22 Things San Diego is Known and Famous for

If you’re coming to San Diego, plan to spend most of your waking hours outdoors, as this beautiful city in Southern California is blessed with some of the best weather in the lower 48.

Keeping busy outdoors won’t be a challenge, as most attractions are perfect under the sun, stars, or both. From the world-renowned San Diego Zoo, to some of the most pristine beaches you’ll ever see in an urban area, San Diego should be on your U.S. must-see list, for so many reasons.

San Diego pier

We’ve chosen 22 things that San Diego is known for, though the list could easily be twice as long.

1. Balboa Park

Balboa Park in San Diego

San Diego is famous for Balboa Park, 1200-acres in the heart of the city that is home to 16 museums, lush gardens, walking trails, and the world-renowned San Diego Zoo, which has earned a separate listing below.

Towering above the park is the iconic California Tower, with the Bea Evanson Fountain’s water height rising and falling based on the wind speed. Check out the 2nd-largest tree by circumference in California, the Moreton Bay Fig Tree. Nature lovers will enjoy the Botanical Building and Lilly Pond, rose garden, Palm Canyon with 58 species of palm trees, and a favorite photo spot, Alcazar Garden.

The larger museums (San Diego Museum of Art, Air & Space Museum, Natural History Museum, Fleet Science Center) have entry fees and require more of your time, so a visit to the FREE, Timken Museum of Art where European masters including a Rembrandt are on display, is highly recommended.

2. Perfect Weather

Blue Skies in San Diego

Never too hot and never too cold. San Diego’s weather just can’t be beat.

Averaging 266 sunny days annually and only 38 days with precipitation, outdoors activities are a go, year-round. In fact, the average high temperature in July is just 79 degrees. Even the average low in January, at 46 degrees, means that it never snows. It just doesn’t get any better than that!

3. Hotel del Coronado

Hotel del Coronado

San Diego is famous for the historic Hotel del Coronado, which is located just across San Diego Bay from downtown in the island City of Coronado.

The hotel is the second-largest wooden building in the U.S. (Tillamook Air Museum in Oregon is the largest.) It has been designated both a California Historical Landmark and a National Historic Landmark.

Hotel del Coronado opened in February of 1888 as the largest resort hotel in the world. It contains 757 suites, beach cottages and villas, as well as seven restaurants. Several movies have been filmed here, and the property has hosted thousands of celebrities, members of royalty, and American presidents.

4. Gaslamp Quarter

Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego
Editorial credit: Johan Erkki / Shutterstock.com

Calling itself “the heart and soul of downtown San Diego’, the Gaslamp Quarter is famous for its amazing collection of dining and entertainment options.

Dozens of restaurants thrive here, so you’re bound to find one to your liking for a romantic night out, or to grab a quick bite before heading to a local bar, dance club, comedy show, or live music performance.

5. Little Italy

San Diego's Little Italy
Editorial credit: Michael Vi / Shutterstock.com

San Diego’s Little Italy is a trendy spot packed with incredible dining options, upscale specialty shops, brewpubs, and the best gelato in California. Whether you’re looking for a full Italian menu or a slice of pepperoni, this is the place to find it.

And don’t miss the weekly Little Italy Mercato Farmer’s Market, where crowds gather to pick out the finest fresh produce, take home gourmet Italian specialities, or just hang out at nearby Waterfront Park and its wonderful bay views.

6. San Diego Zoo

Gorilla in San Diego Zoo

With 12,000 animals from more than 650 species, the San Diego Zoo is one of the most well-known attractions in the city.

Spread over 100 acres within Balboa Park, more than four million annual visitors come here to see the giant panda, rhinoceros, the extensive polar bear exhibit, and other highlights including giant tortoises, an African meerkat exhibit, and tree kangaroos.

If your time is limited in San Diego, the 2nd-highest rated zoo in the world deserves a visit. (The Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska was voted the world’s best!)

7. Sea World

Whales in Sea World San Diego
Editorial credit: Vlad G / Shutterstock.com

A visit to San Diego isn’t complete without a visit to Sea World. The 189-acre animal theme park inside Mission Bay Park is known for its oceanarium, outdoor aquarium, and marine mammal exhibits.

Sea World offers water-based rides and incredible animal encounters, but is probably known best for the orca whale shows that have thrilled audiences for more almost 60 years. Other popular exhibits focus on coral reefs, otters, sea lions, sharks, turtles, dolphins, and sea mammals that are wild in the Arctic.

8. San Diego Old Town Market

San Diego Old Town Market

Touristy but fun, Old Town Market’s 40 unique shops are well worth a visit. Housed in what was originally St. Joseph’s Rectory in downtown, the building itself was physically moved through the city’s streets in 1940 to the current location.

This San Diego landmark has been a seminary, convent, and community center. Today, the market features unique local shops and restaurants, as well as live entertainment.

9. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve includes maritime chaparral, the rare Torrey pine, miles of unspoiled beaches, and a lagoon that is vital to migrating seabirds.
Editorial credit: Sandra Foyt / Shutterstock.com

It’s hard to believe that you’re in the City of San Diego when you come to Torrey Pines. The 1,500-acre reserve is protected from development, allowing visitors to view this wild stretch of Southern California just as it was before the city existed.

Take advantage of guided hikes during the weekends and holidays, and mindful walks which are offered twice monthly on Sunday mornings. Get up-close guidance along the cliffs of Torrey pines, pristine beaches, and a lagoon that is critical habitat for migrating seabirds.

10. Museums

Visitors on the USS Midway
Editorial credit: Ivan_Sabo / Shutterstock.com

San Diego is known for great museums, including the Maritime Museum, where an enormous collection of historic ships are preserved. Be sure to see the Star of India, an 1863 iron bark.

You’ll find several museums in Balboa Park, but while you’re on the waterfront be sure to tour the USS Midway Museum at Navy Pier in downtown. The naval aircraft carrier was home to nearly 200,000 sailors from 1945 to 1992, and welcomes more than one million visitors annually. The fascinating museum features an enormous collection of historical aircraft.

11. Old Globe Theatre

Old Globe Theatre
Editorial credit: Kamira / Shutterstock.com

The oldest professional theatre in California, the Old Globe complex consists of three Balboa Park stages that annually present nearly 600 live performances. There are two indoor performance halls, as well as the 620-seat Lowell Davies Festival Theatre where each summer the Shakespeare Festival takes place.

12. Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument
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San Diego is known for the Cabrillo National Monument which commemorates the September 18, 1542 landing of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo at San Diego Bay. He’s the first European explorer to set foot on what would become the U.S. West Coast

This monument is operated by the National Park Service at the south end of Point Loma Peninsula. It gives visitors a splendid view of San Diego’s downtown and harbor.

13. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

Sunset at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park

This 68-acre gem stretches along the ocean at the western end of Point Loma. The must-see park includes arches, sea caves, and spectacular views from the coastal bluffs.

When are the best times to visit? We suggest low tide when the rocks along the beach become visible, during the day when surfers are out, or at sunset. If low tide and sunset happen to coincide, you’ve hit the jackpot.

14. La Jolla

Sea lions in La Jolla

La Jolla is known as a wealthy community in northern San Diego County that is home to hundreds of seals and sea lions on its rocky coast at the edge of town. Browse its luxury boutiques, dine at one of more than 100 great restaurants, or stroll barefoot on the incredible beaches.

Watch for migrating whales in the ocean, hike at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, or visit the Birch Aquarium, part of the University of California – San Diego which is in La Jolla. The aquarium is home to more than 5,000 fish in more than 60 habitats, from sharks to seahorses. Kids will love the hands-on tide pools that are home to sea stars, hermit crabs, lobsters, and more.

15. Del Mar

Wideshot of the Del Mar, California coastline, with ocean, cliffs and railroad tracks.

A quaint coastal community 20 miles north of downtown San Diego, Del Mar was established as a seaside resort back in 1885. It later became a preferred escape location for Hollywood stars during the golden era of movies.

Today’s Del Mar is still an upscale town with a European feel. It features great shopping, restaurants, sandy beaches and beautiful neighborhoods. And during the summer and fall, Del Mar Racetrack features exciting thoroughbred racing.

Attention pet owners! Del Mar’s beaches are dog-friendly, so Lassie can come along when you visit.

16. Whale Watching

Whales in San Diego

San Diego is known for whale watching tours that are available year-round. Tours leave from various locations and usually last 3-4 hours. Typical sightings include humpback, minke and blue whales. It’s also common to see large pods of Pacific Common Dolphins and Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins during a sailing.

17. Boating

Boating on San Diego

With so many picture-perfect weather days, boating in San Diego Bay and along the Pacific Coast is a very popular activity. Whether you choose to hop aboard a sightseeing cruise, or have access to a sailboat, this beautiful region looks even better from the water.

18. Beaches

San diego beaches

San Diego is famous for a plethora of spectacular Pacific Ocean beaches. No matter where you are in the area, there’s bound to be a popular beach near you. Top-rated spots include North Cove Beach, Coronado Shores and Breakers Beach on Coronado Island, Mission Beach, Ski Beach, Whispering Sands Beach, and La Jolla Shores.

Swim, stroll, kayak, surf, fly a kite, run with your dog, or just relax.

Some are secluded, while others are close to shops, restaurants, bike paths and trendy neighborhoods. There is one thing all of these beaches have in common, and that is spectacular sunsets.

19. Mexican Border/Tijuana

Mexican Border/Tijuana
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While we’re talking about sites in San Diego, keep in mind that the Mexican city of Tijuana is just 17 miles away via the San Ysidro border crossing. Grab your passport and spend a day in the fun shops, street markets, and cantinas on bustling Avenida Revolucion, the city’s main drag.

20. Point Loma Lighthouse

Lighthouse on Point Loma in San Diego, California

While no longer operational, the iconic Point Loma Lighthouse is on the grounds of the Cabrillo National Monument. At the mouth of San Diego Bay on the Point Loma Peninsula, the Cape Cod-style building began operating in 1855, guiding ships from the Pacific Ocean into the safe harbor of the bay.

Renovated by the National Park Service to a 1880s look, the lighthouse is not only a superb photo opportunity, but an interesting historic site with displays and Ranger-sponsored talks. The lighthouse ceased operating after just 36 years when it was determined that its light became obscured by fog and low clouds too frequently.

21. Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala

Mission Basilica San Diego De Alcala, San Diego, California

Still a place of worship, the church was the first Franciscan mission in The Californias when the region was a province of New Spain. Upon dedication in July of 1769, it was the beginning of Roman Catholicism on the West Coast. In 1970, the Mission was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Tours of the building are available on weekdays, and a stroll around the peaceful, secluded gardens is worth a visit alone.

22. San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Lioness at San Diego Zoo Safari Park

San Diego is famous for the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Not to be confused with the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park that features animals from around the world, this 1800-acre attraction in the San Pasqual Valley area 30 minutes from downtown is one of San Diego’s most popular places to spend the day.

More than 300 African and Asian animals roam in natural habitats, including the only two platypuses in the U.S. Giraffes, rhinos, elephants, lions, and even an endangered Sumatran tiger, oh my!

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