1. Cabrillo National Monument
Part of the United States National Park Service, the Cabrillo National Monument is located at the southern tip of the Point Loma Peninsula in San Diego. It has one of the best vista views of San Diego, and ranks high amongst points of interest in the city.
Hint: Starting January 2018, a regular passenger vehicle will be charged $15 as entrance fee (currently it is $10). But if you plan on traveling to a couple more national parks, your cheapest option would be to purchase the America the Beautiful Annual Pass (National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass) for $80.
Established in 1913, the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego commemorates Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s voyage of discovery in the 16th century.
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was a conquistador, a term used to refer to Spanish soldiers who explored, conquered and settled in the New World. On June 27, 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo set sail from the port of Navidad in Mexico. He arrived three months later on September 28 in San Diego Bay, and became the first European to set foot on the West Coast of the United States. Historians believe that Ballast Point in Point Loma was the exact place where Cabrillo anchored his ship, the San Salvador.
As soon as Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo stepped on land, he claimed it in the name of Spain, and named the bay San Miguel. 60 years later, this name was changed to San Diego by another explorer, Sebastian Vizcaino.
Today, a statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo stands looking out into the San Diego Bay. Ranger-led programs as well as an exhibition hall at the Visitor Center detail the various events of his life.
Old Point Loma Lighthouse
Since its inception in 1855, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse watched over the San Diego Bay as a harbor light and coastal beacon. In clear weather, its light was visible at sea for 25 miles.
However, the light keepers realized that at 422 feet above sea level, the lighthouse was constantly shrouded in fog and low clouds, diminishing its role as a navigational aid. The light was obscured and resulted in poor visibility in the San Diego Bay. After only 36 years, the light was extinguished on March 23, 1891.
Today, the light keeper resides in the New Point Loma Lighthouse. You can see it from the Whale Overlook, 100 yards south of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse.
The National Park Service has refurbished the interior of the Old Point Loma Lighthouse to resemble the 1800s. The lighthouse was constructed from sandstone carved from the hillside, and floor tiles salvaged from the ruins of an old Spanish fort. There is also a five foot tall 3rd order Fresnel lens, the best lighting apparatus at the time. It was shipped to San Diego, all the way from France.
Point Loma Tide Pools
The southern end of Point Loma in San Diego is one of the best preserved and easily accessible intertidal areas in southern California. Every year 215,000 people visit the tidepools.
Intertidal refers to the unique ecosystem that thrives between the high and low tides along the shoreline.
Tidepools are depressions in the shoreline that have formed over geologic time. Water becomes trapped in these depressions during low tides, giving rise to small pools where many plants, fish and invertebrates thrive.
There is a diversity of marine mammals in the San Diego Bay. Dolphins and pinnepods (seals and sea lions) can be often be seen sunbathing on rock ledges or looking for food around the tidepools. However, the Pacific Gray Whale is the star attraction. Between the months of December and March, these majestic creatures can be seen off the San Diego coast during their annual migration.
The best time to visit the Point Loma Tide Pools is late fall and winter, when low tides occur during daylight hours. Tidepools can be visited approximately two hours before low tide time (when the tide is receding) and two hours after (when the tide is coming back in).
2. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Formed in 1769, Old Town San Diego was California’s first settlement, and consisted only of a mission and a fort in the beginning.
As you walk through the state heritage park and historic sites, everything is a reflection of the early Mexican-American period of 1821-1872. Reading 19th century newspapers, observing blacksmiths and woodworkers, dancing to mariachis, touring haunted buildings, strolling through the Bazaar del Mundo, or gorging on authentic Mexican food. It’s like traveling back in time.
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park celebrates California’s heritage, and is a must-see for anyone visiting San Diego.
3. La Jolla
With its pristine coastline and incredible views, La Jolla is one of the top beach destinations in the world. Surrounded by the ocean on three sides with Mt. Soledad in the background, this “Jewel of San Diego” draws locals and tourists alike.
La Jolla’s upscale neighborhood consists of San Diego’s best luxury hotels, casual coastal retreats, boutiques, restaurants, and outdoor activities such as hang gliding, scuba diving, snorkeling and surfing. It is also home to the famous Torrey Pines Golf Course and Lodge.
Marine mammals are another highlight of this San Diego beach destination. San Diego’s Birch Aquarium at Scripps is the largest oceanographic museum in the United States.
South of Scripps Park is the Children’s Pool, where a sea wall was once built to protect children from ocean waves. People are no longer allowed to swim here, as the area has long become the home to a local seal colony. During the winter, you can also catch sight of migrating Pacific Gray Whales.
4. Coronado Beach
Across the bay from San Diego, Coronado Beach offers a 1.5 mile long shoreline of clean sands and calm waves. Sunset is the best time to enjoy the ocean views, with the beach being a favorite among couples on romantic strolls.
Parking and entry is free for all San Diego visitors and residents. There are bathroom and shower facilities, as well as sand volleyball courts, ice skating (winter), and fire pits for evening s’mores.
Coronado means “crowned one” in Spanish. Sure enough, opulent mansions crown the head of the beach along Ocean Boulevard. Standing out from the crowd is the 130-year-old National Historic Landmark, the Hotel del Coronado.
The Hotel del Coronado is one of the few surviving buildings of an American architectural genre, and is an invaluable part of San Diego. With its wooden Victorian beach resort facade, it is the second largest wooden structure in the United States after the Tillamook Air Museum in Oregon.
When the Hotel del Coronado opened in San Diego in 1888, it was the largest resort hotel in the world. The USA Today once listed it as one of the top ten resorts in the world. Famous guests include former presidents like Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Other notable celebrities are George Harrison, Madonna, King Kalakaua of Hawaii, Thomas Edison and Charlie Chaplain.
5. Gaslamp Quarter
The Gaslamp Quarter’s 16 blocks stretch from L Street to Broadway, including Sixth, Fifth and Fourth avenues, as well as First avenue at G Street. Fifth avenue is considered downtown San Diego’s main thoroughfare.
Complete with Victorian-style buildings, the Gaslamp Quarter is lined with art galleries, theaters, trendy boutiques, and restaurants. The number of bars and clubs are an indicator that the district is the epicenter of San Diego’s nightlife. Major events including Mardi Gras, the Rock and Roll Marathon, and Comic-Con take place here.
The Horton Plaza outdoor shopping center located at First and G Street, offers free parking for an hour. That makes it a good place to start exploring this historic district of San Diego. But if you plan on staying longer, park at the Old Town Transit Center for free and take the trolley from there.
6. USS Midway Museum
Located alongside the Navy Pier in downtown San Diego, the USS Midway Museum is a maritime museum consisting of the aircraft carrier Midway CV-41.
The USS Midway was the longest serving aircraft carrier in the United States during the 20th century. From 1945 to 1992, the ship carried nearly 200,000 sailors on naval aviation missions and humanitarian projects. The USS Midway was also the only carrier to serve throughout the entire period of the Cold War.
Today, the USS Midway houses a large collection of aircraft, most of which were built in southern California. San Diego is also the original home of the Navy’s TOPGUN fighter school.
7. Balboa Park
One of the most popular attractions of San Diego, Balboa Park is ranked as one of the best parks in the world. With 17 major museums, various performing arts venues, beautiful gardens, Spanish-Moorish architecture, and other recreational opportunities like the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park is the largest urban cultural park in the United States.
While there are entrance fees for many of the attractions, there are several things you can see for free around the extensive 1,200 acres. For example, barring the Japanese garden, all other gardens are free for visitors. Special discounts are also available on occasions like ‘Balboa Park After Dark’, when certain museums and venues are open every Friday during the summer till 8pm.
Spanish Village Art Center
Originally built for the 1935 California Exposition, this village is today a thriving community of 250 artists from the San Diego area including the Southwestern Artist Association, San Diego Potters’ Guild, and the Art Glass Guild of San Diego.
You can stroll through 37 galleries and studios, observe artists at work, sign up for classes, and even watch onsite glass blowing.
Timken Art Museum
One of the great small museums of the world, the Timken Art Museum of San Diego is the permanent home of the Putnam Foundation’s extensive collection of European and American art and Russian icons.
The collection spans 700 years of history, and features 14th century altarpieces, 19th century still life, painters like Veronese, John Singleton Copley and Petrus Christus, as well as the only Rembrandt painting in Southern California.
One of the most photographed spots in Balboa Park is the view of the Botanical Building, with the Lily Pond and Lagoon in the foreground. At the time of its construction for the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, the Botanical Building was one of the largest lath structures in the world.
There are more than 2,100 types of flora, including cycads, ferns, orchids, palms, a scratch-and-sniff garden, seasonal flower displays, as well as other tropical plants.
The Lily Pond was built as a reflecting pool, and features annual paintings of water lilies and lotuses.
Note: The Botanical Building is closed on Thursdays.
Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden
Lying across from the San Diego Natural History Museum, the garden features a stunning display of more than 2,400 roses from nearly 130 varieties, such as Hybrid Teas, Miniature Shrubs, Old Roses, and Grandifloras.
While the garden is in full bloom from March through December, the roses reach their peak bloom during the months of April and May.
The Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden has received several awards since its inception. Most recently in 2014, the garden was inducted into the Great Rosarians of the World Hall of Fame.
Located adjacent to the Rose Garden and across from the San Diego Natural History Museum, the Desert Garden is spread across 2.5 acres.
Established in 1976, the garden has more than 1,300 plants including succulents and drought-resistant varieties from around the world.
Designed to imitate the gardens of Alcazar Castle in Seville, Spain, the Alcazar Garden has been reconstructed to reproduce the 1935 design by San Diego architect Richard Requa.
Bordered by boxwood hedges, the garden boasts a vibrant display of more than 7,000 annuals throughout the year. In addition, gorgeous Moorish tiles in their trademark colors, turquoise, blue, yellow and green, line ornate fountains and bench walls.
The 200-feet-tall California Tower is an iconic landmark on the San Diego skyline, and can be seen from miles around.
This beautiful structure is an architectural blend of Baroque, Rococo, Plateresque, and Churrigueresque, with some Gothic elements. With its detailed carvings, glass beads and Moorish tilework, the California Tower was designed by Bertram Goodhue to mirror the Spanish-Colonial churches in Mexico.
The California Tower opened in January 2015, after being closed for 80 years. It now houses the San Diego Museum of Man.