Five Fun Things to do in San Diego

Visit Torrey Pines State Reserve to hike and contemplate the view.
Visit Torrey Pines State Reserve to hike and contemplate the view. (Image: BackyardProduction/iStock/Getty Images)

With pleasant temperatures year-round and little precipitation, it's no surprise that San Diego's signature attractions are alfresco. As you'd expect from a city in Southern California, San Diego has 30 or so top-notch beaches, any of which can fill a day on its own or be combined with a variety of other activities -- from wildlife viewing to roller coaster riding -- for a singular experience.

Pick a Beach, Any Beach

The question in San Diego is not whether to go to the beach, but where to head along the city's 70-mile coastline. La Jolla Cove has clear waters for swimming and snorkeling. If you're traveling with kids, avoid Black's Beach, where nudity is common, and head to Coronado Beach or Children's Pool, which have gentle waters. At the latter, kids may spot the colony of federally protected harbor seals; look, but do not touch or feed. Your canine friends can join you at the northwestern end of Coronado Beach and at Dog Beach at the northern end of Ocean Beach Park. Surfers and their friends gather at Imperial Beach or Pacific Beach, home to Tourmaline Surfing Park. You can enjoy San Diego's beaches year-round, but expect cloudy skies in May and June.

Explore Torrey Pines State Reserve

Rare trees, coastal scenery and the potential for marine mammal sightings make Torrey Pines State Reserve at the north end of La Jolla a must. One of only two places -- both in California -- where the twisted Torrey pine grows naturally, the reserve's mostly leisurely hikes lead to cliffs that support the trees and offer views of the surrounding bluffs that you won't quickly forget. In the spring, wildflowers are a pleasantly colorful distraction. You can zip through the reserve in a couple of hours, but an entire day allows for a picnic at Torrey State Beach, accessible from the reserve via trail. Avoid the beach at high tide, when much of the sand is submerged. Any other time, it is a beachcomber's heaven. With some patience and luck, you may spot dolphins and, in the winter, gray whales.

Admire the Views at Cabrillo National Monument

A statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to land on what's now California's western coast, graces the tip of the Point Loma peninsula in Cabrillo National Monument west of San Diego proper. The real draw, however, is the panoramic views of San Diego's skyline, easily the best you'll see. The tide pools here are equally superlative, but accessible only in the winter when the low tide coincides with daylight hours. Explore the park's lighthouse, circa 1855 -- provided you're willing and able to climb the spiral staircase to the top.

Visit Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo

The acclaimed San Diego Zoo in 1,200-acre Balboa Park is one of only four zoos in the country where you can see giant pandas, rivaled only by the resident koalas in the size of the crowds they draw. The zoo's 3,000 or so animals are most active in the morning, so get there early.. You might find the coin-operated foot massage machines silly at first -- they will become increasingly tempting if you explore the 100-acre zoo afoot. If you can't or would rather not do that much walking, a double-deck bus tour touches on all the highlights. If you take the bus and have time and energy to spare, round out the day by exploring Balboa Park, which also has a number of museums and gardens.

Ride the Wooden Coaster at Belmont Park

There remain only a few amusement parks in the U.S. where you can experience the distinct thrill of going for a ride on a vintage wooden roller coaster. Among them is San Diego's venerable Belmont Park, located in Mission Beach, home to a wooden roller coaster from 1925 listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Other classic features, such as bumper cars and a carousel, add to the nostalgic charm of Belmont Park, which stays current with attractions like a FlowRider wave simulator. There is no admission free -- you pay as you ride -- which gives you the freedom to alternate between the park and the adjacent beach and boardwalk as often as you please.

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