It’s hard to imagine tiring of San Diego’s beaches, attractions, shopping, and night life. After all, there is always something new and exciting going on in America’s Finest City. But when sun and sand have left you exhausted, you can’t even think about dressing up for a night on the town, and the travel budget needs a serious time out, San Diego delivers just what the weary traveler needs. Whether it’s experiencing your first grunion run or relaxing by a beach bonfire, these 10 free things to do in San Diego provide a low-key good time.
Race to Balboa Park’s Velodrome
Every Tuesday and Friday night the San Diego Velodrome hosts heart-stopping bike races that spectators can watch for free. The Velodrome, located in Balboa Park at Morley Field Athletic Complex, is one of three premier racing and training venues in the Southwest. You’ll see racers from early development level to Olympic level. Fridays are for up-and-coming competitive cyclists, and Tuesdays are for top-of-the-line racers. Tuesday night races begin at 6:30 p.m. and run from April through September.
Explore the Splashy California Surf Museum
Come to Oceanside to see one of the best collections of surfing history in the world. California Surf Museum has preserved San Diego surf heritage and entertained thousands of annual visitors from all over the globe for over 30 years. Besides the renowned permanent exhibits, the museum also hosts featured exhibits like The 1966 World Surf Championship and special exhibits like China Beach: Surfing during the Vietnam War. Admission is free every Tuesday. If you take the Coaster to Oceanside, the museum is a short walk away in the heart of downtown.
Feast Your Eyes on a Moonlight Grunion Run
Not sure what a grunion is? That’s all the more reason to grab your flashlight and head to the beach for a grunion run. Grunion are small fish that spawn on San Diego beaches from March to August. They’re quite methodical in when they make their appearances, so you have a fair chance at seeing them. They spawn just after high tide for four consecutive nights beginning on new moons and full moons. There’s approximately a two-hour window of time after high-tide to see this phenomenon, the second hour being the best. Get your tide and moon charts out and start planning!
Hike the Coastal Trails of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Torrey Pines State Reserve is San Diego’s premier coastal park offering miles of trails that zigzag through coastal sage scrub. Individual park trails are each under a mile long, some closed loop, but most intersecting other trails. Guy Fleming Trail is easy, relatively flat, and offers two outstanding views where hikers can watch playful dolphins and seasonal whale migrations. Razor Point Trail offers two points perfect for views of a sandstone gorge and the ocean. Beach Trail runs from the top of the reserve down to the beach. Although the hiking is free, there are steep parking fees, so come early to grab free parking spots just outside the reserve.
Tour World Beer Cup Champion Ballast Point Brewery
San Diego has been dubbed the ‘Craft Brew Capital of America’ and for good reason. There are over 100 craft/micro/nano breweries in the county. Many of them offer tours where you can learn about the personality of the brewery, its history, and its brewing process. Ballast Point Brewery Tour, unlike nearly every other local brewery, offers free tours. Located in Scripps Ranch, the former World Beer Cup Champion offers a variety of tastes at the end of each tour.
Snorkel among the Garibaldi in La Jolla Cove
If you peer over the railing at the edge of Ellen Browning Scripps Park in La Jolla Cove during summer, it’s sheer eye candy. Below, next to a small crescent beach backed by towering cliffs, you’ll see dozens of bright orange garibaldi fish darting around the clear blue water. Depending on the day, you’ll also see a number of snorkelers trying to get a closer look at this underwater spectacle. When you’re ready to join them, don your snorkel gear and expect to see a treasure trove of marine life including sea cucumbers, sea stars, and sea lions.
Gather ‘Round an Evening Beach Bonfire
If you’ve ever strolled past a beach fire ring longingly and wondered if anyone can use them, the answer is yes. Mission Bay, Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, and Coronado’s Silver Strand let the public use their beach fire rings for free on a first-come, first-served basis. Just bring your own firewood and marshmallows and stake your waterfront claim. Mission Bay bonfires have the added perk of Seaworld’s nightly fireworks.
Watch Paragliders at Torrey Pines Gliderport
Sunshine, ocean breezes, and epic views alone are enough to make you want to hang out at Torrey Pines Gliderport for a few relaxing hours. The big draw, of course, is watching the paragliders and hang gliders launch off the top of the sandstone cliffs and glide through the air like colorful birds. There’s a viewing deck where you’re welcome to watch, but the grassy area is reserved for the gliders – for everyone’s safety. Although you can purchase food from the Cliffhanger Café, you can certainly bring your own snacks instead. There is also ample free parking, a San Diego rarity.
Visit the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista
The U.S. Olympic Training Center (recently renamed the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center) has a long legacy of training Olympic, Paralympic, World Cup, and other elite athletes. Athletes trained here have garnered over 60 medals in national and international competitions. You can take a guided tour of the facility any Saturday morning at 11:00 a.m. Daily self-guided tours are also available. There is an optional 12-minute Olympic short-film to watch before or after your self-guided tour. Tours are free of charge and only large groups need reservations. Bring water, sunblock, and good walking shoes.
Wander through the Magic of Harper’s Topiary Garden
Hidden in plain sight at the corner of Union and Vine streets in Mission hills, Harper’s Topiary Garden has to be seen to be believed. Edna Harper and her gardener have been shaping an array of topiaries for 15 years. Unlike most topiaries that are shaped around metal forms, these beauties have been slowly made solely through careful trimming and training. You’ll see over 50 creations including such disparate forms as a dinosaur, a herd of elephants, a surfer, and a Buddha. Edna wants you to feel free to park the car and wander among the shapes, just mind your manners and don’t climb the topiaries.
These 10 free things to do in San Diego merely scratch the surface of possibilities. There are parks, trails, overlooks, music and movie events, and so much more. What’s your favorite free thing to do in San Diego?