If you’re staying Downtown on a San Diego vacation, you’re well-placed to enjoy many of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. The fun things to do in Downtown San Diego on this list are also within walking distance of each other. (Balboa Park and the world-famous San Diego Zoo are just a couple of miles away by car, trolley, or taxi.)
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1. Walk the Embarcadero
The Embarcadero refers to an entertainment area along the San Diego Bay that pays tribute to the city’s maritime culture. The central focus is the cruise ship terminals, but the mostly pedestrianized area encompasses a number of the individual tourist sites I’m about to recommend here.
The Embarcadero runs from the shops and restaurants of Seaport Village on the south end to Little Italy and Waterfront Park on the north end. However, you can start your scenic walk at the airport by crossing to the bay side of North Harbor Drive. This is the main street you see after exiting the airport.
Walk toward the tall buildings and cruise ship terminals, and you’ll pass some San Diego attractions mentioned below along the way. It’s a lovely way to stretch your legs during a layover in likely some Southern California sunshine. Plus, sometimes the people watching is fun, with the occasional street performer entertaining tourists and guests.
2. Visit the USS Midway Museum
Located in the heart of the Embarcadero, the focus of the USS Midway Museum is the Midway itself. It’s a vintage Navy aircraft carrier that was the largest ship globally until 1955 and was decommissioned in 1992. It’s permanently docked now at Navy Pier.
Today, visitors may walk throughout the aircraft carrier, either as part of a guided tour, on a self-guided audio tour, or even unguided by anything other than eyesight and wonder. It is one of the most unique museums in the world and especially meaningful to families with members who have served in our nation’s military. Plus, kids love climbing into the helicopters and jets on the top deck of this San Diego museum.
SAVE ON ADMISSION
Visit with my discounted price. The USS Midway Museum is also included on the Go San Diego sightseeing pass.
See also: Tips for Visiting the USS Midway Museum and Top 10 Things to Do in San Diego
3. Board the Maritime Museum of San Diego Ships
One of the first attractions you’ll encounter if walking south on the Embarcadero from the airport is the Maritime Museum of San Diego. It’s located on the San Diego Bay in front of the Waterfront Park, near the corner of W. Ash Street and N. Harbor Drive.
This famous museum features a world-class collection of original and replica sailing ships, steam-powered boats, and submarines that you can board to explore. My favorite activity there is climbing into the B-39 Soviet-era submarine because it’s crazy to see how sailors existed in such tiny quarters.
The museum is also well-known for its ability to restore old ships, themed sailing tours on the bay, and for being an excellent showcase of maritime history.
The most famous ship is the 150-year-old Star of India, docked right next to the sidewalk. You can’t miss it.
SAVE ON ADMISSION
You can buy museum-only tickets on Trusted Tours for a slight discount. This fun outdor attraction is also included on the Go San Diego sightseeing pass.
4. Snap a Photo with Unconditional Surrender
Next to the USS Midway Museum, you’ll find the enormous and slightly controversial Unconditional Surrender statue, and it’s part of a series of sculptures by Seward Johnson.
The statue resembles a photograph of a sailor and woman kissing in 1945 after the WWII defeat of the Japanese. The photo was also on the cover of LIFE Magazine. (It later emerged that the woman being kissed didn’t know the sailor who kissed her.)
5. Browse Seaport Village and The Headquarters
Seaport Village is an outdoor, bayside shopping and dining complex where Downtown San Diego hits the bay’s waterfront near the San Diego Convention Center.
It has over 50 shops and 13 restaurants. They also periodically host live music and other entertainment events — you’ll see quite a few excellent buskers here. Highlights include the historic carousel featuring animals hand-carved in 1895, Kite Flite (you can fly kites in the adjacent park), and the San Pasqual wine tasting room.
Behind Seaport Village is The Headquarters, a revitalized entertainment area inside a former jail home to lovely boutiques and great restaurants. We like the street tacos at Puesto.
Entrance to Seaport Village and The Headquarters is free.
6. Sightsee from San Diego Bay Tours
There are many ways that visitors may tour San Diego Bay. Perhaps the most well-known are harbor cruises, some even including sunset dinners and champagne brunches. Below are the most popular San Diego Bay tours to consider.
- SEAL Tours: The amphibious bus-boats with a driver that narrates the tour start off on land and plunge into the water. They are a hit with kids, especially.
- Patriot Jet Boat: It’s a high-speed, 30-minute thrill ride with spins, tricks, and turns at speeds of up to 50mph (owned by Flagship Cruises).
- Hornblower Cruises: Book for lovely narrated harbor cruises, dinner cruises, champagne brunch cruises, and whale watching.
- Flagship Cruises: A San Diego-based company, Flagship Cruises is the local’s choice for narrated harbor cruises, dinner cruises, champagne brunch cruises, and whale watching tours in San Diego,
- Speed Boat Adventures: Drive a mini speedboat as part of a narrated group bay tour (fun), though note that you would catch this over at Harbor Island closer to the airport.
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7. Take the Ferry to Coronado Island
It is possible to visit Coronado and its beautiful beaches from Downtown San Diego without a car. Take the 15-minute ride on the Coronado Ferry. Service each way runs seven days a week, every hour from morning until evening — check the schedule for exact times. You may bring a bicycle (free), but only service animals are allowed. The current 1-way ticket price is $5, with kids three and under free.
The Coronado Ferry departs from the Broadway Pier or the San Diego Convention Center. On the Coronado side, the Ferry Landing departure and arrivals area is also a fun complex of shops and restaurants. In the summer, a shuttle takes guests from the Ferry Landing to the other end of Orange Avenue near Hotel del Coronado, which is the perfect place to spend a day on a Coronado beach.
See also: 20 Best Things to Do in Coronado
8. Play at Waterfront Park
Waterfront Park makes for an excellent stop between touring Little Italy (you could grab a slice of pizza or sandwich to-go there) and the Embarcadero.
It’s a large public park, with our historic courthouse in the center, that features water fountain jets that kids (and adults) can cool down in, reflecting pools, grassy areas, and state-of-the-art play equipment for kids.
Summer movie nights are held here on the lawn, too. It’s one of the best free things to do in Downtown San Diego especially if you have kids with you.
9. Shop and Dine in Little Italy
A several-block area of Downtown San Diego, just blocks from the waterfront Embarcadero, was originally the home of Italian-American fishermen and their families.
Today, Little Italy is an upscale, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood that has been dramatically gentrified in recent years to feature some of San Diego’s best restaurants, trendy cocktail bars, and boutique shopping. A variety of events happen throughout the year, including the Saturday morning Little Italy Mercato Farmer’s Market.
I highly recommend a meal here at any of this list of Little Italy San Diego restaurants. You can pop into the new Little Italy Food Hall or can take away subs and slices of pizza from places like Mona Lisa Italian Foods. Take your meal back to your hotel, picnic at Waterfront Park, or enjoy it in one of the piazzas.
10. Go Hands-on at the New Children’s Museum
The goal of the New Children’s Museum is to inspire creativity and critical thinking in kids as they interact with art. Kids love the hands-on exhibits and drop-in art studios where they can create something with clay, paint, blocks, bubbles, and other crafting materials.
This fabulous San Diego museum is one of the best things to do in Downtown San Diego with kids (especially if they are young). The Bean Sprouts cafe inside is a national brand of cafes designed for families to eat playfully, with some good-for-you items shaped like flowers, funny faces, and more.
11. Explore the Museum of Contemporary Art
The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, otherwise known as MCASD, focuses on works of art in all media from 1950 to the present day. Exhibits emphasize the largely binational nature of San Diego with its location adjacent to the Mexican border.
Be sure to check the schedule for current exhibitions and public programs. It’s also located in a historic building, the old Santa Fe Depot baggage terminal.
12. Attend a San Diego Padres Baseball Game or Tour PETCO Park
The San Diego Padres have been playing Major League Baseball in San Diego since 1969. When their brand new downtown baseball stadium, PETCO Park, opened in 2004, going to a Padres home game became even more of an attraction for those who aren’t necessarily Padres fans or even fans of baseball generally. The stadium itself, its restaurants, and other activities have become an attraction.
It’s a family-friendly environment, and tickets can be bought directly from the Padres’ ticket office either in person or online. Regular season Major League Baseball games are typically played from April through September. Be sure to check the Padres’ schedule to see when they are playing.
Outside of Padres games, a guided tour of PETCO Park also enables visitors to go behind the scenes to see the Padres’ dugout, the press box, and more.
13. Drive a Crazy GoCar
GoCar Tours offers visitors the opportunity to rent a sporty go-cart style vehicle to see the city, complete with GPS audio directions to guide you where you want to go. I enjoyed the one-hour Downtown and Gaslamp Tour with a friend recently, and it’s a ton of fun, albeit a little bit of a bumpy drive.
San Diego is just one of several cities in the United States and Europe where this service is available. GoCar Tours offers an all-day rental or a three-hour Point Loma and Beaches tour. Book your tour.
14. Shop, Dine, and Drink in the Historic Gaslamp Quarter
Redeveloped in the 1980s, the Gaslamp Quarter is a 16-block area of Downtown known as one of San Diego’s premier sports for restaurants, bars, clubs, nightlife, music.
The odds are that if visiting Downtown San Diego, you’ll pass through it anyway. It is the best area in town for dancing and nightlife, but there are also over 100 boutiques and 200 restaurants.
15. Go from Land to Sea on a SEAL Tour
How about the thrill of a combined land and sea tour? Narrated SEAL Tours allows you to see the sights along the streets of San Diego. Then, the amphibious bus-boat vehicle plunges into the waters of the San Diego Bay. The signature cartoon seal painted on the side is appropriate because you’re likely to see seals and sea lions.
SEAL Tours depart from both Seaport Village and further up the Embarcadero. They’re a must-do when visiting Downtown San Diego with kids.
See also: 55 Things to Do in San Diego with Kids
16. Hop on and off the Old Town Trolley
The Old Town Trolley is among the most longstanding, well-known ways to tour San Diego. Their signature orange and green vehicles that look like vintage San Francisco-style streetcars have been familiar sites around town for years.
Don’t let the name fool you. The sightseeing tour routes cover much more of San Diego than Old Town San Diego. It’s possible to join the tour at several stops in Downtown, including at Seaport Village, the Embarcadero, and in the Gaslamp Quarter. Some tours even go as far north as La Jolla Cove. Tickets come with unlimited hop-on, hop-off privileges, too.
17. Go Further Afield with the MTS Trolley
The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System operates a great public trolley system that expands your exploration of San Diego well beyond Downtown without a car and in a cost-effective, convenient way.
Trolley stops dot several locations in Downtown San Diego. On the trolley, you can hop on the lines to head north to Old Town or Little Italy; northeast to Mission Valley for shopping, concerts, and other events at SDCCU Stadium; and even south to the U.S.–Mexico border if you want to take a day trip to Tijuana. If you do the latter, be sure to have Global Entry or Sentri for expedited customs lines.
18. Attend a Fabulous San Diego Symphony Concert
The San Diego Symphony has been a beloved local institution for over 100 years. They play in Copley Symphony Hall, an easy walk for anyone staying in a Downtown San Diego hotel.
But, this isn’t your average symphony as they’ve done a fantastic job of evolving with the times. The Symphony hosts the Summer Pops in summer, a really fun outdoor family-friendly activity on the bay.
Programming for the Summer Pops varies from concerts set to Disney movies to performances with famous musicians. It’s cool, and I highly suggest it if you’re visiting with the kids (or without) during its season. Details about upcoming concerts and events are available on the San Diego Symphony’s website.
19. Browse the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market
The Tuna Harbor Dockside Market happens every Saturday from 8 a.m.–3 p.m. on a harborside dock on the northern edge of Seaport Village. It’s an open-air seafood market offering fresh-caught seafood and aqua-farmed seaweed direct from local fishers and vendors.
This market enables local chefs and the public to get closer to their food sources and understand the value of locally-sourced and sustainable seafood.
20. Book Food and Brewery Tours
San Diego has become increasingly renowned in recent years for its locally-crafted beers and its budding food and restaurant culture. There are several companies that offer tours of the city’s culinary highlights, enabling visitors to taste San Diego with the aid of expert guidance.
Two popular food tour companies, So Diego Tours and Bite San Diego, have Little Italy food tours and Downtown San Diego food tours.
21. Pedal a Boozy Social Cycle
Social Cycle is a “16-seat party on wheels” offering public and private tours, bachelor and bachelorette parties, and pub crawls, among other things. Essentially, it is a vehicle that looks like a moving 16-seat bar on wheels and is pedal-powered by the continuous bicycling of its passengers.
There are routes in Downtown, North Park, Hillcrest, Little Italy, and Pacific Beach. It looks like a fantastic way to see some of San Diego’s urban breweries. They often have discounted tickets on Groupon.
22. Eat and Enjoy the Views at Portside Pier
Next to the Maritime Museum of San Diego, you’ll find the brand new Portside Pier dining complex on the water. Choose from four different concepts from the Brigantine family of restaurants:
- Brigantine Seafood and Oyster Bar: With outlets all over San Diego, it’s a familiar name. I like the oysters and fried fish tacos.
- Miguel’s Cocina: Go here for Mexican food favorites, but don’t skip the queso dip.
- Ketch Grill and Taps: Enjoy local craft beer and cocktails paired with a mix of pub fare and California cuisine in a casual dine-in setting or for takeaway.
- Portside Coffee & Gelato: Coffee drinks by Cafe Moto, a popular local brand, and gelato.
But even if you’re not there to eat, you can still walk onto the second-floor viewing deck for some stunning photos. Here, you’ll also find public seating in case you’d like to take a break from sightseeing.
23. Chinese Historical District
Visit the eight-block section adjacent to the Gaslamp Quarter that comprises the Asian Pacific Thematic Historic District (APTHD). In the 1860s, Chinese fishers (who turned to the trade after their labor was no longer needed for building railroads) settled in this part of town. The area is known as San Diego’s Chinatown, though Japanese and Filipino fishers lived there.
Today, the historic district is anchored by the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum. It’s not a large museum but housed in a mission-style building that served as the Chinese Community Church and English language class learning center for new immigrants. The building was preserved and relocated here, but you can also quickly walk past the rest of the 22 contributing structures that date from 1883-1930.
24. Sip a Cocktail from a Rooftop Bar
Rooftop bars and pools (I cover pools below in #29) are among the fun things to do in Downtown San Diego. Thanks to our weather, you can enjoy them year-round. A few, like Altitude at the top of the San Diego Marriott Gaslamp Quarter, have views of PETCO Park to catch a free baseball game if you’re lucky.
Most of the popular rooftop bars in Downtown are also inside hotels. Try:
- The Poolhouse (Pendry San Diego)
- Upper East (Hotel Solamar)
- The Rooftop by STK (Andaz San Diego)
- Top of the Hyatt (Manchester Grand Hyatt)
- Born and Raised
- Layover (InterContinental San Diego)
25. Rent a Kayak, SUP, Boat, or Even Go Flyboarding
Several companies provide water sports rentals for you to enjoy on the San Diego Bay. Many people choose standup paddleboarding and kayaking for exercise, but you can rent a variety of boats. Jet ski rentals are also popular.
If you’ve ever wanted to try flyboarding, turn to Fly Guys Watersports. The jet propulsion technology will have you soaring safely above the water, and they usually offer a Groupon.
Water Sports Included on Go San Diego
Some water sports experiences in Downtown are included with the Go San Diego sightseeing pass. Browse the options.
26. The Davis-Horton House
Formerly known as the William Heath Davis House, The Davis-Horton House is the oldest standing structure in Downtown San Diego. It’s a saltbox-style house, named because it looks like the lidded wooden boxes people used to keep salt in, shipped from Portland, Maine. It had to be shipped to San Diego because the West Coast lacked wood for building houses in the mid-1800s.
It’s home to the Gaslamp Museum at the Davis-Horton House. Each restored room reflects an era of the home’s history. Since it was built in 1850, the house has served as a pre-Civil War military barracks; a county hospital; home to “The Father of San Diego,” Alonzo Erastus Horton; and more that you can learn about through a guided tour.
27. Scooter Through Town
Take a tour of San Diego on these big wheel scooters with iRide. You’ll drive with a guide past local icons like PETCO Park, the Gaslamp Quarter, Seaport Village, Little Italy, and more over an hour. Two-hour tours include Balboa Park or Old Town San Diego. Book your iRide tour.
28. Tour the Central Library
This isn’t your average library. You can take self-guided or docent-led tours of Central Library to see its stunning architecture, multiple art installations (150 individual works of art from the Civic Art Collection), rare books room, teen room, children’s library, 3-D printing lab, and more.
Baseball fans should pop into the Sullivan Family Baseball Research Center, the largest baseball research collection outside the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Residents especially need to remember to use the variety of services on offer, including checking out books.
29. Spend the Day at a Hotel Pool
You do not need to be an overnight guest to enjoy hotel pools, thanks to ResortPass. It’s possible to book day passes and pool cabanas to enjoy Downtown San Diego’s most popular hotel pools through their program. Participating hotels include:
- Manchester Grand Hyatt
- Solamar San Diego
- Andaz San Diego
- InterContinental San Diego
- The Westgate Hotel
See also: Best Hotel Pools in San Diego
30. Spend the Night in a Downtown San Diego Hotel
There are several genuinely fabulous Downtown San Diego hotels to accommodate any budget and travel style. If you were to ask me which are my favorites are, I would say:
Which one you choose depends on whether you have kids traveling with you, time of year, view desired, loyalty program, and much more! If you are looking at Pendry, THE US GRANT, or need help picking a San Diego hotel, let me know.
Things to Do Near Downtown San Diego
One of the reasons people visit San Diego and focus on the downtown area is that other popular attractions are short drives away.
How long it takes you to get from place to place hinges on where in Downtown San Diego you are and how many stoplights you hit getting out.
Below, I’ve mentioned approximate drive times without traffic and the distance to each tourist attraction from the Gaslamp Quarter (the marker falls on Market Street and Fifth Avenue), which is relatively central in the Downtown San Diego area.
Balboa Park / San Diego Zoo
Distance from Downtown: 1.6 miles (7 minutes by car)
The world-famous San Diego Zoo is located in Balboa Park, which is also home to 16 fantastic museums, multiple trails, great places to eat, gardens, and more fun. You can spend a day in each spot easily.
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It’s a short Uber ride from any Downtown attraction to Balboa Park and San Diego Zoo. In theory, you can walk, but I don’t recommend it. It’s not scenic, and you may pass through a couple of less than ideal blocks.
Note: San Diego Zoo Safari Park is in Escondido, about 40 minutes north of Downtown San Diego.
Old Town San Diego
Distance: 4.2 miles (13 minutes by car)
The birthplace of California, shopping and Mexican food await at Old Town San Diego. It’s a lovely place to learn a little about California history by stopping into the small, free museums.
Distance: 13.6 miles (26 minutes by car)
My hometown appears on many sightseeing itineraries. La Jolla Cove is one of the most photographed places in all of San Diego. Plus, we have the La Jolla seals and sea lions, some of the city’s best dining and shopping, museums, water sports, the La Jolla Underwater Park, and SO MUCH MORE.
SeaWorld San Diego / Mission Bay
Distance: 7.1 miles (15-20 minutes by car depending on where on the bay you are headed)
Many people staying in Downtown head over to the Mission Bay area to go to SeaWorld San Diego (get my discount tickets here). Or, they’re interested in water sports or perhaps biking along the bay. You can rent bikes and gear at various spots like Action Sports Rentals.
LEGOLAND California and Carlsbad
Distance: 34 miles (40 minutes by car)
It’s also common for visitors to day trip from Downtown to LEGOLAND California or from Carlsbad to Downtown San Diego. I do believe it’s worthwhile. You have to plan around rush hour traffic. Then, it’s a straight shot up the I-5 freeway that is an easy drive.
Cabrillo National Monument
Distance: 9.5 miles (27 minutes by car)
Geographically, Cabrillo National Monument is not too far from Downtown San Diego. But, since you take surface streets the whole way, it takes longer than you might think.
Is it worth it? If you want to snap some photos (the views are spectacular in good weather), take a mild waterfront hike, learn about California history (it commemorates the
Distance: 7 miles (15 minutes by car)
If you want to find the best beach near Downtown San Diego, your two choices. The first is to take the ferry over to Coronado and then Uber (there’s a seasonal free shuttle) or walk to the beach in front of Hotel del Coronado.
The second is to drive to Ocean Beach. It’s a beautiful big white sand beach amid a 1960s-like eclectic surf town with casual dining, shopping, and bars. On peak days, I would take an Uber to avoid circling for parking.
See also: 16 Best Downtown San Diego Hotels and Tips for Visiting San Diego Zoo
What are your favorite things to do in Downtown San Diego?