The endless sunshine and laid-back beach vibes draw millions of visitors to San Diego every single year. Located on California's Pacific coastline, this thriving metro area offers an array of historical sites, amusement parks, beaches, museums, and much more. Many flock to the beaches on the waterfront, while others relish in sites like The Gaslamp Quarter.
No trip to San Diego is complete without trying some of the signature experiences unique to this destination. While coming to soak up the year-round temperate weather is reason enough to visit, you’ll want to make sure your itinerary includes more than just relaxing poolside with cocktails in hand.
There are so many exciting things to try in San Diego that will give you a true taste of what the city is all about. This guide covers all the must-try food, attractions, sights, tours, and entertainment venues.
Health and Wellness
In such a laidback locale focused on living life to the fullest each day, a thriving wellness scene beckons visitors to care for body and spirit. Yogis flow through vinyasa classes in lush gardens or on sunny terraces overlooking the glittering blue Pacific.
Meditation courses impart mindfulness techniques while sound baths promote deep relaxation through restorative tunes. Spas incorporate local ingredients into indulgent treatments – lavender and sea salt scrubs, antioxidant-rich wine therapies, and microalgae facials. With so much natural beauty radiating all around, San Diego spurs tranquility and well-being through rejuvenating wellness experiences.
San Diego’s diverse mix of cultures and active lifestyle translates into a thriving martial arts scene. Numerous studios across the city offer training in disciplines like karate, kung fu, capoeira, boxing, and more for locals and visitors alike to hone their skills.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu remains particularly popular within the martial arts community here. Renzo Gracie Academy San Diego stands out as the place for visitors to take a Jiu-Jitsu class to gain an appreciation for what makes this intricate art form so compelling. Expert instruction takes newcomers step-by-step through essential techniques like escapes and submissions in a safe, structured environment.
With so many studios available, San Diego serves as an accommodating destination for martial arts training at any level.
Iconic Foods to Try
Baked Apple Pancakes
Start your morning off right with a stop at Richard Walker's Pancake House, where the baked apple pancake is a legend in its own right. This specialty pancake gets baked to order and emerges from the oven towering with warm, sweet apples nestled inside a tall, fluffy pancake that will wow your taste buds.
While all of the flapjacks stacked high on plates all around the dining room tempt you, this apple-filled beauty truly takes the cake. Just one little taste and it's easy to see why visitors and locals alike swear by these dreamy baked apple pancakes for the most unforgettable breakfast in San Diego.
Surfin’ California Burritos
The burrito is an icon of San Diego Mexican cuisine, but Lucha Libre takes it over the top with the Surfin' California burrito. This mammoth meal wrap brings together carne asada steak, french fries, cheese, and pico de gallo salsa all stuffed in an oversized flour tortilla. Seriously, this thing is about the size of your forearm.
The flavors are as big as the burrito itself – juicy steak, crispy fries, melted cheese, and fresh veggies. One bite of a Surfin' California burrito and your taste buds will understand why it's achieved its legendary status among the best foods in San Diego.
Top Attractions & Activities
San Diego Zoo
Spanning 100 acres inside beautiful Balboa Park, the world-famous San Diego Zoo lives up to all the hype as one of the top zoos on the planet. Home to over 3,700 rare and endangered animals along with expert-led exhibits, safaris, and more, the sheer size and diversity within the San Diego Zoo could keep nature lovers wandering its trails for days.
Yet seeing all creatures great and small (pandas! polar bears! elephants! tigers!) roaming lush, meticulously crafted habitats lets every visitor appreciate why National Geographic ranks it as one of the very best zoos worldwide. A trip to San Diego isn't complete without a visit to this iconic attraction.
Surfing & Beach Culture
San Diego's identity remains inexorably linked to surf culture thanks to having some of the most rideable waves in California right on its doorstep. Visitors wanting to hang ten can take lessons right on the sand from expert instructors schooled in getting newbies upright and cruising across the swells in no time. Hardcore surfers flock to spots like Windansea Beach, Swami’s, and Trestles to test their skills against primo breaks.
The classic woodie station wagons still shuttle board to the beach while surf shops, boardwalks, and seasonal competitions like the Supergirl Pro surf event celebrate this iconic coastal lifestyle. The chill atmosphere, great waves, and welcoming vibe make San Diego a beloved destination to experience quintessential California beach culture.
With sunny skies shining over 300 days per year, San Diego serves up plenty of ways to embrace the spectacular weather through outdoor activities. Hiking trails crisscross through mesas and canyons offering panoramic views along with a great workout. Beach runs and biking satisfy exercise buffs who want to log miles against picture-perfect backdrops.
For water lovers, surfing, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding enable splashing around in the gentle waves across miles of inviting beaches and bays. With endless options spanning land and sea all easily accessible thanks to the mild climate, active travelers have ample opportunity to work up a healthy sweat under the San Diego sun.
Museums & Sights
USS Midway Museum
Climb aboard the longest-serving aircraft carrier of the 20th century at the USS Museum on the Embarcadero near downtown. The USS Midway saw over several decades of service from 1945 until 1992.
Now permanently docked, visitors can explore what life was like for the over 200,000 sailors aboard the floating city across four acres of deck space. With 60 exhibits and 30 restored aircraft used in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam all on display, history buffs won't want to miss out on this floating naval museum extravaganza – easily one of the top things to do in San Diego.
San Diego's seafaring days shine at the Maritime Museum located downtown along the Embarcadero. Hop aboard historic vessels like the 1863 Star of India, which still sets sail annually as the oldest active iron-hulled merchant ship in existence. Costumed guides provide context, stories, and fun facts that breathe life into these retired ships.
Or board the Berkeley, an 1898 steam ferry boat offering harbor excursions. On land, see naval displays honoring the aircraft carrier USS San Diego memorial and others. For port city history and naval buffs, an afternoon drifting through the Maritime Museum's fleet offers an education into San Diego's sailing legacy.
Part of UC San Diego's Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the Birch Aquarium sits atop a bluff in La Jolla offering sweeping views of the Pacific. This small but engaging attraction houses over 60 habitats focused primarily on the Scripps study of seahorses while promoting conservation. Get close to leopard sharks swimming right beside visitors in the tank thanks to petting areas.
Check out glowing tanks swirling with bioluminescent creatures as well as the two-story Kelp Forest tank. Interactive elements make marine science approachable for kids from tiny seahorse babies to getting hands-on with sea stars. For a memorable ocean experience without leaving shore, a couple of hours spent eye to eye with fascinating marine life at Birch Aquarium proves well worth a stop.
Ways to Tour
Experiencing San Diego’s diverse culinary offerings via a thoughtfully crafted food tour allows visitors to dive in and uniquely taste the city. Knowledgeable local guides well-versed in the food and drink scene lead the tours, exposing participants to chef-driven restaurants and under-the-radar eateries only found through insider knowledge.
Downtown's historic Gaslamp Quarter, for example, offers behind-the-scenes progressive dining tours coupled with insightful commentary from those in the know.
Other tours sample the city's craft brews and regional wines by trekking through emerging neighborhoods. For the adventurous eater who wants an authentic taste of Tijuana, walkable tours even cross the border. Trying unfamiliar dishes and ingredients is arguably the highlight of travel and these specialized food tours capture that experience through an insider's perspective into San Diego's vibrant food and drink culture.
Getting There & Staying
With San Diego International Airport located just 3 miles from downtown, flying into SAN proves the most convenient option for inbound visitors. Numerous nonstop flights connect from cities across the US as well as international departure points like London Heathrow. Ground transportation via taxi or rideshare whisks arrivals swiftly from baggage claim directly to hotels in a matter of minutes.
Downtown lodging options place guests steps away from major attractions like Balboa Park, the USS Midway Museum, and the Gaslamp Quarter’s vibrant nightlife. The adjacent neighborhoods of Little Italy, Bankers Hill, and Hillcrest also offer boutique hotels and locally owned accommodations. Many larger branded hotels lie scattered near the waterfront and bayside locales. For budget-conscious travelers or those wanting a quieter stay, hostels and vacation rentals also abound.
To Wrap it Up
From world-famous attractions to under-the-radar local gems, things you have to try in San Diego run the gamut in this sunny SoCal town. Iconic cuisine, one-of-a-kind museums, and vibrant neighborhoods brought to life after dark all compete for your valuable time. Hopefully, this guide provides a helpful starting point for crafting your can't-miss San Diego bucket list on your next visit. Just don’t forget to take a break and relax poolside with that cocktail in hand when you need a moment to recharge under the San Diego sunshine!