icons. Some of the pieces make you feel like you’re stepping back in time.

Botanical Building

Also within Balboa Park is the Botanical Building, one of the most photographed spots in San Diego. 

Stepping inside the Botanical Building feels like you’re entering a tropical oasis. This effect is created by the creative design of the building, as well as the 2,100 permanent plants that have taken root there.

Some fascinating plant collections include cycads, ferns, orchids, palms, and plenty of other tropical plants. And all of this can be seen for free!

Keep in mind that the Botanical Building is currently under restoration. Before visiting, check if it’s been reopened.

Enjoy San Diego's free events and concerts

Time your visit to San Diego right, and you can catch a number of incredible events for free! Summer is a popular time for community events and free concerts.

Sunday Organ Concert

No matter what time of the year you visit San Diego, no matter the weather, there is always a free organ concert every Sunday at 2 pm.

Held at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, it’s a memorable way to experience one of the most iconic venues in San Diego. A huge variety of music is played there, everything from classical to pop. You can check the performances before your visit on their website.

Coronado Promenade Concerts

If you’re a music fanatic, you’re never going to want to leave San Diego. Every summer, Coronado Promenade Concerts put together a spectacular summer concert series.

The 2022 series featured 15 concerts, across five months, and every single concert was for free. Jazz, country, hip hop, classical... They had everything.

Carlsbad’s TGIF Concerts

Carlsbad is another coastal city, north of San Diego. It too has a free summer concert that is definitely worth attending if you’re in San Diego.

Spanning the months of June to August, TGIF’s concerts bring together around 30,000 people across the four largest parks in Carlsbad. There’s an incredibly welcoming vibe to this free concert.

Sun and Sea Festival

San Diego’s Sun and Sea Festival is a guaranteed jaw-dropper. This free sandcastle festival, held every July, brings some of the country's most talented sand sculptors to the shores of San Diego.

Admiring their creations, it’s hard to believe that these elaborate sand sculptures are made solely with sand and water. And even if you miss the date of the competition, the sculptures are left for a week or so before sadly being demolished.

Discover San Diego's beaches and underwater world

Chill at the beach

You can’t go to San Diego and not make the most of its 30 idyllic beaches. San Diego is home to some of the best beaches in the whole of the US.

Every beach has something different to offer — surfing, snorkeling, sunbathing, and volleyball. Some of our standout favorite beaches include: 

  • Coronado Central Beach: a 1.5-mile-long stretch of flat golden sand, providing plenty of space to place your towel.
  • La Jolla Shores Beach: ideal for both swimmers and surfers with its gentle waves and diverse sea life.
  • Moonlight State Beach: has a number of facilities including volleyball and tennis courts. It’s also great for swimming, surfing, and fishing.

La Jolla Underwater Park

La Jolla Underwater Park was created in 1970 to protect the diverse marine life that calls the 6,000 acres of marine park home.

It’s one of the best places to see sea life in San Diego. Some marine life to keep an eye out for include leopard sharks (see below), starfish, seals, sea lions, stingrays, orange garibaldi (California’s state fish), and if you’re lucky, a turtle.

La Jolla Cove is the best way to access La Jolla Underwater Park. And as it’s a protected area, you’re not able to fish, surf, or boogie board in the area.

Even if you don’t fancy going for a swim, head down to La Jolla Cove to watch the seals and sea lions soaking up the sun.

La Jolla Cove & Tide Pools

La Jolla Underwater Park isn’t the only attraction in La Jolla. Its tide pools provide shelter for an array of animals, hiding within the cracks and crevices of the rocks. Keep an eye out for crabs, clams, snails, and plenty of muscles.

They are best visited during low tide, so make sure to check tide times before heading down there.

Take photos at Scripps Pier

You’ve probably already seen pictures of Scripps Pier on Instagram without even knowing it. It’s a photographer's favorite, especially during sunset, as the pier adds an interesting depth to your photo.

Head down to Scripps Pier and create your own free photoshoot.

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

The name says it all really! Sunset Cliffs are one of the best spots in San Diego to catch the sunset. Offering picturesque views across the ocean, the atmosphere is magical as the sun says goodbye for the day.

Whilst you’re there, make sure to check out the fascinating rock formations that can be found at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park.

Leopard Sharks

From June to October, hundreds of leopard sharks flock to La Jolla Shores Beach for mating season. Don’t worry they don’t pose a threat to humans, but it is an incredible sight to see this many sharks congregate in one area.

Grab a snorkel, and swim beside these graceful creatures. Or simply walk into the shallows and have them swim around you.

Go hiking in San Diego

Annie’s Canyon

A fun, and free, escape from the city is the Annie’s Canyon trail. It’s only a short hike, a 1.5-mile round trip, but it takes you through some awesome landscapes.

As the name suggests, you’ll be hiking through a narrow canyon, where you’ll also have to scale some ladders and stairs to complete it. There are also some stunning viewpoints along the way.

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is the perfect place to go hiking, and it’s super convenient to get to. The natural reserve covers 1,500 acres of undeveloped land including beaches, a coastal trail, a lagoon that’s a destination for migrating birds, and an abundance of indigenous flora and fauna.

They also often offer free guided tours, so make sure to ask about that when you arrive.

Tijuana Estuary

Visiting Southern California’s largest coastal wetland is a great free thing to do in California. Tijuana Estuary is an essential breeding, feeding, and nesting ground for over 370 species of migratory and native birds, including six that are endangered.

The trails throughout the wetland will take you through a variety of landscapes and provide great opportunities for bird spotting.

7 Bridges Hike

A great way to see a number of popular sites in San Diego is to take on the 5-mile urban 7-bridges hike. The route takes you to some of the city’s finest canyons, parks, museums, and more.

And unlike hiking in nature, there are plenty of opportunities to stop at a cafe, restaurant, or even a bar along the way! Make a day of the loop, there’s no rush!

Cool neighborhoods to visit in San Diego

Wandering through different neighborhoods of a city is sometimes one of the best ways to get to know somewhere, and it’s free!

Little Italy

During the 1920s, Italian fishermen and their families began to settle in what is now known as Little Italy. It used to be the heart of San Diego’s thriving tuna fishing industry but is now a lively neighborhood bursting with cafes, international restaurants, bars, and art galleries.

Seaport Village

Seaport Village is a vibrant, harbor-side area with over 50 shops, plenty of restaurants, art galleries, and bars. It’s a great place to grab a bite to eat or stroll along the four miles of cobblestone pathways beside ponds, lakes, and fountains.

Gaslamp Quarter

The Gaslamp Quarter within San Diego has a bit of everything. It’s a wonderful contrast between the old and the new, with Victorian-era buildings standing next to modern skyscrapers.

It’s said to be the heart and soul of the city, and the epicenter of San Diego’s nightlife. The Gaslamp Quarter is the place to go if you’re looking for a delicious restaurant — there are over 100 — or a vibrant bar. 

Why not visit one of the theatres, art galleries, symphony halls, concert venues, or museums in this area too?

Other free things to do in San Diego

Old Town San Diego

The Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is where it all began for California. Wander through the streets and you’ll find buildings dating back to the early days of the town of San Diego, from the period 1820 to 1870. It also boasts a vibrant Latin vibe!

Some spots to visit in particular include the old ranch homes, schoolhouses, and the graveyard. This area has become quite touristy now, full of souvenir shops and restaurants, but it’s still a cool spot to visit for free in San Diego.


Wherever you go in the world, visiting local markets is a great free activity. You can learn so much about that place's culture, cuisine, and daily life through a market. And you never have to actually buy anything, though it is nice to support local businesses and producers.

San Diego has plenty of markets for you to peruse, including:

  • Ocean Beach Farmers Market (Wednesday 4-8 pm)
  • La Jolla Open Aire Market (Sunday 9 am-1 pm)
  • Little Italy Mercado (Saturday 8 am-2 pm and Wednesday 9:30 am-2:30 pm)

Veterans Memorial at Mt. Soledad

Mount Soledad stands 251m above sea level, providing an incredible view over San Diego. As well as the view, at the top, you’ll find the Veterans Memorial.

Built in 1954, it currently has over 3,500 veterans honored on the memorial walls, commemorating veterans from the revolutionary war to the current war on terror. It’s a solemn place to visit, but an important one.

Borrego Springs

While you will need to pay for transportation there, Borrego Springs is free to visit and well worth the trip.

Borrego Springs is home to the world-famous Sky Art Metal Sculptures — 130 of them to be exact. Scattered across the desert landscape you’ll find sea dragons, huge ants, elephants, and camels, all made from metal. It’s like a desert safari, just not with real-life animals.

The sculptures are spread across a large area, so you’ll need a car to drive between them.

Embracing Peace Statue

A quick and free one to tick off the list is a visit to the Embracing Peace Statue. Built in 2007, the statue is based on the iconic photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in New York’s Time Square the day that Japan surrendered in 1945.

Hotel del Coronado

Hotel del Coronado is one of San Diego’s most recognizable and famous sights. Whilst booking a room in this hotel will cost you a lot of money, admiring it from the beach is free.

Built in 1888, the Hotel del Coronado is one of the last surviving wooden Victorian beach resorts in the world. Over the years, it’s hosted a range of celebrities and royals.

How to stay for free in San Diego

San Diego is more than just a cool city for those at Worldpackers, it played a part in the creation of the organization.

One of the founders, Eric, traveled to the US trying to improve his English. The best way he saw to do this was to get some practical experience, and what better way than chatting with people from all across the world in a hostel?

So he volunteered his time at a hostel in exchange for free accommodation. Sounds pretty similar to what Worldpackers is today, right? This experience then led him and two other volunteers to open their own hostel in San Diego.

Co-founder Riq went to lend a hand at the hostel, and discussions began around how they could offer the same experience to other travelers all around the world. Hello Worldpackers!

Continue reading why and how Worldpackers was born.

Volunteer in San Diego

And that same experience is available to you now as a result of the series of events that occurred in San Diego in 2013. 

There are over 50 volunteer opportunities available in San Diego. In return for your time and skills, you can receive free accommodation, and in some cases free food. Volunteering is also a great way to live like a local and discover even more free things to do in San Diego.

If the price of accommodation in San Diego is putting you off from visiting, volunteering with Worldpackers is a great solution to that problem. Why not volunteer at the hostel that Eric and Riq created themselves? Or put your handyman skills to the test at this beach hostel?

Don’t let a place being branded as expensive put you off visiting. As we’ve shown with San Diego, there are always plenty of free things to keep you busy. Plus volunteering is a great way to have an incredible experience, whilst saving on accommodation.

Did you like these ideas? Subscribe to the Worldpackers Community for free and start saving your favorite volunteer positions until you are ready to get verified. 

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