San Diego has all kinds of big-ticket premium attractions. However, unlike a place like Orlando, there is are many natural attractions that are free or require only the cost parking. This is our guide to San Diego’s Top 10 Free Attractions.
Unlike our list of major attractions, this list of free attractions is not ranked by quality, but instead by how close it is to downtown San Diego and the airport. Our focus is on places that can be visited by the entire family, including children in diapers and grandparents.
There are no big hikes included, although several of the areas offer plenty of walking/biking options if one chooses. Rental bikes are available all over San Diego and almost all these locations are near biking paths and/or trails.
With the exception of Coronado, all San Diego Top 10 Free Attractions are within the city limits. Coronado is in the middle of San Diego Harbor right across from downtown. For visitors to the greater San Diego area, this list just scratches the surface.
In addition, we have not included the beaches or Mission Bay. This is a whole separate set of waterfront activities that we cover in separate articles. To see our Guide to San Diego Beaches go here.
1. Seaport Village and San Diego Harbor Front
Seaport Village is a 14-acre shopping and dining district on the harbor in downtown San Diego. You get 3-hours of free parking with a $10 minimum purchase. From Seaport Village you can walk out on Embarcadero Marine Park to relax or fly a kite. Heading north on Harbor Dr will take you to the Midway aircraft carrier and the Greatest Generation Walk. Further up are the piers where cruise ships dock and ferries head to Coronado. A short distance south from Seaport Village the Embarcadero leads past the Convention Center and towards the Gaslamp Quarter.
2. Gaslamp Quarter/East Village
The Gaslamp Quarter has been the center of San Diego nightlife since it was restored starting in the 1980s. The Gaslamp runs along 4th to 6th Street from Harbor Dr to Broadway at the Horton Plaza Mall. Right next door is East Village. Like the Gaslamp, this was a rundown area that has been restored since the opening of Petco Park in 2004. There is a lot going on during the day, but these areas really come alive at night.
3. Liberty Station
Liberty Station is a newly developed area at the site of the former Naval Training Center. It is a 360-acre retail, residential and commercial hub that is constantly expanding. The most recent attraction is the Liberty Public Market. This 25,000 square foot open space market has multiple food and drink vendors. Throughout the rest of Liberty Station, there are several premium restaurants, art galleries, and shops. The Liberty Station NTC Park is a wide-open space area great for picnics and birthday parties. Liberty Station is right next to the airport. We have a favorite bike ride from Liberty Station to Seaport Village.
4. Little Italy
In the 20th century, tuna fishing was a huge San Diego industry. The tuna industry was how Fun Diego Family ended up in San Diego. Much of this industry was run by immigrants from Portugal and Italy. Little Italy is where many Italian immigrants lived (many Portuguese settled in Point Loma). Today, Little Italy has become one of San Diego’s trendiest areas to live. There are many restaurants, art galleries, and shops that can be explored in the area around India Street from Ash Street to Grape St. Saturday mornings, Little Italy is home to one of San Diego’s largest open-air farmer’s market. In 2018, the Little Italy Food Hall opened.
5. Old Town San Diego
Old Town San Diego was established in 1769 as the first settlement in California. Today, it provides a great history lesson, along with many tourist shops and restaurants. The core of the Old Town State Historic Park is presenting the area as it was in the 1800s. This is complete with volunteers in historic costume. There is usually a lot of activity here, especially on weekends. The surrounding Mexican restaurants are popular with tourists. This would not be our first choice for high-quality cuisine, but one can not deny the atmosphere is fun.
Coronado is a small separate town that is connected to the mainland by the narrow, 7-mile long Silver Strand. Essentially it is an island reached by ferry from downtown or crossing the scenic Coronado Bridge. A large portion of the island is set aside for the Naval Air Station. The Navy Seals also train here. The big attraction at Coronado is the Hotel del Coronado. This wooden hotel was built in 1888 and is one of San Diego’s most famous sites. It is fun to walk around the hotel grounds and check out the expensive shops and restaurants. There are more shops and restaurants a short distance down Orange Ave, Coronado’s main drag. Coronado has a unique small-town feel right in the middle of urban San Diego. Coronado also has a great beachfront scene.
7. Balboa Park
Balboa Park is home to multiple premium San Diego attractions, including the Zoo and museums. However, there is plenty to see and do in Balboa Park for free. At 1,200 acres, there are quite a few hiking and biking trails. However, for the less active there is plenty to see and do. The El Prado area that runs from the fountain at the Science and Nature Museum to the Cabrillo Bridge features many street performers. The Botanical Building and its surrounding pond and gardens are free. The large outdoor Spreckels Organ provides free Sunday concerts. The international cottages feature free exhibits from various countries and cultures around the world. The Spanish Village Arts Center has artists exhibiting in working studios.
For more detail, be sure and check out our guide to Balboa Park.
8. Pt Loma/Cabrillo National Monument
Pt Loma is a narrow, hilly peninsula that starts near the airport and runs about 6 miles out to where it ends at Cabrillo National Monument. Pt. Loma separates San Diego Harbor from the Pacific Ocean. Cabrillo National Monument is considered the point where the Spanish discovered California. In addition to great views from high above San Diego, there are exhibits, films, a lighthouse, and walking tours. Cabrillo National Monument is technically not free as there is a National Park charge of $15 per vehicle ($7 for walking or biking in).
9. La Jolla Village and Cove
La Jolla is part of the city of San Diego but has its own separate mail address and zip code. This is one of San Diego’s oldest and most upscale areas. There are many shops, art galleries and restaurants. Many of these are right above the famous beachfront La Jolla Cove along Prospect St and Girard Avenue. One of the highlights is watching the sea lion and seals that call this area home. Perhaps the best way to explore this area is via our La Jolla walk. If you have a car you can drive to the top of Mt. Soledad for a great view of the San Diego area. Overall, La Jolla provides some of San Diego’s best beachfront scenery.
10. Torrey Pines Area
The Torrey Pines area is highlighted by Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. This provides some of the best unspoiled views you can get of the Southern California coast. While there are some trails that have more extensive hiking, there are also many overlooks and accessible trails that are easy to reach. The visitor’s center also has many child friendly activities. Unless you are willing to walk a distance, you do have to pay for parking ($12 to $25 depending on season and day of the week). If you want to get a nice view for free you can head a short distance south to Scripps Coastal reserve. There is also the Torrey Pines Gliderport where it is free to watch, and the views are spectacular.