Free Things to Do in and Around San Diego

Having fun in San Diego doesn’t always require a lot of money. In fact, many things to see and do here are absolutely free. With 70 miles of beaches, picturesque weather and an array of settings country-wide, San Diego offers a fun and inexpensive getaway during all seasons of the year.

Tough economic times make for some imaginative ways to entertain yourself or your family, especially to find things that cost, well, nothing. Luckily, we live in San Diego and we are blessed with a slew of natural attractions that we often take for granted. But we also have some not-so-known things available that are surprisingly free to do. So, here a few suggestions to help out your entertainment budget.

Here’s a partial list of free, year-round San Diego activities:

  • Enjoy San Diego’s many beaches, all free, to swim, body surf or simply hang-ten. Play in the sand, collect seashells or just soak up the sun.
  • Visit La Jolla Cove and see the beautiful sunset on the ocean. The cove is a spectacular natural setting.
  • Visit Seaport Village during the weekends for free entertainment and hours of leisurely strolling and window-shopping. Or just sit in the grass and gaze at the passing yachts and ships on San Diego Bay.
  • Walk through the 16 ½ block historic Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego and enjoy the renovated turn-of-the-century Victorian architecture, home to restaurants, boutiques, art galleries, specialty shops and more.
  • Fly a kite along the grassy field in the Tecolote Shores of Mission Bay Park, a 4,600-acre park. Here, away from trees and overhead wires, friends and family can gather to launch colorful kites into the bay breezes.
  • Enjoy free organ concerts and 2 p.m. on Sundays at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park. The Organ Pavilion features one of the world’s largest outdoor pipe organs, a San Diego landmark since 1914.
  • Bike or jog along one of Mission Bay Park’s many trails. Both Joggers and walkers share more than 20 miles of scenic trails that wind through both sunlight and shade near the shoreline. The paths also have workout courses at planned stations along the route.
  • Visit the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista for a free tour of the 150-acre-facility, including training fields and tracks, athlete dorms and the Otay Lake Reservoir. Tours are given daily.

The Beaches

They are San Diego’s greatest natural assets and San Diegans love their beaches. Sometimes we take them for granted that we forget that our miles of sandy shoreline are free every day of the year to enjoy. Whether it’s for sunbathing, swimming, surfing, picnicking or people watching, our beaches provide entertainment to no end. There’s surfing at Windansea, the boardwalk of Pacific and Mission beaches, Dog Beach at Ocean Beach, family friendly Coronado and La Jolla Shores, the grassy park areas of Mission Bay – San Diego’s beaches are our most treasured natural resource. It’s what makes San Diego what it is, and why we live here. And it’s free for everyone to enjoy in a multitude of ways.

San Diego Beaches

Balboa Park

OK, if San Diego’s beaches are its greatest natural attraction, then Balboa Park comes a very close second. They jewel of public open space is cherished by anyone who appreciates its natural beauty as well as all the recreational and cultural activities offered within its vast acreage. Pack a lunch and head over to stroll along the picturesque El Prado museum row, or let the kids romp at the Pepper Grove play area, hike along the miles of Balboa Park trails, or enjoy free classical concerts at the outdoor Organ Pavilion. And don’t forget Free Tuesdays, where museums open their doors for free every Tuesday each month (on a rotating basis). Recreation AND culture is for free in Balboa Park.

Balboa Park

TNT at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

One common perception is that art is inaccessible to the general public. But the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego does something cool to open up art to the public. On the first Thursday of every month*, the MCASD hosts TNT (Thursday Night Thing), an ongoing program of intriguing events in MCASD’s Downtown galleries. Beginning at 7 p.m., something different and interesting will be happening downtown — from slide jams, DJ lessons, and poetry readings to live bands, artists’ talks, and video projections — TNT’s eclectic events will be occasions to interact with the arts and artists in the San Diego region. (*Except for January, when TNT takes a winter break). It is free, but a $3 donation is suggested of non-members.

San Diego Public Libraries

Sometimes free things are right under our nose, in our immediate neighborhoods. And we forget sometimes that our local neighborhood library branch offers up numerous free events and activities on a weekly basis. Whether its storytelling for children, or book clubs, or lectures, or film screenings, the San Diego city and county libraries provide lots of activities to keep you occupied and interested. Oh yeah, and don’t forget the stuff that we head to libraries for: books, CDs and DVDs – all for free to check out (unless you’re late returning them).

Free Kids Birthday Parties at IKEA San Diego

Everyone who has shopped at the San Diego IKEA in Mission Valley knows how budget friendly it is when it comes to home furnishings, and it is one of those few retail stores that is extremely kid-friendly. So, even though it isn’t readily known, it comes as no surprise that IKEA hosts free kids birthday parties on the first Tuesday of every month. The party is for all children turning 10 years old or younger during the selected attended party date. Each birthday child is allowed to invite two of their friends to the party. Event includes face painting, a magic show, soda, and cake. Plus, each birthday child will receive a gift from IKEA. Please call (619)283-6166, ext#1330 to reserve a place at the party. Pretty cool, huh?

Ray at Night Artwalk in North Park

To local art lovers, Ray Street in North Park is known as a vibrant hub of art galleries and studios. And on the second Saturday of every month, this narrow, one-way street off of University Avenue, just east of 30th Street becomes Ray at Night, a gallery art walk event drawing over 1,500 people. From 6 to 9 p.m., you’ll find a wide variety of artwork on display including paintings, sketches, sculptures, ceramics, blown glass, organic art and jewelry. There is often entertainment at the event – everything from jazz, blues and cultural music to poetry readings and performances by dance groups. Since it’s inception in 2001, Ray at Night has steadily grown to over two-dozen businesses participating. It’s a great way to discover North Park.

Sea World Fireworks

The good thing about fireworks displays is that if you have a good vantage point, you can see them for free. And if you had down to Mission Bay from April through September, you can “ooh” and “ahh” at the Sea World fireworks display. Here is the fireworks schedule: April 4-19, 8:50 p.m.; April 25, 9 p.m.; April 26, 9:15 p.m.; May 2-17, weekends 9 p.m.; May 23-24, 9:50 p.m.; May 25, 8:50 p.m.; May 30-June 7, weekends 9:50 p.m.; June 13-July 2, 9:50 p.m.; July 3-5, 9:30 p.m. (30 minute holiday special); July 6-Aug. 16, 9:50 p.m.; Aug. 17-21, 8:50 p.m.; Aug. 22-23, 9:50 p.m.; Aug. 24-28, 8:50 p.m.; Aug. 29-30, 9:50 p.m.; Sept. 5-6, 9:50 p.m.; Sept. 7, 8:50 p.m.

Stargazing at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center

Before the word became associated with following dubious celebrities, star gazing meant watching the celestial sky show. And one of the greatest thrills for a beginning backyard astronomer is to view the heavens through a telescope. At dusk on the first Wednesday of each month, following the monthly “Sky Tonight” planetarium show in the Space Theater, members of the SDAA set up telescopes on the north side of the Fleet Center building, by the large fountain in Balboa Park, for free public sky viewing. Though the sky is not as dark and clear as one might hope, viewers can enjoy a variety of sights, from the moon and planets to the brighter stars.

Old Town State Park Tours

Old Town State Park is one of San Diego’s most popular attractions, and because it’s a tourist stop, we forget that it is a genuine historical center and not something that has been fabricated. And though you can wander around on your own and discover early San Diego amid the retail storefronts, you can take part in free educational tours. Park aides lead these informative and friendly tours. No reservations necessary; just show up at the Old Town visitor’s center at the Robinson Rose building on the plaza. Tours are free.

Kids Eat Free Tuesdays at Pat & Oscar’s

Pat & Oscar’s is known locally for its simple, affordable and tasty family style food. On Tuesdays, the restaurant chain makes it even more budget friendly by letting kids eat free. On Tuesdays, diners at all of Pat & Oscar’s 19 Southern California locations will receive a free Just For Kids Meal with any adult purchase of $5 or more (limit one free Just For Kids meal per person and purchase). The three Just For Kids meals (Pasta, Pizza or Chicken) are accompanied by a variety of side dishes, including veggie sticks, trans-fat-free potato wedges and breadsticks. Just For Kids meals also include an activity book filled with games, puzzles, coloring programs and more.

Point Loma Tide Pools

Because of their protected status, some of the best tidepools in California can be found right at Cabrillo National Monument. On the western side of Point Loma lies the rocky inter-tidal zone, a window into the ocean ecosystem that lies along of San Diego’s coast. During low tide’s pools form along this shore in rocky depressions. Since the tide pools are within the Cabrillo National Park, it is patrolled by park rangers. Ranger walks are available during most low tides and a slide program is shown daily at the Cabrillo park visitor center.

San Diego Bay

It’s a walk that provides you with million dollar views, and it’ll cost you nothing but a willingness to spend some time exploring. We’re talking about the San Diego Bay waterfront – the Big Bay as the city likes to promote it – and the attractions that are available to enjoy. Harbor Island gives you some of the best panoramic views of the city skyline. A stroll along the embarcadero gets you near the historic Star of India tall ship, which is dwarfed by gigantic ocean liners making a port of call or the U.S.S Midway aircraft carrier floating museum. And don’t forget public art displays and Seaport Village, which gives you a million dollar view of Coronado and the bay bridge. The Big Bay is easy on the eyes and budget.

San Diego Bay Tour

Children’s Museum – Free Second Sundays

The Children’s  Museum, an environmentally sustainable building designed by architect Rob Wellington Quigley, provides a dynamic, playful public space and community center for children and families. The New Children’s Museum offers up free admission on the second Sunday of each month, with extended Museum hours from 10am–4pm. Sponsored by Target, the free day allows all children and families in the community to enjoy the Museum, and ensure that cost is not a barrier. Every Target Free Second Sunday also includes a variety of special performances and activities for children.

U.S. Olympic Training Center

The U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista is the first USOC training facility to be master-planned from the ground up and is dedicated to the development of America’s future Olympic athletes, with many making the Olympic team. Opened in 1995, the Training Center rests on a 150-acre complex adjacent to Lower Otay Lake and provides training for athletes in nine Olympic sports: archery, canoe/kayak, cycling, field hockey, rowing, soccer, softball, tennis, and track & field. Free guided tours are offered Tuesday through Saturday at 1:30 p.m. Complimentary self-guided tours are available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. For more information call the Copley Center at (619) 482-6222

Mission Trails Regional Park

Centrally located and only eight miles northeast of downtown San Diego, at 5,800 Mission Trails Regional Park provides a quick, natural escape from the urban hustle and bustle. And if you’re into the outdoorsy thing, Mission Trails is ideal for you. If you like hiking, there are 40 miles of challenging trails, including the popular trek up Cowles Mountain, giving you a spectacular view of the city. You can explore the Old Mission Dam, which the the Kumeyaay Indians built to provide water for the San Diego Mission. There are also miles of biking trails to explore. If you haven’t been, you’ll want to start at the Mission Trails Regional Park Visitor Center at One Father Junipero Serra Trail San Diego, CA 92119-1008.

Tour Taylor Guitars

Taylor Guitars makes some of the finest acoustic guitars around, and they are manufactured right here in El Cajon. Known for their meticulous craft, Taylor Guitars offers guitar fans a free guided tour of the Taylor factor is given every Monday through Thursday at 1 p.m. (excluding holidays). The Taylor Guitars Factory Tour takes guests through the steps of guitar construction. From wood selection to final assembly, guests will experience each process as a guitar evolves from raw wood into a finished instrument. To take the tour, no appointment is necessary. Simply check-in at the receptionist desk in the lobby of our main building by 1 p.m. and register for the tour.

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