20 Free Things to Do in San Diego That Aren’t Hiking

Junipero Serra Museum

Most “free things to do” lists are hikes or picnics, here, you won’t find any of those! However, you may need to plan your trip on certain days in order to get all of the discounts. These 15 free things to do in San Diego will take you to several neighborhoods and show you the best of America’s finest city.

Balboa Park

1. Balboa Park Museum Tuesdays

If you live in San Diego County, you’re in luck! You can get into select Balboa Park museums for free every Tuesday of the month on a rotating basis. Here’s some of my personal favorites:

First Tuesdays: Fleet Science Center, San Diego Natural History Museum, San Diego Model Railroad Museum
Second Mondays: San Diego Air & Space Museum, Timken Museum of Art (free daily)
Second Tuesdays: Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego History Center, Veteran’s Museum and Memorial Center
Third Tuesdays: Museum of Us, San Diego Museum of Art, Japanese Friendship Gardens
Fourth Tuesdays: San Diego Automotive Museum, House of Pacific Relations

2. Summer Movies in the Park

Who doesn’t love movies under the stars? All summer long, the San Diego Parks and Recreation Office coordinates community movie nights all over the city. All showings are free and Family friendly! Bring your own snacks, drinks, and blankets to cozy up to the movies. Find the latest schedule here.

Image via pacificsurfliner.com

3. Transportation

While San Diego may not have the most thorough transportation systems, there are some options for residents to ride for free! The Coronado Ferry is free on weekdays before 8:50am at the Convention Center. Old Town Trolley offers free rides for local residents using the Hometown Pass when accompanied by a paying customer. The San Diego MTS trolley offers free ride days about 2 times per year, usually on July 4th and November 3rd (voting day). Additionally, on weekends, children under 12 ride free and on holidays, fares are buy 1 get one free.

4. Sea World Fireworks

Every night, June 11th – September 6th, enjoy a spectacular firework display from Sea World (8:45pm Sunday-Thursday, 9:45pm Friday & Saturday). You don’t even need to buy park tickets to see it! Some of the best public viewpoints are Crown Point Park, Fiesta Island Park, and Mariner’s Point Park.

Megan holding a crab at Point Loma Tide Pools

5. Tide Pools

The San Diego coastline is full of life from sea lions to thousands of hermit crabs! You can find tons of the little creatures at various tide pools across the city. My personal favorites to explore are in Bird Rock (at the end of Bird Rock Ave.), La Jolla Tide Pools (near Nicholson Point and Marina Street Beach), and Children’s Pool (also La Jolla).

It’s also worth paying for entry to the Point Loma Tide Pools at Cabrillo National Monument if you’re willing!

Palomar Observatory
Image via caltech.edu

6. Palomar Observatory

Up in the mountains of east San Diego, you can visit one of the world’s largest telescopes at the Palomar Observatory run by CalTech University. Thousands of visitors come to the Observatory every year to see the 5 meter Hale Telescope. You can receive a free tour of the property and have the opportunity to attend special events for public stargazing. This is one of the least well-known and yet greatest free things to do in San Diego! Check the most up to date visiting hours on their website.

Fallen Star UCSD
Image via sandiego.org

7. Stewart Art Collection at UCSD

University of California San Diego is home to one of the most unique art collections in Southern California. I mean there’s a house hanging off the side of a building?! What’s cooler than that? Campus is usually open to the public but during 2020 / 2021, visitors are limited and masks must be worn outdoors at all times. The most interesting tour is the Stewart House. It is crooked but still fully wired with electricity. You can find more information about the exhibits here.

8. La Jolla Underwater Park

Along California’s coastline, you can find all sorts of sea creatures. La Jolla Cove is a marine protected area full of kelp forests, lobster, sea lions, abalone, garibaldi fish, and so much more. You can scuba dive, snorkel, kayak, or swim through the area all year round. It’s one of the most popular areas for scuba diving outside of Catalina Island. If you have a pair of goggles, you can see the best areas of the underwater park for free. If you’re willing to buy a new snorkel set on Amazon, here’s one of my favorites for less than $50.

chicano park
Image via library.ucsd.edu

9. Chicano Park Murals

One of the many booming arts districts of San Diego is Chicano Park in Barrio Logan. Originally created by students at San Diego State University, it is now recognized as a National Landmark. Many local artists have painted gigantic murals celebrating LatinX culture and in recent years, breweries, art galleries, and other locally owned businesses have popped up nearby making it a full experience. You can read more about the park here.

Image via San Diego Union Tribune

10. Waterfront Park Jet Fountains

Need free things to do in San Diego with kids? Visit downtown San Diego and bring a swimsuit! This large interactive splash fountain in front of the City of San Diego offices has become a family favorite in recent years. Kids can run around in the fountains, play on the playgrounds, and have a picnic overlooking the bay once they get tired. Street parking is available near Waterfront Park but can get busy during the summer, so plan to arrive early!

Mt. Soledad

11. Mt. Soledad – National Veteran’s Memorial

This is one of my favorite lookout spots in the whole city! This monument is dedicated to US veterans from wars as far back as the Revolutionary War. At the top of Mt. Soledad park, you can see 360 degree views of the entire county. On a clear day, you can see all the way up to Los Angeles and all the way down to Mexico. It’s a great place for picnics or sunset watching. Bonus, the parking lot is right next to the park – no hiking involved! Click here if you want to purchase a plaque for a veteran in your life or donate to park restoration.

Balboa Park Botanical Building
Image via Balboa Park

12. Botanical Building

A free thing to do in San Diego with plant lovers is visit the Botanic Building in Balboa Park. Entry to this little botanical garden is free daily and closes at sunset. Inside, you’ll find orchids, palms, and seasonal displays. It feels like an immediate transportation into the jungle!

13. Cruisin’ Grand Car Show

Every Friday night 4-9pm April – September, Grand Ave. in Escondido is home to classic cars from all over the state. This event is recognized as one of the best car shows in the country. Check out  pre-1974 American-made Classics, Customs, Vintage, Muscle, and Hot Rods while enjoying live music, kettle corn, and other local vendors. To bring your own classic car or reserve a booth space, contact the Cruisin’ Grand organizers.

Ladies Who Paint Mural Walk

14. East Village Ladies Who Paint Mural Walk

Another iconic arts district in San Diego is the East Village. Everywhere you walk, you’ll see murals on every block. One route in particular was created entirely by female artists, typically a minority in the mural field. The Ladies Who Paint organization strives to empower female artists by giving them artistic opportunity, remind people what women are capable of, + to add public art to cities to enhance the lives of the community and its members! Check out a map of the full walk route here.

Image via sandiego.gov

15. Junipero Serra Museum

The very first European Settlement in the state of California is marked by the Junipero Serra Museum. Located right above Old Town San Diego, the museum is also home to the San Diego History Center. Full of historical accounts, archeological finds, and ecological data, this is a must-see site to understand the beginnings of San Diego and the state. Museum entry is free but donations are appreciated.

Grunion Run
Image via OC Register

16. Grunion Runs

Have you ever had your seafood dinner jump into your arms? Well, in San Diego’s summer full moon cycles, you can haha! Grunions are a species of thin, silver colored fish that frequently wash up onto the Southern California coast to spawn at night. If you have a valid fishing license, you can literally scoop up the grunions by hand and take them home with you. Check the moon cycle and tide schedule for the best times to find them here.

17. La Jolla Cove Art Galleries

If you want to browse art that the average person can’t afford – La Jolla is the place for you! Thankfully, the galleries are really fun to browse through and are a really great activity while you wait for your dinner reservations or walk off your drinks. My personal favorite is the National Geographic gallery. You can find most of the galleries on Prospect St.

Self Realization Fellowship Encinitas

18. Self – Realization Fellowship Gardens

North County San Diego is home to one of the most beautiful venues for meditation and mindfulness. The Self-Realization Fellowship Gardens in Encinitas are one of the most relaxing free things to do in San Diego. You can also join the fellowship for various yoga and meditation classes for a small fee, or wander the gardens for free.

Spreckels Organ
Image via North County Sun

19. Pipe Organ Concerts

The Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park is home to various musical events throughout the year. It has more than 5,000 pipes and has been in use since 1914! On Sunday afternoons at 2pm, rain or shine, an organist plays free concerts for park visitors. On Monday evenings in June and August at 7:30pm, you have another chance to hear the musician play. During Christmas time at the Balboa Park December Nights, you can listen to various holiday themed performances from choirs to orchestras and more.

20.Free Kids October

Lastly, every October, various San Diego attractions and restaurants honor kids and their parents with free admission or free food. Some of the most popular locations are the San Diego Zoo, Sea World, Lego Land, the USS Midway Museum and Balboa Park museums. Restaurant offers change daily, but you can usually find good deals in popular parts of town like Little Italy. Read more about Kids Free October here.

There are always free things to do in San Diego if you’re willing to get creative and plan ahead! Once you eventually need to eat after your cost-free day, check out these brunch spots and rooftop bars! You can also save money on larger activities in San Diego with these tips. Follow me on Instagram or TikTok for more travel inspiration.

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