Are you heading to San Diego and looking for fun things to do on a budget? There are plenty of free things to do in San Diego, so whether you live there or are just visiting, you can make the most of your time without dropping a ton of money.
Cardiff-By-The-Sea: The beaches here are beautiful sandy stretches with coastal cliffs and awesome surf breaks. You can see tidepools at low tide, dive in the kelp beds, or relax on the sand. There are restrooms at Cardiff State Beach and two locations north of the river. If you want free parking, you can park on the shoulder of the 101, but keep an eye on the passing traffic.
Coronado: Voted one of the U.S.’s best beaches, here you can see the Hotel del Coronado, enjoy the sparkling sand, take your pup to the dog beach, have a picnic in the grassy beachside park, fish from the fishing pier, or stroll the Ferry Landing Marketplace. Free parking is available at the Marketplace and along Ocean Boulevard, and restrooms are nearby.
Del Mar: Here you can find two miles of coastline to enjoy near the Del Mar Fairgrounds and Thoroughbred Club, and there are dog-friendly beaches as well. Plus you’re near the shopping and dining at Del Mar Village. Free parking is limited to the nearby city streets and residential areas and it can get crowded during the busy season.
Encinitas: Moonlight Beach and Swami’s both have free parking areas. Other free parking is available on the streets. These beaches are great for a day on the sand or surfing, and Moonlight has a park, playground, firepit, snack bar, and more.
Mission Beach and Pacific Beach: Here you can explore this stretch of coastline or the nearby Mission Bay, San Diego’s favorite destination for camping and watersports. There are a few public lots in the area that offer free parking, you’ll just have to drive around to scout out a spot for yourself.
At the Embarcadero you can enjoy the maritime history of the area with historic sailing ships, including the Star of India and a replica of the San Salvador. Have a picnic and enjoy the fountains at Waterfront Park, browse the shops at Seaport Village, and enjoy free live music and activities on the weekends.
Mission Bay Park
Park in one of the free public lots or search for free street parking near Mission Bay Park. Once you’re here, you can have a picnic, enjoy the water, have a bonfire, take the kids to one of the playgrounds, take a bike ride on the 12-mile bike path, fly a kite, and more.
Old Town San Diego
There are several free public parking lots in Old Town as well as street parking. Here you can see over 30 historic buildings like adobes, homes, the Old Adobe Chapel, the first courthouse and jail, and the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Take a stroll around Presidio Park, see the Victorian homes at Heritage Park, browse the shops and boutiques, and more. One of the highlights here is Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. You can step back in time and stroll the grounds and museums for free.
One of San Diego’s best destinations, Balboa Park has a number of free things to do, and access to the grounds is also free. Here are some freebies to enjoy:
- Free Tuesdays: Rotating locations offer free admission to Residents of the city and county, as well as active duty military and their dependents
- All gardens and trails are free to stroll
- Free admission at Timken Museum Of Art
- Free lawn programs at the international cottages
- Free organ concerts at the Spreckles Organ Pavilion, the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ
- Free admission at the Commons Level at the Mingei International Museum
- All playgrounds
- Sculptures and public art around the park grounds
- Spanish Village Art Center
- Free admission to the San Diego Museum of Art May S. Marcy Sculpture Court and Garden
- WorldBeat Center
- See over 30 cottages each representing a different culture at House Of Pacific Relations International Cottages
- Parking is free
- The Green Shuttle park tram is free
Take A Hike
Venture out on one of the areas free hiking trails:
- Annie’s Canyon Trail
- Batiquitos Lagoon
- Sunset Cliffs
- Mission Trails Regional Park
- Elfin Forest Recreational Reserve
- Los Pensaquitos Canyon Trail
- San Elijo Lagoon
- Hellhole Canyon County Preserve
- El Capitan County Preserve
- Sycamore Canyon/Goodan Ranch County Preserve
Visit Chicano Park to see the worlds biggest collection of Chicano murals, with over 80 paintings, sculptures, gardens, and playgrounds. Plus, stroll the arts district and window shop the local galleries and boutiques.
Like Chicano Parks murals and the art in Balboa Park, the rest of the city has outdoor art for public viewing as well. Embracing Peace/Unconditional Surrender captures the moment the sailor kissed a girl in Times Square in 1945. Fallen House sits atop the 7th floor of the University, and Fault Whisper is in the East Village with two spheres on opposite sides of the fault system. Other art to see: Birds’ Word’s, Arbre de Serpents, Pearl of the Pacific, and Broadway Fountain.
See the Seals & Sea Lions
Find a free parking spot near Children’s Pool Beach and walk out to the free plaza above the cove to see the local wildlife. The resident seals and sea lions are generally on-site for pupping season and the beach is closed to the public from December 15 through May 15. But when the beach is open to the public, you can venture down to the sand.
Washington Street Skatepark
If you like to skate, get some practice at this super cool skatepark built under the Pacific Highway Bridge in Little Italy.
You can visit the Palomar Observatory for free! Public areas include the A.W. Greenway Jr. Visitor Center and the Visitors Gallery. Sometimes there are free tours, and they have a free audioguide that you can download to get more information about the observatory from QR codes posted in public spaces.
Kids Free In October
While you’ll have to pay for the adults, San Diego hosts the annual Kids Free In October event where kids get in free to tons of attractions, eat free at select restaurants, and stay free at participating lodging locations.
Fun & Quick Free Public Spots
- Belmont Park Amusement Park is free to park and enter (but you’ll have to pay if you want to get on the rides or play the games)
- Take a walk over Spruce Street Suspension Bridge
- Harbor Drive Pedestrian Bridge (2 E. Harbor Drive)
- Harper’s Topiary Garden (3549 Union St.)
- Balboa Park Moreton Bay Fig Tree (1788 El Prado)
- Mushroom Beach House (9036 La Jolla Shores Lane, San Diego)
- Encinitas Boathouses (726 & 732 Third Street, Encinitas)
- Visit The Headquarters and check out the Jail Cells & Police Exhibit
- Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier (8650 Kennel Way)
- Historic Crystal Pier (4500 Ocean Blvd)
- Leo Carrillo Ranch Historic Park (6200 Flying Leo Carrillo Ln, Carlsbad)
- Take in the view at Mt. Helix Park (4901 Mt Helix Drive, La Mesa)
- Visit Sunset Cliffs Natural Park and check out the sea caves (Ladera Street, San Diego)
- La Jolla Cove
- Stroll around Little Italy
- Do a late night grunion run at the beach
- Coronado Historical Association & Coronado Museum
- Take a hike at the Tijuana Estuary Reserve
- See the colorful sculpture garden at Queen Califia’s Magical Circle at Kit Carson Park
- Play disc golf for free at Kit Carson Park
- Check out the cool cars at the Cruisin’ Grand Car Show on Fridays from April through September in Encinitas
- Watch bike races at the Velodrome for free every Tuesday Night from April through September
- Get free fly casting lessons at Lake Murray every Sunday with the San Diego Fly Fishers
- Head to Old Town on the weekends for free community events like the Harney Street Market
- Hop on your bike and take a ride on the Bayshore Bikeway
- Practice your bike skills at the Sweetwater Bike Park
- Find a spot to relax and meditate at the Encinitas Temple Meditation Gardens
- Take a walk around the Gaslamp Quarter to browse the shops and galleries
- Go fishing from one of the San Diego piers (Imperial Beach, Coronado Ferry landing, Embarcadero Marina Park South Fishing Pier, Shelter Island Pier, Ocean Beach, Crystal Pier, Oceanside)
- Take a self guided stroll of the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Centers’ mile-long Olympic Path
- Browse antiques and collectibles at the Ocean Beach Antique District
|San Diego||OC to San Diego: Roadside Attractions|
|Old Town San Diego State Historic Park||Things To Do In California|
|Del Mar Concerts at The Sound||Del Mar Racing Season|
Heidi Deal is the author of the Newcomers Handbook to Living In Los Angeles & Orange County, and a children’s book author specializing in history and human rights.