San Diego can be an expensive place to live and visit but like with all places, there are things do in San Diego for absolutely no money. Locals go out all the time and have fun but spend no money. It’s not a magic trick or a special local discount. They just know what to do when.
Lucky for you, you have a local on your side to tell you all about San Diego free things to do. Trust me, you’ll find something to suit your fancy.
Family-Friendly Free Things to Do in San Diego
Mission Bay Park
If you’re visiting San Diego then it’s a no brainer to go down to the beaches. The most family-friendly of them have got to be Mission Bay Park. I used to go there all the time on family excursions to barbecue, paddleboard, and sunbathe.
But there is much more you can do with the family such as flying kites, having a bonfire, playing sand volleyball, etc. There even just so happens to be a children’s play area where the kiddos can run free and be kids while the parents can sit back and enjoy birdwatching, people watching, or wave watching.
This is a HUGE thing in San Diego. There are so many different Farmers Markets around that no matter where you’re staying, you can and will find out close by. It’s a great family-friendly activity where you and the kids can learn about where fruits and vegetables come from, how to pick out the best stuff and sample some of the freshest food you can get outside of a farm.
It also brings awareness to your own Farmers Markets and how you can help your community by buying locally. If you get hungry, by all means, get some healthy fresh food right then and there.
Sun & Sea Festival
This yearly festival occurs in July in Imperial Beach. It’s an awesome free festival where world-class sand sculptors showcase their elaborate sculptures as live music plays. A pancake breakfast is served from 7 to 9 by elected officials thus kicking off this family-friendly event.
It’s a great opportunity for kids to get creative with all the children’s crafting activities and even sandcastle competition of their very own. The fun doesn’t end there either! There’s beach blanket BINGO, a marching show, a kid zone, and food samples available from the variety of vendors. Just don’t forget your sunblock.
Learn More Here.
San Diego Waterfront Park
Along the bay near Little Italy, you’ll find extensive open spaces with interactive water fountains, play area, public art, special event venues, and picnic spots. It’s strictly smoke and alcohol-free so it is regularly safe for people of all ages.
The kids will have a blast splashing around in the water while parents can sit back and relax, watching their kids or even joining in on the fun. Or you can walk through the intimate garden hand in hand. During the summer, free movies have a tendency to play here too. It’s a great opportunity to have fun in the sun. From there, you can walk along the waterfront – passed the USS Midway – to Seaport Village and explore the little shops and restaurants there.
Sweetwater Bike Park
6057 Miguel Rd., Bonita, CA 91902
Daily: 9:30 AM – 5:00 PM
This is for families with kids that are a little older and energized. Sweetwater Bike Park is free and publicly accessible. There are even people around to teach your kids about safety and how to ride properly.
The surrounding park is also great for camping, having a picnic, and hiking. So even if you don’t want or know how to ride a bike, the possibilities are simply endless. If this sounds super cool then you can book the area of special events like birthday parties or get-togethers. Kids have a lot of fun here and parents can too, of course.
>>Also read our List of Free Things to do in San Diego with Kids
Outdoor Things to Do For Free in San Diego
Mission Trails Regional Park
7200-acres of open space ready for you to explore. Mission Trails is perfect for hiking, running, walking, and biking. All of which are free to do at the trails. You can get in touch with nature by bird watching, plant documentation, wildlife watching, or just meditation.
It’s a beautiful area where you can picnic and if reservations are made & fees are paid, you can camp there as well. If you do bring a picnic, a dog, or camp, please make sure to clean up after everything is said and done. San Diego likes to keep clean and recycle so don’t leave your litter or droppings around.
If you are a beach crawler and/or a night owl, this is an activity for you. The beach areas are usually very lively, especially Ocean Beach. But more often than not you will find a firepit where you can throw in some logs and hang out with friends. It’s a classic summer activity but you are free to do it any day it’s not raining (which is often).
A lot of times, if the vibe is right, you will attract other beach dwellers and have the pleasure of hearing some stories and making friends. Just make sure you at least roast something to eat while you’re there.
In the San Carlos neighborhood, you will see this imposing mountain. That would be Cowles Mountain, an awesome hiking trail that just so happens to be the highest point in San Diego at 1,593 feet. Cool, right? People hike up and down the mountain all day long, eager to see the view or snap a picture of the gorgeous view of everything.
Bring a lot of water and make sure you watch where you step because there may be snakes on your trail. No worries, just don’t approach or provoke and you should be fine. Remember to also pick up after yourself.
The Ocean Beach Cliffs
Ocean Beach isn’t often visited by tourists but is have loads of restaurants, bars, and interesting activities. My sister lives over there and it’s such a humble little oceanside town. She often takes me on walks but knows I’m not a huge fan of sand getting all in my shoes. So she takes me past the pier and to the cliffs where it is a little slippery and tricky to maneuver but it’s pretty and peaceful.
You can bring your dog or significant other and chill out at one of the best dog beaches in San Diego. You can even eat up there but you absolutely need to clean up after yourself so that way our beautiful ocean continues to be beautiful.
215 W. K Street (between 2nd and 3rd Street)
San Diego is one of the best spots to have a little relaxation retreat to find your inner peace or rediscover yourself. I know that sometimes, meditation or yoga retreats can rack up quite a bill but I have the solution!
You can visit this Encinitas Temple for meditation. While the gardens are closed on Mondays, you can freely meditate with the sound of the ocean the rest of the week from 9 AM to 5 PM Tuesday-Saturday and 11 AM to 5 PM Sunday. You can study and pray as well, whatever it is to help you find your peace.
Free San Diego Sightseeing
La Jolla Children’s Pool
Back in the 1930s, a philanthropist created a seawall around an area to children could run around and swim freely. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an ideal spot to create a recreational area but the La Jolla seals have since made it their play/lounge area. While some residents believe the seals should go, the majority love watching them play. It makes for a great day out and sightseeing adventure. They come year-round so it’s a great stop.
Plus there are amazing La Jolla brunch places, shops, and restaurants to explore while you’re in the area as well. But the highlight is the cute seals.
Old Town State Historic Park
This is by far my favorite of the free things to do in San Diego. I’ve been visiting since kindergarten and I still haven’t seen all of it. This is where San Diego was born! The history is rich in the air and mingles with the delicious Mexican food cooking from every corner.
Many of the museums are free admission. The way they froze time to show you life in early Mexico and San Diego is amazing. Even the shops keep up the old-time vibe that oozes charm and humility. If you do visit, make sure to stop by the Whaley House, a haunted spot that is worth the small admission at least ten times over.
Mt. Soledad Cross
The Mt Soledad Cross in La Jolla was first erected in 1913. For the last 30 years, it has been a local landmark. It was built as a memorial for veterans. People are always there willing to answer questions and guide you around the 3500 plaques on display.
It’s a little bit of a hike so wear some comfy shoes. Don’t forget to bring your camera because the 360-degree view is breathtaking, showing both the city and the ocean. There’s a certain harmony you feel when you sit up there and let the history & beauty touch you. It’s truly a place to remember.
Free Museum Days
Most museums in San Diego will offer a free museum day for veterans and their dependents as well as residents of California or San Deigo. Here are the museums you can explore and when they have a free admission day.
- Museum of Contemporary Art: Free Thursdays
- San Diego Public Library: Everyday
- Balboa Park Museums: Residents Free on Tuesdays
- Botanical Building: Free Everyday
- Timken Museum of Art: Free Everyday
- Mission Basilica San Diego de Acala: Free Everyday
- WorldBeat Cultural Center: Visiting is Always Free
- Green Dragon Tavern and Museum: Free Everyday
- Junipero Serra Museum: Always Free but Donations are Welcome
The Gaslamp in Downtown San Diego is not only a hotspot for great dining and bar-hopping, but it’s also a historic area similar to Old Town but with more booze. There are galleries, museums, and shops to look through. You don’t have to buy anything at all. You can window shop and admire the beautiful historic Victorian architecture.
Now, of course, I recommend going to at least one restaurant down there but it’s not a requirement. Many people go on scavenger hunts or play hide and seek around the main Gaslamp area, which is loads of fun. But really, walking around while people-watching is fun enough.
Romantic San Diego Things to Do For Free
There are so many romantic date ideas for San Diego that are so much better than dinner and a movie. Take advantage of the variety and plan something special. And special doesn’t mean it has to be expensive. Here are some of our favorite free romantic things to do in San Diego.
Free Summer Movies in the Park
From May to October, you can park hop to watch newer and older flicks that are perfect for summer. They hold the movies in various parks around San Diego featuring food trucks, activities, and of course movies!
What’s a better first date activity than watching a movie and eating some delicious food? You can focus more on your date without worrying about those pesky movie theater prices. You can choose the food you bring and you can sit wherever you want. Make sure to check out the movie schedule so you know which park to go when. You can check it out here.
Gorgeous Botanical Building in Balboa Park
Getting into the Botanical garden is always free. It’s located down in Balboa park and well over a century old. It houses over 2000 beautiful tropical plants and palms. I think it is lovely to walk through for my fellow nature-lovers and gardeners. There’s a huge lily pond in the front so it’s not hard to miss. It’s picturesque and one of the most photographed places in Balboa Park.
You can learn all about the plants as you get lost in the building. If you are spending the day there, pack a lunch and picnic out in front near the pond. It’s my favorite San Diego free thing to do.
59-Mile Scenic Drive
Whether you’re just visiting San Diego or you’re a local, this is a great and unique date idea. There’s a self-paced driving tour of all of San Diego you can take. The only thing you would have to pay for is gas and any snacks you may want. The route takes you through Downtown, Harbor Island, Point Loma, and all the other beautiful sights that San Diego has to offer.
Mini road trips like this are perfect to talk to your date and ponder life’s mysteries or scream sing your favorite playlist until your voice gives out. Pro-tip: Pack a romantic picnic for you to share at sunset near one of our many beaches. This will definitely steal a heart or two.
Check out the route here.
Stars in the Park
On the first Wednesday of every month, the San Diego Astronomy Association sets up telescopes in front of the Fleet Center Building. You can look at the planets and stars with your partner because what is more romantic than looking up at the stars together. You’ll set up by the large fountain in Balboa Park.
This is absolutely free and so much fun. You can learn about the stars or just observe them for my astronomers out there. They provide the telescopes, you just have to show up. You can even just set up a blanket and snuggle under the starlight.
Walking/Picnicking on The Beach
Okay, this may sound generic but hear me out for a second. You see it in the movies all the time and they seem to be having a blast so why not debunk the date idea yourself? I mean, there are tons of beautiful beaches in San Diego from Coronado to Mission Beach to Ocean Beach and even La Jolla shores.
Set up a beach blanket, layout your favorite foods and drink, and talk the day away. Or walk down the beautiful Pacific beaches, climb around the tide pools, and have fun. A date at the beach is like a blank canvas for you to romantically paint on, which is something else you can do at the beach.
Murals of La Jolla
La Jolla is chock-full of these beautiful murals done by fantastic artists. Walking around La Jolla is completely free as well as taking a walking tour and learning about those murals. Anthenaeum hosts an art walk of these murals whilst teaching you about the artist and their work of art. This is a great date idea for my artsy couples out there or anyone who just like beautiful things.
Tours are given the last Wednesday of the month but you can follow the mural map here. If you want to go on a tour, it is free but reservations are suggested as it is popular. At the end of the tour, you have plenty of food options to choose from.
Yes, California is expensive and San Diego’s got some fairly high prices. But you don’t have to break the bank to have fun on your visit. While your food and lodging can definitely be worth the price, your activities can range from family-friendly to ridiculously romantic and you won’t have to touch your wallet. No matter what the seasons have in-store, you can find free things to do in San Diego.
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Free Things to do in San Diego was written and edited by Hedge Metreyeon. For more San Diego Explorer posts, check out our homepage. For more of their articles visit here. Follow them on social media here.
Last Updated on August 2, 2023 by Maria Haase