Photograph by Richard Cummins, Corbis
Just 17 miles north of the Mexican/U.S. border lies the waterfront city of San Diego. People come from all over the world to visit famous Balboa Park and to enjoy Southern California's world-renowned beaches. Recently rated as the fifth wealthiest city in the U.S. by Forbes magazine, it seems San Diego would leave your wallet empty. However, with all its rich history and excellent weather, San Diego is full of activities that require no cash. Here's a list of free attractions and events to get you started.
Art and Museums
Balboa Park, San Diego's most famous park, is home to both architecturally stunning buildings and landscaped gardens. Entry is free, but most park museums have set admission prices. There are also free guided tours of Balboa Park leaving from the Visitors Center throughout the week. The famous Botanical Building and almost all the gardens require no fee—so stop by to smell the roses.
Outside the park, cross the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge and enter into Coronado, a car-optional, small beach town across the bay from the hustle and bustle of downtown San Diego. Visit the Hotel Del Coronado, which was built in 1888 on the oceanfront. Known as "the Del" to locals, it is where the 1950s classic Some Like it Hot was filmed. Non-hotel guests can stroll around this National Historic Landmark and learn about its history. After, amble around the streets of cozy downtown Coronado or grab your boogie board and head down to Coronado Central Beach, which was named as America's Best Family Beach by the Travel Channel.
See over 4,000 works of art created after 1950 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown San Diego. The museum has expanded to the historic Jacobs Building, which was previously home to the Santa Fe Depot baggage building. Free admission daily for anyone 25 and under. Free for all visitors the third Thursday of every month from 5 to 7 p.m.
A historic 1800s stagecoach greets visitors outside the Wells Fargo Museum. Located within the Colorado House (originally a hotel) in the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. This museum is home to one of 30 original Concord coaches shipped to Wells Fargo in 1867 and also to two authentic telegraph machines. Admission is always free.
Stop by the Seeley Stable Museum, a replica of the Yuma/San Diego stage stop that burned down—along with the rest of Old Town—in the fire of 1872. It has a wide collection of vintage transportation vehicles on display. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; Free admission.
See where the San Diego Union newspaper got its start at the San Diego Union Museum. Visitors can tour the editor’s office and the original print room. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily with free admission.
Explore the free San Diego County Sheriff’s Museum in Old Town. Items on display include vintage badges, handcuffs, and uniforms, as well as a patrol car, helicopter, jail cell and courtroom. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Walk through the first public school house in San Diego. At Mason Street School visitors can sit at the desks in the one room schoolhouse, or read about its long history on the plaques that cover the walls. See how many lashes a student would have received in the mid- to late-1800s for telling a lie or for wearing long fingernails. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Visit the First San Diego Courthouse, which was fully rebuilt in 1992 after it burned down in the Old Town fire of 1872.
Prepare to be spooked at Casa de Estudillo a National Historic Landmark, also in the State Historic Park. Built in 1829 by one of San Diego’s earliest families, visitors have claimed to see the ghosts of prior residents still wandering around the building and its grounds. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Take a stroll through San Diego's Seaport Village, an outdoor shopping complex with more than 50 shops, galleries, and eateries. Meander along cobblestone paths that pass fountains, gardens, and ponds. There is also a half-mile stretch of bay-front boardwalk with great views. Architecture includes Mexican, Victorian, and New England styles.
Amble along 16 1/2 blocks of posh shops, restaurants, and Victorian buildings in the Gaslamp Quarter of downtown San Diego. The Gaslamp Quarter is located next to the marina across from Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the quarter has 94 historic buildings to investigate, all of which boast different architectural styles and are beautifully detailed with carvings, stained glass windows and vibrant colors. Most of the restaurants and shops are pricey, but there are many festivals and events that take place in the area during the year that make it a fun place to visit.
Known as San Diego's Beverly Hills, downtown La Jolla is a beautiful place to visit, featuring high-end boutiques and palm tree-lined streets. Walk from Scripps Park up winding streets and look at all the stores and cafés. Stop at La Valencia Hotel, located in the heart of La Jolla village. Built in 1926, it is known for its amazing views and pink facade.
Drive to the top of Mount Soledad in La Jolla. The hill, situated between Interstate 5 and the Pacific Ocean, has panoramic views of downtown San Diego and the ocean. At the top is the Mount Soledad Cross, which stands at 29 feet and is a well-known landmark of San Diego.
If you're willing to stray a little from downtown, stop by one of the United States Olympic Training Centers located in Chula Vista. See where Olympians eat meals and practice every day in preparation for the Olympic games. Free tours of the center are available Tuesday through Saturday at 1:30 p.m. Call first for reservations.
Browse works by area artists and enjoy complimentary hors d'oeuvres at one of Little Italy's Kettner Art Nights. All the galleries and studios in the district participate, which makes for an impressive collection. Open 6-9 p.m. on some Fridays; check the website for exact dates.
Famous for its adobe buildings and haciendas, Old Town San Diego is steeped in history. Take a free guided tour around Old Town’s Historical Park. Along with museums, restaurants, and unique shops, the park also features events every month, from flamenco dancers in colorful Mexican-style costumes to a market on Harney Street every Saturday, featuring live music and contemporary art. Visit www.oldtownsandiegoguide.com for updated event schedules and more information.
Walk along the port at Embarcadero where you can see public art inspired by the ocean, local military history, and San Diego's international ties.
Explore 37 different artist studios and galleries in Balboa Park's outdoor Spanish Village Art Center. See everything from paintings and sculptures to gourd art and basketweaving. Open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
Go to the restaurant voted as having the "Best Pizza in San Diego" by NBC's Golden Local Contest. Samples of Basic's pizzas are served Monday through Friday from 4 to 6 p.m.
Many of San Diego's restaurants offer great deals on food almost every night of the week. Visit www.sandiegoreader.com//food_and_drink/ to pick out the best deals for you, or to get great discount coupons at some of San Diego's best eateries.
The New Children's Museum, which opened in 2008, is located in San Diego's marina. The goal is to "inspire children to think, play and create," says the director of the museum. "We are a unique hybrid of a children's museum and an art museum." Kids are offered a number of hands-on experiences, from creating their own masterpieces in the art studios, to climbing around on art installations. Admission is free the second Sunday of every month from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with special performances and activities.
All aboard! Grab a seat on a fun-filled train ride through Rohr Park. Chula Vista Live Steamers offers the free rides but asks for a donation of 50 cents. The offer continues all summer on certain Saturdays and Sundays from noon until 3 p.m.; call for dates ( 1 619 421 5227).
Take your kids to listen to professional storyteller Harlynne Geisler spin tales directly inspired by Timken Museum's own works of art. Family Storytelling continues through September at 11 a. m. on certain Saturdays; check the website for dates.
Thought visiting the San Diego Zoo was out of your family's price range? Think again—the zoo offers free admission for children ages 3-11 for the whole month of October. The world-famous zoo is home to some of the planet's wildest creatures: everything from armadillos and hippopotamuses to hyenas and Tasmanian devils.
Grab your snorkel and fins and go paddling around La Jolla Cove, one of Southern California's most photographed beaches. The water here is calm, and you can see colorful fish and abundant sea life. Surf and boogie boards are not permitted. Get there early for a great spot by the caves that enclose this beach. Above La Jolla Cove lies Scripps Park, a good place to picnic, lounge, or just enjoy the views of the Pacific Ocean.
Boomer Beach in La Jolla is a great place to spot the sea lions that call La Jolla home. Bring a camera along for some beautiful nature and wildlife shots.
Another of La Jolla's famous surfing beaches is Windansea Beach, a haven for surfers since the 1940s. The beach is split into two sections, one section for beach bathers and the other for surfers. The shack located here is also one of San Diego's historical landmarks—built by surfers during World War II.
Observe seals and sea lions in their natural habitat at the Children's Pool. Swimming here is discouraged because of the significant number of animals nearby, but the sight of them basking in the sun is itself worth seeing.
Take your family to La Jolla Shores, a classic beach haven with sidewalks lined in palm trees and stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. The Shores consist of a small play area, beach (great for swimming), and lawn (perfect for a picnic lunch and a game of Frisbee). Summer months bring swarms of people, so be sure to get there early to claim a spot or arrive in the late afternoon to watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean.
Mission Bay Park offers a wide variety of free activities. Take part in a game of horseshoes, beach volleyball, or basketball on one of the numerous courts. Or sit back and watch trick skaters from "Skate This!," a local skating club that performs for free on weekends. Check the website for exact performance locations.
Located just seven miles west of downtown San Diego is a gem of a beach. Ocean Beach, popular to locals for its surfing, is also best known for its Dog Beach, where dog lovers can bring their canines to frolic in the surf. Walk along Newport Avenue in search old treasures in Ocean Beach's Antique District, where hundreds of people sell everything from vintage jewelry to furniture. Ocean Beach also has a view of Sea World across the bay, and the whole town is chock-full of colorful "OB" signs and banners displaying town pride.
Live out the California dream at Pacific Beach with its three main beaches, each one a hot spot for young locals and out-of-towners alike. Bask in the sun and take in the local southern California scene.
Visit a beach that is world-renowned and notorious for its surf break: San Onofre Surf Beach. The San Onofre State Park also consists of the San Mateo Campground and the San Onofre Bluffs, where visitors can park and hike down one of six dirt trails onto beaches below.
Each one of the five Solana beaches has a different vibe. To get to them you descend stairways built into the cliffs. The beautiful beaches have an ambiance that ranges from boisterous to peaceful, depending on which stairway you choose.
Heat things up and reserve your own fire pit for an evening on one of San Diego's beaches. Some beaches charge for the pits, but there are many that are free on a first-come, first-serve basis, including Mission Bay, Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, and Silver Strand State Beach.
Farmers markets in San Diego are numerous and, because of the warm temperature, they last all year long. Roam aisles overflowing with bright flowers and fresh produce. Check for days and times.
Positioned between the Municipal Pool and Naval Amphibious Base on Coronado Island is Glorietta Bay Park, a lush two-acre park with a playground and small beach that is less congested than most other beaches in Coronado. Another area of Coronado worth exploring is the Ferry Landing Marketplace. Cast a line off the fishing pier, take a walk in the marketplace, or relax on a small strip of sand.
Take a walk, ride your bike, or check out some of the interesting people who hang out along the three-mile boardwalk stretching between Mission and Pacific Beaches.
Mission Bay Park, a 4,600-acre park located on the bay front in San Diego, is the place to get active. Choose from biking along one of the parks many paths, boating in the bay, or taking a jog. There's a free event almost every month out of the year; check the website for exact dates.
To escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, visit Mission Trails Regional Park. Camping, bird-watching, and hiking are popular in this almost 5,800-acre park.
Thousands of people travel to Torrey Pines State Park every year to catch a glimpse of the massive sandstone cliffs that rise 300 feet above the Pacific Ocean and to see the rare Torrey pine trees. Hiking trails in the park feature unparalleled ocean vistas, spectacular wildflowers, and views of people gliding away from the Torrey Pines Gliderport. One of the park's most famous hikes starts at the visitors center and winds down to the beach below. Although grueling on the way back to the top, the beach and the views of the cliffs are worth the sore muscles you may experience the next day. Bring your swimsuit (or don't—the beach below, Black's Beach, is one of the U.S.'s only nude beaches) and some sneakers.
Take a seat outdoors in Seaport Village and enjoy free live entertainment. There's a performance of some kind almost every day from noon to 4 p.m., from musicians to magicians, so stop by and relax in the shade on a nice California day. Saturday nights feature performances by more recognized artists; check the website for exact dates.
San Diego's list of free music events seems never-ending in the summer months. For a guide to free summer show dates visit www.signonsandiego.com/feature/free-summer-concerts/. Enjoy performances from a range of diverse artists, from the Bayou Brothers to the San Diego Six.
2014 Traveler Photo Contest
See all the winning images from the 2014 Traveler Photo Contest.