26 Actually Cool Things to Do in San Diego This Winter

Even locals love this stuff.

The holiday season has arrived in San Diego, and with it comes a flurry of winter-inspired activities that you can enjoy with clear and sunny skies as your backdrop. There’s never a shortage of parties, food, beer and music festivals, road races, sporting events, and other things to do in this city, but if you’re yearning for snow, ice skating, holiday light displays, and Santa sightings, we’ve got that too! We’ve gathered the best events into a handy list that'll take you through winter and beyond—here's everything you can eat, drink, see, and do in San Diego this winter:

Thursday, November 18–Sunday, January 9, 2022
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Liberty Station
The Rady Children’s Ice Rink in the Arts District at Liberty Station returns for ice skating fun from 10 am to 10 pm every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. A staple event in Liberty Station’s Salute the Season holiday program, net proceeds from your ticket price goes to the Peckham Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Rady Children’s Hospital’s Thriving After Cancer program. Your ticket is good all day, so you can skate long enough to work up an appetite, visit the Liberty Public Market or one of the many restaurants, bars, and tasting rooms scattered through the neighborhood, then return to the rink and burn off the calories.

Friday, December 3–Sunday, December 5
$-$$
Balboa Park
December Nights in Balboa Park has been a holiday tradition for more than 40 years, attracting more than 350,000 revelers to the park’s stunning displays. In order to keep the winning streak going in the age of COVID-19, the event has been transformed into Taste of December Nights, featuring 20 favorite vendors and food trucks from past December Nights. The drive-thru event at the Inspiration Point parking lot allows you to order and pick up your favorite food offerings from the safety of your car. The first 500 cars to arrive each day will score a Taste of December Nights tote filled with cool stuff, and throughout the day, lucky attendees have a chance at daily giveaways.

SoNo Fest and Chili Cook-Off
SoNo Fest and Chili Cook-Off

Sunday, December 5
$-$$
North Park
The 11th Annual SoNo Fest & Chili Cook-Off features more than 25 local restaurants throwing down their best bowls of hot, hearty chili. Purchase a five taste ticket for $22, or throw in an extra $3 for a handmade keepsake bowl or mug by the San Diego Ceramic Connection. Wash it down with libations from 20 brewers, cider makers, and vintners in a block-long beverage garden before heading to the two stages presenting local bands, a kids' fest with carnival games and bounce houses, 40 local artisan vendors, and a food truck court. All proceeds benefit McKinley Elementary School's Spanish, Arts, Music, and Gardening programs. Get the FAQs and buy tickets online.

Saturday, December 11
$$-$$$
Embarcadero Marina Park North
Sip your way through nearly 100 wineries at the 6th annual Uncorked: San Diego Wine Festival. Your general admission ticket will get you tastes of over 200 wines from around the globe, a champagne bar, local ciders, a dozen gourmet food trucks, lawn games, and a live DJ, all surrounded by stunning views of San Diego Bay. VIP admission on the other hand, includes early admission (shorter lines!) and exclusive pours from select vineyards. Proceeds from the fest benefit Urban Surf 4 Kids, an outreach organization that works with at-risk and foster youth. Grab tickets online while they last. +21 only, no pets are allowed.

San Diego Running Co.
San Diego Running Co.

Saturday, December 14
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Pacific Beach
Burn off some of those holiday calories and have a blast while you’re doing it at the San Diego Santa Run 5K and 1 Mile Race. Runners have three race options—a 5K, a kid’s mile, and a Santa’s helper mile for you and your furry friend. 5K participants receive a free Sunny Santa suit to wear that includes a short sleeved jacket, shorts, hat, belt, beard, and sunglasses, plus a drink ticket (21+ only) that’s good at local bars, including Maverick's, 710 Beach Club, and Bub's. Proceeds from the race benefit the Pacific Beach Holiday Parade, which conveniently starts right after the races end.

Sunday, December 19
Free
Gaslamp Quarter
Your furry, feathered, or scaled friend gets the chance to strut its stuff at the 11th Annual Vet + Pet West Gaslamp Holiday Pet Parade. The festivities start on the corner of Market Street and 7th Street, with a promenade through the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter. Afterwards, there’s a contest for the Best Pet Costume, Best Costume Duo, Cutest Critter, and Best in Show.

Ballast Point Brewing Company
Ballast Point Brewing Company

Friday, December 17–Sunday, December 19
$-$$$
Various locations
Ahoy, mateys! The folks at Ballast Point traditionally hold their infamous Victory at Sea Party on the Sunday before Christmas, inviting the scurviest marauders on the high seas to celebrate the dark side of beer with them. They wisely decided to makeover last year's event—and proving that good things come to those who wait—they’ve expanded the beloved event into a full weekend’s worth of new releases and nine rare variations of the original Victory at Sea Imperial Porter, specially selected by the Ballast Point staff. Three ticketing options are available, including a special VIP kickoff night, and pirate cosplay is highly encouraged.

January 8
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Liberty Station
The 11th annual San Diego Brew Festival returns to Liberty Station for a fun-filled day with unlimited tastings from over 70 craft and international breweries, 200 beers, live music, and some of San Diego’s most popular food trucks. The VIP option includes early admission, with special beers poured during the first hour. Grab your tickets online. This event is 21+, no children or pets allowed.

Saturday, January 15
$$-$$$
Valley View Casino Center
San Diego’s own American League hockey team, the San Diego Gulls, square off against their arch rivals, Abbotsford Canucks on Marvel Super Hero Night, with a Gulls SuperHero Poster giveaway, while supplies last. There’s also a free, pregame tailgate in the North Parking Lot two hours before puck drop, or you can nosh your way around the concourse, which has everything from poutine to ice cream, as well as plenty of craft beer and cocktails.

Saturday, January 22
$$-$$$
Tecolote Shores Park
Start your year off on the right foot by hitting new fitness goals at the San Diego Resolution Run 5K/10K/Half Marathon. Stride along Mission Bay on this flat, fast and scenic waterfront course, then after the race stick around for prizes, goodies, and giveaways, and explore the Wellness Village. All runners receive a shirt and a cool custom finisher’s medal.

San Diego Museum of Art
San Diego Museum of Art

February 1-28
Free-$$
Various locations
Beginning February 1, head to any participating location in San Diego, Temecula, or Imperial Valley and pick up a free Museum Month Pass, which is good for half-price admission at more than 40 museums during the month of February. Each pass admits up to four people for half-price at participating venues, including the USS Midway, the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the San Diego Natural History Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art and the brand new Comic-Con Museum at Balboa Park. Museum Month Pass is free, but museum entrance fees vary depending on the venue and exhibits.

Celebrate the Lunar New Year

Friday, February 4–Sunday, February 20
Free-$$
Various locations
This February, people all over the world will celebrate the Lunar New Year. In San Diego, the beloved San Diego Têt Festival, including the popular Golden Voice, pho eating, and Miss Vietnam of San Diego competitions, will take place at Mira Mesa Community Park from Friday, February 4, through Sunday, February 6. The free, family-friendly event also features a cultural village, a beer garden, children's games and activities, food and live entertainment. San Diego’s Spring Festival happens in the in the old Chinatown of San Diego, now known as the Asian Pacific Thematic Historic District on Saturday, February 12, and Sunday, February 13, with live performances, art and culture activities, an array of delicious Chinese and Asian food, lion and dragon dancers, and children’s arts and crafts. Finally, the House of China hosts music, calligraphy, crafts, lion and dragon dances, and cultural performances on Saturday, February 19, and Sunday, February 20 in Balboa Park.

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North Park, Oceanside
If your fourth Zoom meeting of the day has you ready to throw an axe at the wall, we’ve got the place for you. Let go of your frustrations at AxeVentures in North Park and Oceanside—just book a spot online or walk in, learn the ropes from one of the coaches, and spend the next hour or so perfecting your technique. Prefer to smash your stress away? Book the North Park Rage Room and use a crowbar or baseball bat to beat, crush, and demolish a bunch of stuff (provided, but you can bring your own objects to smash, subject to approval.) Get your glow on at Dark Light Nights on Thursdays after 6 pm at either location. Safety note: Closed toe shoes are required.

Farmer's Table
Farmer's Table

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La Mesa, Little Italy, Bay Park
In the ever-escalating competition to stuff as many embellishments into your glass as humanly possible, The Farmers Table reigns supreme with their outrageous Barn Yard Bloody Mary. It’s made for four or more and contains a full pitcher of spicy, boozy goodness plus skewers of bacon-wrapped shrimp, Mexican-style street corn, mozzarella stuffed mushroom, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, short rib, andouille sausage, various grilled and pickled vegetables, bleu cheese stuffed olives, bbq sauced bacon and, just for good measure, a whole roasted chicken. For the less ravenous, there are normal sized bloodies too, including the popular Tijuana Maria with a bacon-wrapped hot dog, Mexican-style street corn, and pickled veggies.

$
Nestor
Fully digital and presenting the brightest picture quality available on three 100-foot screens, you can see a current double-feature every day, year round at South Bay Drive-in Theatre. A bargain at $10 for adults and just $1 for kids five to nine years of age—they even have email coupons for food discounts at the snack bar (just be sure to have masks on and socially distance when you aren’t inside your car). Credit and debit cards are accepted for tickets, but the snack bar is cash only.

$$
Downtown
For the ultimate outdoor film experience, head to the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego’s fourth floor rooftop theatre, where their Rooftop Cinema Club gives you a luxe movie experience with panoramic views of downtown San Diego, state-of-the-art wireless headphones, and comfy deck chairs. Craft brews, movie-themed cocktails, and upscale noshes are available with contactless order and pick-up. Cult favorites, themed nights, and family-friendly screenings are shown twice daily Sunday-Wednesday, with three different screenings Thursday-Saturday.

Coronado Island ferry landing
Lowe Llaguno/Shutterstock

Take the ferry to Coronado...

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Board the Coronado Ferry at either the Broadway Pier or the Convention Center for a quick, 15-minute ride across San Diego Bay to Coronado Ferry Landing, where shopping, dining, and activities ranging from biking to stand-up paddleboarding can be found within walking distance. Fares are a mere $7 one-way, and you can bring your bicycle for free. Masks are required to board the ferry, and tickets can be bought at the ticket booth or online for a contact-free purchase.

Bike the Silver Strand

Free-$$
Coronado
Beginning at Coronado Ferry Landing, the Silver Strand Bikeway is an 18-mile flat, paved loop that takes you along the sandy tombolo all the way to Imperial Beach. Perfect for riders of all levels, you’ll be treated to views of the Pacific Ocean on one side and the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge on the other. Don’t miss a stop at Silver Strand Beach for a quick swim or a walk along the sand. Bike rentals are available at the ferry landing if you haven’t brought your own.

Swim with sharks

Free-$
La Jolla
Scores of leopard sharks swarm to the shallow waters of La Jolla Shores Beach throughout the year, drawing snorkelers from all over the world to swim with them. Typically hanging out in under ten feet of water near The Marine Room Restaurant and off the La Jolla Tennis Club, groups of sharks can range in number from a few to hundreds. Although leopard sharks can reach five feet in length, there’s no need to be intimidated—they have tiny mouths and don’t attack humans. If you don’t have snorkeling equipment of your own, there are several shops within easy walking distance where you can rent them, and this time of year, consider adding a wetsuit to the deal.

La Jolla beach
frank mckenna/Unsplash

Surf at Black’s Beach

La Jolla
Free
San Diego beaches are open, and if you live near La Jolla Shores, you have access to one of the best surf breaks in the city, beginning with its thrilling hike from the gliderport down to the beach. Of course, the other thing Black’s Beach is famous for is being a nude beach, and if you’re so inclined, feel free to bare it all.

...or hit up one of San Diego’s other great beaches

Free
Various locations
Whether you’re surfing, swimming, or simply enjoying the view, San Diego has plenty of waterfront stretches to satisfy your inner sun worshipper. Windansea Beach’s rocks and cliffs, Coronado Beach and the historic hotel that dominates its landscape for miles and miles, or other oceanside escapes are there to entice you for a walk or a paddleboard out into the waves. We’ve got the best of them right here for you, just don’t forget to check their specific regulations. Did we mention they can differ from beach to beach?

Free-$$
Various locations
Most of San Diego’s farmers markets have fully reopened, selling flowers and produce picked just hours before, the freshest eggs, honey, seafood and baked goods, or any number of prepared and packaged dishes. A number of local farmers are selling direct-to-consumer from their farms as well—pick up meat, poultry, produce, eggs, honey, CSA boxes, and more. The how-tos vary from market to market, so check with your local market manager for details, such as pre-ordering and cashless options.

Mitch's Seafood
Mitch's Seafood

$$
Fleetridge
Fish tacos are a rite of passage in San Diego, and Mitch’s Seafood is the place to have two or six, what with its extensive menu and water’s edge location. Call ahead to order for takeout or walk in—you can sit inside, at the outdoor dining area on the dock, or walk along the harbor and enjoy the view while you savor your meal.

$-$$$
Marina
Tuna Harbor Dockside Market has added an online store to their website, which allows you to pre-order fresh-spot prawn, ahi tuna, sea urchin, rock crab, and more every week from 5 pm Thursday until 7pm Friday, ready for curbside pickup on Saturday from 10:30 am–1:30 pm at the end of the Tuna Harbor parking lot. The open air dockside market is still open from 8am–3pm Saturdays as well, with additional seafood not necessarily available in the online store.

Gelati & Pecati
Photo courtesy of Gelati & Pecati

$-$$$
Various locations
If you’re stuck in a takeout rut, now’s the time to hit up some of the best eateries in town. Camino Riviera celebrates the spirit of the Yucatán coast while exploring the flavors of Riviera Maya; Black Radish fuses the best of Southern California cuisine with modern French execution; and Market on 8th in National City Market on 8th showcases cuisines as diverse as the neighborhood itself. Check out other dine-in, pickup, takeout, and delivery choices ranging from brunch to global eats.

dirty flat top burger
The Friendly

$
University Heights, North Park
It may not be pretty, but it’s damn near the best burger you’ll ever have. The Friendly’s Dirty Flat Top burger starts with a plain, prefab white bun, buttered and toasted golden brown, two thin patties, smashed and caramelized on the grill, topped with a melted slice of American cheese, garlic aioli, and softly sauteed onions. You can get gussied up versions at the North Park location or a side slice of pizza at University Heights, but whatever you do, don’t ask for ketchup. Check Instagram for popular and random specials. The University Heights location still has very limited indoor or outdoor seating, so your best bet there is takeout, but the patio at North Park recently reopened.

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Mary Beth Abate is a San Diego-based freelance writer by way of Chicago and Los Angeles. Her hobbies include yoga, pickling and fermenting stuff, reading cookbooks and drinking fabulous gin. Keep up with her experiments @MaryBeth_Abate.