Things to do in San Diego on a Budget: Sea Lions, Paragliders, Beachtime, and California Sunsets
April 10, 2021
Travel date March 2021
Metro San Diego includes many cities covering a large section of the Southern California coastline. The area offers an abundance of things to do and with three weeks, we only scratched the surface. The abundance of sea life and water activities attract many visitors but the town offers so much more including historic sites, hiking trails, and biking paths.
We visited San Diego several years ago for a work conference and enjoyed the area so much we knew we had to return once we started traveling full time in our motorhome, Pippi. After spending the winter in the Arizona desert, we were ready for some California beach time.
I was busy working so Kevin did the primary research for San Diego camping. He booked us reservations on the south side at Coronado Island. To read more about Coronado Island, check out our blog. He also booked reservations on the north side of Mission Bay. The goal of two separate reservations was to explore San Diego without spending the majority of our time driving.
What do I need to know before visiting San Diego?
San Diego is expensive. So plan meals, activities and lodging ahead for the best prices.
You cannot do everything. Unless you are moving to San Diego, you will not have enough time to see and do everything. Prioritize and only do the things that interest you.
San Diego attractions can be hours apart. Organize trips to hit all of the attractions in each area of town at the same time. We outline things to do by neighborhood below. We chose to explore San Diego from two different home bases on both of our trips. It worked very well to narrow our focus areas and saved us a lot of driving time.
Camping in San Diego
Camping in San Diego is not cheap and we saw several smaller class C and vans parking along streets and in city parks during the day. I suspect they parked in these great locations for their waking hours and drove out of town to sleep in a parking lot or tried their luck on a residential street each night. While in Mission Bay, several RVs were parked directly on the beach in Fiesta Island but signs clearly stated overnight parking is prohibited.
We saw a few RVs parked on back streets and we may have been able to do that for a few days before getting run off by local police. If traveling in a van, stealth camping on city streets is easier than in our 37′ class A diesel pusher. Pippi is a big girl that tends to draw attention.
Moving every day would be a time-consuming hassle plus costly to our diesel budget. Instead, we decided to be strategic and chose campgrounds in the areas we wanted to visit. It would save us the stress of finding overnight parking each day. Our first reservation was on Coronado Island across the bay from downtown San Diego. Our second reservation was dry camping at the marina of Campland on the Bay in Mission Bay.
Campland on the Bay
We wanted to be in Mission Bay so we booked a few nights at Campland on the Bay. It was our most expensive campsite since going full time one year ago. Prior to going full-time, we’d paid more for Florida beach resorts and city camping in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
Drying camping with no hookups near the Campland on the Bay marina was $77 per night for weekends and $66 for weekdays including taxes. The campground is a large resort in the heart of Mission Bay in San Diego. Amenities include 2 heated pools, a bayside beach, a few dozen modern bathhouses, a general store, cantina and bar, laundromat, and a game room. Sites are very close together and the campground is popular with families. There were groups of kids riding bikes and playing all around the campground. It is not a quiet relaxing resort-type environment.
What can you do for free in San Diego?
If exploring San Diego on a budget, there are many things to do for free in San Diego. Most of my recommendations below (excluding San Diego Downtown and food and drink) are free so continue reading.
Things to do in San Diego
The San Diego area has enough things to do for weeks of entertainment. We spent about three weeks exploring the city and have compiled our favorite activities. They are grouped by areas of town
Downtown San Diego has plenty of things to do and visitors will have to prioritize. During our time in downtown San Diego, we visited the San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park, Tuna Harbor Dockside Fish Market, Gaslamp Quarter, and the USS Midway Museum.
Balboa Park and San Diego Zoo
On a previous trip, we visited Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo.
Our zoo day coincided with the Pride Parade. It was an impressive spectacle but I’d recommend avoiding the area during Pride events. Roads are closed and we walked a long way off course to get to our destination.
The San Diego Zoo is world-famous and we really enjoyed our visit. Many years and zoo visits later, I still remember hand-feeding the giraffe. Admission is over $60 for adults but the zoo is top class and worth a visit. Two bus tours and an aerial tram are included in admission.
Tuna Harbor Dockside Fish Market
We usually enjoy visiting local Farmer’s Market but decided to try a new experience in San Diego. We visited the Saturday morning Tuna Harbor Dockside Fish Market. This is a popular local market and we had to wait about half an hour in line before we could enter the outdoor market.
Prior to our visit, I had researched recipes for various types of fish. I determined a tuna was the most versatile fish for sale. Most of the vendors were selling whole fish and I was surprised by the number of people walking away with massive whole fish. Also for sale were precut fish fillets, sea urchin, and multiple types of crab.
After a short discussion with one of the fishermen about smoking tuna, we decided to purchase the smallest fresh albacore tuna available. It was 27 pounds and costs us $60. We paid an additional $10 to have it cleaned at the market.
We left the market with the fish head and collar in a trash bag and at least 12 pounds of tuna loins. Once home, I started preparing a creamy green chile fish head soup.
We also prepped tuna steaks for dinner and freezing. Kevin started his pellet smoker and we smoked the majority of the tuna loins. Most of the smoked tuna chunks were frozen for later use. We have since used the smoked tuna in a variety of recipes and it is wonderful. No regrets. It is definitely an experience we will always remember.
The Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego is a thriving neighborhood with Victorian-era architecture. It’s a great place for a stroll and to grab a bite at one of the city’s best restaurants. The Gaslamp is well known for its cosmopolitan nightlife. Also available are many art and theatre venues. We visited many years ago so can’t make any first-hand restaurant recommendations. Eater San Diego has a round-up of 21 Gaslamp restaurant recommendations here.
Tour USS Midway Museum
The USS Midway Museum is rated the top attraction in San Diego. We visited on our first trip to San Diego and remember the tight quarters below deck. The self-guided audio tour was really educational and we enjoyed the visit.
Things to do in San Diego: Mission Bay
Mission Bay was created by dredging marshland in the 1940s. Today the Mission Bay Park encompasses 4,235 acres. The area is great for recreation.
Kayaking Mission Bay
Our campsite had a view of Mission Bay but the late winter weather was a little cold for us to take our inflatable kayak out on the bay. Daytime highs were in the high 60s with strong winds. We rarely felt warm enough to wear shorts during our stay. However, our first trip was during the summer and we rented paddleboards to explore the bay.
Bike Around Mission Bay
The Mission Bay Bike Path has a great 12 mile flat, paved multi-use path that circles the interior of the bay. It can be easily accessed from Campland on the Bay and we rode our bikes for 9 miles to Pacific Beach for lunch with only a little road riding once we arrived in Pacific Beach.
Spend the Day at Pacific Beach
Pacific Beach is super close to Mission Bay. The ride back to Campland on the Bay was only 2.2 miles. I would recommend packing a picnic, a blanket, and spending the day on Pacific Beach.
Pacific Beach is what Hollywood movies portray as a southern California beach with a paved boardwalk along the sand full of bikes, roller skaters, and pedestrians. The beach is full of beautiful, fit people playing beach volleyball and lounging in the sun.
There are many restaurants and bars along the beach but they are expensive. Kevin and I spent $18 on chips and queso at a bar overlooking the beach so a picnic lunch is definitely the cheapest option. Consider treating yourself to ice cream or coffee if you are worried about missing out.
Donuts in Mission Bay
Rose’s Donuts in Mission Bay is a cheap and cheerful option for a treat. We enjoyed a breakfast sandwich and donuts from Rose’s. The donuts were all fresh and delicious but our favorite was the blueberry cake.
Things to do in San Diego: La Jolla
La Jolla is a city north of San Diego and is a must visit destination. Free two hour parking is available along the waterfront. We spent the day in La Jolla enjoying free activities.
Coastal Walk Trail
Start the day by parking near The Cave Store tourist attraction. For $7 you can tour a large sea cave from The Cave Store, we weren’t interested due to COVID concerns.
However, there is a nice one-mile coastal walk that starts behind the Cave Store.
The Coastal Walk Trail winds along the cliffs and we enjoyed seeing the wildflowers and nesting pelicans along the way.
Seals and Sea Lions
La Jolla is a famous hangout for native seals and sea lions.
They hang out on the rocks along the shore. We saw over a hundred sea lions along the paved walking path from the Cave Store to the Children’s Pool Beach.
There are also educational signs along the walk to help identify seals from sea lions. Sea lions have visible ear flaps and make loud barking-like noises. The sea lions in La Jolla were very used to tourists and weren’t bothered even with young pups nearby. They were a highlight of our San Diego trip.
The Taco Stand in La Jolla
We drove a few blocks into town for lunch as our free parking time was nearing its end. The highly-rated Taco Stand on Pearl Street in La Jolla is known for its fish tacos. Our lunch for two was less than $30 and is pretty cheap for the expensive La Jolla area.
There were only three employees working the day we visited and they struggled to keep up with the lunch rush. After ordering tacos at the counter, we enjoyed a bag of housemade tortilla chips and guacamole during the nearly half-hour wait.
Our order included several taco varieties including grilled fish, fried fish, grilled shrimp, carne asada, and al pastor. The fish tacos were tasty but the al pastor with pineapple was our favorite. We would definitely go back to The Taco Stand.
After lunch, we drove a few blocks back towards the La Jolla waterfront. We found two-hour free street parking in front of Whale View Point and explored the area including the Tide Pools. Both of these can be found on Google maps. This was our first tide pool exploration and I enjoyed talking to other visitors about their sightings in the rocky shoreline’s tiny crevices. I found a tiny crab that was about half the size of a dime. The tidal pools are a scavenger hunt that is great for kids.
Torrey Pines Gliderport
Our final stop in La Jolla was the Torrey Pines Gliderport. It hosts remote control airplanes, paragliders and hang gliders. The Gliderport is the most historic aviation site in North America. Many aviation pioneers had their first flights at La Jolla including Charles Lindbergh whose took his maiden flight from Torrey Cliffs in 1930. The Gliderport is free to visit and we were intrigued watching the gliders jump off the cliff and soar with only wind power. Tandem flight experiences for visitors can also be booked directly through Torrey Pines Gliderport.
Things to do in San Diego: Point Loma
Point Loma is an area of San Diego. It is a peninsula on the west side of Coronado Island. We enjoyed a full day in Point Loma including a visit to the Cabrillo National Monument, beers at Eppig Brewhouse and watching sunset at Sunset Cliffs.
Cabrillo National Monument
The Cabrillo National Monument is a small National Park site located on the southmost point of Point Loma in San Diego. The park was designated to commemorate Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landing here in 1542. Cabrillo was the first European expedition to explore the west coast of the United States.
However, the park has more than one claim to fame. The Spanish explorer Cabrillo plus the WWII history and historic Point Loma lighthouse all make it an interesting and educational thing do in San Diego.
How much is admission to Cabrillo National Monument?
Admission is $20 per car but is included with an annual National Park pass. The $80 National Parks pass is a great bargain if you plan to visit multiple National Parks during the year. We’ve used ours over twenty times since buying less than a year ago.
Things to Do at Cabrillo National Monument
The Cabrillo National Monument is small and you can easily visit in a few hours.
Military History Tour
Check out the bunkers and communication equipment used in WWI and WWII to spot approaching enemy ships.
Along the 2.5-mile Bayside Trail, we saw remnants of a searchlight shelter and power plant used by the military to signal approaching danger.
Old Point Loma Lighthouse
The Old Point Lighthouse is a very pretty retired lighthouse and is the main attraction at Cabrillo National Monument. After 36 years in operation, the lighthouse was closed in 1855 due to its poor location. The lighthouse was built high on the cliffs of Point Loma, 422 feet above sea level. Sadly, the light from the lighthouse was often blocked by fog and clouds and resulted in many avoidable shipwrecks. The replacement lighthouse opened in 1891 at a lower elevation.
Be sure to time your visit to include low tide at Cabrillo National Monument’s Tidepools. The one-mile Coastal Trail strolls along the rocky cliffs and offers opportunities to access the Tidepools area of the park. The tidepools at low tide offer a great opportunity to see macro sea life including multiple shelled invertebrates, crab, and anemone.
The Bayside Trail at Cabrillo National Monument offers visitors a chance to stretch their legs.
The trail winds along the San Diego bay with great views of the Naval Base on Coronado Island. There are also several educational signs with information about the bay, native plants and animals and the history of the area.
Beers harborside at Eppig Brewhouse
After visiting Cabrillo National Monument, we were happy to visit Eppig Brewing Waterfront Biergarten. San Diego loosened their COVID restrictions and we were able to enjoy two beers without the purchase of a meal. Their Belgian-style beers were Kevin’s favorite and I enjoyed the sour offerings. The Biergarten is located in a marina and watching the fishing boat activity was a good source of entertainment.
With the recommendation of a California native, we finished our day in Point Loma at Sunset Cliffs city park. The park is a dirt lot at the end of a residential street. We would have never known about this popular sunset destination. Half an hour before sunset the parking lot was already full. It quickly became apparent the majority of the cars belonged to local surfers. The waters below us were full of surfers enjoying the waves breaking offshore along the cliffy shoreline.
We spent several days exploring Coronado Island so check out this blog for more details about this beautiful beach escape just minutes from San Diego.
San Diego Summary
San Diego offers so many things to do for visitors. Downtown offers world-class dining, fresh local markets, art and theater venues. Mission Bay has biking trails and watersports for everyone. La Jolla offers sea lions and paragliding. Point Loma is a great location to learn the area’s history and watch an epic sunset. Coronado Island is a great beach escape just minutes from the city.