Stephanie Nelson | 

Top 18 Free Things to Do in San Diego

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San Diego is an easy place to visit even if you’re not planning to pay for LEGOLAND or SeaWorld because of the beaches and scenery — there’s so much to do outside!

Best part? A lot of it is free. So, here are a few can’t-miss free San Diego activities:


1. Museum of Contemporary Art

Every third Thursday of the month, you can visit the Museum of Contemporary Art for free from 5-7 p.m.

You can even get a free guided tour on these days starting at 5:30 p.m.

Normally located in La Jolla, the Museum of Contemporary Art is currently undergoing a major renovation and won’t reopen until 2021.

However, the museum’s collection is still available to view — it’s just in a different location.

Look for exhibitions at the Jacob and Copley Buildings downtown.


2. La Jolla Cove

Surrounded by cliffs, La Jolla Cove is home to marine life like sea lions and seals.

In fact, you can walk along the beach and pass right by these animals!

Pay for snorkeling or scuba diving tours if you’d like, or just walk along the beach and grab lunch at Harry’s Coffee Shop where they serve cheeseburgers all day.


3. Balboa Park

Balboa Park is a 1,200 acre cultural center with museums, gardens, trails to hike, dog parks, playgrounds and more — museums may have admission fees.

Check out one of 15 free gardens inside Balboa Park like the fountain and elaborate tile work in the Alcazar Garden or the bronze statue of a WWII Fighter plane inside Veterans Memorial Garden.

It’s easy to spend a day in Balboa Park and not pay for much of anything.


4. Timken Museum of Art

Always free, Timken Museum of Art is open Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and Sunday 1:30-4:30 p.m.

It’s the only museum in Balboa Park that offers free admission.

The museum hosts paintings from all over the world including pieces by Russian, Dutch, French, Italian painters and more.


RELATED: 19 Free Things to Do with Your Kids This Summer


5. Cowles Mountain

If you want the best view of San Diego, hike Cowles Mountain.

With an elevation of 1,594 feet, you can climb it at a reasonable pace in about 60 minutes — a bit more with small children.

Don’t go during the hottest part of the day because there’s not much shade.

On a clear day you can see all the way out to Coronado Island!



6. Old Town State Historical Park

Want to go back in time? Visit Old Town State Historical Park.

It’s 29 acres of streets and buildings that date back to 1820-1870. Among the buildings is the Whaley House, which is said to be haunted.

Walk the streets and eat in one of many restaurants.

Consider visiting during Cinco de Mayo when there are special booths and street entertainment to enjoy.


7. Queen Califia’s Magical Circle

A sculpture garden can definitely be magical to children — especially when it’s inspired by mythology.

OK, it’s fictional mythology, but kids don’t care! There’s a statue of Queen Califia on a five-legged eagle, a couple serpents and more — all mosaics.

The garden isn’t open when it’s raining, and it stays closed for up to 48 hours after a rainy day.


8. Liberty Public Market

Located in Point Loma’s historic Liberty Station, the Liberty Public Market is open seven days a week.

In fact, on Sundays there’s live music!

Stroll through the old Navy building it’s housed in and enjoy over 30 vendors selling handmade items, or grab a bite to eat.


9. Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial

A huge, 43-foot cross sits on top of Mt. Soledad to honor veterans. And not certain veterans — all veterans from the Revolutionary War to today.

On the walls leading up to the cross, you’ll find 3,500 names of veterans from presidents to generals to celebrities who served in wars.


10. Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum

Visit the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum from Tuesday-Sunday 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. to view exhibits and items that tell stories about the history of the U.S. Marine Corps Aviation.

The museum is always free and you’ll see planes, jets, helicopters and more.

Plus, every other weekend during summer, catch an “Open Cockpit” day where kids can sit in the pilot’s seat, put on a helmet and talk to pilots.



11. Torrey Pines Natural Reserve

Experience over three miles of wilderness along the coast at Torrey Pines Natural Reserve.

This land has been kept exactly as it was before San Diego was developed, so children can experience what it might have been like for the natives who lived there.

One thing to know is a reserve is different from a park in that it’s a protected land, so you can’t bring any food or drinks (except water).


12. San Diego Botanical Gardens

Free on the first Tuesday of the month, San Diego Botanical Gardens is 37 acres of themed gardens like a Bird & Butterfly Garden, Bamboo Garden, Olive Tree Garden and more.

You can even throw your child a birthday party in the Botanical Gardens!


13. Dive in Movies at the Pearl

The Pearl Hotel is a Mid-Century Modern boutique hotel that shows outdoor movies in front of their pool on Wednesday nights every week.

While open to the public, you’ll need to buy a drink or be a hotel guest in order to actually get into the pool.

Here’s the Dive in Movies lineup for the next few months.


14. Art Galleries at the University of San Diego

Always free, the Art Galleries at USD host a diverse collection of everything from artifacts from paleolithic tools to Native American culture to contemporary works of art.

The galleries are spread all across the campus, so you can feel free to visit what interests you.

Plan to pay for parking on campus if you’re driving to the galleries.


15. Historic land and homes

Get outside and learn some history about San Diego’s early settlers at the same time.

Both of these spots have vast amounts of land to explore in addition to old buildings.

  • Los Penasquitos Canyon County Preserve: Open from 8 a.m. to sunset, hike up to 12 miles of non-motorized trails, and tour a historic adobe ranch house museum.
  • Leo Carillo Ranch: Located inside of a 27-acre canyon, you’ll find wandering peacocks and historic ranch buildings.



16. Summer Concerts

Just bring a blanket or some chairs and enjoy live music!


17. Almost Free: Old Point Loma Lighthouse & Cabrillo National Monument.

Constructed in 1855 but taken out of commission after only 36 years of use due to heavy fog, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse is now a museum.

The lighthouse is located within the Cabrillo National Monument, which is a National Park.

Walk to the monument itself and enjoy amazing views of the ocean.

Find out how to get discounted or free entrance into National Parks.


18. Almost Free: South Coast Plaza Carousel

OK, so it costs a dollar.

But it’s a quick stop and it will make your kids so happy.

There are two carousels at the South Coast Plaza — both are on level one. The first is by the Bear Street entrance and the other is by the Bristol Street entrance.


UP NEXT: 19 Free Things to Do in Los Angeles

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