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Visiting San Diego for the First Time? Here's What To See and Do

Whether you love the beach or prefer cultural attractions, San Diego is full of options for first-time visitors.
Hi, I'm Margot!

Margot Bigg is a journalist who has lived in the UK, the US, France, and India. She’s the author of Moon Living Abroad in India and Moon Taj Mahal, Delhi & Jaipur and a co-author of Fodor's Essential India and Fodor's Pacific Northwest. Her stories have appeared in Rolling Stone India, National Geographic Traveler, Sunset, and VICE.

San Diego has long been known for its sunny climate, beautiful beaches, and beloved, enormous zoo. However, this Southern California city also offers numerous cultural attractions—from centuries-old buildings to fantastic museums—and plenty of fun neighborhoods and communities full of shops, restaurants, and places to cycle or stroll. Here are the best destinations and experiences that first-time visitors to San Diego won’t want to miss.

Spend a day at Balboa Park

pond in front of ornate historic buildings
There are 18 museums in Balboa Park.Photo Credit: Kit Leong / Shutterstock

Enjoy San Diego’s top attractions all in one spot.

You can see many of San Diego’s best attractions at Balboa Park. Don't miss a visit to the acclaimed San Diego Museum of Man (SDMM), which takes an anthropological approach to exploring the diversity of our planet, or the Japanese Friendship Garden, a beautifully manicured 12-acre (5-hectare) green space. Balboa Park is an equally great place to hike, but if you’re short on time, you may find it easier to zip around with a guide on an e-bike or a Segway.

Visit San Diego’s celebrated zoo

elephant topiary
The topiaries at the San Diego Zoo are nearly as exciting as the real animals.Photo Credit: James Kirkikis / Shutterstock

Learn about the animal kingdom.

San Diego has long been celebrated for its impressive San Diego Zoo, and although it’s located in the aforementioned Balboa Park, it deserves its own mention. The 100-acre (40.5-hectare) expanse is home to thousands of animals representing more than 800 species. The zoo also operates the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in nearby Escondido, which offers safari-like experiences in a controlled environment. If you want to see both, consider booking a 2-day pass that allows you to visit both over the course of a couple of days.

Insider tip: If you want to see animals in the wild, take a kayaking expedition in the nearby suburb of La Jolla, known for its large population of adorable sea lions.

Hang out at the beach

aerial view of san diego beach
With its southern location, San Diego has the perfect warm temperature for a beach day.Photo Credit: Oxana Militsina / Shutterstock

What’s Southern California without beach time?

With warm weather throughout much of the year and easy access to the Pacific Ocean, San Diego is a dream for beach lovers. A short drive or bus ride from downtown gets you to Mission Beach, featuring both sand and a boardwalk that's best explored on foot or by bicycle. To the south of Mission Beach, Ocean Beach Pier—the largest concrete pier on the West Coast—attracts anglers and surfers. It’s one of the best spots in San Diego to take in sunset views, too.

Get out on the water

a marina in san diego
Boats are a part of life in San Diego—this is a naval town, after all.Photo Credit: julius fekete / Shutterstock

Take advantage of easy Pacific Ocean access.

While beaches are great fun, there’s no need to restrict your seaside pursuits to the shore. Instead, head to Shelter Island, an area just west of downtown where you can hop on a boat and head out onto the water. A whale-watching cruise or a seal cruise aboard an amphibious vehicle is a top choice if you're interested in marine life, or consider a sunset sail if you're in the mood for something more relaxed.

Eat your way through Little Italy

little italy street sign in san diego
Make sure you're hungry before you visit San Diego's Little Italy.Photo Credit: Kyle J Little / Shutterstock

A slice of the Old World on the West Coast.

Larger than its counterpart in New York City, San Diego's Little Italy traces its roots and name to the large population of Italian-American families who settled here generations ago. Today, it's a popular dining destination, with a charming Saturday morning farmers market and many Italian restaurants. Get a taste of what this 48-block neighborhood has to offer on a guided food tour, ideal for sampling a lot of different delights in a short amount of time.

Go back in time in historic Old Town

historic spanish-style building
Old Town is certainly old—about 2.5 centuries old, in fact.Photo Credit: lilyling1982 / Shutterstock

Take a walk through the past.

If you like history or architecture, head to Old Town San Diego, the site of the first European Settlement in what is now the state of California. Founded in 1769, Old Town features historic adobe homes, a former schoolhouse, and endless shops and restaurants. Take a walking tour to learn about the area's history while sampling tasty tacos and tequila.

Stroll along the Embarcadero

old sailing ship at a dock
Learn all about San Diego's maritime history along the Embarcadero.Photo Credit: f11photo / Shutterstock

Immerse yourself in maritime history.

Stretching along the eastern shores of the San Diego Bay, the waterfront Embarcadero is full of restaurants, shops, and boats, all easily accessible by hop-on, hop-off trolley. The Embarcadero is also the site of the Maritime Museum of San Diego, a collection of ships ranging from submarines to the Star of India, the oldest active sailing ship in the world. Book a ticket ahead of your visit to save time when you arrive.

Take a relaxing ride through Coronado

palm trees along the bay at sunset
Coronado is an island paradise.Photo Credit: Dancestrokes / Shutterstock

Hop on a bike and forget you’re in the city.

A quick jaunt from downtown San Diego takes you to Coronado, a relaxed beach community that feels worlds away from the big city. This compact area is home to attractions such as Silver Strand State Beach and the elegant Hotel del Coronado, though many people come out simply to walk or cycle around town. You can even ride on the sand if you opt for an electric fat-tire bike tour.

Explore scenic coastal bluffs

bluffs overlooking the sea
Always be cautious when you're hiking in San Diego,Photo Credit: Danita Delimont / Shutterstock

The sunsets are hard to beat.

Just north of downtown San Diego in the sophisticated La Jolla area, Torrey Pines State Reserve offers some of the finest views of the Pacific Ocean in the area. Discover its idyllic beaches and bluffs on a self-guided driving tour, or hit up the hiking trails on foot. The reserve even has its own sandstone slot canyons, but it's safer to visit them with an experienced guide rather than attempt to explore on your own.

Immerse yourself in the world of LEGO®

families at a waterpark
LEGOLAND is a must-visit for families, as well as the young at heart.Photo Credit: Hayk_Shalunts / Shutterstock

It’s fun for all ages.

If you're traveling with kids in tow, check out the massive LEGO displays and rides at LEGOLAND® California. This vast amusement park, the first of its kind in the US, is divided into 10 sections, each with its own landmark(s) expertly constructed from LEGOs. A variety of ticket options are available, from regular single-day tickets to 2-day tickets that also include access to nearby SEA LIFE® San Diego Aquarium.

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