Best Free Things to Do in San Diego

From free concerts to swimming with sharks, you don’t have to spend a lot to have fun in San Diego

One of the many advantages to living in San Diego is the unlimited number of fun, spontaneous things to do. We’ve got the best beer scene, stunning rooftop lounges, endless restaurant choices and outdoor concerts and festivals year-round. Best of all, we enjoy an almost infinite supply of activities that won’t cost you anything at all. Whether you fancy an invigorating hike through an urban garden, a lazy day at the beach, or a romantic picnic and concert, San Diego has the answer. Here are 15 of our favorite free things to do in America’s Finest City:

Hit the Beach

Various locations
Whether “going to the beach” means catching the perfect wave, picnicking near an oceanfront cliff, partying with friends, or watching a spectacular sunset, San Diego’s 70 miles of coastline has the perfect place for your sunny day adventures. We work, play and live in not just a beach town, but arguably the finest beach town anywhere.

Head to Coronado Beach for some of the most complete amenities around, plus a long, wide stretch of soft, glittery sand that’s perfect for sand castle building. Dogs are welcome on North Beach at Dog Run Beach near Sunset Park, where you'll also find a foot shower and free litter bags.

Black's Beach may be best known as San Diego's gay and nude-friendly beach, but a visit there will show that all sorts of people, including many families with young children, come to enjoy some of the most stunning beach scenery in the county. It’s nestled under the bluffs at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and offers views of La Jolla to the south and San Diego's coastal towns to the north, as well as the gliders soaring high above the water. Black’s Beach has no amenities at all, so plan your visit accordingly.

pacific beach
Pacific Beach | Dirk DBQ/Flickr

Pacific Beach is the spot for beachside bars and casual fun, fueled by college students and energetic 20-somethings. It’s also one of the busiest beaches in San Diego, drawing crowds of locals and tourists, so weekends/holidays can get packed. Surfers of all levels enjoy the various breaks at Pacific Beach, especially at Tourmaline Surf Park, a surfing-only beach. Non-surfers can swim, kayak, or body surf along the shore, or bike, skate, walk, or jog on miles of paved paths.

Swami's Beach is one of San Diego's most famous (and gorgeous) surfing spots, with a standout right point break and numerous fun reef and beach breaks. It’s considered a challenging spot to paddle and was immortalized in the Beach Boys song, Surfin' USA. The park at Swami’s has shaded areas for picnicking and is an excellent vantage point to watch the surfers.

Balboa park
Anthony Dolce/Flickr

Balboa Park
We’ve highlighted some of our favorite, must-visit spots inside Balboa Park on this list, but it’s worth seeking out as a cultural hub. It’s referred to as the “Jewel of San Diego” for good reason. With more than 1,200 acres of museums, attractions, restaurants and gardens, you can easily spend an entire day ambling through the beautiful grounds and stunning architecture without spending a penny.

Among the 21 museums in the park, several of the most popular offer free admission on Resident Free Days, including the San Diego Natural History Museum, the oldest scientific institution in Southern California and the Fleet Science Center and planetarium, where the first-ever IMAX Dome Theater resides. The Timken Museum of Art and the San Diego Mineral & Gem Society Museum are always free.

A total of 15 dedicated gardens turn even the most casual stroll into a stress-busting nature walk. The best place to start is at the iconic Botanical Building and lily pond, one of the park’s most recognizable and photographed structures. The building itself is temporarily closed for renovation, but the area around the lily pond is still a popular spot for picnicking, lounging or meditation. Afterwards, learn about California flora and fauna in the California Native Plant Garden or trek through lush Palm Canyon.

Balboa Park isn’t just full of culture, it's also full of hiking trails. If you don’t have time to drive off into the wilderness, but still want some exercise and fresh air, try a little urban hiking. There are 19 trails at varying levels of difficulty that will take you 65 miles through the park. Access the trails from one of five trailhead gateways, where you’ll find info on length, difficulty and type of trail and can download maps of specific areas or the entire park.

Liberty Station
A walk through trendy Liberty Station’s Arts District on the first Friday of the month might turn up spontaneous music, dance, or theater performances, outdoor movies, or special gallery showings. For a map and monthly program, check online or stop by the Dick Laub NTC Command Center’s information desk, then wander through the various galleries, museums and open spaces.

la jolla sea caves
Dave Bunnell/Wikimedia

La Jolla
Thousands of years of pounding surf and storms along La Jolla’s coastline have created La Jolla Caves, a series of seven sea caverns nestled between La Jolla Shores Beach and La Jolla Cove. The only cave that’s accessible by land is Sunny Jim Sea Cave, via The Cave Store, a tunnel and a 145-step descent down a wooden staircase, but there is a $10 fee. If you want to see all seven, your best bet is to kayak and explore them from the sea. Two caves, Clam Cave and Arches Cave, are large enough to enter by kayak, but you can swim into them all, or just relax and enjoy the wildlife—you might see leopard sharks or garibaldi swimming by, or sea lions lazing on the rocks.

The Rady Shell
Courtesy of the Rady Shell

When not in use as a performance venue, Jacobs Park—home to The Rady Shell— is open to the public, who can use grassy areas and seating for picnicking, lounging and other activities. If you’re fortunate, your visit may coincide with performance rehearsals by the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, who invite the public to enjoy their practice sessions for free and without reservations, unless your group numbers over 15 guests. Check their website for rehearsal schedules and guidelines for attending, but note that rehearsal times may change or be canceled without notice.

La Jolla
Murals of La Jolla is a collaboration between the La Jolla Community Foundation and Athenaeum Music & Arts Library that features 15 murals scattered about the city, all within easy walking distance of each other. Free guided tours are available monthly; online registration is required and note that the tours fill up quickly. It's even more fun to strike out on your own with a self-guided tour though, just download the map and wander at your own pace. The project was founded in 2010 and has commissioned more than 41 murals over the years; past exhibits can be viewed online.

dave's rock garden
Hidden San Diego

Dave Dean began clearing the trash and weeds from a vacant, state-owned lot near his home in Encinitas more than eight years ago, eventually adding cactus, bromeliad and other low-maintenance, drought-resistant vegetation, carving out walking paths throughout and lining them with smooth stones. The rock garden theme was inspired by a visiting artist from Arizona, Candace Jesse Jessup, who painted one of the stones with a mandala as a thank you gift, inspiring Dave to paint rocks on his own. He asked neighbors and visitors to paint rocks too, resulting in a brilliantly colored oasis that is now home to more than 7000 beautiful rocks, created by locals and travelers from all over the world. Meander down the paths, reading uplifting messages, meditate while sitting on the stump seats or near the small shrine. You can even paint your own rock at the art station, where Dave provides the necessary supplies. The garden has no website, but can be found at 200 B Street in Encinitas.

Solana Beach
This 2.2 mile, moderately difficult hike takes you past towering walls and uphill through a short slot canyon, complete with a small, graffiti-covered cave, before emerging at a scenic vista outlook point with views of the San Elijo Lagoon and the Pacific Ocean. From there, it loops through a series of fairly well-groomed switchbacks to return to the trailhead. Expect a bottleneck at the slot canyon on weekends and arrive early if you’d rather avoid the crowds. There’s even a cool little video so you know what to expect.

amici park san diego
Photo byNina Karavasiles

Little Italy
Amici Park is an extremely popular gathering spot in Little Italy, complete with an outdoor amphitheater, bocce courts and a dog park, but did you know that you can also get some great recipes there, too? No, you won’t have to sweet talk someone’s grandmother out of her secret formula for Bolognese sauce—instead, there’s an art installation called Recipe for Friendship, with four bronze sculptures of iconic dishes and the recipes to create them at home, plus 10 sidewalk plaques with inspirational quotes and proverbs. Examples currently featured include Deborah Scott’s Blackened Fish Tacos, the late Rose Giolzetti Cresci’s Stuffed Artichokes, Lisa and Joe Busallachi’s Marinara Sauce, and the fourth recipe—Fava Bean Spread—was contributed by the artist, San Diego’s Nina Karavasiles, who has 22 other public artworks displayed across the city.

The Silver Strand Bikeway begins at Coronado Ferry Landing and takes you along the nine-mile flat, 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. The Coronado Ferry does cost $7 each way if you don’t want to drive over, but your bike rides for free.

La Mesa
The primary distinction between fly fishing and spin or bait fishing, is that the weight of the line—rather than a lure or sinker—carries the hook through the air. Of course, casting a nearly weightless fly requires significantly different techniques from other forms of casting. Learn the ins and outs from the San Diego Fly Fishers, one of the few fishing clubs in the country to offer free fly casting clinics, held at Lake Murray every Sunday from 9am until noon. Bring your own equipment or borrow club equipment from one of the certified instructors. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife stocks Lake Murray with rainbow trout, but you can also catch largemouth bass, blue catfish, bluegill, channel catfish, red-ear sunfish and black crappie. A fishing license isn’t necessary for the fly casting clinic, but if you’re 16 or over, you’ll need one to catch fish.

Wayne S. Grazio/Flickr

Balboa Park
Each Sunday, San Diego Civic Organist Raúl Prieto Ramírez and Spreckels Organ Curator Dale Sorenson, with special access given by the City of San Diego, head to The Spreckels Organ for their regularly scheduled Sunday afternoon concerts. The musical repertoire ranges from Bach to Broadway and classical to contemporary. The hour-long concert begins at 2pm and takes place rain or shine.

stonewall peak trail

Stonewall Peak Trail in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park feels like a backcountry hike, without the four-hour drive. Spectacular vistas and ever-changing vegetation along its 3.4-mile out-and-back course provide plenty of opportunities to stop and smell the roses, or in this case, wild sage and rose mallow. Thanks to a series of gentle switchbacks up a mere 830-foot elevation gain, along with plenty of shade from the beautiful forest setting, hikers of almost any skill level can hit the summit for spectacular, 360-degree views of Lake Cuyamaca and the Cuyamaca Mountains. Afterwards, you’re just a quick drive into Julian for a guilt-free slice of their famous apple pie, which sadly, is not free.

zoro garden balboa park
Balboa Park

Balboa Park
The Zoro Garden, named after Zoroaster, founder of Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest organized faiths, is in a sunken grotto nestled between the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and the Casa de Balboa in Balboa Park. It was originally built for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915-16, and renovated in 1935 to host the California Pacific International Exposition, where it was home to a nudist colony of sorts run by sideshow promoters Nate Eagle and Stanley R. Graham. Visitors were charged an entry fee of 25 cents to watch paid actors in loincloths and body stockings pose, play sports and engage in quasi-religious ceremonies. Today, Zoro Garden has been reimagined as a serene butterfly garden, where monarchs, swallowtails and sulfur butterflies drink water from tiny pools in the rocks. Local flora and fauna includes food sources like milkweed, passion fruit vines and California lilac for butterfly larvae, plus verbena, butterfly bush, lantana and the like provide nectar for adult butterflies.

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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.