This article showcases the ultimate San Diego bucket list!
A not long time ago, I published my Ultimate Bucket List for Los Angeles.
I decided to publish the article to celebrate 14 years since moving to Los Angeles. The idea was to present the city from a resident / local perspective since I have done almost the impossible to turn every nook and cranny of the city.
Well, guess what? My thirst for exploration and adventure has not stopped in Los Angeles. I have traveled miles and miles to nearby counties looking for beaches, lakes, mountains, and delicious things to eat.
In all honesty, I have been to San Diego more than 30 times. Sometimes, we decide to leave early in the morning and then come back home in the late evening. The city has grown on us!
As a consequence, I want to share my “expertise” about San Diego with all of you. I do this with a lot of respect since I have not lived in the city. Hope my effort sheds the correct light on this place so loved by us.
In addition, the post serves as my personal bucket list since there are many places I want to visit or revisit.
I have put together more than 200 ideas to get you started with America’s Finest City.
Please note: This article contains affiliate links, meaning I may earn a commission if you make a purchase by clicking a link. Of course, this comes at no extra cost to you and helps me to keep offering solid information to readers.
Table of Contents
As with Los Angeles, the city and the county of San Diego occupy a large portion of land. The country has an extension of 4,526 square miles and a population of about 3 million.
San Diego seems to be a synonym of beaches but, keep in mind, it has mountains and deserts too. The Northern and Eastern parts of the county do not receive a large number of visitors but that does not make them less fascinating. In my opinion, that is where you are going to find the true gems.
Even though San Diego is not a massive metropolitan area, there is no way you are going to be able to see everything it has to offer in a day or visit.
You may stop by the places that make the city unique. Or, you may be able to include a visit to a town outside the city boundaries. Either way, San Diego’s beautiful weather is waiting for you with open arms.
Let’s dig in straight into all the exciting stuff you can see, do, eat, and enjoy in San Diego!
Beach Town Gear
San Diego is pretty much a beach town. Therefore, I recommend bringing the right gear to town. As I spend a lot of time on beach towns, I have my gear packed and ready to throw in the car. Here is an idea of what I take to the beach.
- Walking Shoes – Comfortable walking shoes are a must. My go-to brands are Clarks, Tevas, and Sketchers.
- Flip Flops – Flip flops are a must on any beach trip. I am partial to the Tevas brand. >>Take a look at these beautiful flip flops
- Water Sandals – If you want a more polished look, check out these leather-made salt water sandals.
- Sweatshirt – A sweatshirt is a must to keep me warm during chilly mornings and nights. >Click to see this California appropriate option here
- Sun Block – Do not leave the house (or the car) without applying sunblock. I repeat, always wear sunblock when outdoors. >Buy sunblock here
- Lip Balm with Sunscreen – Protect your lips by applying a balm with sunscreen. >Get one of the best lip balms here
- Wide Brim Hat – A wide brim hat is a great way to protect your scalp, face, and neck. The ones manufactured by FURTALK come with an anti-UV function. >Buy this amazing hat here
- Sunglasses – These are another must when it comes to protecting from the sun. A polarized, sporty pair works better outdoors. >Take a look at this wonderful pair
- Towels – This is the accessory I always forget about. WETCAT’s Turkish Towels take minimum space and dry fast. >Buy a Turkish towel here
- Foldable Chairs – Portable chairs allow you to set camp at the beach, park, winery, and even a parking lot. A classic Coleman portable chair is a solid choice. >>Buy portable camping chair
- Beach Blanket – For laying on the sand, a beach blanket is necessary. Good ones are waterproof, sandproof, and light. The blankets manufactured by Wekapo fit several adults and are durable. >Buy this nice beach blanket here
- Soft Cooler Bag – A soft cooler bag with enough capacity is great for having drinks and some food items at hand. I love my CleverMade collapsible cooler bag. >Take a look at my cooler here
- Water Bottle – Do not forget to bring water! Keep yours cold by taking a beautiful Hydro Flask water bottle. >Check out the insane options here
- THERMOS Tumblers – I have been a fan of the THERMOS brand since I received a tumbler as a gift. The tumblers keep drinks hot for hours. >>Buy THERMOS insulated tumblers here
- Dry Bag – Keep your valuables (and electronics) protected by bringing a dry bag. >These dry bag is awesome
- Beach Bag or Large Tote – Carry all your gear on an amazing beach bag. Get one with tons of pockets (I love pockets). >>>Check out my beach bag top pick
- Camera – I have never gotten used to taking pictures exclusively with my phone. I prefer to use the Sony Alpha a6000. It is compact and takes gorgeous pictures. >Buy Sony Camera here
- Tripod – A compact tripod to take your photos and videos to a different level. >>Check out this popular option here
- Portable Power Bank – It is a pain to keep phones charged on beach trips. Having a power bank is a lifesaver. The Anker portable charger can charge a phone 5 times. >Buy this incredible power bank here
These are some of the spots that make San Diego famous and unique!
- Balboa Park
- Old Town (the birthplace of California)
- La Jolla Cove
- Cabrillo National Monument
- Hotel del Coronado
- Coronado Bridge
- USS Midway Museum
- Gaslamp Square
- Seaport Village
- Petco Park (baseball stadium)
San Diego Bucket List – Museums
Those who prefer arts and culture have a lot to choose from. Several of the museums located in the City of San Diego are concentrated on Balboa Park.
- Air & Space Museum
- Museum of Art
- Natural History Museum
- Maritime Museum
- Museum of Man
- Ruben H. Fleet Science Center
- Model Railroad Museum
- Automotive Museum
- Mingei International Museum
- The New Children’s Museum
- Museum of Photographic Arts
- Botanical Building
- Spanish Village Art Center
- Japanese Friendship Garden
- Star of India
- San Diego History Center
- Timken Museum of Art
- Whaler House
- San Diego Art Institute
- Mormon Battalion Historic Site
- Lux Art Institute (Encinitas)
- California Surf Museum (Oceanside)
- Museum of Making Music (Carlsbad)
- Museum of History & Art (Coronado)
- Julian Pioneer Museum
- Museum of Contemporary Art (La Jolla)
- Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum (Vista)
- Oceanside Museum of Art
- Olaf Wieghorst Museum & Western Heritage Center (El Cajon)
These neighborhoods offer modern vibes, trendy eateries, and art galleries.
- Gaslamp Quarter
- East Village
- Little Italy
- North Park
- South Park
- Barrio Logan
- University Heights
Food, Delicious Food
If you like food (and who doesn’t?), come prepared with your stretchy pants.
- Mercato (Huge farmer’s market in Little Italy)
- Liberty Public Market
- Oscar’s Mexican Seafood (you need to try this place)
- Carnita’s Snack Shack
- Buona Forchetta
- Bali Hai Restaurant
- Las Cuatro Milpas
- The Waterfront Bar & Grill
- Hamilton Taverna
- OB Noodle House
- Bird Rock Coffee Roasters
- Harry’s Coffee Shop
- Point Loma Seafoods
- El Indio
- CUCINA Urbana
- Phil’s BBQ
- Urban Solace
- Juniper & Ivy
- Hammond’s Gourmet Ice Cream
- Tacos El Gordo
- Aqui Es Texcoco
Special Food Mention
- You cannot leave San Diego County without trying one of the apple pies from Julian. This little mountain town is located about 1.5 hours from the city but you can find the pies on local grocery stores. I would prefer to eat in the town (even if I have to drive). I love the Dutch apple pie with cinnamon ice cream,
Festivals and Markets
It is impossible to mention all the events that take place during the year. Here are some of the most popular (but there is something going on every weekend).
- San Diego County Fair (Del Mar)
- Contemporary Art Fair
- Restaurant Week
- Beer Week
- Film Festival
- Cinco de Mayo in Old Town
- Kaaboo del Mar
- Shakespeare Festival
- Fleet Week
- Coronado Classic Speed Festival
- Miramar Air Show
- San Diego Greek Festival
- Inter-Tribal Powwow
- Julian Gold Rush Days
- Parade of Lights
- December Nights
- Ocean Beach Street Fair
- Comic-Con International
- San Gennaro Feast
These are the places to be if you want a historic experience. Beware! Some of these are believed to be haunted. You do not have to stay in one of these hotels. A visit to the restaurant (s) or lounge would be a nice experience.
- Hotel del Coronado
- Grande Colonial
- The Horton
- La Valencia
- The Sofia
- Gaslamp Plaza Suites
- Ramada Gaslamp
- Hotel Bel-Air
Hip and Trendy Hotels
If you prefer something more modern, here are some options for your stay or for spending an evening.
- Hotel Indigo
- The Pearl
- The Lafayette Hotel
- Omni San Diego
- Kimpton Solamar
- Hotel Z
- Andaz San Diego
- The Keating Hotel
- Pacific Terrace Hotel
- Pendry San Diego
Northern San Diego County has super hip and laid-back beach towns and communities. In my opinion, all of them are worth a visit.
- Solana Beach
- Del Mar
If beaches are your thing, you have arrived at the right place! Ask around since locals have their favorites (and hidden spots).
- Oceanside Beach
- Carlsbad Beach
- South Carlsbad Beach
- Moonlight Beach
- Swami’s (one of the best surfing spots in the country)
- San Elijo Beach
- Black’s Beach (nude beach)
- La Jolla Shores
- Children’s Pool
- Pacific Beach
- Ocean Beach
- Mission Beach
- Coronado Beach
- Silver Strand Beach
- Plus, multiple beaches in the Mission Bay area
Piers (North to South)
Strolling on a pier is a Southern California classic. There are multiple options for sunset watching.
- Oceanside Pier
- Scripps Pier (La Jolla)
- Ocean Beach Pier
- Crystal Pier (Pacific Beach Pier, it has cottages where you can stay)
- Imperial Beach
San Diego Bucket List – Outdoors
The number of open spaces in San Diego is mind-blowing. Just take a look at the list below. As a matter of fact, we, Southern Californians, love being outside (even in winter).
- Torrey Pines State Reserve
- Anza Borrego State Park
- Buena Vista Lagoon
- Agua Hedionda Lagoon
- Batiquitos Lagoon
- San Diego Botanical Gardens
- Self-Realization Fellowship Meditation Gardens
- Sunset Cliffs
- San Elijo Lagoon
- Point Loma Tidepools
- Border Field State Park
- Palomar Mountain State Park
- Potato Chip Rock Hike
- William Heise County Park
- Volcan Mountain Preserve
- Lake Calavera Preserve
- Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve
- Cowles Mountain
- La Jolla Indian Reservation
- Mount Laguna
- Cedar Creek Falls
- Mission Trails Regional Park
- Living Coast Discovery Center (Chula Vista)
- Cuyamaca Peak
- Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
- Blue Sky Ecological Reserve
- Fletcher Cove Park
- Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve
- San Pasqual Battlefield State Historic Park
- Three Sisters Falls
- Lake Poway
- Rose Canyon Open Space Park
- Hidden Sea Cave at Sunset Cliffs
Here are some viewpoint options in case you want to see the area from above.
- The California Tower (at the Museum of Man)
- Cabrillo National Monument
- Presidio Park
- Cowles Mountain
- Coronado Bay Bridge
Centers of Education are interesting places to visit too.
- University of California, San Diego
- San Diego State University
- University of San Diego
Here are some options in case you need to pacify your kids.
- Sea World
- Lego Land
- Belmont Park
San Diego Bucket List – Zoos
- World Famous San Diego Zoo
- San Diego Zoo Safari Park
- Birch Aquarium
I am not a sports fan but seems like every other person here is obsessed with one of the following teams.
- Padres (baseball)
- Sockers (soccer)
- Gulls (ice hockey)
Here are some more options for those who want more of life (like me!)
- San Diego de Alcala Mission
- San Luis Rey de Francia Mission (Oceanside)
- Pala Estancia
- Santa Ysabel Estancia
- Leo Carillo Historic State Park
- La Jolla Murals
- Torrey Pines Gliderport
- Palomar Observatory
- Point Loma Lighthouses (Old and New)
- Kayak La Jolla Caves
- Take the Coronado Ferry
- Go whale watching
- Carlsbad Flower Fields (spring)
- Harbor Island
- Ride bikes (ride sharing program)
- Old Town Trolley
- S. Olympic Training Center (Chula Vista)
- Carlsbad Mineral Water Spa
- Desert View Tower (Jacumba)
- Rancho Buena Vista Adobe
- Rancho Guajome Adobe
- Eagle Mine (Julian)
- Chicano Mural Parks
- Cedros Design District (Solana Beach)
- California Wolf Center
- Camel Watching (specific dates)
- Galleta Meadows
- Walk the coastal area of La Jolla (tons of nice and easy trails)
- Take surf lessons
- Move around the beach towns using the Coaster or you can arrive in town using the Pacific Surfliner (Amtrak Train)
- Try to determine which is the best taco in town (good luck with that)
- Jet Boat Ride
- Browse the beautiful shops at Old Town
San Diego Bucket List – Getaways
I think San Diego has enough to keep people busy for a long time but I know there are some overachievers out there.
- Temecula (1 hour)
- San Juan Capistrano (1 hour)
- Borrego Springs (2 hours)
- Palm Springs (2.5 Hours)
- Idyllwild (2 hours)
- Disney Land (2 hours)
- Los Angeles (2 hours)
Places to Visit in Mexico
San Diego is famous for being a border town (and for having the more congested border crossing in the world). It is easy to get to Mexico from the city but take into consideration crossing times (back into the U.S.) and documents needed (passport, insurance).
- Tijuana (30 minutes)
- Rosarito (50 minutes)
- Ensenada (2 hours)
- Valle de Guadalupe (2 hours)
San Diego Bucket List – Resources
For more information about the city, I recommend checking the following resources. They may help you to get discounts or deals for events and restaurants.
- San Diego Reader
- The San Diego Union-Tribune
- Time Out San Diego
- Eater San Diego
- Travelzoo San Diego
- San Diego Tourism Authority
More of San Diego
Make sure to take a look at my other detailed articles about San Diego!
More of Southern California
Residents, how many of these have you visited? Visitors, which of these would you like to experience? What else should be added to a San Diego bucket list?
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