Our 12 Favorite Spots Around San Diego California

Palm tree fronds and an ocean current help move peaceful breezes across the city. It seems the weather – and vibe – are always spot on in this city. I absolutely adore San Diego, California. I’ve been enough times to have developed a definite list of favorite things I find myself wanting to repeat every time we go back. Whether free or low budget things to do in San Diego, this list of my favorite spots will inspire you to see and do more in this fantastic coastal city and its surrounding towns.

1. Balboa Park

At first I was grumpy to visit what quickly turned to an all-time favorite destination for me in San Diego. We arrived to one of the less-than-beautiful parking lots in the area and I thought, “Why is Dan taking me here?”…only to leave feeling like we didn’t get to spend enough time there!

There’s SO much to do here from a sculpture park, to riding around in electric wicker carts, to a rose garden and cactus garden, to great places to have lunch and afternoon snacks. We love it SO much we created a dedicated post on How to Enjoy an Afternoon at The Prado in Balboa Park.

Best of all? The majority of it isn’t only on my list of low budget things to do in San Diego but most of the park is free to enjoy!

Thing to do in San Diego, California including vacation options on a low budget. Top travel include Balboa Park, the SD zoo, Gaslamp District downtown, La Jolla Cove, food options, Del Mar beach, and more great attractions in this beautiful Instagram-worthy area. Click through for the complete details and dreamy pictures! #SanDiego #California #SanDiegoLowBudget #SometimesHome #SanDiegoCA #SanDiegoCalifornia

2. San Diego Zoo

This is, perhaps, one of the more touristy suggestions we have. However, we have to say it’s the best zoo we’ve ever been to. Say what you will about zoos and holding animals captive – and we probably agree with you and have mixed feelings on them as well.

However, we are happy to say the San Diego zoo educates its visitors about animal conservation they’re involved with, which made us happy to learn about. (If we want to save some species we need the means to research them in order to protect them.)

This zoo truly is gorgeous, has a lot of animals you may never get to otherwise see (like giraffes!) and is large enough to spend an entire day there. And you’ll get a workout there if you walk all over!

Thing to do in San Diego, California including vacation options on a low budget. Top travel include Balboa Park, the SD zoo, Gaslamp District downtown, La Jolla Cove, food options, Del Mar beach, and more great attractions in this beautiful Instagram-worthy area. Click through for the complete details and dreamy pictures! #SanDiego #California #SanDiegoLowBudget #SometimesHome #SanDiegoCA #SanDiegoCalifornia

3. Gaslamp Quarter

The Gas Lamp district of San Diego is a lot of fun. It’s near the convention center so if you’re there for a conference, note it’s an area worth staying in and, at the very least, exploring. There’s a ton of restaurants and cute shops along the stretch of nine to ten blocks that comprise the area. (Try the Hard Rock Hotel San Diego there for accommodations and a great place to grab food and drinks.)

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4. La Jolla Cove

This area is gorgeous and we often can’t resist it. It’s close to downtown San Diego and a classic touist attraction for several reasons: 1) the beach views, 2) the sea lions, 3) posh shopping and restaurants.

Years and years ago my sister and I had a memorable kayaking adventure with with La Jolla Kayak, which I cherish to this day. Putting on a wetsuit to paddle out in the Pacific Ocean to see sea lions so incredibly close was unforgettable.

La Jolla Cove refers to the beach area, pictured below, and it’s a low budget thing to do in San Diego as long as you have the patience to find parking and deal with crowds of tourists there to experience the same things you are.

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5. In-N-Out

We usually devour our meal before there’s time to break out a camera but we managed to find a photo from a trip once-upon-a-time! It’s also one of the first stops we make after we land at the San Diego airport.

In-N-Out is a fast food “restaurant” only in existence on the west coast (including Las Vegas), which is why any trip to California deserves a stop a one of their locations, if not multiple visits!

Mikkel likes to order her cheeseburger “animal style, protein style,” which is code for adding their special sauce (which is like Russian dressing) and swapping out a bread bun in favor of a low-calorie lettuce wrap. (Dan likes his on a bun, like the photo below.)

Each location usually has indoor and outdoor seating and a drive-through. You can get out of there for under $5-$10 a meal most of the time (depending on what you order and in how much quantity) adding it to our list of low budget things to do in San Diego.

6. Scripps Aquarium

Technically this is called the “Birch Aquarium at Scripps” better known as, simply, Scripps Aquarium. It’s an ESPECIALLY wonderful place to visit if you are in need of something to do on a rainy or windy day, or close(ish) to the airport. It’s small but mighty and worth the cover charge and time you’ll spend navigating its exhibits. Did you know California Kelp forests grow as much as three-feet per DAY? We didn’t but we learned this fun fact there!

Not-to-Miss: the Leafy Seadragon exhibit.

Thing to do in San Diego, California including vacation options on a low budget. Top travel include Balboa Park, the SD zoo, Gaslamp District downtown, La Jolla Cove, food options, Del Mar beach, and more great attractions in this beautiful Instagram-worthy area. Click through for the complete details and dreamy pictures! #SanDiego #California #SanDiegoLowBudget #SometimesHome #SanDiegoCA #SanDiegoCalifornia Thing to do in San Diego, California including vacation options on a low budget. Top travel include Balboa Park, the SD zoo, Gaslamp District downtown, La Jolla Cove, food options, Del Mar beach, and more great attractions in this beautiful Instagram-worthy area. Click through for the complete details and dreamy pictures! #SanDiego #California #SanDiegoLowBudget #SometimesHome #SanDiegoCA #SanDiegoCalifornia

7. Breweries

The craft beer movement in San Diego is strong. All around they have some of the best beer we’ve ever tasted along with rad breweries to go with. One of our favorites is the Modern Times tasting room in Point Loma. Another is Green Flash Brewing Co. (And there’s no need to do a San Diego Brewery tour, necessarily, when we have a Self Guided Day Tour of the Best Breweries in San Diego available for you.)

This low budget thing to do in San Diego will only cost you the amount you choose to spend on beer.

Thing to do in San Diego, California including vacation options on a low budget. Top travel include Balboa Park, the SD zoo, Gaslamp District downtown, La Jolla Cove, food options, Del Mar beach, and more great attractions in this beautiful Instagram-worthy area. Click through for the complete details and dreamy pictures! #SanDiego #California #SanDiegoLowBudget #SometimesHome #SanDiegoCA #SanDiegoCalifornia

8. Better Buzz Coffee

I am ADDICTED to the Avocado Toast at Better Buzz. This local coffee shop and eatery has my heart stomach. I’m not going to accuse them of putting addictive drugs on their little slices of heaven but there’s something in them that keep me coming back every visit!

It’s very affordable and a great place to grab your laptop to do work as well. One visit to Better Buzz in San Diego will run you about $10: you’ll have a delicious meal (I suggest breakfast or brunch) and a cup of coffee in a great atmosphere. (Note that price is reflect of drip coffee, which is our usual preference wherever we go.)

Thing to do in San Diego, California including vacation options on a low budget. Top travel include Balboa Park, the SD zoo, Gaslamp District downtown, La Jolla Cove, food options, Del Mar beach, and more great attractions in this beautiful Instagram-worthy area. Click through for the complete details and dreamy pictures! #SanDiego #California #SanDiegoLowBudget #SometimesHome #SanDiegoCA #SanDiegoCalifornia

9. Self-Realization Meditation Gardens

Don’t let the name fool you because you don’t have to meditate here. (But if you do it’s a great place to get your meditation on, indeed).

The views here are stunning, the cost of entry is free (simply check opening hours before you go) and the gardens are beautifully done. It’s peaceful and worth a visit if you’re in the Encinitas area in San Diego. (Better Buzz has an Encinitas location so you just may be in the area anyway!)

Thing to do in San Diego, California including vacation options on a low budget. Top travel include Balboa Park, the SD zoo, Gaslamp District downtown, La Jolla Cove, food options, Del Mar beach, and more great attractions in this beautiful Instagram-worthy area. Click through for the complete details and dreamy pictures! #SanDiego #California #SanDiegoLowBudget #SometimesHome #SanDiegoCA #SanDiegoCalifornia

10. Solana Beach Cedros Avenue

The design district of this Solana Beach, an area in San Diego County, is located on Cedros Avenue. There’s plenty of street parking on Cedros Ave. and places to stop if you’re in the mood to shop, whether for olive oil or clothing, and also enjoy a beer, like at Culture Brewing Co.

One of our favorite hidden gems off this street was the mural behind one of the buildings we spotted from Highway 101. Solana Beach is also accessible by train.

Thing to do in San Diego, California including vacation options on a low budget. Top travel include Balboa Park, the SD zoo, Gaslamp District downtown, La Jolla Cove, food options, Del Mar beach, and more great attractions in this beautiful Instagram-worthy area. Click through for the complete details and dreamy pictures! #SanDiego #California #SanDiegoLowBudget #SometimesHome #SanDiegoCA #SanDiegoCalifornia

11. Carlsbad Beach

We absolutely love the beach at Carlsbad. Look how stunning it is!

It’s easy to find street parking in the area and we even found a little dive-eatery by the sea to grab beers and people watch, overlooking the ocean. (It’s called Harbor Fish Cafe and is the only restaurant of its kind in the area with such proximity to the water. So it’s not hard to find: look for “Offshore Surf Shop” signs – the restaurant is connected to the shop.)

For great happy hour deals and even more night life, events and restaurant options check out Carlsbad Village.

Thing to do in San Diego, California including vacation options on a low budget like Carlsbad. Top travel include Balboa Park, the SD zoo, Gaslamp District downtown, La Jolla Cove, food options, Del Mar beach, and more great attractions in this beautiful Instagram-worthy area. Click through for the complete details and dreamy pictures! #SanDiego #California #SanDiegoLowBudget #SometimesHome #SanDiegoCA #SanDiegoCalifornia

12. Del Mar

Del Mar is a charming town north of La Jolla and south of Solana Beach. We enjoyed having dinner at Del Mar Plaza, perfectly timed so we’d finish in time to walk over to nearby Seagrove and Powerhouse Parks during daylight.

We were able to catch the sunset while we cozied up on a park bench and people watched. If you’re lucky enough to be there on the right nights, there is live music at some places in Del Mar Plaza too.

Thing to do in San Diego, California including vacation options on a low budget like Del Mar. Top travel include Balboa Park, the SD zoo, Gaslamp District downtown, La Jolla Cove, food options, Del Mar beach, and more great attractions in this beautiful Instagram-worthy area. Click through for the complete details and dreamy pictures! #SanDiego #California #SanDiegoLowBudget #SometimesHome #SanDiegoCA #SanDiegoCalifornia

We’ve made it even easier for you to locate all of the above with links below:

If you’re feeling adventurous and have your passport in hand, I recommend traveling to Baja CaliforniaTijuana and Rosarito Beach, for two days.

Heading to San Diego? Also check out:

Have you been to San Diego?

Thing to do in San Diego, California including vacation options on a low budget. Top travel include Balboa Park, the SD zoo, Gaslamp District downtown, La Jolla Cove, food options, Del Mar beach, and more great attractions in this beautiful Instagram-worthy area. Click through for the complete details and dreamy pictures! #SanDiego #California #SanDiegoLowBudget #SometimesHome #SanDiegoCA #SanDiegoCalifornia

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17 Comments

  1. May 6, 2017 / 3:32 am

    Great list! I loved San Diego and plan to return next winter on my way to Baja!

  2. Sara
    May 6, 2017 / 5:31 am

    I have to say that La Jolla is one of my favourite spots in San Diego. There is something about the sea breeze and the beautiful scenery that make it so special. I will definitely be saving this for when I go again!

    • May 9, 2017 / 2:04 am

      I completely agree – La Jolla is awesome! Glad you’ll be saving it for your next trip!

  3. May 6, 2017 / 7:32 am

    SD is absolutely my fav city in the country, you have incredible photography showing off its beauty.

  4. May 9, 2017 / 8:20 am

    Thanks for sharing your favourite spots! Will definitely remember them, when I’ll go to San Diego

  5. May 9, 2017 / 9:15 am

    Omg San Diego looks absolutely beautiful! I have a good friend who used to live there and always raves about it. She worked as a tour guide at the San Diego Zoo and always tells me about their amazing programs and everything there. I’m usually not such a big fan of zoos but there are some that truly do incredible work. Research is so so important in conservation work!

    • May 9, 2017 / 2:43 pm

      I’m SO happy to hear she was a guide at the zoo and raved about the programs. It really is a great zoo and it mentions they do conservation but it’s good to hear from someone who I trust that it’s true!

  6. May 10, 2017 / 4:31 am

    Never heard of the Gaslamp Quarter. I’d skip In & Out and check out Little Italy instead.

    • May 10, 2017 / 8:56 pm

      Fair enough! Can’t go wrong with the food at either, regardless! 🙂

  7. May 10, 2017 / 5:18 am

    Wow there’s so much to see and do in San Diego! The last time I was there, I only got to visit Seaworld. I’d love to go back again to see Balboa Park and La Jolla Cove!

  8. May 11, 2017 / 5:30 am

    We go to San Diego next year sonwill def be returning to this post!

  9. Joya
    October 4, 2017 / 5:57 pm

    I love these suggestions, especially Better Buzz and the Aquarium. I go to San Diego often to visit family but have yet to go to those two places.

    • October 5, 2017 / 12:03 am

      I’m so glad to hear that even after being in San Diego often this has inspired you with new ideas. Thanks, Joya!

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