Enjoy a San Diego Staycation (or Vacation)

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. For more details, please see our disclosure policy.

 Plan a staycation or vacation in San Diego, “America’s Finest City”.

Want to save this post?

Enter your email below and get it sent straight to your inbox. Plus, I'll send you time- and money-saving tips every week!

Save Recipe

My childhood memories of San Diego are few. A family weekend get-away when I was 7 and me, carsick, puking on a cliff at a beautiful sunset. A high school yearbook camp ten years later, exploring UC San Diego and wondering about going south for college.

Born and raised in Los Angeles County, San Diego seemed far away. But, honestly, it’s a two-hour drive to my parents’ house, my childhood home. It just seemed like a world away.

After saying no to UCSD, I headed north for college and met FishPapa while still a student at UC Santa Barbara. My life’s path went from Santa Clarita to Santa Barbara to Paso Robles to Olathe, KS, and landed me here, in San Diego, known as “America’s Finest City.”

We’ve been here almost four years. While we don’t know this town like the back of our hand, we have enjoyed the wealth of things to see and do in San Diego. There really is something for everyone here. I’ve got no complaints.

And no answer when hubs asks if there’s somewhere else I’d like to live.

While it’s not “home” in the familiar sense, it’s definitely quite comfortable. So, it should come as no surprise that we’ve got a staycation planned for later this month. Yeah!

If you live in or near San Diego County or plan to travel here on business or on vacation, you have a world of family fun at your fingertips. While you certainly could spend a fortune to enjoy everything that San Diego has to offer, you don’t have to in order to enjoy good times with your family. In fact, there’s a wealth of good things to do and see in San Diego without spending a lot of money.

Whether you’re planning a staycation or a vacation in San Diego, here are some of the fun things to consider:

Hit the beach.

San Diego is full of beautiful beaches. Bring the sunscreen, water bottles, a few snacks, towels, and some cash for parking and play in the Pacific Ocean. You don’t need to spend money to enjoy one of the best things about the West Coast — the coast! Whether it’s a day trip or overnight beach camping, the beach is one of San Diego’s “must dos.”

Even if the shore is overcast, as it sometimes is in the summertime, it’s still beautiful. We love to splash in the waves, build sand castles, and walk along the sand. Since the climate is mild in San Diego and in Southern California in general, there is an abundance of outdoor activities to enjoy — many of them practically free.

Be sure to pack a picnic, or at least research restaurants in the nearby vicinity in advance so that you’re not starving and stuck for a place to eat. We had one of our worst. meals. ever. at a pizza place right near Moonlight Beach. Bad, bad, pizza. So, do some homework in advance.

Go bird watching.

Yes, really. There’s an amazing amount of wildlife that congregates in the area. With an experienced birder friend of ours, we had a great time walking through a local estuary and experiencing wildlife up close and personal. Many of the local estuaries have visitor centers and knowledgeable staff to guide you and help you better understand what you’re seeing.

We went in February and had a great time bird watching as a family.

Visit the harbor and the USS Midway.

San Diego Bay features a wealth of attractions, shops, restaurants, parks, and beaches. While we’ve not yet been out on the water, we’ve explored a fair amount along the water front. Seaport Village is full of shops and restaurants, and the waterfront itself is beautiful. You can even see fishermen haul in the day’s catch or historic tall ships sail through the harbor.

Students of World War II will appreciate the various tributes to American veterans near the USS Midway. Statues dot the waterfront, including a special display in honor of Bob Hope, a friend of US serviceman and women. Buy Midway tour tickets online to get a small discount.

My friend Cathy and I had a lovely time walking along the Embarcadero last summer during a conference. The Greek Island Cafe as well  Fox Sports Grill. Both were amazingly good and not too pricey. The outdoor seating is great.

Catch a game at Petco Park.

Within walking distance of the waterfront is Petco Park, home to the San Diego Padres. Childhood Dodger fans, FishPapa and I have both switched our allegiances to the Padres, though my loyalty is in question if they don’t have a better season this year.

The stadium is beautiful with unbelievable views. We appreciate this ball club’s appreciation for the US Military. After all San Diego is a hub from much US military activity, past and present. Go here for more details on Padres Military Programs.

The Padres stadium is also very family-friendly. The park features a playground as well as “Beacher Seats” where kids can play in the sand pits while the parents watch the game from bleachers nearby. In the past the playground has also been open even when the team plays out of town. Kids can play while parents watch the away game on a nearby, big screen TV.

While baseball tickets are not free, you can find a good deal, depending on where you want to sit and where you buy them. Park passes start at $5, depending on the game, and work their ways upwards into double digits. We’ve found good deals on discounted tickets on craigslist and at Costco.

Visit Coronado Island.

The Coronado Bridge is an architectural wonder bridging Coronado Island with the rest of San Diego. The island is beautiful, featuring quaint vintage homes and lovely parks and beaches. It is also home to a number of hotels and resorts. The Travel Channel has rated Coronado in the top 10 for best beaches.

We often grab Subway sandwiches and head to “Subway Park”, also known as Spreckels Park. It’s our own moniker that no one else would know. But, now you’re in the club, too.

Visit Cabrillo National Monument.

Across the Bay from the downtown area is Point Loma, the most southwesterly point in the contiguous US. Your cell phone carrier might think that you have left the country. So be mindful of calls you make from that location.

It was there that Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first European to set foot on what is now the Western United States. Cabrillo National Monument commemorates that event. It is a beautiful location on high bluffs above the water, featuring an information center as well as Old Point Loma Lighthouse and a lighthouse museum. Take a jacket; it can get chilly.

Admission is free; parking is $5. (If you walk or bike in, you’ll pay $3 per person.) Parking passes are good for an entire week. There are a number of National Park passes that you can buy or qualify as well.

Go wild at the Zoo.

San Diego is blessed with not one, but two, zoological gardens: the San Diego Zoo and its sister site, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. We’ve been to both on several occasions, usually as part of a homeschool field trip. Both are beautifully landscaped, feature a multitude of animals, and give you a work out when it comes to walking. But, it’s a full-day adventure and makes the animal observation experience a little more real than watching a video.

These are not cheap outings, however. If you have a large family, the ticket fees can add up. If you plan to go to both locations, you can get a discount on your tickets by buying two-day passes that are good for both parks.

Splash with the fish.

Since we’re located right on the Pacific Ocean, it makes sense that there’s a lot of fishy kinds of things to do. The Birch Aquarium at UCSD offers a hands-on experience as well as observation opportunities of marine life. The La Jolla coast is absolutely beautiful.

Bank of America card holders have the opportunity to get free admission into the aquarium. Go here for more details.

Check out the La Jolla Tidepools.

Not too far from the aquarium are the La Jolla Tidepools. The ocean community of La Jolla is a fairly affluent area, but you don’t have to be rich to enjoy the wealth of activities there. Walk along the shoreline and enjoy the beauty of the ocean — for FREE.

Free parking is available at Scripps Park. Just a short walk south is the Children’s Pool where the sea lions and seals sunbathe as well as tidepools that you can explore on foot.

We’ve played there on a number of occasions — and even discovered some great fish tacos in a quirky little taco restaurant.

Be a lego maniac at Legoland.

Are you and your Lego Maniacs ready? If you have children, particularly boys aged 4 to 15, you are going to want to add Legoland to your list of attractions to see this summer.

Not only does Legoland California features a number of roller coasters and other thrill rides, it is also full of amazing Lego structures, including a Miniland that includes scale models of US and World landmarks as well as a Star Wars themed Miniland that depicts every memorable scene from the Star Wars saga.

Legoland California also features a Water Park and a SeaLife Aquarium. While you have to have a Legoland/Water Park ticket to go splishing and splashing, an Aquarium ticket can be purchased a la carte. Be on the lookout for Buy One Get One Free coupons in your Lego magazine.

If you have a toddler or baby, you’re going to want to put a different skill set of parenting tactics into practice to truly enjoy Legoland. See my tips for doing Legoland with a two-year old.


Get a pass for multiple attractions.

See it all! San Diego is the home to a number of popular Southern California attractions, including Sea Worldthe San Diego Zoo, and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. It’s also very conveniently located near Los Angeles, making it easy for day trips further North. We make our twice-yearly Disney adventures as day trips rather than paying the price of hotels and extra meals.

While each of these venues is pretty pricey on its own, you can save some money on admission by purchasing passes.

Southern California City Pass  includes a 3-day pass to Disneyland as well as tickets to Universal Studios and Sea World.

A San Diego 3-for-1 pass gets you into both zoos and SeaWorld.

A Go San Diego Card includes admission to over 48 attractions, including:  San Diego Zoo 1-Day Pass, San Diego Zoo Safari Park Africa Tram Safari Pass, SeaWorld San Diego, Legoland California, Knott’s Soak City, USS Midway Aircraft Carrier, Harbor Cruises/Whale Watch, Birch Aquarium, all Balboa Park museums and more.

Enjoy America’s Finest City.

Having grown up in the LA Basin and even worked at Six Flags, I was accustomed to tourists flocking to my hometown. However, my new town is so chock full of stuff to do, there aren’t too many reasons to leave! I’m a big fan of “America’s Finest City.”

For more ideas on how to live in (or just visit) California on a budget, check out my series, California on a Budget.

What do YOU enjoy in San Diego?

If you’ve been here or live here, I’d love to hear what you enjoy doing in San Diego and its outlying areas.

This post is part of Year of the Staycation. Around the web today you’ll find staycation ideas for dozens of cities represented throughout the country. Tomorrow, I’ll be sharing the links to all of them. You’re sure to find great things to do in a city near you.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. Personally I prefer the Ocean Beach Tide Pools to the La Jolla Tide pools.

  2. Our family just got back from a day trip to San Diego where we attended Mesa rim climbing gym 3 year anniversary party. Admission and shoe rentals were free as well as some snacks, live kids band and big bouncy attractions outside. It is the nicest tallest indoor climbing gym I have ever been to(and as the mom of a competitive climber, I’ve been to a lot!). Plus there is a pool table, foosball and ping pong table to play while resting between climbs. It’s normally $20 to get in but they regularly offer discounted days if you like them on Facebook or get on their email list.

  3. Although we haven’t yet taken our little ones to do this (naptime throws a wrench into many things we would like to do) it’s fun to take the ferry across the bay to Coronado Island. You can take your bike for free. Adults are $4.25 each way and children under 3 are free. There are several metered parking lots across from the ferry landing downtown. http://www.sdhe.com/san-diego-bay-ferry.html
    Other ideas are a harbor excursion (they have boats that do brunch and dinner cruises) or the Gospel Brunch at House of Blues.

  4. BALBOA PARK!! We LOVE this place:) My husband is from Hemet, CA so we try to get out to CA every few years…a little hard getting there from Richmond, VA where we live now. My favorite at Balboa is the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre:) Admission is around $5 and they put on plays with “old school” puppetry that is great for kids of all ages to experience. Plus Balboa is just beautiful to walk around and spend the day there. Highly recommend it!

    1. That is a great point! You know, the museums there are free to residents on Tuesday, but I’ve never been! Since it’s Tuesday, hubs has always had to work and I am not brave enough to take six kids there by myself.

  5. We live in Carlsbad, and we decided to do Staycation this year instead of traveling. We plan to go camping this year, either at Ponto beach campground or we may have friends that will have a spot at Camp Pendleton. There’s also the Botanic Gardens in Leucadia/Encinitas (230 Quail Gardens Dr
    Encinitas, CA). The flower fields next to Legoland just opened for tours as well. And we just renewed our annual passes for Seaworld. That’s our favorite!

  6. If you are near Carlsbad, you can go see the peacocks at Leo Carillo Ranch. It’s a small little trail that you can walk around (I think they call it a hiking trail, but it’s tiny) and there are peacocks EVERYWHERE. My kids love it, and it’s totally free. There are picnic tables and you can take your lunch, just don’t feed the birds! 🙂

  7. Some other good cheap or free places include the Chicken Pie Shop, Swap Meet (sports arena), Old Town, or the gardens and free museum Tuesdays (for SD residents) at Balboa Park. There are also free movies at the park, and one of our favorites Santee Lakes, offers fishing, multiple playgrounds, picnic areas and a splash pad. $3 per car for entrance and $1 per kiddo for the splash pad, Fridays are free movies at the lake, you could make a day of it, or camp there (for an additional fee) for a night or two!

  8. There are lots of cool little things to do in the San Diego area. My husband and I used to take the kids to the double feature drive in over by 32nd street. It was an inexpensive way to get our Disney movie fix. I also used to love going to a flea market they had over in the Spring Valley area. For $2 admittance you basically were visiting a huge outdoor market and with another $10 we would be able to feed the spouse, myseld and what was then our 2 toddlers.

    We live in SW Virginia now. The area is beautiful but it doesn’t have nearly the same number of attractions that SD did. It’s a trade off for a quieter lifestyle though.

  9. I miss San Diego! My FIL’s family is there. The last time we visited (before kids) we were there for 5 days & I think we hit a lot of these.
    Coronado Island was beautiful! & the bridge is so pretty (weird description of a bridge, I know but it’s not just grey steel).
    We also have a picture with Cabrillo. Back then we didn’t get cell service over there (made us extra late for lunch)
    We still talk about Point Loma Seafood (my mouth is watering)
    Thanks for bringing back memories, now I gotta get a job so we can make a trip out there with the boys.
    Question for ya; are there cheap hotels in the area? We were always told the cheap ones are scuzzy & not kid friendly.
    Christmas in San Diego sounds like a good plan!

  10. oooh- this is perfect timing. My hubby and I just decided to have a little weekend getaway in San Diego. (California is one of the 5 states I have never been to!) What would you recommend for some grown-up things to do on a weekend in San Diego?

  11. Birdwatching can be a great staycation activity wherever you are. Check with the local Audubon chapter for guided birdwalks. Many are geared to beginners. In my area, there are choices of half-day, full-day, or lunch-hour walks.