If you ever visited San Diego, you probably know why San Diego is one of the main tourist hotspots in the US. From beautiful beaches, divine nature, and wildlife to quirky museums, history, and iconic sights, San Diego has something in store for everyone and a plethora of things you can find only in San Diego and nowhere else. In this article, we’ll show you 17 unique things to do in San Diego that will give you a glimpse of the uniqueness and quirkiness of America’s Finest City.
San Diego Old Town and the City’s Beginnings
Only in San Diego, you’ll find the first European settlement in today’s California. San Diego’s Old Town is a picturesque neighborhood with some of the oldest and historically most significant buildings in the city. Old Town is also home to a set of preserved streets in the State Historical Park that date back to the early 19th century. In this same park, you can also find the old San Diego Presidio and San Diego Mission that were the first settlements in today’s San Diego (dating back to 1769).
The San Diego Mission is the place where the first execution and first Christian burial in the West Coast took place. Beneath the chapel, you can also see the remains of California’s first Christian martyr who was killed by Native American warriors in 1775 and the original bells of the cathedral that date back to 1805.
Largest Museum Campus on the West Coast
Many people will tell you that the crown of San Diego is Balboa Park; a gorgeous urban park that covers 1,200 acres of greenery in the heart of the city. The park is home to San Diego Zoo, perhaps the world’s most famous, several historic buildings that date back to the Spanish Colonial era, and of course, the Museum of Man; the largest campus of museums on the West Coast.
The museum has a myriad of exhibits that focus on the pre-Columbian history of the western Americas, Native American exhibits, and exhibits from the Mesoamerican civilizations (i.e. the Mayans). In total, the museum complex is home to more than 100,000 documents, close to 350,000 archaeological artifacts, and more than 20,000 historic photographs. If you’re a history lover looking for some unique things to do in San Diego, you just can’t miss visiting the Museum of Man.
Looking for more unique things to do in San Diego? Check out our guide to visiting Sunny Jim Sea Cave.
La Jolla Cove and the Underwater Park
Located 20 minutes away from Downtown San Diego, the tiny coastal village of La Jolla Cove is one of the most unique things to do in San Diego. The village is home to picturesque, winding alleys, the oldest family-run bookstore in America (Warwick’s), and a myriad of great restaurants with an ocean view. However, perhaps the most interesting thing about the tiny village is the underwater park.
The La Jolla Underwater Park is a 6,000-acre underwater preserve that’s a haven for scuba diving enthusiasts. This park offers some of the bluest and clearest waters on the West Coast and miles of protected preserves you can explore. Here, you can get the rare chance to see and interact with sea lions, leopard sharks, seals, garibaldi fish, and many other forms of marine life.
Feed a Grizzly or a Tiger
If you’re an animal lover, a visit to the Lions, Tigers & Bears reserve is an absolute must. Only in San Diego in this no-breed, no-kill sanctuary, you can interact with the three great animals and even feed them! The sanctuary stretches across 93 acres on the edge of Cleveland National Forest. Dotted with rolling hills, meadows, majestic forests, and scenic views, this park is the perfect place for a natural habitat sanctuary, and today, more than 60 different animals call this sanctuary home.
And speaking of nature…
Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve
We can’t have a list of unique things to do in San Diego without mentioning the Torey Pines. The picturesque reserve is located 30 minutes away from Downtown and stretches across a 1,700-acre oceanfront reserve that offers some of the most amazing ocean views on the Pacific Coast.
In this park, you’ll find miles of unexplored trails that lead through unfrequented pine forests and sandstone canyons, beautiful nature, and some of the most beautiful sunset views in the San Diego area.
USS Midway Museum
Speaking of things you can only do in San Diego, USS Midway is one of the most spectacular floating museums I have ever seen. The museum is dedicated to honoring San Diego’s significant naval community and it gives visitors a taste of navy life through some of the museum’s most interesting exhibits, such as the plane-packed flight deck, the berthing, the mess hall, the sprawling hangar, etc.
Additionally, the museum hosts more than 400 active military events every year, and all of them are open to the public.
If there’s any other place in San Diego that comes close to the Historic Park, it has to be Gaslamp Quarter. The district is part of Downtown and is home to staggering 94 historic buildings while only covering 16 blocks full of San Diego heritage and history. The quarter is one of San Diego’s oldest and it dates back to 1867 when it was designed by Alonzo Horton as a new city center that will be geographically closer to the Bay. If you’re looking for some unique things to do in San Diego, a visit to the old Gaslamp Quarter should be at the top of your list.
Mormon Batallion Historic Site
Speaking of things you’ll see only in San Diego, we can’t forget about the Mormon Batallion Historic Site; a museum dedicated to the only armed unit formed on a religious basis in the history of the United States. The battalion consisted of close to 600 members who were followers of the Church of Jesus Christ (Latter-day Saints) and served during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and during the war, completed a 1,900-mile march from Iowa to San Diego.
Erected in 1885, five years after San Diego’s admission to the Union and years before the first lighthouses in San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Loma Lighthouse is one of the oldest preserved buildings in San Diego and the second-oldest lighthouse in California. However, the lighthouse was used as a beacon for the ships navigating in the Bay for only a few years because a new, bigger lighthouse was built in 1891.
This is why the Loma Lighthouse was restored in the 1930s and today serves as one of the most prominent landmarks of San Diego. Inside, you can see the old keeper’s living quarters, turning mechanisms, control room, and a library, all of which relatively-well preserved.
It initially started as the Golden State Comic Book Convention in 1970. It was a small convention for not more than 200 book fans in the first year. Today, in a changed format and with a changed name (Comic-Con), this is the world’s largest annual pop-culture festival that attracts close to 150,000 people from around the world.
This only in San Diego event takes place in the San Diego Convention Center and the scope of the manifestation expanded greatly throughout the years. Today, the Comic-Con is a four-day extravaganza of workshops, gaming events, seminars, award ceremonies, film festivals, collectibles market, cosplay contest, and table reads.
Unconditional Surrender Sculpture
The iconic V-J Day photo was taken on the 14th of August, 1945 on Times Square when the city of New York was going through massive celebration. 80 years later, this photo of a navy sailor kissing a girl is one of the most famous iconic photos and has a giant statue in San Diego that brings the photo to life in a very unique way. You can find the 25-foot statue in San Diego’s Tuna Harbor Park.
Many criticize the statue as being too kitschy but unlike most other installments in the park that were only temporary, the Unconditional Surrender still stands proud today and we might go as far as to say that it’s one of the most famous landmarks in San Diego.
If you’re a fan of the Old West, a trip to the Sheriff’s Museum should be at the top of your list. Only in San Diego, you’ll find a historic museum devoted to the old tradition of law enforcement in the good Old West.
Even though it looks small, the museum actually covers 6,800 square feet and numerous interactive exhibits such as a robbery crime scene and reconstructed courtroom, as well as the unique chance to try out an old-fashioned bullet-proof west or get locked up inside the museum’s jail. If you’re looking for unique things to do in San Diego, it would be a crime to miss this museum.
And speaking of quirky museums, how about…
A Taco Joint Surfboard Museum
Taco Surf is a family-run taco joint on Pacific Beach that’s also home to a museum dedicated to the surf culture of Southern California. Their burritos have been listed as the country’s top 10 burritos in several different magazines and their museum houses more than 90 surfboards that the owner claims they were given to him by the most famous names in the surfing world. The oldest surfing board in the museum is a 10-foot Velzy &. Jacobs manufactured in 1952!
59-Mile Scenic Drive
Winding through some of San Diego’s most charming neighborhood and giving glimpses of the charming coastline, 59-Mile Scenic Drive is probably the most scenic drive in San Diego. If you don’t have a lot of time and want to take a self-guided “highlight reel” of some of the most beautiful places along the coast, taking this drive is a must.
To complete the full drive, you would need roughly 3 hours. However, if you want to make multiple stops to click some amazing pictures and explore, plan to spend some more time. The drive passes through Embarcadero (mentioned in our list of hidden gems in San Diego), Harbor Island, Ocean Beach, Mission Bay, Mount Soledad, the above-mentioned La Jolla Cove, Presidio Park, and finally, Balboa Park.
Three Sisters Falls
If you’re looking for an adventure in San Diego, look no further and head to Three Sister Falls. The falls lie approximately one hour outside of San Diego’s limits and the trail leading to them is one of the most famous and scenic treks in the San Diego area. This trail is quite steep and also includes some rope climbing (and optional rock climbing). However, if you plan to visit, note that the trail is only accessible between November and June.
A couple of more things to note is to bring a lot of drinking water (it will be tiring), hiking boots, and some gloves for climbing the ropes. In total, the trail stretches across 4 miles and covers an elevation of 1,000 feet. It takes about three hours to complete and is quite strenuous but once you get to the falls, you’ll forget about the tiring experience and just admire one of the most beautiful falls on the West Coast.
Sand Dunes With a Secret Messages
This list of unique things to do only in San Diego wouldn’t be complete without the sand dunes of Coronado Beach. At a glance, the sand dunes look just like all other sand dunes around the world but if you look from a bird-eye perspective, you’ll see the word ‘Coronado’ engraved on the dunes. The dunes came to be when Armando Moreno, using the seaweed on the shore to spell the name of Coronado and covered the letters with sand. Today, the dunes are one of San Diego’s best hidden attractions that most people don’t know (or forget) about.
If you’re looking to explore the area around Coronado Beach, check out this interesting scooter tour.
Experience Four Seasons in One Day
Around March or April, every year, only in San Diego County, you can experience four different seasons in a single day. Most of the city gets through autumn-like weather around this time of the year, but you can also get spring in several different spots within the county limits, experience summer in the area surrounding Anza-Borrego State Park, and even real winter blizzards in the mountain town of Julian.
Helpful resources for visiting San Diego
Flying to San Diego? Check out Air France’s Discover the World at a low price program and save up to 20% on your flight.
Looking to save on your stay in San Diego? Use this special Booking discount code to save up to 15% on all accommodation bookings.
If you want to rent a car in San Diego, I personally recommend AutoEurope; it helps you compare the best deals from all local rental car providers, and on average, you can save up to 30% every time you use this platform.
Finally, let’s not forget about travel insurance. Personally, I always use and recommend WorldNomads. I know they are a bit more expensive but their plans cover travelers in almost all circumstances.
Finally, it’s your turn- how did you like this list of unique things to do in San Diego? Are there any other only in San Diego places you think we didn’t mention? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!
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