“You stay classy, San Diego.”
That famous Ron Burgundy line — and really, everything from the movie Anchorman — might be your only experience with America’s Finest City. And if that’s the case, you probably have the perception that San Diego is pretty friggin’ expensive. (Does everyone there stuff whole wheels of cheese in their fridge?)
And you wouldn’t be wrong. San Diego is one of the most high-priced drinking cities in the entire U.S., with cocktail prices that may lead you to utter a Burgundy-esque, “Go f*ck yourself, San Diego.”
That said, S.D. has an awful lot going for it, too — especially that whole 73-and-sunny thing. And a trip there doesn’t have to be drain on your wallet. On Wanderu, you can compare the cheapest buses, trains and flights, all in the same search, to find the perfect tickets for your budget and schedule. (If you do take a train from somewhere nearby like L.A., Irvine or Anaheim, you’re in for a treat: The Santa Fe Depot is an absolute stunner.)
Even better, San Diego has ample attractions that are free. That’s right — they cost zero dollars. Which is awesome in a town this vibrant, as the wide variety on this list demonstrates. You can start outdoors with that pristine weather, or skip ahead by clicking any of the categories below.
1. La Jolla Cove
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Seals! Baby seals! And sea lions! Floppin’ around in the wild! We can only assume you’re already en route, because, come on. If you’re a longstanding “This American Life” listener, you might remember the havoc around the aforementioned La Jolla seals, and if not — listen up here. If the pups are out swimming (typically around lunchtime), you can catch them at nearby Shell Beach, Seal Rock or Children’s Pool. And for the love of the ocean and all inside it, don’t be dumb: Admire them from afar.
2. Balboa Park
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Balboa is to San Diego what the National Mall is to D.C., without the looming nightmare that is our current political landscape as the backdrop. It’s California, man. You can breathe here. Balboa Park has a host of historic designations, but what you need to know is that there are bountiful and diverse gardens, arts venues, shops, food, walking paths, and the acclaimed San Diego Zoo (though, note, it’s not free 😭). Spend a day here, spend a weekend here — but do not visit San Diego without dedicating at least a few hours.
3. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Heed the name when you plan your visit: This spot shines when the sun goes down. A 68-acre stretch abutting the Pacific Ocean and Point Loma, Sunset Cliffs features sea caves, coastal bluffs and natural arches, while also providing stunningly unbroken views of the ocean and the sky (the better to see you with, my dear sunset). You win major bonus California points for spotting migrating grey whales. And yes, that’s a challenge.
4. Torrey Pines State Beach + Gliderport
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: The preserve protects some 300 protected/endangered native plants, and offers acres of sandstone rock formations and seasonal wildflowers. There are miles of trails and a beautiful beach, but the draw beyond the bluffs, blue waters and bluer skies is what’s floating down between ’em: hang gliders! Torrey Pines Gliderport, the top-ranked paragliding school according to people who rank those things, is right there (and can be found at the address above). Watching is almost as exhilarating as gliding yourself, and doesn’t cost a dime.
5. San Diego Embarcadero
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: In theory, you like the idea of a cruise — boats! sea life! ocean views! — but the reality of being in a big floating box with 3,000 strangers is … a little less glamorous. Get the perks of a popular cruise stop while keeping your autonomy along the Embarcadero. It’s 3.68 miles of bay front replete with parks, shops, plazas, restaurants and boatsboatsboats.
6. Old Town San Diego
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Long, long before Lil Nas X gave us “Old Town Road,” San Diego gave us its own Old Town … with plenty of roads … and the status of “Birthplace of California.” Settled in 1769 as a mission and fort, today the area has a bit more activity and, you know, amenities like electricity. But that old-California Mexican-American essence remains strong in the architecture, the historic blacksmith shop, stables, and schoolhouse you can explore — as well as the restaurants and shops that line the streets.
7. Liberty Public Market
2820 Historic Decatur Rd.
San Diego, CA 92106
11:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.
(Hours can vary slightly — some vendors open for breakfast.)
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: It’s a smorgasbord of San Diego craft, culinary and otherwise. More than 30 local vendors hawk food (Parisian, Peruvian, you name it), jewelry, candles … iPhone repairs. Whether you’re browsing or buying in any of those categories, the art is free to view and plentiful, with more than 100 artists on display at any given time. Ditto the performing arts, with free live music on the market patio every Sunday from 1 – 4 p.m.
8. Liberty Station Arts District
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Liberty Station started as a naval training center in 1923, but its military function wrapped up in 1997. The city purchased the land three years later, and today it’s packed to the gills with culture, not sailors. There’s a solid stock of visual art galleries, but there is also dance, comedy, fiber arts, stuff for kids — we could go on. If you want to wash it down, Stone Brewing Co. has 40 taps, along with a bistro and gardens, in the arts district.
9. Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center
2800 Olympic Pkwy.
Chula Vista, California 91915
9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (Mon – Fri)
Closed Saturday & Sunday
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Sure, the only summer Olympic event you partake in is a two-week binge watch of the games in front of your A/C. But the athletes and the aspirational athletes clearly keep a different kind of schedule. Enter Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center, where there are training venues for archery, BMX, tennis, track, volleyball, track, field, lake sports, strength events — even a room for live video analysis. While you can’t try your hand at archery, you can take yourself on a free self-guided tour. (Or if you stan the Olympics, sign up for a $5, $15 or $35 dollar tour — the latter includes an “eat like an athlete” meal at their buffet.)
10. 59-Mile Scenic Drive
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Look, we’re the biggest proponents of bus and train travel you’re gonna find. That’s the heart of what we’re doing here. But this scenic tour (roughly three hours if you drive it nonstop) is worth getting behind the wheel for, just for the day, and will loop you to many of the other destinations listed here (and then some). Yes, renting a car costs cash, but the spectacular views are gratis. S.D. has Zipcar, or you could borrow a buddy’s. Either way, crank the tunes, and see if you can seek out a convertible.
ARTS & CULTURE
11. Chicano Park Murals
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Under the San Diego–Coronado Bridge in Barrio Logan, the 80 murals of Chicano Park are both a National Landmark as the “largest concentration of Chicano murals in the world,” and an essential hub in the city’s oldest Mexican-American neighborhood. Its seven acres of murals, sculpture, playgrounds and more — and the site of frequent festivals, particularly given the arts and culinary scene nearby.
12. Museum of Photographic Arts
1649 El Prado
San Diego, CA 92101
10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (Tues – Sun)
(MOPA is pay what you wish.)
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Inside Balboa Park, the Museum of Photographic Arts is your regularly scheduled reminder that you should look at photography on the walls, not just on your Instagram feed. (Though they’re certainly not anti-screen: MOPA has online exhibitions, and they also showcase film on-site.) Regularly changing exhibitions and films keep things fresh — though their permanent collection hardly needs the help.
13. San Diego History Center
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: A Smithsonian Affiliate, the San Diego History Center is free to all. Established in 1928, the institution digs deep into the city’s history, as in they have more than 47 million artifacts of San Diego past, including a remarkable photo archive. And yes, there’s a whole booming Balboa Park outside, but whether you want to peep some old pics or immerse in one of the many exhibitions on display, we kindly suggest you stay here for a while.
14. Junípero Serra Museum
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: Located in Presidio Park, the exhibition is the place itself — and the vistas and history it provides. Managed by the San Diego History Center, the Junípero Serra Museum and surroundings are connected to both the native Kumeyaay villages and peoples, and the city’s initial founding. It’s also a damn near perfect example of the Mission Revival architectural style, and overlooks everything from the San Diego bay to Mission Valley to the Pacific Ocean to downtown.
15. Timken Museum of Art
1500 El Prado
San Diego, CA 92101
10:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. (Tues – Sat)
12 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. (Sun)
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT: A small footprint does not mean small scope, at least when it comes to the Timken. It’s stacked with old French, Italian, Dutch and Spanish masters (e.g., Rembrandt and Rubens), 19th-century American art, and some Russian heavy hitters. The works come from the private collections of the Putnam and Timken families, the latter of whose foundation allows for ongoing free admission. Check current exhibitions, which the Timken uses to put pieces in oft-unexpected conversation with each other.
A bit of trivia: The 2000 cult classic Bring It On (with Kirsten Dunst and Gabrielle Union) was set in San Diego. Fittingly, now that you know about all the free things you could be doing there, we encourage you to bring it on down to San Diego for your next trip.
With all the dough you’ve saved up, you might even be able to splurge a tad here and there. If so, we recommend doing so on the beer. After all, San Diego is rated the best craft beer city in the entire United States.