01 Balboa Park
Balboa Park is a one-stop wonderland for tourists. This 1,400-acre site encompasses historical buildings, numerous museums, gardens, and green space. The park was created for the Panama California Exhibition of 1915-1916, and most of the buildings remain from that event. The predominant architecture is Spanish-style, with low-rise buildings that blend in with the natural surroundings.
Among the highlights of the park are the botanical gardens and lily pond, the Museum of Man, the Museum of Natural History, the San Diego Museum of Art, and the famous San Diego Zoo. Even if you never go into a building, the park is simply a beautiful place to visit.
Address: 1549 El Prado, San Diego, California
02 San Diego Zoo
A top tourist attraction in Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo is one of the largest and most famous zoos in the United States. Visiting this family-friendly attraction is also one of the top things to do in San Diego with kids. Plan at least a whole day here to really get the most out of your visit.
You can see all kinds of exotic animals here, including gorillas, grizzly bears, koalas, leopards, bonobos, polar bears, rhinos, and sloths. The zoo attempts to replicate a natural environment for each animal, such as rocks for Amur leopards and a chilly pool for the polar bears.
The San Diego Zoo includes a Safari Park. In this area, all the animals roam free within large-enclosure natural settings. For instance, giraffes graze in a savanna; cheetahs dart through a jungle; and elephants wander through a sheltered valley. Because the Safari Park offers guided tours in an open-air truck or cart (with no walking required), it’s a good option for families with kids. (Some tours have a minimum age requirement of three years and older.) Insider’s Tip: Bring binoculars!
The Safari Park’s carefully designed habitats support the zoo’s mission to educate visitors about protecting the environment. The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance invests in conservation projects around the world that are dedicated to restoring wildlife populations in their natural habitats.
Spread out along a beautifully landscaped canyon, the zoo also displays an impressive botanical collection – more than 700,000 plants from around the globe grace the grounds.
Want to have more time with your favorite animals? You can upgrade your experience by signing up for behind-the-scenes and close-up animal experiences.
The San Diego Zoo is about a 40-minute drive north of downtown San Diego.
Address: 2920 Zoo Drive, Balboa Park, San Diego, California
03 Gaslamp Quarter
Adjacent to Petco Park and the Convention Center, the Gaslamp Quarter National Historic District is the hub of the city’s nightlife. It’s a great place to visit if you’re looking for things to do in downtown San Diego – especially after dark.
Restored late-19th- and early-20th-century Victorian buildings house buzzing entertainment venues, trendy shops, art galleries, and restaurants serving every kind of cuisine you can imagine, from Persian food to pizza. This is a great place to catch some live jazz, comedy, or theater performances.
The district runs for about 16 blocks, from Broadway to San Diego Bay, and it’s easily walkable, but you can also hop on bike taxis if your feet need a break.
04 Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum
Walking along the San Diego waterfront on the Embarcadero, you might be surprised when you come across one of the US military’s largest ships. The decommissioned USS Midway is permanently berthed at Navy Pier.
The highlights of a visit to the USS Midway Museum include more than 60 exhibits and over 30 restored aircraft. More than 225,000 military service personnel served on the ship, and you can take a self-guided audio tour to learn all about its history. For an additional fee, you can also try a flight simulator on board.
05 Seaport Village
San Diego’s Seaport Village is a delightful place to stroll around and spend an afternoon. Located right on the waterfront, this area of unique shops and restaurants is one of the city’s must-sees.
Picnic tables, benches, and waterfront patios are sprinkled throughout the area, and weekends can be very busy. Eclectic performers take to the outdoor stage regularly in the afternoons. Kids love riding the historic carousel with hand-carved wooden horses.
The area is easily accessible on foot from many of the nearby attractions, including the USS Midway. Since there is limited and expensive parking at Seaport Village, it might be best to park a little distance away and enjoy the stroll along the waterfront to the site.
Address: West Harbor Drive and Pacific Highway, San Diego, California