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Top things to do in San Diego for first-time visitors

by The Discovery Nut
San Diego is one of the best places along your West Coast Road Trip itinerary
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San Diego is a true pearl of Southern California. 

Its sun-drenched beaches, mild year-round weather and abundant opportunities for recreation attract visitors from all over the world. 

But besides its photogenic landscapes, San Diego also has rich culture that dates back centuries. 

After all, European settlers first landed in San Diego spreading their culture and traditions throughout much of the territory that later became California. Whether you want to learn some history, explore the great outdoors or relax at one of best beaches in California, San Diego has it all. 

If you are new to San Diego, you might need some guidance since the city has so much to offer. My guide to top things to do in San Diego for first-time visitors is here to help you!

PRO TIP: If you plan to spend at least a couple of days in this city, and plan to visit some of the top San Diego attractions, I recommend purchasing CityPass that will help you save a good chunk of change. 


La Jolla

Pronounced (la-hoy-ah), this small coastal town is a perfect place to stop if you are driving to San Diego from Los Angeles. Home to upscale boutiques, restaurants, art galleries, and white-sand beaches, La Jolla attracts a fair share of local residents and tourists alike. 

One of the most popular activities in La Jolla is kayaking. First-time visitors should do a kayaking tour through the La Jolla Ecological Reserve where you can see dolphins, sea lions and other marine wildlife. 

La Jolla California
La Jolla California

La Jolla Cove, one of the main popular place in La Jolla is where seals and other wildlife like to hang out. 

But when you see the cute seals casually laying on the beach, remember that it’s illegal to “flush” or scare them back into the water. 

When seals feel threatened, they run into the water, which could easily throw off their bilabial processes and cause various disorders. The area has plenty of signs warning visitors not to touch the seals and get close to them, so you should definitely heed the warning.

And if you are in the mood for some adventure, head over to Torrey Pines Gliderport, where you can soar over the rugged coastline on a hang glider.

Torrey Pines is one the best things to do in San Diego

Torrey Pines State Reserve

One of my favorite spots in San Diego, Torrey Pines State Reserve is a coastal park in La Jolla. 

Although it’s located in an urban area, it’s a true wilderness lover’s paradise with amazing views and hiking trails. I might be biased, but I think that it’s one of the top things to do in San Diego, if you are visiting the city for the first time!

It costs $10 to get in and the area has several parking spots. There are numerous hiking trails of varying length and difficulty at Torrey Pines State Reserve ranging from under 1 mile to almost 3 miles. 

Torrey Pines Directions: To get to Torrey Pines State Reserve, take Interstate-5 and exit at Carnel Valley Road. Drive west toward Torrey Pines Road South until you get to the park.

PRO TIP: This place is pretty popular, so if you want to find a parking spot, arrive no later than 8 a.m. This is especially true if you plan on visiting Torrey Pines on a weekend. 

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park San Diego is a coastal park that overlooks the Pacific Ocean and stretches all the way to Point Loma Peninsula. 

It’s located in a residential area, so finding a parking spot can be difficult, so I recommend getting there early morning. 

The cliffs in the park are pretty tall and treacherous, so be careful when you walk around. Sunset Cliffs is also a home to a scenic 3-mile long hike along the coast that takes about one hour. Along the trail, you will find gorgeous cliff formations and sandstone arches, so you should take more time to explore this place.

The easiest access point to the trail is located at the corner of Ladera Street and Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. 

Cabrillo National Monument

This monument is the official landing spot for the first European settlers on the West Coast. 

In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo arrived with his expedition to the area and initially named it San Miguel (It was renamed to San Diego in 1602). The visitor center at Cabrillo National Monument has several exhibits about Cabrillo’s exploration of California.

If you want to learn some cool history, Cabrillo National Monument is one of top things to do in San Diego! 

Here you can also check out the Old Point Loma Lighthouse which has a museum inside  and enjoy the views of the San Diego harbor. When the tide is low, you can visit tide pools at the Southern end of Cabrillo National Monument. 

Cabrillo National Monument is part of 115 national parks that require entrance fees, so you can either pay a one-time fee of $10 or purchase America The Beautiful Pass that will also provide access to many other national parks across the country.

Cabrillo National Monument Directions: From north: I-5 South to I-805 South to I-52 East to I-15 South. Exit Friars Road and turn left. Turn right on Rancho Mission Road at first signal and left on San Diego Mission Road. Mission is one half block on the left.

Gaslamp Quarter

San Diego’s historic Gaslamp Quarter is a trendy downtown neighborhood famous for its hip scene. 

The area boasts premier dining places and a vibrant social atmosphere. Here you will find plenty of events, concerts and cultural venues such as art galleries, theaters, night clubs and bars.

Although this area is part of downtown San Diego, it looks notably different thanks to its Victorian-style homes nestled against the backdrop of modern skyscrapers. 

Gaslamp Quarter is also one of the best places to stay in San Diego because this area has restaurants, museums, galleries and theaters. 

Directions: Gaslamp Quarter sits at L Street and Fifth Avenue, downtown’s main thoroughfare. 

Coronado Beach

When you are in San Diego, don’t forget to check one of the best beaches in America. 

Known for its miles-long white sand shoreline and idyllic atmosphere, Coronado Beach is popular with families and those who are seeking a quiet retreat from the busy city. 

Coronado Beach sits right behind Hotel del Coronado, a historic landmark that offers a great atmosphere and ice skating with an ocean view during winter. 

Balboa Park is one of top things to do in San Diego

Balboa Park

The 12,000-acre Balboa Park is San Diego’s most important cultural destination and one of the largest urban parks in the United States. The park boasts museums, gardens, two theaters a number of historical buildings that are built in the Spanish Revival Style and California Tower. In addition, it also has a number of performance venues such as Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and the Old Globe Theater. 

Some of the most prominent museums at Balboa Park are the San Diego Art Museum,  the San Diego Air&Space Museum and the Timken Art Museum.

San Diego Old Town is one of top things to do in San Diego for first-time visitors

San Diego Old Town

If you want to get a taste of old San Diego, visit Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. 

This pedestrian-friendly neighborhood built out with adobe homes and Victorian-style mansions is a former place of the first European settlement in California. The area offers a great opportunity to dive into the history of Southern California through interactive exhibits and demonstrations.

I recommend setting aside at least half a day for your trip to Old Town San Diego State Historic Park because this historic venue has many museums and historic points that are worth a stop. It also offers numerous options for shopping and dining. The Mexican food here is simply delicious!

Directions: The park doesn’t require admission fee. It’s located at 4002 Wallace Street in San Diego.

Mount Soledad

A prominent landmark in La Jolla, Mount Soledad is perched high above the San Diego skyline. 

Mount Soledad cross and the veteran’s monument are the two prominent points on Mount Soledad, however, most people come here to enjoy the panoramic views of San Diego’s coastline, especially during sunrise and sunset. 

If you are short on time, and don’t plan on staying in San Diego for more than a day or two, I recommend visiting Mount Soledad as it will give you a 360-degree view of the entire city and surrounding areas. 

Mount Soledad is surrounded by residential areas, so you will have to drive uphill through several neighborhoods to get there. 

Mission San Diego de alcala is one of the top things to do in San Diego

Mission San Diego de Alcalá

Mission San Diego de Alcala is the first of 21 California missions that was named after Didacus Alcala, a saint who was known as Saint Diego.

Franciscan priests built 21 missions in Alta California, a part of the state that stretched from today’s Mexican border to San Francisco. The goal of the missions was to spread Christianity among Native American tribes in the state.

Mission San Diego de Alcalá most prominent feature is a wall that contains five bells. While the mission was the cradle of the religion and politics when it was founded by the settlers in 18th century, today it serves only as the religious center center for Mission San Diego’s parish and is considered a historic landmark. 

Directions: From north: I-5 South to I-805 South to I-52 East to I-15 South. Exit Friars Road and turn left. Turn right on Rancho Mission Road at first signal and left on San Diego Mission Road. Mission is one half block on the left.

Visiting San Diego

San Diego is worth a visit during any season thanks to its mild climate.

Its weather stays warm and sunny throughout most of the year with average high temperature around 70 degrees Fahrenheit and average low around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are coming from a colder climate, it’s a perfect winter getaway. 

In summer, it’s a top vacation destination for tourists from all over the world, so pack your bags and head for some fun!


Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. At no cost to you, I might earn a small commission if you make a purchase through the links in this article. 

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